"We knew nothing about that!" was a common refrain among people in postwar Germany when confronted with the horrific facts of the Holocaust. Was this just a reflexive attempt to deflect blame? Or was the murder of six million Jews kept so secret that the vast majority of people had no knowledge of the crime? That is the question that Peter Longerich attempts to answer in his important 2006 book "Davon haben wir nichts gewusst" Die Deutschen und die Judenverfolgung 1933-1945 ("We Knew Nothing About That!" The Germans and the Persecution of Jews 1933-1945).
Longerich's task is difficult, since how does one research public opinion and public knowledge in a totalitarian dictatorship where public discourse is tightly controlled? Longerich takes a highly systematic approach: he conducts a year-by-year analysis of the escalation of violent rhetoric and actions against Jews the Third Reich by examining pronouncements by the Nazi propaganda apparatus, the response in the non-party press, and a plethora of other documents, including private diaries, personal letters, recorded interviews with witnesses, newsreels, etc.
Longerich follows the milestones of Nazi persecution, beginning with the boycotts of Jewish businesses in the early years of NS-period, the Nuremberg Laws forbidding the mixing of races, through the Kristallnacht in 1938 (which Longerich calls the Novemberpogrom) , the Yellow Star which by law all Jews were required to affix on their clothing, the forced deportation and finally the mass murder at Auschwitz and the other camps. In each case Longerich summarizes how the Nazis used the laws or events to incite anti-Semitism and how the general public reacted.
What is fascinating is that, despite the Nazi success in the Gleichschaltung of the press, it was impossible to win over public sentiment to the massive persecution of Jews. While most Germans did not actively resist the growing violence against their Jewish neighbors, neither were they active participants in the persecution. The main reaction was indifference and cynicism towards the propaganda. And there was also a class component: in his diaries Goebbels constantly rages against the Intellektuelle and "die gute Gesellschaft" for its "sentimental" support of the Jews. Also, many of the Nazi propaganda tactics backfired. For example, the Nazi's blamed the firebombing of German cities in the war on the "Anglo-Jewish conspiracy" which led many to question why the Jews had been deported from the cities instead of being used as human shields.
What is clear from Longerich's research is that the "Final Solution" - the mass killing of Jews in the Third Reich was an open secret. Ever since Hitler promised "the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe" ("Vernichtung der jüdischen Rasse in Europa") in a speech before the Reichstag in 1939 the fate of the Jews was sealed and known to the world. By the time of deportations in 1941 Hitler used the term Ausrottung ("Extinction") instead of Vernichtung. Soldiers on leave from the eastern front reported on the mass shooting of Jewish civilians they had conducted. Even the use of poison gas was an open secret, although the details were often obscured. The head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Frankfurt -van d'Elden - reported that it was common knowledge that 3 of 5 train loads of Jewish deportees were diverted from their supposed destination of Lodz and all the passengers were gassed, although it was thought trains were pushed into tunnels, where the gas was released. Bits and fragments of the truth came out, but few had a picture of magnitude of the crime. American and British planes dropped surprisingly effective leaflets that contained fairly accurate descriptions of the death camps.
The preponderance of accounts and documents such as these leads Longerich to conclude:
In der deutschen Bevölkerung waren generelle Informationen über den Massenmord an den Juden weit verbreitet.
(General information concerning the mass murder of Jews was widespread in the German population.)
This "open secret" concerning the mass murder of Jews explains to some extent the fatalistic reaction to the aerial bombing campaign by much of the German population. The firebombing was perceived as Vergeltung ("payback") for German crimes. W.G. Sebald wrote extensively about this fatalistic attitude in his essay Luftkrieg und Literatur.
Peter Longerich's book is an important work of historical research and should be translated into English. Davon haben wir nichts gewusst! is a powerful refutation of Alfred de Zayas Völkermord als Staatsgeheimnis, which maintained that the German population was kept completely in the dark about the mass murder of Jews. The American "historian" Paul Gottfried takes de Zayas' thesis even further: not only were Germans ignorant of the Holocaust, but the "so-called crimes"have been deliberately inflated by "leftist" academics in order to demoralize Germans. This is one step removed from Holocaust-denial. Peter Longerich never advances the notion of the "collective guilt" of the German people for the crimes of the Holocaust. but he does document - with meticulous and forceful research - that millions of people engaged in a willful "flight into ignorance" ("Flucht in die Unwissenheit").