This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday February 17 2015.
Were those Germans unique?
Last week, I raised the question of how ordinary working class middle-aged men and women could embark on employment that involved the hands-on dirty work required by a programme of sterilisation, torture, shooting at close range and gassing of children, women, elderly people, disabled people, Gypsies, homosexuals and Jews. The programme was planned by professionals such as psychiatrists and physicians and surgeons. The paper work was organised by middle class bureaucrats whose own teeth contained gold recycled from the mouths of the dead victims. Could it happen here or in England or in the USA, or were those Germans unique?
I have fond memories of a TV series I watched avidly in the early 1980s. There were, in all, 32 episodes written and directed by Edgar Reitz and the total running time was 53 hours and 25 minutes. The title was Heimat, which translates as “Homeland” but bears no relation to the American series of that name. The series eventually covered life in Germany between 1919 and 2000 by focusing on an ordinary family in the Hunsrück area of the Rhineland. Reitz claimed that he conceived Heimat partly in reaction against the American series Holocaust. Much of the success of Heimat as a West German television series was because of similar soap-opera qualities that made for the success of Holocaust. In Heimat, a small cast of well-defined characters enables us to identify with their suffering where statistics and documentation would leave us cold.
Twenty million people watched Holocaust when it was screened in West Germany. After each episode, a panel of historians answered questions from people phoning in. Thousands did so and many of them claimed that they were born after 1945 and had not previously known that their country had practised genocide. The German historian Alf Lüdtke wrote that the historians “could not cope” as they were faced with thousands of angry phone-callers asking how these things could happen or why they had never learned about them at school.
I recall that there was a pervading feel-good nostalgic charm about Heimat. How can this be when the period covered was one of horror and genocide? The blacksmith’s son, Paul Simon, back from the war, builds the first radio in Schabbach. In 1919, Paul wins the hand of Maria, the mayor’s daughter. Ageing on screen from 19 to 82, though only 27-29 in real life at the time, Marita Breuer gives an astonishing performance. They have two sons, Anton and Ernst. The Simon family seems a happy. Then one day, in 1928, Paul just puts on his cap and walks away. Nobody knows where he has gone. Nobody knows why. Maria carries on bringing up the children.
A torch-lit march through the streets of the local town indicates that Hitler has come to power. Nobody in the Hunsrück seems to know quite how or why. There are now telephones and cars. Nazism, which presents itself in the city as the guardian of old German rural life appears in the countryside as a revolution of technological modernity.
The French Jewish writer Marek Halter alleged in an article in Le Monde that Reitz idealizes the war and trivializes Nazism. The century’s great and terrible events do largely take place off screen. We see the sudden appearance of Nazi armbands in the village. A boy on a bicycle encounters a cheery soldier who is watching over the construction of what is clearly a concentration camp. An SS officer alludes guardedly to the Final Solution.
Did the Hunsrück villagers see more than these glimpses of Nazi barbarism? There was a somewhat irritating and arbitrary moving between black and white, sepia, full colour and one colour filter. It seems that the director’s intention with this was to underline that this is a film about what Germans remember and their memories are selective. They remember the 1930s as a golden age of prosperity in the countryside. Some things they prefer not to remember at all.
Milton Sanford Mayer (1908-1986) was a journalist from Chicago and author of twelve books. Mayer was a Jew. He lived in Germany before World War II and was a conscientious objector during the war. After the war, he went back to Kronenburg and lived with German families, interviewing ten people to get perspectives on the rise of the Nazi party. Those experiences informed his book They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45.
The ten interviewees included a janitor, soldier, cabinetmaker, Party headquarters office manager, baker, bill collector, high school teacher, high school student, policeman, Labour front inspector. “These ten men were not men of distinction,” Mayer notes. “They were not opinion makers…. In a nation of seventy million, they were the sixty-nine million plus. They were the Nazis, the little men…”
Mayer said he liked these people and they became his friends “They did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now [in 1951]. None of them ever knew, or now knows, Nazism as we knew it, and know it; and they lived under it, served it, and, indeed, made it. And none ever thought Hitler would lead them into war.” Before Hitler, most had no jobs – as they saw it Hitler provided employment. All ten interviewees agreed that Nazi rule brought them economic success, bound them patriotically and politically into a coherent cultural unit, restored the nation’s pride and gave all Germans renewed reasons for hope in the future.
All Germans already had permission to hate Jews. All benefited from the system. To be identified as an outsider or as a dissenter could mean social exclusion or even disappearance into a concentration camp, or a bullet in the head.
Richard Grunberger was an historian and teacher who was born in Vienna in 1924 and died in London in 2005. His monumental, but immensely readable, Social History of the Third Reich gives a detailed sense of the warp and woof of everyday life in Nazi Germany.
Grunberger argues that, after the social disorientation of the depression years, an infantile regression took place with unhappy adults wishing to return to the womb of community and conformity. This obliterated most of the normal social and political conflicts. “Their eager acceptance of this situation stemmed from misconceived notions of corporate self-interest, chauvinistic delusion and… subservience tinged with masochism”.
Life-long Democrat voters convinced themselves that National Socialism was the panacea they had been looking for all their lives. Whole professions such as the civil service and teaching felt an overwhelming compulsion to join the Party. After the 1933 breakthrough, there was a great surge in party membership. Older hands referred to this bottom layer as the “March violets”.
Even those who were not converted in their hearts would anxiously understand that mere passive avoidance of rebellion would not suffice. “The majority’s meddlesome conformity ensured that those of doubtful allegiance to the regime lived in a state of unceasing fear of anonymous informers, sometimes with an element of auto-suggestion”. The regime created a culture of denunciation. Every citizen enjoyed equality of opportunity for laying information against his social superiors. “This harnessed a vast reservoir of personal resentment and spite to the purposes of the state.”
The regime harnessed all areas of governance and polity to ensure that citizens conformed. “Under the Third Reich the institutions of order expired as surely as those of freedom”. The courts treated right-wing terrorism lightly and there seemed to be tacit establishment approval of conspiracy theories that blamed Jews for defeat in the war and every problem of the Weimar Republic. In 1937, the Ministry of Justice determined that for the purpose of “intensive interrogation” beating was permissible if a doctor was present. Some courts objected to confessions gained under Gestapo torture but Hitler overruled them. Because of indoctrination at school, (much “education” was regurgitation of propaganda handouts) and in the Hitler Youth, the young tended to be more conformist and even fanatical than their elders.
The business community was solidly behind the regime. IG Farben (Interessen-Gemeinschaft Farbenindustrie AG) a chemical industry conglomerate did particularly well under the Nazis, expanding its work force by 50% and its profits by 150%. Two-thirds of the Reich Office for Economic Expansion were IG Farben men. IG Farben supplied large quantities of Zyklon B to the gas chambers. At the Nuremberg Trials, 13 executives were imprisoned for terms ranging from one to eight years for their roles in the atrocities.
Workers were also induced to support the regime through new houses and cheap holidays- in 1938, 180,000 Germans went on cruises. The press, the cinema, the theatre all gave the population the same propaganda message. There was little protest from the churches.
Although few Germans shared the leaders’ rabid anti-Semitism, their image of themselves gained definition through the contrast with the Jewish anti-type and accepted Jew baiting as an integral part of the system, which was beneficial to themselves.
Grunberger writes: “In the entire history of the Third Reich no single body –civic, academic or even religious- ever made use of such opportunities it had for publicly protesting against the regime’s inhumanity.”
In a recent book, German historian Götz Aly asks the question in his title Why the Germans? Why the Jews? With the subtitle Envy, Race Hatred and the Prehistory of the Holocaust. Aly argues that even if most Germans did not initially agree with the Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitic views, they signed up for a “criminal collaboration” between the people and their political leadership because it brought them economic and psychological benefits.
In a previous book, Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State, Aly argued that the Nazi regime bribed and corrupted its subjects by offering material gain wrapped in the idealistic guise of equal opportunity and social harmony for the German Volk . This was done through minimal taxation on Germans, the exploitation of the occupied territories and the slave labour of their inhabitants, and the confiscation of Jewish property throughout Europe. Many benefited directly and materially as Jewish jobs and property were redistributed.
Aly exposes the involvement of self-proclaimed a-political technocrats who went on to success in the post-war world. One theme of Aly’s work has been to suggest a significant continuity between the Nazi era and post-war Germany. Many of the crimes committed in Nazi Germany were not the sole responsibility of ideological fanatics but of the educated elites of German society whose “rational” outlook and approach to problem-solving were similar to the approach of Germany today.
Could It Happen Here?
As Goering said: “the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
It is easy enough for outsiders to exaggerate the actual relationship between man and state under tyranny, but from the inside, it is always made to seem justified, normal and seamless. As Matthew Hughes wrote about atrocities committed by British police and soldiers in Palestine:
“Servicemen were guided by a legal system that meant that they could accept the premises of their government that allowed for brutal actions, and they could do so with all the energy of good bureaucrats obeying orders—hence the phrase ‘banality of brutality’ in the title to this article, a tilt to Hannah Arendt’s study of Adolf Eichmann.”