I mean, writers who spend a good chunk of their lives — or, for some, their entire careers — studying the Holocaust.
It is, to my mind, a high calling, sifting through the orders, accounts, files, memoirs, photos, diaries, trial testimony and other documents to nail down the facts and wrestle with the important questions, such as: How could this have happened? What does the Holocaust say about human nature? To what extent was Hitler responsible? The German people? The anti-Semitism of the rest of the world?
More than nuclear weapons, more than climate change, more than capitalism, terrorism or religious fundamentalism, the Holocaust is the central issue of humanity today. And probably for centuries to come.
Human beings killed human beings in a conscious, factory-like, bureaucratically buttressed endeavor for no reason — for lack of a threat — except that the people were of a certain religion, culture and “race.”
The killing of millions of Jews was the culmination of the murderous style of government that the Nazis used to grab and keep power, and kept them there through the end of World War II. Others were targeted as well, but not as ruthlessly, not as comprehensively: homosexuals, gypsies, the mentally ill, the Polish leadership, Russian soldiers. Millions of Russian POWs, for instance, died of neglect. The difference was that the slaying of Jews was an active effort by Hitler’s Germany, an active effort to kill each and every one of them.
So, the role of people like Roseman, an English historian, is essential, especially now as the last living killers, enablers and victims are dying off. Already Holocaust-denial is a cottage industry in academic and political circles throughout the world. Getting as much detail into the historical record today lays the foundation for the Holocaust studies that will be conducted for generations into the future.
Yet, how do people like Roseman do it?
How do they handle the emotional toll that must come with looking full-face at the killers and the slain?
Roseman, who also wrote “A Past in Hiding,” the story of a Jewish woman who survived in Germany during the war, is dealing in this book with a January 20, 1942 meeting held in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee and attended by 15 high-ranking (but not the highest-ranking) Nazi party and German military leaders.
The purpose: To discuss the “evacuation” of Jews from German-held lands. Ostensibly, “evacuation” meant moving them — all of them — to somewhere in the East. But it’s clear from Roseman’s analysis as well as the minutes of the meeting (known as the Wannsee Protocol) that “evacuation” was a euphemism of elimination, for an actively carried-out mass murder on a scale never before seen in human history.
Roseman writes that the euphemism was so thin as to be non-existent: “On the one hand, the [Wannsee Protocol] is coy about killing and talks of ‘evacuation of Jews to the East.’ On the other hand, the language about eliminating Jewish workers [who are strong enough to survive months of forced labor] is so open, and the implications for the rest is so clear, as to render the euphemisms pointless as a disguise…
“Euphemisms were [the Reich security force’s] normal mode of communicating about murder and would have served here to remind the document’s recipients of the codes they should use. At the same time it was so vital to ensure the [meeting’s] participants’ shared knowledge in the killing program that caution was abandoned.”
The subtitle of Roseman’s book is “A Reconsideration.” Since the discovery of the Protocol in the files of one of the participants in 1947, there has been debate over just how significant the Wannsee Conference was. Certainly, its language of “evacuation” and its bureaucratically focused minutiae make it a strikingly evocative document. But how important in the history of the Holocaust?
Roseman takes great pains to place the Conference in its historical setting, using the first half of the book (78 pages) to chronicle the movement of Hitler, the Nazis and the German military from the threats of Mein Kampf to mass murder (as in the passive neglect that led to the deaths of Russian prisoners by starvation and disease), and then from mass murder to genocide.
His discussion of the meeting takes up another 60 pages, and he finishes with 17 pages on its aftermath.
His conclusion: “Wannsee itself was not the moment of decision. Nobody at Wannsee…was senior enough to decide such matters…The Wannsee Protocol was rather a signpost indicating that genocide had become the official policy.”
In the after-glow of the meeting, its organizers paused for a moment for a drink before heading off to carry out the next steps in the Final Solution. They were pleased with themselves: “Speaking to one another with great politeness, sipping their cognac, [they] really had cleared the way for genocide.”
It’s a chilling image. But there’s one even more disturbing.
It comes halfway through the book when Roseman writes about a memo that Adolf Eichmann, one of those conference organizers, received from another bureaucrat. The memo noted that those responsible for all the Jews who had been and would be rounded up were going to face problems in winter when there wouldn’t be food enough to feed their captives.
So, the writer had this idea: “It should be seriously considered if the most human solution would not be to kill those Jews not capable of work with some quick acting means. This would certainly be more pleasant than allowing them to starve to death.”
So, the Holocaust was “humane.” And it was “more pleasant” than other options — such as, life.
That’s a glimpse into the heart of darkness that was the Holocaust.
And it’s why I can’t help wondering how Roseman and other Holocaust historians are able to handle the emotional strain of studying the perpetrators of the mass killings.
How can they not look away?
Patrick T. Reardon