Nazi crimes: Diaries reveal how much Germans knew

Using military news, obituaries of those who died (“for Germany’s greatness and freedom”), caricatures, newspaper articles and conversations with ordinary people, Kellner fashioned an image of Nazi Germany that has never existed before in such a vivid, concise and challenging form. Until now, the discussion over German guilt has fluctuated within the broad space between two positions. The one side emphasizes the deliberate disinformation of Nazi propaganda and the notion that ordinary citizens lived in fear and terror, concluding that they couldn’t have known better. The other side takes the opposite position, namely that most were aware of what was happening.

Kellner’s writings offer a glimpse into what everyone could have known about the war of extermination in the East, the crimes against the Jews and the acts of terror committed by the Nazi Party. He wrote about the executions of “vermin” who made “defeatist” remarks, and about “racial hygiene.” In July 1941 he wrote: “The mental hospitals have become murder centers.” A family that had brought their son home from an institution later inadvertently received a notice that their child had died and that his ashes would soon be delivered. “The office had forgotten to remove the name from the death list. As a result, the deliberate killing was brought to light,” he wrote.

By reading Kellner’s diaries and recognizing what Germans could have known, it’s tempting to rethink how the expression “We knew nothing about those things!” came into being. According to Kellner, people simply ignored the information available to them out of both laziness and enthusiasm for German war victories. When this denial of reality no longer worked, when too much had been revealed about what the Nazis were doing in Germany’s name, there was no turning back for the majority of Germans. “‘I did that,’ says my memory,” Nietzsche wrote. “‘I could not have done that,’ says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually, the memory yields.”