Cover image of Never Again: Germans and Genocide after the Holocaust by Andrew I. Port, struck-through text on yellow background

Image: Never Again: Germans and Genocide after the Holocaust by Andrew I. Port (The Belknap Press, 2023)

In the fall of 1976, Walther Freiherr Marschall von Bieberstein, a West German diplomat who headed the Foreign Office’s Department of International Law, sent an irate letter to Jürgen Wohlrabe, a prominent member of the Christian Democrats in Berlin. The Khmer Rouge had turned Cambodia into a “giant concentration camp,” the diplomat fumed, and its leaders “hardly differed” from those who had run Auschwitz—a word and place long synonymous with the industrial mass murder of the Jews. Marschall von Bieberstein, a trained jurist descended from one of Germany’s oldest noble families, had some familiarity with the country. After diplomatic ties between the Federal Republic and Cambodia had officially ended in 1969, he served as Bonn’s representative in Phnom Penh, a position he held until 1974.

The timing of the letter was no accident. Accusations of genocide had first surfaced in the West German media several months earlier in April 1976, on the first anniversary of the Khmer Rouge’s victory in Cambodia. But it was not until 1979 that the use of language with clear genocidal connotations connected to the Third Reich first became widespread. The sudden shift in language, which included the first use of the term holocaust, was also no accident. It was no doubt tied to two seemingly unrelated events that had taken place at the start of the year: the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge on January 7, and the airing on West German television two weeks later of the popular American miniseries Holocaust, a dramatized account of the Nazi genocide from the perspectives of a Jewish family and an “Aryan” one. Just weeks before the broadcast, on December 25, 1978, a group of disaffected Khmer Rouge leaders backed by Vietnamese armed forces had invaded Cambodia. This marked the culmination of two developments: long-simmering ideological and territorial tensions between the two neighboring communist countries, and an ongoing, bloody crackdown on dissenters within the Khmer Rouge. The invading forces captured the capital city in the first week of January, and the Khmer Rouge fled to the western part of the country. From there, they would fight an insurgency for the next decade and a half against the new Cambodian regime headed by former Khmer Rouge cadre Heng Samrin (and later by Hun Sen, another former Khmer Rouge military commander).

That was not the big story that month in the Federal Republic, however. The media were mainly abuzz about Holocaust, which had first aired in the United States eight months earlier. Nearly half of West Germany’s adult population watched the miniseries in late January, with some twenty million people viewing at least one of the four episodes—despite the withering criticism of West German pundits from across the political spectrum, who dismissed the program as the typical melodramatic fare of commercialized American popular culture: a manipulative soap opera that trivialized and profited financially from past suffering.

Whatever its stylistic or pedagogical demerits, Holocaust marked an important shift in the way West Germans related to the Nazi genocide of the European Jews. They did not suddenly “discover” the Final Solution in January 1979, of course. Marschall von Bieberstein’s letter from 1976, and its invocation of Auschwitz, make that clear. But it brought about a “new level of awareness,” a more emotional and personal connection to something now seen as the seminal event of the twentieth century—the measure of all evil and the essence of Germany’s recent past.

The broadcast of the American miniseries marked the beginning of a new approach to history in the Federal Republic, one characterized by a greater focus on victims, especially Jewish ones, and on the experiences of ordinary individuals; by a “boom” in the study of memory; and, last but not least, by a greater sense of “moral responsibility” for past crimes committed in the name of Germans and Germany. Another consequence was a more popularized, more emotional, more commercialized treatment of history, which eventually brought in its wake a slew of public memorials, museums, and exhibitions—many focused on the genocide of the Jews. At the same time, the discussion provoked by the miniseries ushered in a dramatic increase in public education about the Final Solution, which now began to attract the attention of professional West German historians to a much greater degree than ever before. This was, in short, the moment in the history of the Federal Republic when the holocaust became the Holocaust.

This is a familiar narrative about how West Germans began to cope in new ways with their country’s fraught past. Less well recognized is the impact the miniseries had on West (and East) German responses to the more recent genocide in Cambodia—especially as the new rulers in Phnom Penh released details and evidence of the ghastly atrocities committed there between 1975 and 1979, confirming the earlier reports that had met with so much skepticism. By the winter of 1979, even the highly skeptical Frankfurter Rundschau acknowledged the “terrible truth,” namely, that the Khmer Rouge had “on their conscience” the deaths of at least two million Cambodians, and “likely more.” When Prime Minister Moraji Desai of India told Helmut Schmidt at a meeting in June 1979 that the now deposed Khmer Rouge had murdered between one and a half and three million people, the chancellor gasped that it was a “disgrace” for humanity.

Stories about individual victims put a more human, if not humane, face on such numbing numbers. These included a harrowing chronicle that appeared in Der Spiegel in March 1980. Reminiscent of the recent American television miniseries, it recounted the experiences of a single Cambodian family, the Keats, under the Khmer Rouge. The magazine’s editors described the two-part report, written on-site near a refugee camp in Thailand by investigative journalist Ariane Barth, as a “lament and accusation.” The first installment was accompanied by a two-page family tree titled “Cambodia: Fate of a Family,” which provided a visual and almost visceral sense of the extent to which the family had been decimated. More than half the eighty-four names were printed in black to indicate those who had perished since the spring of 1975.

Barth was in the region at the time, on vacation, when her editors asked her to do a story on the worsening refugee situation in Cambodia. She decided to find a single family whose “fate” would shed light on what had happened under the Khmer Rouge. The Holocaust miniseries had had “no influence” on her choice of topic—she had not yet seen it, she later explained—but Barth had long been interested in how “collective history was reflected in the history of an individual family.” That interest had begun in the mid-1960s, she said, during the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. In her early twenties at the time, Barth had been doing an internship with Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa), the West German news agency, and her task was to summarize the daily proceedings for the foreign press. This was when she first learned about what had happened to the Jews—the schools she attended had never addressed it—and what came to light during the trials greatly affected her. She “cried every night,” she later revealed, and the topic refused to “let [her] go.”

Shortly after her arrival in Bangkok in the winter of 1980, Barth made her way to the Thai-Cambodian border, where she wound up living for three weeks in a house rented by a group of West German aid workers. Deliberately searching for a family in which all social and political “inclinations” were present, she eventually met the Keats at the Khao I-Dang refugee camp. Barth smuggled food into the camp for them each day and wrote her article at night. She found “all the horrors” they related to her “inconceivable,” she said, so she made sure they reviewed a Khmer translation of her daily write-ups for accuracy. This partnership of sorts marked the beginning of a close personal relationship that would last for decades. Barth’s main informant in the family, an economist who had been a government official before 1975, accompanied her back to the Federal Republic with his wife and their two young children—on a flight paid for by Der Spiegel. One of Barth’s neighbors later took in other young members of the family, acting as a foster parent, and most of them remained in Germany. Most Germans did not ask them much about their experiences during the genocide, Barth ventured years later, but they were “infinitely helpful.” After all, she offered by way of explanation, they could not “rectify” their own country’s history, but they could, “by actively helping” others now, try to make up for it just “a little bit.”

Excerpted from Never Again: Germans and Genocide after the Holocaust by Andrew I. Port, published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2023 by Andrew I. Port. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Andrew I. Port teaches history at Wayne State University and is the former editor of the journal Central European History.