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The wound that cannot heal

Well-written and impeccably researched, Mary Fulbrook’s account of Nazi crime and punishment is a work of substance

02 May, 2019 — By Pauline Paucker

Train track leading to the gas chambers at Auschwitz II-Birkenau

RECENT polls here in Europe and in the United States have disturbingly shown how many people know little or nothing about the appalling mass murder of millions in Nazi Europe some 70 years ago.

Some don’t believe it, others minimise the numbers involved, perhaps unable to face the truth. But plainly the horror, this open wound that cannot heal, shames the 20th century.

Who can take in the numbers? There are the thousands killed in the early “euthanasia” programme, the killing of political opponents, the murder of six million, or maybe more, Jews, the brutal treatment of homosexuals, the death of two and a half million Russian prisoners-of-war, the murder of Roma people, the slave labourers of so many nations, who were worked to death, starved, shot. When shooting became too arduous, then came the gas chambers and incinerators of the death camps.

Altogether the numbers amount to some 11 to 17 million victims of Nazi policy. This is hard to grasp, something different from a genocidal massacre, this was the industrialisation of death.

Those in the camps, as Primo Levi records, were haunted by the idea that even if they lived to bear witness to their degradation and suffering, who would believe them?

Perpetrator and victim faced each other in the post-war trials; what we have is the documentation left by the perpetrators, their accounts of their actions and the accounts of those victims who survived or left some kind of witness before their deaths in the camps,

When the last survivor of the death camps dies then “it’s all history books” as Anita Lasker-Wallfisch said at the end of a recent BBC programme, The Last Survivors.

Professor Mary Fulbrook, a sound historian of this period of German history, has written a detailed survey of crimes and punishments, Reckonings: A Legacy of Nazi Persecutions and the Quest for Justice.

Professor Mary Fulbrook

In a book of 657 pages, she deftly puts together personal memories, trial records, and documentation. She shows how in the early years of the Nazi regime it became acceptable to kill those regarded as disabled mentally or physically, this against Christian teaching or medical ethics.

From here, as Professor Fulbrook shows, it was an easy slide to accept the killing of those declared to be inferior, not part of the Aryan ideal: Jews, Roma, Slavs, homosexuals. Political opponents were dealt with early on, almost immediately after the Nazi takeover.

In the first part of the book she shows how extensive the camp system was, whereas the place name of the Auschwitz complex of camps and work sites seems to stand for the Holocaust (the word itself is disputable, many prefer Shoah). Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, Chelmno were death factories also set up in Poland, where so many perished.

Professor Fulbrook lists and describes the many smaller death camps to be found in Germany itself. She has travelled widely in Poland and in Germany, visiting relevant sites, seeing for herself how it was impossible for locals to deny the existence of these places, or, as they did, to deny seeing the skeletal starving workers marched through their towns to work each day.

The second part of the book deals with punishment, reckonings, the post-war trials and the memorialising of the places of death, and the changing attitudes to the past.

Communist East Germany, the DDR, was more severe in sentencing those involved. In immediate post-war West Germany the sentences were more lenient, the judiciary for the most part unchanged since Nazi rule. The testimony of the victims was not heard with sympathy and Mary Fulbrook points out that by the time of the Auschwitz trials of 1963-1965 the majority of the perpetrators had already succeeded in evading justice.

This is a serious book for the serious reader, well-written, well-researched, but as to how and why, no historian can give an answer.

• Reckonings: A Legacy of Nazi Persecutions and the Quest for Justice. By Mary Fulbrook, Oxford University Press, £25


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