A Letter to German Journalists:

Between Judgment and Complexity

Andrew Ezergailis

(Author of The Holocaust in Latvia)

Even before the Berlin wall had fallen, it was noticeable that for many German historians and their journalistic auxiliaries another barrier, a mental one, was arising between Germany and Eastern Europe, which may turn out to be more intractable than the one pneumatic drills destroyed in 1989.  Is this a wall of ethics and values as German journalists seem to say or one of knowledge and understanding? Have the German progressive pundits gotten into an easy habit of non-negotiable assertions and a priori claims of ethical superiority? From the Eastern European point of view, how to confront and overcome the clichés, stereotypes, and shibboleths that with metronomic regularity appear in major German newspapers and magazines seems as impossible as to escape across the Berlin wall.

At the outset we can note that this misunderstanding is particularly strong between Germany, the former imperial power with ambitions in the Baltikum, and Latvia, one of the objects of this ambition; more so than between France or England and Latvia, two imperial powers whose involvement in the Baltic region during the last century were minimal.

In a sling-shot fashion, I will strive to show that this attitude, although presented as a paragon of modernity, is in reality is an atavistic blast from the past. I was alerted anew to this paternalistic pattern of thought by the reception in Germany of Latvian ex-Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete, and her book Mit Ballschuhen im sibirischen Schnee.

Because Ms. Kalniete at the Leipzig Book Fair, a year ago, happened to draw an overworked comparison between Stalin and Hitler, the crimes of the Nazis and those of Soviets, German pundits began to accuse her of nationalism, extremism and ignorance of her country’s history. Ever since the two dictators sealed the Nazi-Soviet Pact there is no way of un-coupling their names. It must be more than a coincidence that the two tyrants for a spell of years shared the century. Even if there are differences—the Gulag does not explain the Holocaust nor vice versa—the comparison in popular parlance is inexpugnable.

In reality Kalniete’s politics since the liberation has been, as all Latvians know, and Germans with little effort could know, an exemplar of moderation and of good sense, of the kind of centrism that the democracies of the West frequently fail to find even amongst themselves.

Something else was afoot. Could it be that the pundits were painting a self-portrait that they had hidden in a closet? Or are taking it out on the guileless, an example of misguided political correctness. Without beating around the bush, one needs to say that at the base of the Kalniete flap, is one's perception of the Holocaust, the reality and myths that surround it. In assessing Kalniete and her statements, German progressives erred by stating or implying that the Latvians do not know the history of the Holocaust in Latvia. By now the Shoah in Latvia is well researched and the work is continuing, even if the results have not fully reached popular consciousness.  They also erred by refusing to take fully into account the complex nature of the historical record. It is no secret in Latvia that there were numerous Latvians who participated in the killing of the Jews.  It is also known, although most Germans may not be familiar with this fact, that more Latvians, receiving harsher sentences, have been punished for their role in the Holocaust, than have been Germans (at least as it pertains to Western Germany). 

 Moreover both dictatorships of the last century ordered their public relations offices to misinform their own people as well as the rest of the world about the Holocaust in Latvia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. How to disentangle the strands of truth from falsehood, willful or not, should be an assignment for all historians of the Holocaust and not only for those of Eastern Europe. In regards to Latvia, a vital task is to determine whether the Holocaust in Latvia was a spontaneous or an organized event.

The major problem about the Holocaust in Latvia is that there is more than one version of it. In Latvia, as it seems, unlike in Germany, all of the versions are on the table. From the German point of view, perhaps the Latvians ought to settle on one version of it.

 As I began my research into the topic, there were six formidable renderings of the truth of the Holocaust awaiting me. The earliest and first, and in a way the most trustworthy one, was the secret report of October 15, 1941 that Brigadeführer Walter Stahlecker, the leader of the Einsatzgruppe A, sent to the RASHA office in Berlin. For those who do not know, Stahlecker was the SD leader in charge of the killing operations in the Baltics. The second version is the one accumulated by West German courts. As pertaining to Latvia the most important cases are those of Arajs and Jahnke tried by the Hamburg judiciary and that of Graul tried in Hannover. The third version is contained in a variety of Soviet investigations that include the work of the Extraordinary Commission and numerous trials held by NKVD/KGB and SMERSH officials.  The fourth version is what the Nazi public relations crew produced as the killing of the Jews was happening. This information was intended for domestic and foreign consumption, and as we shall see Hitler himself was involved in it. The fifth version is what Jewish survivors have accumulated. Among these the most influential memoirs has been the work by Max Kaufmann, Die Vernichtung der  Juden Lettlands (1946). The sixth version is contained in Soviet Show trials and propaganda literature. Among the show trials we can name the ones of 18th and the 21st Schutzmannschaft Battalions, and the Maikovskis case, of which the final act was played out in Mūnster Germany during  the 1990s.

We can further subdivide these into Stahlecker's and Hitler’s groups. While the first three are concerned with presenting and unraveling the organizational skein, describing structures and assigning responsibility, the last three versions place the emphasis on spontaneity and raw revenge as a cause of the Holocaust, and presents the Holocaust as a Germanless eruption of native vengeance. In the first group responsibility is assigned to individuals; in the latter one we have to deal with accusations of collective/national guilt and responsibility. While the specter of collective guilt no longer stalks the German people, the question concerning Latvia, if one listens to German journalists, is ambiguous.

It has been documented that the Nazis as they planned the killing of Eastern European Jews also initiated a public relations campaign to distance themselves from the killings. The line that emerged from the Nazi think-tanks was to concoct a story of vengeful East European neighbors who, driven by primeval passion even before the Germans had arrived, began to murder Jews. They ordered natives to wear civilian clothes, and took pictures, so, as Stahlecker  put it in his report, as to make it out  to the outside that the indigenous population itself reacted naturally against the decades of oppression by the Jews and against the terror created by the communists in its recent history, and that the indigenous population carried out these first measures

Once the killing of Jews began, Hitler stopped talking in public about the Jews. There is, however, one exception and it is noteworthy that it came in a conversation with a foreigner, and was about the killings in the Baltics. The following quotation comes from a Hitler’s conversation with Croatian Marshal Kvaternik on 22 July 1941, about a month after the killings in the Baltics had begun, but Estonia as yet was not occupied. It was a high level Nazi conference, for in addition to the foreign guest, present were also Foreign Affairs Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel.

Das gewaltige Mongolentum drück auf uns. Da die Schulbücher von damals noch nicht von Rassenlehre gewußt hätten, so sei man sich über die rassische Zusammenstellung des heutigen Rußlands nicht ganz klar gewesen. Wenn das Bild der Gefangenen maßgeblich ist, dann bestünde das heutige russische Volk zu 70 bis 80% aus Mongolen. Es seien kleine Menschen; darunter gäbe es einige slawische Typen, auch einige wenige anderer Rassenzugehörigkeit. Der Marschall meint herezu, daß diese Bild doch ein ganz anderes als im Weltkriege sei. Damahls sei die Masse der russischen Armee durch den russischen Bauern gestellt worden. Diesen habe der Bolschewismus ausgerottet, sagt der Führer. In Litauen habe man feststellen können, wie die Bolschewisten das getan hätten. Am 2. Tage, nachdem sie dort einmarschiert waren, seien alle Geschäftsleute um 7 Uhr früh auf die Straße befohlen worden, um diese zu reinigen. An den Straßenecken hätten Maschinengewehre gestanden, die dann diese Menschen zusammengeschossen hätten; und dann hätten jüdische Kommissare die Geschäfte übernommen. Die Juden seien die Geißel der Menscheit. Sowohl die Litauer als auch die Esten un Letten nähmen nun blutige Rache an ihnen. Die Sowjets hätten aus all diesen Gebieten die Kinder weggetrieben; das Merkwürdige und Unerklärliche hierbei sei allerdings, daß sie dies in einigen Gebieten auch getan hätten. Wenn die Juden freien Weg hätten, wie im Sowjetparadies, so würden sie die wahnsinnigsten Pläne verwirklichen. So sei Rußland zu einem Pestherd für die Menschheit. [1]

    I have no way of knowing to a certainty, but judging from their statements about Ms. Kalniete, I suspect that there are numerous German journalists who would say that everything in the Hitler’s statement is balderdash except what he says about the Baltics. To sum up. Hitler stated the following:

  • The killing of the Jews has begun.

  • It is happening within his territories.

  • The killing is Germanless.

  • The murder was a collective enterprise of the Baltic peoples.

  • The motive for killing Jews was anti-Semitism, especially revenge as a payback for Jewish Bolshevism.

  • He is trying to influence foreign opinion.

  •     We, however, must also say about this conversation that it is contrary to the information sent by the Einsatzgruppen men, Stahlecker and others, to Berlin.

        Hitler’s colloquy served as talking points for a stream of similarly concocted reports by a variety of German officials that came out of the Baltics that repetitively testified to the same point that the killings in the Baltics were Germanless and leaderless. That Jews in large numbers were killed by peasants in revenge. In some versions the natives killed the Jews with blunt implements. (For a fuller analysis and details see my home page: http://www.ithaca.edu/faculty/ezergail/ )

        This is not the place to review the six versions of the Holocaust in Latvia, and I have no sure way of knowing which version of the Holocaust would be closest to the soul of the majority of progressive German journalists. I reviewed the Führer’s version, fearing that the Hitler’s variety may hover somewhere near their consciousness. Prophylaxis was my intention, an attempt to inform the scribes of Germany that Eastern Europe, Latvia included, may be a conundrum to them, a web of complexity that needs to be unraveled before understanding dawns. That much could be expected, because Germany inescapably was and is a party to that complexity.

    [1] Akten zur Deutchen Auswärtigen Politik 1918-1945, Serie D: 1937-1941, Band XIII. 1. Die t, Sechser Band, Erster Halbband 23. Juni bis September 1941. p. 835-838


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