Why Holocaust Stories Still Have Meaning and Relevance
It’s been 64 years since the end of World War II but Holocaust stories in popular culture continue to cascade. Kate Winslet won an Oscar this year for her portrayal of a concentration camp guard in The Reader. John Demjanjuk, who served as a guard at three different death camps, was deported from the United States to Germany in May; now 89, he was implicated in the execution of 29,000 Jews. Two plays currently running in London deal with the collaboration of two German composers, Wilhelm Furtwangler and Richard Strauss, with the Nazis. And this year has seen the publication of The Third Reich at War, the third and final volume in Richard J. Evans’s gripping account of how Germany lost the war.
There are many people who surely throwing up their hands, saying: “Enough already. Why do we have to put up with this endless recitation of atrocities?” The best answer is probably Evans’s remarks at the end of his new book:
Most of us who lived through the Third Reich and fought in its wars are no longer with us. Within a few decades there will be no one left who remembers it at first hand. And yet its legacy is still alive in myriad ways.…The Third Reich raises in the most acute form the possibilities and consequences of the human hatred and destructiveness that exist, even if only in a small way, within all of us. It demonstrates with terrible clarity the ultimate potential consequences of racism, militarism and authoritarianism. It shows what can happen if some people are treated as less human than others. It poses in the most extreme possible form the moral dilemmas we all face at one time or another in our lives, of conformity or resistance, action or inaction in the particular situations with which we are confronted.
Evans’s history begins, “On September 1, 1939 the first of a grand total of sixty divisions of German troops crossed the Third Reich’s border with Poland.” I was 12 years old on that day and I remember looking at the headlines and recognizing that this was not good news for Jews. My father, his brother and his sister had made their way out of Eastern Europe to the United States in 1920. The rest of the family remained in a village that was alternately Hungarian, Czechoslovakian, Soviet, and is now Ukrainian. Very few Jews live there anymore. I have photographs of my grandfather, grandmother, uncle, aunt and two cousins – people I have never met. I don’t know whether they were exterminated at Auschwitz or shot on the spot.
The point Evans makes about the moral dilemmas faced by people confronted with evil actions has direct relevance to social responsibility initiatives in the business world. How does a company respond to sweat shops in China, genocide in Darfur, sexual and racial discrimination in America? European companies that kowtowed to Hitler and were complicit in his demonic programs faced a backlash after the end of the war. Companies like Bayer and Daimler-Benz were asked to compensate their slave laborers. The giant insurance companies, Generali in Italy and Allianz in Germany, and the Swiss bankers were hit by a bevy of lawsuits over assets appropriated from Jewish clients. When families filed claims to get the proceeds from life insurance policies, companies demanded proof of death. Is it possible that executives of these companies didn’t know that death certificates were not issued at Auschwitz?
The Final Solution was so large and brutal that even when the slaughter was revealed, it was discounted as being “beyond belief.” And while Jews were the primary victims, others were also persecuted: gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally retarded, Poles, Russians, Italians. The Russians fared worst; 3.3 million Red Army POWs died in German captivity.
As the war wound down, the Germans accelerated their killing machine. Up to half of the 700,000 inmates of concentration camps at the start of 1945 were dead four months later. One was the young Dutch diarist Anne Frank, who died of typhus. Another was Lou Ernst, the first wife of the surrealist painter Max Ernst, who was shipped to Auschwitz on the next to last train. And perhaps my grandparents and their children were caught in those final days of the war since the Hungarian Jews were the last to be rounded up for extinction.