The Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews and Ordinary Germansby Eric A. Johnson, Edward Lewis
Nazi Terror tackles the central aspect of the Nazi dictatorship head on by focusing on the roles of the individual and of society i making terror work. Based on years of research in Gestapo archives, on more than 1,100 Gestapo and "special court" case files, and on surveys and interviews with German perpetrators, Jewish victims and ordinary Germans who experienced the Third Reich firsthand, Johnson's book settles many nagging questions about who, exactly, was responsible for what, who knew what, and when they knew it. Nazi Terror is the most fine-grained portrait we may ever have of the mechanism of terror in a dictatorship.
About the Author:
Eric A. Johnson is the author of Urbanization and Crime: Germany 1871-1914 and the Civilization of Crime: Violence in Town and Country Since the Middle Ages. A professor of history at Central Michigan University and a fellow of The Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study, he lives in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan.
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Read an Excerpt
Locating Nazi Terror: Setting, Interpretations, Evidence
The Gestapo in Cologne was exceptionally weak. The calm, elderly officers let things come to them and did not undertake any of their own initiatives," testified Dr. Emanuel Schäfer on Tuesday, July 6, 1954, the first day of his trial before a Cologne jury court for assisting in the deportation of the Cologne Jews to the death factories in the east in 1941 and 1942. Tried along with Schäfer were two other former leaders of the Cologne Gestapo, Franz Sprinz and Kurt Matschke. In the course of the previous several years, the state prosecuting attorney's office had investigated more than one hundred former Cologne Gestapo officers for their part in the mass murder. But in the end only these three men were put on trial, and their sentences would be light. The scenario would prove to be similar in the rest of Germany.
The courtroom was quiet. Only seven people sat in the audience as the trial began. The most prominent of these people was Moritz Goldschmidt, the presiding head of the Cologne Jewish community as well as the representative of the Central Committee of Jews in Germany and its delegate to the Jewish World Congress. After the first day's session was over, Goldschmidt told the court reporters that of the 13,500 deported Cologne Jews, only 600 survived. Despite the appalling proportions of this mass murder, few Germans appeared to have been particularly interested. Maybe they were afraid or ashamed to show interest. The newspaper headlines on the following day seemed almost tired and apologetic forhaving to report on such commonplace events. "Again a Gestapo-Case in Cologne," read the headline in the Cologne newspaper Kölnische Rundschau. In the beginning of its coverage of the case, the paper noted matter-of-factly, but with a touch of sarcasm as well, that there had been none of the emotional atmosphere and popular appeal of a trial held in the same courtroom only a week before. That case, which had filled the courtroom to overflowing, involved a twenty-three-year-old mother from the neighboring town of Brühl who had been charged with hanging her illegitimate two-year-old daughter on a window-fastener.
The trial was over in four days. Schäfer, the fifty-three-year-old former head of the Cologne Gestapo from October 1940 to January 1942, during which time the Jewish "evacuation" to the east was organized and set in motion, maintained that he had only adhered to the existing laws, that the Jews had been well treated, and that he had no personal responsibility because he was only following orders from higher party and SS officials. In his words:
The Nuremberg Laws were well known at that time to all judges and attorneys. Today they are thought of as criminal. The Jews were placed outside of the German community because of the laws. This was indeed wrong, as I now know, but at the time it was the law of the land. In an official discussion with the Gauleiter Grohé after a bombing attack, I learned that the Jews were to move out of their homes to make space for people who had been bombed out of theirs. The Jews were then given lodgings in the fortress in Müngersdorf. After this time, an order came from Heydrich that they were to be evacuated.
Although Schäfer had presided over the planned and well-orchestrated murder of thousands of Cologne Jews, the wrongful arrest and incarceration of thousands of other Cologne citizens, and many other misdeeds of the rankest order both in Germany and abroad during his prolific career, the court was partially persuaded by his defense. Many other countries, like Yugoslavia, Poland, and the Soviet Union, demanded that he be deported to stand trial for his leadership role in the deaths of thousands of their citizens during the Third Reich. But he was not deported. Instead, the Cologne court convicted him of schwere Freiheitsberaubung (aggravated deprivation of liberty), a crime of much less gravity than abetting mass murder, the prosecution's original charge against him in the official indictment. For his crimes he was to serve six years and nine months in prison, minus the time he had already spent in jail awaiting trial. In addition, he would have to forgo his civilian rights for an extra three years after he was let out of prison.
The fifty-year-old Sprinz and the forty-six-year-old Matschke got off even easier. Their defense was similar to Schäfer's. After Schäfer had been sent to Belgrade in the winter of 1942 to preside over the elimination of the Serbian Jews, Sprinz replaced him. Sprinz then oversaw the remaining "evacuations" of the Cologne Jews and stayed in his post in Cologne until February 1944. In trying to justify his actions, he asserted that he had never been anti-Semitic and that "the `Jewish parasitism' was only one of the problems to be solved." He had "never thought that a `biological solution' [which he called the annihilation of the deported Jews in gas chambers] would be used." Furthermore, he testified, he was "personally of the opinion" that he "had really nothing at all to do with the Jewish transports." As he put it, "I did not wish to intercede in the already well organized process. Once I did observe the preparations for a transport of 800 Jews, which took place in the Cologne trade center. Nurses were on hand and a doctor. Of course I did not notice any enthusiasm." As Schäfer had done, therefore, he defended himself by claiming that he was not involved in the physical aspects of the deportations themselves, that the Jews were well treated as long as they were in Cologne, and that he did not and could not have known what was to become of them after they had been deported. And most important, he had only passed along orders from those above him to those below him in the chain of command. Convicted of the same minor offense that Schäfer was convicted of, Sprinz was given a three-year prison sentence minus the time he had already served awaiting trial.
Matschke was also convicted of the same offense but received only a two-year sentence. Although he admitted to having been the head of the section of the Cologne Gestapo dealing with Jewish affairs from 1943 on, he had only been involved, he said, in the transport of the small number of Jews who were still residing in Cologne after the main deportations had been completed in late summer 1942. From all that he had heard about the transports, everything had proceeded smoothly, he explained, and he had acted in an official capacity only and thus bore no personal responsibility. "There had been no protests or complaints and everything had taken place without a hitch. In my department, everything proceeded along purely official lines."
In the typewritten summary of the final judgment in the case, the court made it clear that it did not believe that these men held more than marginal responsibility for what finally happened to the Cologne Jews. Compared with the guilt of the people who were truly responsiblewho remained unnamed but whom the court referred to as the "leading perpetrators"the responsibility of these men was deemed only modest. The "leading perpetrators," on the other hand, bore such "unending guilt that their deeds could not be punished adequately by any earthly court." The court pointed to several factors that served to reduce even further the share in the guilt attributable to Schäfer, Sprinz, and Matschke. All of these men had led supposedly "unobjectionable lives," and each of them had made some effort to ease the hardships faced by the unfortunate Jews. Their guilt lay mainly in their foolish, but understandable, adherence to an ideology and a leadership that had led them astray. It is left for the reader of this document to assume that the court believed these men's alibis that they had not known that the Jews were to be murdered after they were deported. (It is important to point out here that this document has never been made public and that this particular reader is one of the first to gain access to it.) The court ruled that these men were not the truly guilty culprits because each had merely followed orders from his superiors; Schäfer and Sprinz had served at such a high level of command that they had little to nothing to do with the actual deportations; and Matschke came so late to the Cologne Gestapo as to have been involved in only a limited number of deportations. The identities of the truly guilty culprits remained unspecified.
This verdict settled the case at the time. It also set a precedent for the trials and investigations in other German localities that came several years later. It made clear that the new German state was not about to exact heavy penalties from a large number of past wrongdoers. The cases against former Gestapo and SS men and Nazi Party officials would, with few exceptions, be confined to handing out mild sentences in individual cases of wrongdoing in relatively minor but highly specific matters, as opposed to heavy sentences for the many people involved in more momentous, though less well defined, acts of inhumanity. The verdict in this Cologne case and those that followed it elsewhere may have helped the new German nation get on with the pressing business of its present and future by covering over some gaping sores from its past. But such verdicts did not resolve many important questions about the nature of the Nazi terror and the murder of the Jews of Cologne and the rest of Germany. Many of these questions continue to burn painfully today. To what degree were rank-and-file Gestapo officers below the leadership level culpable for the murder of the German Jews? How were the deportations organized locally, and who specifically carried out the deportation orders? To what extent were local party officials and average citizens aware of and involved in the deportations and mass murder? And more broadly, how pervasive was the Nazi terror for average citizens, and how much freedom of action did they have? How did the terror work on an everyday basis?
The Cologne prosecutor's office chose to put only three top Gestapo leaders, all comfortable targets, on trial. This decision came after an extensive investigation of all identifiable Cologne Gestapo officers, an investigation that took the Cologne prosecutor's office and the police several years to conclude. One does not have to have read the long documentary trial evidence generated by this investigation to wonder why only these three officers were chosen. These documents do reveal, however, ample grounds to incriminate many more people than were finally put on trial. One cannot avoid coming to the cynical conclusion that these three people were chosen as particularly malevolent fall guys with whom the Cologne population and the Federal Republic could easily dispense, thereby putting the matter to rest. In so doing, many other Gestapo officers, party officials, and individual citizens who also took part in, facilitated, or profited from the deportation and murder of the Cologne Jews would not have to atone for their actions. In Cologne as elsewhere in Germany, "normal" Gestapo officers and other former Nazis and Nazi sympathizers would never have to face justice for putting the most stupendous crime of the century into motion.
For example, Karl Löffler, the head of the "Jewish desk" of the Cologne Gestapo during the deportations of 1941 and 1942, and his counterparts in other German cities, such as Richard Schulenburg of the Krefeld Gestapo, were spared by this precedent. Whereas local Gestapo chiefs like Schäfer and Sprinz were sometimes punished, local Eichmanns like Löffler and Schulenburg almost never were. Löffler's activities were examined in the investigation preceding the trial, but he served only as a witness in the trial itself. It will be illuminating to explore why Moritz Goldschmidt, one of the seven people in the audience for the Schäfer trial and a man who served as the first and probably most important witness in the entire investigation and trial itself, chose to deflect the finger of blame away from Löffler. In his testimony he asserted that Löffler had been reassigned to the Gestapo in Brussels in the fall of 1941, before the deportations took place. In reality, Löffler first went to Brussels in the fall of 1942, after the main waves of deported Cologne Jews had ridden off to their deaths in train cars.
The precedent set by the Cologne case may have allowed Löffler and other responsible people to get off scot-free, but the careers, actions, and mentalities of individuals like Löffler and other Gestapo officers and policemen bear closer examination if we are to understand how the crime of the century was perpetrated in the Nazi years and how it was dealt with in the first decades of the Federal Republic. In seeking an understanding of this crime in particular, and of Nazi terror in general, it will be necessary to compare it with the myriad crimes of the Gestapo officers, German justice and lay officials, and common citizens who helped ensure the success of dictatorial terror and pave the way for mass murder in the Third Reich.
This book focuses therefore on both the role of individuals, such as Gestapo officers and ordinary citizens, and the role of the society in making terror work. While stressing the centrality of Jewish persecution in the Nazi example of terror, it also examines more than one thousand individual cases of persecution, and sometimes protest, pertaining to the entire spectrum of people who suffered from Nazi terror or acted to make it possible. It deals in flesh-and-blood narrativessometimes quite graphically, to convey a true sense of how the terror operatedas well as in facts and statistics to tell the story and to provide an explanation of the terror that was perhaps the defining characteristic of the Nazi dictatorship.
Many of the central questions this book confronts have already been mentioned or alluded to in the discussion above. A fuller list includes the following: How did the terror affect the everyday lives of German citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, in average German communities? What was the progression of the terror over time? Who suffered the most from it, and who suffered the least?
How did the central instrument of the terror, the Gestapo, function? How powerful and how pervasive was it? How did other "justice" organs work, such as the prosecutors' offices and the "Special Courts" (Sondergerichte) set up to try political offenses in the Third Reich? What biases did they display?
Who carried out the terror, and how responsible and culpable were they individually? What kinds of backgrounds did Gestapo officers, for example, come from? What was their mentality? Were they, as they claimed after the war, simply "normal" police officers who only followed orders and did their duty with regard to the existing laws and without any particular malice on their part?
How did individual German citizens respond to the Nazi terror? What differentiates the people who protested against it from those who acted to support it? How involved were common German citizens in the policing and control of their fellow citizens? What motivated citizens to denounce their neighbors, work colleagues, and relatives? How often did such denunciations occur?
How did the degradation, expropriation, and mass murder of the Jews play out in individual German communities? How much were common citizens involved? What did they and the local Nazi officials know about the fate of the Jews?
What happened to the perpetrators in the Federal Republic after the war? How did they seek to avoid prosecution, resume their careers, and reclaim their pensions? Who helped them achieve these goals?
THE EVOLVING INTERPRETATION OF THE TERROR
The last half-century has witnessed an enormous outpouring of books and articles on nearly all aspects of Nazi society, and many people have made excellent contributions to the understanding of the terror that reigned in Germany for the twelve and a half years of that society's existence. As German society has shown an ever greater willingness to open its archives and to confront squarely the most painful chapter in its recent history, German scholars have joined forces with scholars from several other countries in what is now an international and cooperative effort that has exploded many of the old myths about Nazi terror. The following discussion acquaints the reader with some of the exemplary work done on the topic and concludes with a statement about the overarching interpretation that this book provides.
The scholarship on Nazi terror has progressed through at least three distinct stages. The first two stages each lasted for about two decades, and the third stage has gained momentum throughout the 1990s. Several variables distinguish these stages and their differing versions of what the terror was, how it operated, and who bears responsibility for it: the centrality or marginality of the Holocaust; the centrality or marginality of Hitler personally; the power and pervasiveness of the Gestapo; the focus of the investigation of the terror (on the highest echelons of German society, where the terror was centrally ordered and organized by the Berlin leadership, or on individual localities, where it was carried out); the nature of the Nazi state's ruling apparatus; the nature and extent of protest and dissidence; the role played by common citizens in their own policing; and the people who have conducted the most influential research on the subject.
The first stage began at the end of the Second World War and lasted until the late 1960s. At the beginning of this period the world was reeling from revelations about the concentration camps and the Holocaust. Enriched by the many eyewitness accounts that soon appearedpublished by former concentration camp inmates and some of Hitler's former henchmenformal scholarship on the terror focused on the role of Hitler and the central organs of the terror apparatus in Berlin and on the disastrous fate of the Jews. German scholars were largely discredited at this time for having either supported or gone along with Hitler, so the bulk of the significant work on the subject came from the pens of foreigners and German emigré scholars living abroad. The archival sources for much of this work were limited. Even though Raul Hilberg and some others did make solid use of the voluminous Nuremberg trial records, most researchers believed that nearly all useful local archival sources were either lost during the bombings or destroyed by the Gestapo and other Nazi Party officials at the end of the war.
The guiding assumptions of this primarily top-down history were that a maniacal Hitler was firmly in command of a smoothly functioning, monolithic state and party apparatus that controlled the German population by means of unrestricted terror. At the center of this terror stood a supposedly all-powerful, all-knowing, and omnipresent secret police empire spearheaded by the Gestapo. First appearing in Berlin in April 1933, when Hitler had been in power for only three months, the Gestapo shortly thereafter established large central posts in Germany's major cities and smaller outposts in the rest of Germany's communities. Allegedly endowed with a huge army of specially trained agents and spies and employing advanced technical means of surveillance, the Gestapo, like the "thought police" of George Orwell's terrifying postwar novel 1984, had more than sufficient means to keep close tabs at all times on all citizensfrom Jews, Communists, and other "enemies" of the regime to the most insignificant members of German society.
Emphasizing the historic roots of anti-Semitism and racism in her famous study of the origins of totalitarianism published six years after the end of the war, Hannah Arendt was one of the first to examine the nature and implementation of the terror in Nazi (and to a lesser extent Soviet) society. Totalitarianism, she argued, threatens nearly all citizens. Totalitarian societies like Nazi Germany employ "a system of ubiquitous spying, where everybody may be a police agent and each individual feels himself under constant surveillance." Secrecy and the secret police prevail to such an extent that victims disappear without leaving a trace. "The secret police ... sees to it that the victim never existed at all."
Many scholars soon elaborated on Arendt's Orwellian argument. The French author of one of the earliest books on the Gestapo explained in a chapter he entitled "The Gestapo Is Everywhere" that
the Gestapo acted on its own account by secretly installing microphones and tape recorders in the homes of suspects. In the absence of the victim, or on the pretext of making repairs or of checking the telephone or the electric installations, a few microphones were discreetly installed, allowing the individual to be spied upon even in the bosom of his family. No one was safe from this type of practice.... Spying became so universal that nobody could feel safe.
The second stage in the evolving interpretation of the Nazi terror began in the mid-1960s and lasted until the end of the 1980s. During this stage German scholars started to come to grips with their own recent history. This effort would cause considerable pain and controversy. So much so, that by the mid-1980s nearly the entire German intellectual establishment had become embroiled in an acrimonious debate (Historikerstreit) played out in leading newspapers and national media about the uniqueness of the Holocaust and how it and Germany's Nazi past should be properly studied and understood. Its early phases, however, started out more tamely. It was heralded in the mid to late 1960s by the appearance of seminal works by, among others, the sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf on the endemic weakness of democracy in German society, the historian Martin Broszat on the nature and structure of the German dictatorship, and the former Nazi architect and armament minister Albert Speer on Hitler's character and daily routine. The initial effect of these works was to recast the view of the German dictatorship and the German people in a more nuanced and also somewhat more favorable light.
Guilt continued to be heaped onto the person of Adolf Hitler, but his hold, and that of his regime, over the society was now seen as having been more tenuous than previously believed. Instead of running a tight ship of state over a willing and united population, Hitler's top brass were now portrayed as having been rent by internal divisions, overlapping jurisdictions, and conflicting goals. The population was also seen as having been more diverse. If not always on the brink of full-scale resistance and outright revolution, the German citizenry had been made up of a wide variety of individuals, many of whom were seething with discontent and searching for ways to express their disagreements with the leadership through minor but nonetheless significant expressions of their unhappiness.
In this new wave of more German-dominated scholarship, the persecution of the Jews and the Holocaust moved from the center to the periphery of the debate. Perhaps unintentionally, but nonetheless noticeably, the pioneering works of Broszat and Dahrendorf and the revelations of the former Nazi Speer hardly touched on the Jews and the Holocaust. In the second wave of scholarship in this stage, in the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, following the lead of Broszat and company, a new consensus began to emerge that the German population was less anti-Semitic, and the plight of the Jews less important to their support for the Nazi dictatorship, than was previously thought. Many Germans, it was shown, had been appalled by the barbarous Kristallnacht pogroms of November 9 and 10, 1938; that reaction forced the Nazi leadership to put pressure on and later murder the Jews in greater secrecy. Only a few dyed-in-the-wool Nazis, it was now believed, had been animated by the Jews' misfortunes. Most Germans seemed to have cared little about the issue. As the British historian Ian Kershaw explained in one of his two influential books published in the early 1980s treating the mood and morale of the German citizenry, "the road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference."
Although Kershaw's evaluation of the extent of the German population's anti-Semitism is important in itself, his careful study of local opinion formation in the Third Reich focuses even more on the issues of day-to-day compliance and noncompliance by average German citizens. Kershaw was involved in a large project on this theme, entitled "Bavaria in the NS Period," that was led by Broszat and published in six influential volumes between 1977 and 1983. He and others working on this and on other projects of the time helped move the focus of the study of the Nazi terror away from the top leadership in Berlin to the plight of the average German citizen living in the provinces of the Third Reich. This new emphasis on the history of everyday life, though adding needed texture and lifeblood to Broszat's and the other pioneers' scholarship of the period, basically confirmed the arguments originally laid out in a more macro fashion by their senior colleagues. The analysis carried on in this period of Gestapo and Social Democratic Party in exile (SOPADE) mood and morale reports and of local court documents and other local records buttressed the arguments of Broszat and others that there was considerable disharmony and disunity at all levels in Nazi society.
These new studies also helped to illustrate Broszat's argument that Hitler was crucial to the Nazi movement. Without his guiding hand, Broszat argued, the Third Reich would simply have crumbled into disarray and discord. A veritable cottage industry of studies on the subjects of resistance and persecution developed at this time, suggesting at least implicitly that the Third Reich could not possibly have survived Hitler's death. As Edelweiss Pirates, swing youth, and other youngsters refused to conform to Nazi dictates and struggled with increasing vehemence against Hitler Youth and local Nazi Party leaders, their parents grumbled constantly about lower wages, harsher conditions, and the Nazi leadership. Additionally, a barrage of studies pointed to the sufferings and discontent of Communists, clergymen, religious sects, women, and others who may not always have expressed their dissatisfaction in openly rebellious ways but were nevertheless longing for a way out of the Nazi straitjacket. According to Kershaw, Broszat, and several others, only Hitler continued to be held in esteem; only Hitler could have kept this turbulent society intact.
The high degree of discord these studies uncovered and their new focus on the daily lives and aspirations of common Germans prepared the way for the third and currently reigning perspective on the Nazi terror. Impressed by the demonstration that many Germans found ways of disobeying Nazi dictates in their everyday lives, a new wave of scholars began questioning how this could have been possible if the Gestapo and the other organs of the terror were as powerful and pervasive as previously thought. A wholesale reevaluation of the Nazi terror apparatus and of the role of ordinary Germans in the terror and the Holocaust has resulted.
The second stage of the scholarly research on and interpretation of the Nazi terror often highlighted the resistance to the terror and the victims of the terror, while at the same time continuing to assume that the terror was total even if the organs of the Nazi power structure were structurally polycratic instead of monolithic. In contrast, the newest perspective on the terror rejects outright the notion that the terror was total and has a far more negative view of the role played by common German citizens. Beginning as the Historikerstreit began to cool down in the late 1980s and gaining momentum throughout the 1990s, a number of important studies have scrutinized the powers and activities of local police and judicial organizations, stressing the role that common citizens played in the execution of Nazi justice and social control. Using records either believed to have been destroyed or not previously accessible to scholarly investigation, like local Gestapo and Special Court case files, these studies have produced some provocative findings. They have shown that the Gestapo often had less manpower, fewer spies, and less means at its disposal to control the population than had been assumed by nearly everyone since the Nazi period came to an end. With its limited resources, the Gestapo had to rely heavily on the civilian population as a source of information. This information seldom came from paid informants; rather it was usually supplied by plain citizens acting out of a wide variety of motivations. Angry neighbors, bitter in-laws, and disgruntled work colleagues frequently used the state's secret police apparatus to settle their personal and often petty scores. By means of political denunciations, common citizens frequently served as the eyes and ears of the Gestapo. As former head of the Cologne Gestapo Dr. Schäfer had testified in his trial, the "officers let things come to them."
According to the new argument, then, the population largely controlled itself. Collaboration and collusion characterize the activities of the German people much more than meaningful resistance and true dissent. In the words of the German scholars Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Gerhard Paul, who in 1991 published an exemplary study of the everyday activities of the terror apparatus in the Saarland:
Our study shows over and over again that what in other places has been celebrated as resistance, was merely a mixture of unintentional polycratic conflicts, normal social conflict behavior and pious wishes of exiles.... Neither the propaganda nor the terror were totally effective. There were many niches left over in which the people could conduct themselves quite normally. Their behavior inside of these not completely "coordinated" spaces or inside of the polycratic power structure had nothing to do with resistance and opposition.
The opening up of previously inaccessible records and the intense interest in local resistance activity and deviant behavior in the Third Reich that was generated in the 1970s and 1980s have also led to a reappraisal of the functioning of German courts and other justice organs in Nazi society. Several works have appeared in recent years that investigate the role played by judges, prosecuting attorneys, and the courts in helping to keep the population in line. The effect of these studies is to demonstrate that the more "normal" legal officials of the Third Reich certainly did not impart "positivistic" impartial justice, as many justice personnel claimed after the war. Prosecuting attorneys and judges, just like Gestapo officers, acting at both the local and national level, dispensed arbitrary and biased justice. Whereas some used their authority almost benignly, others eagerly pushed for maximum penalties for minor misbehavior. On the one hand, a mild political offense like listening to BBC during the war years could have resulted in a dismissal before going to trial at a local court, an acquittal, or a minor sentence, all depending on the recommendation and judgment of the police, prosecutors, and judges. On the other hand, it could have led in extreme cases to a referral to Roland Freisler's feared People's Court (Volksgerichtshof) in Berlin, where the death sentence was the expected outcome.
The reevaluation of the Gestapo and the justice system, and of the people's role in helping them operate, has done much to demystify the Nazi terror apparatus. Detailed archival evidence laying bare the actual workings of the Nazi terror at the grassroots level has been amassed and analyzed by resourceful scholars. No longer can we believe that the Gestapo itself was everywhere and that the power of the state over the individual was total. Nor can we continue to sort the German people into one of two polar opposite camps, with one camp consisting of blind followers of the Führer and the other camp of guiltless victims and resistance fighters. Although the sufferings of large numbers of Germans and many Germans' discontent with various aspects of the Nazi dictatorship have been well documented, the evidence suggests that a great majority of the German population found ways to accommodate the Nazi regime, despite whatever inner reservations they might have had. It also suggests that considerable numbers of ordinary citizens used the repressive political means afforded them by the Nazi dictatorship, especially through the vehicle of political denunciations, to their own advantage.
Echoing these disturbing revelations about the participation of ordinary German citizens in Nazi terror, landmark books published in the early and mid-1990s by the American scholars Christopher R. Browning and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen have demonstrated chillingly that ordinary Germans were also more active than previously believed in the perpetration of the Holocaust. A fierce scholarly debate, reminiscent of the German Historikerstreit of the 1980s, has ensued, but this time the controversy began in the United States before it spread to Germany and then around the world. There are many layers to the debate, but its epicenter is clearly Goldhagen's best-seller Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, and especially his contention that common German citizens willingly killed Jews during the Holocaust because they were motivated by what he claims was a historic and uniquely German "eliminationist anti-Semitism." One of Goldhagen's foremost critics is Christopher Browning, who argues in Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland that Germans acted no differently than people from any country might have acted in their extreme situation. Nevertheless, though he comes to different conclusions, much of the empirical evidence he employs in his equally graphic portrait of the murderous activities of reserve German policemen during the Holocaust differs in only minor ways from the evidence Goldhagen presents. Thus, both Browning and Goldhagen relate essentially the same scenario: sizable numbers of ordinary, often middle-aged German civilians, with little to no ideological indoctrination or training, were called up for brief periods during the war as reserve policemen all over eastern Europe to shoot thousands of defenseless Jews at point-blank range and then allowed to return to their normal civilian lives and families in Germany.
Further casting a pall on the ordinary German population's involvement in Nazi crimes has been a haunting exhibition attended by large audiences in many of Germany's leading cities in the last few years. Organized by the Hamburger Institute for Social Research and entitled "Vernichtungskrieg: Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941 bis 1944" (War of Annihilation: The Crimes of the German Army, 1941 to 1944), this exhibition displays scores of photographs and other visual materials to document the regular German army's direct involvement in the criminal atrocities perpetrated against Jewish and other eastern European civilians during the Second World War. Combining these materials with the evidence provided by Browning and Goldhagen, it is no longer possible to maintain that the Holocaust was perpetrated exclusively, or even especially it seems, by elite Nazi special-forces units, for average German citizens formed the core of both the reserve police battalions and the German army.
As Daniel Goldhagen's best-seller and the well-attended exhibition on the crimes of the German army demonstrate, the subject of Nazi terror and Nazi crimes has riveted popular audiences and fueled scholarly controversies around the world in ways that would have seemed unimaginable not long after the Second World War ended over a half-century ago. In the immediate postwar decades people everywhere wanted to lay to rest the trauma of the war and the Holocaust so that they could move forward to rebuild their societies and their lives, but today the world's thirst for new knowledge about the leading example of terror and inhumanity in the twentieth century seems unquenchable. Given that there remains much to be discovered and understood about how the Nazi terror operated, whom it affected most, and who was most culpable for perpetrating its crimes against humanity, and given that terror, mass murder, and crimes against humanity continue to threaten citizens in many countries long after Hitler's death, it is likely that the study of Nazi terror will continue to flourish well into the twenty-first century.
To help ensure that the future study of the Nazi terror rests on a secure foundation, this book aims to provide an assessment that both places the burgeoning literature on the terror in a proper and clear perspective and casts new light on how it operated. Over the past fifty years, as already mentioned, knowledge about the terror has expanded enormously and the dominant interpretation of the terror today rests on far better and more plentiful evidence than the interpretations of several decades ago. There are signs, however, that in the scholarly zeal to uncover more and more new information about the terror and to unmask ever wider groups of people who were involved in perpetrating it, the interpretation of the terror is starting to get out of balance.
Fifty years ago, when the first stage in the scholarship on the terror began, it was assumed that the leading organ of the terror, the Gestapo, was all-powerful and all-knowing. Today scholars argue that the Gestapo was relatively weak. With few officers and few spies, the Gestapo, they argue, was almost completely dependent on civilian denunciations as its source of information. Fifty years ago scholars assumed that nearly the entire German population was terrorized by the Gestapo and the other organs of Nazi repression. Today the ordinary German population is under indictment for having played a leading role in the terror itself, charged with voluntarily providing the Gestapo with information about fellow citizens and willingly participating in the mass murder of the Jews. At the Nuremberg Trials more than fifty years ago, the Gestapo was branded a criminal organization. Today books and articles portray Gestapo officers as more or less "normal" police officers, if overly career-minded and eager.
Many ordinary Germans certainly did participate in the Nazi terror and the Holocaust. The Gestapo clearly had limited manpower and resources. Indeed, the Nazi terror never became fully total, and ordinary Germans enjoyed considerable space to vent their everyday frustrations with Nazi policies and leaders without inordinate fear of arrest and prosecution. These are by now uncontestable facts for which this book will provide much fresh evidence. But the newest perspective on the terror, although it is to be credited for helping to bring these facts to light, needs to be revised, for several important reasons.
The newest perspective on the Nazi terror has begun to stress the importance of the role played by the ordinary German population to such an extent that it is beginning to lose sight of the fact that the terror would not have existed at all had it not been put into motion by the Nazi leadership and led by the Gestapo. This shift in focus has also begun to underestimate the ruthless effectiveness of the Gestapo; indeed, the newest perspective is nearly at the point of excusing Gestapo officers for their overwhelming culpability. Finally, the newest perspective on the terror needs revision because, in its determination to debunk what some of its leaders refer to as "the myth of `popular opposition' and `Resistenz,'" it undervalues the resistance activity that did take place. It is undoubtedly true that, as Mallmann and Paul note, "the greatest amount of dissent did not develop into opposition and resistance activity ... that the basic support of the Third Reich functioned until the bitter end." But it is also true that many peopleamong them Communists, Socialists, Jehovah's Witnesses, clergymen, and othersacted consciously and bravely at various times during the Third Reich to try to undermine the Nazi regime. Even though they were unsuccessful, they, their efforts, and their suffering should not be forgotten.
As this book demonstrates, the key to understanding the sometimes brutal, sometimes quasi-legalistic, but always effective Nazi terror lies in its selective nature. Never implemented in a blanket or indiscriminate fashion, it specifically targeted and ruthlessly moved against the Nazi regime's racial, political, and social enemies; at the same time it often ignored or dismissed expressions of nonconformity and mild disobedience on the part of other German citizens. This dualistic treatment of different sectors of the German population helped the Nazi regime garner legitimacy and support among the populace. Indeed, many Germans perceived the terror not as a personal threat to them but as something that served their interests by removing threats to their material well-being and to their sense of community and propriety. This acceptance helped guarantee that the leading organs of the terror, like the Gestapo, would not be hampered by limitations to their manpower and means.
Jews were ultimately the foremost targets of the terror. But in the early years of Nazi rule the terror was applied with equal, and sometimes even greater, force against Communist and other leftist functionaries and activists. Once the threat from the political left was eliminated (by the mid-1930s), the terror began to concentrate on silencing potential sources of opposition in religious circles and on removing from society what the Nazi regime deemed social outsiders, such as homosexuals, career criminals, and the physically and mentally disabled. During the war the terror reached its most drastic phase, with the mass murder of the Jews serving as the most ominous example of its fury.
Although many German citizens belonged to one or more of the targeted groups, most did not, and consequently most Germans suffered not at all from the terror. There was no need to target them because most Germans remained loyal to the Nazi leadership and supported it voluntarily from the beginning to the end of the Third Reich, if to varying degrees. Although some Germans strongly agreed with the regime's anti-Semitic and antihumanitarian policies, many did not. In the same vein, some Germans voluntarily spied on and denounced their neighbors and coworkers to the Nazi authorities, but the overwhelming majority of German citizens did not. Furthermore, civilian denunciations were typically made for personal and petty reasons against normally law-abiding citizens whom the Gestapo seldom chose to punish severely, if at all. It remains true, however, that the civilian German population figured heavily in its own control, and its collusion and accommodation with the Nazi regime made the Nazis' crimes against humanity possible.
It is necessary not to overlook the ordinary German population's complicity in Nazi crimes. It is also necessary to realize that most Germans were motivated not by a willful intent to harm others but by a mixture of cowardice, apathy, and a slavish obedience to authority. After the war Gestapo officers and other Nazi authorities tried to justify their participation in Nazi crimes by arguing that they had been similarly motivated. Although these excuses are not to be dismissed out of hand, especially since they were frequently accepted by prosecuting bodies as well as by influential members of the local communities of these officers, the analysis in this book of the backgrounds, motivations, and actions of Gestapo officers who cruelly, efficiently, and willfully implemented the Nazi terror uncovers the hollowness of their alibis. These not so "normal" men, though enjoying considerable support from many in the German population both during the Nazi years and afterward in the Federal Republic of Germany, need to be seen as the arch perpetrators they most certainly were. If they are not to be held accountable in historical memory, then almost nobody can be.
Meet the Author
Eric A. Johnson is the author of Urbanization and Crime: Germany 1871-1914 and The Civilization of Crime: Violence in Town and Country Since the Middle Ages. A professor of history at Central Michigan University and a fellow of The Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study, he lives in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan.
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