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Resisting the Temptation of ‘Simple Myths’: Leading German Historian Christoph Dieckmann Reflects on the Holocaust

avatar by Ben Cohen


A performance of the orchestra of the Jewish ghetto in Kovno, Lithuania, duing the Nazi occupation. Photo: Yad Vashem Archive.

“Real history is always complicated,” stressed the German historian Christoph Dieckmann, during a conversation with The Algemeiner on Monday in which the manipulation of the Nazi Holocaust for political purposes was a recurrent theme.

“It’s never just black and white, just martyrs and heroes, just perpetrators and victims,” he continued. “We know that from our own experience of life. And that’s the problem with memory. Memory and history are different. With memory, we don’t want all the details, we want to feel hope.”

Dieckmann is a prominent representative of the new generation of Holocaust historians whose research was enabled by the opening of historical archives all over Eastern Europe, following the collapse of Soviet Communism in 1990. His particular expertise concerns the Nazi genocide of the Jews in Lithuania, and his study of that aspect of the Holocaust — “German Occupation Policy in Lithuania 1941-1944” — was awarded the 2012 International Book Prize for Holocaust Research by Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial.

In his capacity as a historian, Dieckmann serves on the Presidential International Commission for the Evaluation of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania, an official body established in 1998. Dieckmann’s fellow commissioner, Jonathan Brent — director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research — recently invited the historian to deliver a keynote lecture and a series of talks at YIVO’s New York headquarters. On Wednesday night, Dieckmann will speak at YIVO on the subject that took up much of our exchange — “Beyond Simple Myths: History and Memory of the Shoah in Eastern Europe.”

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Dieckmann has learned many lessons of his own during more than twenty years of research, not least that what he eschews as “identity politics” is increasingly compromising serious research of the Holocaust. “Today, we know the Holocaust took place mostly in Europe and to some extent North Africa, and we know that many non-German, non-Jewish peoples were involved,” Dieckmann noted. That raw knowledge is what lies at the heart of the furious debates still raging across Eastern Europe, mainly concerning the degree to which the occupied nations cooperated with the Nazi authorities in the German extermination program.

Dieckmann was drawn to the fate of Lithuania’s Jews by chance, he said. As the archives in Eastern Europe became accessible to Western historians for the first time, he realized that Lithuania — where more than 95 percent of the pre-war population of 205,000 Jews were murdered — was an under-researched topic. “Not many people were working on Lithuania, so I started to learn Lithuanian,” he said. “Lithuania is very relevant to the process of the Shoah, to the development of the Shoah. It’s like a microcosm — all the problems that you find with the Shoah in Eastern Europe, you find there as well.”

Dieckmann’s professional focus on the Holocaust was sparked by his fascination, as a history student, with the Bund — the Jewish socialist movement founded in Vilna (now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania) in 1897.  “It was the largest workers’ movement at the time — much bigger than the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks — but no one really knows about it,” Dieckmann explained. “I remember the feeling of being a German and talking to old Bundists in Tel Aviv, and I thought, ‘This was a generation I would have loved to have had as role models. Not those Nazi grandpas and grandmas. These humanistic socialists.'”

As we talked about the Holocaust in Lithuania alone and in comparison with the other occupied countries, Dieckmann displayed an impressive ability to move from granular detail in one moment to an overall snapshot in the next — a walking demonstration of his conviction that historians need to start out as skeptics, and patiently arrive at the truth by combing through primary and secondary testimonies and sources. “Discovering the truth is a process that should never finish — we are not God,” he stated baldly.

For Dieckmann, the Holocaust belongs as much to European history as it does to the history of Germany. “But the Germans are the most important players here, because it’s them — it’s us — that brought in the murderous note on this scale,” he said. “This was something completely different than the pogroms. This was systematic annihilation of Jews, all under German control, at a certain point of time in a specific place.”

So, he continued, “if we trace that, we can see that it started in Eastern Europe, it took place mainly in Eastern Europe, 80 percent of the victims were from Eastern Europe, meaning that it’s outside Germany. So this is also a problem of occupation.” That does not mean that native traditions of antisemitism should be ignored, Dieckmann said, but the notion of exterminating the Jews wholesale was a distinctly National Socialist one.

In Lithuania, Dieckmann explained, antisemitism was a comparatively less intense political force from the end of World War I in 1918 — when the Baltic country achieved independence — to its occupation by the Soviet Union in 1939. “Antisemitism did grow there, especially in the 1930s, but Lithuania does not have a history of pogroms,” Dieckmann said. “With hindsight, that is amazing, because with the Nazi invasion in June 1941, you had significant groups of the Lithuanian population attacking Jews violently. That was the first time, on this scale.”

During the initial phase of the Nazi invasion, the Germans were focused on eliminating potential resistance, which meant that by the end of July 1941, 20,000 Jewish men were among those picked for immediate execution. As 1941 came to a close — with the war in Europe becoming a global conflagration involving the US and Japan — the vast majority of Lithuanian Jews had already been murdered, with those who survived herded into ghettos for deportation later on. It’s facts such as this one that tend to give rise to the “simple myths” against which Dieckmann warns — for example the opinion that some nations behaved worse than others to their Jewish communities facing Nazi persecution.

“In Lithuania, 80 percent of the Jews were dead by the end of 1941, whereas in Polish Galicia, next door, you have 80 percent that were still alive. Why?” Dieckmann asked. That example, he said, suggests that the answer lies in an examination of the link between mass atrocities, Nazi occupation policy in each country, and Germany’s strategic conduct of what was now World War II, and not the imaginary moral qualities of Europe’s various nations.

“When were the Polish Jews killed, in 1941?” asked Dieckmann. “No, it was in the second half of 1942. Why so much later? It depends on the occupation policy. There were different strategic reasons for this.” In Poland, he said, the Germans decided on the rapid extermination of all but 10 percent of Poland’s 3 million Jews, who formed a critical reservoir of slave labor instead.

Similar logistical and strategic imperatives led the Germans to arm some national groups under occupation and not others — a policy that Hitler himself disliked, but which became unavoidable as the resources of the Third Reich became more and more stretched by Germany’s failure to win the war by the end of 1941. “The Germans regarded the Poles and Russians, who are larger nations, as more of a problem than smaller nations, like the Latvians and Estonians, as they turned Eastern Europe into a German colony,” Dieckmann said. For that reason, the provision of weapons to Polish men was subject to strict restrictions, but at the same time, it did not prevent 150,000 Poles from being employed by the occupying Nazi bureaucracy, under 12,000 Nazi officials. “In Lithuania, the ratio was even more dramatic, with 20,000 local officials and 600 Germans,” Dieckmann said.

“When you look at the Jewish experience, you realize it doesn’t depend on whether one speaks Polish, or another Lithuanian, or another Ukrainian,” Dieckmann asserted. “It depends on the concrete situation and on the character of the people involved.”

Dieckmann intends to stick doggedly with this approach to the history of the Holocaust, rather than speculating on whether some nations are more tainted than others by the experience of Nazi occupation. “That is a debate I’m not going to take part in,” he emphasized. “That is not about history, it’s about identity politics.” As an alternative, Dieckmann advocates continued dialogue and cooperation between professional historians across national borders, regardless of what legal or ideological barriers they might encounter along the way.

“I couldn’t deal with Lithuanian archives without the help of Lithuanian historians, and they need my help with German archives,” Dieckmann explained. “It’s always a matter of cooperation, good cooperation, listening and talking. All good history is the result of teamwork.”

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