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On the murderous road to "racial purity" Hitler encountered unexpected detours, largely due to his own crazed views and inconsistent policies regarding Jewish identity. After centuries of Jewish assimilation and intermarriage in German society, he discovered that eliminating Jews from the rest of the population was more difficult than he'd anticipated. As Bryan Rigg shows in this provocative new study, nowhere was that heinous process more fraught with contradiction and ...
On the murderous road to "racial purity" Hitler encountered unexpected detours, largely due to his own crazed views and inconsistent policies regarding Jewish identity. After centuries of Jewish assimilation and intermarriage in German society, he discovered that eliminating Jews from the rest of the population was more difficult than he'd anticipated. As Bryan Rigg shows in this provocative new study, nowhere was that heinous process more fraught with contradiction and confusion than in the German military.
Contrary to conventional views, Rigg reveals that a startlingly large number of German military men were classified by the Nazis as Jews or "partial-Jews" (Mischlinge), in the wake of racial laws first enacted in the mid-1930s. Rigg demonstrates that the actual number was much higher than previously thought-perhaps as many as 150,000 men, including decorated veterans and high-ranking officers, even generals and admirals.
As Rigg fully documents for the first time, a great many of these men did not even consider themselves Jewish and had embraced the military as a way of life and as devoted patriots eager to serve a revived German nation. In turn, they had been embraced by the Wehrmacht, which prior to Hitler had given little thought to the "race" of these men but which was now forced to look deeply into the ancestry of its soldiers.
The process of investigation and removal, however, was marred by a highly inconsistent application of Nazi law. Numerous "exemptions" were made in order to allow a soldier to stay within the ranks or to spare a soldier's parent, spouse, or other relative from incarceration or far worse. (Hitler's own signature can be found on many of these "exemption" orders.) But as the war dragged on, Nazi politics came to trump military logic, even in the face of the Wehrmacht's growing manpower needs, closing legal loopholes and making it virtually impossible for these soldiers to escape the fate of millions of other victims of the Third Reich.
Based on a deep and wide-ranging research in archival and secondary sources, as well as extensive interviews with more than four hundred Mischlinge and their relatives, Rigg's study breaks truly new ground in a crowded field and shows from yet another angle the extremely flawed, dishonest, demeaning, and tragic essence of Hitler's rule.
Copyright © 2002 University Press of Kansas.
All rights reserved.
Who Is a Jew?
The question "Who is a Jew?" has sparked heated debate throughout the ages. Even today in Israel, the intensity of the preoccupation with this question is, according to law professor Asher Maoz of Tel-Aviv University, "second only to Israel's preoccupation with problems of security and peace. This is unsurprising as many regard both subjects as matters of national survival."
The Term "Jew"
The word "Jew" derives from the name of the tribe of Judah, named after one of the twelve sons of Israel (Jacob). The Jews descend from Aramean nomads who crossed the Euphrates into the land of Canaan under Abraham's leadership around 1850 B.C.E. They were called the Ivrim (Hebrews). Many today call Abraham the "first Jew" and the first monotheist. Some focus on the collective experiences of Jews during their bondage as slaves in Egypt and their eventual exodus out of Egypt that led to their becoming a nation. Others emphasize that God's chosen people officially became a nation of Jews when Moses received God's laws (the Torah) on Mount Sinai around 1200 B.C.E. soon after they left Egypt. This is when the people of Israel entered into a covenant (B'rit) with God, and the Torah was the "sacred writ of that covenant."
In biblical times, a child "inherited" his Jewishness from his father. According to one common interpretation, in the Book of Leviticus, a "half-caste Danite" man who had a Jewish mother but an Egyptian father was rejected as not "belonging." This example illustrates that at the time, Jewishness depended on descent through the father, contrary to today's practice. For example, Joseph's children are considered Jews, though their mother Asenath was the daughter of an Egyptian priest of On, and Moses' children, though their mother Zipporah was a Cushite from present-day Ethiopia. Before the giving of the Torah, Jewishness was a function of one's lineage, beliefs, and customs. For example, circumcision was an identifying factor for Abraham and his descendants. To join the Hebrews, one just had to adopt their culture; no formal procedure of conversion was required. In this sense, all of the Israelites prior to Sinai were Jewish. Only after Sinai was a formal procedure of conversion necessary.
Present-day Definitions of a Jew
Today, observant Jews look to the Tanach (Jewish bible) and Talmud (the oral Torah) to define Jewishness. According to rabbinical law (Halakah) today, a Jew is a person born of a Jewish mother or one who properly converts to Judaism. Orthodox rabbi and professor Jacob Schochet of Humber College commented, "The father's status is altogether irrelevant." The father does, however, play an important role in deciding whether a male child is of the priestly cast or not (i.e., a Cohen or a Levi).
Why do observant Jews follow the law of maternal descent? Most observant Jews simply say that is how God set it up. When asked why God did it this way, some suggest that this law probably was adopted because a child's mother could almost always be identified in biblical times. This humane law also may have served to protect children fathered by foreign soldiers in wartime by accepting them into Jewish society. Moreover, most Jews consider a child born of a Jewish mother Jewish regardless of the parents' future actions. For example, most Jews would consider a child Jewish even if the parents baptized the child at birth. The child's Jewishness is its birthright, which its parents cannot take away.
According to Halakah, once a person is born Jewish or properly converts to Judaism, that status remains forever. One might think that a Jew would no longer be Jewish if he professed another religion, but this is not the case. Orthodox rabbi Dovid Gottlieb remarked, "Once a Jew, always a Jew." For example, most consider that political philosopher Karl Marx, poet and writer Heinrich Heine, and composer and conductor Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy were all Jews, although they all converted to Christianity. Shlomo Perel, a Jew who served in the Wehrmacht (under the assumed name of Josef Perjell), wrote, "It's hard to be a Jew, but it's even harder to try not to be one [if you were born one]." The satirist Kurt Tucholsky, in Swedish exile in 1935, echoed Perel when he wrote, "I left Judaism in 1911," but then added, "I know that this is in fact impossible."
For many Jews, however, religion plays little or no role in defining their Jewishness. They believe Jewishness means first and foremost an ethnic allegiance (i.e., belonging to the Jewish people). They also hold certain ideals very dear to their hearts, such as education, family values, and charity. Religious beliefs are secondary. Many in the world who consider themselves Jews in every respect would deny that they have any religion at all.
Most Jews consider themselves part of a unique family. Every day, observant Jews say the Shema, the holiest Jewish prayer which comes from Deuteronomy 6:4. It reads, "Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God. Adonai, the one and only." This prayer is a declaration to a nation, the people of Israel. Nicholas De Lange writes, "To be a Jew is thus to acknowledge an attachment to an historic experience. To become a Jew is essentially to join a people." Moses Hess, an early advocate of Zionism, said in 1862, "Jewry is above all a nationality; its history goes back several thousand years and marches hand-in-hand with the history of mankind."
The Jews are not a "race"; there are no genetic features that all Jews, and only Jews, share. Furthermore, because non-Jews have always been able to convert to Judaism, common physical traits could hardly be expected. Because Jews have spread throughout the world, they have taken on different ethnicities, cultures, and traditions. Nevertheless, they all have some attachment to Israel, and those who have remained observant share a spiritual allegiance to the Torah. In modern times, tensions sometimes arise when groups from the Diaspora immigrate to Israel. Israeli officials who have to define whether the people entering Israel are Jews sometimes have trouble addressing this delicate issue. Recently the arrival of destitute Ethiopian Jews (Falashas) in Israel sparked debate about who is a "kosher Jew." The government airlifted these persecuted people to Israel and gave them Israeli citizenship, homes, food, and education, but that did not automatically confirm their status as Jews. After discussing Ethiopians' cultural and religious differences, Israel's supreme court concurred with the chief Rabbinate's judgment that Ethiopian Jews "were doubtful Jews requiting a restrictive conversion (giyur lechumra) in order to qualify for [Jewish] marriage [author's italics]." Many religious leaders questioned these Ethiopians' Jewishness, maintaining that these African Jews only observed a form of "crypto-Judaism." Many Russian Jews are also looked upon as "doubtful Jews." Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, tens of thousands of Russian Jews have immigrated to Israel. Most have fled persecution and poverty in Russia. They view Israel as a land of hope where they can live a free and self-determined existence. However, the Rabbinate views some of these Russians' Jewishness skeptically, maintaining that many of these people have either falsely claimed to be Jewish to escape the poverty in Russia, have an imperfect understanding of what it means to be Jewish, or only have Jewish fathers.
The variations in cultural values and historic legacy among certain Jews can create confusion regarding how Jewish or Israeli they are perceived as being. Although the Israeli government uses a definition similar to the Halakic one to recognize a Jew — that is, one must be born of a Jewish mother or convert to Judaism and not belong to another religion (called the "Law of Return") — the nation of Israel is strongly split over the issue. For example, in 1998, two Russian-Israeli soldiers died in combat while stationed in Lebanon. The Rabbinate refused them a Jewish burial in a military graveyard because they had only Jewish fathers. They were not considered Jews. One would think that dying while serving in the Israeli army would prove that one felt Jewish and believed in the state of Israel, but the Rabbinate does not hold such actions and convictions sufficient to declare someone Halakically Jewish. The Rabbinate views Jewishness as a formal definition of status as opposed to one of self-perception or commitment to Israel or the Jewish people. A person could consider himself Jewish, be a dedicated Israeli citizen, and even an Israeli war hero, but not formally be considered Jewish. So for many, differences in religious belief, cultural background, ethnic makeup, and self-perception make the answers to the question "Who is a Jew?" Complex and unresolved.
Strong differences also exist between the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform movements within Judaism. For example, the Orthodox and Conservative movements adhere to the Halakic law of maternal descent or conversion for one to be a Jew. Most Reform Jews believe paternal descent is also enough to be a Jew. While Conservative Judaism "affirms the divinity of Halacha but questions its immutability," Reform Judaism "denies the authority of both principles." Orthodox Judaism believes these two movements are not Halakically sound. The ideological differences between these three movements have caused heated debate. In Israel, the Orthodox passionately fight to keep Reform and Conservative organizations from establishing themselves. For example, for many Orthodox Jews, Jews in the Reform and Conservative movements, especially gentiles by birth who have converted into those movements, are not really Jews. The "Ministry of Religions" in Israel does not recognize people as Jewish who convert under non-Orthodox auspices. In fact, the ministry had been keeping lists provided by informers overseas or in Israel that registered some ten thousand immigrants whose Judaism was called into question. Although these people were not denied entrance into Israel under the Law of Return, many rabbis would not perform marriage ceremonies or Jewish burials for them. In other words, for Orthodox Jews, if a Reform or Conservative Jew does not have a Jewish mother or an Orthodox conversion, then he or she is "not Jewish, period." One of the Orthodox Jewish movement's objectives is to "de-legitimize the non-orthodox streams." These schisms cause many to worry about Israel's future. The conflict jeopardizes the entire social fabric of Israel and the unity of the nation. Different groups threaten one another and Israel with "boycotts, financial blackmail and sanctions." Orthodox Rabbi Schochet wrote, "Self-interest, arrogance and narcissism (on the individual and organizational levels) within our own people threaten to achieve what our worst enemies could not." With all the controversy surrounding the questions "Who is a Jew?" and "What is Jewish?" one can see the difficulties this study encountered when discussing issues of people's Jewishness. Quite often, to discuss Mischlinge and their Wehrmacht service, readers must first acknowledge their own prejudices and beliefs. The definition of Jewishness and "Who is a Jew" strongly influences how one reads this history. Ironically, the current problems in Israel often came up during this research, and that is why they are addressed in such detail.
Jewish Law (Halakah) and Mischlinge
Mischlinge were confused by these religious definitions. Some did not know what Halakah meant before it was explained to them during the interviews conducted for this study. Helmut Krüger complained that he is tired of some Jews trying to make him into a Jew. He struggled for twelve years to convince the Nazis he was not Jewish but rather a loyal German patriot. He survived the Nazi onslaught but never convinced them that he was fully "Aryan." Even now, observant Jews asked about his case unwaveringly state that Krüger is Halakically Jewish because he had a Jewish mother. Krüger insists that he had nothing to do with his mother's Jewishness. He was born German and raised as a Christian. Krüger dislikes being called a Jew, not because he is anti-Semitic but because he does not feel Jewish. Halakah means nothing to him. He added, "Should I be called a Nazi because my uncle, Hermann Krüger, was an Ortsgruppenleiter of the NSDAP? The answer is no just as much as it's no that I'm a Jew." Some rabbis claim that people like Krüger demonstrate Jewish self-hatred; they renounce their Jewishness because they are afraid to admit who they are. Krüger believes that he is just Helmut Krüger, born a German not by choice but by chance to a German-Jewish mother who, like many Jews, assimilated and shed her Jewishness to integrate fully into the dominant society. Krüger's opinion is common among Mischlinge. The vast majority do not know how to describe their own Jewish heritage and are confused when observant Jews tell them they are Jewish. Some feel Jewish in their own way, not because they have Jewish mothers but because the Nazis persecuted them for being partially Jewish. Their Jewish identity was born of persecution rather than religious or cultural heritage.
Eastern Jews versus German Jews
Examining the tragic conflict between German Jews and Eastern Jews (Ostjuden) before Hitler came to power helps explain the Mischlinge's confusion over what it meant to be Jewish. Prior to the rise of Nazism, many German Jews had unfortunately discriminated against Ostjuden. Many felt that the poor, culturally backward, and "dirty" Ostjuden gave the typically well-educated and cultured German Jeckes a bad name. Although many German Jews had contempt for the Ostjuden, some did help the Ostjuden philanthropically. They felt compassion for these Jews who left the East because of Communism, pogroms, and economic strife. Unfortunately, such German Jews who did help Ostjuden were a minority. Many German Jews felt that the Ostjuden lived in anachronistic ghettos and only learned "Polish Talmudic barbarism" in comparison to refined German Bildung (education). For German Jews, these "ghetto-Jews" from the East followed an irrational and superstitious religion of the Jewish mystics that no longer could function properly in a world based on a religion of reason and knowledge. Most Ostjuden felt that their heretical daitsch (German) brothers had left Yiddischkeit (Judaism) by shaving off their beards, adapting modern ways, and not keeping the Sabbath holy. Many of them denounced the Reform movement which had been started in Germany. In Austria, the situation was no different than in Germany. For example, many Viennese Jews also did not welcome Ostjuden and showed contempt for the "bearded, caftan-clad people."
Thus, many German Jews and Mischlinge thought Hitler based his anti-Semitic tirades on Ostjuden who had emigrated from the "land of Bolshevism." The Nazis reinforced this preconception when they issued decrees against Ostjuden in 1933 and later when they forced eighteen thousand of them to leave the Reich in 1938. Wolf Zuelzer, a 75 percent Jew, explained that German Jews maintained their prejudice against Ostjuden because of their cultural isolation and "primitive" lifestyle. Zuelzer wrote that "for the majority of German Jews, the Orthodox Ostjuden dressed in his caftan, fur hat and ritual side-locks was a frightening apparition from the Dark Ages." At the beginning of the twentieth century, "[m]any of the local Jewish communities in Germany refused to allow Eastern Jews to vote in community elections on the grounds that they were not German nationals." Dr. Max Naumann, a Jew and a retired World War I army major and founder of the militant right-wing organization of National German Jews, wrote Hitler on 20 March 1935 that he and his followers had fought to keep Ostjuden out of Germany. Naumann felt that these "hordes of half-Asian Jews" were "dangerous guests" in Germany and must be "ruthlessly expelled."
Excerpted from Hitler's Jewish Soldiers by Bryan Mark Rigg. Copyright © 2002 by University Press of Kansas. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
List of Abbreviations
List of SS and Wehrmacht Ranks
1. Who Is a Jew?
2. Who Is a Mischling?
3. Assimilation and the Jewish Experience in the German Armed Forces
4. Racial Policy and the Nuremberg Laws, 1933-1939
5. The Policy toward Mishchlinge Tightens, 1940-1943
6. Turning Point and Forced Labor, 1943-1944
7. Exemptions from the Racial Laws Granted by Hitler
8. The Process of Obtaining an Exemption
9. What Did Mischlinge Know about the Holocaust?
Posted January 29, 2013