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11.4: The Aftermath

  • Page ID
    20822
  • The liberation of the camps was horrifying to the Allied soldiers who discovered them in the closing months of the war. Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander of the forces that had carried out the D-Day invasion, ordered that British and American troops alike document what they discovered - the huge mounds of corpses, the open graves, the emaciated survivors, and the gas chambers - lest those horrors be dismissed as “propaganda” at some point in the future. Likewise, Soviet forces preserved the evidence discovered in the eastern camps, including Auschwitz itself. As the war in Europe finally ended, Allied troops and agents immediately embarked on an enormous effort to locate, catalog, and preserve the documentation having to do with the Holocaust in German army, state, and SS offices as they prepared the groundwork for war crimes trials.

    Cart full of the emaciated corpses of Holocaust victims.
    Figure 11.4.1: Bodies at the Gusen Concentration Camp being transported for burial by German civilians pressed into the work by Allied soldiers, in an attempt to force the Germans to confront the results of their actions.

    The scope of the Holocaust shocked even battle-hardened troops who were already aware of German depredations against civilians. At the the Nuremberg Trials, organized to legally prosecute the Nazi leadership, Nazi leaders were charged with Crimes Against Humanity, a completely new category of crime designed by the victorious Allies to try to deal with the enormity of what they still called “Nazi atrocities.” Thanks to SS documentation, the Allies correctly calculated that the death toll of Jews murdered by the Third Reich amounted to roughly six million individuals, and the basic mechanisms of deportation, slavery, and gassing were also clear.

    Even though Allied authorities were able to piece together the basic characteristics of the Holocaust, various aspects remained obscure for decades. Most survivors were deeply hesitant to talk about what they had been through, and even in the newly-founded Jewish state of Israel, most of the focus was on the symbolically-important acts of resistance like a famous uprising of the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1944, rather than on the millions who were killed. For decades, most survivors tried to make new lives, often thousands of miles from their former homes, and most non-Jews were completely ignorant of the breadth, scope, and organized nature of the genocide.

    The first systematic study of the Holocaust was carried out by an American Jewish historian, Raul Hilberg, who published his The Destruction of the European Jews in 1961, containing the first highly detailed study of the number of victims, the methods used by the Nazis, and the breadth of the genocide itself. While it took years to mature, the field of Holocaust scholarship began in earnest with Hilberg’s work, eventually burgeoning into a major subfield of history, political science, and sociology. Today, while the scholarship is always turning up new facts and presenting new interpretations, the essential narrative of the Holocaust is well established, based on mountains of hard evidence and meticulous research.

    The event that brought the Holocaust to world attention was not scholarship, however, but the capture of the Nazi SS leader Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960 by agents of the Israeli secret service, the Mossad. Eichmann was taken to Jerusalem and tried for his work in overseeing the logistics of the Holocaust. His major job during the war had been to make sure the trains carrying victims ran on time and efficiently delivered them to their deaths. Eichmann was the quintessential “desktop murderer,” a man who (apparently) never personally harmed anyone, but was still responsible for the deaths of millions through his actions. The trial was highly publicized and it began the process of transforming the Holocaust from being only a dark memory of its survivors, largely unknown or overlooked by historians and the general public, to being perhaps the most infamous event of the twentieth century.

    In the 1970s and 1980s, a series of films and television programs brought the history of the Holocaust to audiences around the western world, and survivors of the Holocaust began speaking publicly about their experiences in large numbers. Part of the impetus behind the organizations of survivors was the emergence of Holocaust Denial in the 1970s: the hateful, disingenuous, and utterly false claim that the Holocaust never happened (Eichmann himself was irritated when asked by early deniers in Argentina to corroborate their claims - he was perversely proud of his role in running an efficient system of mass murder).

    Holocaust memorialization had existed in Israel since the 1940s, but it became much more widespread by the 1980s. One of the most significant memorials to the victims of the Holocaust is the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, conceived of by a commission brought together by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 and ultimately dedicated by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Certainly, by the 1990s, the Holocaust was an integral part of history taught in schools and universities almost everywhere; while it is possible not to know many of the details, even people with only a cursory understanding of modern history are usually aware that the Nazis carried out the genocide of the Jews of Europe during World War II.

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