Eleven million men, women, and children perished during the systematic, Nazi state-sponsored persecution and murder of Jews, Slavic peoples, Roma, people with disabilities, Soviet prisoners, homosexuals, and others deemed “inferior.” Of those, more than six million were Jews.
The way in which one traditionally views the Holocaust is inevitably through the lens of the victim. However, director Luke Holland, driven by his own family’s connection to the horrific period surrounding World War II, attempted to explore a seldom investigated narrative — that of the perpetrator.
Filmed over the course of a decade, Holland’s “Final Account” is a stirring oral history of the “individual motivations, actions, and attempted justifications of those who perpetrated the Shoah,” according to the USC Shoah Foundation.
Although Holland died from brain cancer last year at the age of 71, his final work remains a living testament to his lifelong desire to preserve an important narrative largely missing from the historiography of the Holocaust.
Prior to the theatrical May 21 release of “Final Account,” the film’s associate producer Sam Pope and Dr. Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation, spoke with HistoryNet about the late director’s final project and one of the last portraits of participants who served under Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution.
You interviewed more than 300 people over the course of 10 years for this film. Was there a particular moment that stood out to you? Were there any that didn’t make it into the film?
Smith: One piece that didn’t make it into the documentary was a remarkable moment in documentary filmmaking. There was a former SS member being filmed by Luke. At one point he was asked the question about whether he was a perpetrator — much like we saw in the documentary — and the individual burst out in anger.
“How dare you defile the name of the Fuhrer!”
He went on this tirade and was demanding that Luke turn off the camera. Luke didn’t. He just sat there and watched. After a few minutes his tirade died down and the guy just sat back in his chair and started to speak about what he was involved in.
Another striking moment was when he was interviewing the stenographer who had been involved in medical experiments at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He visited her three times. He already knew on the first occasion that she had been involved in medical experiments, but he didn’t disclose that to her. On the first meeting she tells him she nothing to do with it. By the time he gets to the third meeting he says to her, “You know, on the second occasion, you said that your boss would go to Sachsenhausen. What did he do there? Did you ever go?”
“No, I was never there,” she maintained.
Luke then goes, “Well that’s strange because I have this document that describes the medical experiments, and it seems to have your signature on it as the stenographer. Could you possibly have been there?”
And she said, “Oh, yeah, I would go with him and take notes.”
We wouldn’t have this material without Luke’s ability to be able to find, talk to, and extract this remarkable information.
Pope: One of the most fascinating interviews was with Herbert Fuchs, the SS man sworn in at the Feldherrnhalle on Kristallnacht. The way he reflects in the film to the questions that Luke is asking, it’s almost as though he is considering them for the first time. Now, whether that is necessarily true or not is up to the audience to determine.
Since World War II, many myths have emerged of the good German, that no one knew anything, or the line, “We were just following orders.” How do you think Luke challenged these in this film?
Smith: I think what Luke was trying to show was that the people who committed the Holocaust were not monsters, that the people who made the decisions to join the SS or carry out their orders were human beings, and that they are human beings afterwards, too.
Those 10-year-olds who signed up to join the Hitler Youth could not have known they were joining what ultimately became a criminal organization. They were just kids wanting to be in a uniform, to be part of a peer group, and be part of something great in Germany. When you think about it in that way, I think I probably would have joined.
That’s Luke’s point, that they were not so extraordinary. But we’ve got to be on guard, because otherwise, we might end up as 90-year-olds wondering how on earth we got ourselves into such a mess.
I will finish to say there is no excuse for their behavior. There was one gentleman in the film who said, “I was a guard at Sachsenhausen, but I don’t consider myself a perpetrator. But when you put it like that … maybe I was.”
I think that’s disingenuous. They were very aware of what they were part of. I don’t buy that bit of their narrative, nor should they be excused from it. But it is interesting to see, even as a 90-year-old, how he justifies how he got there, why he did what he did, and how he wasn’t responsible. I think that is really instructive in terms of what we’re like as human beings and what we need to be on guard for.
Pope: I think these issues you raised were very much in the forefront of Luke’s mind. His journey was motivated by a personal desire to understand how this could happen — the murder of his own grandparents, the fact that his mother had to flee Austria to protect herself and the lives of her children. He wanted to know how much truth these myths held.
The common refrain we heard was “after the war” or “we didn’t know.” Through these interviews we start to interrogate those lies. I think we start to see the fractures in this sort of monolith of myth. There is no consensus among individual narratives, and part of the film is trying to demonstrate that, even among the interviewees and perpetrators, there is not necessarily an agreement.
There is the famous quote, “The only thing necessary for triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” What struck me most in the film was the mental contortions many of the subjects went through to justify their behavior. How far would you go in claiming the complicity of the German people?
Smith: I often have this conversation with colleagues, because when I’m discussing this period, I talk about Germany — unless I’m specifically talking about something that the Nazi Party did. The reason is that it wasn’t the Nazis that developed Auschwitz. It was Germany. It wasn’t the Nazis that shot Jews into ditches. It was Germany. The fact that the Nazi Party was controlling Germany comes down to the fact that German citizens voted for Adolf Hitler in 1933. Hitler was appointed the chancellor of the Weimar Republic. And yes, he took over and became a dictator, but he was put there by the German population.
People tend to get a little anxious, saying, “You can’t blame all Germans.” I’m not blaming all Germans; I’m saying that the country committed the crime. And therefore, the citizens of the country are responsible to apprehend those if they do not agree with it.
We have to be accountable for our actions. It’s the will of the people that ultimately decides a nation’s fate, and if we don’t like it, we better prevent it, because otherwise it will go down in history.
Pope: I was just reading through some of Luke’s notes and he found himself asking this question again and again. Where does this perpetration begin? The framework through which we’ve tried to determine this has largely been a judicial one. We framed it through law, whether one has committed a crime. But then there is the question of complicity. Is silence tacit support?
I think it would be inaccurate to say that everyone knew the entire scope of what was being carried out in front of them. However, it became clearer and clearer during the interview process how much people did know. There was a greater awareness, and not just of anti-Semitism, criminal acts, or people being deported. News spread as men came back from the front, from the killing fields, from the sites of mass murders. Those rumors spread everywhere.
I think we must acknowledge that perhaps perpetration, not necessarily direct criminality, but perpetration begins much earlier and in more subtle ways.
How reticent were the film’s subjects to speak with you? Was there openness or were they less inclined to explore their own culpability after so many years?
Pope: There were many potential interviewees who decided they did not want to revisit the past. However, we found many who welcomed the opportunity. There were some who wanted to share, but perhaps didn’t want to explore their own personal history.
It was interesting seeing how we always started off with childhood, when things were sort of innocent, and then they could then build. It was a matter of following those threads, allowing them to construct their past before you. Luke, being as well-researched as possible, was able to pull on those little threads.
In the film, a German medic states pointedly, “What is not in the archives does not exist.” The Germans were notoriously meticulous in their accounting, so for me that notion is chilling. How will “Final Account” bring to light some of what had been previously buried?
Smith: The missing story has been that of those who committed the crimes, and I think the genius of “Final Account” is the fact that it gives us a gateway into understanding what the process was for individuals who became a part of a criminal organization, and how they lived their lives.
It also gives us the entry point to the archive as a whole. We see the complexity, we see the deception, we see the disingenuous behavior, but we also get a sense of how things happened, who they became, and how it was possible.
There’s another clip — not in the film but on our website — of a policeman guiding traffic while Jews are walking by and going to the train station. Here’s this guy who wasn’t putting the Jews on the train but has becomes this eyewitness to history. It’s not from the Jewish perspective of being taken to the train station. He’s a German witness. That helps us defeat denial.
A survey done last year by the Claims Conference found that there was a disturbing lack of Holocaust knowledge among Millennials and Gen Z. How do you hope “Final Account” reaches those with little awareness of the war or genocide?
Smith: I believe when teaching about the Holocaust, knowledge is not the only indicator. Do these young people know about Hiroshima, or how many African slaves were brought to America, or what the Jim Crow laws were?
I think you have to test all of those things to see whether or not the issue is in terms of historical knowledge. I think it’s best taught with context, which is why the USC Shoah Foundation is involved in this film — to provide context that allows someone to explore this safely. But I think it’s extremely instructive to be able to show that if this can happen in Germany, it can happen anywhere. So, let’s learn those lessons while we can.
Pope: For younger audiences, this history can feel far removed. What I hope this film accomplishes is that it encourages people to ask the question of, “When do I become a perpetrator?” “Have I become one in my own way?” “How do I spot those warning signs?”
I don’t expect anyone to have those answers right away, but to at least have that thought bubbling is hugely important.