By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
Teaching a course on the Holocaust is challenging. What should be the goal of the course: To explain why the event occurred, or how it transpired? What should the course focus upon most: The perpetrators of the crime, or the victims of the massacres? How should we remember the legacy of the nightmare: As a unique moment in history, or simply another horrendous chapter in the unending book of human cruelty?
As an instructor, I have other, more personal hurdles as well. I naturally attempt to use humor, and irony to make points in my courses. This is not possible when analyzing Auschwitz-Birkenau.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, I attempt to use images and video as learning tools. There is no shortage of documented images from the Shoah, but where do you draw the line between necessary illumination of horror, and macabre voyeurism?
These are difficult questions I face every Tuesday and Thursday at 10AM.
But, this quarter I am finding that I have a new, more disturbing challenge. During the last couple weeks, I have come to realize that I was using the language of Nazism to explain the historical context of the genocide. I know this sounds….not good, so let me explain.
When investigating the Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht, and Nazi propaganda, I must analyze Nazi ideology with my students. They must understand that the Nazi weltschauung was Manichean in nature. Good vs. Evil, right vs. wrong, light vs. dark. Hitler and the Nazis understood humanity and individual identities utilizing such antithetical notions. Supposed racial essence, most obviously the difference between Jews and Aryans, was all important. During 1933-1939, the period that Saul Friedländer has termed the ‘Years of Persecution’, Hitler and his Nazi movement regularized such ideas throughout German society. The Nazi’s initial end during these early years was not to annihilate the Jewish people, but to destroy the Jewish community within the German homeland. German Jews were to subjugated and relegated to secondary status, with the hope that the community would disintegrate through emigration. Thus, the Nazi state constantly and ubiquitously portrayed an ineffable and unbridgeable gap between the true German, the ‘Aryan’, and the parasitic outsider, ‘the Jew’. This portrayal of complete difference allowed the ‘German Aryan’ to feel superior to his German Jewish neighbor, and have no problem with any legal discrimination against the latter that was passed. This was incredibly, and horrendously effective.
The success of Hitler and the Nazis in this realm can be seen in the fact that my students are surprised that many German Jews felt they were Germans first, and Jews second. In 1933, there were only about 500,000 German Jews living within the Reich, and a great number of these men, women and children constructed their personal identity upon national, not religious or racial, terms. German Jews were proud of German influence in world affairs, in German technology, German education, and, most particularly, in German high culture. Just like non-Jewish Germans, they lionized Beethoven, Kant, Goethe. In fact, a good number of German Jews were disgusted by what they understood as Hitler’s theft of the German cultural heritage, since they believed Hitler was wholly antithetical to this legacy. For instance, Victor Klemperer, a German First World War veteran, diarist, and German Jew, viewed the Nazi movement, and Hitler in particular, as a horrendous befouling of the German Kultur and Bildung that he loved so much. Hitler and his Nazi thugs smeared the true Germany that so many German Jews adored.
This brings me back to my newest challenge. I understand the complexity of German Jewish identity, the stealing of Germanness from the nation’s Jews, and yet, I find myself linguistically differentiating Jews and Germans in my lectures. As I explain Nazi methods and ideas, I inadvertently, yet unthinkingly, fall into the Nazi usage of antithetical identity language. Looking at German history during the Hitler years causes me to separate ‘Jews’ from ‘Germans’, in an absolute, essentialist manner. I inform my students that ‘Jews’ and not ‘Germans’ were most effected by the Nuremberg laws. I explain to them that the ‘Jews’ and not ‘Germans’ faced persecution on Kristallnacht. I illustrate that it was the Jews and not ‘Germans’ who were transported to Auschwitz-Birkanau, Treblinka, and Belzec. In this, I teach the fallacy that Jews were not Germans, and Germans were not Jews.
I nauseously realized that I may be providing Hitler with a posthumous victory.
I can’t let that happen.