Sunday, September 27, 2015


Nikolaus Wachsmann telling the story of the Camps,
while Robert Gerwarth waits patiently to engage
him in further conversation.
Click on any image for a larger version

The Dublin Festival of History 2015 has got off to a flying start. Full marks to Dublin City Council who are putting Dublin at the centre of history for the third year running.

Many of the events are taking place in Printworks in Dublin Castle but there are also others in Dublin city libraries and elsewhere. I turned up at the Castle for Nikolaus Wachsmann's talk and conversation on the Nazi Concentration Camps. I had never been to Printworks before and thought it must be something like the National Print Museum. How wrong I was: an extensive modern foyer and a very large auditorium with all mod cons.

Nickolaus Wachsmann's book has been at least ten years in the making. His particular interest is in Nazi Germany and he started writing about the civil/legal prison system under the Nazis. This led naturally on to the concentration camps (Konzentrations Lager, hence the KL in the title of the book). Much to his surprise, he found that, while there has been a mountain of writing about the camps from all conceivable angles, there was no real analytical overview of the whole system, its history and the experiences of the participants, both perpetrators and victims. So he set about writing one.

He told us it could have been much much longer, but he has managed to get the main text down to just over 600 pages. If the book is anything as clear and authoritative as his talk today, it is going to be a great read.

Nikolaus Wachsmann in conversation with Robert Gerwarth

Between the talk and the subsequent conversation a number of interesting points emerged.

While we see the picture very clearly in retrospect, the Nazis didn't really know where they were going with the camps for most of the early period. Early camps, like Dachau, originally held those on the margins of society and the political opposition. And there was a point, early enough in their history, when the camps nearly closed as they were seen to have done their job in eliminating political opposition.

A clear distinction needs to be made between Concentration Camps and Death Camps. The former were multi-purpose, including both managing slave labour and killing people. The latter had the sole purpose of killing people.

While Auschwitz has become the camp most typically quoted, it was by no means the location where most people were killed. There were many other camps and people were killed by a variety of means, including taking them out into the woods and shooting them.

It is very difficult to imagine a typical perpetrator or victim. They may have seemed a homogeneous mass in their uniforms or camp garb but they were all people and they varied in motivation, courage, resilience and morality. For this reason, Nikolaus has tried to tell the stories from the ground up in an attempt to encompass this wide human palette.

The German people knew of the camps but a climate of fear kept them in denial, and this denial carried on well after the end of the war. I told him of my difficulty locating the camp in Dachau in 1985 and he told me that things had now changed and the camps are signposted all over the place. They are now openly accepted as part of the German legacy.

Nikolaus's book on sale in the foyer

There seemed to be quite a willingness by many of the participants to purchase his big tome, inspired, no doubt, by the clarity and forcefulness of his talk and interview. There was a sort of feeling that this was THE book and would be well worth a read.

Nikolaus waiting to sign the next book purchased

Nikolaus Wachsmann is Professor of Modern European History in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck College, University of London. Robert Gerwarth is Professor of Modern History at UCD and Director of the Centre for War Studies

No comments: