DATE April 19, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Laurence Rees discusses his new book, "Auschwitz: A
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News filling in for Terry Gross.
It might seem there's little left to be said about a subject as intensely
studied as the Holocaust, but journalist Laurence Rees' book "Auschwitz: A
New History" presents both fresh information about the camp, the site of
history's largest mass murder, as well as insights into Hitler's campaign of
genocide against the Jews of Europe. Rees' book is based on more than a
hundred interviews with Auschwitz survivors and Nazi perpetrators, many of
whom spoke on the record for the first time. He believes his search for the
truth was aided by the fact that surviving Nazis have now reached an age where
candor no longer jeopardizes careers and by the fall of communism which has
opened up a wealth of new archival material. It's believed roughly 1.3
million people were imprisoned at Auschwitz; 1.1 million died there despite
the fact that it was not initially designed as a death camp as some Nazi
prisons were. Rees' book is in part the story of how Auschwitz evolved from a
forced labor camp into a scene of mass extermination.
Laurence Rees has written five books and is creative director of history
programs for the BBC. "Auschwitz: A New History" is the companion book to a
six-hour documentary which aired on PBS earlier this year. Rees recently
spoke to me from London.
Laurence Rees, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. LAURENCE REES ("Auschwitz: A New History"): Thank you very much.
DAVIES: You note early in this book that you were one of relatively few
people who've been able to interview quite a number of war criminals from
three of the great totalitarian powers of the 20th century; that is, Stalinist
Russia, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. And you say in this book that having
done so, you can confirm that Nazi war criminals that you met were different
from the other two.
Mr. REES: That's right.
DAVIES: How were they different?
Mr. REES: Yeah. Well, they're different in a kind of paradoxical way because
when I grew up at school and first heard about the Nazis and the whole line
that was taken then in the '70s was that Nazi war criminals would give as a
standard defense, `Oh, I was acting under orders. I was acting under orders.'
And so that was kind of what you imagined when you meet people like this
they're going to say. Well, paradoxically, that was the kind of response I
got from Stalin's secret policeman, from members of the imperial army who
committed terrible crimes in China and in the Pacific War. That was what they
were saying. I didn't tend to get that from Nazi war criminals. The
frightening thing to me, particularly frightening, was that most of the Nazi
war criminals I've met actually, when you push them and you say, `Well, why
were you doing this?' don't say, `I was acting under orders,' say, `Well, at
the time, I thought what I was doing was right.'
DAVIES: And what do you attribute that to? I mean, they seem to be true
believers in the cause.
Mr. REES: I think it's a variety of things that in the end for me mean that
Nazism is more horrible but more interesting as a phenomenon. I think it's to
do with the fact that certainly if you were a secret policeman in Stalin's
Russia, I think for the most part, the terror was so ubiquitous that no one
was safe from the knock at the door, no one could really understand exactly
why individuals were sometimes being targeted. Stalin famously had one of his
own Politburo, Molotov's wife, tortured. I've talked to people who were at
meetings where they were stood up and were denouncing other people as enemies
of the state because they were worried they'd be denounced. There didn't seem
to be a rhyme nor reason to some of this. So this means that the only way of
making sense of it really for a lot of these people doing the bad things was
to say, `Well, you know, I was doing it because I'm ordered to do it.'
Similarly in Imperial Japan, the level of training, the brutality of the
training of Japanese soldiers I think is without parallel in the modern world
what these people were put through in training, the bullying, the vicious
beatings and so on, the indoctrination as well, but it was such that if you
didn't--you know, you obeyed and you obeyed blindly I think in a number of
What's going on in Germany is rather different. What's going on in Germany is
that I think to some extent thanks to the work of Goebbels, who, again,
horrible, nasty person but the genius of propaganda of the 20th
century--thanks to the work of Goebbels, but also thanks to the fact that
there was a genuine feeling of injustice in Germany after the end of the First
World War. There was a feeling put about that Jews were to blame. There was
a feeling of fear of communism, that Jews were somehow falsely attributed in
their totality to communism. Simultaneously, Jews were thought to be running
Roosevelt and American politics, anti-German and so on. So there were a whole
series of what they took to be at the time pragmatic positive reasons to do
what they were doing and that's one of the frightening things about it.
DAVIES: You note that Nazis were capable of initiative and even ingenuity in
pursuing their goals, I mean, even when they involved mass murder. And you
note that Nazi commanders tended to tolerate internal questioning and even
some dissent more than some other totalitarian regimes.
Mr. REES: Yes. Absolutely.
DAVIES: What's the significance of that observation in judging the Nazi
Mr. REES: Well, it means that for a start you can't do the traditional view
of this, which is to think that you have some insane dictator at the top
controlling all the levers of power who by threat and bullying and coercion
is forcing people to do things against their will. That is simply not what is
going on here. What is going on here is you have at the top someone who is
setting a vision, an evil vision, of course, but a vision nonetheless, and
other people are interpreting it and competing amongst each other to interpret
it in a radical way and using their own initiatives to move towards what they
think is the vision that their furor wants. So you have a very complex
structure of initiatives from below and vision from the top that together in
the middle creates this.
DAVIES: Makes it terrifyingly effective.
Mr. REES: Oh, it's the most--I think it's a way of ensuring that you have
both the most destructive and dynamic political system. If you have a
visionary who is saying, as he said, for example, to Arthur Greiser and Albert
Foster, who are the two gauleiters, the two rulers, of two parts of
Poland--he effectively said to them, `Look, I want that your areas of Poland
Germanized and I could only promise you one thing which is I'll never ask you
how you did it.' That's a kind of typical, it seems to me, furor order to
these people which is there's a vision and frankly implementation, how you're
going to do it; the area, what you choose to do, that's up to you to a large
degree, and there's one overriding guideline you have in this if you're a
subordinate in the system which is you know that essentially your furor is
excited by radicalism. I don't believe that anyone's career in the Third
Reich was ever hurt by coming up with an extraordinarily radical idea. You
knew that the way to irritate him was to come up with reasons why things
couldn't happen. And then Hitler often appointed a couple of people, two or
three people, to more or less the same job. So they knew--you know, it's
almost a Darwinian competition--Hitler was a huge follower of a kind of warped
social Darwinism. And you knew that there maybe certainly one or two other
people also being charged with more or less the same task. So you had to
organize yourself pretty quickly and you knew that the more radical you were,
the more brutal you were in your approach, the more likely you were to find
DAVIES: Now when the Nazis spoke of achieving the final solution to the
Jewish problem in the early years of the war, is it clear they meant
extermination of the Jews?
Mr. REES: No, they didn't mean extermination I don't believe. It's clear
that the words `final solution' changed in meaning I believe during 1941 when
Heydrich is charged by Goering with organizing the final solution to the
Jewish problem. Initially, the order explicitly states evacuation and that
was the overt policy certainly since 1938 and the ...(unintelligible) with
Austria. When the German troops go into Austria, they under Eichmann of the
SS, you know, later absolutely infamous for being one of the organizers of the
murderers in the final solution, he organizes a system of expropriation, of
robbing, of treating violently the Jews of Vienna, robbing them, and then
those who can almost pay to go expelling them.
I think that what's clear is that Hitler always hated the Jews. He always
loathed the Jews. He always wanted rid of the Jews in one way or another.
The form that that wanting rid of would take varied at different points. The
final solution, therefore, varied I think at different points, and certainly
at the beginning of the war, the final solution I think to the Jewish problem
is one as they see it. I mean, horrible to use this language, it's not a
problem. It's a nasty problem. It's a problem of their mentality, but as
they described it, the Jewish problem, the way to, quote, "solve," unquote,
this was by evacuation.
DAVIES: It's remarkable that you find places where people talk about the
notion of mass killings as being uncivilized and un-German.
Ms. REES: Yes, that's right. Both Heydrich and Himmler say that in 1940.
And so we know I think, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the final solution
does not mean extermination, because actually on paper, Himmler and Heydrich
are talking about extermination as being uncivilized when later on openly at
his speech at Poznan in 1943, Himmler is talking about physical extermination.
Something changes and again we know that from the documents and from
eyewitness testimony that in the summer of 1940, they had this what it seems
now at this distance utterly outlandish insane plan to transport Jews to the
island of Madagascar off Africa. What they anticipated, the Nazis, was that
the war was going to end in 1940, Britain would make peace and they would have
the French colonies at their disposal including Madagascar and the Jews would
be able in French ships probably to be shipped there, which is why they were
herded into ghettos. Ghettos were only ever seen as a temporary measure prior
to expulsion, but again, as you see time and again in this terrible history,
things don't go the way the Nazis want. Really they're almost constantly
thinking the war is going to end. They keep thinking any minute now, any
moment now, the war is going to stop, we'll have won and we'll be able to deal
with this in this way, and it never does end when they think it's going to
DAVIES: Well, the development of this notion of a final solution from being
the evacuation of Jews to the extermination of Jews you sort of describe as a
process of increasing radicalization.
Mr. REES: Absolutely.
DAVIES: Now what does this mean?
Mr. REES: If you go back to what I was saying earlier and you think, `Well,
what's going to be the natural consequence of incredibly dynamic, incredibly
competitive system of pushing towards a vision where you are trying to come up
with the implementation policies and your only guideline is be radical?,'
what's going to happen I think is what does happen, which is that you're going
to have a series of horrific crises of your own making. So I think one of the
best examples of this cumulative radicalization of the Nazis responding
brutally to crises that they themselves have created occurs in the large
ghetto where what happens is that the Jews have been imprisoned, they've been
forced to give up their money to buy food. They run out of money so they
begin to starve. So then Nazi functionaries face a choice. Some say, `Let
them all starve.' Others say, `No, no. We need to get something from these
people, exploit them.'
That view prevails. They put them to work in horrible conditions, of course,
and they pay them a tiny pittance, but those who are working can actually feed
themselves a bit. Other people, the old people, children, are suffering
terribly and still starving. And actually one Nazi functionary looks at this
situation they themselves have created and writes a note saying, `Wouldn't it
be more humane to kill these people rather than let them starve?' So that's
an example of how they end up in this position that they themselves have
created, where someone has the obscenity to write that it's more humane to
kill somebody than to leave them to starve.
DAVIES: So it's done with this utterly immoral idea of herding people into
ghettos with the idea you will transport them out. When you can't transport
Mr. REES: Yeah.
DAVIES: ...they begin to starve and one thing leads to another and then
you've come to this utterly horrific conclusion that you have...
Mr. REES: Yes. And so what...
DAVIES: ...to kill people in the thousands.
Mr. REES: ...and also you see with--exactly. And what's going on in the
minds of a lot of these Nazis, unbelievably we might think today, rightly, is
a sense of annoyance and indignation that the Jews have brought this on
themselves because the war's still going on and they can't be expelled. Well,
you know--so I've heard Nazis saying and seen it, that they say, `Oh, well, of
course, Churchill's controlled by the Jews. That's why the British don't do
the logical sensible thing in 1940 and make peace with us. So we're still
trapped in this war and we're in the war as a result of what the Jews are
doing, and if the war had ended, we'd been able to expel the Jews somewhere,'
where incidentally they would probably have had some form of genocidal
horror awaiting them anyway, but they would have been expelled somewhere.
`And now we can't expel them. What are we supposed to do with them?'
And so this is the kind of mentality that you hear and you see it absolutely
plainly now I think as a result of a lot of new research around Pearl Harbor,
that there are killings going on before Pearl Harbor, notably in Eastern
Europe behind the lines in the war against the Soviet Union, but there's no
major death camp in operation. But what happens is as soon as Pearl Harbor
happens, you see Hitler's rhetoric change and he starts talking about right,
now it's a world war and you remember my prophecy of 1939 in which he stated,
`If the Jews succeed in causing a world war, the result will be their
annihilation,' and I think and a lot of--some scholars do that I agree with,
some disagree, but I certainly agree this is the moment when actually he sees
this as a fulfillment of a prophecy. He said, `If the Jews get involved and
cause a world war, America coming into the war is de facto a world war, they'd
simultaneously think the Jews are not just behind Stalin but they're behind
Roosevelt as well,' is pathological, this stuff. But they absolutely believe
that I think, and so as a result of that, they absolutely push forward with
their massive expansion in the killing around that time immediately after
DAVIES: Journalist Laurence Rees' book is "Auschwitz: A New History."
We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: My guest is BBC journalist Laurence Rees. His new book is
"Auschwitz: A New History."
When the Nazis first began executing Jews in large numbers, they did it really
with firing squads. What was the impact of that kind of close-quarter
execution on the Germans who carried it out?
Mr. REES: Well, the impact for quite a substantial proportion of them was
terrible. They were emotionally made distraught by this, their having to
shoot women and children at very close range, and this, thus, I believe,
begins this journey to the gas chambers that we know of, the infamous gas
chambers, and it's because we see when Himmler visits Minsk in August 1941,
he's told of the emotional problems that the killing in this way, the
shooting, killings are doing to his men and he puts in training as a result a
whole series of experiments to devise a way of killing that is not so
emotionally disturbing to his men. So we have this terrible horror around
this, don't we, that I'd always thought that the reason that the gas chambers
were devised was primarily to kill people in large numbers. Well, it wasn't
just that at all. It was actually so that there was a less emotionally
stressful way that the killers could commit murder.
DAVIES: And they begin initially by putting people, I guess, in a cabin of
some kind and piping exhaust fumes into it.
Mr. REES: That's right. Well, what happens now again--and we can see this
as an example of both cumulative radicalism and competition within the Nazi
state is various people at various different locations come up with different
initiatives. What happens is there's an initiative which is the gas van which
is a van where you connect the exhaust back into a compartment hermetically
sealed in the rear where people are gassed. There's the building of the camp
at Belzec which is the first stationary gas chambers. By stationary,
obviously not gas vans but again using large engines with carbon gases going
in to gas them. And then at the same time in September 1941, you find a
totally different initiative beginning at Auschwitz which is the only camp
where this initiative begins which is the use of Zyklon-B.
Zyklon-B is a powerful insecticide used for disinfecting wounds and it was
already in Auschwitz and they used it for delousing prisoners' clothes and
rooms because they had a terrible problem with lice because of the inhumane
conditions, not least, that prisoners were kept in. And one of the
functionaries there thinks to himself, `Wow, it's got printed on Zyklon-B
cans, "Dangerous to life. Don't go in the room while this is being let off."'
And he goes, `Well, actually, of course, if you want to kill people, they
should be in the room.' So he starts experimenting not on Jews but on the
sick and on Soviet prisoners of war at Auschwitz and he starts with Zyklon-B.
The experiments go wrong to start with. They alter doses. They do
experiments. And eventually they evolve a different method of killing to the
ones used in the death camps of Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec.
DAVIES: Now as you noted, Auschwitz was not originally conceived of as a
death camp but as a labor camp which meant that it was large and had lots and
lots of barracks. And you note that when the killings of Jews really
accelerated in 1942 that this was done not so much at Auschwitz but at three
other camps, at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka...
Mr. REES: Yes.
DAVIES: ...and they were specifically set up as death camps. And you made
the point that when visitors go to those sites, they're always shocked at how
small they are...
Mr. REES: Yeah.
DAVIES: ...even though these three camps alone accounted for 1.7 million
deaths. Why were these death camps so small? How did they function?
Mr. REES: Because they had no other function than killing. Auschwitz is
unique in the history of the Nazi states, unique in the history of the world.
It's not just the site of the largest mass murder the world's ever seen as a
physical site. It's also unique in the Nazi state in that it's the only camp
that combines two functions. It's both a concentration camp and a death camp
and those functions vary at different times in its history.
What's happening at places like Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor is they are set
up in 1942, all of them ...(unintelligible) in 1942, they are set up purely to
murder Jews. And if you plan on just--just, I say just--murdering people, one
of the shocking things is you need no real space at all. These places are a
few hundred yards square. Nothing left of them now because the Nazis
themselves destroyed these camps in late 1943. They knew that they wanted to
keep this their secret and they were essentially places where trains would
arrive and the Jews would be taken off. And more than 99 percent of these
people would be dead probably within two hours. So there was no stay of any
kind really at all.
DAVIES: BBC journalist Laurence Rees' book is "Auschwitz: A New History."
He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Coming up, how Auschwitz became a camp of mass extermination and why
some Jews participated in the killing. We continue our conversation with
Laurence Rees, author of a new history of Auschwitz. Also, John Powers has
some thoughts on wine and globalization after watching the new documentary
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
Journalist Lawrence Rees' book, "Auschwitz: A New History," is based on more
than a hundred interviews with Auschwitz survivors and Nazi perpetrators. The
book is the companion to a six-hour television series which aired on PBS
earlier this year. When we left off, Rees was describing the difference
between the sprawling site of Auschwitz, which was intended as a forced labor
camp, and three smaller camps, including Treblinka, which were specifically
designed for mass murder.
Mr. REES: A camp like Treblinka, which was capable of killing 300,000 people
in little more--in around less than two months in the summer of 1942, 300,000
people in that one small space. It was run by around 20 Germans and about 100
Ukrainian guards. And these Ukrainians had been mostly selected from prison
camps. They had been people fighting on the Russian side who, in the horror
of the prison camps that the Germans set up for these Russians where millions
died, were offered this chance of saving themselves to go and work on the
And then there was the third category of people working in these camps who
were tragically Jews themselves. The Nazis selected very occasionally from
incoming transports a number of fit Jewish people and forced them, on pain of
their own immediate murder, to participate in the process by cutting people's
hair, by showing the way to the gas chamber, by cleaning the gas chambers, by
burning the bodies and so on. And the torment that these people went through
is scarcely imaginable.
DAVIES: So the actual horrific tasks of murder, of cleaning the bodies and
cleaning out the chambers after the killing has occurred is by and large not
done by Germans.
Mr. REES: Never done by Germans, really, no.
DAVIES: And that was true at Auschwitz as well?
Mr. REES: That's right.
Mr. REES: So they end up at the huge industrial-style killing factories of
Auschwitz-Birkenau. You have a crematorium gas chamber complex that's capable
in the summer of 1941 of killing 10,000 in one day, 10,000 people in one day.
And it's run by between two to four Germans and around about 100 Jews. Now
the Nazis save the absolute moment of murder to themselves. They're the ones
who drop the canisters of Zyklon B actually into the gas chamber. But pretty
much all the other tasks involved in making this operate are run by Jewish
Sonderkommando, who we know, both from interviewing some--the few people who
survived this and also from documents that Jewish Sonderkommando wrote and
hid in the foundations of the building often at the time, that, as I say, the
torment these people went through was practically indescribable.
DAVIES: I was struck by your description of the arrival buildings at the
death camps, that they often were fairly pleasant looking, I mean, with flower
plantings and the kind, I guess designed to re-ensure these incoming
Mr. REES: Exactly.
DAVIES: ...that their fate was not what it was going to be.
Mr. REES: Again, this is all part of the cynicism, but it's also part of the
learning curve that these Nazis go on, 'cause what happens at Treblinka, which
was the most deadly, if you like, of all these death camps outside of
Auschwitz--what happened in the summer of 1941 is they were killing so many
people that the system broke down--summer of 1942, that the system broke down.
There were bodies everywhere. There was just mayhem, people being shot. It
was chaos. So they actually had to shut it down and reorganize it. And the
new commander of Treblinka, what he managed to do as he pushed it forward was
come up with all of these devices, like the fake railway station, fake
timetables, lovely flowers. Same thing happened at Sobibor. One of the most
extraordinary individuals I've ever met, Toivi Blatt, who survived Sobibor,
said actually when he got off there, he'd been expecting some horrible place.
He said it was always beautiful, flowers and paths really nice and neat. And
as you say, it's all designed so that when, say, Jews coming from Holland
arrive, they're told you're at a transit station, hygiene stop where we just
need to take a shower, have your hair cut and you're going to move on east.
And it's deliberately designed to do that.
DAVIES: Now the mass killing at Auschwitz really began, I guess, when it was
decided that the Germans would evacuate the Jews of Hungary. And then
Auschwitz, in addition to being a labor camp, became the kind of factory of
death which the other death camps were.
Mr. REES: Well, it--yeah. I mean, it actually--there were Jews being killed
en masse there from the spring of 1942 from the local area, from Zloven,
Slovakia; French Jews were sent there and so on. But the actual mass period
of frenzied killing--You're absolutely right--related to 1944.
DAVIES: You note that Auschwitz became really a death camp at a point when
the Nazi death machine had become very well developed and Nazi initiative and
ingenuity had addressed some of the technical difficulties of mass murder and
had worked out solutions. Tell us a bit about those arriving Jews who were
selected for immediate death. What exactly faced them and who did the work?
Mr. REES: Well, they would be taken from the--in 1944, by the time this
became the most sophisticated procedure, they'd be taken straight from the
arrival ramp, which was the area they arrived at directly inside Birkenau, the
railway line ran right into the camp. They'd be taken, really, a few hundred
yards round to one of four combination gas chamber crematoriums. They would
then be taken down--in cases of two of them, they'd be taken--were all on
ground level. The other one had basement undressing rooms and gas chambers.
They'd be taken down or into a room where they'd be told to undress because
they were going to have to have a shower as part of the camp's admittance
procedure. And they would then be crammed into an airtight room, the door
shut, locked behind them. And then either from above, in the case of the
basement gas chambers, or through the windows of the ones all on the ground
floor, canisters of Zyklon B would be thrown in. And it would normally take,
dependent upon how many people were in these gas chambers, dependent on the
weather because Zyklon B was more effective the warmer the air was, it would
take 15, 20 minutes for these people to die, I think, a horrible, horrible
death of suffocation and poisoning.
The gas chambers would then be opened, these Sonderkommando, other Jewish
prisoners with gas masks, would have to go in, would take out the bodies,
would, in the case of the adults, go through them and take out the gold teeth,
would shave the hair of the women. The bodies would then be pushed into
lifts, taken up to the the ground level and, in the case of basement gas
chambers, where the bodies would be burned. And then their ashes would be
collected and either thrown in the immediate area or taken down to the nearby
River Vistula. So that was the horror of the process that they devised in the
DAVIES: Auschwitz was eventually liberated by the Red Army after many of the
remaining inmates were forced on a death march out of the camp, which you
describe in some detail. I was interested in the fate of the commander of
Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess, who managed to escape and hide for a while but was
eventually captured. What became of him?
Mr. REES: Well, what happened to him was that he was told by Himmler, his
boss in spring 1945--he was told to go run off and hide somewhere in the armed
forces. And Hoess, by all accounts, was disappointed by this. He'd been
expecting some kind of dramatic end, not just to run off and hide. But he did
as he was told, and he dressed up as a sailor and went off and pretending to
be a boatswain, in fact, and hid on the holiday island of Sylt in the Baltic
as a sailor. And he was taken in by the British at the end of the war. And
the British didn't bother to check whether he had an SS blood group number
under his arm, which he did, but they didn't look. And they thought he was a
sailor, and they let him go. And...
DAVIES: What is that, an SS blood group number? What do you mean?
Mr. REES: What happened was, all members of the SS--well, actually not all
because interestingly enough, Dr. Mengele somehow managed to get around
without one. But as a normal procedure of being admitted into the SS, you
would have your--you'd be given an SS tattoo, which contained information
about your blood group, which was put under your arm. And the reason for that
was because if you were injured and unconscious on the battlefront, they would
know what blood group you were for blood transfusions. And they didn't
do--it's the kind of information I think that's normally carried on dog tags
with other soldiers. But the SS decided that it was better to be in a tattoo,
which is in itself interesting because Auschwitz was the only camp in the
system that had tattoos. The other camps all had these dog tags that they
gave to prisoners, but they put tattoos on people in Auschwitz because so many
people were dying that the dog tags were getting taken off. They couldn't
work out, you know, who was dead, who wasn't, you know, tally it up on
numbers. So they actually put the tattoo on people so that when they were
dead, really, essentially, they could tell--they could, you know, write them
off their list. It's kind of a weird paradox--Isn't it?--that that's
also--the other people who were tattooed there were the SS as well.
But in any event, the British didn't look for the tattoo on Rudolf Hoess. He
was released. He went off and became a farmer. It was only after the British
captured Belsen--Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, that they began to hear about
this man Hoess in detail. Over several months, they interrogated prisoners
from there, many of whom had come from Auschwitz. They learned a bit about
Hoess. They traced his family. And this was a very, kind of clever way, I
think, that the British intelligence services would find some of these people.
It was always much easier to trace their families than them. And they worked
on the bases. There were a lot of these people who would be in touch with
their family. So they put in prison, Hoess' wife and basically tricked her.
They said, `Look, your children are going to go straight on this train here to
the Soviet Union. We're going to hand them over to the Russians unless you
tell us where your husband is.' And she made a decision about who she wanted
to protect most, and wrote down the address where Hoess was hiding. So he was
then captured, subsequently stood trial in Poland and was executed in 1947.
DAVIES: Journalist Laurence Rees' book is "Auschwitz: A New History." We'll
hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: My guest is BBC journalist Laurence Rees. His book is "Auschwitz: A
Were many of the SS officials who conducted the murder at Auschwitz held
accountable for their actions?
Mr. REES: Well, I think this is one of the great scandals this story, a
story rich in scandal at every level, but this is one of the greatest
scandals, which is that less than--well, maybe 12--10 percent of SS people who
worked at Auschwitz were ever prosecuted. Around 90 percent of the SS who
worked at Auschwitz during the war escaped all forms of prosecution. And
myself, I think that's a scandal.
DAVIES: Why was that?
Mr. REES: One of the reasons that so few people were prosecuted was that by
the 1960s, the German prosecutors had taken the view that unless a member of
the SS was absolutely directly involved in the killing or had been directly
involved in acts of brutality, physical brutality, then they could get off
scot-free. And of course, it meant that the way that the gas chambers had
been devised, which was that so few Germans were needed for their actual,
physical operation, it meant that the vast majority of SS at the camp could
say, `Oh, I wasn't really directly involved in the killing at all.'
Now, myself, I think that's a calumny, that's terrible because, of course, if
you're working in the currency units counting out money, if you're working in
the SS transport division, if you're a guard at the camp, you are directly
involved in the operation of the camp that results--that's an extermination
center. So I certainly disagree with--you know, for all the good it's going
to do anybody that I disagree, but I certainly disagree that they took that
DAVIES: The irony is, by having Jews themselves involved in the killing, they
cleansed their hands and avoided prosecution in many cases.
Mr. REES: Yes. It's like they didn't--so it's kind of if you were an SS man,
you could cynically look at it that you won twice. You won once in this whole
place was operating and you weren't actually having to get your hands dirty
with the murder because they'd organized this system whereby you didn't have
to. And, secondly, that then became the reason you weren't prosecuted. It's
a scandal, I think.
DAVIES: In this book, you compare the crimes of the Holocaust to other mass
exterminations in history, going as far back as Genghis Khan's genocide in
Persia, and conclude that this represents the lowest act in human history and
should not be allowed to recede into distant memory as some of these other
mass killings have. What's different about this extermination?
Mr. REES: I think that if you're looking at how you should think about
events in the past, or even events in the present actually, what you've got to
do is look at the overall circumstances in which these things happened. You
know, it's not much good thinking, `Well, oh, the Vikings were terrible.'
Well, the Vikings operated in a system of values at the time that was--they
were by all accounts from the latest research on Vikings, for example,
scarcely better or worse than any other 10th century marauding hordes. I
mean, it's a ludicrous--it seems to me, a ludicrous way to go to start blaming
Vikings for being Vikings.
Something different is going on here. What's happening is that you're taking
a cultured nation at the heart of Europe in the 20th century, long after the
enlightenment that has adopted absolute civilized cultural values in the wake
of the end of the first World War. It is a thriving, although troubled
democracy. It's got rid of all legislation against Jews. It's liberal in
that regard. All of these things are going on. It's got a great written
culture. It's got a great musical culture. It's got a great artistic
culture. It's the place you would think would be the most civilized almost to
be, and yet that very place within a matter of years turns into this.
So you've got a journey that they go on that's unlike--it's not like the
journey the Vikings go on or Genghis Khan and the Plains go on. This is not
like that. This is a different journey. This is a journey from one pole--one
extreme, if you like, to the other extreme. And in the process, they use 20th
century technology that they warp and adapt to this very service of mass
killing. And unlike Stalin, who even at his worst, when he was deporting
entire nations, the Kalmik nations, the Crimea and Tarters and so on--he's
deporting whole nations to Siberia. Even Stalin isn't trying to put forward
measures to eliminate them in their entirety. So something different, I
think, is going on here.
DAVIES: So many students of Naziism and the Holocaust have tried to in some
way answer the question: How could this happen? You've interviewed a hundred
or so survivors and war criminals from Auschwitz. Do you feel you have some
new insights into that question?
Mr. REES: I think what surprised me about this and--'cause I never intended
this career line. This kind of happened to me, you know, that I've written so
much on this and made so many programs on this. And one of the reasons it
happened is because I keep thinking I'm getting close to be able to answer
that properly. And as I keep getting towards it, it keeps going away from me
a bit more. So I think I'm a long way down the road, I hope, to being able to
get to there, but I'm not there yet. Maybe it's absolutely impossible to get
But one thing that I took from this was a big fear I've now got about people
of absolute faith. I always thought faith of itself could only be a positive
thing. Everyone talks about the importance of having faith. Well, these guys
had faith, absolute faith, and there's one really desperately upsetting--all
desperately upsetting, but ideologically, there's one desperately,
particularly upsetting moment where--in the book where I talk about how
Himmler and Hoess most admired as prisoners Jehovah's witnesses. They pointed
to them and said, `See that faith? That's the kind of faith we need in our
furor, absolute, unshakable faith.' Now, of course, no one is equating what
the Nazis did with Jehovah's witnesses, who operate a whole creed of peace and
love and so on, absolutely. But the very notion of absolute faith is at the
core of this. And so I'm beginning to start to have questions about people
who or communities that are absolutely certain about things.
DAVIES: Well, Laurence Rees, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. REES: Thank you for having me.
DAVIES: BBC journalist Laurence Rees. His book, "Auschwitz: A New History,"
is the companion to a six-hour television documentary which aired earlier this
year on PBS.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Composition "Different Trains" inspired by memories of
Steve Reich's childhood
DAVE DAVIES, host:
The Steve Reich composition "Different Trains" was inspired by memories of his
childhood. His parents were separated. His mother moved to Los Angeles while
his father stayed in New York. From 1939 to 1942, Reich had traveled back and
forth by train between his parents. He writes, `While these trips were
exciting and romantic at the time, I now look back and think that if I'd been
in Europe during this period, as a Jew, I would have had to ride very
different trains.' Here's an excerpt from the first movement of Reich's
different trains, which includes the voice of his governess Virginia who
accompanied him in these trips.
(Soundbite of "Different Trains")
DAVIES: An excerpt from the Steve Reich composition "Different Trains."
Coming up, critic at large John Powers on wine, globalization and the
documentary "Mondovino." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Commentary: Globalization in the wine industry the subject of
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Globalization in the wine industry is the subject of "Mondovino," a
controversial new documentary by Jonathan Nossiter. Our critic at large John
Powers has some thoughts on what's lost and what may be gained when cultural
traditions come up against a market-driven world economy.
JOHN POWERS reporting:
A few weeks ago, I was visiting Hong Kong and met a woman who'd been coming to
that city for decades. She'd just spent the afternoon wandering around the
central downtown district looking for the traditional shops and butchers she
once loved. She was horrified to see how many of the old places had been
replaced by Starbucks outlets and international stores like Armani. She
blamed globalization for flattening world culture. `Every city,' she
grumbled, `is becoming the same city.'
I thought about her words as I watched "Mondovino," a fascinating new
documentary by Jonathan Nossiter that has wine people in a dither. The movie
is all about the globalizing wine business. You see, wine makers once turned
out wines linked to their communities. Each wine embodied a unique terroir,
the almost mystical union of a particular soil, a particular climate, a
particular grape, even a particular cast of the sun. It was the end of the
natural process celebrated by Virginia Madsen's great monologue in "Sideways."
But these days, as Nossiter shows, wine making is increasingly ruled by
billionaire modernizers, like California's Mondavi family. They've snapped up
all the wineries and used such aging tricks as micro-oxygenation to produce an
increasingly homogenized product.
Terroir has been replaced by technique. Crusty old grape growers have been
supplanted by consultants who flit from vineyard to vineyard explaining how to
tool their wines for international tastes. And these tastes have been hugely
shaped by the Alan Greenspan of the international wine market, Maryland-born
critic Robert Parker. Parker's ratings can't merely make or break a label.
They actually lead international wine makers to alter their products in hopes
of satisfying the critic's fondness for so-called fruit bombs. Naturally,
Parker himself thinks he's just trying to make the world better, even seeing
his success as something of a social breakthrough.
Mr. ROBERT PARKER (Critic): What I'm very proud of is that I think that I
brought an American point of view to this sort of elitist beverage and
typically in France, I suppose, where there's so much invested with these old
families that many of them go back to pre-revolutionary times and have these
noble estates and this incredible heritage and history. And here comes this
American who comes over and calls your wine a casual picnic wine, you know,
and rates some upstart neighbor that's making, you know, in my palate, a
better wine, gives it a better review. This is incredibly unnerving.
POWERS: Of course, Parker's detractors view things very differently. They
see him as a metaphor for the larger process of globalization, homogenization
and--shutter--Americanization. Parker's particular tastes, reinforced by
American technique and marketing, have narrowed the range of wines, pushing
them toward a generic international standard. Friends of mine who are
enophiles, to use an ungainly term for wine nuts, rail against Parker's
influence. One even told me he'd rather drink an expensive but disappointing
burgundy than any micro-oxygenated product, no matter how tasty. For him,
part of the whole pleasure of wine lies in the diversity of different
vintages, different landscapes, different wine cultures.
I understood his feeling. As a film critic, I often complain about the way
Hollywood's power has crippled other countries' film industries, leading them
to ape American-style filmmaking. These days, seemingly every country in the
world makes hip movies about hit men. And if that were the whole story, then
the anti-globalizers would be absolutely right. The world is being leveled,
reduced, but in fact, things aren't nearly so simple. Truth is, globalization
is a question of tradeoffs, and these tradeoffs often pit our ideals against
Take me. I'm all for diversity. I'm as suspicious of corporations as I am of
big government. I favor small, local shops over today's big boxes. But at
the same time, I'm equally in favor of democratized culture. I'm all for
Martha Stuart bringing nicely designed products to Kmart. I've bought them.
I may complain that Hong Kong is now overrun by Starbucks, but millions of
locals are happy with the prosperity it signals. And I couldn't even complain
about how Hong Kong isn't what it used to be, were it not for democratized
mass tourism which let me buy a cheap ticket.
Which brings us back to wine. "Mondovino" was right, that there was something
glorious about the old tradition of making wine, yet it gives short shrift to
the one big thing that must be said for the new globalized wine biz: Ordinary
people can now afford to drink a quality of wine that was once only enjoyed by
the elite. The bottle we buy for $10 is more reliably good than ever before,
in part, thanks to Parker's celebration of big flavor and Mondavi's style of
mass marketing. Sure, it may be micro-oxygenated to please mass taste, but
frankly, most of us, being part of the masses, won't notice or care. It
tastes good. And even if drinking it means we're flattening out the world, at
least we have something pleasurable to dull the pain.
DAVIES: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and media columnist for LA
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.