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Between Fanaticism and Terror: Hitler, Stalin and The Noise of Time

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Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

During WWII much of Europe was caught in a vice between fanaticism and terror; between Hitler and Stalin. The plight of tens of millions of people falling victim to Stalinism on the one hand and Fascism on the other is eloquently captured by Gustaw Herling, a Polish prisoner in the Soviet Union:   “I think with horror and shame of a Europe divided into two parts by the line of the Bug, on one side of which millions of Soviet slaves prayed for liberation by the armies of Hitler, and on the other millions of victims of German concentration camps awaited deliverance by the Red Army as their last hope” (Gustaw Herling, A World Apart, 175-76). The similarities between these two evil dictators obsessed with acquiring unlimited power are far greater than their differences. Yet it’s worth noting that they selected their targets differently. Stalin’s purges covered every segment of Soviet society, almost indiscriminately: the Communist party; the Politburo; even the army, navy and air force in a time when preparations for war should have been a priority.

Julian Barnes, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2011, describes the arbitrary nature of Stalin’s Great Terror with exquisite literary skill and historical insight in his new biographical novel about the composer Dimitri Shostakovich, The Noise of Time (New York and London: Knopf, 2016). Tellingly, the title phrase is borrowed from Osip Mandelstam’s memoirs, who himself died in a transit camp during the Great Terror in 1938. In personalizing the plight of millions by focusing on the tribulations of a single life—particularly that of a famous man—Barnes illustrates that nobody was immune to Stalin’s subjugating power. Even the great Soviet General and Chief of Staff, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the composer’s patron, fell victim to Stalin’s paranoia in the purge of the military of June 1937.

By some miracle or good fortune, Shostakovich’s life is spared by Stalin. But the composer’s reputation isn’t; rising and falling with the vicissitudes of the Soviet regime, which the narrator calls “the Power”. In 1936, Shostakovich suffers a humiliating reprimand for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, deemed by Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper and propaganda mouthpiece, to be representative of the “fidgety, neurotic music” of the bourgeoisie. Although later Stalin himself calls the composer at home and undoes some of the damage to his reputation, Shostakovich, along with millions of others, lives in constant fear of the dictator’s arbitrary—and often fatal–displays of power.

Success and failure have a way of boiling down to the same thing in totalitarian regimes, which subsume artistic merit to ideological whims. Even after Stalin’s death, during Nikita Khrushchev’s milder regime, when the composer is pressured to join the Communist Party in order to become the Chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers, Shostakovich feels almost as pained and humiliated as he did when he was vilified by Stalin’s acolytes in Pravda. In channeling the character of Shostakovich so compellingly and revealing with a keen sense of irony the arbitrary nature of Soviet totalitarianism, Barnes depicts its nature as well as those who had suffered its effects first-hand: authors such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Eugenia Ginzburg.

By way of contrast to Stalin’s arbitrary purges, Hitler honed in on one main target: the Jews. His single-minded focus on destroying the Jewish people could only be called, in his own words, “fanaticism”. He remarked: “Any violence which does not spring from a firm spiritual base will be wavering and uncertain. It lacks the stability which can only rest in a fanatical outlook” (Mein Kampf, 171). There are many hypotheses about what might have caused Hitler’s hatred of Jews, ranging from psychological to sociological and biographical explanations. These speculations, however, only make sense in hindsight. Nothing in Hitler’s adolescence, when pathology usually shows up, gave any obvious sign of the tremendous anti-Semitic hatred that would later dominate his life.

Biographers state that Hitler was a mediocre student, receiving bad grades in physics, mathematics and German. His preformed better in art, but wasn’t that original. As a young man, he pursued his artistic career in Vienna for about six years. Some state that Hitler’s anti-Semitism grew out of the frustration that he wasn’t accepted to the prestigious Vienna Art Academy. They surmise that he may have blamed his failure on the Jews. Perhaps there’s some truth in that, but there’s evidence to the contrary as well. Hitler continued to sell his art and make a living from art sales, supplemented by funds from his family. Interestingly, as Raul Hilberg states, “Apparently, two of the [art] dealers were Jews” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 4).

WWI seems to have been a major turning point in Hitler’s life. But even then nobody could have guessed that this mediocre soldier would rise to absolute power and wield death and destruction throughout Europe. Hitler was decorated the Iron Cross First Class during the war, but only the second or third time he was recommended for it: incidentally, by a Jew (Lieutenant Gutmann). At the end of the war, Hitler was gassed and spent a considerable period of time recuperating in a hospital. There he had time to contemplate what might have brought about the humiliating defeat of Germany. The company commander of the unit to which Hitler belonged in 1919 asked soldiers the question why Germany had lost the war. Hitler wrote down an answer that prefigured the major themes of Mein Kampf, his autobiographical treatise written in prison and published in 1925-26. He distinguished between an anti-Semitism based on reason, which would have staying power, and an anti-Semitism based on emotion, manifested in pogroms. Only the former, he predicted, could efface the Jews from the face of the Earth. (See Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 5)

So to return to our earlier question: why did Hitler target the Jews as the main scapegoat and object of his vitriol? He offers a direct answer to this question in Mein Kampf:

 

“The art of leadership as displayed by really great popular leaders in all ages, consists in consolidating the attention of the people against a single adversary… Where there are various enemies… it will be necessary to block them all together as forming one solid front, so that the mass of followers in a popular movement may see only one common enemy against whom they have to fight. Such uniformity intensifies their belief in their own cause and strengthens their feeling of hostility towards the opponent” (Mein Kampf, 110).

 

This statement reflects the cold and calculated reasoning Hitler alluded to as early as the note of 1919. He targeted the Jews as his scapegoats and victims for strategic reasons. Hitler’s explicit intent was to simplify the root of all social and economic problems to the Jews—outsiders in most European countries–and coalesce all forces and people against this common enemy. His choice wasn’t primarily a matter of genuine emotion, nor only of a pathological, sick hatred. As for Stalin during the Great Terror, it was primarily the product of an insatiable and malicious will to power. This ultimate answer–which boils down to evil for its own sake–could have never offered a satisfactory response to the question most often scribbled by victims on cell walls, in prisons, concentration camps and gulags, a question which still echoes to this day: “Zachto—Why?”

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IG Farben: Manufacturing Death

Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goering

View of the Reichstag assembly after Hitler’s speech in Berlin on Jan. 30, 1937. Left first row, right: Adolf Hitler. Standing on the steps: the Prussian Premier Hermann Goering. (AP Photo)

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

IG Farben didn’t start out as a Nazi death factory, which is what it’s known for to this day. In fact, up to the mid 1930’s, its chief executives were not particularly anti-Semitic. Formed in 1925, IG Farben started out as a chemical company that manufactured dye. It was so successful, that by the 1930’s it became the largest chemical company in the world and the fourth largest company in general. One of its leaders, Carl Bosch, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1931 for the development of chemical high-pressure methods. In Hell’s Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine (New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2008), Diarmuid Jeffreys describes the progression—or, more fittingly, regression–of IG Farben from Germany’s leading chemical company to a death factory during the Holocaust.

Jeffreys records one of the most telling moments of this transition: the episode when the company’s leader, Carl Bosch, who valued the scientific work of many of his Jewish colleagues and employees, paid a visit to Hitler himself in the attempt to change his anti-Semitic outlook by considering its impact on science. Needless to say, Hitler not only didn’t budge, but also refused to communicate with Bosch henceforth:

“Then Bosch, as delicately as he could, raised the “Jewish question.” Perhaps the Fuhrer didn’t realize the potentially damaging consequences of his policies, he suggested. If more and more Jewish scientists were forced abroad, German physics and chemistry could be set back a hundred years. To his alarm, Hitler erupted in fury. Obviously the businessman knew nothing of politics, he snarled. If necessary, Germany would ‘work one hundred years without physics and chemistry’. Bosch tried to continue but Hitler rang for an aide and told him icily, ‘The Geheimrat wishes to leave.’” (178)

When the company’s senior executives, who didn’t see much scientific or economic value in anti-Semitism–Carl Bosch and Carl Duisberg—retired, they were replaced by a new crop of leaders who toed the party line. The company started to follow a more “pragmatic” approach, catering to the gruesome needs of the Nazi regime.

By 1941, IG Farben became directly involved in the death machine at Auschwitz. It built a rubber factory called Monowitz, or Auschwitz III, monitored by IG Farben managers and run through the exploitation of slave labor. There prisoners were worked to death, in identical conditions to the rest of the concentration camp: fed the same insufficient and unnutricious food; guarded by the same brutal SS prisoners; lacking in health care, and subject to the same reprisals and torture as the rest of the prisoners of the Auschwitz complex. Most prisoners could only survive two to three months working in such harsh conditions. When they were no longer fit for work, they were sent to the gas chamber.

After the war, following the precedent set by the Nuremberg Trial, some of the leaders of IG Farben were indicted before a U.S. Tribunal led by General Telford Taylor. In 1947 and 1948, twenty-four defendants faced similar charges to those leveled a few years earlier against the Nazi war criminals:

  1. Planning and waging a war of aggression against other countries
  2. War crimes and crimes against humanity through destroying occupied territories
  3. War crimes against humanity through the enslavement, deportation, rape, torture and murder of civilians.
  4. Membership in the SS, a criminal organization
  5. Conspiring to commit the crimes outlined above

In the end, as General Taylor would remark with great disappointment after the trial, justice was not served. Only thirteen of the company’s senior executives received prison terms (one to eight years). (See Hell’s Cartel, 400) The rest of those indicted were released, and many became successful executives in other companies. After the war, IG Farben was fractured, but not annihilated. The Soviet Union took over part of it, while the Western part of the company continued to thrive, eventually becoming affiliated with Standard Oil. Because of its close affiliation with the Holocaust, the remnants of the company faced continual protests. Although IG Farben executives announced in 2001 that the company would dissolve by 2003, it continues to exist today, still in the process of liquidation. IG Farben thus remains a living testimony to the fact that business and science, if placed in the wrong hands, can be easily used for the most corrupt and amoral purposes.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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The Nuremberg Trial

 

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Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

How do you punish the perpetrators of the biggest genocide in human history? Do they deserve a fair trial, which their millions of victims never got? These are some of the questions the Allies debated during and after WWII. They were eventually resolved by the Nuremberg Trial, which Ann and John Tusa describe in vivid detail in their book by the same name (The Nuremberg Trial, New York: Atheneum, 1986). Several options were suggested, even before the war was over and the Ally victory secured.

Documents released in 2006 from the British War Cabinet indicate that in December 1944 the Cabinet considered a swift and severe punishment of the Nazi leaders involved in crimes against humanity. Winston Churchill suggested summary execution of the top Nazi leaders. A year earlier, at the Tehran Conference, Joseph Stalin proposed executing 50,000-100,000 Nazi officers. Roosevelt appeared prepared to go on board with this idea, but at the time Churchill vehemently objected, stating that most of them were fighting for their country.

Roosevelt later considered a plan proposed by US Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau. Morgenthau called for the de-industrialization of Germany and the execution of the major Nazi war criminals. This proposed retribution, once publicized by the media, caused massive protests in the US, which dissuaded Roosevelt from pursuing it. The plan eventually adopted by President Harry S. Truman after Roosevelt’s death continues to serve as a precedent for prosecuting war crimes today in its fairness and legality. The trial that took place in 1945 and 1946 in the city of Nuremberg distinguishes itself from how the totalitarian regimes had administered “justice” by leveling false accusations against millions of innocent people and murdering them.

The Allies chose Nurermberg for the trial of the top Nazi leaders for several reasons:

1) its Palace of Justice was one of the few public buildings in major cities in Germany that had withstood the Ally bombings and remained relatively intact

2) the building included a large prison

3) Nuremberg was the ceremonial place where the Nazis held rallies and issued their infamous anti-Semitic legislature.

The International Military Tribunal tried 24 Nazi perpetrators for crimes against peace (planning and waging wars of aggression), war crimes (violations of internationally agreed upon rules of waging war), and crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, enslavement, rape and deportation of civilians).

Of course, not all of the leading perpetrators of Nazi atrocities were caught and punished. Hitler along with Goebbels and his family had committed suicide. Many Nazi war criminals, including Adolf Eichmann, scattered throughout the world and lived, for many years, in hiding. Others, including Heinrich Himmler, disguised themselves as ordinary soldiers in the many camps throughout Europe. As the Tusas point out, it was very difficult to catch these mass murderers:

 

“Given the vast number of such camps, not just in the Four Zones of Germany but in Austria and the liberated countries, all of which were constantly receiving new inmates, chacking them was time consuming and frustrating. There was too little communication between the searchers and the authorities who might hold their prey; up-to-date intelligence circulated haphazardly if at all. Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising that the roundup of many leading Nazi war criminals took months” (The Nuremberg Trial, 37).

 

Remarkably, given the post-war mass migrations and chaos, 24 of the leading Nazi war criminals stood trial in Nuremberg, including Hermann Goering (Hitler’s heir), Joachim von Ribbentrop (Nazi Foreign Minister), Rudolf Hess (Hitler’s deputy), Hans Frank (the ruthless Governo-General of occupied Poland), Wilhelm Keitel (Army Head), Wilhelm Frick (Minister of Interior), Erns Kaltenbrunner (Security Chief), Konstantin von Neurath (Governor of Moravia and Bohemia), Erich Raeder (Navy Chief), Karl Doenitz (Raeder’s successor), Alfred Jodl (Commander of Armed Forces), Alfred Rosenberg (the blood-thristy Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories), Baldur von Fritz Sauckel (Chief of Forced Labor), Albert Speer (Armaments Minister), Baldur von Schirach (Hitler Youth Leader), Julius Streicher (leading writer of anti-Semitic propaganda), Alfred Seyss-Inquart (the ingratiating Comminissioner for the Occuped Netherlands), and Martin Bormann (Hitler’s Adjuct, who was tried in his absence). (See https://www.ushmm.org/)

Despite their positions of leadership and direct communications with Hitler and Himmler, most of the accused claimed ignorance of the Holocaust. In the cases when, faced with irrefutable evidence, they were obliged to admit their involvement, they argued that they were merely following orders and serving their country. Most adopted an obsequious tone and seemed non-descript despite their previous prominence in the Nazi regime. The Tusas note two exceptions: Goering and Speer. Hermann Goering behaved in his usually flashy and bombastic manner. During the trial, he acted in control of the situation. When he was sentenced to death, he committed suicide in his cell rather than relinquish his power. Albert Speer, the Minister of Defense, put up an impressively argued defense and was sentenced to twenty years in prison. Robert H. Jackson, the United States prosecutor, shone throughout the trial in his eloquence, precision and passion.

On October 1, 1946, the International Military Tribunal issued the verdicts. Twelve of the most notorious war criminals, inluding Goering, Ribbentrop, Rosenberg, Frank and SeyssInquart, received the death penalty. Three of the accused (Hess, Funk and Raeder) were sentenced to life in prison. Four men (Doenitz, Schirach, Speer and Neurath) received jail terms ranging from 10 to 20 years.

The Nuremberg trial is rightly described as “the greatest trial in history.” In this trial, the Allies showed incredible restraint, given the magnitude of suffering the Nazis caused. The trial could have offered a farce of justice, giving the war criminals a taste of their own medicine. But it didn’t. The Allies took the high road instead, which is why the Nuremberg trial continues to serve as a role model for how to deal with war crimes and crimes against humanity in as fair a fashion as possible, despite the understandable temptation for revenge and retribution.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Post-war Germany and Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies

 

DreamWorks Pictures/Fox 2000 PIctures' BRIDGE OF SPIES, directed by Steven Spielberg, is the story of James Donovan, an insurance lawyer from Brooklyn who finds himself thrust into the center of the Cold War when the CIA enlists his support to negotiate the release of a captured American U-2 pilot.

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Following the defeat of Nazi Germany in WWII, the Allies divided Germany into a larger democratic parliamentary state (the Federal Republic of Germany) and a communist state (the German Democratic Republic). Within a few years after its establishment, by the mid-fifties, the capitalist West Germany enjoyed a thriving economy. By way of contrast, East Germany, controlled by the Soviet Union, mirroring its police state (the Stasi was modeled after the KGB) and exploited for its needs, sank into economic depression.

Like a microcosm of the divisions within Germany itself, Berlin was divided into a communist and a democratic part: East and West Berlin. In 1961 the East Germans erected the Berlin wall, officially called the “Anti-Fascist Protective Wall”, under the pretext of protecting their population from fascist elements. In actuality, they were striving to put an end to the exodus of people fleeing East Berlin into West Berlin. The wall, along with the East German soldiers shooting upon sight any person trying to climb over it, turned out to be highly effective. Before the wall was built, over 3 million refuges fled East Germany into West Germany. After the building of the Berlin Wall—namely, between 1961 and 1989–hardly anyone from East Germany escaped into West Germany.

Steven Spielberg’s new historical drama, Bridge of Spies (October 2015), captures the chaos and brutality during the erection of the Berlin war as well as the atmosphere of mutual suspicion between East and West during the Cold War. The movie focuses on a New York lawyer’s (James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks) efforts to represent a man accused of being a Soviet spy (Rudolf Abel, played by Mark Rylance). Ironically, in the country that supposedly represents democratic freedom and due process, nobody except for Donovan himself seems willing to offer the captured Soviet agent a fair trial. The judge, the press, and the public have all made up their minds about Abel’s guilt and push for the death penalty.

Donovan himself becomes an outcast when he insists upon due process and a fair trial for his client. At one point, his willingness to stand up for his convictions even risks his family life, as someone shoots into his home and nearly kills his oldest daughter. There’s more than just conviction at play in this historical movie that is also, and above all, a drama. Donovan respects his client’s unflappable calm and the fact that he’s not willing to abandon his principles and loyalty to the Soviet Union despite the risk of being convicted and getting the death penalty. Abel’s situation appears hopeless.

It’s only when two American citizens—U.S. pilot Gary Powers, sent to fly on a recognizance mission over Soviet Territory, and graduate student Frederic Pryor—get caught in the East Block that the CIA proves willing to spare Donovan and trade him for the two young Americans.

Donovan goes to Berlin to negotiate a difficult tripartite swap of prisoners—offering Abel to the Soviet Union in exchange for retrieving the student from East Berlin and the pilot from the Russians. This is no easy task since East Germany initially resists being lumped together in a negotiation with the Soviet Union. While still in the grip of the communist Super Power, East Germany desires to be recognized as its own autonomous communist state and hence negotiate its own independent exchange with the West. Donovan’s tenacity and his ability to stand up for his principles eventually triumphs in this historic prisoner swap that momentarily defies the logic of the Cold War. This film, which masterfully combines drama, spy thriller and historical fact, is bound to become, much like Schindler’s List, a Spielberg classic.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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The concentration camp commandants: Review of Soldiers of Evil by Thomas Segev

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Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Thomas Segev’s dissertation, Soldiers of Evil (Jerusalem: Domino Press, 1987), goes a long way in explaining the psychology and social background of the Holocaust’s most ruthless mass murderers: the concentration camp Commandants. The book relies upon eyewitness accounts, victim testimonials, court documents as well as interviews with some of the Commandants themselves, their acquaintances, colleagues and family members who were willing to talk about the past. Segev notes that during Oswald Pohl’s trial (he was the SS Commander in charge of administering the entire Nazi concentration camp system) it was estimated that the Nazis imprisoned about 10 million people. (Soldiers of Evil, 15) By the end of the war, in January 1945, only 700,000 were found alive by the Allies. Of those, tens of thousands died shortly after liberation. Close to one million non-Jewish prisoners and 6 million Jewish prisoners were killed in the Nazi extermination camps.

One might expect that those who directed the mass murder of millions of innocent people would be prone to sadism. In his study, Segev observes that this was true only in some cases, but not most. Certainly men like Amon Goth, the Commandant of Plascow (so vividly described by Thomas Keneally in Schindler’s List), qualifies as sadistic. Goth would notoriously go on random shooting sprees of the defenseless inmates weakened by hard labor and hunger. Sometimes he would sick his dogs upon them to tear them apart limb by limb. He enjoyed the process of selecting his victims and witnessing their torment. His widow, Ruth Kalder, a woman with sadistic predispositions herself, became enchanted with Goth’s cruelty. In her eyes, it gave Goth an aura of a God, as he wielded the power of life and death over Plascow’s helpless inmates. After the war, she described her life with Goth in the concentration camp with longing and in idyllic terms, comparing her husband and herself to the King and Queen of a fiefdom. Like Goth, she showed no empathy for the prisoners, particularly the Jews, whom she considered subhuman. In an interview she gave in 1975, Kalder stated, “They were not human like us. … They were so foul” (Soldiers of Evil, 201).

Likewise, Arthur Rodl, Deputy Commandant to Karl Koch at the Buchenwald concentration camp, enjoyed killing inmates with his own bare hands. Segev recounts that on January 1, 1939, Rodl forced several thousands prisoners to line up, selected five among them, ordered them to strip and then proceeded to whip them until the morning to the sound of the camp orchestra. (Soldiers of Evil, 133) The Commandant of Buchenwald, Karl Koch, and his wife, Isle, who herself was known as “the monster of Buchenwald,” were equally notorious for their cruelty to inmates. They lived at Buchenwald in a gorgeous mansion known as “Villa Koch”, like royalty in the midst of the squalor of the concentration camp. Both took great pleasure in abusing and killing prisoners. Segev recounts that Isle would dress up in a provocative manner and ride around the camp on horseback. If any of the inmates looked at her, she would sometimes beat them with her own hands or, more commonly, ask her husband or the SS men to savagely attack them while she watched. There were rumors that Isle Koch even had lampshades made out of tattooed prisoners’ skin. Eventually the Nazi government tried Karl Koch not for his cruelty to prisoners (which was extreme even by Nazi standards), but for stealing stolen goods—the money, jewelry, clothes and extracted gold teeth—that the Nazi regime took from the Jews.

Despite such examples of sadistic behavior, Segev’s research indicates that the Nazi Commandants of concentration camps had a diverse background. Most of them were not predisposed to sadism, he found. However, all of them had a strong ideological background, the propensity to dehumanize others and lacked basic human empathy. As Segev observes, “There were among them men of different types: bureaucrats, opportunists, sadists, and criminals. The great majority of them were political soldiers” (Soldiers of Evil, 124). He further notes that most of the Nazi concentration camp Commandants “saw themselves first and foremost as soldiers: two thirds of them had served in the army before joining the Nazi party and the SS. Most of them had volunteered for the army before, during, and after the First World War” (Soldiers of Evil, 60). For many, the experiences of the war served to desensitize them to human suffering and to habituate them to the act of killing. Some of them received special ideological training in Theodor Eicke’s Death’s Head squads, an elite formation in which Eicke, described by Segev as a “Nazi grand seigneur,” recruited very young men with Aryan features whom he indoctrinated with a toxic combination of Romantic nationalism, Nazi ideology and rabid anti-Semitism.

Perhaps the most revealing inside look into the concentration camps’ Commandants’ mentality are the testimonies of Rudolf Hoss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, and of Franz Stangl, the Commandant of Treblinka. Neither of them was particularly drawn to sadism yet both of them could kill hundreds of thousands of human beings as easily as one kills a gnat. In his 1971 interview with the British writer and historian Gitta Sereny, Stangl is asked how he could kill so many human beings. He nonchalantly compares the Jewish inmates to a herd of cattle trapped in their pins and headed for slaughter. Sereny asks him: “So you didn’t feel they were human beings?” Stagl responds: “Cargo. They were cargo” (Soldiers of Evil, 201-2).

Rudolf Hoss, responsible for the deaths of nearly 2 million Jews at Auschwitz, dehumanized his victims in a similar fashion. In a conversation with his brother-in-law, Fritz Hensel, during the latter’s 4-week visit to Auschwitz, Hensel asks him how he could kill human beings. Hoss responds that the Jews were subhuman (Untermensch). Hensel asks for a clarification of the term “subhuman”. According to his account, Hoss sighs and replies: “You always ask and ask… Look, you can see for yourself. They are not like you and me. They are different. They look different. They do not behave like human beings. They have numbers on their arms. They are here in order to die” (Soldiers of Evil, 211). Using circular reasoning, the concentration camp Commandants dehumanized human beings through extremely cruel and inhumane treatment, then saw the results of their dehumanization as proof that their victims weren’t really human. Most of them were not prone to cruelty but could be exceptionally callous and cruel for ideological and political reasons.

Segev’s research indicates that sadistic Commandants like Goth and Koch did not in fact meet the SS ideal. Their evil could not be controlled and channeled in service to the Nazis. They killed for their own pleasure; stole for their own profit. The most successful concentration camp Commandants were those like Hoss and Stangl: “political soldiers” who killed millions of innocent human beings without conscience or remorse in order to fulfill the needs and ideals of the Nazi regime.

Claudia Moscovici

Holocaust Memory

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Anti-Semitism in Hungary today

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Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Anti-Semitism has a long history in Hungary, nearly as long as the history of the Jews living in the country. In fact, Hitler was not the first to prescribe armband to mark, isolate and shame the Jews. King Ladislaus IV of Hungary (1272-1290) ordered that each Jewish person should wear a piece of red cloth. In the fourteenth century, Jews were suspected of spreading the plague and expelled en masse from the country. (Incidentally, centuries later, this was a pretext offered by the Nazis for the establishment of Jewish ghettos). King Ladislaus II (1490-1516) accused Jews of ritual murder and burned them at the stake. The Diet of 1686 declared that Jews were not subjects of Hungary because they were not Christian (it categorized them as “unbelievers”). Queen Maria Theresa (1740-1780), perhaps emulating Catherine the Great of Russia (who segregated the Jews into the Pale of Settlement), expelled the Jews from Buda.

It is only in the modern period, under the reign of the Enlightened monarch Joseph II (1780-1790) that Jews attained minority rights. The National Assembly officially emancipated them half a century later, in 1849. This enabled the vast majority of Jews in Hungary to integrate well into the country and even to thrive. This was particularly true of the Jews of Budapest, a city where they constituted almost a quarter of the population. The Nazi influence upon the authoritarian regime of Miklos Horthy, and the rise to power of the Fascist Arrow Cross, undid a century of civil rights progress. The Holocaust of 1944 nearly wiped out the Jewish population of Hungary, killing nearly 600,000 Jews in Hungary and Hungarian territories.

The current Jewish population of Hungary remains very small: about 110,000 Jews live in Hungary, roughly the same number as right after WWII. Most of them live in Budapest and consider themselves to be assimilated Jews. In fact, only a small percentage—10 percent—of Jews identifies themselves as “Jewish” by religion. It seems incredible to me—even though this phenomenon is far from rare—that a country with such a small and well-assimilated Jewish population would experience a dramatic rise in anti-Semitism. Yet this is precisely what has happened in Hungary over the past two decades. Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, states: “In Hungary, Spain and Poland the numbers for anti-Semitic attitudes are literally off-the-charts and demand a serious response from political, civic and religious leaders”. In 2014 the ADL declared Hungary as the most anti-Semitic country in Europe. The future looks bleak, as according to its survey, 50 percent of young Hungarians (people under the age of 35) have anti-Semitic attitudes.

Not surprisingly, contemporary Hungary has experienced a rise in neo-Nazi and other authoritarian anti-Semitic political parties and groups, such as the HunterSS, White Storm and Endlosung as well as the illegal paramilitary group the Hungarian National Front. In May 2014, Apathy Istvan Laszlo, a representative of the right wing nationalist party Jobbik (“The Movement for a Better Hungary”, which aims at the preservation of “Hungarian interests and values”) in the city Erzsebetvaros, even went so far as to publically state on his Facebook profile that the historical accounts of the Holocaust were exaggerated and to charge the Jews—or as he put it “the Jewish background superpower”—as responsible for the Holocaust. Making contradictory and inflammatory statements reminiscent of Hitler and the Nazi leadership, at the same time, Laszlo has denied that the Holocaust ever happened.

The dramatic rise of anti-Semitism in a country with so few Jews—most of whom identify as Hungarian—confirms one of the lessons of the Holocaust: anti-Semitism is an attitude that has little to do with the object of racial hatred and everything to do with authoritarian political parties that predicate their nationalist agenda not on constructive policies in the interest of the country they claim to represent, but upon a mythical sense of national identity formed by the exclusion and denigration of groups marked as “Other.”

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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The Holocaust in Hungary

Budapest, Ferenc Szálasi

 

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Historian Leni Yahil estimates that in 1941 there were approximately 762,000 Jews living in Hungary, about a fourth of whom lived in Budapest. (The Holocaust, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, 506). Under pressure from Nazi Germany, the conservative regime of Admiral Miklos Horthy and Prime Minister Miklos Kallay instituted some anti-Semitic measures modeled after the Nuremberg Laws. However, up to 1944 Horthy didn’t agree with the Nazi policy of deporting and exterminating Hungarian Jews. The Communist politician Bela Vago described the Horthy regime as a contradictory mixture of authoritarianism and some openness to democratic input; of anti-Semitic attitudes and relative tolerance towards the native Jewish population in Hungary:

“This was one of the paradoxical phenomena of the Hungarian regime, which contained a mixture of vestiges of feudalism with democratic-parliamentary elements; the authoritarianism of a quasi-fascistic regime with tolerance towards the democratic opposition; an official anti-Semitic policy with tolerance toward Jews in the fields of journalism, the arts, and other areas of culture. The Jews could be active as members of Parliament until the German occupation in 1944.’”(Cited by Leni Yahil in The Holocaust, Leni Yahil, 507).

Following the Soviet victory at the battle of Stalingrad, Horthy and Kallay began to realize that the Allies might win the war. Kallay sent out feelers to the Allies, hoping to negotiate an armistice for Hungary on favorable terms. When Hitler found out about this, Germany occupied Hungary. Horthy was allowed to remain the figurehead leader of Hungary, but Kallay was replaced with the fanatical pro-Nazi general Dome Sztojay. The latter fell into step with the Final Solution program and agreed to deport Hungary’s Jews.

Adolf Eichmann personally came to Hungary along with a team of “experts”, including Dr. Siefried Seidel (the former Commandant of Theresienstadt), Theodor Dannecker (in charge of the Jewish deportations from France, Bulgaria and Italy) and Dieter Wisliceny (who had been in charge of deporting the Greek and Slovakian Jews).

Although Eichmann was ever-present in Hungary, efficiently organizing the deportation of nearly 500,000 Jews living outside Budapest, he preferred to let the Hungarian gendarmes do the dirty work of rounding up the Jews in ghettos and sending them by train or in grueling death marches to concentration camps. By allowing for this “local initiative”, Eichmann hoped to appease the Hungarian leadership’s nationalist sentiments by giving them the illusion of relative autonomy. He later stated, “Over the years, I have learned from experience which hooks I have to use to catch which fish’” (The Holocaust, Yahil, 505). In less than two months, by August 1944, the Hungarian authorities and the SS had sent over 440,000 provincial Jews to concentration camps. All that was left was the Jews of Budapest.

Given that Germany continued to lose the war, Admiral Horthy hesitated to deport the Jews of the capital. He worried that this act would create a public outcry in the international press and provoke the Western Allies. Although under increasing pressure from Eichmann and his team to eliminate all the Jews of Hungary, Horthy put a stop to the deportations. He also dismissed the pro-Nazi Sztojay and began negotiating an armistice with the Soviets. In response, the Germans staged a coup and set up an even more extreme pro-Nazi government, led by Ferenc Szalasi, the leader of the Arrow Cross, whose members were notorious for their barbarism and anti-Semitism. In the process of rounding up the Jews of Budapest into a ghetto, the Arrow Cross hooligans manifested great cruelty and sadism, engaging in looting, beating, raping and murdering hundreds of Jews. Thousands of Jews were forced into death marches across the Austrian borders while hundreds, including toddlers and children, were pushed into the ice-cold Danube River. All in all, Szalasi’s Arrow Cross gendarmes murdered 15,000 Jews.

It is largely due to Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg’s heroic efforts that about 140,000 Jews survived in the capital. The Soviets marched into Budapest on January 1945 and drove the Nazis and their Arrow Cross allies out of power by that spring. Unfortunately, when he tried to meet with Soviet generals to help the lot of the Jews left in the Budapest ghetto, Wallenberg was taken prisoner by the NKVD. Despite his valiant efforts, only a small percentage of Hungarian Jews in general lived through the Holocaust. Out of the country’s nearly 800,000 Jews living in Hungary in the early 1940’s, fewer than a third survived.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

 

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