Dr. Peter Staudenmaier recently participated in Marquette’s hosting of a Holocaust survivor. Today, Holocaust Remembrance Day, he reminds us of the importance of remembering the Holocaust and the multiple roads that led to the Holocaust.
Today, April 19, is Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorated in communities around the world. In preparation for observing this date, Marquette hosted a remarkable event at the beginning of the month with holocaust survivor Robert Behr. Born in Berlin in 1922, Mr. Behr and his family were interned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942 and managed to survive until the camp was liberated in May 1945. Now 90 years old and a resident of Washington DC, Mr. Behr agreed to come to Marquette to talk with students about his experiences. The chief event, an evening panel discussion on April 2 with Mr. Behr as the principal speaker, was organized at the initiative of a group of Marquette students and sponsored by the Division of Student Affairs. To the surprise of the organizers and panel members, more than 500 people attended the event and engaged in a searching discussion of this exceptionally challenging historical subject.
Along with Bonnie Shafrin of the Milwaukee Holocaust Education Resource Center, I was asked to participate on the panel with Mr. Behr. It was an honor to take part in the event, before the largest audience I have ever addressed, and I took the opportunity to examine some of the difficult questions which confront anybody who tries to come to terms with the seemingly incomprehensible Nazi campaign to exterminate European Jews. Mr. Behr himself provided much of the historical context, in the midst of a moving personal account, and encouraged Ms. Shafrin and myself to raise issues that would help illuminate this aspect of the past for the students. It was an occasion for both historical reflection and earnest consideration of the relevance of the past for present concerns.
My remarks focused on several of the more unsettling facets of the history of the holocaust, particularly the role of universities in paving the way for genocide. I noted the contribution of German universities to making antisemitism intellectually respectable and providing a breeding ground for radical forms of exclusion and persecution, as well as the substantial proportion of highly educated members of the upper echelons of the SS and other Nazi agencies. I also observed that university students were prominent among the more enthusiastic early supporters of Nazism. Against the common perception of racism and antisemitism as somehow incompatible with intellectual sophistication and advanced educational background, I pointed out that antisemitic and racist beliefs were often especially widespread in cultivated and educated circles in early twentieth century Europe.
I concluded my modest contribution to the panel discussion with brief comments on the crucial role of passive complicity in making the holocaust possible. A quote I shared from British historian Ian Kershaw struck a chord with the audience: “The road to Auschwitz was built with hatred, but paved by indifference.” The extensive apathy and impassivity on the part of large segments of the German people was as important to the preparation and perpetration of the holocaust as the intensive obsessions of the Nazi leadership. In line with Mr. Behr’s own restrained and sobering presentation, I suggested that rather than drawing inspiring lessons from this chapter in history, a chapter still within living memory, we would do well to contemplate the demanding questions it raises, questions which continue to vex us today.
The event was a fitting way for the Marquette community to commemorate what some would prefer to forget, and I was proud to play a small part within it. The honor of sharing a stage with somebody like Mr. Behr was also a salutary reminder of the ways in which history, for better or worse, resonates in the present.
Dr. Staudenmaier, a historian of modern Germany, is newly arrived to the Marquette history department, but he brings a wealth of experience. A longtime member of the Institute for Social Ecology, Peter has a diverse range of intellectual interests including Nazism and Fascism, racial thought, and the political history of environmentalism. Before coming to Marquette he taught for a short time at the University of Montana after receiving his PhD from Cornell University. His most recent work includes the revised edition of co-authored book Ecofascism Revisited: Lessons from the German Experience. He is currently preparing a book manuscript based on his dissertation “Between Occultism and Fascism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race and Nation in Germany and Italy, 1900-1945.”