Lawrence Rees: Talking To Nazis

One of the main conferences I attended during the Lessons From Auschwitz Ambassador Conference, which took place on Monday 6th July, was held by British historian and former Creative Director of History Programmes for the BBC, Lawrence Rees. Called ‘Talking to Nazis’, in it Rees recounted his experiences of interviewing perpetrators of the Holocaust. He analysed the beliefs and motivations behind them; based on a few main factors, he cited five relevant examples of Nazis and/or Nazi accomplices. During the conference he played clips of the interviews, which have all appeared in the documentary ‘The Nazis: A Warning From History’.


german-communistsDefinition: a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency, which is the quality of being convenient and practical despite possibly being improper or immoral; convenience.

Case in point: Fridolin von Spaun 

  • The Jews and Communists were linked to Germany’s defeat in World War One.
  • Many Germans hated the Communists. The Jews were seen to be behind Communism. Thus many hated the Jews.
  • A fear of change resulted in the targeting of scapegoats; for example, Hitler’s speech of April 1922: the Jews are responsible for all aspects of modernity you don’t like.
  • Also the Jews were seen to be at fault for the excesses of Capitalism (despite also being blamed for Communism).
  • In 1928 the N.S.D.A.P. win 2.6% of the vote; 5 years later Hitler is Chancellor. This is due to: the economic crisis caused by the Wall Street Crash, and the failure of Germany’s banks.

The Jews had been the scapegoats for much of Germany’s woes since 1918. Thus, when the Nazis came to power in the early 1930s, they were able to capitalise on extant deep-seated hostile feeling towards the Jews.


Definition: a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful.

Case in point: Johannes Zahn

  • Moves against the Jews made in the early 1930s.
  • The general opinion was that the Jews “had gone too far in Germany” and that they must be driven back. (Zahn noted that 3,600 out of 4,300 Lawyers were Jewish)

Such beliefs were not caused by ignorance, as many of us would believe. Indeed, Zahn himself had two doctorates, and many member of the Wannsee Conference, which was held on 20th January 1942 and which decided upon the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’, also held Phds. The only valuable information to such people was that there was a large, if not worldwide, Jewish conspiracy:

  • World conspiracy – this was a crucial part of Nazi fantasy. The Jews were the dominant, ruling first class, and all national citizens followed. The Jews were behind a transnational plot. They were thus considered to be parasites. For example: 1916 poll finds that many believe that the war is going badly because too few German Jews were in the army, doing their bit. Another survey was conducted to prove these findings, but it has been lost. This must be due to the fact that it’s results proved otherwise. It didn’t suit contemporary prejudices, and was thus discarded.
  • Hitler: the Jews are a race, not a religion. This implies that the Jews cannot change religion in order to become normal citizens.

It should come as no surprise therefore that the Nazis conducted tests to analyse ‘Jewish blood’. They ended up deciding whether a German was Jewish or not based on, for example, how many Jewish grandfathers they had.

judeMoreover, Lawrence Rees pointed out that many German Jews were routed out by their neighbours, rather than the Gestapo. He asserted that this was evidence of a human temperament. We focus on differences, especially when we are annoyed. Rees gave the example of somebody aggrieved by something taking out their anger on a smaller person: “push off dwarf!”. We as a species focus on differences, and when we have a grievance, genuine or otherwise, we focus on a different characteristic of our scapegoat. Hence the Nazis highlighted prejudicial myths such as that that all Jews have large noses; this is why many of their propaganda posters characterise Jews in such a fashion.


Definition: public condemnation of someone or something/the action of informing against someone.

Case in point: Resi Kraus

Resi KrausThis was a particularly interesting case. Kraus declared that she could not remember reporting a Jewish neighbour to the Gestapo, the letter of which was and is on record. She said in the interview that she “didn’t murder anyone”. When shown the letter she had written, Kraus said that it “incriminates me”, adding that she had no idea where it came from.

Even after 50 years (all these interviews were conducted in the late 1990s) Kraus didn’t believe that she had done something wrong. Indeed, she said that the conduct of the interview was done in bad taste, and that she had behaved as a good neighbour.


Definition: intense dislike.

Case in point: Petras Zelionka

  • Zelionka, a Lithuanian, participated in the round-up and shooting of Jews in the Baltics, in the late Summer and Autumn of 1941.
  • The Jews were responsible for Communism.
  • In the Baltics’, 80% of the killers were local volunteers; when given alcohol (Vodka), they were “braver”.
  • It’s hard to explain “whether to shoot or not to shoot.”
  • The Jews were seen as selfish.
  • It was a “tragedy, a big tragedy” – when asked about killing children. It was a “kind of curiosity” – what humans are like.
  • He served 20 years in prison; he believes he has done his time.
  • Refused to answer a question regarding his conscience, and refuses to answer any more questions.

Zelionka and many others believed that it was the right thing to do. Hatred of the Jews was manifest throughout eastern Europe. Thus it is hardly surprising that so many were willing to assist the Nazis.

d981a141fafc7303cfbf169f5121ada3In trying to explain to the audience the rationale behind such behaviour, Rees then talked about the impact of one’s culture, and how it shapes people. Zelionka’s culture shaped him, and many others, into detesting the Jews. Our culture has also shaped us in many different ways. Rees then illustrated his point with the example of an Aztec baby. If we had been born among the Aztecs, regardless of what we would like to think, we would have tolerated human sacrifice. Whereas today, in Britain’s modern culture, we don’t. The culture causes the hatred.

Additionally, Rees remarked that, during the Holocaust, many would have been fine to go with the flow. Hence resistance was so small.


Definition: the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

Case in point: Oskar Groening oskar-groening

  • Known as the ‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’, he was in the summer of 2015 convicted of being an accessory to the murder of at least 300,000 people, and at 94, has been sentenced to four years in prison:
  • One advantage of the gas chambers was that it provided psychological protection for the killers. In other words, they didn’t witness the killing process, as they had done when the primary method of murder was shooting.
  • Many were convinced that Germany had been betrayed by the entire world and the world Jewish conspiracy.
  • Reason for the murder of Jewish children – the enemy was the blood in the children, not the children themselves. The Nazis had to kill them otherwise they would, according to Heinrich Himmler, become “a race of avengers” if left alive whilst their parents were killed. Thus the Nazis were protecting their own children.

I have always been fascinated by the thoughts and feelings of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Over the past 70 years they have been demonised to such an extent that we don’t think of them as ordinary humans, which they were. Indeed, many of the most prominent Nazis were clearly intelligent people. How they were capable of such atrocities has baffled many people. Their actions open up a myriad questions concerning the human conscience, alongside a careful interpretation of history. But, as Lawrence Rees shows, only when talking with the people themselves do we start to get an understanding of their mindset. This is important not only for studying the Holocaust, but for preventing such an atrocity from happening ever again.


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