Normal People: Israel Horovitz' Lebensraum and “Ordinary Germans.” by Ian Thal
"Every single one of us in this room has had someone in each of our families who we loved, deeply, who directly participated in the slaughter of six million Jews." (Lebensraum, Israel Horovitz. p. 25.)
"No significant aspect of German society [between 1933 and 1945] was untouched by anti-Jewish policy; from the economy, to society, to politics, to to culture, from cattle-farmers, to merchants, to the organization of small towns, to lawyers, doctors, physicists, and professors. No analysis of German society, no understanding or characterization of it, can be made without placing the persecution and extermination of Jews at its center[....] Hundreds of thousands of Germans contributed to the genocide and the still larger system of subjugation that was the vast concentration camp system[....] No other policy (of similar or greater scope) was carried out with more persistence or zeal, and with fewer difficulties, than the genocide, except perhaps the war itself. The Holocaust defines not only the history of Jews during the middle of the twentieth century but also the history of Germans."
(Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. p. 8.)
One of the key themes of Lebensraum is role that individuals have in determining the future. Ultimately, they choose whether to love, hate, forgive, take vengeance. They may be predisposed to make one choice over another, but ultimately, it's not a choice made for them.
By coincidence, as Horovitz was writing the play we are currently working on (the introduction is dated to 1997) the historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen had just published his groundbreaking book Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.
The Holocaust is the single most well-documented atrocity in human history -- in part because the perpetrators were meticulous record keepers. In a lecture I once attended, the architectural historian Robert Van Pelt described the Auschwitz concentration camps as the best documented architectural project in history. While there are many aspects of the Holocaust that have not yet or only recently been addressed in detail, such as histories of specific camps, specific regions, specific individuals, it is rare that a work actually is groundbreaking.
Previous histories had focused on the planning and implementation of the Holocaust: the bureaucratic problem solving, the role that institutions played, the deeds and words of the leaders, and the ideology that motivated them. Little attention had ever been given to the actual perpetrators: what motivated them? How willing, how committed was their participation?
In short, historians have a general consensus as to what happened, how it happened, maybe even why it happened, but no one had seriously asked how "normal people" had become perpetrators. Without perpetrators, the Holocaust could not have happened.
"Few have neglected to provide for themselves an answer to the question, an answer that necessarily derives usually not from any intimate knowledge of the perpetrators and their deeds, but greatly from the individual's conception of human nature and social life." (Goldhagen, p. 5.)
These conceptions range from the notion that Hitler was so charismatic a leader that Germans (and Goldhagen notes that "these people were overwhelmingly and most importantly Germans" (p.6.)) could not help but obey, or that the perpetrators would themselves be killed if they did not obey (a notion that does not hold up to scrutiny, since there isn't a single instance of someone being killed for not engaging in an atrocity) to blind obedience to authority, to, most famously, Hannah Arendt's conception of "the banality of evil" which she offered as an explanation for Adolf Eichmann-- though it turned out that Arendt was wrong about Eichmann, rather than being a banal bureaucrat with no real anti-Semitic sentiment who simply following orders to make sure trains ran on time, the real Eichmann was an enthusiastic anti-Semite.
"The fixation on the mass killing to the exclusion of the other related actions of the perpetrators has lead to a radical misspecification of the explanatory task. The killing should be, for all the obvious reasons, at the center of scholarly attention. Yet is is not the only aspect of the German's treatment of the Jews that demands systematic scrutiny and explanation. Not only the killing but also how the Germans killed must be explained. A killer can endeavor to render the deaths of others-- whether he thinks the killing is just or unjust--- more or less painful, both physically and emotionally[....] An explanation that can seemingly make sense of Germans putting Jews to death, but not of the manner in which they did it, is a faulty explanation." (p 16-17.)
The survivors in Horovitz' play describe not just "utilitarian" cruelties based on rank prejudice, but sadism on a systemic level: for instance, memories of gang rapes figure quite prominently.
Zylberstein's own suffering and survival is also based on the whims of others. Uta Krebs could have refrained from reporting Tante Elke's family and pretended that she didn't know that there were Jews hiding in her building (it wasn't her job to hunt Jews.) For that matter, the suggestion that she simply reported them for having fancy clothing, is not the only plausible explanation since she does not speak of her own motives: she did, after all, make a sexual overture to an eleven-year-old boy: why not let the Gestapo get rid of the witnesses?
Furthermore, Zylberstein seemed to survive simply at the whim of Major Daniel Reitz who was willing to make an exception for the son of an actor who had amused him once in an Ernst Toller play (ironically, Toller was an author who had his citizenship revoked soon after the Nazis came to power.)
"The horrific nature of the operations was, of course, not a type of action on the part of the perpetrators, but one of the conditions of their actions that might be thought to have been so revolting and off-putting that its failure to have affected the perpetrators significantly is itself in need of explanation." (p. 19.)
Goldhagen theorizes that the Germans of that era were, anthropologically speaking, radically different than their contemporaries in other western countries. Ordinary Germans were able to knowingly participate and profit from not just mass killing, but rape, torture, and mutilations of men, women and children who were, objectively speaking, no threat to them because they subscribed to a set of beliefs that educated people in other countries would likely have regarded irrational, if not insane. Consequently, Goldhagen regards any theory that attempts to explain the perpetrators of the Holocaust without taking that into account, as explaining nothing.
Of course, Goldhagen is not a character in Horovitz' play.
However, given that it was "ordinary Germans" or "normal people" who perpetrated the Holocaust, the thesis presented by Zev Golem or Rifka Borenstein that, "I and many, many others believe this project is neo-Nazi based... designed to complete Hitler's mission: the elimination of world Jewry," or "If you think they do not plan to slaughter six-million more Jews,you are insane! They are Germans! They are born to kill Jews! They are defined by killing Jews!" (pp. 45-46) while objectively untrue both in contemporary early 21st century Germany and in the world of the play, it's an error based not in irrational hatred but in a categorical error: much as the Germans of the first half of the 20th century were not like Americans of the same era; the Germans of that era are not like the Germans of today.