The Magazine

One Historian's Quest

What were the Germans thinking?

Jan 5, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 16 • By STEVEN OZMENT
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Among the Israeli scholars engaging Kershaw over the years, Otto Dov Kulka challenged his scholarly caution in weighing the role of the German masses in the Holocaust. Meeting for the first time at Harvard decades ago, the two men began a lasting dialogue that has continued to the present day. Where Kershaw saw "indifference" in ordinary Germans, Kulka found "passive complicity," citing the German masses' approval of the imposition of the "Yellow Star" on the Jews and their steady commitment to the removal of all Jews from Germany.

In 1986, Kershaw conceded to Kulka that "indifference" was indeed "a less than ideal concept" to describe ordinary Germans' interest, or lack thereof, in the plight of the Jews. Yet, he insisted that putting it that way was not to "whitewash" the issue.

"Indifference," he now argued, was more than a "lack of concern." It was "a turning of one's back on an evil one recognized one could do nothing about," hence, a "moral indifference .  .  . compatible with the growing depersonalization of the Jews."

Thus redefining "indifference," and even conceding that it had "lethal" consequences, Kershaw held nonetheless to his term. In doing so, he was giving the majority of Germans in the Nazi era the benefit of the doubt. In the 1930s, Germans coped in a new world too, and their livelihoods and lives were also threatened. So unforgivably, if understandably, they put self before others and lost sight of the plight of the Jews. Further balancing his case, Kershaw emphatically recognized the existence of a "sizeable Nazi section of the population" that both welcomed the yellow star and later supported the death camps.

In drawing the semantic line for German culpability at "moral indifference with lethal consequences," Kershaw, perhaps courageously on this loaded issue, was refusing to pursue this line onto the path of what would, sadly, later become Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's German nation of uncountable, eager ordinary Germans "willing [to be Jewish] executioners" (1996).

Finding it impossible to know precisely what people were then thinking, Kershaw continued to urge his critics to devote their energy and wrath to "a comprehensive social history of anti-Semitism during the Weimar Republic." Therein would be found the evidence required to assign those 12 terrible years to their fair and just place in history, and assess blame and responsibility within them and beyond.

Writing at the time from the field of battle, Kershaw defended his position:

I returned to the passivity [argument], which I saw as reflecting the low level of priority in German consciousness accorded to the fate of the Jews. .  .  . Pessimistically, I alluded to the questionable liberal assumptions that human beings under threat will be defended in an open society. In this, my last attempt to wrestle with the intractable sources on popular opinion and the fate of the Jews, I tried to distinguish between what people then could and did not know (quite a lot), what they made of the information (an awareness that genocide .  .  . was taking place, though ignorance of scale and detail led to only partial comprehension), and reactions (a spectrum running from overt approval to blank condemnation, the most widespread of which being an apathetic turning away from unpalatable knowledge and events which could not be averted).

To settle up, Kershaw cites the guideline of a fellow traveler in German history, Jeffrey Herf: "The beginning of wisdom in these matters is a certain restraint and much less certainty regarding what 'ordinary Germans' made of Nazi propaganda." To which Kershaw responds that he is today "more cautious and agnostic than ever about generalized conclusions on opinions in the German population regarding the fate of the Jews." While still recognizing "a not small minority" of fanatical Germans "fully persuaded by radical propaganda," he rejects the Israeli scholars' claims of a "quite widespread" public German identification with the Third Reich from the start.