Nazi Germans Knew

How could Germans not know with concentration camps and slave labor being spread all across Germany? They saw what happened to their neighbors in being shot, taken away, and much else. Large numbers of Germans even worked in and around those camps and factories. But it wasn’t something Germans thought too much about. And surely it didn’t often come up in conversation. There was a tacit agreement in the silence.

It’s the same with Americans and the American Empire. Americans know and don’t know all kinds of things, from knowing about a racist system that has put more blacks in prison than were during slavery to knowing about a war machine that has a murder rate of innocents right up there with the most horrific authoritarian regimes.

It’s impossible not to know and yet everything continues as if no one knows what is really happening. Future generations won’t remember us Americans with any more sympathetic understanding and forgiveness than we offer to the Germans of the Nazi era. But sadly, knowing the past doesn’t stop it from repeating. And so those future generations very well might have their own unacknowledged horrors, as they judge us for ours.

It’s not as if the Jews who colonized the Palestinians learned anything from their own experience under the Nazis. Well, other than how to be highly effective and violent oppressors. No doubt, most Israelis know in great detail the horror of it all and yet they don’t know, can’t allow themselves to fully know and comprehend. A splitting of the mind and dissociation of consciousness is a powerful thing. The greatest silencing is what we do to ourselves.

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Germans knew of Holocaust horror about death camps
by John Ezard

The mass of ordinary Germans did know about the evolving terror of Hitler’s Holocaust, according to a new research study. They knew concentration camps were full of Jewish people who were stigmatised as sub-human and race-defilers. They knew that these, like other groups and minorities, were being killed out of hand.

They knew that Adolf Hitler had repeatedly forecast the extermination of every Jew on German soil. They knew these details because they had read about them. They knew because the camps and the measures which led up to them had been prominently and proudly reported step by step in thousands of officially-inspired German media articles and posters according to the study, which is due to be published simultaneously in Britain and the US early next month and which was described as ground-breaking by Oxford University Press yesterday and already hailed by other historians. […]

Its results, Professor Gellately says, destroy the claim – generally made by Germans after Berlin fell in 1945 and accepted by most historians – that they did not know about camp atrocities. He concludes by indicating that the only thing many Germans may not have known about was the use of industrial-scale gas chambers because, unusually, no media reports were allowed of this “final solution”. However, by the end of the war camps were all over the country and many Germans worked in them.

Backing Hitler. Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany
reviewed by Conan Fischer

The National Socialist regime, he asserts, was a plebiscitary dictatorship that set out to build a social consensus around its programme, and by and large succeeded in this aim. The prospects for Hitler’s project, the author argues, were greatly improved by the failure of the Weimar Republic to achieve its declared aims, either at home or with regard to foreign policy. Diplomatic humiliation, domestic poverty, an alleged crisis of morality, the perception that criminality was rife, and a fractured political landscape prior to 1933 allowed the Nazis to present themselves as a restorative, stabilising force. The conquest of unemployment and success in raising living standards combined with a series of dynamic but often coercive initiatives, which were directed at alleged enemies of the German people, such as the Communists, and especially the Jews. These outsiders, the Nazis asserted, had gnawed away at the moral substance of the German ethnic community, and their removal from society would redeem and safeguard this community.

Gellately has combed through local, regional and national newspapers to establish how, precisely, the authorities presented both their populist initiatives and the campaign of terror that swept away any actual or potential dissent. It emerges that even the terroristic side of the new regime was reported in great detail, to the point where photographs and discussion of the early concentration camps were everyday fare in the press. However these camps were presented as corrective institutions in which political renegades, habitual criminals and wayward Jews, among others, were given a taste of firm discipline and hard work out of doors, in the hope that they would come around and serve as useful members of society. Killings, if reported at all, were reportedly in self-defence, or to prevent dangerous criminals from escaping the camps and once again terrorising society. In other words, repression was painted in an essentially positive light. If Weimar had been soft on crime, then the decent German populace would be now be spared any further criminality and licentiousness.

The author employs oral testimony from survivors of that age to telling effect. Many claim not to have been Nazis as such, but admit nonetheless that at the time they regarded the new regime as a turn for the better. However, there is a tendency in Backing Hitler to accept at face value this depiction of Weimar as a failed society, without pausing to reflect that many millions of German voters supported republican or Christian parties to the end, right through an unprecedented economic crisis. These voters saw their personal lives savaged by the Great Depression as much as the virulently anti-republican majority that emerged during 1932, but presumably the republicans remained attracted by the founding values of Weimar, values the Republic had struggled to put into effect until the eve of the Great Depression.

That said, even these die-hard moderates (to mix metaphors somewhat) often came to support, or at least tolerate, the Third Reich. Some, it is claimed, traded off their erstwhile freedom for greater material security, but there were also elements of ideological continuity from Weimar into the Third Reich, which eased such conversions from patriotic republican to Nazi. Much has been written on such continuities, for example by Gunther Mai, or more darkly by Detlev Peukert, but ideology and material security became interrelated, not least within the parameters of the welfare state, and as a consequence these linkages helped to shape popular opinion. Thus the ability of the Nazi state to deliver on certain material commitments, which had been enshrined in the Weimar constitution as moral imperatives (such as the right to a job or to satisfactory levels of social security), arguably did as much to engender consent in Nazi society as did the popularisation of repressive police measures.

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The Stories We Know

It suddenly occurred to me where I might have first came across the idea of simultaneously knowing and not knowing.

This would have been almost two decades ago, sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s in the years following my graduating from high school in 1994. I probably was back in Iowa City, Iowa at the time and regularly visiting bookstores, in particular the famous Prairie Lights. I was reading a lot of weird stuff at the time, both non-fiction and fiction. Along with reading the likes of Robert Anton Wilson, I came across Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. I then read some of Ellison’s own fiction collections.

In his book Strange Wine, he has his typical introductory comments that are typically entertaining. He told of an anecdote that had been shared with him by Dan Blocker, an actor from the show Bonanza who played the character Hoss Cartwright. Blocker pointed out that the incident was far from unusual and, based on that, Ellison explored the idea of knowing and not knowing, specifically in terms of the distinction between reality and imagination, between unmediated experience and media portrayals.

Here is Blocker’s anecdote as written in Strange Wine introduction (Kindle Locations 54-62):

“He told me– and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases– that he had been approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman had said to him, dead seriously, “Now listen to me, Hoss: when you go home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinee fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman in there can cook up some decent food for you and your family.”

“So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met), “Excuse me, ma’am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play. When I go home I’ll be going to my house in Los Angeles and my wife and children will be waiting.”

“And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all that, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, “Yes, I know… but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben that I said…”

“For her, fantasy and reality were one and the same.”

Ellison sees this as representative of a change that has happened in our society because of the boob tube. He was writing in the 1970s and it was a time when nationalized mass media was really hitting its stride. He described all the hours people spent watching television and the state of mind it creates.

Before the Bonanza story, Ellison shared another story about a news reporter who shot herself in the head live on television. He sees this as indicative of how media has become our very sense of reality. Killing oneself during a live broadcast makes the incident more real. I think he goes a bit overboard on his diatribe against media, but he has a point. I would simply broaden his point and extend it back in time.

Mediated reality isn’t a new invention. Ever since written language and bound books, the world has never been the same. Christians were the first group to bind books. This allowed them to spread their mediated reality far and wide. Even though there was no evidence that Jesus ever existed, this messianic figure became more real to people than the people around them. Untold numbers of people killed and died in the name of a man who may have simply been a fictional character.

To understand the power of the Bible as mediated reality, take the experience of Daniel Everett. He once was a Christian who became a missionary living among the Amazonian Piraha tribe. These people didn’t understand Christianity because they didn’t understand reality mediated through books. They only trusted information they had experienced themselves or someone they knew had experienced. When they asked Everett if he had experienced any of the events in the Bible, Everett had to admit he hadn’t even met Jesus. The idea of blind faith was meaningless to the Piraha. Instead of converting them to Christianity, they converted him to atheism.

As a fiction writer, Ellison should understand the power of words to make the imagined seem real. It isn’t just about television and movies or today about the internet. All of culture and civilization is built on various forms of mediated reality. The earliest forms of media through art and the spoken word had a similar revolutionary impact.

We humans live in a world of ideas and beliefs, frames and narratives. We never know anything unfiltered. This is how we can know and not know at the same time. The stories we tell force coherency to the inconsistency within our own minds. Stories are what gives our lives meaning. We are storytelling animals and for us the stories we tell are our reality. A collective story passed on from generation to generation is the most powerful of all.