I had gone to London’s Imperial War Museum last week expecting an exciting day of old tanks and submarines and I wasn’t disappointed. I dragged my yawning boyfriend from one interactive activity – probably all designed for much younger users – to another, in a bid to satisfy the insatiable demands of my inner history geek.
Of course the Imperial War Museum also caters for more sophisticated tastes than mine and what I like most is how its collection remains relevant today. Despite having taken place over half a century ago, the legacy of the Holocaust serves as a poignant reminder of what can happen when racial hatred is endorsed and encouraged by the state. The Holocaust Exhibition upstairs is a permanent fixture which traces the rise of the Nazis in Weimar Germany, showing how widespread anti-Semitism helped Adolf Hitler further his political agenda.
There is stark evidence to suggest that the propaganda which depicted Jews, Communists, Roma gypsies and homosexuals as the enemies of the state was all too readily accepted by members of the Volksgemeinschaft. Books, such as the Poisonous Mushroom series (a collection of 17 short stories by Nazi writer Ernst Heimer intended to indoctrinate children to despise Jews), are on display in glass cabinets just after you first walk in. It is shocking to think that this ridiculous pamphlet, which used the metaphor of the Jew as the “rotten” fungus quietly spreading its poison to infect the rest of German society, was so widely read. Another leaflet likened a group of Jewish men – complete with comically exaggerated noses and beards – to a cluster of nasty-looking magpies, plotting in the corner.
It is difficult to see how such propaganda could ever contribute to the rise of one of the most notorious regimes in history, especially as anti-Semitism was not a purely German phenomenon. Although racial stereotypes have never since been exploited to the same extent as they were by national socialists, negative images of Jews were nonetheless ingrained into the European mind. The exhibition rightly demonstrates how this prejudice goes as far back as the First Crusade which sparked mass pogroms across the continent. The difference between Germany and other European states is the fact that Hitler’s party could exploit the resentment that lingered after the First World War so effectively, fuelling nationalist sentiment and making the German-Jewish population the scapegoats.
There has been much debate over the issue of German culpability regarding Hitler’s rise to power and the implementation of the Final Solution. Yes, he did use tactics that were extremely dubious, such as the intimidation of his political allies in the run up to elections, but the fact remains that the Nazis were voted into power. The Party was a national laughing stock after Hitler’s failed Putsch in 1923 but, by 1933, he had been appointed Chancellor and had just enough political clout to force through the Enabling Law which gave the Cabinet the authority to enact laws without the participation of the Reichstag. This was achieved through political as well as physical force: in the election on March 23rd only the social democrat delegates dared to vote against Hitler’s National Social Democratic Workers’ Party (NSDAP) since the communist delegates were imprisoned and the rest voted “yes” to prevent “worse”.
When confronted with the grim reality of the Nazi regime, there are many Germans who would still claim that they had little choice but to co-operate with the NSDAP. The incredibly complicated bureaucracy of Nazi government – which is illustrated in diagrams stretching across the walls at the Imperial War Museum – allowed many of the actual perpetrators of the atrocities to successfully argue that they were just following orders. However, historians have shown again and again that large numbers collaborated willingly with the Nazis. According to Robert Gellately, for example, it is difficult to argue that German citizens were forced to denounce potential enemies of the state by the Gestapo. Of course, one cannot discount the fact that the secret police exuded a powerful aura of mystery that would have encouraged a number of people, at least outwardly, to conform to Nazi ideals. But it is still hard to argue that there was no willing collaboration; indeed, it is true that the largest proportion of denunciations in Düsseldorf were committed by “private citizen volunteers”.
It is at once fascinating, and chilling, to consider the complexities involved when trying to find the most appropriate place to lay the blame for the atrocities. One section of the exhibition that really haunted me was the part that dealt with Hitler’s euthanasia campaign. The very first gas chambers used by the Nazis were in fact built long before the ghettoes and extermination camps. They were designed with the physically and mentally disabled in mind and, between 1939 and 1941, over a hundred thousand patients judged “unworthy of life” were murdered. This campaign never became formal policy, but it is true that Hitler authorised the committees of physicians that decided who – including children – would die. What is even more disturbing is the fact that Hitler was forced to halt the programme in August 1941 because of public protest. It seems as though the public was aware of some of the more sinister goings on at this time and felt secure enough under the Nazi government to protest and resist certain policies.
Nevertheless, the issues of guilt and choice in Nazi Germany still manage to make the headlines today which emphasises just how difficult it is to build a true understanding of what really happened during this dark period. Samuel Kunz, now 88, was charged this July in a youth court because he happened to be under the age of 21 when he collaborated in the murder of 430,000 Jews in the death camp at Bełżec, Poland in 1942–3. There has been much controversy regarding his case including whether he should be tried as a minor or an adult. Again, this raises the issue of personal culpability: should this man, who is nearly eighty years old, still be held accountable for crimes he committed as a minor over half a century ago? Another pensioner, 90-year-old John Demjanjuk, has also been charged recently for atrocities committed in his youth. Of course, these are still the same men who participated either directly or indirectly in the systematic extermination of hundreds of thousands of people, but it seems somewhat unnecessary to spend time painstakingly collecting testimonies and evidence from so long ago to convict men who are as old as 90.
However, the evidence displayed in London makes it hard to argue that culpability lessens over time. True, the Holocaust took place a long time ago, but the displays of the uniforms and personal items stolen from prisoners at Nazi death camps are so emotive that it is difficult to remain composed. I could not stand in front of the glass case of shoes commemorating those who were killed for long. It is slightly easier to read the statistics as it is so incredibly hard to comprehend the industrialised murder of millions of people. The shoes and countless pairs of glasses were something quite different however and this is certainly why stories from the Holocaust retain their power and why we still hear of Nazi criminals being brought to trial today.