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Valar Qringaomis

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Friday, January 13, 2017

Nazi camps and St Augustine

Wolfson History Prizes: Nazi camps and St Augustine | Podcast | History Extra

"Repeatedly you will find books by great English historians in the bookshops abroad and like the book on the concentration camp, it is English based authors who in some cases have given the past back to European countries. And we're admired for it. We're admired for biographies. Of course we're admired for novels... The French can't write a novel, they just can't begin to. The Germans write history books as sort of bound in black with gold toothed spines and look like assembly manual for car parts. They're incredibly accurate and good but they're totally unreadable and unusable...

Why do people do things which are, to us unimaginable? And what became fairly clear to me early on was that just as there isn't a typical prisoner, there isn't a typical perpetrator either.

Different people are driven by different motivations at different times of the Nazi dictatorship. You have those who see their service in the camps as a kind of career. A profession. There's one camp commandant who's so proud, even his private notepaper he has a sign at the top saying: concentration camp commandant.

So these are people who rise through the... They make careers, they live, they think of themselves as living... there's a kind of, there's a quote I have in the books somewhere by a wife of a concentration camp commandant who's interviewed decades after the war and she's reminiscing about the wonderful time she had. I mean this is what Hess, the commandant of Auschwitz writes about as well in his memoirs. How wonderful his kids had it in Auschwitz. Just a a wonderful time. So there is that, there's careerism, there's certainly those who enjoy the violence. But these kind of sadists are in a fairly small number.

Others, again, believe in Nazi ideology of course. They do it because they believe they are doing the right thing.

I mean it's wrong to think of some of these men and they are predominantly men as Nihilists. As somebody like Heinrich Himmler the head of this system had, in his own mind, a very clear moral idea. It was just that his moral compass was completely perverse. But these people don't see themselves as nihilists.

And then you've got those who are dragged along in a way by false ideas of comradeship. By the wish to fit in. I mean certainly the work of social psychologists has been important in trying to make us understand more why people get dragged into things or commit deeds which even a few weeks earlier they would've never thought themselves as capable of doing.

And give you one example, there's a doctor who arrives in Auschwitz. SS doctor. And he is asked to perform a selection at the ramp in Auschwitz or take part in this. This is where incoming deportation trains are divided into those Jews who are murdered straightaway and those who are picked out for murderous slave labour. And this man *something* breaks down. He cries, he gets drunk. And he says I can't do this. I think he asks for a transfer to the front.

And within a fairly short period of time, he is doing it. He's doing it because he's getting used to it, he's getting accustomed to it. He has a mentor, a man called Josef Mengele who kind of takes him under his wing and makes him realise that what he's doing there is important somehow for Germany's future. They transfer *name* wife to Auschwitz so he has a bit of a home life there, stabilising in some way, and within a fairly short period of time this man is selecting people, victims, innocent women, children, all people for the gas chambers.

And you come across a lot of these stories where people, in a fairly short period of time get accustomed and used to doing the most heinous crimes...

'Augustine would not have actually sympathised in any way with the elimination of the Jews as somehow murderers of Christ, or whatever... he would concentrate quite often, being guided honesty by scripture... on the words of the Psalms: slay them not, that they be scattered. Better to scatter the Jews all over the place as evidence. And at the Last Judgment matters would be sorted out. But any idea that the early church would've engaged in an extermination policy-'...

'Death camps like Treblinka are set up in the Holocaust with a single function... to kill as many Jews as quickly as possible. And these pure death camps... in occupied Eastern Poland... murder some 1.5 million Jews in 1942 alone. And there you do not have selections like in Auschwitz. Because pretty much everybody on board of these deportation camps is doomed to be exterminated on arrival. So these camps only have this one function.

Concentration camps from the beginning are multi-functional sites. Early on they serve the purpose of breaking the opposition. Later on there is the function of supposedly cleaning Germany of 'asocials and other social outcasts'. It becomes a site of forced labour, of human experimentation. Sites like Dachau go through a huge change in a very very short period of time...

[On the stereotypical idea of a concentration camp] I... fast back to the first day in the camp in spring 33, where the camp looks again completely different. You've got a 100 prisoners, they're treated well. There're no uniforms. They eat with their captors who are policemen not SS men, and none of them think they're going to be there very long.

So though the Third Reich lasts only for a very very brief period of time, there are huge changes and you can see these changes in places like Dachau. That was the only one of those camps which lasts all the way through the Third Reich...

I always say... certainly, in the Ancient World, historians must resemble the God Janus, who had a head looking forwards and a head looking backwards. And it's not possible, nor should we suspend the views that we bring to the topics under consideration, but you can't just write presentist history and attack Julius Caesar for not being vegetarian, as it might be.

It may happen in 30 years time, I'm sure there could be a massive assault on every ancient figure for eating meat. You must keep in balance the views they held at the time and always one test to me is were there significant voices at the time which were strongly against, on moral grounds we may now share, what was being done?...

'The figure of the kapo. These were prisoners who gained a, some kind of administrative or supervisory function in the camp, be it as labour supervisors or barracks supervisors. And they quite often in the literature portrayed in rather stark terms as wholly evil henchmen of the SS, i.e. prisoners who do the bidding of the SS.

But if you probe a little bit more deeply, it becomes morally very very complex. Not every kapo is the same.

There are debates between them about should they, if the SS orders them beat prisoners, should they do that, should they not? And what does it mean if you take a stand to you? Should you maybe beat the prisoners but beat them less hard and pretend that you're beating them harder than you do?

Other kapos say: well, I only beat prisoners or lash out in order to prevent the SS from stepping in and doing even worse. There's an extraordinary case of a former kapo from Dachau who's on trial in Munich.

One of the witnesses says: I'm still glad that this kapo hit me, I'm still thankful to him to this day for the fact that he hit me because that prevented the SS from stepping in and doing even worse.

So is somebody like that a good man? A bad man? Or are these categories which in that starkness don't really help us very much?...

'Hitler very rarely talks about the concentration camps. As far as we know he never visits a concentration camp. And I think the reason for that is that he knows that they are not universally popular within Germany, even amongst ordinary Germans. So he's very conscious of his own nimbus, his popularity, his status, so he kind of tries to stay clear of this. When he mentions the camps he talks about, and he does that a few times in public, he effectively says: well, it's the British who invented the concentration camps'

'It's always... liberal imperialist historians'...

'It's nonsense because just because something is called a concentration camp doesn't make it Auschwitz.

There are, what we think of as concentration camps emerge in the late 19th century, around the turn of the 20th century in a colonial setting. They then take a very different form during the First World War. So there are these kind of detention camps for largely civilians who are locked up beyond the law, using often barracks or barbed wire and those things, but that's often where similarities end as well and my feeling in the end, you might get these questions here in Germany, kind of there've been all sorts of debates over the years over what is the relationship between the Nazi camps and the Gulag and there was a huge historians' quarrel in the 1980s because one German historian suggested that... the Gulag was primary and the Nazis in a way, copied in some ways what had happened earlier elsewhere and ultimately my conclusion was that while there are some similarities and parallels and connections, ultimately all of these camp systems are largely homegrown in a way.

And if you look at the Nazi camp system, the greater influences it seems to me come out of a German military tradition, the German prison system and also the paramilitary culture of the late 1920s and early 1930s of extreme political violence against your opponents. It's bearing in mind... the first camps - Dachau and others - are set up in a completely improvised way as effectively torture chambers very often and bunkers by SS, the same SS and SA men quite often who had run these street battles with Communists in the previous months.

So these are kind of street fighters who now are victorious and you know they brand their victory on the bodies of their opponents... a number of these... Berlin in 1933, there are over 170 of these improvised bunkers and torture chambers...

I'm told that it's important now in much of history teaching in schools where you go to the documentary evidence for Anne Bolyn's underwear. And you make a big thing about underwear and how women were then oppressed because of their underwear and the next thing is you then move over and discuss herrings in Holland. Spotty history. I really don't like that...

I live in an era where archaeology is more unquestioned and texts have become unduly questioned"
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