The horrors of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust still present some of the most disturbing questions in modern history: Why did Hitler's party appeal to millions of Germans, and how entrenched was anti-Semitism among the population? How could anyone claim, after the war, that the genocide of Europe's Jews was a secret? Did ordinary non-Jewish Germans live in fear of the Nazi state? In this unprecedented firsthand analysis of daily life as experienced in the Third Reich, What We Knew offers answers to these most important questions. Combining the expertise of Eric A. Johnson, an American historian, and Karl-Heinz Reuband, a German sociologist, What We Knew is the most startling oral history yet of everyday life in the Third Reich.
The refrains in Germany for many years after WWII were "we didn't know" about the Holocaust, and "if we had known and had tried to do something, we too would have been killed by the Nazis." These claims have not stood up to historical scrutiny. Large numbers of ordinary Germans were involved in carrying out the mass murder of Jews, and knowledge of it was widespread among the population at home in Germany. Moreover, the Nazi elite ruled primarily by consensus, not terror; it was a popular dictatorship. Central Michigan University historian Johnson and German sociologist Reuband confirm these interpretations in their wide-ranging study based on hundreds of interviews and surveys they conducted with both Jewish and Christian Germans. Johnson (Nazi Terror) and Reuband don't add much that is new to what we know about the Nazi dictatorship and the Holocaust, but the materials they have gathered are interesting. Roughly two-thirds of the book consists of transcripts of interviews with Jews who had a range of experiences (going into hiding, leaving Germany before Kristallnacht, suffering in the camps) and Germans (those who heard about the murder of Jews, those who didn't, those who participated). The analysis in the book's final third is sober and sobering. But it's the gripping immediacy of the interviews, laced as they are with anger, guilt, sadness and, still among some Christian Germans, pride, that carries the book.