Museum Fellowship Book Reviews
The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders
The Good Old Days is divided into two parts: the murder of Jews in the daily life of the Einsatzgruppen and the extermination centers. As in so many books that detail events of the Holocaust, the actions of participants seem to fall into three categories: the perpetrators, the bystanders, and the all too few resisters, many of whom apparently objected to the wholesale murder of ideological opponents and Jews – most often for the wrong reasons.
The documents and pictures in this book, written initially for Germans in German by Germans, provide evidence that the Holocaust did occur and certainly make any who deny this horror look ridiculous. In their own words, members of the SS and Wehrmacht detail atrocities in the Soviet Union and Poland.
The book begins with the prophetic words of Johannes Blaskowitz in 1940, detailing negative effects of the wholesale slaughter of Jews and Poles: creating material for enemy propaganda; arousing sympathy for the Jews among religious Poles; besmirching the Wehracht’s reputation (because the army was forced to watch without interfering) among the Polish population; and, finally, affecting Germans through “the tremendous brutalization and moral depravity which is spreading rapidly among precious German manpower like an epidemic” (page 5).
While the pogroms were being planned, it is apparent that those who were in charge realized that there was a “wrongness” to their actions in the eyes of the world, even if not in their eyes. Walter Stahlecker, head of Einsatzgruppe A, wrote in 1941: “It was thought a good idea for the security police not to be seen to be involved, at least not immediately, in these unusually tough measures, which were also bound to attract attention in German circles. The impression had to be created that the local population itself had taken the first steps of its own accord as a natural reaction to decades of oppression by the Jews and the more recent terror exerted by the Communists” (page 24).
Another indication of the Germans’ sense of this wrongness of their acts was the policy that no pictures were to be taken. Considering the pictures that do survive and have entered the public domain, one wonders how many other pictures were destroyed or exist in attic boxes or scrapbooks tucked away.
Some who watched atrocities being committed could not watch for long. A sergeant major from 562nd Bakers’ Company testified in 1959: “I watched as a group of offenders were beaten to death and then had to look away because I could not watch any longer. These actions seemed extremely cruel and brutal. A great many German soldiers as well as Lithuanians watched as these people were being beaten to death. The soldiers did not express assent or disapprobation for what was happening. They did not interfere one way or the other” (page 34).
It is clear, however, that few considered doing anything more than walking away or watching passively. In some cases, this may have been from a genuine fear of the SS. One medical orderly who witnessed a mass shooting of at least 2,000 Jews noted: “I was very shaken by this experience and told my colleagues about it – they were shaken too. It would have been pointless and dangerous for me to have disobeyed the SS man – they were very ruthless. He threatened to shoot me down if I didn’t get on my way” (page 37).
A driver who witnessed a mass shooting of Jews recalled saying at the time: “May God grant us victory because if they get their revenge, we’re in for a hard time” (page 43).
As noted in Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, those who refused to participate directly did not receive corporeal punishment. A teleprinter engineer from Einsatzgruppe C said: “I myself was detailed to the firing-squad; however, I only managed to shoot about five times. I began to feel unwell, I felt as though I was in a dream. Afterwards I was laughed at because I couldn’t shoot any more. …The nervous strain was too great for me. When I am asked whether I was reprimanded for my refusal, I have to say that this was not the case” (page 62).
A police Oberwachtmeister from Police Battalion 322 testified: “Sometimes some of the men refused to participate in shootings. I myself refused a few times. None of my superiors took any action against me and the same applied to other people who refused to carry out orders. We were just assigned different duties. We were not threatened with any kind of punishment, certainly not where the executions were concerned” (page 78). The most those refusing to shoot suffered was being called a coward or words to that effect.
Some participated, rationalizing in various way to justify their deeds. An SS Scharfuhrer and Kriminal Assistant from Kolomea Gretzpolizeikommissariat said: “The only reason I can give to the questions what would I have done to be released from taking part in such actions is: there was nothing I could do. During the actions I kept as much in the background as possible, far away from the shootings. There was nothing else I could do. I did not ask Leideritz to be released from certain duties and be given guard duties instead. The reason I did not say to Leideritz that I could not take part in these things was that I was afraid that Leideritz and others would think I was a coward. I was worried that I myself would be seen as being too weak. I did not want Leideritz or other people to get the impression that I was not as hard as an SS-Mann ought to have been ... I carried out orders not because I was afraid I would be punished by death if I didn’t. I knew of no case and still know of no case today where one of us was sentenced to death because he did not want to take part in the execution of Jews… I thought that I ought not to say anything to Leideritz because I did not want to be seen in a bad light, and I thought that if I asked him to release me from having to take part in the executions it would be over for me as far as he was concerned and my chances of promotion would be spoilt or I would not be promoted at all. That is what I thought at the time and that is why I did not say anything to Leideritz” (page 78). This raises the question of what the SS soldier in The Sunflower would have done or thought if he had not been wounded and had been faced with further atrocities.
In the chapter about daily life during the Holocaust, insights about the perpetrators’ thoughts can be seen in letters written at the time. For example, Gendarmerie chief Fritz Jacob wrote to Lieutenant-General Quener in 1942 the following: “I have been detailed for service in the East. I am truly pleased about this as I can now get down to doing some good practical work for our Fuhrer. I hope that we shall be going to a region which will suit my love of nature, and that this opportunity will finally permit me to advance myself ... Naturally, there’s a good deal of mopping up taking place, particularly amongst the Jews ... I do not know whether you too, Herr Lieutenant-General, saw such frightful Jewish types in Poland. I thank my lucky stars that I’ve now seen this mixed race for what is it. Then if life is kind to me, I’ll have something to pass on to my children.” (pages 157-159).
One of the most telling documents of this book was excerpts from SS-Dr Kremer’s diary. While tens of thousands of Jews went to the gas chamber or struggled to survive the harsh labor and lack of nutrients, Kremer wrote about food (mostly excellent), ordering his uniforms and accessories, his divorce, the killing that he observed and numbered, concerts and various entertainments and, finally, returning to his academic surroundings – as though life can be that simple.
I was struck by the fairly frequent mention of music. The saying, “Music calms the savage beast,” certainly does not apply. Some of the men who created the most savage acts do not seem at all blind to beauty, but in fact seem most able to appreciate the arts. One thing that I found wanting was the quality of the photographs. It’s not that I have a morbid curiosity; it’s that I have a journalism background and think that some deniers could object to the suggested content of the pictures.
I did find the biographical information concerning Germans at the end of the book enlightening; knowing what happened to them gave insight, though often raised as many questions as it answered.