It is difficult to understand how conspiracy theories can create hatred directed at individuals and an entire people, but we are witnessing the same thing today.
It has been 80 years since the Jews in Norway were arrested and sent to Auschwitz – the country’s biggest crime during World War II.
The Norwegian Broadcasting Corporations’s (NRK) documentary series Last: Jøder (Cargo: Jews) presents a good picture of the atrocities that took place and which, in the case of Trondheim, is reinforced by Trondheim journalist Geir Svardal’s book about a 13-year old Trondheim girl, Cissi Klein, who was transported to Auschwitz. Highlighting individuals helps us form a personal relationship with the events that occurred.
A quote by Hannah Arendt perhaps best describes the powerful story of the train arriving at Auschwitz: “Genuine evil makes us dumb, it leaves us horrified and helpless with a single thought in our heads: This should never have happened.” It is indescribable.
I would like to highlight one aspect that is less prominent in the NRK series, and which I have observed through my work on a book about the Trondheim SS commander Gerhard Flesch: the intense hatred and contempt that Jews faced after they were arrested in the autumn of 1942 – both at Berg concentration camp outside Tønsberg municipality and at the Falstad concentration camp in the village of Ekne. Falstad was a labour camp, a transit camp and a death camp.
I believe this part of the story – of the hatred that led to extreme prisoner mistreatment and humiliation until they were deported – is also important. Hitler’s conspiracy theories created a rage that was given full vent the moment the Jews were locked up.
The Jews were not only sent on their way to the gas chambers in Auschwitz, but were to be punished on the way there. This became clear in the trial against SS commander Gerhard Flesch in the autumn of 1946, both through questioning and testimony.
I have “followed” Flesch from his birth in 1909 until he was executed in 1948, and it was only during his stay in Bergen that his deep hatred of Jews came to light. After the Gestapo had stopped a planned escape across the North Sea in March 1941, Flesch had Herman Steinfeld arrested.
The arrest was the start of abuse that led Steinfeld into a deep psychosis where he completely lost contact with the world around him. Flesch participated personally in the abuse, which had nothing to do with questioning. It was pure harassment, perpetrated by a person with absolute power. The worst methods were used.
We see some of the same treatment after Flesch came to Trondheim in the autumn of 1941. He immediately launched a vendetta against the Jews in the city. Four people were executed for a minor offence, and Jewish families were systematically evicted from their homes.
Everything came to a head when he arrested male Jews on 6 October 1942 and sent them to Falstad. The prison guards had been given the green light to carry out extensive abuse, at which Flesch was often present. He operated on his own, guided by his strong feelings that the Jews were to be punished.
Survivors spoke in courtroom
In the courtroom, those who survived spoke about their experiences in Falstad concentration camp. An example that made a strong impression on me was Leif Klein’s story about marching up to the quarry. Along the way, the Jewish prisoners had to lie down in a stream so that the Germans and other prisoners could get across without getting their feet wet.
Jews were dehumanized, blamed for Germany losing World War I and accused of a worldwide conspiracy. This created a rage that was fuelled by societal anti-Semitism.
The Jewish prisoners had to put their heads under water until the others had crossed. It was humiliation both for those who lay in the stream and the prisoners who had to trample them.
The time at Falstad was particularly hard on 73-year-old Aron Mendelsohn from Trondheim. One day when he had to report to the camp commandant, he forgot to announce himself by saying, “Jew Mendelsohn requests entry.” The punishment was harsh. He was beaten senseless before being thrown into a dark cell for three days. His body was broken and he could not use his arms for several months.
The background for the hatred was that the Jews were dehumanized, blamed for Germany losing World War I and accused of a worldwide conspiracy. This created a rage that was fuelled by societal anti-Semitism. The Nazi ideology was so all-encompassing that it affected the moral identity of the Germans.
According to Hitler, Germany’s existence was at stake and Germans had to defend themselves in order to survive. The result was that the SS started a “crusade” against the Jews; they were fighting a “holy war.” And at Falstad, the Jewish prisoners had to pay the price.
Difficult to understand conspiracy theories
It is difficult to understand how conspiracy theories can create a hatred that is directed both at individuals and an entire people, but we are witnessing the same behaviour today.
Putin appears to be trying to copy Hitler and create emotional support for his fight against Ukraine.
Those who stormed the US Congress on 6 January 1921 held a fanatical belief that they had been duped by corrupt politicians. The perpetrator who attacked the husband of Nancy Pelosi wanted to force her to confirm that the insurrectionists were right.
Putin is telling the Russians that they are facing an existential battle against the West and the “Nazis” in the neighbouring country. He appears to be trying to copy Hitler and create emotional support for his fight against Ukraine.
Flesch was convicted of having ordered the mistreatment of the Jewish prisoners at Falstad, but otherwise the fate of the Jews did not weigh heavily in his trial. He was not prosecuted for having confiscated the Jews’ property nor for having participated in the Holocaust in the autumn of 1942.
The verdict would probably have been the same, but for the Jewish community it would have been important to make visible who was responsible for 72 Jews from Trondheim being sent to Auschwitz on the MS Gotenland on 27 February 1943.
Tor Busch is professor emeritus at NTNU and author of the books Motstandskamp fra Trondheim (2019, Resistance from Trondheim) and Krigsforbryteren (2022, The War Criminal).
This Viewpoint article also appeared in the regional Norwegian newspaper Adresseavisen.