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Prof Baer

photo by Rhonda Spivak

photo by Rhonda Spivak

Dachau Concentration Camp
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Holocaust Prof. Baer at Limmud: Study Showed 26 Percent of Germans Thought Their relatives had helped Jews

by Rhonda Spivak, March 3, 2014

Professor Alejandro Baer, the Director of  the Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, got interested in the subject of how German's relate to the past when he was reading an exchange of letters between his grandmother and a German women who had been a friend of hers in 1946. Baer's grandmother who had been born in Leipzig, Germany had immigrated to Argentina to escape the war and was now writing to her friend in Germany. Baer was struck by a sentence written by the German woman in which she wrote "oh, you can't imagine how bad it was for us here." 
Baer, a sociologist, who spoke to a packed session in the Limmud 2014 put on by the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, said he became fascinated with this aspect of the letter and began asking whether at the time in 1946 after the war German's felt responsible for the Holocaust against the Jews and what had happened in the war.
The answer, he said, was "No-no they did not at all."
"They saw themselves as victims of Nazism, not as perpetrators," said Baer, noting that from their perspective there were now millions of German refugees who were expelled from the East and came into mainland Germany, needing shelter and food.  
"They rejected the notion of collective guilt," he added.
Baer referred to the book by Karl Jasper entitled the Question on German Guilt, which examined whether Germans had criminal, political, moral or metaphysical guilt from the Holocaust.
"The history of this book itself was a sign of the Times," Baer noted. "The Editor told him (Jasper) that there was no interest in this book."
At the time, the Frankfurt School on Public Opinion in Post War Germany concluded "In the house of the hangman one should not mention the noose."


This symbolized the idea that bringing up the notion of the German people's responsibility for the Holocaust "leads to resentment," according to Baer.


Then in 1952, West Germany concluded a reparations agreement with Israel.


In response to calls from Jewish organizations and the State of Israel, in September 1951 Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of West Germany addressed his Parliament, saying: … unspeakable crimes have been committed in the name of the German people.


As Baer noted, rather than saying that unspeakable crimes had been committed by us (the German people),  Adenaur said the crimes had been committed in the name of the German people.


"It's as if someone came from a different planet" and committed crimes in the name of the German people.


Baer noted that the reparations agreement was controversial in Israel. David Ben-Gurion and his Mapai party took a practical approach and argued that accepting the agreement was the only way to sustain the Israel's economy at a time when unemployment was high and foreign currency reserves scarce.


"But [Menachem] Begin opposed it," Baer noted.


 Baer explained that "1968 was a generational turning point," when young people in Germany began asking the elder generation "What did you do in the war."


"This young generation will open up the past on the issue of German guilt, and there was "incredible anger between the young and the old generation."


According to Baer, former Jewish residents were invited back to Germany in the 60's.


Baer then spoke of the events of December 7, 1970, when Germany’s Social Democratic chancellor, Willy Brandt, stunned his Polish hosts with an extraordinary gesture that was an acknowledgement of German guilt and the beginning of a long rapprochement between Germany and Poland. Brandt had laid a wreath at the memorial to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto of 1943, and he rearranged the black, red, and gold ribbon and stepped back a few paces. Then, he knelt down in silence in front of the memorial and remained there with his head bowed and his hands folded.


In late January 1979, the four-part American TV miniseries "Holocaust" (1978) aired on West German public television. Prior to its broadcast, the NBC production had provoked strong misgivings; its most prominent critic, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, called it a “trivialization of the Holocaust” and a “soap opera.” Yet the West German public exhibited a surprising degree of interest in the miniseries: ratings as high as 41% suggested that more than 20 million viewers had watched at least one of the four episodes. Subtitled "The Story of the Weiss Family," the miniseries told the story of a fictional German-Jewish family. It affected viewers on an emotional level by personalizing the victims and  sparked public discussion in West Germany and intensified the public’s interest in obtaining information on the Nazi genocide. 

In the 1980's, children in German schools began to write about what occurred in the events during the war, albeit not all the archives were open.


According to Baer, the debate in Germany in the 1990's and 2000's was whether German's were also victims (the carpet bombing by the Allies would be considered a war crime).


Baer spoke of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, which was "a national memorial that emphasizes Germany as a perpetrator of the Holocaust [against the Jews]."


However, the memorial was also not without controversy. The stones in the memorial were covered by an anti-graffiti agent made by a company Degussa involved in the extermination of Jews. A subsidiary company of Degussa, Degesch, had even produced the Zyklon B gas used to poison people in the gas chambers.


In 2004, a study known as " Opa War Kein Nazi" [Grandpa was not  a Nazi ] presented  the results of an extensive research project organized by the Psychological Institute of the University of Hanover and sponsored by the Volkswagen Foundation


It showed that 49% of Germans thought their relatives were critical of the Nazis, 6% thought their relatives were passive, 3% thought their relatives were anti-Semites and 26% thought their relatives had helped the persecuted.


As Baer said, the study showed how in German consciousness "the anti-Semitic grandma becomes the grandma who hid Jews in the cellar."


Baer noted that there is Holocaust education in German schools but "there’s a fatigue with the issue."


He also spoke of the German writer Gunter Grass who "has taken it upon himself" to warn the world that a nuclear power of Israel endangers the already fragile world peace.


Baer spoke of the "negative symbiosis between Germans and Jews" in today's Germany--where there are "unresolved feelings that do not make for trusting relationships."


Baer, who lived in Munich for three years, said he always found that "there was a presence of the Holocaust", "it's overwhelming", "it's hard to deal with it."


"Once you mention you are a Jew, it's very uncomfortable," he said.




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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.