The Holocaust is a subject well-covered in documentary form, both on television and in feature films. Historian Laurence Rees knows that.
"Of course there have been a number of programs made about the subject before, not least of which ones we've made in the past," says Rees, creative director of history programs for the BBC. Indeed, he produced a BBC program 10 years ago on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp.
So why revisit the topic, and specifically Auschwitz, a decade later?
"What we believed with this project was that it was different because for the first time on television, what we're going to try to do was chart this history through the decision-making process of the Nazis," Rees says. "This was something in documentary form that had never been attempted before."
The result was "Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State," a six-hour series that aired on PBS earlier this year and was released on DVD Tuesday. With the camp at the center of the story, the documentary explores how the Nazis implemented their "Final Solution" and tries to dispel the notion that the Holocaust was the work of a small group of, as Rees puts it, "crazy people."
"A natural human response is to want to think the people involved were crazy," he says. "So it's a distancing effect, but it means we don't have anything to try and understand, because they were just crazy people. The story is not as easily dismissed as that. When you actually start unpacking the decision-making process, it's extraordinarily complex and dynamic. It's a mix of sanctions and orders coming from above with initiatives coming from below."
Much of the new research for "Auschwitz," which Rees wrote and produced (he also authored a companion book), comes from documents discovered only since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. He also says interviews with survivors and former guards were also easier to obtain without "KGB minders" looking over the subjects' shoulders.
The research helps place the crimes committed at Auschwitz in the larger context of Nazi attitudes toward the Soviet Union. Nazi propaganda equated communism and Judaism, portraying both Jews and Soviet citizens as less than human and leading to the conclusion that extermination was the only way to victory in the East.