History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I've read the wikipedia pages on Responsibility for the Holocaust and German Resistance to Nazism but the answer is not clear. It's established that large numbers of Germans were aware of the Holocaust from the beginning: those who were involved in its implementation. It doesn't necessarily follow that the majority of the German public were aware of the scale and details, because those involved may have had strong reasons not to communicate this information.

I'm sure there are no German newspapers of the time reporting on the gas chambers and numbers exterminated.

Are there autobiographies from ordinary German citizens about the time of the war, containing information about their level of awareness of the Holocaust's proceedings and scale?

share|improve this question

Tyler Durden's answer is excellent. But you request autobiographical evidence from Germans writing during the war. One German of note is the diarist Victor Klemperer. As a highly educated Jewish professor Klemperer was very far from representative of the general German population. However it is telling that his information (and he, understandably, took a keen interest in all such news) about the fate of fellow Jews was patchy.

He writes about "evacuations" to the east and about work camps, rather than death camps. He well knew that the camps would be terrible places for even home in Germany his life was reduced to humiliating work duties, poor food and other privations. Certainly there were rumours of shootings, but his diaries suggest that rumours of all kinds were in circulation, some more and some less believable. In 1942 he mentions hearing about a "dreadful" camp at Auschwitz. But even Klemperer writing after the war is astonished to learn that Jews had been systematically killed in their millions.

Klemperer's wartimes diaries come in two volumes: I Will Bear Witness and To The Bitter End.

share|improve this answer

I think you have some false assumptions, namely that "large numbers" of soldiers were involved in the holocaust, which is not true. Early in the war there were "einsatzgruppen" which had a few thousand, but these were disbanded or repurposed over time and most of the holocaust took place in great secrecy. All of the death camps, with the exception of Auschwitz-Birkenau, were located in remote locations and run by very small squads of men under the the direct control of Adolph Eichmann, who reported to Himmler. The execution areas in Auschwitz, which were located in the Birkenau area of the camp, were carefully segregated from the main parts of the camp and every effort was made to make Auschwitz look like nothing other than a work camp.

Before the war started there were no death camps, and all of the camps were publicized as work camps. Letters were allowed in out and the conditions were made relatively public.

After the war started, news concerning the camps was gradually decreased until the public received no information whatsoever, and most Germans and foreigners simply assumed the camps were no different than they were before the war. The death camps like Chelmo, Treblinka and Majdanek, were constructed in militarily controlled areas in complete secrecy. Noone even knew they existed except those immediately involved in their operations. Locals were removed for miles around the death camps, which were placed in remote areas to begin with.

The full dimensions of the holocaust did not become clear until the war was over and research gradually revealed the nature and extent of it. Even during the trials at Nuremberg, the prosecutors did not fully know of the existence of the death camps or understand how they were used, except Auschwitz. For example, a large number of prisoners escaped from Sobibor and could theoretically have testified to its existence, but nevertheless no major trial took place until 1965 and only 6 Germans were convicted. The total number of Germans involved at Sobibor was perhaps a few dozen at most.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, the Holocaust was represented by the emaciated corpses discovered at Dachau of which newsreels were taken, however, Dachau was not even a death camp. The prisoners died from starvation and cholera near the end of the war after food and water supplies were cut off.

In the years after the war 1945-1949, the German public was "re-educated" to become aware of the Holocaust, but the focus of "education" was on well-known aspects such as the camps in the western sectors such as Dachau, Buchenwald and on the use of slave labor in the factories, and on what was known of Auschwitz, which was limited because it had been destroyed and was in the Soviet sector. For this reason the full scope of the exterminations only gradually became clear, both to the Germans and the world at large, over the course of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1954, Gregory Frumkin writing in Switzerland, published a statistical book in which he tallied 6 million Jews as having disappeared from eastern Europe based on census data, and this was widely misinterpreted as a death count and publicized in that way. From the date though (1954) you can see that scope of the Holocaust was something that was revealed not all at once, but over time.

share|improve this answer
This answer is wrong in fact in the first sentence as any study of einsatzgruppen and anti-partisan documentation would indicate. – Samuel Russell May 27 '14 at 21:37
I think this answer is glossing over the issue. Not everything was known that came out, but there was enough information filtering out so that the 'nobody had any idea' just is not creditable. – Oldcat May 27 '14 at 22:38
Read some more about their actions, the Wehrmacht support dedicated to actions in 1941, and the continuing and widespread use of police battalion and Wehrmacht troops to support or primarily conduct anti-partisan, ie: Jew hunting, operations 1941-1945. As I said, your answer contains a factual inaccuracy of gross proportions in its first sentence. – Samuel Russell May 28 '14 at 2:59
@TylerDruden - I googled "Treblinka in 1945" and got a lot of hits about the investigations of the site in that year. So you lose, dude. – Oldcat May 28 '14 at 17:12
@Oldcat: the expression "final solution" is known primarily from the Wannsee conference protocols - which were classified top secret. – Michael Borgwardt May 29 '14 at 16:35

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.