Christopher Browning and the Use of Oral History
With Saul Friedländer (b. 1932) and Raoul Hilberg (1926-2007), Christopher Browning (b. 1944) belongs probably to the most influential historians of the Second World War when it comes to the study of the “final solution”. He has published many books since the end of 1970s, the best well-known being Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992). On 18 October 2012 he was invited to give a lecture entitled “Holocaust History and Survivor Testimony: the Case of the Starachowice Factory Slave Labor Camp” at the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies (VWI), which was created in 2009.
Browning was simply brilliant. He spoke during 80 to 90 minutes, almost without looking at the two pages of notes he had put on his lectern. The material of his talk was taken from his last book, Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp (2010).
The story starts in the early 1970s. The historian found in 1987 that in a process against Walter Becker, during the war the German chief of police in the Polish city of Starachowice, all the eye witnesses were dismissed by the judge. Eventually Becker could be declared non-guilty in 1972 and spend the rest of his life with his policeman pension. Browning knew Becker was responsible of the worst atrocities in this city, deciding on life and death, and the historian thought that at least he could try to pin the case in a book “for eternity”. Two topics particularly interested him: the fact that in Starachowice about 600 Jews worked as slaves in a privately-owned factory (an understudied phenomenon of the Holocaust) and, at a more epistemological level, the question how to treat oral testimonies in cases like this one where almost no written sources are available.
For the Becker process that took place in 1971/1972, 105 testimonies were collected added to the few others that had already been delivered in the three first years after the war. For his own research, Browning interviewed 15 former detainees who were about 15 years old at that time. He discussed the different methods of interviewing: letting the witnesses speak, interviewing along pre-established guidelines, focusing on the events during the war of gathering complete life sequences (like for the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive of the U.S. Holocaust). For Browning, the most important danger is to put the testimony on a pedestal and forget the necessary critical historical study. Interestingly, he noticed that clusters can be found among testimonies, depending on the place of residence. In the case of Starachowice, the survivors live(d) mainly in the Canada (a majority in the area of Toronto) and in Israel (with a few others in the US East-coast). Since they regularly met when they didn’t live too far, their histories tended to become similar. Besides that, there were some delicate topics that were only discussed among survivors or only after a long time. Browning gave to examples: the revenge killings (for instance on the train to Birkenau) and the rapes or more generally the sex life in the camp. There, another difficulty emerges for the historian: what can be used in a book?
Examining a total amount of post-war testimonies by 292 survivors of the factory slave labour camps, given between 1945 and 2008, Browning also identified a mechanism of “repressed memory”. Of course, it is not new per se, the concept of “Verdrängung” was already described by Freud, the idea here is to consider testimonies both seriously and cautiously. Historians have to face two pitfalls: the growing collective memory which explains why some testimonies are more reflecting the time when the interview took place than the real events (occultation of the Bund or Hashomer Hatzair by Israeli survivors), and what he called the “incorporated memory” to qualify the fact that films or books are added to memories. He referred, for example, to many survivors who told him that when they left the camp and arrived to Auschwitz, they saw Mengele on the ramp sorting out the deported Jews. It is simply false (the train in which they arrived was not submitted to selection) and simply due to the fact that the survivors saw many films with such scenes…
Browning was particularly interested in trying to understand the survival strategies in the slave labour camp. The very existence of such camps resulted from a paradox for the Nazis: on the one hand they wanted to kill all the Jews; but on the other hand they needed this free labour force to run the factories engaged in the war effort. In 1942 Himmler decided to liquidate the camps unless they verified three conditions: they should directly serve the military industry, the owners should build barracks inside the factory and thirdly the Jews should be considered as slaves to be rented by the factory owners. From the fall 1942 to the spring 1943, the mortality rate was enormous because of typhus but also because the Jews who were not able to work could be killed (by the security service of the factory, mostly Ukrainians or Germans) and “replaced”. After this period, most of the neighboring ghettos had been “liquidated” and slaves could not be replaced anymore. Therefore, for their economic interest, the chiefs of the camp decided to improve a bit the living conditions.
From the different testimonies, Browning could also establish a categorization of Germans in the perspective of Jewish detainees: they explain they differentiated between the dangerous ones (for instance the killers), the “descent” ones (“anständigen”) who could help at some point, and the corruptible ones, who could be bribed. In fact, everything could be bought in the camp. First of all, many Jews bought themselves as slaves (a unique case in slavery histories as far as Browning knows). It can be difficult to understand for those who are not familiar with the contet but Jews outside the camp were rapidly denounced and killed. Therefore, even if the life was extremely hard in the camp, it was better than outside. Some Jews who had their children hidden in Polish farms preferred to bribe guards to have their children with them in the camp! Having a family also meant a better chance to survive because if they suffered from the typhus, they could be taken care of (even carried on the back). Once a detainee had typhus, he was immune and could help other members of the family. Besides that, medicines could also be bought.
Among the Jews, there again, three categories emerged: the observant Yiddish-speaking orthodox Jews who were in the city before the war, those, more educated and assimilated, who had flown from the Western part of Poland, and the “privileged” Jews who organized the life in the camp. Browning insisted on the necessity to overcome the distinction between passivity and resistance since many Jews proved that survival strategies could rely on ingenuity and endurance.
During the Q&A time, Gerhard Botz asked if Browning was not going too far in essentializing the categories he proposed. Germans or Jews could belong to different categories during different periods. Moreover, next to the two antagonistic trends of the Nazi regime (the ideologically-driven mass murder and the wartime economic necessity), Botz suggested to mention the necessity to maintain the power, referring to his own research on the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.
I asked if he did not fear that his findings on “incorporated memory” could be misused by negationists (holocaust deniers), but he was right to answer he would not let them influence his writings. I also asked if he was able to gather other testimonies that of the Jewish survivors but he could not: Ukrainians were only known by their nicknames and their full names are unknown.
I was particularly interested by this conference because in my own research on the history of Galician oil (which results should also appear in a filmic form), I found a a similar slave labour camp. Around Drohobycz (today in the Ukraine) five such camps were created and the one which was devoted to the extraction of crude oil was the last to be liquidated. Chaim Segal wrote in his recent book (Chaim means life, 2012) how he managed to survive in the camp. Survivors that I met in Israel and in Drohobycz, like Alfred Schreyer, also told similar fascinating stories. Two of the interviewees told me, in front of the camera, that a German soldier who clearly belonged to the “anständigen” in Browning’s categories, saved them. The director Paul Rosdy recently shot a film on Alfred Schreyer, the Last Jew of Drohobycz., that I recommend as well as Christopher Browning’s book.
- More on this topic: Dean Shaloup, “Author sheds light on Nazi labor camps”, The Telegraph
- On my own research: « L’épopée oubliée du pétrole de Galicie« , Géo-Histoire, oct.-nov. 2012, p. 116-127 (rédigé avec Renaud Lavergne)
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