Page 77. " saw everything from German war and folk movies to Westerns and New Wave films "

Cinema was very popular in Germany during the 1950s, and a good number of films were made.  They were rarely seen internationally, possibly because of the focus on domestic themes.  The ‘folk movies’ referred to were called ‘Heimatfilm’ and were often simple family or romantic stories set in pretty rural locations such as Bavaria or the Alps.  The war films are interesting because they show some tentative steps in considering the recent past; some of them depicted opposition to the Nazi regime.  The Westerns were intended to be pure entertainment, and were sometimes adapted from pulp novels alongside other genres such as thrillers and detective stories.  The ‘New Wave’ of German cinema did not evolve until the 1960s, unlike that of the French which commenced in 1958 with films such as ‘Le Beau Serge’, ‘Les Quatre Cents Coups’ and ‘A Bout de Souffle’. 

Here is an example of Heimatfilm:


Page 87. " Sophie was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She spent three years in a sanatorium. "

Former sanatorium near Frankfurt
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeFormer sanatorium near Frankfurt - Credit: Michael König
 Tuberculosis is a potentially deadly infectious disease caused by mycobacteria.  It usually attacks the lungs and can remain latent for some time before developing into serious illness.  No other disease has had such a widespread innoculation programme, but in poorer countries it is still a serious problem; estimates suggest that around a third of the world’s population are infected. 

Treatment consists of long courses of antibiotics, but this can be complicated.  Before these drugs were available, patients would be sent to a sanatorium for great lengths of time as a form of quarantine, and because it was believed that rest, healthy food and fresh air were the best cures.  Consequently, many sanatoria were built in the alpine climates of places like Switzerland.  

Here is an account from 1944 which describes the regimen of recovering from TB.


Mycobacterium tuberculosis growing on LJ slopes.
Creative Commons AttributionMycobacterium tuberculosis growing on LJ slopes. - Credit: Agarwal et al

Page 88. " It wasn't the first trial dealing with the camps, nor was it one of the major ones. "

The major War Crimes Trials occurred immediately after the war, under the administration of Britain, France, the US and the USSR (known as the International Military Tribunal).  The most important were held in Nuremberg, and involved senior figures of the Nazi regime such as Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess and Joachim von Ribbentrop.  Most were sentenced to execution, as were a number of concentration camp personnel such as Amon Göth and Irma Grese.  The witness testimonies were key to informing the rest of the world about what had taken place in the camps, although the majority of evidence came from the Nazi's own files which were now in Allied possession.  By the end of 1945, both East and West Germany were authorised to conduct the trials of their own citizens who had committed war

crimes or associated transgressions during the war, and this continued for several decades as evidence came to light and people were traced.  Even today, former Nazi guards or administrators are called upon to answer for their crimes.   

For a very good explanation of the process used at the Nuremberg trials, follow this link.

Page 88. " I do remember we argued the prohibition of retroactive justice in the seminar. "

In 1952, West Germany ratified the European Convention on Human Rights.  Article 7, Clause 1 defined the prohibition of retroactive justice thus:

1. No one shall be held guilty of any criminal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a criminal offence under national or international law at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the criminal offence was committed.

They did, however, make a reservation with Clause 2, which stated: 

2. This article shall not prejudice the trial and punishment of any person for any act or omission which, at the time when it was committed, was criminal according the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations.

Until the late 1940s, West Germany had followed the precedent set at the Nuremberg Trials, whereby defendants were found guilty in spite of the state policies at the time their crimes were committed.  Arguments that they were following orders from superiors, or acting in accordance with the laws of the time, were generally disregarded.  From the early fifties onwards, the legal process shifted somewhat to reflect the prohibition of retroactive justice; some prisoners were released early or received lesser sentences than they would have done previously.  This does not mean that the issue of prosecuting citizens for war crimes was not taken seriously; the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963-1965 are testament to this.

There is a detailed article about the impact and influence of the War Crimes Trials on Germany at this link.

Page 90. " Our parents had played a variety of roles in the Third Reich "

The proximity of the Nazi regime to Michael’s generation meant that almost all authority figures could be seen as complicit in the Third Reich; indeed, Allied propaganda after the war emphasised this belief.  The process of Denazification caused many older people to harbour feelings of resentment, which perpetuated for many years and took a heavy toll on the younger age group.  A key element of the student protests in the 1960s was that some of the professors had been heavily involved in Nazi activities, such as producing anti-Semitic writings that the students were not allowed access to.  This zeitgeist of wanting-to-forget led to a great burden falling on the younger generation.  The following sources explore this issue in greater detail:

This article discusses the role of ex-Nazis in post war Germany. 

This discussion from a travel forum explores how Germans today consider the legacy of the Nazi past .

This scene is one which did not appear in the final cut of the film adaptation of 'The Reader', but it shows this painful generation gap very well.

Page 90. " Wehrmacht "
Wehrmacht soldiers in Warsaw, Poland.
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeWehrmacht soldiers in Warsaw, Poland. - Credit: Mensing

 ‘Wehrmacht' was the collective name for the armed forces of the Third Reich.  Adolf Hitler was the commander in chief and all serving troops had to swear a personal oath of loyalty to him.  He also reintroduced conscription in 1935.  By organising the armed forces in this way, Hitler flouted the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which had severely restricted the forces Germany could have.  They were permitted, for example, to have fewer than 200,000 personnel, but by 1945 over 18,000,000 people had served over the ten year period the Wehrmacht had been in existence.  Over five and a half million soldiers are estimated to have been killed during

Wehrmacht soldiers in Russia.
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeWehrmacht soldiers in Russia. - Credit: Wulf

WW2 and related campaigns.  At the Nuremberg trials, the tribunal judged the Wehrmacht to have not been a criminal organisation per-se (unlike the SS), but this view has since been questioned.  They were nonetheless found responsible for war crimes, many of which took place during the invasion of Poland in 1939, largely because they killed thousands of unarmed civilians.  On the Eastern fronts, mass rapes by the military were common; an estimated 10,000,000 Soviet women were brutalised in this way, and many military brothels were established.  At this stage, rape was not considered a war crime, so nobody at Nuremberg received punishment (a shameful waste of an opportunity – rape was not considered a war crime until UN resolution 1820 was ratified in 2008).  The Wehrmacht was abolished by 1946, and both East and West Germany did not establish new armed forces until the mid 1950s.   

Here is a clip from an interesting documentary series about the Wehrmacht:

Page 90. " Waffen SS "
 ‘SS’ stood for ‘Schutzstaffel’, and was the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party.  It came into existence in 1923, initially as a small unit to provide personal protection to Adolf Hitler.  Their influence on creating the ‘Final Solution’ was considerable, given that their leader and deputy were Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich.  As Himmler put it, the SS’ role was to guarantee “the security of Germany from the interior, just as the Wehrmacht guarantees the safety, the honour, the greatness and the peace of the Reich from the exterior”.  Throughout the thirties and the war years, they became an enormous organisation and a large number of different ranks, branches and distinctions were created.

The Waffen-SS were combat trained and were sent to fight in campaigns against France, Poland and the Sudetenland.  The personnel responsible for running the concentration camps were generally recruited from this branch (sometimes wounded soldiers etc) and the Allgemeine-SS, but by 1942 all were considered Waffen-SS for administration purposes.  Most staff were rotated

around various camps, which meant that in terms of culpability, there was little excuse for personnel not knowing the extent of the genocide taking place.  In 1945, the Auxiliary-SS were established in a desperate attempt to keep the camps running alongside the approach of Allied forces.  These people had little training or equipment and their presence at the camps when they were liberated meant they were held responsible when in some cases they had only been there for a few days or weeks. 

It is also worth knowing about the branch of the SS known as ‘Einsatzgruppen’, or ‘Death Squads’.  They would be assigned to perform mass killings; by the end of WW2 they bore responsibility for the deaths of over 1,000,000 people.  These massacres often took the form of mass shootings, in countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.  They would also arrange transportation to death camps. 

Page 90. " a lecture on Spinoza "
 Baruch Spinoza was a 17th Century Dutch rationalist philosopher of Portuguese Jewish origins.  His work was instrumental in the dawning of the Enlightenment, his greatest work being ‘Ethics’ (published posthumously in 1677).  He repeatedly turned down accolades and prestige throughout his life, preferring a modest and quiet existence as a lens grinder; this only earned him further admiration from his peers.  The annual Spinoza Prize in the Netherlands has been awarded in his name since 1995 to further scientific research.
Page 94. " a woman should prefer to become a foreman at Siemens than join the SS? "

There were approximately 3,700 female concentration camp guards from a total of 55,000 personnel.  They were trained at Ravensbrück after 1939 and began being used at Auschwitz from 1942.  Methods of recruitment varied; some had little or no previous work experience, or came from tertiary professions such as factory line workers, ticket collectors, entertainers, or the nursing and teaching sectors.  The SS also placed adverts in newspapers, or ‘headhunted’ particular women known to them through their files.  Initially, training could last for as long as six months, but towards the end of the war there was barely any.  Male guards were told to view their female colleagues as equals, not subordinates, and many were promoted to head guard or overseer. 



Page 95. " she had served at Auschwitz "
Auschwitz Gates, trans. 'Work Will Set You Free'
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeAuschwitz Gates, trans. 'Work Will Set You Free' - Credit: Saforrest
The word ‘Auschwitz’ is chillingly synonymous with the cruelty inflicted during the Holocaust.  The largest complex of concentration and death camps, it consisted of three large main sites, and 45 satellite camps.  Located in Poland, trains began arriving in the spring of 1942 with the specific purpose of bringing Jews to the gas chambers, the ‘final solution’ having been decided at the Wannsee Conference the year before.  Auschwitz was also known for the medical experiments inflicted upon the prisoners, many of them by the infamous Josef Mengele.  A conservative estimate puts the total Auschwitz death toll at around 1,100,000 people.
Plan of Auschwitz II Birkenau
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikePlan of Auschwitz II Birkenau - Credit: de:Benutzer:HEROMAX
The camp was liberated by the Soviets on the 27th January 1945; this date is now the annual International Holocaust Memorial Day.  Millions of people from around the world have visited the camp complex and museum, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.  

Page 95. " in a small camp near Cracow "
This seems to refer to Płaszów, a forced labour camp established on the grounds of Jewish cemeteries in 1942.  After the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto in 1943, it became a concentration camp.  This was depicted in the film ‘Schindler’s List’, alongside Ralph Fiennes' chilling portrayal of the camp commander, Amon Göth.  A Viennese SS officer, he was notoriously sadistic and took pleasure in killing prisoners at random.  Several well known female guards worked at Płaszów, and helped oversee the final death march to Auschwitz in January 1945.  By the time the Soviet Army reached the site, it had been completely abandoned.  The area where the camp stood is now a memorial to the thousands of people who died there. 
Płaszów Memorial
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikePłaszów Memorial - Credit: Pumpkinheart




Page 100. " going to Israel to question a witness "

Witness statements at war crimes trials were crucial in both securing convictions and, especially in the immediate post-war trials, informing the world about what had taken place during the Third Reich.  The later trials of the 1950s and 1960s had the difficulty of locating people – many Jews had emigrated to countries such as the USA and Israel, and gave testimony in the form of deposition.  There could also be questions – at least from the defence’s perspective – about the reliability of memory, as in some cases witnesses were giving statements fifteen to twenty years after the events took place. 

Here is the transcript of the witness testimony of Abraham Sutzkever about atrocities which took place in Vilna.

This clip shows the Nuremberg witness testimony of Dr. Franz Blaha, a survivor from Dachau concentration camp.




Page 100. " All survivor literature talks about this numbness "

Numbness is a common characteristic of extreme psychological trauma.  The painful emotions associated with deep suffering can be too overwhelming for the psyche to process, which leads to an inability to feel even positive emotion.  The individual can therefore appear very detached, cold and distant from the people around them.  It is often related to PTSD, demonstrated by the ‘thousand yard stare’ of people who have suffered during war time.  Many well known texts by survivors of the camps are characterised by this same sense of numbness in the writing.  Most of the authors who began to write of their experiences soon after the war, such as Levi and Borowski, are notable for the way they relied on factual description, with the emotional pain, suffering and fear implied between the lines.  There is an interesting blog about Holocaust related trauma here.