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Genocide: Testimonials and Memoirs

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How can we write a history of a particular genocide in a way that balances the use of more traditional historical sources (such as letters, correspondence, and memorandum) with less traditional historical sources (such as testimonies and memoirs), thus addressing both the history and memory of the events (and how history and memory are related) in the process?
Through the interpretation of historical sources, it is possible to create a picture of the instances that occurred to help us form an understanding of the tragic events that unravelled in a particular genocide. Traditional sources (letters, correspondence and memorandum) are used with less traditional sources (testimonies and memoirs) to provide us with the missing pieces of the puzzle. Testimonies and memoirs provide us with an understanding of what it was like from a personal view, which can be used alongside letters to see how victims felt.
In the historical review of the SS men who were at Auschwitz, Robert Faurisson talks about the reliability of individuals testimonies.
“It shows how fragile are the proofs that people offer us, to what extent they allow themselves to be easily deceived by appearances, how much the official historians have misused the texts and how it is necessary to work it you wish, in the study of texts, to distinguish between the true and the false, between the real meaning and the misinterpretation.” 1
Those who suffer from traumatic experiences are more likely to repress those certain memories. Different sources allow us to interpret how the individual perceptions of the events that occurred have changed over time. As stated by David Luck, “A holocaust history would be unreadable as well as untrue if not relieved by individual dramas that bring statistics to life, and to death.” 2 The “Schutzstaffel, commonly known as the SS, was a section of the assault division known as SA and was formed in April 1925 to perform as a ‘personal bodyguard’ for Adolf Hitler.” 3 They emerged from bodyguards to an “elite fighting force” 4 through the use of power. Entry was limited to those Germans who showed pure Arianism, proving that they had no Jewish ancestors, and exceeded strict and laborious standards.5 Wearing black shirts to distinguish them from SA soldiers, these “men in black,” were considered to be in prime physical shape and received special treatment from authorities due to their loyalty and the tasks they performed.6 As stated by Robert Koehl, “In public they perceived themselves as merely the most highly disciplined arm of the Nazi party. Among themselves they claimed to be self-selected ration elite.” 7 They were nurtured by Heinrich Himmler, set apart from the rest of the military and then used against both German Jews and their enemies.8 They strongly believed that Germany had lost WWI due to the Jews and as Oscar Groning states it was “Germany’s duty to destroy global Judaism.”9 By the start of WWII the SS had multiple subdivisions, including the security section, military section and concentration camp section,10 and by 1944 the SS was at its maximum with 950,000 soldiers.11
In an interview with the BBC, Oskar Groning discussed his role in the two years of being an SS soldier performing the role of a bookkeeper at Auschwitz. “The men in the SS sleep in comfortable beds covered with soft, checkered quilts. They once belonged to the Jews.”12 The SS men stripped the Jews of all their possessions and used them for their own benefit, some without feeling any remorse for sleeping on the quilts while the original owners were put through hell and those who weren 't immediately sent to the gas chambers fought for every breath. In order to reduce their levels of stress, soldiers were provided with “large amounts of alcohol.”13 The alcohol also made their actions less psychologically disturbing.14 Groning describes the end of a day of work when he returns to his barracks, stating about his fellow soldiers that they are usually “drunk by the time they are ready for bed and use their pistols to turn off the lights.”15 The soldiers used drinking as a coping mechanism and aside from the fact it acts as a depressant, it served the appropriate purpose of making them feel numb long enough to forget their actions and be able to close their eyes without seeing those they brutally murdered in front of them.
A transcript of the testimony made by Oskar Groning, alongside a letter sent from a soldier to his loved one, allows us to see the gruesome truth and inner thoughts behind these inhumane acts and killing machines. In a letter written from a soldier to his wife, he tries to reassure her that victory for Germany is just around the corner and how she was to remain brave, and that if she was to lose faith she would not be his wife. In his letter he writes, “Now it is time to prove that we are Germans, that we believe in the Fuhrer and are loyal to him.”16 Groning described the events at Auschwitz as becoming “a routine.” 17 He was enlisted as a bookkeeper once he made it clear to officials that he had been trained in this department and was responsible for counting the money of the Jews once they had arrived at the concentration camp, sorting it and locking it in a safe – he used to call it “money without owners.” 18 He describes the uniform as an 'uplifting experience ' 19 for him and starts singing the lyrics of a song – “When Jewish blood begins to drop from our knives, things will be good again. My honour is loyalty” 20 Groning then continues to state that during his time as a soldier he did not think twice about the lyrics of this song. 21 Groning is given the additional task of guarding the luggage once the Jews are taken of the train for the selection process and it is here that he witnesses another SS soldier murdering a baby by repetitively slamming the child’s head against the wall of the train. 22 After this he applies for a transfer and is told that he “signed a letter of commitment and everyone is to serve where they are assigned.”23
In his interview, Groning shows that he believes that gas chambers were a tool of a waging war of advanced methods. “If you’re convinced that the destruction of Judaism is necessary, then it no longer matters how the killing takes place.” 24 When told that there is a difference between cheering for Hitler as part of an anonymous crowd and working in a killing machine, Groning defends himself by arguing that he was part of “a horrible but necessary thing,” and it just so happened that he was assigned to a camp where everyone’s cheers were actually becoming a reality.25 The issue of morality and ethics is raised when Groning discusses his role. He says he feels “guilty for being part of a group that committed these crimes and acting as a small cog in the gears, but legally speaking he believes he is not an active perpetrator and therefore should not be viewed as guilty.” 26 But it is here that a question is raised about his actions. The SS soldiers completed gruesome, horrible and inhumane tasks all under the belief that the elimination of Judaism was a necessity. They drafted volunteers for a role in this mass destructive killing machine and should all be held accountable for their actions, as they all performed a task which allowed this machinery to continue to operate. Regardless of how small the task they performed was, they assisted in the process somehow and made it possible for these tragic events to take place. While he was not an active member if the Einsatzgruppen, was not responsible for pouring Zyklon B into the gas chambers and did not directly kill anybody, he was part of a bureaucracy and was determined to ensure that he was working efficiently and to the best of his ability. Due to his role in this bureaucratic structure, it allowed him to replace his moral norms with rationality and was therefore able to only focus on his individual tasks and not the actions of the organisation as a whole. While his role was limited to processing the money of Jews, he was a part of the group that treated individuals with such brutality, supported other SS soldiers and volunteered to be a part of this group as he wanted to be able to contribute towards a Jewish free Europe.

The Einsatzgruppen was a mobile killing squad comprised of both SS soldiers and police units and were the primary German executioners in the first wave of the 'Final Solution. '27 The roles of the Einsatzgruppen were only exposed shortly before they were to carry off mass executions otherwise Himmler and his key subordinates kept the information secret due to the creation of their “fundamental order.” 28 It was a necessity for Himmler to keep his plans secret as the Einsatzgruppen were not always prepared for their orders and “suffered psychological difficulties due to the tasks they performed” and had a tendency to justify their actions.29 In order to spare the “burden of slaughtering the Jews,” Himmler often ordered troops to turn to reliable indigenous volunteers to carry out the orders.30 The use of violent mob attacks characterised by the destruction of homes, properties, businesses and religious centres – also known as Pogroms- were encouraged by Himmler.31 The SS soldiers originally shot the Jews, but turned to the practice of gas chambers as they found them to be more productive and decreased the demand upon executions.32 A letter sent from the SS Reich Security Main office to SS Obersturmbannfuhrer Rauf, states the technical difficulties found in the gas vans and how they can be altered to ensure that they are more efficient.33 The concept arose from the use of gas chambers and these gas vans were put in place to increase the number of individuals being executed.34 The letter covers the topics of “facilitating the distribution of CO and avoiding the build-up of pressure, reducing the cargo area, arranging the nozzle in a way to prevent the liquids from rusting the pipes, inserting an opening in the floor of the van to facilitate the cleaning of it, eliminating the observation windows, protecting the lighting system and inserting a removable grid to facilitate the unloading of the vehicle.” 35The letter elaborates on all these factors with emphasis put on the fact that when the “lights are turned off in the vans the ‘load’ becomes unsettled and tries to escape via the back door.” 36 This disturbing letter proves the evilness of the Einsatzgruppen and how the Jews weren’t even recognised as humans or sub-humans and instead were considered as ‘loads’ to be executed and disposed of in the most efficient way possible.

Without the use of different historical sources, we would not be aware of the lives of the Schutzstaffel, the views of the soldiers and the roles performed by the Einsatzgruppen. These sources provide us with valuable pieces of history which are comprised of testimonies, letters and journals. Without this information, we would not be able to learn about these events and ensure that we have an understanding of the genocide that took place in order to ensure that we are able to prevent this from occurring again in the future. It is a necessity that these events are imprinted in the memory of the readers, for it not only serves as a gateway into the past but it serves as a preventative measure for the future. The SS soldiers performed tasks all due to their loyalty to the Reich, but the end result of their operations was the unnecessary brutalisation and death of millions of German and foreign people.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Breitman, Richard. "Himmler and the 'Terrible Secret ' among the Executioners." Journal of Contemporary History. No. 3/4 (1991): 431-451. http://www.jstor.org/stable/260654 (Accessed May 18, 2013).

Faurisson, Robert. "Confessions of SS men who were at Auschwitz." The Journal for Historical Review . Vol. 2, No. 2 (1981): 103-125. http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v02/v02p103_Faurisson.html

Geyer, Matthias. Spiegel Online, "An SS Officer Remembers: The Bookkeeper from Auschwitz." file:///E:/assessment/An%20SS%20Officer%20Remembers%20%20The%20Bookkeeper%20from%20Auschwitz%20-%20SPIEGEL%20ONLINE.htm (Accessed May 17, 2013)

History on the Net. Nazi Germany , "SchutzStaffel SS." http://www.historyonthenet.com/Nazi_Germany/ss.htm. (Accessed May 18, 2013).

Koehl, Robert. "The Character of the Nazi SS." The Journal of Modern History .Vol. 34, No. 3 (1962): 275-283. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1874356 (Accessed June 19, 2013).

Luck, David. “Use and Abuse of Holocaust Documents: Reitlinger and “How Many?” Jewish Social Studies. Vol. 41, No. 2 (1979): 95-122. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4467046 (Accessed May 18th, 2013).

The Einsatzgruppen.“Letter to Rauff from the SS Reich Security Main Office.” file:///E:/assessment/Letter%20to%20Rauff%20from%20the%20SS%20Reich%20Security%20Main%20Office.htm (Accessed May 20th, 2013)

“The SS,” The History Channel website, http://www.history.com/topics/ss (Accessed May 18th, 2013). United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Holocaust Encylopedia, "The Holocaust." http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/?ModuleId=10005143 (Accessed May 18th, 2013)

Unknown Author. German Propaganda Archive , "Letter from a Soldier ." file:///E:/assessment/A German Soldier’s Letter (1943).htm. (Accessed May 18th, 2013).

Zukier, Henri. “The Twisted Road To Genocide: On the Psychological Development of Evil During the Holocaust.” Social Research. Vol. 61, No. 2 (1994): 423-455 http://www,jstor.org/stable/40971039 (Accessed May 18th, 2013)

Bibliography: Breitman, Richard. "Himmler and the 'Terrible Secret ' among the Executioners." Journal of Contemporary History. No. 3/4 (1991): 431-451. http://www.jstor.org/stable/260654 (Accessed May 18, 2013) Faurisson, Robert. "Confessions of SS men who were at Auschwitz." The Journal for Historical Review . Vol. 2, No. 2 (1981): 103-125. http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v02/v02p103_Faurisson.html Geyer, Matthias. Spiegel Online, "An SS Officer Remembers: The Bookkeeper from Auschwitz." file:///E:/assessment/An%20SS%20Officer%20Remembers%20%20The%20Bookkeeper%20from%20Auschwitz%20-%20SPIEGEL%20ONLINE.htm (Accessed May 17, 2013) History on the Net. Nazi Germany , "SchutzStaffel SS." http://www.historyonthenet.com/Nazi_Germany/ss.htm. (Accessed May 18, 2013). Koehl, Robert. "The Character of the Nazi SS." The Journal of Modern History .Vol. 34, No. 3  (1962): 275-283. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1874356 (Accessed June 19, 2013). Luck, David http://www.jstor.org/stable/4467046 (Accessed May 18th, 2013). The Einsatzgruppen.“Letter to Rauff from the SS Reich Security Main Office.” file:///E:/assessment/Letter%20to%20Rauff%20from%20the%20SS%20Reich%20Security%20Main%20Office.htm (Accessed May 20th, 2013) “The SS,” The History Channel website, http://www.history.com/topics/ss (Accessed May 18th, 2013) http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/?ModuleId=10005143 (Accessed May 18th, 2013) Unknown Author file:///E:/assessment/A German Soldier’s Letter (1943).htm. (Accessed May 18th, 2013). Zukier, Henri. “The Twisted Road To Genocide: On the Psychological Development of Evil During the Holocaust.” Social Research. Vol. 61, No. 2 (1994): 423-455 http://www,jstor.org/stable/40971039 (Accessed May 18th, 2013)

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