Does the Holocaust belong to Jews?

The canonization of the SS” is the front page headline for the 11 January issue of  the Tageszeitung, the left-liberal Berlin daily.

Illustrated by a photo of Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler inspecting members of the Estonian division of the Waffen-SS, the TAZ story reports that a bill before the Estonian parliament seeks to grant Estonian members of the SS the status of “freedom fighters.”

While similar bills failed in 2006 and 2010, “majority support appears to be guaranteed” during this legislative session, the TAZ reports. A second article appears on page 4 and reports the Russian embassy in Tallinn has described the bill as “blasphemous,” while the German Green Party has criticized a “retrospective justification of the atrocities perpetrated by Hitler’s henchmen in the Soviet Union.”

Die Welt has the story also. On 12 Jan in “Estland denkt über Ehrung der Waffen-SS nach” it reported on the details — and provided a very good history of the Estonian division of the SS.  Worldcrunch offers a summary in English of the article here.

As an aside, Worldcrunch paraphrases stories, it does not translate them in a strict sense. This can lead to differences of meaning and shading. For example the Die Welt title in Worldcrunch is “Push To Honor Estonian SS Nazi Unit Sparks Outrage.” The Die Welt title in German I would translate as “Estonia is thinking about honoring the Waffen-SS after [70 years].” No “outrage” in the German title, nor does “push to honor” have the same meaning as “thinking of honoring” while the German title has “after” tagged on at the end, to which I would add “70 years” or “further tries in parliament.” Do bookmark Worldcrunch as it is a great source for overseas reporting.

Die Welt offers this additional history (my translation):

The Holocaust began in the Baltic states at the same time as Estonia was occupied by German troops. Jews had to flee the country, but as Estonia is the northernmost and easternmost of the three small states, they had the best chance to escape. Approximately three-quarters of the small Jewish population either left with the retreating Red Army or fled to Finland.

The remaining thousand who were classified as Jews according to Nazi racial criteria were killed — mainly by Einsatzkommando 1a under the command of Martin Sandberger, who until his death in late March 2010 was the last living top SS leader. At the Wannsee Conference [held on 20 Jan 1942] Estonia was declared judenfrei [free of Jews] by the Nazis after the murder of 963 people. …

In addition to the approximately one thousand Estonian Jews, at least 250 Roma and six to seven thousand Christian Estonians were killed during the German occupation. Tens of thousands of Soviet prisoners of wars as well as Jews from other states were also killed during the occupation in internment caps built on Estonian soil during the war.

Die Welt examines the Estonian SS involvement in the Holocaust and in anti-partisan campaigns, but notes:

Unfortunately all that remains of the records of this unit are three meager files in the German federal archives. There is a book about Estonians in the Waffen-SS, but it was written by an admirer of the military arm of the SS and was published by a small, far-right-leaning publisher. Its contents should clearly be viewed with caution.

However, the campaign to honor SS men as freedom fighters, supported mainly by nationalist parties in Estonia, comes from their role in trying to hold back the tide of the Red Army in the first six months of 1944. The daft legislation is expected to come before parliament in Tallinn in March.

Both newspapers do a good job in bringing this story to light. While Die Welt gives a great overview to this corner of history, the TAZ is more forthright in its condemnation. It warns against “beatifying the SS,” and reminds readers that the Simon Wiesenthal Center described the Baltic SS units as being part of the Nazi “structure of blood and death.”

There are enough religion and ethical ghosts in this story to keep me occupied for weeks. However, I want to raise a few surface items as well as a deeper issue that is being played out in Europe — who owns the Holocaust?

“Provide both sides of the story” is a mantra each journalist learns early in his career. One of the most frequent criticisms offered by GetReligion is the lack of balance in a story — of providing only one set of facts. However, is this criticism valid when dealing with Nazis? Neither paper offers space to neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers or right-wing nationalists to defend the pro-SS legislation. Die Welt offers the history, as does the TAZ to a lesser extent, that would explain motivation, but Mr. A. Hitler is not given a platform. And I believe the papers were correct in this decision.

The TAZ use of the language of religion is significant. Religion is almost always absent from the left-wing TAZ‘s pages, but its use here is more than that of an arch or facile description. To my mind it symbolizes the moral and psychological uneasiness Germans (and Estonians) feel with this issue. The SS is being beautified, being canonized as modern saints by Estonian nationalists in their crusade against the Russians and the Communist past. While the vocabulary is used, there remains strong tie here between nationalism and religion that is left unaddressed in the stories.

To my ears, the story also raises the vexed question of who owns the Holocaust? Die Welt reports that almost ten times as many Christian Estonians as Jewish Estonians were murdered by the Nazis. Yet all of the Jews were killed. Is there an equivalence of suffering here? Because more Christians died than Jews — and because the Soviets killed more Estonians than the Germans, does that give moral ownership of this issue to Estonian nationalists?  Where can the line be drawn between wholesale murder of innocents and the unique evil that was the Nazi’s Final Solution?

This episode reminds me of the “War of the Crosses” that began at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1979. Following Pope John Paul II’s mass at the Nazi death camp, which he described as being the “Golgotha of the modern world,” local Catholics erected a small cross by Bunker 2 to honor Edith Stein — a converted Jew who had become a Carmelite nun before her death in the gas chambers.

In 1984 the controversy escalated when Carmelite nuns opened a convent in a brick building that had been used by the Nazis to store Zyklon-B gas crystals. The 26-foot cross used in John Paul II’s 1979 service was then moved by the nuns to a spot just outside the Auschwitz I wall where more than one hundred Polish partisans had been shot. Jewish leaders complained of the impropriety of Christianizing the site of the extermination of European Jewry, but the nuns refused to go.

Jewish complaints prompted a response by Polish nationalists who erected a further three hundred crosses.  The Polish parliament then ordered the extra crosses to be removed but allowed the papal cross to remain. John Paul II resolved the issue in 1993 by ordering the nuns to leave Auschwitz.

Can one be human and be impartial when writing a story about the SS? Is it wrong for Christians to dispossess Jews of the Holocaust? Who owns history and how should faith groups handle public expressions of faith in a pluralistic society? (Does the World Trade Center mosque controversy spring to mind to anyone?) How should reporters handle this issue when writing about the Holocaust and the SS? Is it even possible?

What say you GetReligion readers on this point?

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  • Susie

    I hardly know what to say about this story. On so many levels I am sickened.

    Of course there were more Christians imprisoned and killed than there were Jews. There WERE more Christians in Europe than Jews. The big difference is that the Christians were mostly not killed for BEING Christians!

    I am horrified and sick to my stomach that anyone would consider honoring SS participants in any way.

    The fact that this has not made the main stream media proves that we have reached the point as a society where we are so desensitized to true hatred that the media, for the most part, does not find this sickening enough to report. Or, even more sadly, we have returned to the ages old anti-Semitism and Hitler’s belief that the Jews are not quite human.

    And no, there are not two sides to the Nazi’s story.

  • Maureen

    People of all sorts of faiths died in Auschwitz, and it would probably be nice for all sorts of faiths to have houses of prayer nearby.

    I think the root of the Auschwitz problem is that some kinds of observant Jews don’t feel that it’s right to be around/in sight of non-Jewish religious symbols if they’re praying, and both Christians and Jews tend to believe that martyrdom sites are a good place to pray. The conversion issue, and tension between Catholics and Jews in Poland, made it more of a hot button. (I think Jews feared that Auschwitz would become a shrine for Catholics and a place where Jews were unwelcome, especially since Poland used to have places like that.)

    But even though Jews, and people killed for having Jewish ancestry, were undoubtedly the biggest victim group, the Nazis weren’t shy about killing lots of other groups en masse. 3000 Rom were killed in a single day at Auschwitz, for example. (That day being August 2, 1944.) They say 500,000 were killed over the course of the Holocaust, which was a really earnest try at killing off every single Rom, Sinti, etc. Many of the ones not killed outright were experimented on, instead.

  • sari

    In answer to your question, who owns the Holocaust?–the world, because the Shoah could have been averted had averting it been a priority. That Jews were the first and most prominent target cannot be questioned. The Allied countries ignored Hitler’s antisemitic rhetoric and the promulgation of the Aryan and subsequent laws targeting the Jews, and refused entry to Germany’s Jewish population (and later Europe’s Jews, who desperately sought refuge elsewhere). The Nazis created an efficient and thorough bureaucracy, one obsessed with recording data and which left behind mountains of documentation. The Allies were well aware of the Final Solution, had possession of plans for the the major death camps well before the largest (e.g., Auschwitz) became operational, but declared the camps of no strategic interest (mid-70′s, when the U.S. de-classified the files). That other non-combatant groups were targeted, most notably homosexuals and the Rom, is also indisputable. These deaths must be considered separate from the more typical, though also regrettable, civilian casualties and execution of dissidents. Iow, the Nazis changed the face of warfare by targeting populations who posed no threat to them.

    Is it wrong for Christians to dispossess Jews of the Holocaust? Yes. Why? Because Christians and Christian institutions largely stayed silent in the face of overt and violent persecution and, in the case of Poland, the Ukraine, and other countries, actively abetted the Nazis. Even if one contends that the German people remained ignorant of the death camps (primarily located on Polish soil), they could not miss the rest. And that the people in these same countries refused restitution or re-appropriation to the few remaining Jews who returned to their homes is both documented and inexcusable.

    Can a reporter remain impartial? I would hope that anyone addressing so delicate a topic would be mindful to research and record the history as it happened rather than to color it with their personal feelings, no matter how despicable the subject.

  • Jerry

    sari, normally I’d just “like” your post and leave it at that. But you expressed what I was feeling so well, that I wanted to laud your post in a more public fashion.

  • Matt

    There is another legitimate side to the story, which Die Welt does get into a bit (but not in the parts quoted by George). This is the fact that Estonians desired for their country to be free, that the Soviets were clearly their enemies in that regard, and that no one but the Nazis was available to help them resist Soviet colonization.

    Clearly this needs to be held in tension with the atrocities committed by the SS, but it at least explains why some people may have sided with the Nazis purely because they loved their country of Estonia, and why some people today may wish to honor such men as patriots. It’s a legitimately tough issue.

  • Susie

    You know, Matt, I might agree with you on some level except that there is no freedom for me if I kill an innocent for it.

    I am truly trying to be fair here when I say there is no excuse. To me it is comparable to the German judges who were “following the law”. It makes for good rationalization for inexcusable behavior but it does not excuse it.

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    The same thought that Matt expresses occurred to me, but this is where reflection is important. There were certainly human differences between Soviet totalitarianism and German totalitarianism, but they are the differences between two scorpions in a bottle. No matter which one wins, it is still a poisonous, death-dealing creature. Estonians may have thought the Nazis were their allies against their Communist oppressors, but the alliance, had Hitler won instead of Stalin, would have been a matter of trading one murderous oppressor for another murderous oppressor who wore a different uniform and spoke a different language. The enemy of my enemy is not always really my friend. But one has to understand the basics of morality to see this clearly, especially after long subjugation. It may have been an easy error to make, but it was still a grevious error. Legitimately tough? Not if you ground your analysis in eternity and not in time.

  • Matt

    Both Susie and Michael are mostly right. I’m pointing out that there was a choice that a rational and good-hearted person would find difficult, especially given imperfect knowledge, but I’m not saying that people made the right choice, especially if they consciously chose to participate in the death of innocent people in the name of preserving their country. On the other hand, are you contending that it’s obvious they should have fought for Stalin instead?

  • Stan

    Interesting that no one mentions the thousands of homosexuals that were exterminated and/or used as slave labor during the Holocaust.

  • sari

    If you read my post, homosexuals were mentioned, but they were less relevant to the questions posed by geoconger.

    I am flattered. Thank you!

  • Stan

    Sorry, Sari. Thanks. Actually, the Nazis did not systematically attempt to exterminate homosexuals in non-Aryan countries (since they thought homosexuality would lead to their collapse), only in the Aryan countries.

  • sari

    I know, Stan. The master plan was to exterminate the polluting races (e.g., Jews, the Rom, “deviants” of all stripes) and to subjugate the rest to work under their Aryan masters. A lot of research was devoted to involuntary sterilization, for instance, to check the growth of future subservient populations, like the Poles.

    So much of this reads like a video game, except it happened. As to extermination, while concentration camps were preferable to death camps, the latter were often used to extract maximum labor with minimal resources, so that the end result was the same. No real effort was made to ensure proper nutrition, prevent disease, or to provide even basic sanitation.

    But I digress…

  • Dave

    Balance in such a story does not mean a platform for Hitler. It means giving the sponsor of the bill a chance to explain hirself.

  • Susie

    No Matt, I am not suggesting that they should have fought for Stalin.

    What I am saying is that there is no honor for them. Harsh maybe but a fact.

    I am sorry for them that they had no choice but to be either Nazis or fight for Stalin but they are not heroes. They were SS. They cannot be heroes. There was another choice – resistance.

    I do not pretend to understand what was happening in Estonia. What I do know is that what they did was wrong. Perhaps they thought they had no choice but what they did was not heroic or honorable.

    They might, in a novel, fall into the category of protagonists but they are not heroes.

  • Bill

    It’s instructive to visit Dachau. It was not the worst, but it was the first. As Hitler consolidated power, his enemies were sent here for “reeducation.” Over time, there were more prisoners than housing and food. They were worked and starved to death, as Sari pointed out.

    The chilling thing is how those who carried out such horrors looked so normal. They had families and dinners with friends after a day’s work. They were just doing their jobs. I wonder if one went home one night and cheerily announced, “Hi honey, let’s celebrate I got the Zyklon B account!”

    The progression from reeducation to extermination was inevitable once the Fuhrer was accepted the highest authority and the idea of sub-humanity was accepted. Everything that was done within German borders was legal. And immoral.

    Solzhenitsyn wrote, “I have spent all my life under a Communist regime, and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one, indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man, either.”

  • John Pack Lambert

    What percentage of Estonia’s Roma were killed. To me the great tragedy of the Holocaust is that the Roma are ignored. Guides at Auschwitz will at times when asked even say very cruel things against the Roma. Hating Jews may not generally be accepted, but hating and denigrating the Roma is, and their suffering is normally forgotten.

  • northcoast

    While the German camps held or disposed of any people the Nazis considered to be inferior, unproductive, or treasonous, my mind always jumps to the extermination of Jews (including Christian descendants of Jews) when the word, holocaust, is mentioned in connection with WW2.

    I can understand how Estonians (and Ukrainians) would initially welcome German soldiers as liberators, but service in the SS seems to be a poor way to fight the USSR. To my knowledge the mission of the SS did not include directly fighting the Soviet Army. It is beyond my imagination how such service could be dignified.

  • carl jacobs

    The Jews were not the only victims of the Holocaust, but they were uniquely targeted. I don’t think we can say that Jews own the Holocaust, but we can say they are the majority shareholder. What would be interesting is the extent to which the Holocaust has become a defining experience for Jews in an age of declining religious belief, and racial mixing. What does it mean to be a Jew anymore? What is the central focus of Judaism? What role does the Holocaust play in answering these questions, if any? This was my initial thought when I read the question of ownership. These are angles I would like to see explored.


  • sari

    I have never heard anyone in the community use the term racial mixing when referring to intermarriage. Many would find such a term offensive.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The Roma were also targeted for complete extermination as were the Jews. It should also be born in mind that the Nazi’s targeted the Jews on racial, not religious, categories. Of course that does not change the awfulness of the killing, but it does have some relevance to the Auschwitz Cross controversy.

    Maybe we should ask “who owns the Holocaust, religious or secular Jews?”

  • new user

    It saddens me that neither of the newspapers digs deeper. Estonia was part of the Russian Federation until 1918, but it wasn’t Russian-speaking people who kept Estonians as slaves (and I mean literally: slaves, bought and sold as property, with minimal individual rights), they were Baltic Germans. Even after the first Independence, most Estonians viewed Baltic Germans – and as an extension all Germans – with a very jaundiced eye. Additionally, prior to WWII, Estonia had THE most liberal integration laws in Europe where the local Jews hat full cultural authonomy.

    So what changed? The year was 1939 and the Soviet troops came in. One year later, in 1940 the previous arch enemy the Germans (in this case, the Nazi’s) crossed the border and were welcomed as saviours. Saviours! when only a year earlier the public at large had considered the Germans the worst of the worst. Makes one wonder what happened in that one year to wipe out decades, if not centuries of resentment, fear and hate against the Germans. Though, honestly, it really didn’t help the Jewish community that there was a proportionally very large part of Jews in the Soviet upper command.

    In people’s minds the most recent horror is the worst, and for the Baltic States, the most recent horror is the Soviet one. In the case of the countries that got caught between Stalin and Hitler, there were no good options, fight on one side or another side or run or knuckle under and conform? None of those options were good. One of the questions often asked on this topic is: “Which is worse: a horrible end or endless horror?” Many Jews got a horrible end. Many Estonians got endless horror.

    As for being persecuted for being Christian, both the Nazis and Soviets did it, though Soviets had a larger territory and more time to dedicate to the practice.

  • carl jacobs


    Then let me apologize. I was simply referring to the increasing rate of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews. Such marriages have a tendency to produce children who assimilate and discard overt Jewish identity. Intermarriage is a huge concern in the Jewish community. That is all I meant to imply.


  • John M.

    When faced with choices that are horrifyingly bad (and being caught by geography between Hitler and Stalin has to go down as one of the wors dilemmas in history), all people sometimes make decisions that they are not proud of. But the proper thing to do is not to be proud of them.


  • sari

    Racial refers to physical characteristics, usually at the skeletal and cellular level, by which a group or members of a group may be identified. While many Jews believe that they descend from Jacob (Israel), Jews do not form a distinct race. I’ve been out of the anthropological loop for awhile, but I can remember (primitive) genetic studies done on a group of elderly Eastern European Jews, which compared the distribution of certain genetic markers with non-Jews from their country and non-Jews from the Middle East. Though the Jews looked like Europeans, the distribution of markers was almost indistinguishable from that of the Middle Eastern cohort. Either way, race does not dictate behavior.

    What you refer to is culture, in this case behaviors dictated by Torah (remember Pinchas?). While many Jews ceased to observe the Torah as Torah, there remained a strong bias against marrying out, especially for men, whose children would need to undergo a formal conversion. Some branches of Judaism have addressed this problem by declaring such children Jews, but most branches have not. Anyway, the rate of intermarriage is a symptom of increased assimilation, not the cause, and has nothing to do with race.

  • mike flynn

    wow, fianlly an honest airing of this subject. true the nazis wanted to annihilate the jews, they also wanted to annihilate certain parts of the greater population.

    for any jew to say the deaths of the jews was more important than the death of any others would be nearly as callous as those who would say annihilation was not the ultimate goal of the nazi.

    therefore pressing for the removal of the crosses @ aushwitz or the left screaming about the estonian moves to express gratitude for thier countrymen caught on the wrong side of history defending their land from the red menace, is unfairly engineering history.

  • Susie

    Wow, Mike! I believe this is the first time I have ever been called a leftist in my life! I assume you mean me since I was the first here to scream about how the Estonians choose to express gratitude.

    By the way I am not “any jew” or even the less rude term “Jewish person”.

  • northcoast

    The second paragraph of my post #18 needs correction. Evidently Estonian men were conscripted into the SS unit which resisted the advancing Soviet Army in 1944; so that SS unit did fight in the front lines, and Estonian induction was not always by choice.

    I assume that the last sentence of the Die Welt quote refers to draft legislation.

  • Raman

    All this muttering the Nazis did not kill only Jews is of course nothing other than an attempt by Christians to deny Christianity’s horrific responsibility for the Holoccaust by ruthlessly demonising the Jews over two thousand years.

  • Dan

    To my knowledge the mission of the SS did not include directly fighting the Soviet Army.

    You might read Black Edelweiss, a memoir of Waffen SS service in Finland written by a very young man who, after the war, was impressed into service as an assistant to the Nuremberg prosecutors. He hadn’t heard anything about the Holocaust until then, at least not that he admitted.

    On the other hand, the “Hitler Youth” panzer regiment of Waffen SS in Normandy are known to have carried out a massacre of Canadian POWs. They weren’t all the idealistic anti-communist warriors that Mr Voss remembers being.

  • Dave

    What does all this history of the Estonian SS have to do with journalism?

  • Pete

    Poles were indeed killed for being Poles. The punishment for hiding a Jew was immediate killing of the entire Polish household including women and children or immediate deportation to a death camp with no exceptions. Such treatment did not exist for the “better” Anglo-Saxon races of Western Europe. Poles were considered Untermenschen and were slated for basically the same fate as the Jews with the exception of some manual labour. In psychiatric hospitals Polish orderlies, nurses, psychiatrists were executed together with their patients. Whole villages were wiped out. During the Warsaw Uprising the Germans would go door to door and exterminate men, women and children systematically and without mercy. 3 million Polish non-Jews died in WW2. That fact is forgotten, ignored or not appreciated. In some cases certain people make disgusting accusations that Poles were worse than Germans, forgetting that Poland was the only country in Europe which guaranteed Jews liberties since the Statute of Kalisz and actually stood up to Nazi Germany instead of rolling over and co-operating with Hitler in a push eastwards. Poles had a dedicated symbol “P” in the death camps.

    And of course the use of the term “nationalist” when one implies some form of patriot is a common tactic the left. The other is to label local people as fascists, such as the numerous ordinary women and children who protested the recent cover up of the Smolensk air tragedy in Warsaw.

  • Pete

    Maureen said:

    “(I think Jews feared that Auschwitz would become a shrine for Catholics and a place where Jews were unwelcome, especially since Poland used to have places like that.)”

    Maureen, could you provide some citations about these places where Jews were unwelcome. Were there not places where Jews were unwelcome in America, England or France prior to WW2?

    Also O?wi?cim is in Poland. For decades the Polish taxpayer paid for maintenance of the site instead of converting it into something profitable. 3 million Poles died in WW2. I lost my grandfather and great grandfather who were both non-combatants executed by Nazi SS. I can understand the need to honour all dead, and certainly Jews should have premier place in O?wi?cim, but to exclude Christians and then to denigrate the ordinary folks who oppose this as “nationalists” is not fair either.

  • Pete

    Raman, Google for “Statute of Kalisz” my friend, note the mention of the Pope in it, also note the date it was signed. ’nuff said.

  • sari


    I am sorry members of your family died during WWII. Truly. We are taught that saving a single person is like saving the entire world. But to say that Poles considered Jews fellow citizens and afforded Jews full equality in Poland is an overstatement and does not account for the very strong undercurrent of antisemitism that persists even to the present. It does not address how Poles treated the Jews post-WWII. The few surviving Jews who tried to return to their villages were often run out of town, many physically assaulted, and few had their possessions, property or businesses returned to them. This has been documented by eyewitnesses (Allied servicemen, the media) and by the survivors themselves. When you have a sec, look up the Kielce Pogrom (1946).

    The Warsaw uprising, the Poles’ attempt to wrest power from the Germans, was a military uprising. The Germans responded in a brutal fashion, but one typical in wartime. It should not to be confused with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in which the remaining Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, knowing that they were to be deported to certain death, chose to determine the time and manner of their demise. They had no illusions as to their chances of survival. Non-Jews had been removed from the Ghetto prior to walling it off from the rest of Warsaw, so they accounted for none of the casualties, excepting German troops. You compare apples and oranges here.

    The Germans did not seek to exterminate the Poles or other non-Aryan (their descriptor) peoples. Rather they hoped to subjugate them as slaves. A great deal of research went into the development of mass sterilization technologies (e.g., an x-ray machine to zap reproductive organs while the individual stepped up to do paperwork). I strongly recommend Hilberg’s Destruction of the European Jews as a reference. He provides a wealth of wartime documentation gleaned from German and other sources. It’s not pretty, but it is objective.