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auschwitz: inside the nazi state
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Interview with Laurence Rees

Writer/Producer, Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State

Laurence Rees

Laurence Rees

Why is this series important?

Auschwitz is a physical place-the site of the single largest mass murder in the history of humanity. More people died on that one single spot than the British and the Americans lost militarily in the course of the entire war. It is unique. Coming up now to the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the camp, we're able to draw on all of the new information that's come out of the East: the plans of Auschwitz that have been discovered and all the new research that's been done in the academic world relating to Auschwitz and its role in the whole Nazi scheme. What greater purpose can history have than to try and lead people toward a possible understanding of how this crime could ever have happened? Without an understanding of how it happened, you can't begin to look around the world and think why it might happen again.

Auschwitz was one of many concentration camps. Why focus only on it?

First of all, it is not really just a series about Auschwitz. We're using Auschwitz as the way to tell a larger story. The series uses Auschwitz as a prism to try and understand the whole of the extermination process and something of the mentality of the people who committed the crime.

We're looking at the killings on the eastern front. We're looking at the deportations across Europe. We're looking at the course of the war as it affected this place. It's a much bigger canvas. Auschwitz has a physical beginning in May 1940 and a physical end in January 1945. What happens in Auschwitz and the decisions made by people running Auschwitz actually mirror the bigger decisions which are being taken elsewhere.

Many people think they know the story of Auschwitz. It's the place where Jews were murdered. End of story. But for nearly the first year and a half of its operation, there were only a handful of Jews sent to Auschwitz. Its main purpose was to house Polish political prisoners and then Soviet prisoners of war. It had nothing to do with the mass extermination program.

But you can only begin to understand why it evolves into an extermination camp once you understand how it goes through this phase of doing something completely different. It evolves. What happens is a series of incremental decisions, step-by-step-by-step-by-step. That's what is so phenomenally frightening about the whole decision-making process. No one's going to come up to you one day and say, "Okay. You're going to press the button and kill everyone." What they're going to say is, "Look, we've got a real problem here. We need this tiny little element of maltreatment, but it's worth it." Then tomorrow, "You know what? We need a bit more."

It's gradual and incremental until actually it's very hard when you look back to say where the moment of absolute decision was. But overall, of course, as we now know, there is a broad framework of decision making that Hitler and Himmler are involved in over many months.

What is the difference between a concentration camp and an extermination center?

Concentration camps were not designed as extermination centers. In a concentration camp like Dachau, the majority of people were brutalized in horrible circumstances, but the majority of people came out alive after about 18 months or so. So something extraordinary happens in the period we're looking at. This place, Auschwitz, which is set up in the tradition of concentration camps, metamorphoses into a killing factory. And it's the only place on this scale to do that.

Elsewhere they set up localized killing factories-Treblinka's the biggest of them-purely to kill people. But Auschwitz is the only one that forever combines these two functions. And it begins to evolve into a microcosm of the Nazi philosophy: As long as you're useful to me, you can live; the second you're not useful to me, I'll kill you.

What is new about this series?

What has not been done to my knowledge on television before is to explore in this detail the decision-making process of the Nazis-to try and make people understand how it was possible that people actually sat down in various stages and made key decisions which ended up with the killing of six million men, women, and children. This did not happen by accident. It didn't happen because people were insane. These were, to a large extent, rational human beings who made a series of decisions which ended up with this crime. In order to understand, you have to be able to see the various stages of development of Auschwitz. It's like a biography, not of a person, but of a physical place. Like a person, it goes through whole different stages of evolution.

We're really lucky in that we're able to draw on a number of new sources. The primary one is that during the 1990's, the whole of the building plans relating to Auschwitz at all of its various stages of incarnation were uncovered in Russian archives. That's enabled us to be, I think, the very first people to build complete computer models of Auschwitz at its various stages.

What that means is we have the raw data of what this place was doing in every stage of its life. We can actually see how and why the decisions are taken to make the gas chambers. At what point does this building that appears to be a crematorium and designed for burning bodies, suddenly become this purpose-built killing factory? What are the decisions involved? Can we date them? All of that is only possible since these plans were discovered. We also have access to some of the very best computer graphic houses in the world. They are helping us recreate the very places the Nazis never wanted anybody to see.

Secondly, there's been a whole raft of documents that have come out of the Soviet Union that scholars have been studying now for a few years. We were able to tap into all of that vast academic knowledge, not the least of which is this extraordinary document discovered, I think, in the Moscow presidential archives, which is Himmler's desk diary. Sounds kind of boring. It's actually fantastically interesting and important because what it allows us to see is where Himmler is, whom he's meeting, what he's talking about, and what he's deciding. We can see exactly when and where decisions are taken.

For example, we know that all of the history books about Auschwitz say that the decision to build a vast new camp at Birkenau was taken in March 1941. That's because Rudolf Höss, the Auschwitz commandant, wrote about it in his memoirs. What we know now because of the combination of the desk diary and discoveries we've made in the Russian archives, is that the decision was made in September. The importance of that is it shows how late they actually made the decision to expand Auschwitz. Crucially it tells us that the reason they're expanding it absolutely has nothing to do with the Jewish question-they're expanding it to create a gigantic Russian prisoner-of-war camp. They're focusing on how to utilize these millions of Russians they've captured as slave labor. That's in their minds long before they're thinking about killing Jews at Auschwitz.

How is it different from other programs about the Holocaust?

I have made quite a number of programs about Nazis before. We're very conscious that if what you're trying to do is broaden the audience, which I think we must have a commitment to, then what you have to do is to look at some new techniques.

We have tried to dramatize key moments of decision-the Wannsee Conference, for example. We think it's appropriate to dramatize meetings within the camp. We think it's appropriate to do limited dramatizations of people trying to escape from the camp. But we absolutely have approached this issue of dramatization first and foremost with an eye to sensitivity. You're not going to see drama of naked men and women and children being pushed into the gas chambers. You're not going to see dramatizations of people in those appalling pajama-like suits walking about the camp. We've made an absolute rule to not dramatize suffering.

Also, from the very first, we knew that if we were going to create dramatizations, it would be absolutely vital to have a level of scholarly help to insure that as far as possible what we're saying is accurate. As a result, we're working with Sir Ian Kershaw, who is probably the leading expert on Nazism in the world; Professor David Cesarani, who's a former head of the Wiener Library in London and is, I think, Britain's, if not Europe's, leading Jewish scholar; Professor Christopher Browning, who I think is the leading Holocaust scholar in North America; and Professor Robert Jan van Pelt, who is the leading scholar with detailed knowledge of the plans of Auschwitz. We've also drawn in a number of other experts through this key academic team.

Every scene that we dramatize, as far as is humanly possible, is based on minutes of particular meetings, trial testimony, or testimony of people who were in those meetings, and verified by one or another of these consultants.

Of course, you can't be one hundred percent sure that word-for-word what's being said in those meetings is exactly word-for-word what we're showing, but the viewer will be absolutely sure about the context and source material for a particular meeting. So if we come to one of the most important economic meetings that was held just before the invasion of the Soviet Union, where they're actually deciding on a policy of genocide by starvation within the Soviet Union, we make it clear that the dramatization is based on the original minutes of that meeting, which we have. When it comes to a meeting in Slovakia among senior government officials about the decision to pay the Germans to take Jews from Slovakia, we make it clear that that meeting is based on the post-war recollections of two of the three people at it. Throughout every stage, you're made aware of the very firm historical basis for the drama that you're seeing.

One of the threads we follow right through the series is the career of a man called Rudolf Höss. Rudolf Höss was the commandant of Auschwitz and he's really the person we see at the very beginning of episode one and we follow him through almost to the end of episode six because we have a fantastic source-his own memoirs. Just before he was executed after the war, he was made to sit down and write his autobiography. So we have a firsthand source as to what's happening and what decisions are being made, as they relate to Höss.

Why did you film perpetrators?

I mentioned before that we've been using a lot of new techniques. But we haven't thrown everything away from what we've learned in the past. For the last ten years, we've been making programs in which we've been trying to get firsthand testimony from perpetrators—from people who actually did these terrible things. It's much, much easier, of course, to get survivors to talk to you, than it is people who actually committed these crimes.

Over the years we've developed a large number of contacts, particularly through the archives in the East, which enabled us to approach these people. It's incredibly labor intensive and incredibly expensive. In order to find one perpetrator, one person who pulls the trigger and shoots people, researchers have to go through the original SS records and trawl through thousands and thousands of names. They've got to compare them against trial records. They've often got to go to the Russian archives to see whether any of these people were prosecuted. Then they've got to go through phone books in Germany. They've got to try and trace relatives and so on.

It is enormously time consuming and then, of course, when you actually find someone whom you think was involved in this, nine times out of ten they'll say, "Go away. I don't want to talk to you." It's an extraordinary testament to the research staff that we have found a number of people who actually openly talk about participating in the killing process.

Why do they do it? Number one, the risk of prosecution for them is very, very, very small. If your position is that you can't remember exactly where you did it, you can't be tried for murder. You can only be tried if the murder charges say, "On this day, you killed these people." It's also sixty years later and you're in your eighties. Within ten or fifteen years, how many people are going to be left to actually talk like this? How long are you going to be alive?

Another reason—and this is the scary reason—I genuinely think they want people to understand why they did it and that they're not mad. Some of these people want people to understand that they don't necessarily think it was a bad thing they did. The questions we asked and the way we actually use this material make it clear that we are not neutral between good and evil. On the other hand, if you actually interview someone who admits to shooting Jews and he's not sorry and you're able to ask, "How can you not be sorry?" and he says, "It's because I really hate Jews," you're providing something completely unique in terms of insight to the audience. There are profound lessons you can take from seeing that. When people in fifty or a hundred years time watch this, it will still be there for them to see.

What would you like people to come away with after viewing this?

I've been making programs around this subject for twelve to fourteen years. Something I've asked myself a lot is, why? Insofar as I can answer the question, I think it's because this is a crime that's committed by people who live in a cultured country at the heart of Europe. The people who did this were often extremely intelligent. A large number of people sitting around the table at the Wannsee Conference (held January 20, 1942, outside of Berlin to plan details of the "final solution to the Jewish question") held academic doctorates, many of them doctorates in law, interestingly enough.

Many of the people in charge of the killing squads were not mindless thugs. One of them held two Ph.D.s and he insisted his staff call him "Doctor-Doctor." (Reinhard) Heydrich (head of the German Security Service), who helped mastermind this, was an accomplished musician. You're dealing with people who are extremely cultured. They made these decisions extremely calmly, extremely coldly, extremely-as they thought-rationally.

So how on earth is it possible? It's fantastically easy to dismiss this kind of event as the work of insane people, of madmen. The disturbing thing is they're not mad. They're doing what they think is the right thing to do at the time. Unless we understand why people like this think it's the right thing to do at the time, we're helpless in the face of it happening again.

Why should high school students watch this series?

One of the big problems history producers face is, why haven't more young people watched what we do? I think we've improved in many ways the kind of program techniques we have. But we still find that it's very hard to interest people under the age of about 30 in history. We've done a lot of research as to why that is and we think we know one answer: it's very, very hard for people until they settle down a bit-often when they have children, they feel more rooted-to understand the relevance of any of this. I remember when I was seventeen having to study transubstantiation in the Thirty-Years War. It simply had no relevance for me.

But I can absolutely see what the relevance of this is. It is a crime story. I think crime is a subject that younger people can get hold of. We know they like watching crime movies and crime stories. So this approach, by trying to look at the perpetrators, hopefully offers a way of making it more attractive to high school students.

Do you think American and British people will view the series differently?

In Britain, we have a much more rooted sense of being European. There is a sense of shared culture, particularly based around geography. I think we can't overemphasize that sense of place. None of this happened in America. It happened a long way away, while just a few hundred miles south of here, in the Channel Islands, they handed over people who then died in Auschwitz. The Nazis never had any plans in their wildest dreams to go to America, although, of course, many Holocaust survivors now live in the United States.

What do you think will be surprising to people?

There's a perception that the Second World War was about Britain and America fighting the Germans-that the crucial battle was D-Day. If you look at the war from the military point of view of the Germans, the war is primarily against the Soviet Union. That's where most of their army is sent.

At the time of D-Day, for example, the Germans have only a fraction of the forces trying to deal with the Americans and British in the West that they have facing the Soviet Union in the East. They believe that the central ideological struggle of the twentieth century is between Nazism and Communism and which ideology is going to triumph and rule the world.

So you cannot begin to understand what happens in Auschwitz and what happens as a result of the extermination program unless you understand the mentality of these people and the war they are fighting in the East where they think they are fighting subhuman people. They intend to colonize the East in a way that no other conqueror since Genghis Khan had tried to do. They're going to completely restructure whole countries. They're going to do in the East, things they would not dream of doing in countries like France and Denmark and Belgium.

Current estimates of the number of Soviet citizens who died in the war are around 28,000,000. The Nazis are trying to re-organize a continent here. The invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, is the single biggest land invasion in all history. There never will be a war like that again, because nuclear weapons will prevent it.

The war in the East was also instrumental in creating the whole atmosphere and mentality to exterminate the Jews. As the Nazis move East, they don't just think they're fighting subhuman people because they are Slavs and because they are Communists whom they hate. They are also convinced ideologically that Communism is the same as Judaism. When I interview some of these old former Nazis, I hear time and again, "Marx was a Jew, you know." They've got an absolute sense that behind Communism is Judaism. So they have two enemies in one here.

Because they want to restructure the country, which they've been doing in Poland, they want to eliminate the intellectual class. Even before they go into the Soviet Union, they give instructions to special killing squads to kill either the Commissars, which are the Communist officials, or "Jews in the service of the party of the state." They think to themselves, "When you go into a village, find the Jews, because then you'll know whom the Communists are." From the very beginning, they are killing male Jews. But because in the Nazi state, an order is the bare minimum you're going to do, some units look at the order and say, "Okay. We'll kill whole villages. We'll kill all Jewish men we come across. We won't worry about whether they're Communists or not."

Then the Nazis face a problem. Once you kill the family's breadwinner, what do you do with the women and children? In the summer of 1941, they make a watershed decision to shoot the women and children, too. And I think that's an extraordinary moment in history. (Heinrich) Himmler makes that decision, having had it authorized, I believe, by Hitler, and permeates it down through the killing squads.

Then they face an even bigger problem. Shooting women and children at close quarters is psychologically affecting around twenty percent of the killers, which is why Himmler starts a program to find a better way of killing. Better, of course, for the killers-not the people being killed. What's happening isn't that one person has sat down before it all happened and said, "I want gas chambers to kill all the Jews." What's happened is that a series of gradual, incremental decisions are taken, so they get to a point where they see rationally and logically that the best way forward is to create killing centers.

That, to a large extent, is what is so appalling about this horrendous crime-that human beings make a series of decisions over many months which in their warped minds they consider rational, in a process one historian has described as 'cumulative radicalization.' And all of this leads to a policy that is unique in history-the mechanized extermination of an entire people. It is a terrifying history-and one which we all must try to understand.