Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Bearing witness to civilized barbarism

Historian Richard J. Evans was moved to write his enormous, exhaustive three-volume history of the Nazi Third Reich (1933-1945) after serving as an expert in a British libel trial, attesting to the reality of the mass murder of European Jews. The third volume, The Third Reich at War, reads at times like testimony, an insistent recital of horror after horror, bearing witness to brutalities great and small, to crimes banal and grotesque. He traces the trajectory of Hitler's armies rampage through Poland, across France and Belgium, and finally toward their own destruction in the Soviet Union, and the fall of the German empire.

This is not a military history. This is a book about what Germans under Nazi leadership did and how that era was lived by Germans, both Nazis and their few surviving German victims. The story from the point of view of Hitler's military foes or of the peoples' of the lands overrun by Hitler's armies is a different one. (I've been reading some of that too and will write about it eventually.)

The pattern of war crimes was set from the German invasion of Poland in 1939:
The invading troops did not need to be convinced by political indoctrination that the enemy posed a huge threat to Germany's future; clearly the Poles did not. … From the very beginning, SS Security Service Task Forces entered the country, rounding up the politically undesirable and shooting them or sending them off to concentration camps, massacring Jews, arresting local men and sending them off to Germany as forced laborers, and engaging in a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing and brutally executed population transfers.

These actions were not confined to the SS. From the very beginning, too, Nazi Party officials, stormtroopers, civilian officials and especially junior army officers and ordinary soldiers joined in, to be followed in due course by German settlers moved into Poland from outside. Arrests, beatings and murders of Poles and especially Jews became commonplace; what was even more striking was the extent of the hatred and. contempt shown towards them by ordinary German troops, who lost no time in ritually humiliating Jews on the street, laughing and jeering as they tore off their beards and made them perform degrading acts in public.

Just as striking was the assumption of the invading and incoming Germans that the possessions of the Poles and Jews were freely available as booty. The theft and looting of Jewish property in particular by German troops was almost universal. Sometimes they were aided and abetted by local Poles. More often than not, non-Jewish Poles themselves were robbed as well. … Popular hatred and contempt for Poles, as for Ukrainians, Belarussians and Russians, and even more for 'Eastern Jews', were deeply rooted in Germany. …
People in the United States tend to be more aware of the far more limited atrocities carried out by the Gestapo in occupied France and other parts of western Europe -- that's where our troops eventually prevailed. And the Cold War ensured that eastern European events stayed opaque to us for many years. But Evans strives to reorient our awareness. World War II in Europe was won in the Soviet Union.
What happened in the Soviet Front dwarfed anything seen in France, Denmark, Norway or the Low Countries. From 22 June 1941 onwards, at least two-thirds of the German armed forces were always engaged on the Eastern Front. More people fought and died on and behind the Eastern Front than in all the other theaters of war in 1939-45 put together, including the Far East. The sheer scale of the struggle was extraordinary. So too was its bitterness and its ideological fanaticism, on both sides. It was in the end on the Eastern Front, more than any other, that the fortunes of war were decided.
And it was in eastern Europe -- in the lands that had been Poland before Germany and the Soviet Union had dismembered that country, in Soviet Ukraine, in Soviet Belorussia -- that the Nazis carried out their program of murdering all European Jews and millions of other people they considered racially disposable. Evans traces the trajectory of mass murder through mass shootings, forced labor and gassing. He always has an eye on how apparently civilized men could have taken up this task.
Men such as Hoss and Stangl [SS officers who were death camp commanders] and their subordinates tried to insulate themselves from the human dimension of what they were doing by referring to their victims as 'cargo' or 'items'. Talking to Gerhard Stabenow, the head of the SS Security Service in Warsaw, in September I942, Wilm Hosenfeld [a German military officer who helped some Poles and Jews survive though he fought to the end for the Reich] noted how the language Stabenow used distanced himself from the fact that what he was involved in was the mass murder of human beings: 'He speaks of the Jews as of ants or other vermin, of their "resettlement," that means their mass murder, as he would of the extermination of bedbugs in the disinfestation of a house.'

But at the same time such men were not immune from the human emotions they tried so hard to repress, and they remembered incidents in which individual women and children had appealed to their conscience, even if such appeals were in vain. The psychological strain that continual killing of unarmed civilians, including women and children, imposed on such men was considerable, just as it had been in the case of the SS Task Forces, whose troops had been shooting Jews in their hundreds of thousands before the first gas vans were deployed in an attempt not only to speed up the killing but also to make it somehow more impersonal.

What kept such men going was a belief that they were doing Hitler's bidding, and killing the present and future enemies of the German race. They were not faceless bureaucrats or technologists of death; nor was the killing at any level simply the product of impersonal pressures to obey superior orders or the cold pursuit of material or military advantage for the Third Reich. The careers of SS men like Eichmann, Stangl and Hoss revealed them to be hardened anti-Semites; the racial hatred of their subordinates, stoked and fueled by years of propaganda, training and indoctrination, was scarcely less extreme. Translating visceral hatred of Jews in the abstract to violent acts of mass murder in reality proved not to be difficult for them, nor for a number of the SS Security Service bureaucrats who took over the leadership of the Task Forces in the east.

Particularly in the lower ranks of the SS, but also in the regular army, Jews, when encountered individually or in small groups, frequently aroused a degree of personal, sadistic brutality, a desire to humiliate as well as destroy, that was seldom present when they dealt with ordinary Poles, Russians or other Slavs. Slav prisoners were not made to perform gymnastics or dance before they were shot, as Jews were; nor were they made to clean out latrines with their clothes or bare hands, as Jews were. Slavs were mere tools; it was the Jews who were supposedly behind the Stalin regime, who ordered the Soviet secret police to commit bestial massacres of German prisoners, who inspired the partisans to launch cruel and cowardly attacks on German troops from the rear. Rank-and-file German troops, both regular soldiers and SS men, were heavily influenced by propaganda and indoctrination and, if they were young, years of education in the school system of the Third Reich, to believe that Jews in general, and Eastern Jews in particular, were dirty, dangerous, dishonest and diseased, the enemies of all civilization.

… Abusing and humiliating Jews could also serve as a compensation for the lowly status and daily privations of the ordinary soldier. 'The best thing here,' wrote one from an occupied eastern town in May 1942, 'is that all the Jews doff their hats to us. If a Jew spots us 100m away, he already doffs his hat. If he doesn't, then we teach him to. Here you feel yourself to be a soldier, for here we rule the roost.'

Higher up the chain of command, the army often rationalized the killing of Jews as a step necessary for the maintenance of its own essential food supplies, but this claim should not be taken simply at face value. The need to feed the army and the German civilian population at home did at particular junctures create a perceived need to operate what in medical terms might be called a triage, distinguishing those thought to need food most urgently and in greatest quantities from those with a lower priority, But what put Jews at the bottom of this hierarchy was not any rationalistic calculation based on an estimate of their contribution to the economy. It derived above all from an obsessively pursued ideology that regarded the Jews not simply as the most dispensable of the inhabitants of occupied Eastern Europe, but as a positive threat to Germany in every respect, conspiring with Jews everywhere else in the world, and especially in Britain and the USA, to wage war on the Third Reich.
For all Evans' emphasis on how easily most ordinary German troops allowed themselves to be drawn into systematic cruelty and mass murder, he nonetheless keeps returning to descriptions of German civilian opinion during the war that seem not to support any such general anti-Semitism. This book does little to resolve the apparent contradiction. Here's Evans description of attitudes from the German home front:
When they forced Jews to wear the yellow star on their clothing, the better for people to identify them, many non-Jewish Germans did not react in the way that Goebbels wanted them to. Jews reported being greeted on the street with unusual politeness, people coming up to them and apologizing, or offering them a seat on the tram. … Popular reactions to the introduction of the Jewish star were overwhelmingly negative, and those who took it as the opportunity to abuse and attack Jews were in a small minority. When, not long afterwards, the police began rounding up Jews in German cities and taking them to the local railway station for deportation to the east, negative public reactions outweighed the positive ones again.
Evans thoroughly debunks the once common assertion that ordinary Germans "didn't know" what was being done by the Nazi rulers and their armies. He describes responses to unimaginable horror that seem quite insane in themselves.
…reliable and precise information could only come from an eyewitness. One of the most extraordinary of these was Kurt Gerstein, a disinfection expert in the Hygiene Institute to the Military SS. Gerstein was sent by the Reich Security Head Office in the summer of 1942 to deliver 100 kilos of Zyklon-B to Lublin for an undisclosed purpose. On 2 August 1942 he arrived in Belzec and was present as a trainload of Jews from Lvov came in, were forced to undress, and were driven by Ukrainian auxiliaries into the gas chambers, where they were told they would be disinfected. There they had to wait for two and a half hours, weeping and crying, while mechanics outside tried to get the diesel motor going. Once it started working, Gerstein noted punctiliously, it took thirty-two minutes to kill the people inside the chamber. A devout Protestant, Gerstein was shocked by what he witnessed. On the journey back from Warsaw to Berlin, he told it all to Goran von Otter, a Swedish diplomat, who reported the details in a dispatch to the Swedish Foreign Office after discreetly checking Gerstein's credentials. The dispatch languished there until the end of the war, kept secret by officials who feared it would offend the Germans.

Back in Berlin, Gerstein pestered the Papal Nuncio, the leaders of the Confessing Church and the Swiss Embassy with his story, all to no effect. Gerstein did not, however, as one might have expected, resign his post or ask for a transfer. He continued to deliver consignments of Zyklon-B to the camp, while redoubling his futile efforts to spread information about what was going on. … Arrested as an alleged war criminal [by the Americans], Gerstein hanged himself in his cell on 25 July 1945, …
Evans speculates about how carrying the knowledge of their country's criminal deeds actually kept some Germans fighting, though in a state of moral despair. The Nazi propaganda apparatus seems to exacerbated that reaction.
… if people could not be made to approve of the murder of the Jews, then perhaps their evident knowledge of it could be used to persuade them to carry on fighting for fear of what the Jews might do to them in revenge, particularly if, as Nazi propaganda claimed, the Jews were in charge of Germany's enemies: Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union.

The last two years of the war were filled with atrocity propaganda emanating from Goebbels's mass media: the Red Army in particular was portrayed, not entirely inaccurately, as hell-bent on raping and killing Germans as it advanced. Yet the effects of this were not what Goebbels intended. Far from leading to a strengthening of resolve amongst ordinary Germans, this propaganda only served to reveal deep-seated feelings of guilt that they had done nothing to prevent the Jews being killed. Such a feeling was an unexpected by-product of the continuing Christian convictions of the great majority of German citizens. … When Cologne cathedral was bombed …, people said this was in retribution for the burning of synagogues in 1938.
This entire three volume trilogy is a monumental attempt to capture an awful era. Evans has filled in thousands of details and achieved a narrative that may have blank spots, but which overwhelms this reader by its breadth and horror. Here's some of his summation; I can't do nearly as well:
As late as 1939 the great majority of Germans were hoping against hope that there would not be a general European war; and a large part of the euphoria that swept the country in the wake of the victory over France the following year expressed the relief that the traditional enemy had been defeated, and the humiliation of the 1919 Peace Settlement avenged, with what seemed to be a minimum of bloodshed. Yet Nazism was from the very beginning a creed based on violence and hatred, born of bitterness and despair. The depth and radicalism of the political, social and economic crises that assailed Germany under the Weimar Republic spawned a correspondingly deep and radical response.

…The policies that unfolded in Poland in the opening months of the war set the tone for the Nazi occupation of other parts of Eastern Europe from the middle of 1941 onwards: expropriation, forcible deportation, imprisonment, mass shootings, murder on a hitherto unimaginable scale. These policies were applied to all the people who lived in the region apart from ethnic Germans, but they were applied with particular venom to the Jews, who were subjected to sadistic and systematic humiliation and torture, ghettoization and extermination by poison gas in facilities specially built for the purpose. Other groups, mainly though in many cases not exclusively German, were also killed in large numbers: the mentally ill and handicapped, Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, 'asocials', petty criminals, the politically refractory and the socially marginal. Soviet prisoners of war were murdered in their millions, and people of many nationalities were taken forcibly to Germany and made to work and live under conditions that proved fatal for a large number of them. Some people who belonged to these other groups were, like many Jews, gassed to death; but only the Jews were singled out as the 'world enemy,' a global threat to Germany's existence that had to be exterminated wherever it was found.

… In launching a war to be fought on a European scale with the goal of world domination as the long-term aim, Hitler and the Nazis were living out the fantasies that had impelled them into politics in the first place: fantasies of a great and resurgent Germany, expunging the stain of defeat in 1918 by establishing an imperial domination on a scale the world had never seen before. These fantasies were shared to a significant degree by key parts of the German Establishment, including the civil service, the professions and the top generals in the army. Despite their doubts, they all went along with it in the end. But Germany's economic resources were never adequate to turn these fantasies into reality, not even when the resources of a large part of the rest of Europe were added to them. ...
Never again indeed.
My previous posts on the other two volumes of this history:
The Coming of the Third Reich
The Third Reich in Power


Classof65 said...

Should I read this instead of "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich"? Do they cover the same material, just up-dated by Evans? Or should I read them both? I recently got "The Rise..." for free on my Kindle, but I haven't started reading it yet.

janinsanfran said...

Hmmm -- thinking about your question, Classof65...

Shirer is the classic account, wonderfully immediate because he was in Berlin in the pre-1942 period. Evans synthesizes what historians have assembled since.

Both emphasize an awful catalog of atrocities. Shirer puts less attention on pulling the killing of the six million Jews out from the general picture of barbarity -- this was standard when he wrote.

If you do commit to Evans, try to read all three volumes. The first two build to the testimony of the third.

That's terrific that you got "Rise" for free on Kindle.