David Irving, Hitler and Holocaust Denial: Electronic Edition, by Richard J. Evans

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(iii) General Problems of Oral History and Memoir Literature30

1. Adalbert Rückerl, the former head of the Central Agency of the Länder for the Prosecution of Nazi Crimes, based in Ludwigsburg, who died in 1986, commented that the absolutely objective, i.e. independent and unprejudiced witness, does not exist. By this he meant one who in complete command of his or her faculties takes in an event, memorises it, and finally can repeat it without mistakes after the passage of time. A 'neutral' witness is hard to find because witness statements are inevitably, by their very nature, a recounting of events subjectively experienced at the time and further filtered over the years. The most exciting witnesses for the historian are those who have a wider mental horizon, whose powers of perception and interpretation of events are above the normal. Usually though, the historian faces the hard task of weighing up the objective truth of a statement against possible corruption of memory of one sort or another.
2. Rückerl listed a number of specific problems concerning witnesses to Nazi crimes and their willingness to talk.31 Some of them correctly fear that if they give a truthful account, they   themselves may be prosecuted. Some of them are silent because they are genuinely ashamed to have known about these things and to have kept silent at the time. Some witnesses have genuinely repressed their memories of events, but Rückerl adds the proviso that:
The extent of apparent loss of memory, which many of these witnesses in the courtroom try to demonstrate, is nothing short of shocking and disgraceful. Time and time again in NS trials it is shown that those persons, apart from the accused themselves, who could be most effective in establishing the truth, are the very ones who impede matters.32
3. The age of the witnesses and the time-span between events and their retelling often poses problems, as does the tendency to fill holes with products of their fantasy to retain credibility. The historian is also confronted by the possibility of an ongoing exchange of ideas and memories between members of a particular group, so that that which has been experienced and that which has been received become intermingled and hard to disentangle.
4. A comparative approach is imperative when evaluating investigations. Only by reviewing as broad a sample of statements as possible are discrepancies, distortions and omissions likely to be revealed. Moreover, only by comparison with the existing documents can such statements be placed in their proper historical and individual context, and thus allow of an informed conclusion. With well-documented individuals one is often in the position to reject witness statements as a reflected self-image, based on a desire for exculpation. It must also be remembered that a genuine repentance and critical distance to their former life is rare amongst former Nazis. For instance only three of the twenty two accused at the main Nuremberg trial admitted their guilt: the General Governor of Poland Hans Frank, the Minister for the Occupied   Eastern Territories Alfred Rosenberg, and the Einsatzgruppenführer Otto Ohlendorf. Albert Speer made a show of declaring his guilt, but in fact to his dying day never admitted that he had known about the extermination of the Jews. Very few are those who wish to unburden themselves, legion are those who seek to prove their innocence.33
5. It is a recognised phenomenon amongst oral historians of the 'Third Reich' that witnesses to NS crimes are often only in a position partially to reveal their knowledge. Often an episode is disguised as having been told to the person interviewed by a third party, coupled with a disclaimer that he or she had not realised the full significance of the episode as related to them at the time. Oral historian Gabriele Rosenthal concluded that when the statement is made that the interviewee 'knew nothing', they mean that they knew nothing about the factory-like murder of the Jews in death camps or all of the circumstances and details which became public after the war.34 The witness deliberately overlooks the significance of those particular details known to themselves, and thereby avoids a confrontation with the realities of the past.
6. A further problem is that matters that are related as incriminating or as having preyed upon the mind, may not be what they pretend to be. A defensive barrier is erected whereby a partial revelation maintains the fiction of a certain morality and simultaneously blocks a fuller (self-) investigation into actions and responsibility. The claim to have known 'something' also   maintains a certain plausibility as regards the rest of the story.35 Often the Nazi era is rejected out of hand as being too far in the past to be worth reminiscing about and provokes the blanket sentiment 'we had nothing to do with it.' It is also a recognised phenomenon that interviews, if granted at all in the first place, are often refused publication, often out of the revulsion experienced from listening to their own recollections.36
7. Not only are witness statements recollections of things past, and therefore subject to retrospection, but the context of a criminal or historical investigation itself may provide additional incentives for distorting the truth. This is a factor that must be taken into account by the interviewer. Oral historian Ela Horning discussed her experiences interviewing Austrian soldiers who had fought for the German Wehrmacht. She established that many of her interviewees, either consciously or subconsciously, sought to equate the sufferings of the victims of National Socialism with their own privations suffered on the eastern front or during post-war imprisonment. Some of her witnesses had revisionist interests and expectations. They hoped that, with the historian as an 'accomplice', their sufferings in Soviet camps could finally become a historically subjective part of history. Thereby they could negate their complicity in the crimes of war and National Socialism. The intention was, Horning concluded, that 'The culprits should become victims'.37

Notes

30. Literature discussing the veracity of post-war reminiscences of the National Socialist dictatorship includes Walter Hubatsch, Deutsche Memoiren 1945-1955. Eine kritische Übersicht deutscher Selbstdarstellung im ersten Jarhzehnte nach der Katastophe (Laupheim, 1956); Helmut Peitsch, "Deutschlands Gedächtnis an seine dunkelste Zeit." Zur Funktion der Autobiographik in den Westzonen Deutschlands und den Westsektoren von Berlin 1945 bis 1949 (Berlin, 1990); Leonidas E. Hill 'The Published Political Memoirs of Leading Nazis, 1933-1945', in George Egerton (ed.), Political Memoir. Essays on the Politics of Memory (London, 1994), pp. 225-241; Friedrich Gerstenberger 'Strategische Erinnerungen. Die Memoiren deutscher Offiziere', in Hannes Heer (ed.) Vernichtungskrieg. Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941-1944 (Hamburg, 1995), pp. 620-627.
31. Adalbert Rückerl, NS-Verbrechen vor Gericht. Versuch einer Vergangenheitsbewältigung (Heidelberg, 1982), pp. 249-256.
32. Rückerl, p. 250.
33. A particularly crass example is Lina Heydrich, Reinhard Heydrich's wife. When she published her memoirs her publishers saw themselves obliged to employ an historian to refute no less than 29 contentious attempts to excuse her husband or herself. Lina Heydrich, Leben mit einem Kriegsverbrecher mit kommentaren von Werner Maser (Pfaffenhofen, 1976).
34. The varieties of the protestation 'I knew nothing' are also dealt with in Barbara Keller, Rekonstruktion der Vergangenheit. Vom Umgang der "Kriegsgeneration mit Lebenserinnerungen (Opladen, 1996), p. 204.
35. Gabriel Rosenthal (ed.) "Als der Krieg kam, hatte ich mit Hitler nichts mehr zu tun" Zur Gegenwärtigkeit des 'Dritten Reichs' in Biographen (Opladen, 1990), pp. 216-220.
36. Lothar Steinbach, Ein Volk, ein Glaube? Ehemalige Nationalsozialisten und Zeitzeugen berichten über ihr Leben im Dritten Reich (Bonn, 1983), pp. 16-17.
37. Ela Hornung, 'Das Schweigen zum Sprechen bringen. Erzählungsformen österreichischer Soldaten in der deutschen Wehrmacht', in Walter Manoschek (ed.), Die Wehrmacht im Rassenkrieg. Der Vernichtungskrieg hinter der Front (Vienna, 1996), pp. 182-205, p. 187.
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