A Society of Shared Guilt?

What was the relationship between German society and the Holocaust from 1941 on? Decades after the war, a public self-perception prevailed which emphasized that only a tiny minority of the Germans knew about the systematic mass murder of Jews. Only during the last two decades, research has refuted that myth. Even in the opinion polls, conducted continuously after 1950, approximately 25 % of the Germans admitted to have heard about the atrocities before the end of the war. This sounds rather unspecific. Now it is possible to detect the channels of information and rumours more precisely. Obviously, already in late 1941 news about the German mass murders and crimes against different groups in the Soviet Union spread in the Reich. Letters by German soldiers, business trips to Poland, and soldiers on leave were the predominant communication channels. Only scattered information about the fate of the Jews deported from the Reich was available. But by autumn 1942 it became clear, that mass extermination of Jews occurred in occupied Poland.

The Nazi leadership constantly used vague language like “Vernichtung”, extermination, in an undefined sense, and by mid-1942 realized that it had to counter the spread of “rumours from the East” and intensify its criminalization of those who secretly listened to Allied radio broadcasts. Nazi propaganda more or less tacitly tried to react to Allied publications on the Holocaust, especially the inter-allied declaration of December 1942.

It is very difficult to make precise statements on the average German reaction to the Holocaust. Historiography has to rely on biased Nazi reports, on scattered autobiographical documents, and on Gestapo files on those who criticized German crimes. Those affiliated with the Nazi regime probably considered the mass murder of Soviet and Polish Jewry justified since those were perceived as either Bolshevik or as a nuisance, as the Jews confined in the ghettos were presented in the propaganda. There was a much wider spectrum of opinions among other groups of Germans, and particularly concerning the fate of the “civilized” Jewry. Lots of Germans had profited from the expropriation of the deported Jews, and thus, were not keen to see them return. It seems likely that during the war only a tiny minority of Germans were in favour of reinstalling full civil rights for Jews after the war. [Document E02]

In early 1943, after the defeat at Stalingrad, Nazi Propaganda started a new antisemitic campaign, now focusing on the Soviet crime at Katyn, the mass murder of Polish officers. German propaganda presented Katyn as a Jewish crime, pointing to the imminent danger for the Germans in case they would lose the war. Apparently this actually was the discourse which prevailed among many Germans in the second half of the war: the fear of Jewish revenge. Allied bombings of German cities were often interpreted as punishment for the treatment of the Jews. [Document E06]

Apparently during the final period of the war, this attitude radicalized. From summer 1944 on, foreign Jews were deported to the Reich, especially those from Hungary as forced labourers, and from January 1945 on all the inmates of the concentration camp on Polish soil. Unfortunately, the fate of the Hungarian labourers has only been investigated for those that came to Austria. There they were often treated in a brutal fashion. Several massacres by local Nazi groups, Volkssturm and Hitlerjugend, occurred. The same applied to those who entered the Reich on foot during the infamous death marches. Obviously, the majority of the German spectators viewed them as a potential danger and did not supply any assistance. It is necessary to add, that the Nazi terror against average German members of the Volksgemeinschaft also radicalized in early 1945. [Document E03]

All in all, it can be estimated that a portion of the German population was informed about the mass murder from 1941/42 on. Even the regime did not enforce full secrecy. There was very limited criticism, for example by the German churches, which, if they did so, in first place mentioned the fate of German Jews. The impression arises that the majority of Germans during the early period of the war was integrated into the Nazi discourse on Jews, and only criticized the worst crimes, like the killing of children, or crimes against Jews who came from their own cultural realm. Then most Germans entered a kind of victimization discourse as they feared to be punished for crimes they had not committed themselves.

After a short kind of catharsis in 1945/47, this discourse prevailed in both German states, and for almost a decade the actual extermination of the Jews in Eastern Europe disappeared as a subject from the public sphere. From the end of the 1950s, specific segments of West German society became interested in discussing the past, which they had to face in the Nazi crime trials in Germany and Israel. The specificity of the fate of the Jews almost got lost during the late 1960s political debates and polarization. Only after the screening of the fictional TV series “Holocaust” in 1979 did, a general consciousness of the actual crime emerge, focusing on the fate of German Jews, and since the 1990s on all European victims. This is the state of affairs we currently experience.

Dieter Pohl