Today’s Germans Are Not Responsible for the Holocaust
I spent the past weekend as scholar-in-residence to the Jewish community of Munich, Germany — a city where the Nazi party was born, and where Hitler rose to power.
It’s been uplifting and inspiring to see a community that was exterminated in the Holocaust choose to build a beautiful new synagogue right in the town center. The town’s chief rabbi, Shmuel Brodman, brought large crowds to hear me speak, especially young professionals and students.
But not everyone was happy.
Many people from around the world wrote to me on social media and said that they objected to Jews returning to live in Germany. And how could I even think of visiting that accursed country, where so many suffered?
Would they prefer that Hitler’s vision of a Judenrein Europe be realized?
To be sure, Judaism embraces horizontal accountability, whereby a generation of people who voted in Hitler should be held accountable for their choices. In addition, the scope of the Holocaust — a continent-wide genocide — could obviously only be carried out with the resources and manpower of the German nation as a whole.
Of course, not every German during the war had equal culpability. The men and women who carried out the executions, forced people into gas chambers and ordered mass murder were most directly responsible for the Holocaust. The rest of the German people of that time, however, cannot escape responsibility. They may not have all known about the camps — though many did since the killings were done in their neighborhoods. But they were aware of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews and their occupation of other countries.
But Judaism also categorically rejects vertical accountability. We do not visit the sins of the fathers upon the children. Today’s Germans were not responsible for the Holocaust, and the German government seems to be taking important steps to help reconstitute a strong Jewish presence in Germany.
Which leads to many questions about German-Jewish identity.
In discussing the subject, a university student told me that he loves to attend the Munich opera — but that he avoids Wagner, Hitler’s favorite composer. Among Wagner’s famously antisemitic writings was his essay “Judaism in Music,” which argues that Jews degrade music and accuses Jews of being “the evil conscience of our modern civilization.”
Till this day Wagner is not played in Israel.
How do you separate a person’s accomplishments from their character?
Many prominent Germans in culture and industry collaborated with Hitler, and yet their roles are sometimes whitewashed by historians and others who choose to focus only on their accomplishments in their fields.
Think about Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s documentarian, who is revered in some circles as a great filmmaker — even though her work was used to propagandize the Nazis’ ideology. Consider Wernher von Braun and other Nazis brought to the United States in Operation Paperclip, whose contributions to the German war effort were secondary to their usefulness in advancing American interests. Worse, US intelligence agencies employed hundreds of Nazis as Cold War spies and refused to tell the Justice Department’s Nazi hunters what they knew about those living in the United States.
People also sometimes feel similarly conflicted about the role that various companies played during the war. I know some Jews, especially survivors, refused to buy German cars because companies such as BMW contributed to the Nazi war effort. In fact, dozens of German companies were involved to various degrees in everything from using slave labor for their products to constructing gas chambers. Some, but by no means all, voluntarily agreed decades later to contribute to a slave labor compensation fund.
And it was not only German companies that helped the Nazis.
Investigative journalist Edwin Black documented, for example, that General Motors and its German subsidiary, Opel, “were eager, willing and indispensable cogs in the Third Reich’s rearmament juggernaut, a rearmament that, as many feared during the 1930s, would enable Hitler to conquer Europe and destroy millions of lives.”
In IBM and the Holocaust, Black reported how IBM’s German subsidiary, with the knowledge of its New York headquarters, “enthusiastically custom-designed” a punch card and sorting system, the precursor to a computer, which a Swiss judge ruled “facilitated the tasks of the Nazis in the commission of their crimes against humanity, acts also involving accountancy and classification by IBM machines and utilized in the concentration camps themselves.”
In 2001, Ford released a study that it said proved that it had no control over what happened at the German subsidiary, Ford-Werke, and that it did not profit from wartime operations at the German plant. Ford-Werke employed thousands of slave laborers, including inmates from Buchenwald. While not admitting any culpability, Ford contributed $13 million to a $5 billion fund created by the German government and industry for slave and forced laborers and said it would give $2 million to a humanitarian fund at the US Chamber of Commerce that helps Holocaust survivors.
During my trip to the concentration camps in my summer Holocaust educational tour, I discovered several shocking stories about the complicity of other companies in the Holocaust. At the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, for example, I learned that thousands of slave laborers were forced to work for the Heinkel aircraft manufacturing company.
My friend Mitchell Bard, who is an expert on the Holocaust, discovered more information about the company’s founder, Ernst Heinkel, including a laudatory biography of him on the website of the San Diego Air and Space Museum. Heinkel was a pioneer in aviation, but there was no mention of his company’s role in the Holocaust. When Mitchell brought this to the museum’s attention, this was the curator’s response:
The honorees in our International Air and Space Hall of Fame are feted for their contributions to aerospace technology. While we do not want to appear indifferent to the fact that Heinkel employed slave laborers as you correctly point out, it is those accomplishments in growing the industry that we celebrate, and not necessarily the man’s character. It is not our intention in writing the HOF narratives to create a complete biography on any of its members. Thank you for taking the time to communicate your thoughts on Heinkel “the man.”
Mitchell forwarded me this reply. As in the case of Riefenstahl, von Braun and others, it is all too typical of the tendency to celebrate the accomplishments of Germans and ignore the various ways that they supported the Nazis. Similar excuses are made for prominent members of the German military, who are similarly praised for their acumen, ignoring the fact that they did not take action (except for the few who joined the assassination plots) to stop Hitler.
Mitchell published an op-ed in the local San Diego newspaper and, to his credit, the president of the Air and Space Museum called him and said that they had no interest in whitewashing the past. He pledged to add a reference to the company’s use of slave labor to manufacture one of their planes in the Heinkel biography.
I wonder how many similar references can be found in museums, archives and websites that extoll the virtues of men, women and companies for various accomplishments — and omit their role in the greatest crime in human history. Many companies do not come clean until they are forced to by exposés, and, even then, some are resistant.
No person is all good or all evil. Antisemites and war criminals such as Ernst Heinkel may have made their positive contributions recognized; but they also must be condemned for their bigotry, immorality and cowardice. Ignoring their hate only adds another brick in the wall of human tragedy and suffering.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is founder of The World Values Network and is the international best-selling author of 31 books, including “Judaism for Everyone.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.