Ask a Historian Q+A

Q: How did Hitler explain his role in the Aryan race while not being blond and blue-eyed?

A: Blue-eyed and blond wasn’t required, but Nazi propaganda visually showed them. You could still be a dark-haired Aryan. It was all based on family trees – who was Jewish or not. Judaism was “racially” determined by family history charts, with the religious practices of grandparents used as the determining factor.

Q: Why did Shanghai in particular accept refugees without visa requirements?

A: It was considered an international city, so no visas were required.

Q: From a legal perspective, why was Hitler given such a lenient sentence for his 1923 Putsch? This attempted overthrow of a government surely should have garnered a longer sentence, deportation, or even death.

A: Since he was not a citizen, he should have been deported; however, he turned his trial into a public spectacle against the Weimar Republic which gained him sympathies from the judge. For more, read scholar Ian Kershaw’s work on Hitler.

Q: What was the motivation behind the popularity of diary writing among Jewish teens?

A: Diaries and memory/autograph books were the Facebook/Instagram/YouTube of the time. They were very popular!

Q: Were there gas chambers at Dachau? 

A: Both yes and no. Yes, it was used to fumigate clothes and crematoria were used to burn bodies. No, gas chambers were not used on humans, as far as historians know.

Q: Are there statistics for:

  • 1) Survival rates for those in hiding
  • 2) Those in hiding who continued to believe in God compared to those in camps who questioned God’s existence

A: 1) I’ve never seen an accurate statistic of that Europe-wide. It’s usually how many people survived in hiding vs. pre-war Jewish population or population killed. 2) No, religious faith is too fluid, so any discussion of belief vs. unbelief is unscientific. Plus, there was no statistical accountancy of faith prewar that historians would accept as accurate enough.

Q: How accurate is the film “Conspiracy” in relating what occurred at the Wannsee Conference?

A: It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but my memory is very. There are transcripts of Wannsee, and I believe the script was based on those transcripts.

Q: Why were Catholic priests killed?

A: Lots of reasons. Most of the priests killed were Polish, and killed in part because the Nazis wanted to eliminate any threat to their leadership. After the 1939 invasion, teachers, priests, and politicians were killed because they were the most likely to be able to lead or organize a resistance.

Q: If there were no refugee policies during WWII and the Holocaust, when did the US first create refugee policies in regards to immigration?

A: The USHMM has an encyclopedia article of this – specific laws for specific groups. The UN Refugee Convention is 1951, the US signs the UN Refugee Protocol in 1967.

Q: What was the death toll by the end of 1941?

A: End of 1941 – over 1 million. End of 1943 – more than 3.5 million.

Q: What percentage of people imprisoned over the course of the war were so by the end of 1941?

A: Small – first, millions were never imprisoned but killed outside the camps. In early 1942, there were approximately 80,000 prisoners in the camps. Most Jews are still in ghettos or labor camps at this time, not yet in concentration camps.

Q: How did the Krauses get children into the U.S. given the quota laws. Were there exemptions given?

A: The Krauses picked children whose families were at the top of the waiting list so the paperwork was ready, and they had gathered affidavits in the U.S. for the kids. This was easier since the children weren’t needing jobs. For the Sharp transport in December 1940, they used a corporate affidavit, a special document that covered all the kids, and had managed to get a block of ship tickets.

Q: Of all the atrocities, I haven’t seen any evidence of the sexual assault that took place. Is this by design? We know it happened – do survivors discuss this?

A: Yes, sexual assault of all types definitely occurred. There is evidence; witnesses, survivors, even prisoner-staffed forced brothels available to SS officers and to prisoners who were “rewarded” for hard work with a visit.  So we know it happened, but historians have, until recently, had a hard time discussing it. A large part of this is due to the fact that survivors rarely talked about it until recently–we’ve had to read into the silences, or the coded language survivors used when giving oral histories. While physical violence (beatings, etc) did not evoke post-war shame, being a victim of sexual violence (heterosexual or homosexual) often did, particularly since survivors were attempting to rebuild their lives and wanted to keep the memories of this type of violence from their new families. You can download a recent publication including primary source evidence of sexual violence against women during the Holocaust here (which features some research by USHMM staff).

Q: How do displaced persons camps post-1945 work into the narrative of the museum?

A: The USHMM collects artifacts, photographs, and documents from displaced persons camps, the last of which closed in western Europe in the late 1950s. When the USHMM opened in 1993, few historians were studying the DP camps, but scholars have really started to study this in recent years. In the 1990s, the USHMM staged an exhibit, “Life Reborn” that examined the rebuilding of Jewish lives in DP camps. In our main exhibit, however, the displaced persons camps appear only at the end (understandably) and not comprehensively, since the DP camps were so different. If you’re interested in a specific camp, or type of camp, there are plenty of digitized collections in the USHMM’s collections catalog.

Q: How did the Nazis deal with corruption?  What if an officer was taking advantage of other Germans or being selfish?

A: There were a range of responses to corruption, many of them hypocritical. Notoriously corrupt officials could be protected by their colleagues and superiors, or quickly arrested and prosecuted if evidence of the corruption reached the Germany people or the official became disposable. Nikolaus Wachsmann, in KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps discusses the corruption in concentration camps extensively. He quotes Heinrich Himmler as publicly saying, “We had the moral right, we had the duty towards our people, to kill this people [Jews] which wanted to kill us. But we do not have the right to enrich ourselves with so much as a fur, with a watch, with a Mark or with a cigarette or with anything else.”  In private, of course, plunder and theft was everywhere, and beginning in 1942, Himmler rewarded SS officers with watches, clocks, and fountain pens (and other valuables) that had been stolen from camp prisoners. Conflicts within the SS often resulted in the losing party being arrested for corruption and theft–including the commandants of Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Majdanek and Plaszow. Either they were too flashy and members of the public noticed, or they did something to anger someone with power. Some SS-officers were even tried and executed for their thefts against the German people.

Q: All those years of Nazi ideology, how do you re-set? How did they get this thinking out of people after the war ended?  

A: The Allied-occupying forces thought a lot about it, and began a process of “denazification.”  There’s a good article on “Assessing Guilt” in the Holocaust Encyclopedia which includes a section on denazification and how it worked–lots of educational programs, renaming streets and buildings, anti-Nazi propaganda films and books, outlawing Nazi propaganda, and barring many Nazi functionaries from holding public office after the war. As you can imagine, the effort took a long time, and succeeded in fits and starts, and it really took new generations of Germans not raised within the Nazi system before the country began to come to terms with its own history. (There are also some really interesting photos and articles on our site, if people want to see denazification in action. Just search the term.)

I recommend a German-language film that came out a few years ago (it’s subtitled) called “Labyrinth of Lies.” It’s not about denazification per se, but about the lead-up to the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in 1960. The film shows German society in the late 1950s, having swept the country’s Nazi past under the rug, and a young lawyer who begins to learn about the Holocaust for the first time. It’s dramatized, but the depiction of Germany is not far off and for those of us who think about the Holocaust a lot, it’s useful to remember that there was a period of time in which Germany tried to forget, and the rest of the world was willing to let them. The society had (largely) been successfully denazified, but the Holocaust wasn’t part of national memory.


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