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Recollections of the Third Reich

Interview with Reinhart Koselleck

On 8 December 1998, Eric Johnson (NIAS Fellow 1998/99) held a public interview at NIAS with Guest of the Rector, the historian Reinhart Koselleck, about his experiences in the Third Reich.

Johnson, who has surveyed and interviewed many Germans as part of his own research, focussed on four main areas of questioning, asking about Koselleck’s impressions of everyday life in the Third Reich; his experiences with terror in the Third Reich; what he knew, and how he came to know about the murder of the Jews; and, finally, about the Third Reich’s influence on Koselleck’s life as a historian.

The following is an excerpt of the interview. Johnson’s questions have been cut down to a minimum for the sake of clarity and Koselleck’s answers, in spite of some necessary editing, remain as close as possible to the original text to preserve the authentic tone of the interview.


Interview with Reinhart Koselleck

Were there any good features about the Third Reich in your own memory? Or was everything about the Third Reich at that time wholly negative, and totally awful for you? What was a positive aspect of the Third Reich in your experience at that time from your memory?

Many people have asked about positive or negative features of that time, but I don’t think I could tell you exactly what was positive or negative. I can only tell you what was happening at the time. So I can’t give you a clear-cut answer to that question. My father was dismissed immediately, in 1933, from office – he was the director of a teacher training college, an academy for training primary school teachers. He was dismissed under the same law for the purification of the civil service as was Klemperer, who lost his position in 1936. This measure was obviously very repressive, because he was neither leftist nor a social democrat. He was a republican in the Weimar Republic, a middle party German democrat. In 1937, my father was restored to office, to a provisional position.

But this measure had both positive and negative sides to it. On the one hand it was depressing, because the whole atmosphere at home changed immediately. We had to leave our villa – we had a marvellous house with twelve rooms – and we had to move as a family of five to a four-room flat, which was certainly a reduction in our everyday life. On the other hand it was a means to get rid of unemployment, to get rid of the civil war situation, to get rid of the party fights on the streets every day. So there were certain advantages to ending the inefficient parliamentary rule, because the parliament was never up to governing, and the government depended on the decision of the president. There were definitely some positive sides to getting rid of our dirty past.


What did you think about Adolf Hitler? You were only a young boy, only ten years old, when Hitler came to power. But during the middle of the 1930s, before the war, Adolf Hitler was constantly on the radio. There was the Hitler Youth, which I assume you had to be a member of – I think everyone had to be a member by 1936. But do you remember as a boy having any impressions of this Hitler and how did you feel about Adolf Hitler, what kind of a person was he for you as a child and a teenager, before you became fully politically aware, and how did your opinion change?

It was sometime in 1932 that I became politically aware, before the election for the Presidency of the Weimar Republic. My parents and I were walking in Kassel and there was a huge picture of Hitler, that famous one for the propaganda of the National Socialist Party. It was his head only, nothing else. His head on a black background. My mother stopped – I will never forget it, I was only nine years old at the time – and said in German: “in widerliches Gesicht” [What an ugly face he has], which was a typical reaction from a bourgeois lady. One can’t possibly have such a moustache and hair like that. A person like that shouldn’t be a ruler. But I am sure these feelings for Hitler changed when he succeeded in getting rid of the Versailles Treaty conditions, because the Versailles Treaty had a bad effect on our self-esteem and our sense of political freedom.

Imagine, the Polish army had about three times as many soldiers as the Germans; the Czechs, probably as many soldiers as the Germans; the French had five or six times as many soldiers as the Germans, and so on. In the Treaty of Versailles a disarmament was promised, but the disarmament did not take place! So fourteen years after the war, with the promise of disarmament internationally, we still lived under the shadow of the majority of our surrounding states. To get rid of this degradation; to get rid of this despicable behaviour of the victors, was one of the great motivations for all of us, even for the social democrats, even the communists were, in this respect, really nationalistic. Hitler was responsible for changing it all. Re-armament, re-occupation of Rhineland, everything which now is interpreted as cowardice of the Western powers – why didn’t they intervene immediately, and so on. Even if one disliked Hitler, with good reason, he did do it, after all. So that is one of my recollections. Our feelings changed after the war, but at the time we were very proud of him.

I saw Hitler three times in my life: in 1933, when he passed us by in Dortmund in front of a mass demonstration of about 100,000 people. There were crowds and crowds of people and I didn’t recognise him, although I knew he was supposed to be there somewhere. The second time I saw him was in Saarbrücken after the Sudeten Crisis and after Chamberlain had made peace. Saarbrücken had been evacuated because it was on the border of France, and we had to leave for fear of war. We returned after this peace was secured by Chamberlain. And the first speech I remember was the one against Chamberlain. He delivered it in Saarbrücken in October, or November 1938. But we were depressed by it. We were supposed to be happy and enjoy it, but suddenly he started to rage against Chamberlain, somebody who, for us, had procured the peace, a just peace because of the reunification of the Germans of Bohemia with the rest of the German nation. In any case the final outcome was positive. The danger of war had disappeared because of this. And now he suddenly started to shout against Chamberlain. And there was no clapping, no applause. But I know from certain people who had analysed the newsreels that Goebbels had imposed some clapping into the newsreels.


Did you ever feel, when you listened to him on the radio, and I presume you did, that he was making sense to you? He was a great speaker, you know. Actually, most people never saw him except on the newsreels or from a distance. But they heard him on the radio a lot. The radio was supposed to be a very effective medium for propaganda at the time. Now if you can go back and remember the different times when you were being brought up, say in 1938, or 1940 with the invasion of France, was there ever a time when you thought he was making sense, that he was doing good things for us? Or did it all sound like a lot of noise?

Well, there are different reactions. Of course, he made a lot of speeches, shouting speeches, and his Austrian accent was a bit ridiculous; he couldn’t help speaking in his Austrian dialect. But seriously, I saw him in Munich after the victory over France, and he didn’t accept the applause of the public because he was so upset with Mussolini. He was very serious, and he didn’t even look at the people who applauded him. He was always different in his public appearances as the leader. In the public awareness, there wasn’t one identity of the victorious leader, but each time he presented the public with a different image, according to how he interpreted events. The sound of his speeches was, of course, very negative, very ambiguous. It put goose-bumps on your skin. He was always threatening, but ironic, too. I remember one famous speech against Roosevelt. I must say I was slightly amused by this ironical address. Then Roosevelt gave Hitler an ultimatum: “Tell all your surrounding European countries not to feel threatened by your coming invasion?” And he listed a lot of European states that Hitler should promise never to invade. And Hitler’s answer was: “When I asked the Danish, they didn’t fear me; the Swedish didn’t fear me; the French didn’t fear me”. And he went through them all and then he said: “But when I asked in Egypt, I couldn’t find the government as it was under British occupation; I asked in Syria and I couldn’t get an answer because it was occupied by the French; I asked in Iraq, and it was under British occupation”. I enjoyed his irony, and I still enjoy it.


You were a teenager in the first years of the 1930s. You were sixteen in 1939 when the war broke out. But in your late teenage years, in ’37, ’38 and ’39 perhaps, your life had to be in some ways rather normal. Did you have any fun in your life at this time? Or was it all dark and grey? Was there any fun, in particular did you dance to swing music? Did you like swing? A lot of the German youth at that time liked swing music? What was the music of your time like?

The music of the time was partly taken cover by the music of the twenties, which was used by Goebbels. He was very clever – I am sorry I am speaking now as a historian, I must be careful because you have asked me as an eyewitness. The music at the time was full of unpolitical songs and all the films were unpolitical. And Goebbels was very clever sorry, I hated the man, but now I am speaking as a historian. He used unpolitical films and they had good unpolitical songs, and people listened to them. Swing music became more familiar to us during the war, that is, if we listened to the foreign radio broadcasts – like the BBC. Dancing music was very conventional.


When did you become a soldier?

In 1941.


How did you become a soldier?

By volunteering. My whole class volunteered, except for one friend of mine. His father was a strict Catholic and forbade him to volunteer. The result was that he was drafted four weeks later into the infantry, and was the first of our class to be killed. It was because he had to join the infantry. As a volunteer you could choose. I chose the artillery, which was far less dangerous. Some others joined the air force or the navy, and they needed at least one year of training before they went to the front – but the infantry was immediately pushed to the front and so he was the first to go.


Did you ever think about joining the Nazi Party?

No, it was beyond my imagination, because I was eighteen years old and had become a soldier by then.


Once you came out of the Hitler Youth, weren’t you encouraged to join the Nazi Party?

No, not at all. I entered the Hitler Youth in 1934 when I was 11 years of age; and, when we moved from Dortmund to Saarbrücken, I joined the equestrian Hitler Youth. It was a very nice time for me. I started to jump with my horse and to fence and shoot pistols, and swim and run through the countryside. We were trained very rigorously in preparation for the modern pentathlon at the Olympic Games, so to speak, – and to be a good soldier. I enjoyed this time because I didn’t have to march on foot like most of the others in the Hitler Youth, which was very tedious. I fancied this type of privilege.


In our surveys we asked people to respond to a series of questions about possible illegal activities they might have been involved in, even if small, in the Third Reich, and I was rather surprised to find that almost everyone said that they had been involved in some kind of illegal activity – we gave them a lot of choices. Were there any things you did that were illegal? Even telling jokes about Hitler was illegal at that time, wasn’t it?

Well, you had to know whom to tell them to. I knew about 80 by heart and could tell you some of them. For instance, there’s one in which Goering visits an asylum for lunatic patients and goes into a room which contains a schizophrenic patient. He opens the door and asks: “Do you recognise me?” And the patient answers: ” No”. ”What, you don’t know me, me the Reichsmarschall, the Reichsjägermeister, the Reichsluftfahrtminister, the Prime Minister of the Prussian State?”. And the patient answers: “Oh, yes, that’s how I also started”.

But now, speaking as a historian, I can say that there were no stories about Hitler, and it is very interesting that there really were no jokes about Hitler. There are no anecdotes about Hitler either, there’s almost nothing. He is a nobody when it comes to jokes. But there were a lot of jokes about Goering, and Goebbels too.


It’s interesting when I ask you about jokes that you should mention schizophrenia, because I know from our private conversation that this is a very difficult subject for your own family. Maybe you could elaborate on that very briefly because it will help people to understand the context for you. This is one place where your family actually suffered in a direct way.

Yes, well, my mother’s family was a Huguenot family at the top of the Prussian bourgeoisie, emigrants from 1700, academics, professors and lawyers – there were no theologians. We produced one schizophrenic member every generation for three generations. It was somehow our family’s fate. And my grandfather became a pathologist to analyse brains so as to find out the causes of schizophrenia and he hoped to find a remedy. His daughter, my mother’s sister, was schizophrenic and she was placed in an asylum in Saxony. She was gassed in 1940. One hundred thousand schizophrenic people were gassed, but not only schizophrenics, there were others with social defects whom the Nazis disliked. The first gassing was even done at the beginning of the war. Hitler started the gassing of diseased people as he marched into Poland. That very same day, he started organising the gassing.

We knew only that she was killed in April 1940, but we didn’t know at the time that she had been gassed – I will speak later about gassing. We knew she had been killed, but it was an ambiguous story for us. As the daughter of a natural scientist, my mother knew that there was no remedy for or relief from schizophrenia. So even though it was not very Christian behaviour, it might have been literally a form of euthanasia, a way to help her sister because no one could help her. But she was in two minds about it. She said it was murder but it might also have been a blessing. I know about her feelings through a letter she wrote to a friend of hers, who sent it to me after my mother’s death. This friend of hers was over 90 years old and I could read my mother’s stance about 40 years later. So I could read the stance of my mother in 1940, and that of my grandmother too. But they didn’t speak with me about it then. I was a pupil in Munich at the time. It was ambiguous behaviour, which is very important to know.

Silencing the gassing of the mentally ill people was the beginning of the silence about the systematic murder of the Jews. The Catholic Bishop of Westphalia criticized the killing of patients, not the killing of Jews. And he stated this publicly, so Hitler immediately stopped the gassing of those schizophrenic people. By then 100,000 people had already been gassed in 1940, before the Jews were gassed.


Now this happened in 1940, right? If we can go back again to before this, before the war, back to the issue of terror. Did it seem scary to you? Were you afraid at the time? Did you fear personally that some Gestapo man was going to come and arrest you for something – like for telling a joke, for instance?

No. I can’t say I ever had the feeling of fear. My father was arrested by the SA in 1933, when I was 13 years old, and my parents never spoke about this. But Jewish friends of my parents told me after the war that my parents had tried to silence this episode in our life to spare the children; this was politics, and we had nothing to do with this. He reappeared very soon. So I didn’t know anything about this story of ’33 at the time. Personally, I do remember hearing these brown uniformed party people we despised. But I know we despised all these people in all those uniforms. ‘Golden pheasants’, we called them. No one took them seriously. The only people who might have been feared were the SS. But not until the war, and then I was in uniform myself.


So the most obvious examples of terror for you personally were the people of the SS. Did you ever see Gestapo officers walking around?

No, I never saw any Gestapo people walking around.


What did you think about the regular policemen? Some people thought they were normal policeman, and others argue they were not so normal. Did you have any feelings about the police? Is there anything special about the regular Schutzpolizei, the regular policemen in Germany?

The only thing we knew about, was the existence of concentration camps. But it was an abstract sort of knowledge. I had never spoken to anyone who had been inside. And as an historian I know they didn’t dare to speak about it. They had been obliged not to speak about it. I was not supposed to know about it at that time. But I do remember from Munich there was a very famous joke: Dachau was very near to Munich, and, as you know, it was the first concentration camp in Germany. In 1939, at about the beginning of the war there was a comedian, a political satirist, Weiss Ferdl, who was supposed to have said on stage: “Es steht ein Baum im Odenwald der ist organisiert, er ist im NS-Baumverband, damit ihm nichts passiert”. And the police told him that he would be sent to the camps, to Dachau, if he said that again. So then, the next day, he started saying: “Da steht ein Baum im Odenwald der ist nicht organisiert, er ist nicht im NS-Baumverband, damit mir nichts passiert”. It was a time when people were speaking about Dachau, which is why I was told it. It was half a joke, half ridiculous and one thought only that Dachau was a place for criminals, more or less. I had no concrete information on what had really happened at that time.


Let’s move on to the very last set of questions about the time of the Third Reich itself in your experience. This has to do with the murder of Jews. Now you have talked with me already about how you were not so very aware of concentration camps – you had some  awareness, but you thought that only criminals resided in concentration camps. I know from having read an essay that you shared with me recently that you as a soldier heard rather early about a massacre of Jews – one of the most famous massacres outside of Kiev, known as Babi Yar. What did you hear about it and from whom did you hear about it? Do you remember anything about your feelings at the time?

Well, it is very difficult to answer, because I do remember to have heard of the annihilation of ten thousand Jews somewhere in the quarries. They had been shot. It was after Kiev had been occupied by the Germans and we had taken half a million prisoners. I was in a reserve unit in August and September of ’41, and we came to the front. Then we heard that behind us in Kiev the SS had shot ten thousand Jews. That was the message. But I can’t remember how we reacted, it would be a lie if I said we had opposed it or agreed with it. I know this fact had been talked about all along the front.


Sorry. I must have missed it. Where did you get the message from?

Well, it was a rumour and so you can use it against me or in favour of me. In favour of me is that I do remember it after all. But against me in that I don’t remember having repressed it internally. But I would be lying if I said I knew how we reacted. A plausible guess would be that no one dared speak about it. A depressing silence ensued. Silence was a way to avoid the issue.


But somebody must have dared to speak about it if they spoke of it as a rumour, and you heard it.

In a life among soldiers rumours are constant. Someone steps into the tent and tells something.


Well, do you remember if you yourself spread the rumour? Wouldn’t you have talked about it when you went back home – you would have known about it in ’42 – when you were injured and spent about ten months in a military hospital? Did you ever have a chance to talk about that rumour that you had heard on the front that these people had been killed, about some massacre, or something like that? Do you ever remember talking about it with anybody else?

No, I don’t remember it at all; I have an explanation. But I don’t want to explain things at the moment. I am speaking here as an eye-witness. I am trying to recover my old memory, to reproduce my memories. If I explain something, there is a real danger that this might be interpreted as giving an excuse. And it’s very difficult to escape this type of argument. And don’t take my accounts as an excuse for what the Germans did. That is something else. But, at least, believe me it’s not my intention to excuse anything, when I try to explain what I remember.

So one of my explanations of my memories of that time was that we spoke of the cruelties of the Russians. It was continuous
with us and, in some way, also our fear of the Russians, which was starting to play up more and more in ’41. But this could not explain our attitude to the killing of the Jews in Babi Yar – that was at the beginning of the occupation of the Ukraine. The Ukrainians received us as liberators. So this argument doesn’t apply to explain the silencing of the discussions about Babi Yar. Perhaps because it took place at the very beginning of the occupation of the Ukraine. And after about two months, the cruelties of the SS started to increase all over the Ukraine and the Russians themselves were becoming more cruel. By then it was different, then one spoke a lot about cruelty, and not of one’s responsibilities.


Did you perceive this as a rumour or did you think this probably happened? You say you heard that about ten thousand Jews were shot? Did you think that this was a rumour or that it probably happened?

No, I am sure we thought it happened. But it was not a report which was officially delivered. Therefore, it had the status of a rumour, even if you believed it was true. It would have been different if I had read it in a newspaper, or received an official report from an officer. But that was not the case.


But you can’t remember very well any particular feelings you had about that news. You heard that news that came – my country is killing 10,000 people – and you believed it to be true but you cannot remember what you felt?

I can’t remember what I felt. I would be telling a lie if I were to invent something.


Do you remember hearing about any other massacres, even small ones?

Not at that time. Not at that time. At the front, of course, we had a lot of experience with the cruelties of the Russians. That was our primary concern: whose friend had been killed? Because I had no personal experience of killing Jews behind the front, nor had I ever heard of it during my time in hospital.

After the defeat of Stalingrad I was dismissed from the hospital, in February 1943, and I visited my aunt in Weimar who was an art historian in the museum. She took me with her to her circle of the Dante Society. The speaker of the Dante Society had been the democratic burgomaster until 1933. About twenty ladies sat around the table drinking tea and eating some dry bread (during the war). And they talked of the catastrophe of the concentration camp of Buchenwald and I hadn’t even heard of
the name until then. And they spoke very frankly of the Ettersberg, and the awful behaviour of the SS towards the prisoners.

And they talked about losing the war. After Stalingrad, this is what this group of civilian ladies and the burgomaster did; they didn’t fear even the Gestapo. As a soldier I could have reported them, and if I had reported them, all of them would have been hanged. I know of similar cases (as a historian) where they were hanged immediately.

They didn’t fear the secret police, apparently, and we spoke very openly and frankly about the status of Buchenwald. It was not related to Jews, the majority there were not Jews. The camp had a lot of Jews but the majority were Russians, Polish, Germans, Czechs, all Hitler’s political enemies. So I was upset. It was a revelation to me that the people at home spoke very differently from the front.


Many of us have heard about a book by an American named Daniel Goldhagen that recently became a best seller. Part of his thesis is that Germany was imbued with anti-Semitism for a very long time and that Germany’s anti-Semitism was unique in the European experience. In your own experience, and by your own definition also, would you say that most of your friends, or people around you, at school, classmates, other people, other soldiers with you in your regiment, were these people anti-Semitic in an obvious way to you, or in any way to you?

I doubt it. But I am interested in the thesis, of course, about the intrinsic hereditary anti-Semitism causing the Holocaust. But one has to explore why didn’t Hitler openly kill the Jews in Germany? No Jews were officially killed in Germany at the time; only by terror-like acts by individuals. The gassings and annihilation happened in Poland and not in Germany. These
questions have to be answered. If the Germans were excessively anti-Semitic, then they would have enjoyed doing it at home. But apparently, it was not possible. This is another question to put against Goldhagen’s thesis.


So your answer is no. You don’t really think that most German people wanted to do anything against the Jews.

If I were to generalise, I would say first of all that it was outside our experience. Half of the Jews, at least half of the Jews, in Germany had escaped before 1938, and then another third after ’38. So, I should stop arguing about this as I am beginning to talk like a historian. I know about the annihilation of Jews because I have read about it quite extensively. I didn’t know anything about gassing, as I have already mentioned, nor about mass murder.

I was in Russia, and then in hospital and then in northern France, in Burgundy, and in Alsace Lorraine. I was made a radar specialist because I could no longer walk. And then I was sent to the Eastern front as part of the infantry, in spite of the fact that I couldn’t walk. I was stationed in western Germany which is why I didn’t know anything about annihilation. I was taken prisoner by the Russians on 1 May 1945. After some time of helping the Russians to transport food for the division, I had a long march to Auschwitz, and on 10 May after 150 kilometres of marching I arrived at Auschwitz – exhausted. There the Russians said to us: “You gassed millions of people”. And we thought it was just Russian propaganda lies. And then I heard this one story – for me it was an initiation. I had to peel potatoes for the Russian officers – not for us, we didn’t get any – and one Polish warden who looked after us and who had been a prisoner of the Germans in Auschwitz, said: “Faster, faster”. But we, as ordinary soldiers, went slowly because no soldier wants to go fast unless he’ll gain from it! And then he took a stool with four legs and threatened to throw it at my head, but he didn’t, and he threw it in the corner of the room where we were sitting, and one of the legs broke off. He said in Upper Silesian: “Why should I smash your head? – You gassed millions”. He didn’t say: “the Jews”. He said: “millions”. I realised then that the story must have been true, that he couldn’t have invented it. So that was an experience I personally had, listening to the words of that Polish warden.


Did the Nazi time somehow influence your personal decision to be a historian?

Well, certainly it did. My father was a historian too, and I was considering becoming a medical doctor or a cartoonist, which was my hobby. My father, however, gave me some career advice and told me to do something real, stating that if I was truly an artist at heart I’d always be able to draw. So I studied history instead of drawing cartoons, and I became a historian, which is in some way a family tradition. My motivation to do it was, of course, to analyse the mentality, the origins and the feasibility of the Utopian dream – as I called it at the time – that Hitler strove to achieve. This Utopian dream, to do more than politically possible, as Hitler did, raises the question: how could one criticize a person for trying to do more than is politically possible? It was one of the major issues of my student time.


Some Americans perhaps, or some German expatriates in America, I think, and, to some extent in Great Britain, have spread around a notion that really good German history has to be written outside of Germany, because anybody who was a historian inside of Germany couldn’t be trusted. And so, all the good historians went to the United States or to Britain, or maybe to some place else. When did that end?

I don’t think that is true. The question is: why did German historians, like myself, study history after the war? What were our motives? In principle, the motivation of nearly all historians was to understand what had happened. And this was a strong motivation, even for ancient historians. One of my first interests was to compare the French Revolution with the Hitler movement. I was attending a seminar by Albert Weber, the brother of Max Weber at the time. My teacher, who later supervised my Ph.D., told me once that to speak about Auschwitz would only be possible when all the people involved had died.

Recollections of the Third Reich 2

Afterword by Eric Johnson

Reinhart Koselleck is a thoughtful and approachable man of great integrity whom I feel honored to have got to know personally during my year at NIAS. Although he hails from an upper-middle-class Prussian family of professors, lawyers, and doctors, and he himself is one of Germany’s most prominent living historians, the answers he gives to the questions put to him in this interview are consistent with those I have received from large numbers of Germans whom I have interviewed personally or surveyed in writing over the past several years. Probably the only thing that is unique about this interview in contrast with other interviews I have carried out is that it was conducted in a public forum. One might expect that discussing such sensitive matters in front of a distinguished, international group of scholars in the humanities and social sciences instead of in the privacy of one’s own home or office would be an inhibiting factor. But this does not seem to have been the case for Reinhart Koselleck. His answers are candid, straightforward, and honest, and they do not contain a trace of guile or self justification, even when at times he is clearly confronting some difficult memories.

Although many have raised legitimate doubts about the vagaries of memory and the efficacy of oral history, and although many Germans after the war engaged in a kind of cult of denial about the crimes against humanity that their country had committed, my experience has been that most older Germans today, if asked sincerely and without reproach, are quite ready to admit that they had not opposed Hitler and his Nazi regime, had indeed possessed some knowledge about the concentration camps, the persecution of Jews, and other targeted groups, and had come to know before the end of the war about some aspects of the Holocaust.

Thus Reinhart Koselleck does not attempt to present himself as having been an anti-Nazi activist. Like millions of Germans who never became Nazi Party members and even many Germans who had joined the party, he had held some reservations about Hitler and his movement (e.g. Hitler’s physical appearance and his screaming in a strange-sounding accent during his speeches seemed unpleasant to him; he despised the local Nazi Party bigwigs whom he called the “golden pheasants”), but he also lauded some of Hitler’s policies (especially his overturning of the Versailles Treaty) and appreciated the irony Hitler effectively employed in his speeches. Koselleck does not hide the fact that he had been a member of the Hitler Youth, which he had been compelled by law to join but which he says he enjoyed in part, or that he had volunteered to serve in the German army and served faithfully to the war’s end. Also he divulges that he had heard of several concentration camps (he mentions Dachau and Buchenwald as examples), and he readily admits that he had heard believable rumours while he was stationed in Ukraine in September 1941 about the massacre of thousands of Jews at Babi Yar. These rumours, however, which he says he did not give much thought to because he was preoccupied with his own survival, comprise the extent of his direct knowledge about the Holocaust. It was not until immediately after the war when he was taken as a prisoner by the Russians and somewhat ironically interned in Auschwitz that he learned for the first time about the gassings of the Jews and the death camps.

More intriguing than Koselleck’s statements about what he knew about the mass murder of the Jews is what he tells us about Nazi terror. Many have imagined that Nazi Germany and its supposedly all-knowing, all-powerful, and omnipresent Gestapo imposed a blanket type of terror that had all of its citizens literally quaking in their boots for fear of denunciation and arrest. Koselleck reveals that this was certainly not the case. For him and for most ordinary Germans until the final months of the war, the Gestapo, the concentration camps, and Nazi terror in general seemed rather remote or even partially legitimate means for maintaining order in a society that had been fraught with chaos in its recent history. Even though, for example, Koselleck’s own aunt was put to death in 1940 as part of Hitler’s ‘euthanasia programme’, Koselleck explains that his mother did not find her sister’s death fully shocking at the time. Furthermore, even though he, another of his aunts (who openly criticized in her circle of friends the conditions of the prisoners in Buchenwald near her home in Weimar), and indeed most average Germans engaged from time to time in minor forms of illegal activity like telling anti-Nazi jokes or listening to outlawed BBC broadcasts, they had no fear of being arrested. Indeed Koselleck could not even remember ever seeing a Gestapo officer and he explains that at the time he believed that the concentration camps were “a place for criminals, more or less”. Near the end of the war, however, as he explained to me in private conversations not included in this interview, his perceptions of Nazi terror did undergo a change. For the first time he observed open examples of Nazi terror when common people were arrested in the streets for not saluting the Nazi flag, and when he and his fellow soldiers on the front felt themselves to be under even greater threat from military policemen than from their Russian adversaries.

In sum, Reinhart Koselleck had spent much of his youth in an extraordinary society that nonetheless had seemed, until the war at least, rather ordinary. Like most Germans, he had done what he had perceived to have been his duty as a loyal German and he had successfully carved out an existence which for him represented normality. He seems not to have felt that he was living in a terrifying totalitarian society. That such a perceptive and decent man as Reinhart Koselleck found his existence and his society so unexceptional, renews one’s awe for what Hannah Arendt once termed “the banality of evil”. Yet one also comes away from the interview with Reinhart Koselleck with an appreciation for how Germans are now struggling admirably with the horrible burden that their country’s difficult past has placed upon them.


This interview was featured in the NIAS Newsletter 22 – Spring 1999.