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Volume 18, No.2 / Winter 2005            
Yehuda Bauer: Teaching about the Holocaust (Part 2)
Highlights of Yehuda Bauer's Thoughts about the Holocaust
 

Introduction
Section 1
Highlights of Yehuda Bauer's Thoughts about the Holocaust
Stories of Jewish Rescuers’ Negotiations with the Nazis
Section 2
Classroom Applications
Glossary
Credits
First Issue

Introduction to Part III and Part IV

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 Bundestag:

The German House of Representatives

January 27, 1998

 

    On 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 first century:

 

     The 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.

 

     Why?  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.

 

     How 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 humane.

 

     The 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.  . . . .

 

     (The 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.  . . .                                

 

       The 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.

 

. . . .

 

     In all 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.

 

     One 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.  . . .

 

     It is 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.

 

     The 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 yet others? 

 

. . . .

 

   The way 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.

 

     In 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.

 

     The 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.

 

     The 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. 

. . . .

 

     I now 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.

 

I do 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.

Connections:


  How do you define revolution?  Why do you think Dr. Bauer refers to the Nazi movement as a radical revolution?  What were the Nazis revolting against?
  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. Bauer?
  Create a dialogue between yourself and the mother who took her children to Palestine?
  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?

 

 
 
 

Dimensions Online
Volume 18, No. 1, Fall 2004
Yehuda Bauer

Volume 17, No. 2, Fall 2003
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust--Part II

Volume 17, No.1, Spring 2003
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust-- Part I

Volume 16, No. 1, Fall 2002
Remembrance and Commemoration of Two Catastrophes: September 11th and the Holocaust

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