Posts Tagged With: nazi germany

Ordinary Men

Browning Ordinary Men

Browning, Christopher. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998.

With this book, Christopher Browning has written a remarkable and chilling chapter of Holocaust history. In this microhistory, he seeks to understand how ordinary men from Hamburg, most of whom were not even ardent Nazi Party supporters, became mass murderers within months of being shipped to Poland. Browning uses interviews and archival material to recreate, in vivid and bloody detail, daily life for these five hundred men, and ends his book by trying to tease out the psychological reasons that many of these men became increasingly efficient killers.

Browning uses footage from about 250 interviews that were performed as interrogations during the 1960s. In these interrogations, Reserve Police Battalion 101 members provided detailed accounts of what happened during the two years following their arrival in German-occupied Poland in June 1942. Browning is forthright about his research methods, highlighting the troubles of relying on oral histories, especially ones that were performed twenty-five years after the events in question. But, Ordinary Men also reveals the importance of oral history interviews in reconstructing stories that were (often purposefully) not written down. Browning uses the interview tapes judiciously, checking them against the available archival material to help construct a well-written narrative.

Using this evidence, Browning is able to show how the five hundred men of RPB 101 ultimately shot to death at least 38,000 Jews, including women, children, and the elderly. In addition to those individuals who were round up and shot, the RPB 101 ended up sending over 45,000 Jews to the Treblinka death camp (142). Browning constantly reminds readers that these five hundred men were not members of the SS, who were preened from an early age to carry out the so-called Final Solution to the Jewish Problem. Instead, these men were middle-aged, working class men who were either too old to enlist in the Germany army, or who volunteered in the RPB to avoid being conscripted into the army. Moreover, Browning demonstrates that the majority of the men did not join the Nazi Party until it became essentially compulsory after the Nazis had already taken power (48). This partly backs up his argument that propaganda or indoctrination can’t fully explain why these men turned into mass murderers. The violent story begins in July 1942 when Major Wilhelm Trapp informed his men that they were to shoot all inhabitants of a neighboring village. Surprisingly, Trapp gave his men the option to walk away without any punishment; only ten to fifteen percent took Trapp’s offer. The rest began a killing spree that would last eighteen months and become central to the Nazis’ final solution.

Interesting is Browning’s discussion of why more of Trapp’s men did not walk away that July morning. Browning dismisses the “bureaucratization of violence” explanation, because these men were not desk murders located in a distant office (36). Additionally, evidence shows that men were not punished by superiors for refusing to murder unarmed civilians, so the “chain of command” argument is also inadequate (170). Instead, a combination of peer pressure (not wanting to appear weak, unpatriotic, or unmanly) and, to a lesser extent, Nazi ideological bombardment led about forty percent of RPB 101’s men to continue killing unarmed Jews until the bitter end (189), while the rest either left the battalion or disappeared when it came time to go on more “Jew hunts.” Browning concludes that brutalization was not the cause but the effect of these men’s behavior” as murder became routine (161). The book leaves us with a chilling question:  “If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?” (189)

For more books on modern German history and the history of the Holocaust, see my full list of book reviews here. 

Advertisements
Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Origins of Nazi Genocide

Friedlander - origins of genocide

Friedlander, Henry. The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

 

Friedlander seeks to further our understanding of the Nazis’ systematic murder of those individuals that the regime labeled as “life unworthy of life,” by studying the origins of the infamous “Final Solution.” In doing so, he reveals that Jews were not the only group that the Nazis singled out for systematic murder and eventual extermination. The book also reveals insights into how these killing campaigns began and ultimately unfolded into large-scale death camps in the east.

Central to Friendlander’s argument is the fact that while the Nazis targeted a wide range of people, only three groups were targeted as racial enemies of the Volksgemeinschaft: the disabled, Gypsies (Roma & Sinti), and Jews. Scientific thought of the age – like eugenics – posited the threat of these three groups as biological, and thus irreversible. Despite the central role of Jews in our understanding of the Holocaust, Freidlander shows that the first group to be systematically murdered was the handicapped. Hitler authorized the T4 program (the code name for the execution of the handicapped, euphemistically called “euthanasia”) in October 1939. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Friedlaner’s description of the program is his account of the doctors, nurses, and scientists who volunteered for these positions as murderers; it is simply horrifying. Moreover, these medical workers were not fervent Nazis. “The perpetrators were dull and uninteresting men and women,” he claims, who volunteered either out of ideological conviction to eugenic thought, or out of professional aspirations of promotion (187). The T4 program was publically ended in 1941 after protests from victims’ families, but Friedlander reveals that the murder of handicapped adults secretly resumed within months, while the killing of “unfit” children never stopped. This public opposition taught the killers a lesson: any further euthanizing would have to be kept top secret, and would best be done outside of Germany. Thus, once the Wehrmacht conquered territory in the east, death camps were constructed only outside of the German heartland.

In this way, Friedlander links the euthanasia program directly to the Final Solution. The T4 program taught scientists, doctors, administrators, and Nazi ideologues the best ways to murder people (the gas chamber was first used in the T4 program) and the best ways to hide it from the public. Through meticulous research, he reveals that many of the T4 staffers left their institutions in Germany to staff the new, larger killing centers being constructed in the east. Their knowledge was indispensible for the success of death camps (it was more efficient to bring victims to the killing centers than to have mobile killing centers go to them, for example, 286).

Friedlander is also interested in the role Hitler himself played in all of this. While we have the official order to begin the T4 program, no paper trail leading from Auschwitz to Hitler has ever been found. Friedlander supposes that this is because Hitler had learned his lesson with the public resistance to the euthanasia program. From that point on, an order of such magnitude would have only been given orally (284-5).

Lastly, Friedlander firmly demonstrates that the Final Solution was the result of structural radicalization, and not the implementation of a pre-ordained plan. While the murder of the handicapped began in 1940, the official order for Jews and Gypsies was still deportation. “But when international conditions and the progress of the war made a more radical solution possible, the killings were expanded to include Jews” and Gypsies (21). By that point, thousands of German men and women had “developed their killing technique” through the “systematic and secret execution” of Germany’s handicapped population (22). In this light, Friedlander’s greatest contribution is drawing the direct connection between eugenic thought, euthanasia programs, and the more famous death camps and firing squads of the Final Solution.

For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews here. 

Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Destruction of the European Jews

Hilberg - Destruction of Jews

Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. With a new postscript by the author. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1979.

 

The result of twelve years of research, this book is an important work for understanding the Nazis’ infamous “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” But, as Hilberg makes perfectly clear in his preface, despite the title, this book is not a piece of Jewish history. Instead, readers should understand that this is a work of German history. He writes, “let it be pointed out that this is not a book about the Jews. It is a book about the people who destroyed the Jews…The focus is placed on the perpetrators” (v). As such, we learn the gradual radicalization of the Nazis’ plans to create a Jew-free Europe. Because it’s based on a wide range of Third Reich documents, this book opened up a vast source of information for English-speaking scholars to study this period of history.

Hilberg begins by situating the Nazi persecution of Jews into a larger, Western context. In fact, he places this persecution into a Christian tradition that dates back to the fourth century. Since that time, he argues, there have been three anti-Jewish policies in the Western world: “conversion, expulsion, and annihilation” (3). Ultimately, what makes the “Final Solution” unique in history is its scale: the sheer magnitude of the operation and the extreme totality of its goals. Otherwise, Hilberg states, “we discover that most of what happened in those twelve years had already happened before. The Nazi destruction process did not come out of a void” (3).

Hilberg then studies, in minute detail, the three steps of the destruction process. The first was a matter of defining exactly who should be classified as a Jew (43). Science played a crucial role in helping Nazis label Europe’s Jews. But Hilber’g book also reveals how these scientific (and legal) definitions of Jewishness could also cause problems for the bureaucracy intent on getting rid of Jews within its jurisdiction. Some Nazi officials, like Ministerialrat Bernhard Lösener were able to use the ambiguous term Mischling (mixling) to appropriate some Jews as predominantly German, thus saving their lives (272). The second step of destruction was the expropriation of Jewish land and wealth. Meticulous research reveals how the German bureaucracy maneuvered property taxes, wage regulation, and “Aryanization” of German profession campaigns. The third, and most gruesome stage was the actual destruction of the Jews themselves. Hilberg provides disturbing details about the industrialized, “conveyer belt” efficiency with which the Nazi killing centers ran (624-629).

This study can be placed in the “functionalist” camp in the debate about the ultimate aims of the Nazis regarding the Jews. Hilberg shows that as time went on, Nazi ambition changed. It was no loner feasible to continue pushing Jews eastwards since the war aims became to conquer that same land for Lebensraum. The most famous death camp, Auschwitz, was first built as a labor camp and only later equipped with gas chambers (574). Even the method of gassing went through evolutions: carbon monoxide was eventually replaced by the more efficient Zyklon B, even though it was more expensive (568, 628). Ultimately, Hilberg concludes that the focus of Nazi visions shifted from creation (of an Aryan race) to more closely focusing on destruction (of the Jews) to fulfill that vision.

Ultimately, I question his conclusions about the role of Jews in the process. They appear throughout the book as passive victims, marching to their own doom. Hilberg claims that this has been a historical tactic used by Jews to alleviate the persecution of their people (17). “In two thousand years they had deliberately unlearned the art of revolt,” he states (624). The outcome of this argument is as clear as it is questionable: “The Jewish community, unable to switch to resistance, increased its co-operation with the tempo of the German measures, thus hastening its own destruction” (17).

Hilberg’s book is an excellent source for encyclopedic knowledge. I learned several things that, even after studying this period for the past eight years, I didn’t know. And I think he pretty adequately shows that the Holocaust was the result of a process of radicalization. While it was Hitler’s vision all along to control a Jew-free Europe, Hilberg shows that this didn’t always mean killing all Jews. Only by 1941 did Nazi leadership come up with the “final solution.”  However, as I mentioned before, I do find Hilber’s conclusions about the level of Jewish complicity in their own destruction troubling to say the least.  But, perhaps this is a result of the fact that he chose to focus his study solely on the perpetrators.

For more books on modern German history and the history of the Holocaust, see my full list of book reviews here. 

Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

The Hitler State

Broszat Hitler State

Broszat, Martin.  The Hitler State: The Foundation and Development of the Internal Structure of the Third Reich.  Trans. John W. Hiden.  London: Longman, 1981.

Originally published in 1969, Broszat’s Der Staat Hitlers was one of the first works to take a structuralist approach to the Third Reich.  In other words, he sought to uncover the deeper forces behind the regime rather than provide a more biographical overview of the key political players.  As such, Broszat’s book is not structured like a synthesis or textbook that provides a chronological account of events.  Instead, the study is an examination of how power and authority were structured and exercised in Nazi Germany.

Broszat’s main goal is to reevaluate the view of the Nazi state as one in which it exercised complete, systematic, and standardized control over its nation.  The picture of the Third Reich that Broszat paints is one full of complex and overlapping governmental and party structures that were often competing against one another.  There was often tension between Reich ministries and the Länder organizations, between German state offices and Nazi party organs, and most often between different bureaucrats themselves.  Broszat pinpoints Hitler as the reason behind this structure in which power existed not as flowing hierarchically from the top down, but as coexisting simultaneously in different spheres.  Hitler, Broszat argues, demanded full authority in his position as Führer, but was skeptical of establishing a standardized, or rationalized, system of authority below him.  Personal loyalty to him was paramount, but beyond that, Hitler allowed for personal and organizational competition among his underlings.  This helped to assure that no significant amount of power would be collected by one office or individual outside of the Führer.

Broszat’s study focuses on the period between the seizure of power in 1933 and the preparation for war in 1939, and as he demonstrates, this is a period in which there still existed an uneasy relationship between the older conservative tradition and the radical dynamism of Nazism.  In the initial months of 1933, Nazi officials instituted a number of radical policies including purges and the construction of concentration camps.  But because the more traditional conservative forces had apprehensions about such actions – and Hitler still needed their influence, particularly with forming alliances with Germany’s heavy industry for the coming rearming mission – Hitler put a stop to the violence, thus returning to more conventional modes of governing by the end of 1933.  In 1937 and 1938, the gap between old elites and Nazi leaders widened as Nazis began ousting conservatives from the government and formulating more aggressive foreign policies in what Broszat refers to as the “second revolution” of the Nazi regime (354).

This unequal distribution of power, which was largely defined by one’s personal connection to Hitler, fueled a Darwinian competition that led to the creation of personal empires within the Third Reich (like Himmler’s death camp system).  In a functionalist vein, Broszat argues that this struggle for power forced people to develop new ways of exercising power.  With the lack of rationalized chains of command, it was left up to subordinates to figure out ways to turn Hitler’s visions into realities. In addition to allowing Hitler to stand alone above – and perhaps beyond – the system, “the “polycracy” of individual office holders…ultimately led to a proliferation of arbitrary decisions and acts of violence” (xi).  Therefore, the National Socialists did not come to the table in 1933 with the blue prints for the Holocaust as a secret goal; instead, the de-centralized and revolutionary power structure of the Nazi state led to the radicalization of goals and to extremism that murdered millions of people.

For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews. 

Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Backing Hitler

Backing Hitler

Gellately, Robert.  Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

 

In Backing Hitler, Gellately completely reevaluates the role that the German population played in the establishment and maintenance of the Nazi dictatorship.  Moreover, he seeks to answer the problematic question of just how much the Germans knew of the Nazis’ more heinous policies.  He provocatively argues that not only did most Germans know that their country had a Secret Police and a concentration camp system, but that they supported (or at least took pride in) the government’s heavy-handed war against those “who were regarded as ‘outsiders,’ ‘asocials,’ ‘useless eaters,’ or ‘criminals’” (vii).  The Nazi regime that emerges from Gellately’s story is not one that enforced uniform terror on everyone with no regard for popular opinion; instead, we learn of a state obsessed with finding out what its “Aryan” people thought of it.  Consequently, the Third Reich was as dependent on the Volk’s consent to function as it was on forced coercion.

Central to Gellately’s argument is the observation that “Hitler wanted to create a dictatorship, but he also wanted the support of the people” (1).  Therefore, Nazi leaders had to keep the Aryan core of the utopian Volksgemeinschaft in mind when establishing the networks of state power.  In order to tap into the power of the people, Nazis capitalized on the widespread desire to return to a more stable, traditional German society, a society that the liberal, democratic Weimar Republic had destroyed.  The Nazis, then, did not try to hide the fact that they used violence and coercion in dealing with their enemies (portrayed as enemies of the German people).  Initially, Communists were targeted, arrested, and thrown into the new network of concentration camps.  What may be surprising to readers is the fact that these concentration camps were not kept a secret either.  The opening of the famous Dachau concentration camp in 1933, for example, was announced with front-page headlines (51). Gellately argues that even if Germans did not agree with the stories of excessive violence associated with the concentration camps, they did not protest because “most of the coercion and terror was used against…social groups for whom the people had little sympathy” (2).

Gellately traces distinct phases of consent for Hitler and Nazism.  The first phase was when the Nazi government was able to provide tangible results: a recovered economy and a drop in the crime rate (1933-1938).  The second phase began with the start of the war and lasted until 1944, and was one in which Germans increasingly consented to the implementation of “police justice,” or the ‘preventative’ use of force against even potential criminals, outside of the jurisdiction of the courts.  During this time, the concentration camp inmates became an integral part of daily life as they were marched to and from factories to work for the German war effort.

The book is most concerned with the level of popular knowledge of and consent for the Nazis’ violent and authoritarian methods.  Gellately concludes that the regime made sure its secret police wasn’t much of a secret at all.  The media was used not as a way to simply “brainwash” Germans, but to present the regime’s violence as taking a firm stance against crime and undesirables, thus forging a harmonious “racial community of the people.”  The Nazi surveillance state encouraged citizens to join the cause and denounce anyone who was an enemy of the people.  In fact, 50% of all recorded denunciations came from everyday citizens, even if the motives for these denunciations were selfish.  In conclusion, Gellately states, “On balance, the coercive practices, the repression, and persecution won far more support for the dictatorship than they lost” (259).

 

For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews here.

Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ian Kershaw’s Hitler Biography

Kershaw Hitler

 

Kershaw, Ian.  Hitler: 1889-1936, Hubris.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.  And Hitler: 1936 – 1945, Nemesis. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Ian Kershaw’s biography of Adolf Hitler has, in the last decade, come to stand as perhaps the definitive account of the Führer’s life.  This two-volume biography seeks to put Hitler in his appropriate historical context, and as such can also be seen as a history of the Third Reich rather than just a narrow biography of just Hitler himself.  Consequently, Kershaw humanizes Hitler, revealing a narcissistic man of quirks as opposed to the images of a mythical figure that have emerged, and indeed, that the Nazis themselves promulgated.

After very quickly outlining Hitler’s birth and early years, Volume 1 (1889-1936, Hubris) turns to Hitler’s time in Vienna.  He demonstrates that while Hitler retrospectively overemphasized how he had crystalized his worldview during those years, “there can be no doubting that the Vienna ‘schooling’ did indeed stamp its lasting imprint on his development” (30).  Of greater consequence was the impact on Hitler’s worldview of the First World War.  Kershaw then adds that the doctrine of Lebensraum wasn’t incorporated until years later, so that Hitler’s worldview can only be regarded as fully formed starting in the mid-1920s.

When dealing with the Nazi Machtergreifung (seizure of power), Kershaw attributes the National Socialists’ takeover more to the failure of others than to the Nazis’ own political maneuvering.  Democrats didn’t do enough to stop the eroding of the republic in the first place, and the conservatives who helped place Hitler in power seriously underestimated him.  In January 1933, Franz von Papen dismisses reservations over Hitler’s chancellorship, stating, “We’ve hired him” (421).  Such sentiments could not have been more wrong.

Kershaw’s account highlights the emergence of the Hitler cult and the impact that this adoration had on Hitler’s own self-image.  Seeing the widespread support from the German people, Kershaw argues, gave Hitler self-confidence.  But the Hitler cult was also largely self-fashioned through political theatrics.  “He was above all a consummate actor,” Kershaw writes (280).  The adoring crowds only saw the image of the Führer that Hitler and Goebbels wanted them to see.  The political successes of the early 1930s epitomized by the reoccupation of the German Rhineland in 1936 turned Hitler’s egomania into destructive hubris.

Volume 2 (1936-1945, Nemesis) focuses on the radicalization of the Nazi regime, especially during the war years.  Central to this volume is Hitler’s role in the Holocaust.  Nemesis – and indeed, both volumes as a whole – represents a middle ground in the “intentionalist” (the Holocaust was Hitler’s intention from the start) versus “functionalist” (the Holocaust was the result of a slow but steady radicalization of policies) debate.  Kershaw demonstrates that Hitler was indeed a powerful dictator who set the overall goals for the Nazis, including his “prophecy” of 1939 that if the Jews started another world war they would be annihilated.  But Kershaw also shows that the concept of “working towards the Führer” meant that Hitler’s subordinates did not need specific orders for how to carry out their leader’s vision.  Therefore, while the how may not have been planned from the beginning, Kershaw argues that genocide was “central, not peripheral, to what had been deliberately designed as a “war of annihilation”” (461).

In conclusion, the focus of Kershaw’s books is “not upon the personality of Hitler, but squarely and directly upon the character of his power – the power of the Führer” (Vol. 1, xxvi).  In this light, he studies the structures that allowed Hitler to achieve such power.  But, this biography also shows that “without Hitler and the unique regime he headed, the creation of a program to bring about the physical extermination of the Jews in Europe would have been unthinkable” (Vol. 2, 495).

For more books on the history of modern Germany, see my full list of book reviews. 

Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com.