June 14, 2001
Evil as a Day’s Work
"There was no shouting or wailing," recalls a Nazi army veteran in wonder after watching Polish Jews digging their own graves before being machine-gunned. "There was a deadly silence."
The observation is among the hundreds of telling remarks and casual asides by ordinary German soldiers and their officers who participated in or witnessed the day-by-day unfolding of the Final Solution, as documented in the History Channel's "Hitler's Holocaust."
The six-part miniseries, starting Monday, June 18, was made by German television producers for German audiences and is remarkable on two accounts.
"Hitler's Holocaust" lets the perpetrators -- not the masterminds but the little "willing executioners" -- tell their stories.
The documentary also illustrates how even the greatest horror ultimately becomes part of a daily routine, not just for the murderers but also, in some measure, for the victims.
As one Latvian collaborator puts it, after a while, the killing of Jews "just became work to be done."
Besides death and starvation, the victims faced a constant, degrading psychological pressure. One survivor recalls: "We started to believe ourselves that we were really Untermenschen [subhumans] and that they were really the Herrenrasse [master race]."
The six segments, some shown in tandem on the same night, are "Invasion," "Decision," "Ghetto," "Mass Murder," "Resistance" and "The Final Toll." The History Channel made available only two tapes, "Invasion" and "Ghetto," but even they provided numerous telling samples of the killing machine in action, together with rare incidents of repentance and humor, German style.
No less a witness than Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal recalls that while imprisoned he was one day called to the bedside of a fatally wounded SS officer, who demanded to see a Jew before he died.
When Wiesenthal entered the hospital room, the SS man grabbed his hand and asked him, as a Jew, for forgiveness. "I withdrew my hand and walked out," Wiesenthal says.
The show also examines the lifestyle of some Nazi bigwigs, who benefited hugely from the conquest of Poland. For instance, Hans Frank, the governor-general of occupied Poland, was so notoriously corrupt that his subordinates came up with a pun: "Im Westen ist Frankreich, und im Ostem wirt Frank reich." [In the West there is France, and in the East, Frank is getting rich].
While it may seem at times that television provides a new program on the Shoah every other week, the History Channel miniseries is recommended for serious students of the Final Solution and of the mindset of its perpetrators.
"Hitler's Holocaust" will air nightly June 18-21, starting at 9 p.m.