How Guilty Were the Germans?

The Germans

by Gordon A. Craig
Putnam’s, New American Library, 350 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Modern Germany: Society, Economy and Politics in the Twentieth Century

by V. R. Berghahn
Cambridge University Press, 314 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich: Bavaria, 1933––1945

by Ian Kershaw
Oxford University Press, 425 pp., $49.50

The Nazi Movement in Baden, 1920––1945

by Johnpeter Horst Grill
University of North Carolina Press, 720 pp., $32.00

The Nazi Party: A Social Profile of Members and Leaders, 1919–1945

by Michael H. Kater
Harvard University Press, 415 pp., $25.00

The Rise of Hitler: Revolution and Counter-revolution in Germany, 1918–1933

by Simon Taylor
Universe Books, 131 pp., $9.95 (paper)

The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1922–1945

by William Sheridan Allen
Franklin Watts, revised edition, 388 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Beating the Fascists? The German Communists and Political Violence, 1929–1933

by Eve Rosenhaft
Cambridge University Press, 273 pp., $39.50

The Black Corps: The Structure and Power Struggles of the Nazi SS

by Robert Lewis Koehl
University of Wisconsin Press, 437 pp., $27.50

Someday, perhaps, the popular and scholarly fascination with a few insane years out of Germany’s history will fade away, but that day is not yet in sight. In American bookshops, illustrated books on Hitler, the Luftwaffe, U-boats, and SS Death’s Head formations seem to out-number cookbooks. In university libraries, the quantity of monographs on National Socialist voters, German-Jewish relations, the ties of German industrialists with the Nazis, and Hitler himself surpasses the number of scholarly works on virtually any other historical subject.

There are many reasons for the abundance of publications. One is that the documentation on Hitlerism, in contrast to that on such other totalitarian systems as Stalinism and Maoism, is immense, and easily accessible. Another is that we have not yet succeeded in mastering the shock suffered by civilization when one of the world’s most highly developed nations went mad. Moreover, Germany’s terrible years fascinate us because—although it is hard to admit—National Socialism was immensely successful. It appealed to a huge number of people by responding to emotional and material needs that no other party in Germany had been able to satisfy.

The nagging question is whether the same needs do not continue to exist today; whether we would not, given an appropriate turn of circumstances, welcome the same kind of remedy that Hitler offered the Germans. Does Nazism or fascism in its great variety belong only to the past, or to the present and future as well? The world around us is teeming with dictators, one-party systems, cults of personality, the exaltation of youth, doctrines of unconditional loyalty, the glorification of war (and of martyrdom in war), secret-police surveillance, and torture. Each day, in dozens of contemporary states, masses of uniformed children march in step, carrying flags and rifles. Forty years after the alleged death of fascism, state-organized mass demonstrations are as common as the spectacle of parliamentary deputies rhythmically chanting and clapping in obedience and adulation. State television stations pour out messages of religious hatred, violence, and unbridled nationalism. One would have to be blind not to notice that Hitlerism, Nazism, fascism, or whatever one wants to call it is still very much a part of our present.

True, no one can precisely define the phenomenon we are describing, and no contemporary political movement or established state precisely fits the interwar German or Italian mold. Still, the thing exists. We simply have not come up with the term to denote it properly. After all, not even the Third Reich itself was completely Nazified, nor was it completely totalitarian: it overlooked a certain amount of free personal behavior, and it was more chaotic than its monolithic doctrines would suggest. Nonetheless, it represented a mortal threat to humanity.

What matters, then, is not names and precise identification, but the fact that, just as in the 1930s, ideologized brutality is there, along with the widespread belief that any and all means are justifiable to correct perceived wrongs. Dr. Goebbels would sincerely envy the Iranian mullahs’ ability to rally thousands of willing teen-agers to march across enemy minefields. The organizer of the Führer-cult, Albert Speer, could have learned a trick or two from North Korea’s leadership cult, or Zaire’s, or Rumania’s; and SS Chief Reinhard Heydrich would undoubtedly admire Northern Ireland’s terrorists for their blind readiness to blow up women and children simply because they happen to be of the wrong religion. Our fascination with Hitler is not only a fascination with evil, or the manifestation of bourgeois nostalgia for an age of tough heroes. Preoccupation with Hitler is also a sign of our awareness that Hitlerism is not dead.

Fascist ideas and practices abound, and again, as in the 1930s, democratic systems are on the defensive. Nor is there any lack of appeasers, and by that I do not mean those who wish to appease the Soviet Union, but those who willingly condemn the Soviets yet find a redeeming grace in the “youthful enthusiasm,” “justified grievances,” and “noble aspirations” of urban guerrillas and other self-appointed executioners. Indeed, the fact that its leaders are conservative and unimaginative, and its population cynical and peaceful, makes the Soviet Union far less totalitarian today than it was under Stalin. The tragedy is that in their fierce competition the Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, the United States tend to encourage the world’s fanatics. The Soviet leadership supports undemocratic movements everywhere as a matter of routine; the United States tends to do this when centrist governments fail in the face of attacks from rightist or leftist radicals.

The result is not very different. The two great powers, and here again the Soviet Union more than the United States, are ready to cooperate with even the most unsavory allies, so long as these allies claim to be, respectively, of the left or of the right. Yet history should teach us something, at least occasionally. How different the world would be today if the United States had turned against Hitler earlier than it actually did. So too the Soviet Union could have spared itself immense suffering had Stalin not tolerated and even supported Hitler just when the Nazi dictator most needed his good will: both in 1933–1934 when Hitler assumed power, and in 1939–1940, when he crushed Poland and the Western European democracies. What seems clear now is that fascist-style movements will continue to thrive.

Unfortunately, the many fine books under review are too scholarly and too modest to tell us much about the present dilemma. They all wrestle with the problem of German fascism, but understandably they treat it as a problem of the past, a perspective that is probably appropriate in view of the political inclinations of Germans today. These books do not, however, deal with the world-wide, longterm implications of Hitlerism, but with the historical theme of Nazism.

We can organize the problem of National Socialism around four major questions. First, who in Weimar voted for Hitler, and who became a party member? Second, what made the Nazis popular and how did they come to power? Third, 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 third theme is a fourth: 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 Foundations of Fascism in Germany, 1918–1933 and by Michael Kater in The Nazi Party: A Social Profile of Members and Leaders, 1919–1945. 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 John Hamilton’s recent findings1 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 everincreasing 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. 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 on 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 over-represented 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 not basically 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 classes, 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. 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, 1918–1933 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, the English historian 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 but, 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, 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 classes 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 what an impossible place Germany must have been during the early 1930s. Although its social chaos 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, 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. Ms. 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,” i.e., 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 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 puts 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, to organize them, to systematize them, 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 many 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.2

All in all, then, we are dealing here with a relatively limited number of German-Jewish victims when compared with the 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 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” Jewhaters, a much larger proportion of oldfashioned 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. Also, no more Germans than, for instance, Ukrainians, Hungarians, or Croats volunteered to lend a helping hand in the massacre of Jews.

But conditions in German-occupied Europe 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 or 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, “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” 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 ironical. 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, but both she and Kershaw, who has also made use of Müller-Claudius’s findings, buttress this argument with a formidable pile of documents which 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 a relationship. 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 revenge the Versailles Treaty, and sundry other reasons.

The trouble was—so Gordon argues—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.

In Gordon’s lengthy final chapter she concludes that by 1933 Jews had been well integrated into German society, but because some significant differences remained between Jews and non-Jews, it was easy for the Nazis to stereotype the Jews as aliens. Gordon places the main responsibility for German anti-Semitism on Hitler’s world view, which interpreted human history as a mortal struggle between nations for living space and for world domination. Hitler saw the Jews as a nation bent on world domination; they posed a racial threat to all other nations. In his paranoid mind, the extermination of the Jews was an absolute and urgent necessity, because they were simultaneously much more and much less than human. As a superman, the Jew was already in control of most of the world; as a nonhuman parasite, he was eating away at the body of the healthy races, particularly the Germans.

The people of Germany, according to Gordon, did not go along with the ethnic theories of Hitler, but because he appealed to them in many other ways, they did not question his racist ideology. In any case, she argues, it was extremely difficult for a German to resist the Nazi persecution of Jews. Still, there were Germans who did so, mostly male white-collar workers and independent professionals. The least active opponents of Nazi anti-Semitism, she points out, were women and blue-collar workers. Finally, those who helped Jews were more often than not political conservatives or devout Catholics, or both. Gordon rejects all the existing views on the causes of Nazi anti-Semitism, including the Marxist theory of anti-Semitism as a result of psychological scapegoating. She concludes that there is no satisfactory explanation why anti-Semitism was an integral part of Nazism. After all, Gordon writes, had Hitler ignored the Jews in Germany, his popularity would not have suffered significantly. But Hitler, far from ignoring the Jews, found in them the explanation for the tragic history of the human race. For him, they were the Original Sin of mankind.

Hitler came as close as any man in history to playing God. And when the millions of Jewish and other victims pondered their own imminent deaths and wondered “Why must I die, since I have done nothing to deserve it?” probably the simplest answer would have been that power was concentrated in one man, and that man happened to hate their “race.”

Suggestive as this is, one must add two warnings. The first is that while it was truly dangerous for a German to oppose the Nazi regime, it was not at all dangerous to refuse participation in the acts of terror. Moreover, one cannot quite agree with Kershaw and Gordon that only a small minority of Germans were aware of the mass extermination programs. Granted that the true extent of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” remained a secret to most Germans until after the war, they must have known at least of the mass murder of non-Jews in Eastern Europe. For example, virtually every German soldier in the Eastern theater of operations must have been aware that the Russian prisoners of war were simply not fed. This awareness must have been communicated to the Germans at home. After all, as Sarah Gordon points out, the Nazis starved to death or otherwise murdered three million non-Jewish Poles and 3,300,000 Russian prisoners of war.

The second caveat is that, as George Orwell told us in 1984, it is in the nature of the totalitarian regimes to postulate the existence of an enemy. Had Hitler ignored the Jews (and the Slavs), he would have had to select other victims. And yet Gordon is right: by giving absolute power to one man and regarding him as their savior, the Germans did sell their soul to the Devil. Here lies their responsibility for the death of the Jews and millions of Russians, Poles, and other East Europeans. And it is no consolation to reflect that in Mao’s China, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and smaller tyrannical countries of the world other peoples have likewise sold their souls.


Let us put aside the many sophisticated theories of totalitarianism and raise only a few simple questions. Did the Germans embrace triumphant Hitlerism, did they identify with their leader, and did they obey him gladly? To these questions, the authors answer with an almost categorical denial. Kershaw and Allen, the two scholars who have examined most closely popular attitudes in the Third Reich, one within a single town, the other within a single province, agree that under Hitler social life went on more or less as usual, at least until 1939. The inhabitants of W.S. Allen’s sample town generally resisted Nazi influences, if only passively. Kershaw writes of a dissent in Bavaria that, if overwhelmingly verbal, was nonetheless widespread. “Seldom has a government placed so much store on the control and manipulation of opinion as did the Nazi regime. Yet, despite some notable propaganda successes, steerage was incomplete.”

Who, then, committed the crimes? Who in the Third Reich participated in the totalitarian experiment? The ready answer used to be: the SS more than any other institution. Hitler’s army of political soldiers has come to be the ultimate symbol of ruthless efficiency and total devotion to a cause. Yet Robert Lewis Koehl of the University of Wisconsin now tells us that not even the SS was ideologically consistent; nor were its members completely devoted to the Führer.

Koehl’s The Black Corps: The Structure and Power Struggles of the Nazi SS describes, with admirable restraint, how the SS grew out of a perceived need for a cadre of loyal guardians of the German nation. This function determined its complex structure, impelled the SS to deal with all aspects of life, and caused it to assume unlimited authority. Having done so, the SS became completely fragmented.

The SS was, in fact, an astonishingly vast, complex, and irrational organization. Begun after World War I as a minuscule force of political soldiers to protect Nazi meetings, it came to absorb the entire German police organization. In addition, it assumed or duplicated the work of several ministries and set up its own armed forces. The SS spied on foreign countries, on Germans abroad, on the population at home, on Nazi party members, and on its own members. It devised, organized, and carried out the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” the resettlement of millions of ethnic Germans and other people in Eastern Europe, the improvement of the Germanic race, and the protection of racially desirable unwed mothers and illegitimate children. SS members set up and guarded concentration camps; they arrested, tried, and executed the politically, socially, and physically undesirable part of the population; they engaged in unspeakable torture and in insane medical experiments. The SS was an economic empire, a training school for future leaders, and a recruiting office for non-German Nazi sympathizers. In the first year of its existence, the SS stood for racial purity; during the war it took as recruits for the Waffen SS (its fighting branch) ethnic Germans from Eastern and Southeastern Europe, Northern European volunteers, non-German auxiliaries from the East, and ordinary German draftees.

The SS was a state within a state, yet its members infiltrated every other party and state institution; in turn, the SS was infiltrated by rival party and state organizations. It included thousands of people who were not party members; many SS members were not even convinced National Socialists. Some of its crack fighting units were made up not of Germans or even Europeans but of Tatars, Uzbeks, and other Asiatics. The SS engaged in virtually every conceivable kind of political, economic, and military activity, and yet it rarely acted completely on its own. It did not initiate the Final Solution, Koehl writes, nor was it the group that took the largest share of material benefits from it, even though “the SS in all its branches took a conscious hand in the process and sought to enrich itself collectively and individually.” According to Koehl, the SS carried out the Final Solution not as a carefully planned process, but as a chaotic act of thievery, exploitation, and murder. The SS police courts probably executed more SS criminals than did the Allied courts after the war, though not for their chief crime, murder, but for stealing. Finally, SS chief Heinrich Himmler was Hitler’s most loyal servant, and yet he conspired against his master during the last year of the war.

It is difficult to exaggerate the chaos of this most organized of all totalitarian organizations. The SS randomly killed millions of able-bodied slave laborers, yet it allowed other millions to stay alive. In the occupied East, the SS treated some Slavs as subhumans, but treated others, including some, but far from all, Ukrainians, as valuable Aryan stock to be won over. The SS deplored the mass killing of Orthodox Serbs by the Catholic Croats, and the unorganized massacre of the Bessarabian Jews by the Rumanians, only to carry out, in turn, its own more orderly massacre. Koehl’s conclusion is categorical: there never was a specific SS phenomenon. While not apologizing for the SS, he still argues that

the SS of wartime became an alibi of a nation. The real SS was more multiform…. Certainly for the Holocaust the SS deserves all the blame it has gotten, if not the exclusive blame sometimes bestowed. The Waffen-SS undoubtedly prolonged the war; it bought the Nazis time they did not know how to use…. It was their [the SS’s] tragedy that they had previously surrendered these choices to such masters as Hitler and Himmler. As sorcerers’ apprentices, they found themselves in the ruins of the sorcerer’s workshop—Germany.

One must agree with Koehl that in Nazi Germany not even the SS was completely indoctrinated or totally committed. Yet it was an organization whose main “achievement” was mass murder. For that not only the SS is to blame, but all those people who, in 1933, casually discarded the notion of Rechtsstaat, a state based on the rule of law. The German people in 1933 did not unanimously choose Hitler, nor did they, as a whole, obey him gladly and voluntarily. But most of them gave up the values of skepticism and freedom for the sake of immediate material benefits, revenge for Versailles, and national greatness. Even worse, they became or were casual, indifferent, and callous toward persecution. They became, as many of us might become one day if we are not on guard, the apprentices of a mad and wicked sorcerer.


Fascism and Fanaticism January 17, 1985

Fascism and Fanaticism January 17, 1985

  1. 1

    John Hamilton, Who Voted for Hitler?, Princeton University Press, 1982. Reviewed by Istvan Deak in The New York Review of Books, March 3, 1983.

  2. 2

    See Gordon, pp. 119 and 300. All figures regarding German-Jewish survivors are merely rough estimates. On this, see, among others, Gerald Reitlinger, The Final Solution: The Attempt to Exterminate the Jews of Europe, 1939–1945, A.S. Barnes and Co., 1961, pp. 491–492. Also, Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945 (Bantam Books, 1976), p. 506.