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The best books on Auschwitz

recommended by Mary Fulbrook

Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice by Mary Fulbrook


Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice
by Mary Fulbrook


Why were so few of the Nazis involved in running Auschwitz brought to justice? Why did some Germans during the Holocaust risk death to hide Jewish people from Nazi persecution, while others were passive bystanders? Historian Mary Fulbrook—author of Reckonings, which won the 2019 Wolfson History Prize—recommends essential reading for understanding Auschwitz and its aftermath.

Interview by Benedict King

Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice by Mary Fulbrook


Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice
by Mary Fulbrook


Before we get into detail discussing your book choices, I think it might be helpful to understand exactly what Auschwitz was. It wasn’t just one camp, but a group of camps—is that right?

One of the reasons why it’s become so incredibly significant in the public imagination is that it was the largest single camp that combined both an extermination camp and a labour camp. It had the largest single number of murders in the Holocaust—more than a million people were murdered there—but also an enormous number of survivors, because of this huge complex of labour camps and subcamps that it ran. So it combined the two functions.

There are three camps: Auschwitz I, which was the original one, for political prisoners, predominantly Polish political prisoners, opponents of Nazism and so on; Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which housed the infamous gas chambers; and Auschwitz III, a third camp within the town of Oświęcim, not on the public tourist trail now, at the I G Farben Buna plant at Monowitz. That was just a big German industrial concern that used the slave labour from Auschwitz.

What’s available to visitors today is only a tiny fraction of the complex of Auschwitz that spread across Oświęcim itself. Not long ago, I tried to film in the Monowitz Buna factory area and got roundly shoved off the premises. We’d gotten a permit to be filming at Auschwitz, but the people running the factory now absolutely do not want anyone looking at it, filming it and showing that it was part of the former slave labour system. Beyond the camps around Oświęcim itself, there was an enormous network of satellite subcamps all across Silesia and beyond. There was a vast complex of sub camps run by the SS with slave labour.

“In the early years, people were actually not that interested in what survivors had experienced; they were only of interest as witnesses to the crimes of others, not as testimonies to what the past had done to them”

At the famous ramp where the selections took place, you could go one way to the gas chambers and you were immediately dead; if you went the other way to slave labour, it was extermination through work. Average life expectancy, if you were selected for slave labour, was precisely three months. So, it’s not exactly a good chance of survival, but nevertheless it was the chance for survival for those who did survive.

One of the reasons Auschwitz has loomed so large in the public imagination is because there are so many survivors from all across Europe writing memoirs in all European languages and representing quite different communities—whether the French Resistance or the Polish resistance or Greek Jews or Hungarian Jews. There were many, many different communities who could subsequently identify with survivors after the war and who provided audiences for their memoirs and publications and accounts.

I think another reason why it looms so large is because so much of it remains still and can be seen. It’s close to good transport links; it’s on the tourist trail from Kraków.

That leads me on very neatly to my next question. How will the memory of the Holocaust and its recollection change as the last survivors die in the next few years? Of course, in that same timeframe, the perpetrators will all be dead as well, which perhaps may be more significant. 

The ways in which survivors have been listened to has, in any event, changed massively over the last half-century. They were more or less ignored in the early post-war years. For a long time, nobody was really interested in them. They couldn’t get publishers, they couldn’t get outlets, they couldn’t get audiences. The one exception was Anne Frank, who of course was a quite different story.

It was really only from the late 1970s onwards that there became this obsession with memoirs and survivor testimonies. In the early years, even into the 1960s and 1970s, people were actually not that interested in what survivors had experienced; the survivors were only of interest as witnesses to the crimes of others, not as testimonies to what the past had done to them.

“Many mass graves still remain unmarked across the whole of Eastern Europe”

One of the things I try and make quite clear in Reckonings is that there’s quite a short phase—actually the later 20th and early 21st century—where we’ve made a big deal of survivor memory and survivor testimony. But we have to remember that that doesn’t tell us the whole story of the Holocaust. Half of the victims of the Holocaust died across Eastern Europe outside the camps in the so-called “Holocaust by bullets,” and they were just summarily shot. Many mass graves still remain unmarked across the whole of Eastern Europe.

That aspect of the Holocaust has not lodged in public consciousness in the same way as the Auschwitz story. I think one of the things we have to remember is that the memory of survivors that has come down to us paints a very unique picture of people who are of a particular age group: young at the time, selected largely for slave labour because they were strong and fit to work, and who lived to a ripe old age in which they could communicate their experiences.

That’s an intriguing point you make about the interest in survivors’ memoirs and survivors’ testimony only taking off in the 1970s. What was it that changed around that time? We remember this—probably quite rightly—as an almost uniquely horrific crime in human history, and yet in the immediate aftermath of the war, it doesn’t seem to have registered in the way that one would have expected it to . . .

In the immediate aftermath of the war, the Allies and other governments—the Polish state for example—sought to bring perpetrators to trial. In the late 1940s, you can find a lot of perpetrators on trial and get a comprehensive view of the horrific scale of the atrocities and the multiplicity of different organizations that were involved in making this machinery of mass murder possible. So, there was a very distinctive attempt to deal with it in a judicial way in the late 1940s.

What changes then is this terrible period, the 1950s. From the late 1940s onwards, the Cold War takes precedence for the Western Allies. They start seeing former Nazis as useful in the fight against Communism, and West Germany as useful in the fight against Communism. So from then on, Konrad Adenauer, the first Chancellor of West Germany, and his government prioritized the rehabilitation of former Nazis and granted amnesties, early releases and cut sentences. The Allies—the Americans particularly—and West Germany were wholly of one mind on this.

So, from the early 1950s onwards, you had Nazis who had been sentenced to death in the late 1940s but not actually executed because their sentences had been commuted—say, to life imprisonment, or to 25 years, or even lower sentences—suddenly being released from prison. This was just absurd. As a result, by the mid-1950s, former Nazis could breathe easily and just go back to life as before. That’s the really disgusting switch. So it’s not that nobody thought about it until the 1960s—there was a lot being done, and then it was dropped for political reasons in the late forties and early fifties with the Cold War.

Then what changes? Why does it come back on the agenda? There are several reasons, but I think one of the most significant ones is the Cold War again. From the late 1950s East Germany starts making political capital out of the fact that there are former prominent Nazis in high places in West Germany, and this is deeply embarrassing.

“It wasn’t ‘West Germany’ that decided to put Auschwitz on trial in 1963—it was a few committed individuals and particularly Fritz Bauer”

What the East Germans point out about the Adenauer government is quite true. Adenauer’s chief aide in his Chancellery, Hans Globke, had been the official legal commentator on the Nuremberg laws for Hitler in the mid-1930s. Theodor Oberländer—who was Federal Minister for Displaced Persons, Refugees and Victims of War under Adenauer—knew all about refugees and expellees from Eastern Europe precisely because he’d been concerned with “population planning” and involved in “anti-partisan” warfare under the Nazi regime, alongside the Einsatzgruppen, and potentially compromised in this way. It’s absolutely disgusting, actually, the number of former Nazis that Adenauer had in his government. East Germany was goading West Germany, if you like, to make a move.

Another issue that I think is really, really important and can’t be emphasized enough is that it wasn’t ‘West Germany’ that decided to put Auschwitz on trial in 1963—it was a few committed individuals and particularly Fritz Bauer, the district attorney of the State of Hessen, who was himself Jewish and a socialist and had to flee into exile to escape Nazi persecution.

He returned to Germany after the war and was determined to mount the Auschwitz trial as a full-blown explication of the crimes of the Nazis, in the face of massive opposition. Most people in high places in West Germany in the late 1950s when he began this attempt, through the early and mid-1960s while he mounted the trial, were opposed to the process. It wasn’t West Germany facing up to its past. It was Bauer pushing it through against significant political opposition.

The other thing to add about Bauer is that he was the guy who gave Mossad, the Israeli secret service, the tip-off on the whereabouts of Adolf Eichmann so that they could kidnap him and bring him to Jerusalem for trial. Fritz Bauer didn’t trust the West German government to give Eichmann a decent trial and an appropriate sentence, so Bauer tipped off Mossad to ensure that Eichmann was put on trial in Jerusalem and not in West Germany.

“Out of more than 140,000 people investigated, fewer than 6,660 were actually found guilty—and of these, nearly 5,000 received lenient sentences of less than two years. Only 164 were found guilty of the crime of murder”

You asked about the issue of putting perpetrators on trial this late—but not too late—that Germany mounted. That really came about as a result of a change in the law that took effect with the conviction of John Demjanjuk in 2011 (when the former concentration camp guard was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for acting as an accessory to murder, although he died while his appeal was still pending). The effect was to establish that working in a place, the primary purpose of which was putting people to death, was by itself sufficient to prove that individual to be an accessory to murder. Had they done that in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, we could have put a vast number of perpetrators on trial, but they didn’t.

In the end, out of more than 140,000 people investigated in the Federal Republic, fewer than 6,660 were actually found guilty—and of these, nearly 5,000 received lenient sentences of less than two years. Only 164 were actually found guilty of the crime of murder.

How much does the politics that still bedevils this whole area of historical enquiry interfere with your work? Does it constrain you in any way? Is it something that you’re constantly dealing with, or is it an inevitable part of the work and something that you’re happy to embrace?

None of the above. I think that it’s an incredibly difficult area to work in, and I suppose I try and insulate myself from revisionism, Holocaust denial and the far right scene, while also being aware of it.

“History-writing is as much a creative act as an intellectual outcome of scholarly research”

What I find most difficult is actually confronting the subject matter. The subject matter itself is so disturbing, so upsetting and incomprehensible. Anyone who’s looked at this—and I’ve spent years and years and years trying to get my head around it—will still, on occasion, find it utterly incomprehensible, despite being able to give an account of it. It’s a very curious paradox.

And trying to do that in a dispassionate way, I imagine must often feel like a constraint.

I don’t think it’s possible to be dispassionate, actually. This does really challenge notions of historical objectivity. I simply don’t think it’s possible, for all sorts of reasons which include the selection of examples and the style of writing, as well as the arguments developed. It is possible to be historically accurate, writing an account that is true to and commensurate with the evidence, and yet at the same time be personally engaged with the material. History-writing is as much a creative act as an intellectual outcome of scholarly research.

Now let’s move on to the books, which I found fascinating. You gave me a longer list initially, which I’m glad about because the ones you left off seem equally worthy of attention. I can see why you had trouble getting it down to five.

I was constrained by the thought that my choices should be currently in print and available for readers. It can’t be something that’s really fascinating but published in 1947.

First in your selection of books on Auschwitz, we have Charlotte Delbo. Tell me a bit about her story and why you chose her trilogy, Auschwitz and After.

I chose this for several reasons. She was a quite remarkable female resistance fighter in France, who was transported to Auschwitz after having to witness the murder of her husband. (The men were shot; the women were taken to Auschwitz.) She was on a convoy of 230 women sent there. They entered the camp supposedly singing the Marseillaise.

Of her original convoy, only 49 survived, and what I find fascinating about her account is the way she tries to convey the raw experience in little vignettes—based on her personal experience quite clearly, but in some cases trying to tell the stories of other women who were on the convoy with her, and trying to memorialize those who did not survive. She agonizingly conveys aspects of her experience to those of us who have had the fortune never to have experienced such things. For instance, the way she writes about the feeling of thirst, just the tiny vignette of wanting the drop of water from a tap, or risking a drink despite the possibility of being killed for taking it—it’s incredible.

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That’s one aspect that I think is extraordinary and extremely powerful: this very raw experience, particularly in the first part of the trilogy, which she wrote very soon after the war. The other thing I find fascinating is the way in which she tries to develop a notion of two selves: the disassociation of her post-war self from the Auschwitz-self, a complete disconnect (or attempted disconnect) between the self who experienced and lived through Auschwitz, and the self who survived and was recounting it. That captures what a lot of survivors try to convey in one form or another: this complete caesura in their lives between what they went through and how they live later. Different people deal with it in different ways, and come to terms with it in different ways.

One of the things I found difficult about choosing books that are still in print is that many don’t convey the experiences of those who never wrote—those who were much less successful, or less literate, or didn’t have the means or the wherewithal to publish.

In some of the interview testimonies gathered by the different foundations that are collecting them, you get a similar sort of reflection, where some people say that the self that lived on afterwards is not their ‘real’ self. They have a sense that their ‘authentic self’ died with the family and the friends who perished in the Holocaust, and the person living later is someone completely different, though they may appear to be alive and have a new family and a new life and so on. I think Charlotte Delbo was particularly successful in the way that she negotiated that.

Do you mean successful in the sense that she was able to live an authentic life as herself after her experience in Auschwitz?

Successful in the sense that she managed to make both selves authentic. I’ve heard survivors completely break down in interviews because they feel the present isn’t their real life. I think Delbo was more stable. But this leads to another thing which I think is important about this account: she wasn’t Jewish. She makes it very clear how dreadful it was even for non-Jewish prisoners, and yet registers that it was even worse for Jewish prisoners.

“Many survivors have a sense that their ‘authentic self’ died with the family and the friends who perished in the Holocaust, and the person living later is someone completely different”

The fact that she was a member of a resistance group allowed for a sense of community on returning after the war. They returned singing as well as having entered singing. They could sing, and this was not possible for other survivors. I think she’s in striking contrast to somebody like Gilbert Michlin, for example, who I write about in my book, who was a Jewish French prisoner deported from France to Auschwitz. When he returned to France, he had to keep the fact that he was Jewish quiet and pretend he was just French because the myth of resistance was so big in post-war France and there was still a festering antisemitism. So, his return to France was much more miserable than Delbo’s.

The other person who I’d really want to contrast her experience with is Pierre Seel, who I also write about in my book. He was taken not to Auschwitz but to Schirmeck, and arrested because he was homosexual. After the war, homosexuals couldn’t talk about the reasons they’d been arrested and imprisoned. In the annexed area of Alsace, where Seel lived, the Nazis had introduced homophobic laws which were not immediately repealed after the war when De Gaulle repealed Nazi antisemitic legislation, so homosexuality was still a criminal offense.

Even when it was decriminalized, Seel said he felt so ashamed about it. He couldn’t talk to his family, his friends. He tried to get married, and had children with his wife even though he was gay. He eventually became an alcoholic, had a total breakdown, got divorced and then finally came out and said he had to speak about it. Ghastly and heart-rending though Delbo’s experiences are—and I have to admit the first time I read the book I was just in tears; I couldn’t bear it—I think we have to recognize that there were other experiences too, experiences that were awful in a wide variety of ways.

One of the things that really struck me about your book, which I found particularly shocking because I’d never heard it before, was how badly many Jews were treated when they returned to their European countries of origin after the war. In Poland, hundreds were murdered by their neighbours; there was no sympathy at all.

Indeed. Particularly in Eastern Europe where non-Jews had taken over the homes and possessions of Jews whom they assumed dead. It was a question of, ‘What? You’ve survived? We don’t want to see you!’—slamming the door in their faces and telling them to go away.

Let’s move on to Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. He was a highly educated man, an academic psychoanalyst. Tell us a bit about this book—it’s a combination between a memoir of Auschwitz and also a work of psychoanalysis. 

Yes. It’s an interesting contrast to Delbo. Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist. He spent very little time in Auschwitz; in fact, he was in Theresienstadt, the supposed ‘model ghetto’ for the Red Cross inspection. Then he was deported to Auschwitz where he spent only a short period of time because he was selected for labour. He spent most of the rest of the war in a sub-camp of Dachau in Bavaria.

It’s a highly contentious account because he is held to have been somewhat complicit. To what extent is not at all clear, but he certainly made compromises and survived through both his medical expertise and the privileged positions that he was able to hold. What’s interesting about his account, which I found absolutely fascinating, is the way he explores the importance of meaning in life as the key to survival.

Before the war, he had been an academic specialist in suicide. His main practice had been helping people who were contemplating and at risk of committing suicide, trying to work with them to find ways of giving their life meaning, so they didn’t kill themselves. And he’d been quite successful in some of the techniques he used.

One of the ways in which he found meaning while a prisoner was observing how other people reacted and responded to the conditions, and the ways some were more psychologically resilient than others. Delbo, by comparison, makes it quite clear that better physical conditions and luck made all the difference between surviving or not, dying from typhus or dysentery or not. She emphasizes that aspect a lot, as well as the mutual support within her resistance group.

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Frankl looks more at the inner life and how the use of your mind can give meaning to life and give you a ray of hope in the darkness. He talks about, for example, the way in which he holds mental conversations with his young wife, who would have just turned 24 on the day after his arrival in Auschwitz. She didn’t survive, but through the rest of the war he didn’t know that. He had imagined conversations with her and mentally he took himself to another place. He took pleasure in what he could, like a ray of sunshine coming through the clouds, or thinking about light in the darkness and then suddenly seeing a farm house’s lights turn on as they were returning from work. He’s looking at how the inner life could assist in survival, which I think is extraordinarily interesting, although it’s not a sufficient explanation by any means.

There’s a memoir called Prisoners of Fear by another survivor from Vienna, Ella Lingens-Reiner, who was a medical doctor imprisoned for trying to save Jews. She talks very much about just being in a more privileged position: not having her hair shaved, not having a number tattooed on her arm, not being so fully dehumanized, having slightly better rations, being respected for her intellectual and technical expertise as a medical doctor. She comments on how Eastern European Jews who had lived very hard lives as peasants were able to withstand the ordeal better than Western European Jews who’d had bourgeois existences and didn’t have the same kind of survival skills. There are many, many other things going on, but I find Victor Frankl’s account very fascinating.

What were the sort of compromises that he made that perhaps led to his survival? I know one of the books that didn’t make your shortlist was Filip Müller’s Eyewitness Auschwitz. He actually helped to run the gas chambers. Frankl obviously wasn’t doing that, but does he talk about the moral compromises within the prisoner community that went on in a fight to survive?

Frankl doesn’t talk about that so much as his critics do. His critics point out that he had managed not to be deported until quite late, and when he was in Theresienstadt, he had certain privileges. But he’s not actually as interested in that aspect as he is in the inner life. It’s about how meaning can give you psychological sustenance.

If I compare it to some of the non-published interview testimonies, there are several survivors who talk about what gave them faith in humanity being as important as the physical support they received. People say when they were on the death march, lying starving and dying on the back of the railway wagon or on a truck passing through Prague, Czechs threw them pieces of bread from a bridge above where they were stationary. One of them says that, at first, he felt humiliated at being seen so emaciated and dejected and in rags. He thought the people leaning over and talking were just jeering at them.

Then, a moment later, these people came back and threw down some bread, and he suddenly realized the people had been discussing how they could help, had gone back to get some bread and then thrown it over to them. This little gesture of moral support made an enormous difference to his sense of a common humanity out there. It gave him a belief that he would be welcomed back into the land of the living.

There’s another story of a guy who subsequently became a psychoanalyst in the States. He described himself as a non-religious Jew; he was of Jewish descent, but totally secular in outlook. Yet when it came to Yom Kippur, he decided to fast along with the religious Jews because, even though they were starving, it was a kind of act of defiance to refuse the Nazi imposition of a dehumanized category on them. They weren’t just animals—they could still choose to observe religious rituals from their forefathers. This endowed the world with a significance that was not the one bestowed upon it by the Nazis. I think that was very psychologically important, and it’s something that Frankl’s account points to.

Let’s move on to sociologist Gerhard Durlacher’s The Search: The Birkenau Boys. He was a child during Auschwitz and wrote this book in the 1980s. It’s a search for the other boys who were taken there with him, right?

Yes. The reason I included this one is precisely because of that later search—not so much for what it tells us about Auschwitz as what it tells us about survivors. He’s trying to track down other boys who had been in the family camp and had survived. One of them was Otto Dov Kulka, who also recently produced an almost dream-like memoir called Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death (which didn’t quite make my cut because it’s relatively recent and already much-discussed).

What’s interesting about this book is how Durlacher makes an attempt to reconnect with other boys who had gone through the same experience. He finds them in quite different places. One of the stories he tells is about one of the boys, who he tracks down to the New York borough of Queens. He’s living a very miserable, angry life and doesn’t want to talk.

There are vast numbers of survivors, tens of thousands, who are able to talk about it at some point. On the other hand, there are many survivors who are completely incapacitated by their experiences, the consequences for whom we see through the writings of psychiatrists who have dealt with them in institutions—people like Dori Laub, who’s done an incredible amount of work with Holocaust survivors who cannot speak about their experiences, trying to help them articulate what they’ve been through to help with post-traumatic stress disorder.

So, we’ve got those two extremes: survivor literature and testimonies, and psychoanalytic literature on PTSD. Durlacher tracks down a man who falls between these two extremes. There must have been tens of thousands like that; people who are just miserable, angry, isolated and socially not functioning very well, but also not giving an account of their past and not able to understand it.

They all had a reunion in Israel in 1990. How does Durlacher describe that?

Not all of them came to the reunion. What becomes very clear is that they all had different ways of dealing with the past. Otto Dov Kulka became a professional historian; he wrote about anything but his personal experiences until his very late memoir. Another one became a painter, another a rabbi. But the miserable man from Queens was not there. He wouldn’t talk. They just had a dreadful dinner in New York and that was it.

“Durlacher, like Otto Dov Kulka, talks about seeing the American airplanes flying across the blue skies above Auschwitz in the summer of 1944 . . . both boys saw them almost like little toys in the air”

Durlacher has uncovered that additional variant that doesn’t normally surface: not so severely damaged that you’re in a psychiatric institution, but damaged to the extent that you’re unable to articulate what you went through to the rest of the world.

One of the other things that struck me about the book was the way Durlacher, like Otto Dov Kulka, talks about seeing the American airplanes flying across the blue skies above Auschwitz in the summer of 1944. I thought it was fascinating that both boys saw them almost like little toys in the air, independent accounts of the same experience. Otto Dov Kulka said it was so beautiful. He says the little silver airplanes across the deep blue skies above Auschwitz were the most beautiful summer skies you can imagine, more beautiful that anything he’s seen in Israel or anywhere else. This kind of perception and memory is extraordinary. It also echoes perceptions conveyed in some of Imre Kertész’s fictional account, Fatelessness, about the “quiet hour” of the early evening that he was able to appreciate even in camp.

Let’s move on to the one history book you’ve chosen, The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963-65 by Devin O Pendas. We’ve talked about this already a bit, but can you tell me how the trial came about? How was it received and what were the “limits of the law” mentioned in the subtitle?

Yes, there’s another book that I could have put in, Rebecca Wittmann’s book on the Auschwitz trial, Beyond Justice. Both, in different ways, point up that the West German choice to use the ordinary criminal law definition of murder was totally inappropriate for trying people who had been involved in a genocide. Collective violence is different from individual violence.

The West Germans chose to resort to the old German criminal law; they didn’t want to adopt the Nuremberg principles. They didn’t want anything that was retroactive, punishing crimes that weren’t defined at the time. But the problem with the West German definition of murder was that it entailed showing individual intent and excess brutality. This meant, effectively, that if you couldn’t show that an individual was subjectively motivated to kill, they couldn’t be convicted of murder.

“The overwhelming majority of people who had worked at Auschwitz were never brought to court at all”

That meant that in other trials, for example those related to Bełżec (which took place in Munich in the mid-1960s), seven of the eight defendants were acquitted because there were no survivors to prove they’d been individual, sadistic brutes. It meant that you could operate the machinery of genocide by ‘only obeying orders’ and put 300,000 people into the gas chambers and still not be a murderer. It was a shocking misuse of law, I think.

How many people were put on trial at Frankfurt and what was the conviction rate?

Around 8,200 people had been employed at Auschwitz. A few, including former camp commandant Rudolf Höss, had already been sentenced to death in Poland; others had been convicted on an individual basis in Allied trials. In the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, there were initially 22 defendants, two of whom dropped out due to illness. Ultimately, three were acquitted; one was given a youth sentence; ten received custodial sentences ranging from three and a half to fourteen years; and only six were given life sentences. The overwhelming majority of people who had worked at Auschwitz were never brought to court at all.

Was it the last trial of its kind?

Not at all. There were more trials of people who’d been involved in Auschwitz in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and there were several other major concentration camp trials in the 1960s and 1970s, going through to the Majdanek trial of 1975-1981 in West Germany. But all of them were bedevilled by this need to show subjective intent and excess brutality.

That is one of the things I work through in my book Reckonings, looking at the different major concentration camp trials. Survivor testimony was terribly important because as a witness you had to be able to say, ‘I saw this person actually doing something truly brutal and nasty to somebody else at a specific time on a specific day.’ And of course, as one of the survivors acidly put it, “We had no watches in Auschwitz”. They didn’t know what day it was. They didn’t know what time it was. So it was very difficult to show subjective intent.

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In Bełżec, which was among the most efficient of the extermination camps, there were only two survivors. One was assassinated in 1946 while he was in the middle of giving evidence. The other, when he came to testify at the trial in the 1960s, couldn’t give definitive evidence, and so seven of the SS guards on trial just simply said, “No, I didn’t want to do it but I had to do it. I was only following orders.” And they were acquitted. It doesn’t make sense to use the individual crime of murder as the basis for prosecution when what you’re dealing with is mass murder, which is part of a system of collective violence. That’s one of the things that Pendas makes quite clear.

Were there not crimes in international law that could get around those sorts of restrictions?

Only in West Germany did they refuse to adopt Nuremburg principles. In East Germany, they adopted a much broader definition which had to do with the fact that somebody was dead at the end of a process. In East Germany, former Nazis were six or seven times more likely to be prosecuted and convicted as in West Germany.

“In East Germany, former Nazis were six or seven times more likely to be prosecuted and convicted as in West Germany”

Austria is also a very significant comparison. There, it wasn’t the law that was a problem, it was the public culture. The law would have permitted prosecutions and convictions in a much broader way than in West Germany. The problem was that juries tended to acquit former Nazis and it was becoming embarrassing even to put them on trial, so they simply ceased prosecuting after too many embarrassing acquittals.

At the same time, the political parties in Austria were concerned to rehabilitate and integrate former Nazis. A lot of political pressure was put on judges, prosecutors and defence attorneys to ensure acquittals. From 1955 onwards, there were very few cases indeed in Austria. Those that were brought tended to end in acquittals; then from the mid-1970s the trials simply dried up entirely.

Is Pendas’ book readable?

Yes, it’s a good read. I think it’s an important read. What it also brings out well is the public reactions to, and the wider significance of, the Auschwitz trial. We’ve made a big deal of it and that’s in part because there was massive media coverage, largely because of the way Fritz Bauer mounted the trial. Bauer was determined to ensure there was media coverage. He was determined to ensure that victims and survivors were brought from all around the world to give evidence, a bit like the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.

He also organized for members of the court to make a site visit to Auschwitz itself, which was quite unusual in the mid-1960s at the height of the Cold War, to go behind the Iron Curtain to look at the site of the crime. That made an immense impact because journalists went as well, and reported back and showed the watchtowers and the barbed wire. People could imagine it for the first time in a way that they couldn’t before.

“It doesn’t make sense to use the individual crime of murder as the basis for prosecution when what you’re dealing with is mass murder, which is part of a system of collective violence.”

Pendas also shows that the way the press reported the trial interacted with a wider ambivalence among the public. You had these younger journalists who thought they were mounting this great crusade to bring Auschwitz to public attention, and a wider public who were unsettled by this and didn’t like it. But the highest percentage of those opposed to the trial were people who were young adults in the Third Reich who’d actually been mobilized to fight for Hitler, who’d been participants in the war. That’s very interesting.

A lot of the West German public didn’t follow the trial at all, and even those who followed it were pretty hostile to it. But I think that it was terribly important in bringing the issue so vividly to public attention that it could no longer be ignored. It galvanized a younger generation into feeling that there was a generational fight that they had to take on.

The generation born just after the Second World War would themselves have been young adults then, and they would have had no personal interest in hiding the crimes of the Third Reich.

It correlates with the student revolts of the 1960s—the beginning of an extra-parliamentary opposition that emerged in the 1960s, fed up with the Adenauer era. Adenauer ceases to be Chancellor in 1963. There’s a lot of student unrest developing in the 1960s; these are people in their 20s, born in the 1940s, suddenly exposed to the full horror of the crimes of their elders (and supposed betters), then galvanized into that generational conflict summarised as “1968”.

Of course, it was a bigger phenomenon that went beyond West Germany—Vietnam War protests, the Prague Spring—that’s the wider atmosphere. But I think the Auschwitz trial played a very significant role in the development of the youth rebellion in West Germany. Pendas’ book brings that out well.

Finally, let’s move on to Marie Jalowicz-Simon’s Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany. I’d never heard of her, but this is probably the most extraordinary story of all the ones that you’ve mentioned. Tell us about it.

Well, I was supposed to find five books on Auschwitz. I’m wilfully choosing one which isn’t about Auschwitz, but rather about evading it.

I’ve got an issue with the predominant focus on Auschwitz because I think that, important though it is and horrifying though it is, it may inadvertently serve to displace attention from the multiplicity of other experiences and contexts. The Auschwitz story of arrival on the train and selection on the ramp for the gas chambers or slave labour has become the patterned narrative that we expect from a survivor. We don’t expect the miserable homosexual emerging after the war, too ashamed to talk about it. We don’t know the stories of those who are just shot into a mass grave outside their village in Eastern Europe.

We have many stories of ghettos, but even there, we sometimes see a kind of implicit hierarchy of suffering or heroism. We also have an implicit view of ‘survivor’, meaning someone who survived the camps. But I think we have to try to understand the full range and impact of experiences of Nazi persecution, including for those who managed to get out before the war. Sadly, too few were able to emigrate in time.

The reason I chose Marie Jalowicz-Simon is twofold. First, because she survived in hiding in Berlin, living as an ‘illegal’, and her account shows her own quick-wittedness, her capacity to evade recognition, to think quickly in difficult situations, to have a get-out, to find ways of surviving, and her sheer good luck on occasion. But secondly, because I think her story also highlights the widespread goodness, kindness and willingness of many people to take risks, as well as the difficulties of evading those who might betray her as she moved on from one place to another. This is a very different sort of story from Anne Frank’s.

We actually don’t know how many people helped victims of persecution. If you think of an account like this, Marie Jalowicz-Simon was helped by numerous people. And many of these stories of people who went underground—untergetaucht is the German word they use; some called themselves ‘U-Boote’ or ‘submarines’—show that you could generally only stay with any given person or in any given place for a short period of time and then you had to move on.

We know that between 1,500 and 2,000 people survived by hiding in Berlin alone. Probably more like 10,000-15,000 German Jews actually tried to go into hiding (mostly in Berlin, but also elsewhere across the Reich) but many were betrayed or discovered. For any one of those people, probably 10 or more people would have been involved sequentially in hiding them; in some cases, there were as many as 50 people helping. We’re just estimating here, but hypothetically you could say that more than 50,000 people in Berlin alone must have been involved in trying to hide people, which is a significant figure.

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It’s worth thinking about what risks they were taking. Why were they doing it? Very often you find it’s basic compassion and a sense of humanity. They think they just have to do it, even though many who were discovered were put to death. Tens of thousands of people are involved here, and I think that’s worth remembering. Some were willing to be duped, to be misled, to pretend they believed the story that someone had been bombed out and had lost their papers or whatever. Others were willing to help actively in forging papers and passing people on and getting people out and I think that’s a really interesting area to explore.

We need to understand the machinery of mass extermination that allowed a camp like Auschwitz to be constructed and to function and have all the sub-camps and to have all the involvement of industrialists and employers in slave labour—but we also need to explore why it was that, under some conditions, people who were simply bystanders were actually able to turn into rescuers—and why others chose to remain passive, or were instead complicit, betraying those who tried to hide and those who tried to help. And there were variations in the character of surrounding societies across Europe that affected the capacity of the persecuted to survive in different areas.

What particular ruses did Jalowicz-Simon use to stay alive for so long in Berlin?

She had to sell sexual favours as a young woman would have to do, and she was fortunate that one old Nazi that she actually managed to stay with was syphilitic and impotent, and therefore unable to avail himself of what she had on offer, but liked having her around. There were ruses she and many others used, with stories about lost papers, about being bombed out, taking on false identities. I think what’s interesting about her account is also that she’s a clever woman. She subsequently goes on to be a distinguished academic in East Germany. Her son, Hermann Simon, got her to record her testimony late in her life. He took down a very long interview with her and wrote it up, and it came out in an extraordinarily articulate way. He said he barely needed to edit it to produce the book.

Is she angry or self-pitying or just sort of ruthlessly objective about the whole thing?

Not really, although many accounts do adopt at least one of those tones. It’s much less embittered than you would think it ought to be, in part because there was still human contact throughout that period and there were still people to whom she could relate as a human being. She didn’t face the total dehumanization and absolute destruction of the self that people in Auschwitz had to face. That may be a bit glib, but I think the idea that you could go on feeling you possessed some degree of agency was important—it’s that sense of agency that Viktor Frankl was getting at. And she managed to make a fulfilling life for herself after the war.

For somebody surviving in hiding, it could be absolutely, terrifyingly difficult, but if you had the fortune to survive, you probably had a sense of a coherent self afterwards, in contrast to the experience Delbo describes of this sharp break with the past.

Finally, I wonder whether it is useful to have this symbol—Auschwitz—as a kind of uniquely evil moment in human history. One of the things that comes across in your book Reckonings is that there was a context around it, a very broad one, that almost made it unremarkable—that at least allowed people to think of it like that.

It is effectively an alibi for so many Germans who pretend they “never knew anything about it”. And in one of my previous books, A Small Town Near Auschwitz, I explore the Nazi administrator of a nearby county, just 26 miles north of Auschwitz, who reduces the “it” to just the gas chambers. And there he was organizing the ghettoization, humiliation, degradation and starvation of more than 30,000 Jews in the town, making it easier for them to be rounded up by the Gestapo and the SS. And then, after the war, like so many others, he went on to a successful post-war career in the Federal Republic as a civil servant, and he “never knew anything about it” because he reduces the evil to just the gas chambers of Auschwitz. But it was all part of an enormous system of persecution across the Reich.

There was no one in the German Reich in the 1930s who did not know that the Jews were being humiliated, ousted from their professions, ousted from their homes. After Kristallnacht in 1938 it was impossible for Jews to make a life in Germany anymore. And then to just reduce everything to the gas chambers of Auschwitz just seems to me so patently absurd.

While I’m as shocked and horrified by it as it’s possible to be, I just wish we could spread our vision a little wider and say, “but what was going on in Berlin or Munich or villages across the Reich”—and indeed across Europe. There was inhumanity across the whole system. It wasn’t just concentrated in the gas chambers of one camp.

Interview by Benedict King

February 3, 2020

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Mary Fulbrook

Mary Fulbrook

Mary Fulbrook is professor of German history at UCL and a former dean of its Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences. Her book, Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice, won the 2019 Wolfson History Prize.

Mary Fulbrook

Mary Fulbrook

Mary Fulbrook is professor of German history at UCL and a former dean of its Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences. Her book, Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice, won the 2019 Wolfson History Prize.