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István Deák is one of the world's most knowledgeable and clearheaded authorities on the Second World War, and for decades his commentary has been among the most illuminating and influential contributions to the vast discourse on the politics, history, and scholarship of the period. Writing chiefly for the New York Review of Books and the New Republic, Deák has crafted review essays that cover the breadth and depth of the huge literature on this ominous moment in European history when the survival of democracy and...
István Deák is one of the world's most knowledgeable and clearheaded authorities on the Second World War, and for decades his commentary has been among the most illuminating and influential contributions to the vast discourse on the politics, history, and scholarship of the period. Writing chiefly for the New York Review of Books and the New Republic, Deák has crafted review essays that cover the breadth and depth of the huge literature on this ominous moment in European history when the survival of democracy and human decency were at stake.
Collected here for the first time, these articles chart changing reactions and analyses by the regimes and populations of Europe and reveal how postwar governments, historians, and ordinary citizens attempt to come to terms with—or to evade—the realities of the Holocaust, war, fascism, and resistance movements. They track the acts of scoundrels and the collusion of ordinary citizens in the so-called Final Solution but also show how others in authority and on the street heroically opposed the evil of the day. With its depth, conciseness, and interpretive power, this collection allows readers to consider more clearly and completely than ever before what has been said, how thought has shifted, and what we have learned about these momentous, world-changing events.
WHO WERE THE NATIONAL SOCIALISTS?
We can organize the problem of National Socialism around some major questions. First, who in Weimar voted for Hitler, and who became a party member? What made the Nazis popular, and how did they come to power? How anti-Semitic were the Germans? Was anti-Semitism the main attraction of the Nazi movement? Did the Germans uphold the Nazi proposition that the Jews should be murdered, and how much did they know about the Final Solution? Related to this last theme is another: was the Third Reich totalitarian? Was Nazism merely a theory of mass murder, and if so, were all those who supported the Nazis accomplices in murder? The ultimate question, then, is the eternal one: were Hitler's German contemporaries guilty?
Who Were the Nazis?
The Nazis and their sympathizers are carefully identified by Thomas Childers in The Nazi Voter: The Social Foundation of Fascism in Germany, 1918-1933 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983) and by Michael Kater in The Nazi Party: A Social Profile of Members and Leaders, 1919-1945 (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1983). Both books are thorough social histories, enriched—some would say weighted down—by many charts and statistical tables. Kater in particular provides a large number of tables on such themes as the growth of Nazi party membership from 1919 to 1945; "Nazi newcomers" between 1930 and 1944, in big cities, small towns, and the country; Nazi newcomers in the professions; and even "female Nazi newcomers in relation to corresponding percentages for male Nazi newcomers."
Thomas Childers, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, effectively demonstrates that in the Weimar Republic, people voted for the National Socialist Party (NSDAP), as the Nazi Party was formally known, for diverse reasons, of which anti-Semitism was but one. He undermines the engrained notion that the petty bourgeoisie were the Nazis' major support before 1933, showing that Hitler in fact was acclaimed by representatives of many different social groups. He admits, however, that the petty bourgeoisie was the group most susceptible to the cruder forms of anti-Semitism.
Childers reinforces Richard Hamilton's recent findings in Who Voted for Hitler? (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982) that the NSDAP before 1933 won many followers among the higher circles of German society, especially among university students—then, unlike today, a highly privileged and exclusive group. The Nazis were popular among civil servants and in the well-to-do suburbs of Berlin, Hamburg, and other big cities. But Hitler also secured an ever-increasing number of supporters from among factory workers. Childers demonstrates that those who voted for Hitler, especially between 1930 and 1933, were not—as is commonly held—primarily young people and freshly enfranchised youngsters in particular. On the contrary, he suggests, the party "found its greatest electoral support among groups composed of older voters." Turning to the denominational composition of the Nazi vote, Childers corroborates Hamilton's conclusion that German Catholics were far more resistant to Nazi ambitions than were Protestants, even though German National Socialism had begun in Catholic Bavaria. Throughout the Weimar years, Catholic Germans showed their preference for the moderate Zentrum Party, which, like the NSDAP or the Marxist parties, provided its followers with a well-defined belief system.
According to Childers, Nazism signified "a fundamental rejection of the social and political implications of modernization." Those who saw modern industrial society as a threat—for example, farmers, artisans, domestic servants—were more likely to cast their vote for Hitler than those, like technicians or factory workers, who were themselves a part of the industrial process. Small wonder, then, that the NSDAP appealed to women, who generally still believed in the ideals of Kinder, Küche und Kirche (Children, Kitchen, and Church). By attacking both Marxist socialism and liberal capitalism, the NSDAP appealed to the conservative instincts of its mostly Protestant small-town or rural sympathizers. To this we might add, as one of the many ironies of the situation, that Hitlerism, once in power, reneged on its earlier promises to restore bucolic rural life and continued the process of industrialization and urbanization. Moreover, it ended up conscripting millions of women for factory labor.
At the same time, Childers points out, it must be kept in mind that the Nazi electorate was volatile and diverse. After its resounding success in the parliamentary elections of July 31, 1932, in which it received 37.3 percent of the vote, the NSDAP began to decline, faring less well on November 6, 1932 (33.1 percent). At this dramatic point a number of reactionary politicians and businessmen came to the rescue of Hitler, making him chancellor in January 1933. They were mistaken, however, in their belief that they could control and guide the Nazi momentum.
Kater, a professor of history at York University in Toronto, does not contradict Childers's or Hamilton's conclusions. He is, however, a bit more cautious and does not discuss "class support" for Hitler. Instead, he carefully constructs a German society made up of three complex social layers: at the bottom, the wage earners; in the middle, tradespeople, artisans, peasants, professionals, and lower civil servants; and at the top, an elite consisting of managers, higher civil servants, academically trained professionals, entrepreneurs, and students. Nazi party members came from all three layers, but there was a considerable social difference between Nazi leaders and their followers, the social elite being strongly overrepresented in the party leadership.
One of Kater's most interesting conclusions concerns age patterns within the Nazi leadership. To put it simply, the party leaders were becoming senescent by the 1940s, and this prompts Kater to speculate what would have happened to the NSDAP had it survived the war. He suggests that its bosses would most likely have come to resemble the superannuated former revolutionary leaders of the Soviet Union and China. Would age have mellowed the Nazi bosses? Perhaps not, Kater writes, but certainly they would have become more skeptical and conservative.
Kater sees the Nazis as revolutionary levelers; they wished to create a true Volksgemeinschaft, a society without class distinctions. They failed to achieve their goal. Kater also attributes the remarkable stability of West German society since 1945 to this failure. German class structure was basically not changed by the events of 1918, or by those of 1933, or, finally, even by those of 1945.
What all of this shows is that the National Socialist movement appealed to a highly diverse cross section of German society. It attracted support from among radicals and conservatives, the young and the old, the rich, the middle class, and the poor, the well-integrated and those on the fringes of society. Still, if we were to draw some kind of composite portrait of the Nazi voter or Nazi Party member, one exhibiting the most frequently occurring characteristics, we would find that he or she was a Protestant, north or central German, living in a small town, and engaged in a "traditional" profession. That there were millions of exceptions to this portrait only shows that although some groups were more likely to cast their votes for Hitler than others, no part of German society was immune to his appeal.
Why Did They Become Nazis?
Social historians have been able to explore in detail the Nazi Party membership and the National Socialist electorate. They have much greater difficulty explaining how and why the NSDAP gained so many followers. Gordon Craig, the "Dean of German History," presents a version of the classical explanation in his stimulating book The Germans (New York: Putnam's, New American Library, 1982). According to Craig, it all began with the German Romantics. At the risk of overstating and oversimplifying a complex and elegant argument, we can perhaps sum up Craig's views as implying that Nazism would not have arisen had nineteenth-century Germans succeeded in absorbing the Enlightenment. Instead of exercising their critical faculties, they chose escapism in, to cite two of many examples, the music of Wagner and the adventure stories of Karl May—both, incidentally, favorites of Hitler. Political romanticism characterized twentieth-century Germans as well: "It impressed the educated middle class, and especially academic youth, and helped both to weaken their confidence in the democratic system and to strengthen their latent tendency to escapism. The beneficiary of [the political romantics'] work was Adolf Hitler." Despite his bitter indictment of the German intellectual tradition, Craig is very optimistic about today's Germans. He sees a sharp break after 1945, when most Germans finally awakened to reality and chose the path of rationalism. It is true, he writes, that irrationality lingers, as typified by the activities of the Baader-Meinhof gang and the Red Army faction, but in general, the age of political romanticism in Germany is over. (His book was published before the rise of the Greens.)
The left-wing English historian Simon Taylor in The Rise of Hitler: Revolution and Counter-revolution in Germany, 1919-1933 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985) has a different conception from that of Gordon Craig. His interpretation of the success of the Nazis is, however, no less familiar. In his splendidly illustrated and well-written little book he concentrates on the struggle between Social Democrats and Communists and also on the impoverishment and despair of the middle class caused by the war and inflation. While discontented Germans were numerous, Taylor explains, the economic polarization that grew out of the formation of financial and industrial cartels and the consequent weakening of free competition, provided an ideal base for Nazi recruitment among farmers, small merchants, and the lower rank of civil servants. By 1930, the center and right parties, representing the middle class, had been duped by Hitler into believing that only the Nazis could stop the rise of Bolshevism. Ultimately, then, it was disunity on the left, the fears of the middle class, and the ambitions of German capitalists that brought about the triumph of Hitler. Hence, according to Taylor, the Nazi assumption of power was dictated by interest politics, a thesis somewhat at odds not only with Craig's but also with the pluralistic argument of Childers and Kater.
In Modern Germany: Society, Economy and Politics in the Twentieth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982; second edition, 1987), V. R. Berghahn takes a position similar to Taylor's. The welfare reforms adopted by the Weimar Republic were valuable, Berghahn writes, but they did little to placate the growing trade unions. Like Taylor, he emphasizes that Germany's industry underwent a process of cartelization that squeezed out small producers. "Soon heavy industry and the working-class movement were locked in their old irreconcilable battles." It was toward these workers—according to Berghahn—that Hitler directed his early socialist propaganda. However, to his surprise, the group that responded most favorably to him was not the workers but people living in rural areas, especially the Protestant farmers of the north, who had been hard hit by rising industrial prices. From there, Hitler's appointment as chancellor, achieved through convoluted party politics, was virtually inevitable. He came to power as a result of intrigue, but he also enjoyed a broad popular base.
In the revised edition of his classic The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1922-1945 (New York: Franklin Watts, 1984), a study of Northeim in the province of Hanover-Brunswick, the American historian W. S. Allen offers yet another interpretation compatible with studies that find the Nazi electorate principally among the middle and upper classes. He demonstrates that the desire of the middle class to control the urban lower class and their political arm, the Social Democratic Party, facilitated the coming to power of the Nazis. More than anything else, he argues, the politics of Northeim became more radical in the early 1930s because of the effects of the Depression. Many then voted for the NSDAP, the party that promised everything to everyone and topped off its generous promises with an enormous dose of extreme nationalism and revanchism.
And so the debate over the causes of Hitler's triumph continues, with the different participants emphasizing aspects of social experience—romantic tendencies, religious affiliations, voting behavior, class struggle—that resist being combined into a single view or even being critically compared. The final answers still evade us. It seems unlikely we will find them unless we understand the extent of the social chaos in Germany during the early 1930s. Although it was perhaps not unlike that in many other countries, then or now, the turmoil its people suffered must have seemed all the more painful precisely because the breakdown of the social order took place in such a highly developed country.
Eve Rosenhaft's interesting but turgidly written study, Beating the Fascists? The German Communists and Political Violence, 1929-1933 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), describes the turbulent Berlin scene, one in which the Nazi Storm troopers (SA) deliberately placed its eating and sleeping quarters in the "Red" districts of the capital and there fought its deadly battles with the communist paramilitary units whose own brutality and violence matched that of the Nazis. "Beating the fascists" may have been an exhilarating pastime for unemployed young Berlin workers, but surely it contributed to the already widespread conviction in Germany that the Republic was powerless. Rosenhaft displays much sympathy both for the communist street-fighters and their bosses. Yet she fails to recognize that the real targets of the communist assault teams were not the Nazis but the Weimar Republic and the democratic parties. Meanwhile, the Communist Party prepared its own suicide by applauding the blows delivered to the "fascist" Republic, while neglecting to prepare for the genuine crisis. The party spoke grandiosely of the coming underground struggle against "fascism without a parliamentary mask," that is, Hitlerism, but in fact when Hitler came to power the communists proved defenseless.
This might have had something to do with Stalin's insistence that the Social Democrats were far worse than the Nazis and the Western powers were more dangerous to Soviet Russia than Germany under any leader. Since Rosenhaft herself disapproves of the communists' policy of concentrating their venom on the "social fascists," in other words on the Social Democrats, it is not quite clear why she also approves of the political violence that helped put an end to the parliamentary system in Germany. For example, she inserts inverted commas around the word "plundering" when referring to the ransacking of shops in Berlin by communist street-fighter units. Such actions were, in her opinion, merely "sporadic impulses towards direct collective action for the immediate relief of material hardship." For her, the communist leadership only attempted "to assimilate such impulses, and to direct them so that they developed a mass political character." The effects on the shopkeepers and the other German citizens who had their own "impulses" to protect their property are simply ignored.
Hitlerism's greatest crime was the slaughter of millions of Europeans, chief among whom were the Jews, an infamous act matched only by the orgiastic massacre of other millions by Stalin, Mao, and the Khmer Rouge. How much did the people of these countries know about the massacres? Could they have done anything to stop them? It is difficult to gauge the responsibility of the civilian population in any of these countries, including that of the Germans. There were not many Jews in Germany in 1933, perhaps 500,000 in a population of some 65 million. Of them, about 300,000 emigrated after 1933, so that only about 200,000 were left by the time the war broke out in September 1939. During the war 130,000 of the Jews who had remained in Germany, and another 30,000 who had emigrated to other countries, were killed. The rest may have survived the Holocaust in the concentration camps, in hiding, or in mixed marriages.
All in all, then, we are dealing with a relatively limited number of German-Jewish victims when compared with the more than five million other Jewish victims of Nazi persecution who were citizens of Poland, the Soviet Union, Hungary, and other foreign countries. Moreover, the great majority of Jews, whether German or non-German, were put to death outside the old Reich in the SS death camps of the East. Furthermore, even though many atrocities took place in Germany in 1933, and more during the official pogrom of 1938, the entire German population was not exposed to the spectacle of brutal persecution before the war, although most people were aware that persecution of the Jews and of anti-Nazis was taking place. Then too, during the war, the concentration camps in Germany were both widely dispersed and well isolated from the population. Much historical confusion therefore exists over the extent of the Germans' responsibility.
Ian Kershaw points out in his excellent regional study Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich: Bavaria, 1933-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983) that historical opinion on the question of responsibility ranges all the way from the view that the persecution of the Jews was the work of Hitler and the gangsters around him in the face of a disapproving German population to the view that the German people themselves waged a war of extermination against the Jews. Kershaw shows that the public of Bavaria, his test case, included a small percentage of "dynamic" Jew-haters, a much larger proportion of old-fashioned and thus relatively moderate anti-Semites influenced by the Catholic Church, and an even larger proportion of those who were indifferent or mildly sympathetic to the Jews. Kershaw writes of the failure of the Nazi propaganda machine to inspire hatred of Jews among the Germans. "Except on isolated occasions when the Jewish Question directly confronted them, most obviously following the 1938 pogrom [which was organized by the authorities], Germans seldom had Jews on their mind. The constant barrage of propaganda failed to make the Jews the prime target of hatred for most Germans, simply because the issue seemed largely abstract, academic, and unrelated to their own problems. The result was, for the most part, widespread disinterest in the Jewish Question."
This sounds convincing, but are we to interpret it as an acquittal or an indictment? It is true that in Nazi Germany there were no spontaneous pogroms and that Jewish survivors of the Third Reich who had been hiding in Berlin and other German cities tell us of at least as many acts of humanity toward them as of baseness. It is quite likely that proportionally no more Jews in hiding were denounced in Nazi Germany than, for instance, in France or some Eastern European countries.
Conditions in German-occupied Europe, however, were wholly different from those in Germany. Moreover, the German Jews were much better assimilated than their Eastern European counterparts. What condemns the German population, in my opinion, is not that they volunteered to kill, because they generally did not, but that they were indifferent. Ukrainian and Baltic militiamen clubbed thousands of Jews to death in devastated countries that were under ruthless German occupation. The German people lived, until 1945, in an orderly society, and yet they failed to inquire about the fate of their Jewish fellow citizens. With several honorable exceptions, even the German resistance gave low priority to the question. Finally, in Eastern Europe, where the members of the German SS and their Eastern auxiliaries were doing the killing, thousands of ordinary German soldiers readily participated in the Final Solution.
Kershaw puts his finger on something painfully true when he writes that "the Nazis were most successful in the depersonalization of the Jew." The Berlin Jew in hiding had a human face; he appeared as an ordinary neighbor to others—consequently he was often not denounced to the authorities. The Jewish slave laborers from Eastern Europe, whom the SS dragged across Germany, were emaciated, louse-ridden, and dressed in convicts' garb. They looked like criminals and were the object of public contempt. As Johnpeter Horst Grill notes in his interesting regional study The Nazi Movement in Baden, 1920-1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983), "Jews [in Germany] were regarded as an expendable alien race." This was, indeed, the key to the tragedy of Jews in Germany—and, unfortunately, in most other parts of Europe.
Among the many modern studies on the Final Solution, Sarah Gordon's Hitler, Germans, and the "Jewish Question" (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984) is one of the most challenging. She, too, makes use of dozens of statistical tables, ranging from the "Percentage Distribution of Jews and Non-Jews in Selected Parties of the Reichstag, 1867-1916," through the "Occupational Distribution of Independents Who Opposed Persecution," to "Attitudes of Nazis Toward Racial Persecution." This last table is also the most ironic. It is based on the work of Michael Müller-Claudius, a German researcher who interviewed forty-one members of the Nazi party in 1938, after Kristallnacht, and sixty-five in 1942. He found that in 1938 a clear majority of the Nazi party members expressed "extreme indignation" at the treatment of Jews. By 1942 only 26 percent of the Nazi party members were "extremely indignant." Still, both in 1938 and 1942, only 5 percent of the Nazis interviewed approved of racial persecution.
All this sounds incredible, and it would be easy to reproach Gordon for taking such statistics seriously. Nevertheless, both she and Kershaw, who has also made use of Müller-Claudius's findings, buttress this argument with a formidable pile of documents that seem indeed to prove that most of the Germans, and even many Nazi party members, did not wish to see the Jews brutalized or killed. Kershaw, who disdains statistics and charts but who has examined thousands of documents in Bavaria, argues consistently that the persecution of Jews was conducted mostly in secret precisely because the German masses did not approve of the brutality and the killings. Gordon, whose research concentrates on the Government District of Düsseldorf, a major part of the Rhineland, demonstrates that many Nazi party members continued to have sexual relations with Jews even after the adoption of savage laws against such relationships. She states again and again that people voted for Hitler in 1932 and 1933 less because of the Party's extreme anti-Semitism than because of the Depression, fear of communism, the desire to avenge the Versailles Treaty, and sundry other reasons.
The trouble, Gordon argues, was that the German people were indifferent to the fate of the Jews. They simply let Hitler and his radically anti-Semitic cronies determine Jewish policy.
Excerpted from ESSAYS ON HITLER'S EUROPE by ISTVÁN DEÁK. Copyright © 2001 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Who Were the National Socialists?||3|
|Who Were the Fascists?||16|
|The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys||35|
|2||Jews Among "Aryans"|
|Cold Brave Heart||51|
|The Incomprehensible Holocaust||67|
|A Mosaic of Victims||89|
|Memories of Hell||94|
|The Goldhagen Controversy in Retrospect||100|
|4||The Holocaust in Other Lands|
|A Ghetto in Lithuania||113|
|Romania: Killing Fields and Refuge||129|
|The Europeans and the Holocaust||137|
|A Hungarian Admiral on Horseback||148|
|The Holocaust in Hungary||159|
|Poles and Jews||163|
|The Pope, the Nazis, and the Jews||169|
|The British and the Americans||185|