Yehuda Bauer: Teaching about the Holocaust (Part 2)
Highlights of Yehuda
Bauer's Thoughts about the Holocaust
Introduction to Part III and
This issue of
Dimensions Online is a continuation of our
focus on Dr. Yehuda Bauer’s research and writings on the
history of the Holocaust.
Part III includes a
recapitulation of his thoughts on the Holocaust as they
appeared in his speech to the German Bundestag on
January 27, 1998. Part III also includes a discussion of
his primary research interest—Jewish negotiations with the
Nazis in order to save Jews.
Part IV is centered on
classroom applications—integrating his writings about
history and about teaching the Holocaust into classroom
lessons and activities.
Highlights of Yehuda Bauer’s
Thoughts about the Holocaust
Yehuda Bauer Speaks to the
The German House of Representatives
January 27, 1998
the German Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27, 1998, Dr.
Yehuda Bauer addressed the Bundestag, the German
House of Representatives, summarizing his recent thoughts on
the significance of the Holocaust. He observed that the
Nazis planned and executed a radical revolution that was
unprecedented in the annals of history. He also stressed
that the unprecedented and universal aspects of the
Holocaust are inextricably intertwined. The following
excerpts highlight the factors that Dr. Bauer stressed
during his address and compel readers to consider the legacy
of the Holocaust and its continuing meaning for the twenty
war, which was instigated by National Socialist Germany,
mainly for ideological reasons, cost the lives of about 49
million people, most of whom were civilians.
I think that we have to be clear that a radical revolution
had been planned, a mutiny against everything that had been
before. It was not a new order of social classes, of
religions, or even of nations that was envisioned, but a
completely new hierarchy—one constructed of so-called
races—in which the invented master race did not only have
the right but the duty to rule over the others and to
enslave and murder all those it considered different from
itself. This was a universalistic ideology: “Today,
Germany belongs to us, tomorrow the entire world,” as the
Nazi song had it.
was it possible for a people of culture who lived in the
midst of Europe and who had developed one of the greatest
civilizations ever, to subscribe to such an ideology, to
instigate a war of annihilation because of it, and to stick
to it until the bitter end? Terror was not the only
reason. . . . . There was a consensus based on a promise
of a wonderful utopia—a utopia of an idyllic community of
people governing the world, devoid of friction, without
political parties, without democracy, one that would be
served by slaves. To achieve such a goal, it was necessary
to revolt against everything that had been before:
middle-class and Judeo-Christian morality, individual
freedom, humanitarianism—the whole package of the French
Revolution and the Enlightenment. National Socialism was,
in fact, the most radical of revolutions that had ever taken
place—a mutiny against which was, until then, thought of as
nucleus of the strategy to annihilate anybody thought of as
different was the Holocaust, the project of total
annihilation of the Jewish people and the actual murder of
all the Jews the murderers could lay their hands on. And
the most horrible thing about the Shoah is in fact
not that the Nazis were inhuman—the most horrible thing
about it is that they were indeed human, just as human as
you and I are. When we claim that they are different from
us and that we can sleep in peace, with untroubled
consciences, because the Nazis were devils and we ourselves
are not devils because we are not Nazis, that is cheap
escapism. Escapism of the same cheap kind is implicit when
we say that the Germans were somehow genetically programmed
to execute mass murders. Because most people are not
Germans, many tend to think that whatever happened could
never be repeated by anyone else and that it could have
happened only in Germany. This is reverse racism. . . . .
Holocaust continues to generate interest and there continues
to be books, films, and museums devoted to the subject.
This is not necessarily because of the brutality shown by
the Nazis or their mastery of technology in killing—other
mass murders involved excessive brutality and the
perpetrators made use of the most recent technology.)
No, I think the answer lies elsewhere. You see, for the
first time in the whole history, people who were descended
from three or four of a particular kind of
grandparents—Jewish ones—were condemned to death just for
being born. The mere fact of their birth was in itself
their deadly crime that had to be avenged by execution.
This has never happened before, anywhere. A second
characteristic of the Holocaust that was unprecedented was
that anybody of Jewish descent was to be caught wherever in
the world Nazi Germany exercised influence, be it directly
or through allies—anywhere in the world, a world that
tomorrow would belong to “us.” The murder of the Jews was
not directed against the Jews of Germany or the Jews of
Poland or even the Jews of Europe, but against all the
seventeen million Jews scattered throughout the entire world
of 1939. All other cases of genocide had been perpetrated
on definite territories, although the territories may
sometimes have been very wide, whereas the murder of the
Jews was construed to be universal. Third, the ideology.
Numerous colleagues of mine have analyzed the structure of
Nazism, its bureaucracy, the day-to-day operation of the
murder apparatus. All their findings are absolutely
correct—but why did the bureaucrats, who were shipping
German schoolchildren by train to summer camps and Jews by
train to death camps with the same administrative means, do
the latter? Why murder all Jews who could be found? To try
and explain this way with social structures—although they
may have been very important—is unacceptable. . . .
motivation was ideological. The racist-antisemitic ideology
was the rational outcome of an irrational approach, an
approach that was a cancer like mutation of the Christian
antisemitic ideology that had sullied Christian-Jewish
relations all through their two millennia of coexistence.
Nazi antisemitism was a pure ideology, with a minimal
relation to reality: the Jews were accused of a worldwide
conspiracy, an idea stemming from the Jew-hatred of the
Middle Ages, whereas in reality Jews were not capable of
achieving unity, even on a partial basis. Between you and
me, they are still not capable of it. A conspiracy did
exist, but it was not a conspiracy by the Jews; it was one
by the National Socialists.
. . . .
the other cases of genocide known to us, the motivation was
somehow pragmatic, as in the case of the Armenians, where
there was a nationalistic motivation for their murder, or in
the case of Rwanda, where there is a deadly conflict over
power and territory. In the case of the Holocaust, the
ideology underlying the genocide was, for the first time in
history, pure fantasy.
can add a fourth element to the unprecedented
characteristics of the Holocaust: the concentration camp.
The Nazis may not have invented it, but they surely brought
it to a totally new stage of development. Not only the
murder and suffering in those camps should occupy our mind,
but also the elevated level to which they brought the art of
humiliation through the control they exercised over people
through their physiological needs. This is without
precedent in human history. True, the humiliations and the
rest were not perpetrated against the Jews alone, but Jews
were the ones on the lowest rung of that hell. What the
Nazis achieved by subordinating Jews to that extreme was not
the dehumanization of the Jews but the dehumanization of
their own selves. By establishing these horrific
concentration camps they positioned themselves on the
lowermost possible rung of humanity. . . .
the lack of a precedent for the Holocaust that is beginning
to be understood all over the world. A very special case of
genocide took place here – certainly not in the exact same
form, but possibly in a similar, maybe even very similar
manner, and we have no way of determining who will be the
Jews and who might be the Germans the next time.
menace is universal and at the same time—because it is
founded on the experience of the Holocaust—very specifically
connected with the Jews. The specific and the universal
cannot be separated. It is the extreme character of the
Holocaust that allows it to be compared with the other cases
of genocide and to be presented as a warning. It has in
fact, been already copied, though not exactly. Should the
warning be ignored? Should the Holocaust serve as a
precedent for others who would like to inflict the same onto
. . . .
I see it, a historian is one who not only analyzes history
but also tells true stories. So let me tell you some
stories. In Radom, in Poland, there lived a Jewish woman
with two sons. Her husband had gone to Palestine in 1939 to
prepare the way for his entire family to immigrate. The war
broke the family apart. The husband became a Palestinian
citizen and tried to save his family by including them in an
exchange with German settlers in Palestine.
October 1942, when the woman already knew what awaited her
and her children, a Gestapo man summoned her to headquarters
and told her she was going to be exchanged. Within one hour
she was supposed to turn up with her two sons at his
office. “Yes,” said the woman, “but my elder son is working
outside the ghetto,” and she asked how she was supposed to
summon her son. “That is none of my business,” said the
Gestapo man. They had to show up in one hour. And if not?
The woman was desperate. Should she and her younger son
share the fate of her firstborn? Or should she at least
save herself and her younger son? She agonized over the
decision back home. Her neighbor approached her and said:
“Look, you cannot save your son. Why don’t you take my son
in his stead? My son is the same age as your elder son.”
Shocked and in tears, the woman showed up at the Gestapo
headquarters with two boys. On November 11, 1942, she
arrived in Haifa. The two boys became in time, prominent
Israeli citizens, with children and grandchildren.
woman spoke little after that. She was a proud person and
would not live supported by the pity of others. (Her
husband died soon after she joined him in Palestine.) Until
the end of her life she ran a small stall opposite the great
synagogue on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv. It was said that
she was a survivor of the Holocaust. Had she really
survived? I am not sure.
Holocaust, along with all the other horrible things that the
National Socialists perpetrated, shows not only the evil
that man is capable of but also—at the margins, so to
speak—the opposite, the good. (Consider the controversial
figure, Oskar Schindler, a registered Nazi, who nevertheless
saved the lives of more than a thousand Jews, at the risk of
his own life.)
. . .
Schindler and others like him . . . show us that it was
possible to save lives. The deeds of these people prove, on
the one hand, the guilt of the others, but also, on the
other hand, that hope is not lost.
. . . .
return to the question of whether we have learned anything.
Not much, or so it seems to me. But hope persists, even
among the traumatized people, a group to which I belong.
You [his audience in the German house of representatives]
carry a very special responsibility—especially as Europeans,
especially as Germans.
not have to tell you that what happened in Rwanda or in
Bosnia happened right next door. To be reminded, as a
consequence, of the Holocaust, constitutes only the first
step. To teach and study about the Holocaust and everything
that transpired during the Second World War and thereafter
involving racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia—that
constitutes our next responsibility. We, Germans and Jews,
depend on each other in undertaking this responsibility.
You cannot carry out the task of remembering without us, and
we must be sure that here, where the disaster arose, a new
humane, better civilization is being constructed on the
ruins of the past. Together we carry a very special
responsibility toward the whole of humanity.
||How do you define
revolution? Why do you think Dr. Bauer refers to the Nazi
movement as a radical revolution? What were the Nazis
||How does Dr. Bauer
distinguish the Holocaust from other genocidal events?
||If you had been
in the audience what would you want to ask Dr.
||Create a dialogue
between yourself and the mother who took her children to
||Although Dr. Bauer
delivered this address to an audience of German leaders, how
does his message pertain to people of all different
nationalities and ethnicities?
Dr. Bauer has said
(see above) that “we carry a very special responsibility
toward the whole of humanity.” What can you do to accept
Yehuda Bauer’s challenge?