I must admit that when I realised the full extent of the horror of what the Nazis were doing I was really shaken
Somerset Teenage Girl I was at the Odeon in Weston and they had pictures of the extermination camps on the news. I’ve never seen anything like it. You’d heard, but you couldn’t believe that people… Until you saw… It was the most terrible thing.
Somerset Teenage Boy Towards the end of the war they had a cinema at South Petherton, in the Town Hall. I went there and they showed a film. And then they showed a newsreel of the concentration camps. And that really brought it out, ‘cos I knew, as I sat there, that what was happening on the screen, was happening at that very minute. If you look at it now, it’s a piece of history, but to be sat there and realise that is actually happening… They brought in “X” films that the children couldn’t see, but they couldn’t compare with those newsreels. They were terrifying. And now, when they have films with it on, I won’t watch them.
Glasgow Teenage Girl When we were horror-struck at what was going on – because we saw it on our screens, or heard about it through the wireless – I remember it being said “Yes, but the Germans believe that there are as many concentration camps in Britain as there are in Germany.” At the time I wondered why it was said.
It was when we first saw the photos of the concentration camps that I realised, and I think most people realised, that they were fighting for something, although maybe we didn’t know it. As far as I was concerned I could have been fighting for the Russians, for the Germans, for the British, or whoever it was. It was just nonsense. But that identified it, at least, and although no-one was aware of that at the beginning of the war, I think possibly it salved our consciences for continuing to fight instead of saying “No, I’m not going to fight.”
Anarchist I must admit that when I realised the full extent of the horror of what the Nazis were doing I was really shaken. It was very easy if you were against the war to believe that everything was propaganda. In the First World War a lot of propaganda had been invented – stories of Germans walking through Belgium with babies on their bayonets, all this sort of thing. After, it had been exposed for what it was – lies. So we were ready to be suspicious about anything.
I think it was bloody useful for the British that at the end of the war the Germans actually showed themselves to be the absolute bastards they were – to justify the whole thing, and it turned a lot of people who had been sympathetic towards them, against them. I’m sure many people couldn’t help but respect these people who were wiping out the whole of bloody Europe, and nearly knocked out Russia. The ordinary guy, I’m sure, had a lot of respect for the Germans, for the way in which they pulled themselves up from the depths of depression in the ’20s and ’30s, and had turned themselves into this magnificent fighting nation. The murderous nature of the Nazi regime was not revealed. Let’s face it – who cared about the Jews?
Where were they in Germany? They were nothing. They had used money as their country, and money was nothing
RAF Bomb Aimer They had nothing to connect to and they walked like bloody sheep. I don’t think any nation in the world would have done it like they did it. They kidded themselves on, from when they went into these railway carriages. They knew bloody fine where they were going. They say they didn’t, but they knew bloody fine. Where were they in Germany? They had used money as their country, and money was nothing.
German Jew Germany was my home. It will always remain so, but so is England. I feel lovely when I go back to Germany. I’ve been back two or three times since, and I think it’s absolutely lovely because it’s childhood to me. And the Germans. And the language. You don’t think I speak English as well I speak German? If I talk philosophy I can only do that in English, but about food – other things – it’s much nicer in German. The English language at best fits me like a glove, but the German language is like my skin.
Going back to Germany now, and talking to Germans, it’s like coming back to a strange tribe, funnily enough. A curious mixture of strangeness and homeliness. In one respect they’re like my old school friends. There’s a Professor in Mainz (the university was re-opened after the war, Napoleon closed it down) who is very much like one of my school friends in Germany who stuck to me loyally; was a member of the Centre Party – the Catholic party – who graduated with me from school and became a lawyer; was called up; fought on the Russian front. He had to joint the Nazi Party, even to become a lawyer, but I can assure you he never lost his political sentiments. After the war he became what you might call a Secretary of the Civil Service. They call them Ministerialdirigent. This was in Rhine Westphalia, in Mainz. When my wife and I went to Mainz in 1955 he was there. He was subsequently promoted to a larger one up in Cologne.
Don’t I owe loyalties, one of them asked
It was lovely to come back in 1955. He got together all those school friends still left, still living there, who’d been in the last few years in school with me. Some of them asked how I could bear to live abroad. They couldn’t understand how I could be a foreigner in a foreign country. Don’t I owe loyalties, one of them asked me. I asked him whether I could be expected to owe loyalties to gas chambers, which of course produced terrific confusion and embarrassment. I said I didn’t wish to embarrass my host, but if I was asked a silly question, it deserves a silly answer. But it was all very amicable, never the less. It was as if nothing seemed to have happened. Nothing at all. I must say that my own last form retained its complement of five or six chaps who remained loyal and didn’t become Nazis until the end, until they graduated.
If you keep a sense of humour you are a moral coward. If you don’t, you’re an hysteric
When the Jews were being persecuted in German, Gentile friends would say to us “Yes, but you’re not like other Jews”, and that has perpetuated itself even after the war. I lost… – They came for my aunt. They rounded up all the Jews in Wesphalia, where she was living. She committed suicide. She took tablets. Another aunt also took tablets. I lost two. I lost none in the concentration camps because fortunately my relatives were either already dead or had gone abroad.
There was not a Jew left in Mainz after the war. They were all rounded up. Nobody was left. They all went to Lublin and from there to Auschwitz. How do you keep a sense of humour about that? I don’t know. If you keep a sense of humour you are a moral coward. If you don’t you’re an hysteric. There’s not much you can do really. There’s no way you can react to it rationally because it wasn’t a rational action. The Chairman of my philosophy department in Texas, where I’ve often gone to teach, he said “I cannot understand you. How can you sit there and tell me that you went back to Germany. You’ve got no backbone. You’ve got no guts. You’re despicable.” I said “It’s easy for you to talk like that. Of course I could take the same line, it’s so easy. it’s equally easy for me to say one must be understanding. That’s equally silly.”
The standards that apply to individuals do not apply to nations, or peoples, or movements. it’s not like that. One can’t talk about forgiveness. One can’t talk about understanding. One can’t talk about recriminations. It doesn’t get you anywhere. “How many of these people,” I said, “even among my own friends were victims of circumstances? – Who really couldn’t help themselves. Look at my friend Walter Schmidt, the Chief of the Civil Service. What could he do?” I said “If there are people here who are that much holier, let them throw the first stone, before you talk.”
In a kind of a way I had a triumphant return to Mainz a couple of years ago. I’m a moderate Kant scholar and they now have tri-annual, quadro-annual international congresses on Kant. The Fourth International Congress took place in Mainz. I had place of honour with one of my papers – as a celebrated Cambridge scholar – not as a German. They didn’t know I was German, let alone that I was born in Mainz, or that my school was situated directly opposite the building where the Congress took place. Nobody asked me. nobody was interested. I didn’t make an issue of it.
Now I must tell you – the most despicable thing is how people will fawn upon you and say “Oh, if every Jew had been like you.”
Austrian Jew I’ve been back twice. Once to see my cousin in 1963, and once in 1968 I took one of my sons to show him where his parents came from. We went all over Vienna and I pointed out to him where we had lived, where my husband had studied, where I had studied. I took him to the university. I showed him where Freud had lived. I took him on a conducted tour, as it were. After leaving Vienna we went to Prague. We left on the evening before the midnight when the Soviets marched into Prague. History repeating itself.
My first visit was in 1963, after my husband had died. I wouldn’t go before that. I didn’t wish to go. It was a terribly emotional experience. I met my cousin and went with her to Baden and was told a certain lady who had lived in the same house would very much like to meet me. I said “No. No.” I went to look at my old school, but it was summer and the school was closed. I didn’t wish to meet anyone I had known. I just went to a chemist’s shop who had Jewish owners. They had returned from emigration, and I talked to them. The owner had been my pupil as a little boy. I visited another Jewish couple who had returned.
On this trip I also went to Vienna and I went to the synagogue in Vienna. I’m not religious, I’m rather an atheist. Nominally I’m Jewish. My whole religious feeling is nostalgia. It’s purely nostalgia. I went to the synagogue to see what it was like now. I felt terribly sad, because it was so close to the place where I had to queue up at the Gestapo headquarters. It had been destroyed by air raids. It’s on the embankment of the River Danube and there’s a large plaque: “This is the site of the Gestapo Headquarters and the plaque has been erected by the City of Vienna in memory of its victims.” It was ghastly. So ironical, and so hypocritical.
Now I must tell you – the most despicable thing is how people will fawn upon you and say “Oh, if every Jew had been like you.” The Austrians have a very servile form of politeness. They’re well known for that. “Küss die Hand” – kiss your hand – “Gnädige Frau” – gracious lady, is the form of address. And they will say “If everyone had been like you” or “We didn’t know what was going on. We had no idea. We never wanted that to happen.” And that is so horrible! Absolutely! Because you know it’s a sham. I shall never live there. Never! No. Don’t remind me. I have a lot of friends in London who say “No.” They don’t want to see Vienna again.
Winscombe, Somerset Teenage Girl I don’t think you got hatred of Germans as bad as it was in the First World War, but people still disliked them very much. Just after the war the Quakers were having a meeting in the village – I think some sort of pro-German meeting, and we were all up in arms about this, and some airman came from Locking to barrack it. (1)
This bloke comes in – “Bloody hell. Fancy discussing it with them, after all they’ve bloody well done.”
English Jew, RAF electrician Being the camp electrician I had my own little workshop. This was back in England, before I was demobbed. We had German prisoners of war in the camp. They used to come into my workshop. I used to put the kettle on and we had an electric fire, which I made myself. We’d have a good old brew-up and a talk. We used to have political discussions all bleeding day. I had a lot of Trotskyist German literature, such as Germany: What Next?, which I used to give to them. They used to read it and we’d discuss it.
This bloke comes in – “Bloody hell. Fancy discussing it with them, after all they’ve bloody well done.” By this time one of the Germans could speak a bit of English. I said “If you want to discuss it, why don’t you discuss it with them.” “Got nothing to discuss with them, after all they’re responsible for.” The German said “I want to ask you a question. Suppose you lived in Germany, if you didn’t join the National Socialists you were suspect immediately. If your wife and kids were in jeopardy, would you have joined?” “No. No I wouldn’t.” “So you would have sooner gone to a concentration camp, would you?” “Surely if there were enough of you, he wouldn’t have been able to do it.” “Not enough of us could do it. We weren’t armed. They were. You say we are responsible for Hitler, but you live in a so-called democracy and you elected a group of politicians who helped Hitler into power. Therefore, you’re just as responsible as we are.” “Don’t give us that.” “Did you know what they were doing? Did you know they were sending arms to Germany? Do you know about the Siemens industry? Things like that?” By the time he was finished he didn’t know whether he was coming or going.
It takes a bit of guts and organisation for thousands of people to march up and say “Look – Stop, Mr Hitler.”
Ex-POW Before I went into those camps I was completely naive, and I was bloody scared, but I still didn’t believe that there were such things as concentration camps. After I had been in these camps, which were not concentration camps of course, I saw slowly, here and there, and realised that there was one hell of a lot of evil in Germany, and that I was very lucky to be where I was. When I realised that the stories of the concentration camps were true and not just German propaganda, I thought: God Almighty. What shook me was that I couldn’t believe that any unit of people, en masse, could be infernally bloody evil, like the Japanese.
On the other hand I got on well with Germans. I swotted German and I got to know them and I realised the average German soldier, and the average civilian were just as bloody helpless, or as human, as we are.
To give an example – some friends of mine were around the other night with a very true blue couple. These people are very anti-German still. You know – “Battle of Britain, and our gallant boys” – which I don’t deny. Don’t get me wrong. They say “It’s no good you saying half of them didn’t know.” Alright. There’s a point in that. But this other person said “Wait a minute, before you go any further – You know all these immigrants in Britain – Pakistanis.” “Oh God, yes.” “Well, what do you think about it?” What they thought about it is much the same as what I think about it, without being personal to the individual. It’s not colour at all, it’s pressure of population, but we won’t go into that.
This chap and this girl said “Now what precisely have you or are you doing about it?” And they sort of looked. “Yes” he said, ‘in other words you’re like everybody else – like me – in this country. We loathe it but we do nothing about it. It seems to us that we can’t. We’re slaves of this, at the moment, the Labour Government, who don’t want to stop all this.”
Well, there’s your perfect answer about “Why didn’t the Germans stop Hitler?” It isn’t as easy as that, is it? What are you going to do to stop immigration here? What have you done, if you don’t agree with it? Nothing. Nor have I. what are you going to do tomorrow? You think and think and think, but you can’t do much about it, can you? Because it takes a bit of guts and organisation for thousands of people to march up and say “Look – Stop, Mr Hitler”, or to march up to the Government and say “Look here – Stop this.” I’m talking about the average mass of people. Not extremists. You don’t do anything, do you? There’s your answer, you see. What could the Germans do?
“Those bastard Germans” as people say, were exactly in the same predicament – rank and file – as we were.
Royal Navy Chief Petty Officer I know most of us were very bitter after the war because we saw so many atrocities, but the thing is, we very politely forget the atrocities that we ourselves carried out. This is why we got our arse kicked out of India. It so happens that I’ve been to all these places, and it also happens that I’ve seen some of the atrocities we ourselves did on the Indians. To us they were just bloody slaves – literally. We treated them like slaves. We kicked their arse if they dared to ask for a cigarette.
Another point I want to make is this: in the British Navy, as in all forces – army, airforce, ectetera, particularly in times of war, and particularly in times of action, the law – the KRRs – was that if you refused to obey a superior officer’s direct command, after being warned three times in front of any witness, he was at liberty to shoot you dead on the spot. (2)
What I want to put to you is this – “These bastard Germans” as people say, were exactly in the same predicament – rank and file – as we were. Whilst I know that atrocities were perpetrated, these were from the ranks of people like Hitler and Himmler, and the high-ranking officers, and it was handed down. The German forces were much more strict in discipline – you weren’t allowed to think for yourself at all. All you had to do was obey and die. So therefore I don’t like people saying “bastard Germans”, or anything like that, because they were in exactly the same predicament as we were. They were fighting for their country. They were misled. But Christ, so were we.
1. RAF Locking, near Weston-super-Mare. A RAF Radio School camp, now closed.
2. KRRs: King’s Rules and Regulations.