InterviewFar-left eschews recognizing the Shoah as a singular event

In Germany, threats to Holocaust memory come from both ends of the political spectrum

As the country’s memory culture is challenged from within, journalist Tobias Buck probes his own family’s Nazi past while tracing 79 years of efforts to bring perpetrators to justice

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Bruno Dey, 93, a former SS guard in the concentration camp Stutthof near Danzig, sits in the regional court in Hamburg, Germany, October 17, 2019 (Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa via AP)
Bruno Dey, 93, a former SS guard in the concentration camp Stutthof near Danzig, sits in the regional court in Hamburg, Germany, October 17, 2019 (Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa via AP)

In “Final Verdict: The Holocaust on Trial in the 21st Century,” journalist Tobias Buck puts a finishing touch on Germany’s attempts to bring former Nazis to justice.

Informed by his own grandfather’s Nazi past, Buck’s book examines the fraying of Germany’s traditional memory culture as it faces threats from right-wing parties and the country’s shifting demographics.

“The Holocaust will continue to play a huge role in German public and political life. But it is also true that Germany’s traditional memory culture cannot ignore the fact that one in four people living in Germany today trace their roots back to migrant communities,” Buck told The Times of Israel.

Final Verdict” is framed by the trial of former Nazi Bruno Dey, which opened in Hamburg in 2019. Sitting in a wheelchair and hiding behind folders to avoid photographers, the 93-year-old Dey faced charges for the murder of 5,230 prisoners at the concentration camp Stutthof.

Attending the trial as a journalist, Buck was “unsettled” by Dey’s “historical insignificance,” he wrote. But the journalist had to look only within his family tree to find another example of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil,” he said.

Bruno Dey, a former SS watchman at the Stutthof concentration camp, hides his face behind a folder next to his lawyer Stefan Waterkamp before a hearing in his trial on July 20, 2020, in Hamburg, Germany. (Axel Heimken/Pool/AFP)

“Show me a German family, and I will show you a grandfather, father or uncle like Rupert Buck,” wrote Buck of his grandfather.

A combination of factors led Allied authorities and post-war West German leaders to “go light” on former Nazis, said Buck.

“There were practical as well as legal reasons, political reluctance as well as popular resistance,” wrote Buck. “Justice was thwarted by German amnesia and American realpolitik, and by an unspoken agreement between key German leaders to draw a line under the past and move on,” wrote Buck, who is based in Britain.

Germany’s reluctance to hold former Nazis accountable extended into the 1980s, wrote Buck. In that decade, just one Nazi case was brought before a West German Court, and there was not a single conviction.

Defendants at United States of America v. Karl Brandt, et al. (also known as the Doctors’ Trial), Nuremberg, Germany from December 9, 1946, to August 20, 1947. (US Army photographers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

“For most Germans who had lived through the Nazi period and the Second World War, a more rigorous approach to prosecuting the guilty would have meant giving up brothers and fathers, aunts and cousins, friends and neighbors. Complicity was everywhere, as were excuses and justifications that kept both a legal and a wider moral reckoning at a distance,” Buck wrote.

‘The countless helpers of the Holocaust’

After World War II ended, only the most extreme of Nazis were brought to justice, generally speaking.

“The only category of Nazi criminals that German courts seemed genuinely comfortable taking on were the violent brutes,” wrote Buck.

The violent brutes — officially called “excess perpetrators” — drew harsh sentences and media scrutiny for their exceptional sadism and cruelty, even by SS standards.

Buck’s grandfather Rupert was not only a Nazi, but a member of the SS. But in 1935, just two years into his SS career, Buck was expelled for allegedly being involved in a mutiny. That fact, wrote his grandson, earned Rupert Buck favor with Allied authorities one decade later.

Journalist and author Tobias Buck. (Courtesy)

Like many of the 3.5 million Germans who went through denazification, Rupert Buck was handed a nominal fine of 30 Deutschmarks and barred from holding an elected office until 1950.

In Tobias Buck’s assessment, there is much to learn from studying Holocaust enablers who were not in leadership positions, such as his grandfather. The motivations of these men — and the reactions of their families — are instructive, said Buck.

“The countless helpers of the Holocaust, the multitude of enablers lower down the SS and camp hierarchy — I believe this is where we can truly learn a lesson from history,” said Buck, who is managing editor of The Financial Times.

In researching his own family, Buck found no evidence that any relative had ever reproached or reprimanded his grandfather for being a member of the SS, including after the war.

Adolf Eichmann is seen standing in his bullet proof glass box as the charges against him are read during judicial proceedings in the Beit Ha’Am building in Jerusalem, April 12, 1961. (AP Photo/Stringer)

“It is of course entirely appropriate and understandable [to look] at the Holocaust through the eyes of the victims,” said Buck. “But I also think that we have much to learn from trying to understand what went on in the minds of the perpetrators.”

‘Never really goes away’

Much has been written about “Holocaust fatigue” in Europe, but those assessments don’t match Buck’s experience reporting on the Dey trial or years of researching his book.

“[I do not] detect a great sense of fatigue with the issue of the Holocaust — either in the UK or in Germany,” said Buck. “It is a subject that never really goes away, and interest is rekindled every so often both at the societal and individual level by certain events, books, anniversaries, movies, etc.”

If anything, said Buck, we are “living through one of those moments of heightened interest again, as evidenced not least by the release of ‘Zone of Interest’ and the reaction,” he said.

‘Final Verdict’ (Courtesy)

Within Germany, however, the long-standing memory culture around commemorating Nazi atrocities has started to fray, said Buck.

Not only are young Germans currently four generations removed from the perpetrators, said Buck, but one-quarter of the population came to Germany from outside Europe.

“Their parents and grandparents were not implicated in the Holocaust. It would be wrong therefore to expect them to feel any sense of cross-generational collective responsibility,” said Buck.

To expand the scope of Germany’s genocidal culpability, some historians urged Buck to look into Germany’s colonial crimes in Africa.

Four decades before the Holocaust, German army generals in Namibia put down a rebellion by perpetrating the century’s first genocide. Tens of thousands of Nama and Herero people were slaughtered under German orders to eliminate the population.

Europe’s long history of antisemitism will always be central to the Holocaust, said Buck. But that does not exclude the existence of colonial aspects regarding Germany’s war against the Jews, he said. In other words, there are connections between Germany’s crimes in Africa and their crimes decades later in Europe.

In Germany, threats to Holocaust memory come from both ends of the political spectrum. The far-right parties get more ink for their overt antisemitism, but voices from the far-left are determined to minimize the Holocaust’s status as a singular event in Germany’s history, said Buck.

The German Kamelreiterpatrouille, or ‘Camel Rider Patrol,’ in Southwest Africa, 1906 – 1918. (Budesarchiv Bild); Surviving Herero after the escape through the arid desert of Omaheke in German South-West Africa, modern day Namibia. (Public domain)

More interesting to Buck than colonial debates is how conditions in Nazi Germany prompted men like his grandfather and Bruno Dey to become Hitler’s willing accessories.

“If [Bruno Dey] had lived in a different time, and a different place, his obedience, his weakness and his inability to say no would have carried less weight,” wrote Buck.

“Had he been born, like I was, in democratic Germany in 1975, would he have become an accomplice to murder? The answer, almost certainly, is no,” said Buck.

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