Saturday, July 11, 2009

REVIEW OF DER SPIEGEL’S “The Dark Continent: Hitler’s Holocaust Helpers”

REVIEW OF DER SPIEGEL’S “The Dark Continent: Hitler’s Holocaust Helpers”

By Kevin Stoda, Germany

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a former colleague who lives with his family northwest of Gdansk, Poland. He had let me know that Poles had been upset by a three-part DER SPIEGEL article from early May 2009. The first piece had been entitled, “THE DARK CONTINENT: HITLERS HOLOCAUST HELPERS”. I had just finished reading the articles myself and was not quite certain what all the hoopla in Poland might be about. I explained to my friend that the piece’s title was just a play on two famous non-fiction works of the past decade.,1518,625824,00.html

The first reference in the 3-part article’s title was to Mark Mazower’s (1999) work, DARK CONTINENT: 20th CENTURY EUROPE. The second reference was to Daniel Goldhagen’s provocative HITLER’S WILLING EXECUTIONERS (1997). The former book focuses on the wars of primarily the first half of the 20th century which left up to 100 million dead and hundreds millions more displaced or temporarily homeless. This book by Mazower sets the stage historically for explaining why Europeans have worked so hard since mid-century to create what has become a relatively peaceful continent, especially through the development of trade and friendships via organizations, like the European Union and City-to-City exchange programs.

The latter reference, i.e. to Goldhagen’s book entitled HITLER’S WILLING EXECUTIONERS, had come out around the time that the last major WWII memory debate was erupting across Germany and Austria in the late 1990s. (Germany has had a series of national memory dates starting in the 1960s, when the youth movement first charged their parents of collusion, perpetuating fascism, and other war crimes. The mid- to late 1990s was the period when exhibitions and public debate in Germany finally took on the false legends of the German military’s supposed relative innocence under SA and later SS control in the 1930s and 1940s.

Much of this German Military history debate occurred from roughly 1995 through 2000 and was carried in German newspapers as protests against exhibitions on the subject took place across the Bundesrepublik. Goldhagen’s HITLER’S WILLING EXECUTIONERS (1996) was thus a well-timed publication for this Wehrmacht discussion in Germany as the nation, its people, and its parliament were debating the role of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents in supporting Hitler, the Nazis, the SS, and their policies throughout Europe during the 12 darkest years in German history.

A traveling exhibition of the German Wehrmacht had set off discussion starting in 1995, and soon ( in the ensuing years) neo-Nazi marches and even bombing attacks reverberated across Germany and Austria.

Since that half-decade of wide-ranging debate took place in Germany and in Hitler’s homeland, Austria over ten years ago, many Germans have taken time to note (with a critical eye and a continuing sense of defensiveness) towards history that the German fore-fathers did not act alone in the nearly two dozen European states, where the Nazi leadership carried out the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity. Many historians agree and note that Germany has actually handled discussions and acted on historical responsibilities while, in grave contrast, peoples and states of both Eastern and Western Europe, who had actually joined in the diabolic fray against Jews, gypsies, communists, homosexuals, mentally and physically-challenged victims, have not owned upt to their crimes during the years of occupation and war..

I had just read the three part article from Der Spiegel on this theme in German as I wrote to my friend that Poland had actually been less of a target by the Spiegel authors than what one might otherwise expect from an article talking about Nazis Willing Helpers. For example, I told him, at least twice in the three articles, the various Spiegel staff writers noted that over 125,000 Poles had helped Jews to survive the Holocaust—i.e. at very great risk to themselves.

The Ukrainian born, Ivan Demjanjuk, had sparked the recent Spiegel publication this past Spring. Demjanjuk had been deported with great press attention from the United States for trial in Germany less than two weeks earlier. Demjanjuk, Ukrainian-born, had “served as a guard in Flossenbürg concentration camp until shortly before the end of World War II. He had been transferred there from the SS death camp in Sobibor in present-day Poland. He was Ukrainian, and he was a Travniki, one of the 5,000 men who helped Germany's Nazi regime commit the crime of the millennium -- the murder of all the Jews in Europe, the ‘Final Solution.” Demjanjuk faces in German courts now the charges of helping kill 29,000 Jews at Sobibor alone.


Although Demjanjuk probably certainly needs to be perceived of partially as “just a cog in the machine” of Hitler and his SS’s genocide projects, the trial of Demjanjuk is likely set to be the last major war crimes trial in Germany. Der Spiegel staff has simply thus sought to raise the leftover issues, which they see other European states--including several states already partners in the European Union--have swept under the carpet for 7 decades-too-many already.

The Spiegel writers note, “it's already clear that this last big Nazi trial in Germany will be a deeply extraordinary one because it will for the first time put the foreign perpetrators in the spotlight of world publicity. They are men who have until now received surprisingly little attention -- Ukrainian gendarmes and Latvian auxiliary police, Romanian soldiers or Hungarian railway workers. Polish farmers, Dutch land registry officials, French mayors, Norwegian ministers, Italian soldiers -- they all took part in Germany's Holocaust.”

“Dieter Pohl of the German Institute for Contemporary History estimate that more than 200,000 non-Germans -- about as many as Germans and Austrians – ‘prepared, carried out and assisted in acts of murder.’ And often they were every bit as cold-blooded as Hitler's henchmen.” However, what such a statement fails to remind readers is that many of the Nazi “helpers” in Eastern Europe had already faced two or more years of Soviet occupation and persecution before the German military showed up and persuaded them to join their at-the-time-apparently-winning campaign.

Nonetheless, the Spiegel authors do hint at such explanations several times. Such a comments don’t relinquish guilt of any of the perpetrators, but it does place the perpetrator’s activities in much clearer context. In short, the peoples of the Ukraine, Belorussia, and the Balkan states had already suffered enough to be considered victims of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorders) when they were offered a chance to show they supported their new German occupiers, e.g. in some cases they chose to join perpetrators rather than to languish or die in a prison themselves. .

On the other hand, the Spiegel authors also report: “Historian Feliks Tych estimates that some 125,000 Poles rescued Jews without being paid for their services. [So] It's clear that the perpetrators always made up a small minority of their respective population. But the Germans relied on that minority. The SS, police and the army lacked the manpower to search the vast areas where the Nazi leadership planned to kill all people of Jewish origin. Across the 4,000 kilometers stretching from Brittany in western France to the Caucasus, the Nazis were bent on hunting down their victims, deporting them to extermination camps or to local murder sites, preventing escapes, digging mass graves and then carrying out their bloody handiwork.”

The main point for Der Spiegel authors of “THE DARK CONTINENT: HITLERS HOLOCAUST HELPERS” seems to be that in “the killing fields of Eastern Europe, there were up to 10 local helpers for every German policeman. The ratio is similar in the extermination camps. Not in Auschwitz, which was run almost entirely by Germans, but in Belzec (600,000 killed), Treblinka (900,000 deaths) or in Demjanjuk's Sobibor. There, a handful of SS members were assisted by some . . . Travniki men.”

Travniki was the training camp in Poland for camp guards, set up in the early 1940s by Nazi leadership. Travniki was especially set up by the SS leadership for creating the most violent- and conscious-less helpers of the SS for the various death camps (and work camps) across the continent. Demjanjuk was among those trained at Travniki.


Despite the extensive brainwashing involved in the training of some of the SS helpers, it is clear that far too many Europeans did help in the Nazi’s projects or crimes against humanity. (Naturally, a similar helpfulness was found in Germany and Austria of the 1930s. This is what Goldhagen had focused on in his book, HITLER’S WILLING EXECUTIONERS. ) The Spiegel staff concluded the first of their three-part article by noting that the “stupefying number of victims raises disturbing questions, and Berlin historian Götz Aly already started asking them a few years ago: Was the so-called Final Solution in fact a ‘European project that cannot be explained solely by the special circumstances of German history?’”

Jewish researchers, writing with similar criticisms of most of the different European states in the 1930s through mid-1940s, have come to similar conclusions to Götz Aly. According to the Spiegel authors in the second-part of THE DARK CONTINENT, “Since 1945 the countries invaded and ravaged by Hitler's armies have seen themselves as victims -- which they doubtless were, with their vast numbers of dead. That makes it all the more painful to concede that many compatriots aided the German perpetrators.” Specifically, in “Latvia, local assistance was greater than anywhere else. According to the American historian Raul Hilberg, the Latvians had the highest proportion of Nazi helpers. The Danes are at the other end of the scale. When the deportation of Denmark's Jews was about to begin in 1943, large parts of the population helped Jews to escape to Sweden or hid them. Some 98 percent of Denmark's 7,500 Jews survived World War II. By contrast, only nine percent of the Dutch Jews survived.”

Obviously, European anti-Semitism played an evident role in the lives and actions of some--or even many--of the volunteers. Spiegel staff explain: “In the 1930s, anti-Semitism grew across Europe because the upheaval after World War I and the global economic crisis had unsettled people. In Eastern Europe, the tendency to regard Jews as scapegoats and to try and exclude them from the job market was especially strong. In Hungary, Jews were banned from public office at the end of the 1930s and were forbidden to work in a large number of professions. Romania voluntarily adopted Nazi Germany's racist and anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws. In Poland, many universities restricted access for Jewish students.”

On the other hand, Spiegel writers--and many modern European historians--note that there is no clear profile to the minds and activities of the various perpetrators. Some perpetrators were anti-Semitic. Some were not. Some were bureaucrats, some soldiers, some wealthy, some well-educated while others were poor and under-educated.

All-in-all, “ [i]t's hard to determine what motivated people to kill. Often nationalism or anti-Semitism were just excuses. During the war, no one had to go hungry in Germany, but living conditions in Eastern Europe were squalid. ‘For the Germans, 300 Jews meant 300 enemies of humanity. For the Lithuanians they meant 300 pairs of trousers and 300 pairs of boots,’ says one eyewitness. That was greed on a personal level. But it also featured on a collective level. In France, 96 percent of aryanized companies remained in French hands. The Hungarian government used the assets seized from Jews to extend its pension system and reduce inflation.”

Some of the Spiegel staff are particularly hard on the countries of Western Europe, such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, and France. They wrote, “Some 29,000 Jews from Belgium were murdered, many after being denounced in return for cash. Denunciations also happened in the Netherlands and France. Local authorities obediently paved the way for the deportation of Jews and later said they hadn't suspected what fate the Jews faced. That excuse was used by henchmen, opportunists and pen-pushing bureaucrats -- a category of perpetrator that was denied for a long time after the war in France as the country sought to build a myth that the entire French people had been involved in the heroic resistance.”

IN CONCLUSION: Rules of War and War Crimes

In short, only a few European states, like Denmark, are spared condemnation by most Jewish and German historians for the tendency of their peoples to side with the perpetrators of crimes against humanity--rather than the victims.

This tendency to side with the winning side during a war is true for many in the midst of any long term occupation or war, especially if the perpetrators are ruthless and have guns. People find all kinds of supporting arguments not to openly resist the occupiers.

I state all this because Robert McNamara passed away last week. Do you remember him? In the 1960s they used to call the Vietnam War, “McNamara’s War”.

Only decades later did McNamara confess that what he had been involved in with during both WWII with Japan bombings and in the Vietnam War again might truly be called war crimes—i.e. that is, if America had been the loser in WWII and if Vietnamese forces had captured him in the 1960s.

If you don’t believe me, watch the classic war documentary, THE FOG OF WAR!!
In Errol Morris’ Documentary, “THE FOG OF WAR” McNamara stated clearly, “I don’t fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bomb. The US-Japanese War was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history. Kamikaze pilots, suicide—Unbelievable. What one can criticize is that the human race prior to that time--and today--has not really grappled with what are called the rules of war. Was there a rule then that says you should bomb, shouldn’t kill, shouldn’t burn to death 100,000 civilians in a night? Lemay said if we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals. Lemay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”

So, in a sense, Der Spiegel writers do have a point in criticizing other lands, their people, and their memories of war, crimes, and occupation.

Many people are called war criminals and prosecuted only when they are on the losing side in a war. Meanwhile, others are never prosecuted as perpetrators of war-crimes because they are never arrested, prosecuted--and if they do not lose the war.

However, humanity, its victims, and I would really appreciate it if peoples and families of perpetrators would admit to the crimes and apologize in their history books and museums for the crimes of theirs--and of their forefathers.


Germany Relied on Outside Help in the Monstrous Murder Project,,1518,625824-3,00.html

“Hitler’s European Holocaust Helpers”,,1518,625824,00.html

“Many Foreign Helpers Acted Voluntarily”,1518,625824-2,00.html
“Vietnam War Architect Robert McNamara Dies”



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