Fremde Federn: “The Uneasy Closeness to Ourselves” Interview with Dr. Götz Aly, German Historian and Journalist

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="646" caption="Das Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas in Berlin."]Holocaustmahnmal Berlin[/caption]

Im folgenden Interview mit Yad Vashem, der israelischen Holocaustgedenkstätte und Forschungseinrichtung in Jerusalem, beschreibt der Historiker Götz Aly die Folgen des Holocaust auf die deutsche Gesellschaft kurz nach dem Ende des Zweiten Weltkriegs, seine persönlichen Erinnerungen an die Kindheit und Jugend und an seine Eltern, die Reaktion der zweiten Generation und inwiefern die Erforschung des Holocaust sich zukünftig verändern wird. Eine, auch wenn in Englisch verfasst, lohnenswerte Lektüre.
Dr. Götz Aly is a German historian and journalist researching the Holocaust and German history during the Nazi period. He is presently researching the survivors’ return home to Europe after the Holocaust, and is currently a visiting scholar at the Yad Vashem International Institute for Holocaust Research. [...]

Can you tell us about yourself?

I was born in 1947 in Heidelberg, right after the war. I remember a lot about that time. For instance, all the destroyed cities in Germany, and sitting and talking with my parents and uncles at the time about the war. Of course, some of my uncles were killed during the war and we had teachers who had lost limbs during this period. At that time there was no mention of Jews. Jews never existed when I was a young boy. We didn’t know anything about the existence of Jews. We knew something about war crimes; for instance, the bombardment of Dresden, but nothing else.

It might be interesting to know something about my father. He was born in 1912, the youngest child of a Professor of Philology in Freiburg. When he was twenty, the Nazis rose to power in Germany and because of the world economic crisis at the time he was unable to study as the family had no money and he became a merchant. In 1935, Germany annexed the Saarland, which is the region on the border of France. He got a job there, for the Hitlerjugend [Hitler Youth]. Then in 1937 he had to help with the building of several homes for the Hitler Youth – focusing on the economic side of this project.

In 1937, my father was one of the eleven million Germans that joined the party. In my generation, I think that every second or third German would have a father who joined the party at that time, and he did as well. I think the membership itself is not so important. What is important is that between the age of twenty and thirty you make your friends, and relationships, which are important for the rest of your life, and you take the first steps in your career. I don’t think that my father was involved in any war crimes or things like that, because you know, Aly is a very uncommon name in Germany and I would think that historians would have found out about that by now. He was at the Russian front for eight weeks between 1942-43 in the Stalingrad winter, and returned home because he was badly injured. In the last two years of the war he began the most successful job of his life. He was responsible for the evacuation of children from the air-raided west in Germany to the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, and was responsible for 50,000 children at that time. He brought them to safety when the Russians came in 1945. This was the greatest job of all his life and after that he was just a merchant.

I think it is very important in order to understand how this Nazi system worked. In the 1950’s and 60’s my father’s generation was unable to speak about their past experiences because they knew that there had been a lot of crimes and they felt unable to act as role models. So my generation in Germany lived in a moral vacuum. There was no orientation.

What did this vacuum relate to in those years?

Everything was rotten. The moral orientation, the judicial orientation, and even the national and family traditions of German history – from the leader, to the stories. I think that my generation in Germany was influenced by the consequences of these twelve horrible years.

Is there still a feeling of national guilt or do you feel with the passage of time, this feeling has dissipated?

No, I don’t think that for me there is a feeling of national guilt, but rather a feeling of a special responsibility, and you know, the younger generation had a totally different feeling. When I was a child I remember the discussions about the war. For instance, I heard something in religion classes about Jews. What did you hear about that time about Jews? It was a sentence “an eye for an eye – a tooth for a tooth”. That was all we heard about it. This present generation would not believe that for instance we called certain fireworks for the New Year celebrations“Judenfurze” which means Jewish farts [fireworks]. That is how they were referred to in the fifties.

For some ten to fifteen years after the war, there was no talking about the Holocaust. If we made noise at school, the teacher would say in German, “Like a noisy Jewish rabble.” But there was no explanation about the Holocaust. Not one word.

When did you begin to learn in a more structured format about the Holocaust at school?

In 1961, when the Eichmann trial began in Israel, trials were taking place in Germany too. This issue came into schools by order of the government. Teachers were advised to teach about it and so we had to go down into the basement where movies were shown and at the critical age of fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen, we had to see these movies about the Warsaw Ghetto, and about Auschwitz. These were the first movies. It was like shock therapy. I think in my perspective today if I look back at that time, this was well done. We saw these movies, but for the teachers it was very difficult. They had been in the war for six years. Some had been in Soviet prisons, they returned from the east and had lost everything. They were not really able to talk about it. The young teachers had to do this.

Was there any discussion at home about the Holocaust?

The parents and families were unable to react. Let me explain what was happening in tens of thousands of families at that time. We came back home from school in the afternoon, and while our young sisters were sitting at the table in the evening having dinner, my mother would begin to ask these stupid questions, such as, “What happened at school today?” And I would answer, “It was quite interesting.” Mother would say, “Oh tell us about it.” And I told about it and our parents were like glass – frozen. And I would say in a raised voice, “You must have known this.”

In Germany, it took some ten or twenty years to overcome this point, this rupture between the generations and there were a lot of detours on the way. You know, for instance, the left-wing German student movement in 1968 was always avoiding this subject in Germany. At that time, students used Marxist terminology and reduced the National Socialism to Fascism and determined that it was a worldwide phenomenon still existing in Washington, Tehran, and even in the Middle East, and so it took us another ten years to go back to the roots of German history. At school we were confronted with the Nazi crimes, with the names of the perpetrators. At university we bypassed the issue of National Socialism and found other examples of fascism in very far-off places of the world.

You can see and analyze this detour in connection with the publication of Raul Hilberg’s book Destruction of European Jews. Raul Hilberg offered his book to the left-wing German publishing house Rowhldt in 1967. It was printed in the United States in 1961. The response of the German publisher was to refuse publication of the book with the argument “Oh, we have to publish so many books, so this would interrupt our schedule very much.” If you look at the books published by this publishing house, at that time, you have works by Mao Zetung, Che Guevara, etc., and you have five books about racism in the U.S., but nothing about the German past. This demonstrates that the conflict concerning the Holocaust was too much to add to this generational conflict in society. So perhaps it’s understandable that my generation had to go first to Che Guevara and then back to Germany. Then, ten to twelve years later, in 1983, a small left-wing publishing house in West Berlin decided to publish Raul Hilberg’s book. If you look at my publication list, you will see that my publications also began in the early 1980s.

What was your motivation to write and research about the history of the Holocaust?

I was interested in this issue at school. I became a journalist in a left-wing German newspaper, founded in the late 1970s, called Tageszeitung.I wanted to know something about the Nazi murder of the German disabled people – euthanasia killings. 200,000 Germans were killed in that way during WWII, and the personal motivation was that I have a disabled daughter, and I wanted to know something about it.

The archives at that time were closed and I met a German State Attorney in Hamburg whose job was to present a case against a very important Social Democrat (former Nazi) who had been involved in euthanasia crimes. The trial was too much for the Hamburg society so it never took place. It was stopped at the last minute.

I told the State Attorney that I wanted to know something about euthanasia and he answered, “I have worked on it for five years and you are the first to ask me about it. You should get all the information, in order to learn and research about it.”

So I published my research about the euthanasia program, which you can find in the library. We founded a special series about this (in German and in English).[1]

Has your work continued since that time?

I wanted to stop my research about this topic several times, and I took several breaks when I went back to the newspaper or writing books about other topics. But in the end it was impossible to stop, so it is an ongoing process, and I am happy to be here now at Yad Vashem. It’s a great place. For the first time in my life I am free to continue my work at Yad Vashem. The working environment here is wonderful. You get different ideas about working with the Holocaust here than in Germany. It is just a different situation. You can get first-hand information from survivors and your colleagues have personal connections to the past. It’s just different. Going down to the library and archives, everyday you see elderly survivors coming and asking for information on their relatives, or young people researching, which is impressive to see. Also, the material here is different. The most important documents here are the testimonies of survivors. In Germany, research focuses mainly on the perspective of perpetrators like Eichmann. Of course it is important too, to describe it as an historian, but it isn’t enough – it’s only one perspective.

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