'Why Are We Obsessed with the Nazis? The Third Reich in History and Memory': Talk at Senate House, 12th May 2015

Part Two of my recent visit to Auschwitz will be published very soon, once I have had a little more time to organise my photographs and finish the text itself. In the meantime, however, I thought I would publish an account of a fascinating event I attended last night in central London. Eminent British scholars Sir Richard Evans (author of the acclaimed Third Reich trilogy) and Sir Ian Kershaw (writer of a hugely successful, two-volume biography on Hitler) were in conversation with Dr Nikolaus Wachsmann. The event was primarily to promote the recent release of two new books: Evans' The Third Reich in History and Memory, and Wachsmann's KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. The hour-long conversation did not completely stick to the idea of contemporary 'obsession' with the Nazis, but an interesting discussion regarding the historiography of the Third Reich, and of the Holocaust h in particular, and how it has developed over the last few decades.
This is not a word-for-word transcription of the conversation - I simply couldn't scribble everything down that fast! - but illustrates the key points and highlights of the event. The layout I have selected reflects the change of topic and new questions put forward by Wachsmann. Afterwards, I also bought a copy of
KL; at over 800 pages, it is a long book, and I have a very large workload at the moment, but I hope to have a review published on here by the end of the summer.

"A lot of the public have what I would call a macabre fascination with the Third Reich"


Wachsmann: The title of the talk comes from the first sentence of an article Richard Evans wrote in The Guardian: ‘why are we still so obsessed with the Nazis?’ But what I want to ask is who is the ‘we’ here? Secondly, are we really ‘obsessed’ with Nazis, and is there any element of a danger of trivialisation of Nazism with this ‘obsession’?
Evans: The fact that we have a packed hall here tonight shows that we might not be obsessed, but we are very, very interested! On a more serious note, there are so many American, Hollywood films that have been made in the last couple of decades - one of the more interesting ones being Iron Sky! - but also other German films such as Downfall. Even those kinds of films, however, have been parodied, such as the famous scene in Downfall where Hitler is shouting about his orders not being carried out and that is now on YouTube as, for example, Hitler shouting that his pizza is late. If there isn’t an obsession, there is definitely a deep interest in the Third Reich in America, the UK and most of Europe, although the feeling around it is very different in Germany.
It’s difficult to write about Nazism now without referencing the present day and its representations. We’ve definitely seen more interest emerging in the last 30, 40, perhaps even 50 years. So, we have this slightly excessive preoccupation with the Third Reich, but that is definitely not something we see in Poland, the Baltic States or, to some extent, Russia. In those areas, there is more of a fixation on Stalin and how he might be equated with Hitler.
Kershaw: These are definitely two questions that came to my mind when I read Richard’s article, and when I saw the title of this talk. The idea of ‘we’ is a difficult one because I think that the memory of the Third Reich is definitely different in the UK and the US compared to countries like Germany.
In terms of ‘obsession’, I don’t think ‘obsessed’ is the right word. Eight or nine years ago, there was a BBC survey carried out on their programming that showed only 7% of their documentaries were related to World War Two or similar themes like Nazism. There were popular programmes that I was involved in, like ‘Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution’ and ‘The Nazis: A Warning from History’; ‘Auschwitz’ had viewing figures of around four million, but those were still dwarfed by viewing figures of programmes on, say, the Pyramids or the Pharaohs. They’re also not comparable to recent figures for World War One programmes. We also have channels like Channel 5 which I’ve heard dubbed ‘the Hitler channel’, so there is definitely at least some public interest for these programmes to be made.
A lot of the public have what I would call a macabre fascination with the Third Reich and Hitler, the man, in particular. On the other hand, there are those who have a genuine interest in history, and specifically the history of World War Two. In the UK we really do have an interest in Hitler, but I think that raises questions about why we’re not so interested in other dictators like Stalin or Mao.
In Germany, there isn’t the same idea of morbid fascination but the Third Reich is crucial to the sense of self-understanding in the country, although we do also have a lot of understanding in relation to the Third Reich in the UK as well. The further we get from World War Two and the Holocaust, arguably the defining episode of 20th century Europe, then it’s no surprise that so much time and energy are devoted to them. In the 1950s, people wouldn’t deal with those kind of horrors because they were so recent. Really, everything in the 20th century can be seen as either relating to it or derived from it.
Wachsmann: So the broader media interest in the Third Reich almost seems to have reached its peak already.
Kershaw: The figures for TV programmes in general have dropped, now that there are about 50 different channels to choose from, but I think there is also less interest in Nazism, perhaps just because the public have been saturated by it.

Wachsmann: How has our understanding of the Third Reich, and more specifically the genocide committed by the Nazis, shifted in the last 20 or 30 years? Seeing the genocide as a critical part of the Third Reich is still quite new, comparatively; past academia was much more focused on the structure and operation of the Third Reich. At the Cumberland Lodge Conference in 1979, which is where the ‘intentionalist’ versus ‘functionalist’ debate was first properly heard, not a single paper talked about the genocide, or what we would now call the Holocaust. In 1982, one German historian actually wrote in his book that he wasn’t going to go into much depth about the Holocaust as it had all already been discussed! How can we account for this historian’s ‘blind spot’ for so many years?
Kershaw: The Holocaust wasn’t totally excluded from historiography; German and Jewish historians did write about it in the 1960s and 1970s, but their research was mainly carried out in institutes, rather than universities, and weren’t widely circulated. 1979 was also an important year, not just for the Cumberland Lodge Conference, but also because of the screening of the mini-series ‘Holocaust’ in Europe. This was a major event in Germany, even though it trivialised such a massive event into a drama or soap opera. It opened people’s eyes to it, and relations between Germans and Jews. This unleashed a flood of publications, firstly about the programme itself, but then the Holocaust itself more generally.
Evans: There was a really big change in the wake of the collapse of Marxism. Marxism had influenced a lot of historians in their writing, as until that point they had looked mainly at class society and class struggles. The fall in the late 1980s, early ‘90s changed how we see Nazism - it’s gradually been looked at from the point of view of a racial state.
Kershaw: I think this historiography pre-dated the fall of Marxism and the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The focus on the Holocaust was definitely in 1980s, and that was when its singularity was started to be studied seriously. It really took centre-stage in Germany during the 1980s; one good example is the conference held in Germany on Nazi decision-making in 1984. Afterwards, there was a little bit of a decline in interest in Nazism, and the idea of a class state changed to a racial state, as Richard said. It was also helped by the opening of the Soviet archives in the early 1990s.
Evans: I definitely wouldn’t dispute that fact, but it was definitely the late 1980s and early 1990s that opened the floodgates for this interest.
Wachsmann: It’s definitely true that the Holocaust wasn’t taken seriously as a subject of study at first, though. When Raul Hilberg wrote his first book, he had real problems getting it published; when Christopher Browning, who is now an eminent scholar of the Holocaust, was doing his PhD, his professors warned him against it as they thought it wouldn’t really get him anywhere!
Kershaw: Yes. Historians in the 1960s and ‘70s, particularly Germans, were more preoccupied with how they could have created or elevated a man like Hitler, and how the Weimar Republic had collapsed to be replaced by the Third Reich; as time moved on, the ‘peacetime’ years of the Nazi regime, i.e. 1933 - 1939, were more closely investigated. It was a while before even World War Two in a wider context and the Holocaust were looked into; these are more modern-day questions. No historian ever denied the genocide of the Jews, but this knowledge was almost taken for granted, so no one was doing in-depth study into the subject.
Evans: Yes, people were also preoccupied with the idea of German democracy in the future and how it might work. The shift to studying the Holocaust is quite complicated; one thing that sparked it off was West German restitution claims, after having their property in East Germany confiscated. These were counter-claimed by people in Eastern Europe who had lost their property, family and so much else.
Furthermore, the old generation of German historians who might have been born in the 1920s and ‘30s and possibly lived through the Nazi regime began to retire. Younger historians started undertaking research that might have probed further than older historians would have been comfortable with. There was also a public catharsis in West Germany around the 1990s which definitely helped lead to the consciousness of responsibility that is now central to German society.
Kershaw: The 1980s also saw the big commemorations in the media for anniversaries related to World War Two and the Holocaust, and resistance against Hitler. I looked into the media - mainly newspapers - from 1955 to 1975, the tenth, twentieth and thirtieth anniversaries, and there was hardly anything in the papers about them. In 1985, however, there was a sudden surge in media coverage of events like the anniversaries of VE Day, and before that, D-Day and the bomb plot on Hitler’s life.
Relating to what Richard said, there was a generational shift with the ‘Hitler Youth generation’ of historians retiring and a change of attitude within German historiography, led, as I said, by the increased material available with the opening of the archives in Russia.
Wachsmann: I definitely found the same points regarding media coverage of the anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation, too - nothing until 1985, and increasing media coverage since then.

"This idea of Auschwitz as being inexplicable - I find that ridiculous. Of course Auschwitz is explicable!"


Wachsmann: I think one reason for the shift towards the Holocaust and World War Two is because we now see the crimes of the Third Reich in a European context; one might even put the Third Reich into a transnational, global context.
Evans: We’re now living in an era of globalisation, so this has undoubtedly impacted upon the way we view the past. That, of course, includes how we look at Nazism and the Holocaust. For example, the Holocaust is now put in context alongside other genocides that happened in the 20th century; younger historians in particular are keen to look at the Holocaust as just one genocide amongst others such as those that occurred in Rwanda, Armenia and so on.
They are definitely ideas worth discussing, but I think their real value is how they show the differences between them. The crucial difference between the genocide of the Jews and other genocides is that the Nazis saw the Jews as a world threat, not just a threat in Germany, which gave the genocide a certain characteristic and formed the way Jews were treated in comparison to other victims of Nazi persecution. They felt that the Slavs were subhuman as well, for example, but they were extra sadistic towards Jews. Once all the Jews had been murdered, the Nazis were then going to move onto the Slavic population, after exploiting them for slave labour.
Kershaw: The concept of genocide studies, and of putting the Holocaust in a bigger, global framework, are certainly new concepts. I would say that the idea of the Holocaust in a bigger context kicked off earlier than we might think, though, with historians like Ernst Nolte, who said that Auschwitz was something of an imitation of a Soviet gulag.
Evans: True, but I think that idea probably wouldn’t be accepted by younger historians. I wouldn’t trust Nolte’s writings anyway, as some of his footnotes certainly hint at elements of Holocaust denial.
Kershaw: Nolte definitely did his own reputation a lot of harm. But there were other instances of comparative genocide being discussed fairly early on - I remember that Leo Kuper published a book simply called ‘Genocide’ in the 1970s. It’s fair to say, however, that for most readers with little knowledge of that kind of history, their interest in the Holocaust is far greater than their interest in the genocides of the Armenians or the Rwandans.
As Richard said, we can only appreciate the singularity of the Holocaust through comparison; there are so many reasons how and why the Holocaust is a singular event in history. Even in Nazi Germany, and with the way they treated various people, the treatment of the Jews was something unique of itself.

Wachsmann: How do we write the history of Nazi Germany? One of the real problems that we are presented with is the problem of language. For example, in my book, there’s an extract from a Norwegian diarist writing in Sachsenhausen: on 12th February 1945, he wrote, ‘The language for all this is exhausted’. How do you deal with these problems?
Evans: As historians, we grapple with so many different difficult subjects in history. You cannot be too emotive, and you shouldn’t be too didactic; it’s not up to you to tell the reader what to think. They must create that impression themselves. I try to bring ordinary people’s experiences into my writing, as, particularly, writing for the general public, there’s a greater need for human interest.
Kershaw: This question in itself really paraphrases the issues of methodology that many historians face. History is art, it’s not science, and there is no set way in which to write about such horrors. Historians do, however, have a duty to write about such things. This idea of Auschwitz, for example, as being inexplicable - I find that ridiculous. Of course Auschwitz is explicable! We need to try and delve deeper and understand it. If we threw up our hands and decided not to understand it, we would be lost.
Historiography has progress in the last 30 years, especially in the use of personal testimony. Writing about a subject such as the Holocaust is not just an abstract process, but now brings stories and accounts of real people into it - that’s what helps to bring these things home to people, particularly those with little knowledge of the subject.
Evans: You’ve also got to think: who is your readership? Are you writing for students, are you writing for the public? A lot of Western historical writing of the 1980s and ‘90s appealed very much to intellectuals and didn’t try and raise any sort of emotion, although German historians did challenge that by often trying to empathise with those that they were writing about. I think the work of Saul Friedl√§nder is just exemplary in its balance of the facts interwoven with the experiences of real people.
Kershaw: I certainly agree with that. One thing that a lot of historians writing in the 1980s said, though, was that they found it very difficult to write about the Holocaust compared to, say, 16th century France, mainly because the horrors were still somewhat recent., and also somewhat still present.
Evans and Kershaw (in agreement): However you write about it, there certainly need to be morals included in your work when you write about the Holocaust.