Last night in the third of our series on “Thinking About The Holocaust” Dr. Kristin Semmens said that she is most frequently asked two questions about her area of academic study. The first question she is asked is “Why do you study this material?” The second most frequently asked question is “Did the Germans know?”

Before thinking about the historical reasons that would lead a scholar to believe that the average German in the 1930’s knew that the Nazis were building and operating concentration camps, it is interesting to wonder why this is such an important question for people.

The question is not about laying blame or attributing guilt. The question about how much the average German could have known, should have known, might have known is a much more personal, pressing, and immediately relevant question. It is motivated by fear.

If the average German before the Second World War might have been expected to know what was going on in the government of the day and yet chose to turn a blind eye, what might we be unwilling to see in our own day that is equally horrific?

The terrors that the Nazis were able to carry out between 1933 and 1945 hold a mirror to our own faces. Are there dark unpleasant realities in our own world that we refuse to see? What violence do we ignore? Where might our willing blindness be leading us?

So could the Germans have known? Kristin Semmens answers that the average German could have known, and for the most part did know that concentration camps were being built and used by the Nazis. They knew their Jewish neighbours were disappearing and that atrocities were being carried out.

To support her conviction about German awareness, Kristin cites Eric A. Johnson’s What We Knew of which Publisher’s Weekly says,

The refrains in Germany for many years after WWII were “we didn’t know” about the Holocaust, and “if we had known and had tried to do something, we too would have been killed by the Nazis.” These claims have not stood up to historical scrutiny. Large numbers of ordinary Germans were involved in carrying out the mass murder of Jews, and knowledge of it was widespread among the population at home in Germany.

Kristin suggests at least six reasons to support her conviction that it was impossible not to know:

1. The development of concentration camps was a well-publicized move on the part of the Nazis. The establishment of the Dachau camp was widely reported in the German media. The Nazis were proud of this move towards social control and wanted the general population to know.

2. Every significant urban centre in Germany had a camp or a satellite camp located nearby. There were over 580 Concentration camps and sub-camps in Germany. While this is only a small portion of the estimated 20,000 camps the Nazis operated throughout their occupied territories between 1933 and 1945, it is a significant number of substantial installations throughout Germany.

3. To build the camps and sub-camps required the cooperation of many German architects, engineers, carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers, electricians, and labourers. They also required some German civilian staff in addition to military personnel to operate. There was frequent traffic between the camps and the surrounding German population. In the early years postal service was still permitted between prisoners and their relatives outside the camps.

4. Every person who worked in a camp had a web of relationships beyond the camps. Some of what these concentration camp “staff” saw on a daily basis would have been shared with others. The stories would have spread.

5. Slave labourers from the camps frequently worked outside the camps in the surrounding countryside and nearby villages. As the war progressed concentration camp prisoners were used to drive major German industrial interests.

6. Towards the end of the war, the Germans mounted massive death marches forcing thousands of prisoners to march through towns in Germany.

Holocaust thinking majors in denial, dishonesty and deception. These are the tools of cruelty, violence and dehumanization.

Honesty is the best protection. Facing painful realities is always better and more hopeful than escaping into illusion and lies.

In the Berlin Museum of German History this past week an exhibition opened that examines how Hitler won over the hearts of the German citizens. According to Michael Slackman the artifacts in this display “emphasize the everyday way that ordinary Germans once accepted, and often celebrated, Hitler.” This surely represents a strong step on the continuing journey towards healing.

The Holocaust demands that we be willing to face honestly the realities of life. We cannot afford the luxury of denial. Evil thrives wherever it is ignored. When we are unwilling to face the truth about ourselves and the world around us, we prepare the ground for the growth of violence and destruction.