As this turns into a lengthy review, I ponder why I’ve been trying, in an amateurish way, to educate myself about the traumas of modern Europe—beyond the obvious answer, that we all must.
I guess it’s related to my studies of China, and my engagement with the lives of people like Li Manshan; a feeling of duty to report the sufferings of ordinary people I encounter in China—including not just their ritual life but their tribulations under Maoism, with famine, struggle meetings, and labour camps; and my growing awareness of the sufferings of Europeans over a similar period. I don’t want to spoil your holidays (or mine), but as we relish the cultures and scenery of these countries, we shouldn’t forget the ghosts that haunt the landscape.
Among the innumerable studies of the Nazi concentration camp system, Primo Levi is justly famed—actually, I find the sequel The truce just as disturbing as If this is a man, after the camp is finally liberated yet their Odyssey of suffering continues, homecoming ever receding. But I’ve also been deeply moved by
- Sarah Helm, If this is a woman: Inside Ravensbruck, Hitler’s concentration camp for women (2015).
Helm’s account is based on amazingly thorough research and interviews with both victims and perpetrators—much of which was submerged until the end of the Cold War. Of course a historian’s account will give different, more holistic, perspectives from those of an individual inmate, but in a way I find Helm’s work even more moving than that of Levi. At 823 pages, it’s hideously readable—both balanced (whatever that might mean) and personal, in a way that ideologically-driven accounts such as those of Dikötter (for the degradations of Maoism in China) can’t achieve. Even the excellent index is harrowing.
I suppose I’m not alone in thinking of the whole catastrophe in terms of a few appalling place-names like Auschwitz and Belsen, but along with the focus on Ravensbrück, over the whole six years of its existence, we see how very extensive was the whole network of camps, subcamps, death camps, work camps, transports and marches, scarring the whole landscape.
At its height, Ravensbrück had a population of about 45,000 women; over the six years of its existence around 130,000 women passed through its gates, to be beaten, starved, worked to death, poisoned, executed and gassed.
The book opens with an arresting and complex image:
“The year is 1957. The doorbell of my flat is ringing,” writes Grete Buber-Neumann, a former Ravensbrück prisoner. I open the door. An old woman is standing before me, breathing heavily and missing teeth in the lower jaw. She babbles: “Don’t you know me any more? I am Johanna Langefeld, the former head guard at Ravensbrück.” The last time I had seen her was fourteen years ago in her office at the camp. I worked as her prisoner secretary… She would pray to God to stop the evil happening, but if a Jewish woman came into the office her face would fill with hatred…
So she sits at the table with me. She tells me she wishes she’d been born a man. She talks of Himmler, who she sometimes still calls “Reichsführer”. She talks for many hours, she gets lost in the different years, and tries to explain her behaviour. (1)
The book goes on to tell the stories of Langefeld, Buber-Neumann (who also had the terrible distinction of already having been incarcerated in a Russian gulag), and a tragic cast of inmates and their tormentors, with chapters focusing on personalities over the years.
Among them were political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, “asocials”, “useless mouths”, “idiots”, and (later) children; in this camp only around 10% were Jewish. Its shifting population was international, including Germans, Poles (the largest group), Gypsies, Russians, Czechs, French, Hungarians, Scandinavians, and Dutch, all transported there at various stages.
In April 1944 recent arrivals included evacuees from Majdanek, including more Red Army doctors and nurses, as well as 473 Gypsies transferred from Auschwitz. There were Italian partisans, Slovenians, Greeks, Spaniards, and Danes, as well as three Egyptians and seven Chinese. (419)
They were often in desperate straits even when they arrived.
Helm also delves into the lives of guards, doctors, and Blockovas (prisoners—at first often criminals—coopted to carry out the day-to-day work of running the camp). The twice-daily Appell roll-call was an ordeal that regularly led to death, as did stays in the Revier “hospital”.
As she observes, the “asocials”, such as prostitutes (pp.56, 96–108, 417–19, and index), have gone largely undocumented:
Unlike the political women, they left no memoirs. Speaking out after the war would mean revealing the reason for imprisonment in the first place, and incurring more shame. […] The German associations set up after the war to help camp survivors were dominated by political prisoners. And whether they were based in the Communist East or in the West, these bodies saw no reason to help “asocial” survivors. (98)
Perhaps the most sickening story (how might one concoct a hierarchy of inhumanity?) concerns the 86 “rabbits” (mostly from a group of 195 women from Lidice near Prague, deported after the 1942 assassination of Heydrich and the punitive razing of the village), objects of unthinkable medical experiments.  But it’s also moving for the way in which the whole camp later rallied round to protect them from being murdered so that their terrible story could at least be told—miraculously, 63 of them survived. Again, Holm switches tellingly to the present day:
I found Zofia Kawińska in her tenth-floor flat overlooking the cranes of Gdansk shipyard. She was one of the second group of victims of Himmler’s sulphonamide experiments. A tiny, bent figure, she walks with difficulty, and has done since the war. I ask if she still suffers pain from the experiments. “A little,” she says, as she offers tea and biscuits.
She stoops to show the scars on the sides of her legs. “They put the bacteria in, and glass and bits of wood, and they waited.” She looks up and fixes me with deep brown eyes, as if to see if there is any chance that I understand. “But I didn’t suffer as much as some. Everyone in Poland came home with wounds.” (243–4)
The smuggled letters of the rabbits were among many acts of defiance.
In similar vein, Nikolaus Wachsmann, in KL: a history of the Nazi concentration camps (perhaps the most authoritative study of the whole system), refines the view of “prisoners as blank and apathetic automatons, drained of all free will”, recognizing the heroism of such agency, “however small and constrained”. But he makes an important caveat:
We must resist the temptation to make our encounter with the concentration camps more bearable by sanctifying the prisoners, imagining them as united, unsullied, and unbowed. For the most part, the prisoners’ story is not an uplifting account of the triumph of the human spirit, but a tale of degradation and despair.
For anthropologists, the most extremely disturbing instance of participant observation is Germaine Tillion (1907–2008), an ethnologist who had done fieldwork in Algeria before being arrested while working for the French resistance. In impossible conditions she comprehensively documented the activities of the camp, somehow managing to hide her notebooks from the guards. After the war she continued her research on “the history of the de-civilisation of Europe”, and returned to her work on Algeria; her distinguished career was recognized by many awards.
While in the camp Tillion even composed and staged an operetta Le Verfügbar aux Enfers, a spoof of Orpheus in the underworld, attempting to help prisoners “resist by laughing” (567). It has been revived since 2007—my post Operetta in extremis includes a complete performance from 2011.
As the camp population grew constantly with prisoners evacuated from camps in the path of the Soviet advance, the 959 French prisoners (known as the “vingt-sept mille” after their camp numbers) who joined Tillion from Paris in February 1944, “jeunes filles biens élevées”, were quite unprepared for what awaited them at Ravensbrück, and adapted badly. Quartered in the “slums” of the camp, soon they were more hated than the Poles; their health quickly failed. Another group of women arrived in August from Warsaw, obliterated after the uprising—reporting to their compatriots, “There is no Warsaw. There is nothing left.” Hungarian Jews were deported to Ravensbrück in October. Babies were soon starved to death.
As it becomes clear that the Nazis are in retreat, the final chapters are just as tense. Desperate to conceal their crimes, with order collapsing, their brutality becomes even more extreme and random. The reader wills the inmates to survive.
By the end of March  the camp was “like a mysterious planet”, said Denise Dufournier, “where the macabre, the ridiculous and the grotesque rubbed shoulders in a fantastic irrational chaos.” Karolina Lanckorońska, watching the crematorium flames shooting higher every night, was reminded of the beginning of the Iliad. She was still giving lectures on Charlemagne and Gothic art as children in Block 27 played a game of selecting for the gas chamber. In the Red Army block the women were making red flags to hang out to welcome their liberators, while the painting gang had been sent to redecorate the maternity block, where, according to Zdenka’s lists, 135 more babies were born in March, of which 130 died. (616)
Despite the shocking complicity of the Red Cross in Geneva, the tireless, heroic work of young Norwegian student Wanda Hjort (1921–2017), using her status to visit the camp and establish contacts, at last achieves results as many prisoners scramble to be taken to safety in the White Buses, with the tense diplomatic negotiations of Folke Bernadotte, Swedish representative of the ICRC, with Himmler.
But while the buses were being bombed by the Allies, for the majority of women who remained in the camp to await rescue by the Soviet troops, “Liberation” was also horrifying, with widespread rapes perpetrated on women of all nationalities.
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And so into the whole post-war period. Many survivors returning home found there was no home to return to. The Hamburg trials of 1946–8 (a sideshow to Nuremberg)
achieved a great deal. Within a short time the court […] established in the clearest terms the simple fact that everything about the camp was designed to kill. (706)
But the trials were soon followed by amnesia on both sides of the Iron Curtain—and ignominy for the valiant women in the USSR (pp.287–313, 710–11) and the GDR (339–58, 711–14) who had somehow survived only to descend into a new nightmare, now suspected of being traitors. And until 1950, camps like Buchenwald were adopted by the NKVD as gulags for their own prisoners, with many (not only former Nazis) dying in squalor (MacGregor, Germany, pp.468–72).
By 1948 the Allies had lost their appetite for punishing the Nazis and both the war crimes trials and the process of “de-Nazification”—whereby top Nazi supporters were brought to book and denied top jobs—were shut down. (707)
Wachsmann explores the issue in his fine Prologue:
Survivors … were not stunned into collective silence, as has often been said. On the contrary, a loud, polyphonic voice rose up after liberation. … During the first postwar years, a wave of memoirs hit Europe and beyond, mostly searing testimonies of individual suffering and survival.
But as he notes, popular interest soon waned:
Public memory of the camps was being marginalised by postwar reconstruction and diplomacy. With the front line of the Cold War cutting right through Germany, and turning the two new, opposing German states into strategic allies of the USSR and the United States, talk about Nazi crimes seemed impolitic. … Within ten years of liberation, the camps had been sidelined—the result not of survivors unable to speak, but of a wider audience unwilling to listen.
Though popular interest was rekindled to some extent in the 1960s and 70s, more detailed research only took off from the 1990s—with German scholars taking the lead.
By this stage you will be able to decide whether you can face watching this documentary:
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So only now am I beginning to understand the apparent amnesia that took hold all over Europe during my youth—and which still persists in China for the Maoist era (and other more recent events that it’s prudent to bury). Levi explains it well. His If this is a man was published in 1947, but
fell into oblivion for many years: perhaps also because in all of Europe those were difficult times of mourning and reconstruction and the public did not want to return in memory to the painful years of the war that had just ended.
Republished in 1958, it then became exceptionally successful—although even in the 1970s, as Paul Bailey observes in an Afterword, “Primo Levi wasn’t so much forgotten in Britain as totally unknown.”
Not just Neil MacGregor’s “What would we have done?”, but just our capacity for evil, need to be kept at the forefront of our consciousness. As MacGregor comments,
How did the great humanising traditions of German history—Dürer, Luther’s Bible, Bach, the Enlightenment, Goethe’s Faust, the Bauhaus, and much, much more—fail to avert this total ethical collapse? (473)
In a Postscript to If this is a man and The truce, Levi gives succinct replies to what have come to be called FAQ, like “Were there prisoners who escaped from the camps? How is it that there were no large-scale revolts?” and “How can the Nazis’ fanatical hatred of the Jews be explained?”.
On “ordinary Germans”, I already noted Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin (now also the subject of a film). Levi expands wisely on the topic “Did the Germans know what was happening?” Observing the authoritarian control of the media (not only in Germany, and not only then), he comments:
Under these conditions it becomes possible […] to erase great chunks of reality. […] However, it was not possible to hide the existence of the enormous concentration camp apparatus from the German people. What’s more, it was not (from the Nazi point of view) even desirable. Creating and maintaining an atmosphere of undefined terror in the country was part of the aims of Nazism. It was just as well for the people to know that opposing Hitler was extremely dangerous. In fact, hundreds of thousands of Germans were confined in the camps from the very first months of Nazism: Communists, Social Democrats, Liberals, Jews, Protestants, Catholics; the whole country knew it and knew that in the camps people were suffering and dying.
Nonetheless, it is true that the great mass of Germans remained unaware of the most atrocious details of what happened later on in the camps. […]
He goes on to cite Eugene Kogon’s Der SS staat:
Even many Gestapo functionaries did not know what was happening in the camps to which they were sending prisoners. The greater majority of the prisoners themselves had a very imprecise idea of how their camps functioned and of the methods employed there. […]
And yet there wasn’t even one German who did not know of the camps’ existence or who believed they were sanatoriums. There were very few Germans who did not have a relative or an acquaintance in a camp, or who did not know, at least, that such a one or such another had been sent to a camp. All the Germans had been witnesses to the multi-form anti-Semitic barbarity. Millions of them had been present—with indifference or with curiosity, with contempt or with downright malign joy—at the burning of synagogues or humiliation of Jews and Jewesses forced to kneel in the street mud. Many Germans knew from the foreign radio broadcasts, and a number had contact with prisoners who worked outside the camps. A good many Germans had had the experience of encountering miserable lines of prisoners in the streets or at the railroad stations. In a circular dated November 8, 1941, and addressed by the head of the police and the Security Services to all… Police officials and camp commandants, one reads: “In particular, it must be noted that during the transfers on foot, for example from the station to the camp, a considerable number of prisoners collapse along the way, fainting or dying from exhaustion… It is impossible to keep the population from knowing about such happenings.”
Not a single German could have been unaware that the prisons were full to overflowing, and that executions were taking place continually all over the country. Thousands of magistrates and police functionaries, lawyers, priests and social workers knew genetically that the situation was very grave. Many businessmen who dealt with the camp SS men as suppliers, the industrialists who asked the administrative and economic offices of the SS for slave-labourers, the clerks in these offices, all knew perfectly well that many of the big firms were exploiting slave labour. Quite a few workers performed their tasks near concentration camps or actually inside them. Various university professors collaborated with the medical research centres instituted by Himmler, and various State doctors and doctors connected with private institutes collaborated with the professional murderers. A good many members of military aviation had been transferred to SS jurisdiction and must have known what went on there. Many high-ranking army officers knew about the mass murders of Russian prisoners of war in the camps, and even more soldiers and member sof the Military Police must have now exactly what terrifying horrors were being perpetrated in the camps, the ghettos, the cities, and the countryside sof the occupied Eastern territories.
In spite of the varied possibilities for information, most Germans didn’t know because they didn’t want to know. Because, indeed, they wanted not to know. It is certainly true that State terrorism is a very strong weapon, very difficult to resist. But it is also true that the German people, as a whole, did not even try to resist. In Hitler’s Germany a particular code was widespread: those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers. In this way the typical German citizen won and defended his ignorance, which seemed to him sufficient justification of his adherence to Nazism. Shutting his mouth, his eyes and his ears, he built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.
Turning to memory, Helm notes:
In the 1950s, as the Cold War began, Ravensbrück fell behind the Iron Curtain, which split survivors—east from west—and broke the history of the camp in two.
The abomination wasn’t the only part of the story that was being forgotten; so was the fight for survival.
Even in Britain, where we enjoyed the rare privilege of not enduring occupation, with all its risks and moral compromises, my parents’ generation—even if they hadn’t personally experienced appalling suffering in active service, or in POW and concentration camps—were all scarred by bombed-out buildings, separation and loss, maimings, food shortages, and terrible insecurity. So I shouldn’t wonder that they were relieved to live in peace, unwilling to inflict traumatic memories on children like me, unwittingly blessed to have been born after the war. But there were survivors all around us—like Maria Bielicka, whom Holm visited at her Earls Court flat in 2010:
She said she had rarely spoken of the camp before. When she first came to live in England after the war nobody believed what she had to say. “Nobody here even wanted to know about the camps.” Since then she has “got on with life”, working for Barclays Bank. (175)
How very much more understandable was this amnesia in an utterly devastated continental Europe. So bruised parents retreated to their well-tended gardens and shiny consumer goods, while their children complacently explored the counter-culture of the 60s. For those who cared, politics was about current problems, at home and in the third world. Meanwhile the nightmare continued in East Europe (and China, and the Soviet Union), as the past was buried and distorted even more mendaciously. Victims and tormentors had to coexist.
With all the vast documentation of mid-20th-century abominations that has eventually surfaced, it is hard to comprehend Steven Pinker’s detailed thesis in The better angels of our nature that violence has declined over millenia, and that the two world wars were but minor spikes in the grizzly statistics (see also his website, and FAQ). At least, it seems cruelly irrelevant; of course Pinker himself would be the first to encourage memory of modern trauma.