Broadly defined, the Holocaust is a catchall term used to describe the deliberate murder of as many as 17 million Jews, disabled people, homosexuals, Freemasons, political prisoners, POWs, and other so-called undesirables by Nazi Germany. How could ordinary Germans let this happen? Were they unaware of it? Or did they turn a blind eye to it?
The Mysterious Diary of Friedrich Kellner?
On September 13, 1939, a rather extraordinary man sat down to write. It was his first entry in a secret journal that would eventually encompass six years of his life, ten volumes, 861 pages, and over 500 newspaper clippings. That man was Friedrich Kellner. And his diary has ignited a controversy about the role of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust.
Prior to World War II, Kellner campaigned against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis while working for the Social Democratic Party of Germany. After Hitler came to power, Kellner refused to join the Nazi Party. Instead, he took a position as a mid-level justice inspector in and started his now-famous diary which he entitled Mein Widerstand, or My Opposition.
“I could not fight the Nazis in the present, as they had the power to still my voice, so I decided to fight them in the future. I would give the coming generations a weapon against any resurgence of such evil. My eyewitness account would record the barbarous acts, and also show the way to stop them.” ~ Friedrich Kellner, 1968
Kellner’s diary is particularly interesting to Social Historians. It provides incredible insight into the information that was available to ordinary Germans about the Holocaust and other atrocities.
“The decisive thing is that he is not an intellectual, he is an ordinary employee sitting in the provinces who reads the newspapers. He is full of anger about what is happening.” ~ Sascha Feuchert, Head of the Research Unit for Holocaust Literature at Giessen University
What did Ordinary Germans know about the Holocaust?
Through “personal conversations, news reports and keen observation,” Kellner educated himself on the horrifying crimes committed by the Nazis. His diary is chilling to read. Check out these two entries…
“In the last few days Jews from our district have been removed. From here it was the families Strauss and Heinemann. I heard from a reliable source that all Jews were taken to Poland and would be murdered by SS brigades.” ~ September 16, 1942
“Ten years in the penitentiary for a ‘radio crime.’ According to the newspaper that was too little for the chief justice. He sent back the verdict to the original court and demanded the death penalty. Just think: the death sentence for listening to a foreign broadcast on the radio.” ~ April 14, 1943
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the most infamous entry. It’s dated October 28, 1941 and is at the heart of much of the recent controversy.
“A soldier on vacation here said he witnessed a terrible atrocity in the occupied parts of Poland. He watched as naked Jewish men and women were placed in front of a long deep ditch and upon the order of the SS were shot by Ukrainians in the back of their heads and they fell into the ditch. Then the ditch was filled with dirt even as he could still hear screams coming from people still alive in the ditch.”
Why didn’t Ordinary Germans try to Stop the Holocaust?
That entry in particular has been cited by Holocaust experts as proof that ordinary Germans were privy to the horrors being conducted by the Nazi regime at concentration camps throughout Occupied Europe.
“These diaries … represent a towering refutation of the well-worn refrain of so many Germans after the war — ‘We knew nothing of the Nazi horrors’.” Elan Steinberg, The American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants
Kellner’s silent opposition did not go unnoticed. He came quite close to being sent off to a concentration camp himself. According to a Nazi official from 1940, “If we want to apprehend people like Kellner we will have to lure them out of their corners and let them incriminate themselves. The time is not ripe for an approach like the one used with the Jews. This can only take place after the war.”
Kellner’s diary has reopened a longstanding debate among historians about the role of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust. After World War II ended, these people separated themselves from the Nazis by claiming they had no knowledge of the atrocities. Of course, Kellner’s diary doesn’t necessarily prove anything. Still, it shows that information about war crimes was accessible to his countrymen. They read the same newspapers he did and it’s reasonable to assume they heard similar first-hand accounts of the horrors. And yet, they did nothing.
But why? Why didn’t more people speak up?
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
The answer to that mystery may lie in a book written by Milton Mayer in 1955. It analyzed the lives of ten ordinary German Christians during the War and their peculiar relationship with the Nazi government. After World War I and the stupendously wrongheaded Treaty of Versailles, Germany was ruined. As such, the ten men eagerly joined the Nazi party, which seemed to offer economic improvement, a sense of community, and national pride.
The Nazi regime encouraged them to, in essence, become one with the state. Love for their country was carefully manipulated into love for their government. This became an issue of absolute importance. Opposing the state meant one was a traitor to his country and thus, to its people. It led to societal exclusion, which was unthinkable to many civilians. Unfortunately, the alternative was to essentially accept the government’s activities as good and righteous. And that meant turning a blind eye to Nazi atrocities or even participating in them.
Mayer’s work gives us valuable insights into the nature of fascism and the role it played in causing ordinary people to embrace hatred, violence, and murder. Incidentally, Mayer conducted his interviews eight years after Nazi Germany had fallen. He discovered that the ten men continued to idolize Hitler as a sort of Savior of Germany. They missed the sense of community, security, and national pride. When he asked them what it was like to live under tyranny, they provided a universal response, which informed the title of his book. And what was that title you ask?
They Thought They Were Free