LONDON — British historian and documentary maker Laurence Rees claims he never set out to have a career where thinking about the horrors of mass genocide and the Nazi murder machine was part of his daily work criteria.
But a curiosity about history, as well as a penchant for truth and justice got the better of him.
And so, for the past 25 years, Rees has spent much of his working life personally interviewing both victims and perpetrators of one of the most horrific crimes the world has ever witnessed. His newest book, “The Holocaust,” published last month, asks many pertinent questions.
Broadly, the book examines the fundamental reasons the Nazis decided to exterminate an entire group of people, gassing, shooting, starving, and beating them to death. It also questions what possessed a society of seemingly, sane, educated and cultured people to implement a policy of barbarism and depraved violence upon the Jews of Europe during World War II.
Rees attempts to answer that question early on in the interview by making what appears to be a fairly obvious point.
“The fundamental precondition for the Holocaust happening was Adolf Hitler,” he explains from his home in London.
“Even as far back as 1921, Hitler said that solving the Jewish question was a central question for National Socialism. And you can only solve it by using brute force.”
Hitler had no blueprint for the Holocaust at that point, says Rees. But he did have a pathological problem with Jews.
“Hitler believed that something needed to be done,” Rees explains, “and that evolved and changed according to circumstances and political opportunism.”
An intriguing part of Rees’s book is his determination to figure out when the collective set of initiatives we now call the Final Solution became official Nazi policy.
It’s a question that doesn’t come with a straightforward answer, Rees maintains. What is clear, though, is that in the summer of 1940 there was still no concrete plan in place for the extermination of Jews. Furthermore, up until that point, Rees argues, the Nazis were still clinging to the belief that in the long term, the way to solve what they called “the Jewish question” was by expulsion and hard labor.
At that point, mass murder was still not the preferred option.
By the summer of 1942, however, a sea change had taken place. By that time, the Holocaust was in full swing. Therefore, within the previous two-year period, Rees points out, there were a number of milestones on the road towards mass extermination. But trying to pinpoint an exact moment where the decision was taken to commit to mass killing is very difficult, says Rees — especially since much of the planning was done in secret without written records.
Hitherto, many historians, film makers, and writers have pointed to a single meeting where plans for the Holocaust were finally decided upon in the power structures of Nazi officialdom.
This was known as the Wannsee conference. It was held in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee in January of 1942, and involved several mid-ranking Nazi officials devising a plot to murder Jews over a shorter timescale and in more efficient ways.
But even then, Rees says, no final plans were actually resolved at the infamous conference. He also points out that key figures from the upper tiers of the Nazi hierarchy — Himmler, Goebbels, and Hitler himself — were not actually present.
“I cannot see how there can have been a decision in 1941,” says Rees.
‘By that stage you can say a decision to implement what we would now call the Holocaust had been made’
The moment of no return for the Holocaust, says the historian, was in the spring and early summer of 1942, when a decision was taken to kill all of the Jews in the General Government in Poland — a German-occupied zone established by Hitler after the joint invasion by the Germans and Soviets in 1939.
“By that stage you can say a decision to implement what we would now call the Holocaust had been made,” says Rees with convincing authority.
Rees also spends considerable time here — backed up with with a wide array of statistics as well as primary interviews that he’s conducted himself — looking at a multitude of countries across western Europe where collaboration took place. Here, Jews were rounded up and captured, and then subsequently exported to death camps in the east for extermination.
It’s worth asking though, Rees says, why some countries in western Europe captured and deported Jews with far greater efficiency than others.
Consider, for example, he asks, why 75 percent of Dutch Jews died in the Holocaust, compared to “just” 50% of Norwegian Jews, 40% of Belgian Jews, and 25% of French Jews. Or why did, say, the Vichy regime in France impose such severe anti-Semitic measures to foreign born Jews, when they were not being officially asked to do so by the Nazi regime?
The disturbing truth, the historian claims, is that the French collaborators — like other countries across western Europe — simply chose to.
“How much collaboration existed in various countries, and levels of anti-Semitism are obviously important here,” says Rees.
“But the underlying factor is the will of the Nazis themselves to implement [their policy on Jews] in various different countries,” he adds.
As Rees’s book is keen to remind the reader, a deeply entrenched culture of anti-Semitism would certainly assist the Nazis in transporting Jews by train across Europe to meet their deaths.
But, most importantly, it would be in the east — in the midst of Hitler’s self-proclaimed war of extermination on Soviet territory — that the Holocaust would officially be born.
In the Baltic states in particular, Rees stresses, many of those who committed murder of Jews did so by shooting at close range. These massacres were carried out by locals who collaborated with German security forces.
“To understand the Holocaust in the east, you need to focus on how much the Nazis wanted to cleanse a place full of Jews,” Rees explains. “And in the Baltic States it was the most deadly because Hitler talked about creating a ‘garden of Eden’ in the occupied Soviet Union.”
Rees points to Lithuania as a prime example where local collaborators had no problem killing Jews to help implement Nazi policy at an alarmingly frantic pace.
For example, 96% of the Jewish population within Lithuania — about 220,000 people — were liquidated by the end of the Nazi occupation.
This fact is all the more disturbing when one considers that Lithuania — Vilnius, the capital, in particular — had for centuries been a cosmopolitan cultural melting pot for Jews prior to these catastrophic murders.
By the 19th century, Vilnius had become home to the Haskalah — otherwise known as the Jewish Enlightenment — and had long been a hub of Jewish scholarship, producing some of the most renowned Talmudic commentaries still studied today.
‘Many in Lithuania believed the lie that the Nazis were peddling at the time, that communism equals Judaism’
“The key thing to understanding [the Holocaust] in Lithuania is the hated occupation by the Soviets as the consequence of the Nazi-Soviet pact,” Rees explains.
“Many in Lithuania believed the lie that the Nazis were peddling at the time, that communism equals Judaism and that Jews were aiding the Soviet authorities,” the historian adds.
If there had not been the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states immediately preceding the Nazi invasion, Rees says the Holocaust in Lithuania might have gone very differently and many Jews could have possibly survived.
Rees continually makes the point throughout the interview that it’s a common misconception in Holocaust history that the gas chambers emerged as the preferred killing method for Nazis simply because of their desire to kill Jews in large numbers.
He is keen to emphasize that psychology played an important part too.
“The Nazis knew that if they kept shooting people they would have psychological problems for the killers. So the gas chambers solved this problem,” says Rees.
‘The Nazis knew that if they kept shooting people they would have psychological problems for the killers’
Also, he says, the gas chambers prove beyond doubt how the Holocaust was a genocide where modern technology allowed a confluence of two things to happen. Firstly, it propelled the killing forward with clinical speed and precision. Secondly, it allowed the Nazis to distance themselves emotionally from their victims while doing so.
“There is something about the idea of the gas chambers that encapsulates a mechanized element to the killing,” says Rees. “And you really do see this in chamber crematoriums that open in Auschwitz in 1943.”
“Auschwitz” is also the name of a book that Rees published over a decade ago.In it, Rees argues that until the Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz in the summer of 1944, the death camp in Poland was still only playing a relatively minor role, overall, in the murder of Europe’s Jews.
The historian also makes a similar point in his latest book, pointing out that Hitler’s policy for smaller states like Hungary was to “liquidate the Jews as quickly as possible.”
Hungary was especially attractive to the Nazis, given the number of Jews that resided there — 725,000 in 1944. Many of these — but not all — were living in Budapest. 440,000 Jews were then transported to Auschwitz between May and July of 1944, where they were murdered.
This plan for cold blooded murder was deviously orchestrated by Adolf Eichmann, who at the time was stationed in Budapest.
“The Hungarians, in terms of how quick the killing happened, suffered the worst of all the Jews [in Europe],” says Rees.
Rees points out that many academics he has has met over the last 25 years when speaking about Holocaust history tend to point to seminars, abstract theories, and week-long conferences. The trouble with such an approach is that the subject can become dehumanized in the process, he says.
What is so intriguing about Rees’s approach is his tendency to link the primary individual interviews he has conducted with the wider tragic historical narrative.
Crucially, these interviews include interactions with both victims and Nazi perpetrators themselves. This has led Rees somewhat closer to understanding this crime of unspeakable horror. Although even then, he admits, it’s still pretty hard to ever come to terms with how humans could organize depravity on such a mass scale and with such cold calculation.
Rees says that if he has learned anything from spending a quarter of a century researching this subject, it’s that many of the low-ranking Nazis murderers he spoke with — and indeed the collaborators, too — did not feel they were simply following orders on a mindless administrative conveyor belt.
Rees also makes it clear that he fundamentally disagrees with the thesis proposed by Hannah Arendt about the so called “banality of evil,” a term she famously coined when covering the Eichmann trial in Israel in 1961 for the New Yorker.
“The Nazis were fanatics,” says Rees. “But one thing you cannot accuse them of being was banal.”
The reason the writer, documentary maker, and historian became so convinced of this was from the answer he often tended to get when directly asking Nazi killers, “What was your motivation for carrying out this killing?”
“What we usually found was that there was an internalization of a belief system from Nazis that the murder they were carrying out [against Jews] was the right thing to do,” says Rees.
“You also got a sense speaking to Nazi murderers that they felt an immense exhilaration while they were carrying out the killing too,” he adds.