Most of the writing on individual perpetrators of the Holocaust focuses on senior figures (Hitler, Himmler, Goering being obvious examples) and the tier below them (Hans Frank, Reinhard Heydrich, Adolf Eichmann) as well as camp commanders such as Rudolf Hoess and Franz Stangl. Colonel Alfred Filbert is a name that will probably be unfamiliar to most readers of Holocaust histories, but Dr Alex Kay of the Institute of Contemporary History in Berlin has written a compelling biography of him, detailing his involvement in the mass killing of Jews on the Eastern Front in 1941. It is a work of detailed scholarship, using archival material from seven different countries including Germany, Russia and Israel and the examination of Filbert’s journey from a bureaucratic careerist of limited talents to a mass murderer during the Second World War is thorough. During a time where increasingly outlandish and sensationalist accounts of Nazism proliferate, with headline grabbing theses that are largely unfounded, serious works of scholarship are of immense value. This is one such book, you can watch my review video of it below. Alex took the time to answer some Explaining History questions about Filbert and the Holocaust:
Q:What do the crimes of Alfred Filbert reveal about the processes of the Holocaust?
A: The conduct of the Holocaust perpetrators cannot be explained in terms of their ideology alone, and yet cannot be understood without it, for anti-Semitism provided at all times a general absolution for the actions of the perpetrators. The unity of ideological convictions and sanctioning from above, on the one hand, and the material and career interests and opportunities, on the other, can feasibly explain the conduct not only of Alfred Filbert but of a great many direct perpetrators of the Holocaust. The legitimacy conferred by the state created a framework in which it was possible – and desirable – to commit these crimes. The absence of this legitimising framework after the collapse of the regime also explains why so many of the perpetrators were able to successfully reintegrate themselves into post-war society and smoothly make the transition to commonplace civilian professions. At the same time, Filbert’s crimes in the summer and early autumn of 1941 also reveal how much the regime relied on individual initiative in the implementation of its policies of annihilation. Very many perpetrators took advantage of the leeway afforded to them by interpreting their orders broadly.
Q: Do Filbert’s actions support Arendt’s observations on the ‘banality of evil’?
Commenting on Adolf Eichmann’s actions, Hannah Arendt declared in a 1964 interview: ‘I don’t believe that ideology played much of a role. To me that appears to be decisive.’ There is good reason to believe that Arendt may have been fooled, at least in part, by Eichmann’s performance in court in Jerusalem in 1961. The prosecutor in the Eichmann trial, Gideon Hausner, was keen for the transcripts of the interviews Eichmann had given the Dutch journalist and former SS officer Willem Sassen from 1956 to 1960 to be admitted to evidence, because they included remarks revealing of Eichmann’s own sense of self-importance and his anti-Semitism in contrast to his carefully crafted statements to the contrary in court. This combination of a sense of self-importance and anti-Semitism, egotism and ideology, appears decisive for explaining the mindset of many Holocaust perpetrators. Alfred Filbert’s ambition and craving for recognition were strengthened and, significantly, justified by his ideological convictions and his belief that he belonged to the ‘master race’. His ideology persuaded him that the career advancement, status and recognition he sought were no more than his due; he felt he had a right to success. Ideology and egotism were mutually reinforcing.
Q: What does Filbert’s life in post war Germany suggest about the Federal Republic’s ability to come to terms with the legacy of the Holocaust?
In a book published in 1987, the German publicist Ralph Giordano referred to a ‘second guilt’, by which he meant the unwillingness of large sections of post-war German society to address the Nazi crimes and indemnify the victims as well as the political decisions that allowed perpetrators to enjoy successful post-war careers in senior positions in government and the business sector. The legal handling after 1945 of violent crimes committed during the Nazi era was anything but a success story. Although the West German judiciary alone investigated more than 100,000 people, only just over 6,650 of them were actually convicted. Only around one in ten defendants counted among the perpetrators of the Holocaust. More than 90 per cent of these people were convicted in the first decade after the war. In stark contrast to this is the prevailing estimate that a total of between 200,000 and 250,000 Germans and Austrians – predominantly, though not exclusively, men – were directly involved in the mass murder of European Jewry. These figures are sobering. In view of this, Filbert’s 1962 conviction for his part in the Holocaust and his life sentence (though he admittedly ended up serving only thirteen years) were atypical. His prior successful reintegration into West German society in the 1950s was not.
Q: Do you believe he had a role in the murder of Ulrike Meinhof or Andreas Baader?
There is no hard evidence to support the claim that Filbert played any part in the deaths of Ulrike Meinhof in May 1976 or Andreas Baader in October 1977 in Stuttgart’s Stammheim Prison. All we have to go on is a statement made by Thomas Harlan, the director of the 1984 film Wundkanal, in which Filbert played the lead role of an SS mass murderer. Harlan and his crew treated Filbert so well, paid him so much attention and gave him a feeling of importance that he had not enjoyed for decades, that Filbert was soon prepared to become an actor. Given what we know about Filbert’s need for admiration and recognition, when asked about Ulrike Meinhof’s death it is feasible that Filbert puffed himself up and told Harlan what he wanted to hear. We should also keep in mind that, before shooting began, Harlan – by his own admission – had deceived Filbert into believing that he wanted to make a film about him. By means of this tactic, Harlan succeeded in persuading Filbert to take part in the film Harlan actually wanted to make, which was not in fact about Filbert as such. Harlan’s principal concern and the real subject of the film was the continuity of Nazi biographies in the Federal Republic of Germany and of murder in the name of the state. Thus, creating the illusion of a connection between Filbert and Stammheim merely served this purpose.
Q: What challenges were there in the research for this book? How easy was it to access archival information?
Unusually for a mid-level Holocaust perpetrator and someone who has thus far remained relatively unknown, even among historians in the field, the source material is comparatively plentiful. For the book, I accessed records from a total of thirty-three archives in seven different countries, including Russia and Israel. The archival members of staff were, as a rule, extremely helpful and accommodating. By contrast, a request to be granted access to records held in the archives of the CIA under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was denied by the agency’s Information and Privacy Coordinator, who determined that the CIA could ‘neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records’ pertaining to Alfred Filbert and the CIA. An appeal to the Agency Release Panel was also denied. A subsequent request for a Mandatory Declassification Review under the terms of Executive Order 13526 of all records relating to Filbert held in the CIA archives was cancelled with reference to the denial of the earlier FOIA request and my ‘right to seek judicial review of this determination in a United States district court’. Based on these rejections, it is impossible to determine whether the CIA is or is not in possession of records pertaining to a potential relationship between that agency and Filbert during the early post-war period.
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Review: The making of an SS Killer by Dr Alex Kay