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“We give it breath…”: THE POWER OF SUBJECTIVITY IN THE STUDY OF HOLOCAUST HISTORY

jewish children

As an Australian secondary school history teacher with post-graduate qualifications in a number of areas including historical studies, my immediate instinctive response to writing on the topic of Holocaust history was to write regarding a topic of historical content in a style that I was comfortable with – the style of an “objective”, analytical, historical essay. It didn’t take me long to conclude, however, that such a traditional approach would not be the best means by which to convey my understandings of how the Holocaust could / should be studied. The lectures by Kenez and Baumgerten (see bibliography) challenged my predisposition to the objective study of history and the work of Braun (1994) pushed my thinking further as it challenged the very notion of objectivity in the meaningful study of the Holocaust. As I reflect upon teaching the Holocaust to students I have found a new appreciation for the power of subjective first person literary texts in the study of history. This theme was encapsulated by Professor Baumgarten’s use of the phrases “bearing witness” and “giving breath” during his lectures.

In Lecture 1.2 (Dry Tears and Personal Witnessing Part 2), Professor Baumgarten, while acknowledging the importance of Holocaust studies to be interdisciplinary, explores the important differences between “literary writing” and “historical writing” (capital H “History”) (Kenez & Baumgarten, 2013a). In particular, Baumgarten focuses some attention on the power and purpose of the use subjective first person rather than the use of the objective third person voice. The third person voice is a significant convention in the historical writing genre. Baumgarten suggests that the power of the first person voice creates a “chain of witnessing” from the events as they occurred in a historical context, through the author’s words, to a new place where it rests in the audience’s empathetic consciousness (Kenez & Baumgarten, 2013a). Through first person, the audience can gain an understanding and empathy which transcends the cognitive processes of third person History. Baumgarten and Kenez build a powerful case that, in order to truly develop a deep knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust both a study of literature and history are required. This case is echoed by Braun who points out that: “Analysis shows that the content and form of historical judgement, the limits of historical narratives, and the referential connections between “facts”, “representation”, and truth” are more problematic than historians… would like to believe” (Braun, 1994, p.172). Braun concludes, therefore, that a “pragmatic” approach to studying events such as the Holocaust should be “accepting [of] historical representation [as occurs in literature] as a tool” for understanding the past (Braun, 1994, p.197). While the traditional tools of objectivity in historical writing remain valued, literature may well “serve our understanding of identity, community and culture better than other means” and can serve to “establish a human solidarity” as we engage in an open encounter with the voices of past experiences (Braun, 1994, p.197).

In Lecture 1.3 (Dry Tears and Personal Witnessing Part 3), Professor Kenez clearly points out the strength of both literature and history as disciplines for comprehending the seemingly incomprehensible events of the Holocaust (Kenez & Baumgarten, 2013b). Kenez, at one point, convincingly contends that both history and literature, despite “operating under different constraints”, seek wisdom through an exploration of human experience. I found this a particularly powerful insight (Kenez & Baumgarten, 2013b). Despite some disagreement on the nature of wisdom itself, both Kenez and Baumgarten appear to accept this view. As a teacher of secondary school history in Australia, I found myself drawn to the view that it is through literature that students might most readily begin to understand the events of the Holocaust. Through structured explorations of Holocaust literature in which writers who seek to “bear witness” to their real life experiences students can gain powerful understandings. In future classes that I teach, I will certainly be endeavouring to expose students, not only to historical texts, but also to literary texts. I believe that it is through careful consideration of both disciplines that true deep and empathetic understandings of the Holocaust may be developed. Through exposure to literary texts, students of history may “give breath” to history as the experiences of others in an increasingly distant age come to life. While students need to accept the constraints and limitations of both disciplines, they may learn best through an interdisciplinary approach to exploring the Holocaust; an interdisciplinary approach that works to bear witness to events, seeks to transcend the constraints of traditional historical study, and attempts “gives breath” to voices that the Nazis attempted to silence forever (Kenez & Baumgarten, 2013a).

An excellent example of the power of literature to convey historical understandings is the poem Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car by Dan Pagis (Yad Vashem – The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, 2013). Pagis is a clear example of a writer who seeks to provide testimony to the events – to bear witness to the events – of the Holocaust. Through Pagis’ use of a subjective first person voice, his voice becomes our voice and we are transported into the place of his experience. This poem is a powerful example of the way in which first person voice can be employed as a device to transcend the constraints of historical time and place in such a way that an audience is made an empathetic witness to the events being recalled. It is the very subjective and personal nature of this poem that brings the events of the Holocaust to life for the reader in a way that traditional history writing cannot do. By reading in the first person, the audience is transported and positioned within the historical event on a deep level beyond documentation of a “black and white image of types and stereotypes” (Braun, 1994, p.190). The reading audience becomes connected to the author and his experiences. The reader becomes a witness to the events of the Holocaust being shared in the literature. The reader begins to identify with the victims of the Nazi crimes during the Holocaust. As the events of Holocaust literature become articulated and real in the minds of audiences, a “chain of witnessing” is created and through, what Baumgarten calls, “the magic of culture” new and deep understandings of history are born (Kenez & Baumgarten, 2013a).

The place of Holocaust literature in the classroom teaching of History becomes a powerful tool when one makes plain to students that the Nazis intended to make even the very memory of the Jewish culture extinct. Literature strikes a powerful blow against this genocidal intent and preserves the historical memory. Baumgarten argues that by allowing students to experience the power of first person Holocaust narratives, the students themselves share in the cultural experience of the Jews and become empathetic witnesses to the atrocities of Nazism that were perpetuated upon European Jews (Kenez & Baumgarten, 2013b). Such a transformative experience thereby defeats the Nazi intention of a cultural erasure of European Jewry. The History student who studies Holocaust literature as a part of their coursework helps to build the cultural memory of the Jewish experience during the 1930s and 1940s. Australian secondary school students exposed to Holocaust literature can, therefore, in their present day lives, continue the fight against the historical Nazi attempt to exterminate the memory of Jewish Europe. By embracing an interdisciplinary approach to studying the Holocaust, history students who are exposed to Holocaust literature might “save some value from the debris of history” in which the personal experience is subjugated to a tentative objective and documented reality (Braun, 1994, p.196). In at least a small, personal and subjective way, these novice students of History can strike a blow against Nazi crimes and perhaps contribute in some small way towards building a world in which such crimes might never again occur. By rethinking notions of objectivity in historical study and by being prepared to embrace the subjectivity of historical representation in Holocaust literature, teachers might be able to “bear witness” to the experiences of the past and “give breath” to history.

Bibliography:

Braun, R. (1994, May). The Holocaust and Problems of Historical Representation. History and Theory, 33(2), 172-197. Retrieved August 1, 2013, from https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:ScGdKAPpu-AJ:www.upf.edu/materials/fhuma/genocidis/docs/braun.pdf+&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESjzBa4EFZCc5Hv4cOstf9Hux7weU92sS1jPv6ZkZyf_t19QYxYK5bPXbPa4OKtUjj1whs1XgV2ZozNFyBGxskwdkC–DzOYFjnIV5Sv6NW15n1qL4OS

Kenez, P., & Baumgarten, M. (2013a, July). Module 1.2 Dry Tears and Personal Witnessing Part 2. The Holocaust. Santa Cruz, California, USA: UC Santa Cruz – Coursera. Retrieved August 2, 2013, from https://class.coursera.org/holocaust-001/lecture/27

Kenez, P., & Baumgarten, M. (2013b, July). Module 1.3 Dry Tears and Personal Witnessing Part 3. The Holocaust. Santa Cruz, California, USA: UC Santa Cruz – Coursera. Retrieved August 2, 2013, from https://class.coursera.org/holocaust-001/lecture/27

Yad Vashem – The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. (2013). Five Poems by Dan Pagis (1930-1986). Retrieved August 2, 2013, from The International School for Holocaust Studies: http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/education/lesson_plans/dan_pagis.asp#5

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HOLOCAUST POETRY: BEARING WITNESS IN LITERATURE

Jews loading onto trains at the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw during the German occupation of Poland (1942-43) from:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Umschlagplatz_loading.jpg

Jews loading onto trains at the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw during the German occupation of Poland (1942-43) from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Umschlagplatz_loading.jpg

Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway car (by: Dan Pagis)

here in this carload
I am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him I 

 

This poem was found on http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/education/lesson_plans/dan_pagis.asp#5 . Dan Pagis (1930-86) was a Holocaust survivor who was interned in a Ukrainian concentration camp.

Professor Murray Baumgarten of the University of California (Santa Cruz) argues that the study of the Holocaust should be an interdisciplinary study. While  his own background is as a professor of literature, he argues that a variety of disciplines would be appropriate as companions to historical study in order to build a more complete understanding of the incomprehensible atrocities that took place during the 1940s.

When considering literature of the Holocaust, Baumgarten notes the power of the use of first person narration as writers bear witness and testify to their experiences. The use of first person is transformative for the reader and transports the reader into the context experienced by the author. First person gives a power and connection that is seldom found in the traditional genre of historical writing. By it’s very nature, literature is personal and subjective. These characteristics give Holocaust literature great power.

Dan Pagis’ poem (above) is an example of this. In Pagis’ voice, “Eve” is the mother of us all. His first person voice becomes our voice and we are transported into the place of his experience. The reader gives the voice “breath” in the present. By reading in the first person, we become one with the text as it provides testimony of the human experience of another person. Baumgarten argues that,  in this case, Pagis is testifying to his experience and therefore the reader becomes part of that witnessing. Pagis is creating a “chain of witnesses” to what happened during the Holocaust by including the reader in the experience. There is power in the words and testimony through what Baumgarten refers to, enthusiastically, as the “the magic of culture”.

The place of Holocaust literature in education is a powerful tool when one makes plain to students that the Nazis intended to make even the very memory of the Jewish culture extinct. Baumgarten argues that by allowing students to experience the power of first person Holocaust narratives, the students themselves become witnesses to the atrocities and thereby defeat the Nazi intention of a cultural erasure of European Jewry. The student, therefore, is fighting against the Nazi attempt to exterminate the memory of Jewish Europe.

A powerful thought indeed!

NAZI RACIAL POLICIES: BEGINNING TO TRY TO COMPREHEND THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE

Jews in Vienna forced to scrub the streets. Source: Images of the Holocaust in Vienna; available at: The Holocaust Research Project, http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/nazioccupation/viennagal/Jews%20in%20Vienna%20forced%20to%20scrub%20the%20streets.html

Jews in Vienna forced to scrub the streets. Source: Images of the Holocaust in Vienna; available at: The Holocaust Research Project, http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/nazioccupation/viennagal/Jews%20in%20Vienna%20forced%20to%20scrub%20the%20streets.html

The NSDAP (Nazi Party) developed race policies based upon four sets of ideas. These ideas were a mix of deep historical prejudices, nationalistic myths of identity, a mix of scientific and pseudoscientific thought, and the fashionable field of social philosophy (in the 1920s) called eugenics. Many of these ideas – especially eugenics – were not particular to Germany. Eugenics was also extremely popular in the USA during the post-war era. Central to eugenics is a form of rank-ordaining in which people were classified and placed into what was consider by some to be a scientifically proven hierarchy.
An illustration from a 19th century American publication produced to emphasise the danger to society posed by the “feeble-minded”. Source: Manjoo, F. (2007) Progressive Genocide, Salon.com, www.salon.com/.../2006/03/04/bruinius/index.html

An illustration from a 19th century American publication produced to emphasise the danger to society posed by the “feeble-minded”.
Source: Manjoo, F. (2007) Progressive Genocide, Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/…/2006/03/04/bruinius/index.html

After the study of languages, a number of European writers in the 19th century had begun to “rank order” the peoples of the world. The highest rank was attributed to a cultured group who (it was believed) had migrated from the region of India to northern Europe – this group were referred to as Aryans. The NSDAP discovered these “pseudoscientific” views and integrated them into a glorified myth of German national identity – the true German, it was believed, was ethnically Aryan.
In this same ranking system, racial “pollutants” were identified within Europe. These inferior groups included slavs, Roma and, significantly, the Jews.
4 THEORIES

The combination of these ideas formed the theoretical basis upon which the NSDAP built its policies of anti-Semitism. As Nazi theorists adapted eugenics and mixed it with nationalist myths and fanciful theories of racial development over centuries in Europe, they soon considered ways in which they might attempt to “restore” an Aryan order to the societies of Europe. The theories they were developing would soon influence public policy and practice in many aspects of life.

eugenics theory to action

A simply timeline of the implementation of NSDAP racial policies is instructive in demonstrating the way in which the policies of eugenics were applied incrementally and increasingly targeted the Jewish people of Germany (and later it’s neighbours).

timeline

In September 1939, when the Second World War commenced Germany’s borders closes to crossings. The ongoing emigration of Jews from Germany soon came to a close as warfare ensured that Jews could no longer escape German territory. By 1941, Nazi Germany controlled large areas of Europe. Many Jews were summarily executed in these areas by both the Wehrmacht and the SS. In numerous areas (especially on the Eastern Front) Jewish settlements were depopulated and many dues walled in to closely guarded urban ghettos. In 1942, as the war in Eastern Europe intensified and large Jewish populations fell under the control of German forces, the Wansee Conference in Berlin decided on the fate of the Jews (and other similar “out groups”) in Nazi Europe. The so-called “Final Solution” called for the SS to carry out an extermination of Jews through a variety of means. This remained policy of the NSDAP until the collapse of Nazi Germany at war’s end in 1945. The death toll as a result of the Final Solution is horrific.

Total killed: Approximately 10 – 11 million people
Approximately: 6 million Jews
•Most Jews were killed in Eastern European extermination / death camps such as Auschwitz-Berkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, Sobilor, Chelmno, and Majdanek.
•Camps were run by a section of the SS.
•In addition to extermination camps were slave labour camps such as Dachau.
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NAZI STRATEGIES FOR TAKING POWER IN GERMANY

"Es lebe Deutschland" depicts Hitler as a German  Messiah.

“Es lebe Deutschland” depicts Hitler as a German Messiah.

The methods that the NSDAP (National Socialists or Nazis) used to gain power reflected their pragmatic philosophy. Nazis, being anti-intellectual, were prepared to adopt any method of taking power – as long as it worked! In terms or responding to this focus question, the NSDAP’s rise to power should be examined in two phases.

  1.  The Early 1920s
  2. The Late 1920s and early 1930s

These two phases reflected the very different conditions in which the Party operated in Germany. Let’s examine the major features of each phase.

Phase 1: The Early 1920s:

The early 1920s were a time when German democracy was in its infancy after the Great War. Despite the successes of the popular German statesman Gustav Stresseman between 1923 and 1925 as leader of the new Weimar democracy, German society was confronted with numerous economic and political upheavals. After 1918, German society faced economic ruin as it confronted reparations bills and ruinous hyperinflation. Politically it faced radical political challenges from the extreme left and extreme right of politics. At this time, the NSDAP attempted to directly overthrow the Weimar government through a coup attempt in the state of Bavaria during the Munich based “Beer Hall Putsch” of 1923. This resulted in Hitler’s arrest and imprisonment in Landsburg where he wrote his book Mein Kampf.

In Mein Kampf  he outlined for the NSDAP (sometimes rather incoherently) a new strategy for achieving power in Germany.

During Hitler’s time in prison, the sense of crisis in Germany abated. The 1924 Dawes Plan, in which the USA undertook to assist Germany with loans to pay its reparations bills provided for Germans a welcome relief to the mounting pressures on its fragile democracy. This relief would be short-lived however.

Phase 2: The Late 1920s and Early 1930s:

This new strategy for achieving power was referred to as a “legal revolution” by Hitler. During the mid-1920s through to the early 1930s, the NSDAP concentrated upon creating a mass party that appealed to a broad cross-section of Germans. Propaganda became a tool for recruitment of supporters. With the support of powerful financial figures and in a coalition with other parties, the NSDAP gained a respectability by 1928 that len them credibility in the eyes of many Germans but despite this by 1928, it appeared that the NSDAP was perhaps a spent force in politics.

After the onset of the worldwide economic collapse known as the Great Depression in 1929, unemployment skyrocketed in Germany. The NSDAP could now appeal to Germans in the midst of a new and terrible crisis.

How did the NSDAP attempt to take power in Germany?

How did the NSDAP attempt to take power in Germany?

As America, too, faced economic crisis, it withdrew its financial support from Germany. Without the support of American loans, Germany plunged into economic ruin! Germans turned to groups who showed them a way out of this crisis in the elections of 1930 and 1932. It was in these elections that the NSDAP made their largest gains and their greatest bid for power.

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