Nazi Germany: Creating understanding from the available records.

Essay for assessment in History and Film Semester One, 1990
by Donna Benjamin

"If a frog is placed in hot water it will make frantic efforts to escape; it is said , however that if the animal is put into cold water, which is then slowly heated, it may . . . be boiled to death without so much as a struggle." cited in "Casualties of Change", Commission for the Future.

Ruth Benjamin, imprisoned initially in Erfurt and subsequently at the Moringen Concentration Camp in October 1935, was a young Jewess, innocent of the political charges against her. In her unpublished manuscript Ruth recalls that the commandant of the camp, Dr. Krack said of her that "this girl is either extremely shrewd or really as innocent as a lamb. However, that's the problem of the Gestapo." It was, however, her innocence that opened a way for escape, together with her affiliation with political prisoners that allowed her the awareness to take the chance, run, and make the most of it. She was at first reluctant to leave her homeland but was soon persuaded of the dire necessity to get out and tell the story of what was really happening in Nazi Germany.

Ruth had a full awareness of what was going on and was informed that soon all of Germany would be caught up in the turmoil of tyranny. The foresight, that the worst was yet to come, put her in a position similar to the frog placed into hot water that makes a frantic effort to escape, and hence survives. Many others were not so fortunate.

They could not feel the escalating temperature, because without the political knowledge of what was going on, the small changes that daily went on about them, did not stand out as events of a potentially catastrophic nature. For instance, the denial and disbelief of those in the Warsaw Ghetto about the true destination of their supposed 'resettlement'.

While Bernard Goldstein, a member of the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, "had not the slightest doubt that these wagon loads of unfortunates were going to their certain death" indicates "that the majority clung to the illusion that it was really only a removal for settlement at some other place of labor. The transports rolled on, and there were even some volunteers who came to the assembly point because they thought things might be better at some other place in the East. Only gradually did this self-deception vanish." 3

Ruth's Husband, Eric, lost his whole family in the Holocaust. His father could not believe that in Germany people could be imprisoned without a trial, for him that was a silly, impossible notion but later the whole family, with the exception of a brother now living in Israel, were imprisoned and annihilated.

It has often been asked how the people of Germany, and the Jewish community in particular, could not have known about the atrocities going on in their own backyards? The slow and insidious change of political atmosphere meant that a lot of people in Germany and it's occupied territories were "Casualties of Change." This essay examines the relationship between the knowledge of the German community, the level of awareness of the Jewish people in Germany at the time and the degree to which both groups had any power to reverse the trends that had become entrenched by the time that things had reached the stage of war.

Victor Gollancz successfully destroys, as a theory without any validity, the claim that, "The whole German people has been solidly behind Hitler", pointing out that there were hundreds of thousands of opponents to the Nazi regime.

"... Thus the concentration camps became a symbol of the actual German opposition ; Dachau is a symbol in the mind of the world, but it is also a symbol in the minds of the German enemies of Hitler.

. . . In the nine camps mentioned there were at any given moment from 1933 to 1939, on the average, 100,000 Germans : and that of the 22,000 in Sachsenhausen in November, 1938, between twenty and twenty-five per cent were dead four months later - to be replaced by others. These two figures, taken together, will give you some idea of the total number of Germans who, since 1933, have gone to their death in Hitler's camps - or, more unhappily, have year after year, somehow managed to live." 4

Despite this, the German people have been accused of being responsible for the atrocities perpetrated against the Jews and political opponents of the Nazi party during and prior to the second World War. Gollancz emphasizes that many Germans too, were victims; those involved in resistance movements, if caught were imprisoned and killed along with the millions of Jews.

When we look at the final testament of acquitted Nuremberg defendant, Hans Fritzsche, it is possible to see how a population could, in fact, be efficiently kept in the dark. FRITZSCHE : "...I wish I had in my radio talks carried out the propaganda of which the prosecution accuses me now! Had I only expounded the theory of the Master Race! Had I only preached the hatred of other nations! Had I only urged wars of aggression, acts of terror, of murder and inhumanity! Then, gentleman, if I had done all these things, the German people would have turned away from me, and would have rejected the system for which I spoke. But the misfortune lies in the fact that I did not propagate these attitudes which were the secret motives of Hitler and a small circle of his henchmen. I believed in Hitler's assurances of his honourable desire for peace. I believed the official German denials of all foreign reports of German atrocities. That is my guilt - no more, no less . . ."5 If someone who was as intricately involved in the administration of the Nazi party as Hans Fritzsche was, could be accepted by the court at Nuremberg as not knowing the true state of affairs in Germany, then it is clearer to see how the criminal secrecy was maintained throughout the German community.

The Nazi policy concerning secrecy was effective in the extreme, no filmic record of the activity of concentration camps was supposed to remain as evidence of what went on. The whole concentration and extermination camp issue was kept in furtive darkness even, to some extent, from chief members of the Nazi party and euphemisms such as "the final solution," "resettlement" and "special treatment" were used to cover up the reality from those outside the Nazi regime.

A whole generation of Germans was caught up in the Nazi machine, and so were tainted with it's excesses. In reality many of them had little idea of what the Nazis were in fact trying to achieve. Ruth Benjamin reports that young Jews were disgruntled that they too could not be members of the Hitler youth movement. In fact the only way for the young to succeed was to be affiliated.

Despite this, many people are still condemned for their membership in the Hitler youth, as in the recent case of the attack on an Australian Senate candidate, (Democrat Senator, Sid Spindler) For his membership of the Hitler youth. Many young Germans, as Von Schirach states in his closing speech to the Nuremberg tribunal, were completely innocent of what occurred while Hitler was in power.

SCHIRACH: "At this hour as I speak to the military court of the four victorious Powers for the last time, I wish to state, with a clear conscience, to our German youth that they are completely innocent of the excesses and atrocities of the Hitler regime as proved by this trial. They know nothing of the innumerable acts of horror that have been committed by Germans. My lords, please help by your verdict to create for the young generation an atmosphere of mutual respect, an atmosphere that is free of hatred and vengeance. That is my last request, a request from the heart of our German youth." 6

It is impossible to believe that there was no knowledge of what was occurring in the camps until "after the surrender." As Werner Maser points out "Witnesses . . . attempted to evade, conceal or deny their actual knowledge of crime."7 As indicated above, even the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto were subject to the process of denial.

The valiant resistance of those who chose to stay and fight in the Warsaw Ghetto, as in the case of Hjalmar Schacht: another of those defendants acquitted at Nuremberg; indicates the limited power of those who were aware and tried to reverse the path of history. Even a biased reporter on Nuremberg, R.W. Cooper had to admit that Schacht "had strong cards." "The aces were his frequent quarrels with Hitler and Goring and an association with the July plot which was to land him in Flossenburg and Dachau. His version of events was that when he fully realized that Hitler was bent on war- the elimination of Blomberg and Fritsch in 1938 was for him the red light- he induced Hitler to dismiss him. A deepening conviction of the criminal qualities of the man to whom Germany had surrendered herself brought him to the point where 'I could have killed him with my own hands.'"8

As Schacht himself says in his final address to the Nuremberg Tribunal, "The only charge against me is that I wanted war. The overwhelming weight of the evidence in my case has proved that I was a fanatical opponent of war and actively and passively tried to prevent it by resistance, sabotage, ruse, and force. My opposition to Hitler's policy was known at home and abroad. Admittedly I erred politically. My political error was that I did not recognize early enough the extent of Hitler's criminal nature." 9

Rebecca West, in her reports of the trials at Nuremberg which she described as "a citadel of boredom" was highly critical of the "mediocre Fritzsche who tried to put down how happenings looked to people who had never quite known what was happening; and brave the men who, in making the Nuremberg trial, tried to force a huge and sprawling historical event to become comprehensible. It is only by making such efforts that we survive." 10

Fritzsche, nevertheless, in his final address, gives us a clear picture of how he and many other German survivors must have felt. "I find myself in this situation of the disillusioned men together with many, many other Germans, of whom the prosecution says that they ought to have known what was happening from the smoking chimneys in the concentration camps or from the mere sight of the prisoners. But it is time to break the eternal circle of hate which has till now ruled the wold. It is high time to stop the vicious circle of seed, harvest, new seed, and new harvest of hatred. After all, the murder of Five million people is a grim warning, and mankind today possesses the technical means for it's own destruction."11

Victor Gollancz provides us with the last word on the German nation as the "Casualties of change" - those who opposed the Nazi's ended up in prison, those who were aware, were powerless to reverse the situation from within, and the victims had unconsciously accepted their fate. Innocent people like Ruth Benjamin would not have survived without the advice, assistance and courage of those Germans who did try to help and resist.

The actions of those women who were imprisoned in Moringen, a camp originally designed for the detention of Communists,12 for their political resistance, provide the conclusive evidence against those "people [who go on] repeating, as if they were drugged, "The whole German people has been solidly behind Hitler": and never stop to wonder why, if that is so, such an instrument of internal oppression, street by street and house by house, was necessary." 13

Ruth Benjamin's manuscript provides the insight of a survivor - a frog that got away, due to the insistence of others, who commanded "You have a chance, which we have not! Someone has to tell what happens in Germany. The papers don't. We can't. You must try to leave - for our sake! . . . Don't give up now! Think of us, we know you realize how important it is that the outside world hears the truth about Nazi Germany!"14


  • Allen, W. The Nazi Seizure of Power, New York, 1984,
  • Benjamin, Ruth. Unpublished manuscript, supplied to author, 1982.
  • Cooper, R.W. The Nuremberg Trial, Penguin, Great Britain, 1947.
  • Eckersley, Richard. Casualties Of Change: The Predicament Of Youth In Australia, Commission for the Future, Melbourne, 1988.
  • Gollancz, Victor. What Buchenwald Really Means Victor Gollancz LTD, London, 1945
  • Heydecker, Joe J. and Leeb, Johannes. The Nuremberg Trial : A History Of Nazi Germany As Revealed Through The Testimony At Nuremberg. Translated by R.A. Downie Greenwood press, U.S.A., 1962. Originally published as Der Nurnberger Prozess by Verlag, Keipenheuer and Witsch, Koln. Berlin, 1958.
  • Maser, Werner. Nuremberg, A Nation on Trial translated by Richard Barry, Penguin 1979. First published as Nurnberg: Tribunal Der Seiger by Econ Verlag, Dusseldorf, 1977.
  • West, Rebecca. A Train Of Powder Virago, London, 1984.

New Resources

pumble | essay | reflection | video | eulogy