• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Facing Up to the Nazis

Withstanding Hitler in Germany: 1933–1945

by Michael Balfour
Routledge, 310 pp., $49.95

Die Hassell-Tagebücher 1938–1944: Aufzeichnungen vom anderen Deutschland

by Ulrich von Hassell, revised and expanded from the manuscript by Klaus Peter Reiss, edited by Freiherr Hiller von Gaertringen
Siedler, 689 pp., DM68

Briefe an Freya, 1930–1945

by Helmuth James von Moltke, edited by Beate Ruhm von Oppen
C.H. Beck, 600 pp., DM68

Robert Ley: Hitler’s Labor Front Leader

by Ronald Smelser
Berg, 330 pp., $35.00

Göring: A Biography

by David Irving
Forthcoming from William Morrow this spring

The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity

by Charles S. Maier
Harvard University Press, 227 pp., $22.50


On October 12 the president of the Federal Republic of Germany, Richard von Weizsäcker, addressed the 37th Congress of German Historians at Bamberg. Boldly seizing upon one of the central issues of the so-called Historikerstreit that has divided the profession for the past two years (see The New York Review, January 15, 1987), he rejected the idea that National Socialist crimes could be palliated by comparisons with atrocities committed by the Soviet Union and other regimes and cultures. He declared that Auschwitz remained unique and the responsibility for it undiminished by time, and suggested that openness to history was a prerequisite and a pillar of West German democracy. He admonished his audience to be aware of the needs of young people:

They want to know and have to know who they are, where they come from, and who the others are with whom they are to share and shape this world.

To them it is vitally important to know how the moral and political disaster came about in the days of their grandparents. Did their nation leave the civilized community of nations only temporarily and has it now returned to its natural position, albeit encumbered by that terrible aberration?

…For their own lives they need an answer to the question of where we [their parents and grandparents] were, what we did, what responsibility we assumed, and what responsibility we very much failed to live up to.1

A frivolous member of the president’s audience might have been reminded by these remarks of a passage in Günter Grass’s novel of 1963, Dog Years, in which there mysteriously comes upon a postwar market a kind of miracle glasses that enable young people, when they use them, to see what their elders were up to during the Nazi regime. Grass writes that the glasses show

…varied images of their parents’ past, often, though it takes a little patience, in chronological sequence. Episodes which are kept from the younger generation for one reason or another are made palpably clear…. All indications are that, surprisingly enough, no staggering quantities of erotic secrets are aired—little beyond the customary escapades. The scenes that recur over and over again in the twin spheres of the father-recognition glasses are acts of violence performed tolerated instigated eleven twelve thirteen years ago: murders, often by the hundreds. Aiding and abetting. Smoking cigarettes and looking on while. Certified decorated applauded murderers. Murder motives become leitmotives. With murderers at one table, in the same boat, bed, and officers’ club. Toasts, emergency directives. Record entries. Blowing on rubber stamps. Sometimes mere signatures and wastebaskets. Many roads lead to. Silence as well as words can. Every father has at least one to hide.2

The glasses soon disappear, confiscated by the parents or by local government authorities.

Just about a month after the Bamberg meeting of historians, Philipp Jenninger, the president of the West German Bundestag, undertook to perform the function of the miracle glasses. In a special memorial service in the parliament on the fiftieth anniversary of Reichskrystallnacht, the nationwide pogrom against the Jews in 1938, Jenninger sought to describe for his colleagues where their elders were and what they were doing in 1938 and, more particularly, why so many of them had admired and supported Adolf Hitler. This time the children seemed not to relish what the glasses revealed, for the result was a disaster; some of Jenninger’s colleagues interrupted the speech with cries of protest and large numbers left the chamber in anger. The international press, apparently on the basis of what the early departees told the parliamentary reporters, burst out in a rash of angry headlines, Ma’ariv of Israel accusing Jenninger of defending Hitler, the Amsterdam Telegraaf reporting a “tumult in Parliament over Hitler-veneration,” Il Messaggero of Rome announcing that the president of parliament had “ripped open once more the historic wound between Germany and the Jewish people.” The uproar was so great that Jenninger concluded that his position was insupportable and announced his resignation.

And yet, in the cold gray dawn of the morning after, things began to look a little different. Once the text of the speech became available, it was clear that none of the sensational charges against it had any substance. There was no trace in it of any sympathy for National Socialism, whose crimes and brutalities Jenninger described in perhaps excessive detail (oddly enough the Greens, the liberals, and some of the Socialists left the chamber while he was talking about “the factories of death”). Jenninger was as explicit as the Bundespräsident had been in Bamberg in stating that Auschwitz was a German crime and an ineradicable part of German history, and, indeed, insisted that the frequently heard demand that Germans should finally make a definitive settlement with the past (“endlich Schluss machen“) so that they could forget it was nonsense. Nor was it as clear as the first press reports had made it seem to be that the Jewish people were outraged by Jenninger’s address. Simon Wiesenthal, for one, defended Jenninger and said publicly that he had been misunderstood, and Michael Fürst, the vice-president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, actually praised the speech for showing “with such clarity what the situation was like in Germany between 1933 and 1938” and for demonstrating “that everything Hitler did was supported by the whole German people.”

Why then the uproar? The German press showed great fertility in explanations. Jenninger was a bad speaker because Chancellor Kohl, a notoriously clumsy orator, would not allow anyone to become president of the Bundestag who was more eloquent than he, and therefore the speech was “a trampling through history in army boots,” unaccented, monotonous, soporific (Der Spiegel). The speech may not have been written by Jenninger at all, but by his personal aide Thomas Gundelach, who delivered the twenty-six-page manuscript on Thursday morning, too late for Jenninger to master it (Süddeutsche Zeitung). Jenninger made the mistake of forgetting that he was a politician and not a historian. He wrote an essay that might have served as the basis of an interesting discussion rather than an address for the occasion (Günther Nonnenmacher in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung). Jenninger made the mistake of being too literary. In his attempts to convey the thoughts and desires of Germans in the Thirties, he relied too heavily upon the Flaubertian device of “free indirect discourse,” so that his auditors became confused and attributed to Jenninger sentiments (“Did the Jews not assume a role that was inappropriate for them? Did they not perhaps deserve to be put in their place?”) that he meant to be understood as representing the thinking of people in that earlier time (Paul Geyer in the feuilleton of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung). And so forth.

That such factors may have contributed to the debacle is doubtless true, but it is possible to look beyond them. David Schoenbaum of the University of Iowa, who is currently a visiting professor at the Free University of Berlin, was quoted in the press as saying that there was nothing in Jenninger’s speech that made his resignation necessary; the root of the trouble was to be found partly in the text and the speaker, but perhaps more in those people in the audience who either couldn’t or wouldn’t listen to it. This is suggestive. It is quite possible that the reaction to Jenninger’s speech was a sign that some at least of the parliamentarians are becoming fed up with being lectured about their country’s past. After all, this was the same body that gave a distinctly chilly reception to Professor Fritz Stern of Columbia University when he was invited to address it last year on the occasion of a commemoration of the East German rising of June 17, 1953, and told his audience that that revolt had not been a demonstration in favor of reunification, as West German politicians were fond of saying, but rather a courageous demand for freedom and reform, and reminded them that “undivided Germany brought unspeakable misfortune to other peoples and to itself,” a fact that no German could afford to forget.3


What must, to the ears of Jenninger’s auditors, have been one of the most painful passages in his speech came early, when he talked of the attitude of the broad public toward the atrocities of Reichskrystallnacht. He said:

The public for the most part behaved passively: that corresponded to their attitude with respect to anti-Jewish attitudes and measures in the years that had gone before. Only a few collaborated in these excesses, but there was also no rejection of them, no resistance worth the name. The reports speak of embarrassment and shame, of pity, yes, of disgust and horror. But only in isolated cases was there active sympathy or solidarity. Everybody saw what was going on, but the great majority looked away and kept their silence. Even the churches were silent.

The question of why this was so Jenninger did not treat very systematically, but it now forms the main theme of Michael Balfour’s new book, which, in his own words, “concentrates on explaining why more Germans did not stand up to Hitler and why those who did failed to get rid of him.”

Mr. Balfour is no stranger to his subject. A longtime student of German history and the author of an admirable study of William II and his times, he had during the last years of the Second World War access to virtually all of the information reaching Britain about German civilian conditions and attitudes and had a particular interest in oppositional activities because he had been a close friend before the war of Helmuth James von Moltke, one of the leaders of the Widerstand—the word Balfour uses to describe the anti-Nazi groups—whose biography he later wrote. His present book is the fruit of years of reflection on the practical and moral aspects of obedience and dissent, which he compresses into six general questions that he poses for his readers, with some tentative answers of his own, in his final pages. These include dilemmas that must have agonized the minds of many Germans during the Nazi period, such as in what circumstances, if at all, an individual has a right—or even a duty—to seek to overthrow by violence the government of his country and the equally troubling question whether anyone who lives under an evil regime inevitably acquires some share of guilt for its misdeeds.

The bulk of Balfour’s book, however, consists of a concise analysis of the circumstances of Hitler’s coming to power, the reaction of various classes of society to this event, and the development, modes, difficulties, and aims of the Widerstand, followed by a “portrait gallery” of twenty-four leading members of the Widerstand, including the “loner” Georg Elser, a skilled cabinetmaker and sometime Communist who came very close to blowing Hitler up in the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich in November 1939; representatives of the Goerdeler and Kreisau circles and of the military opposition; the group of students who, under the name “The White Rose,” distributed anti-Nazi leaflets in Munich in the fall of 1942 and the early spring of 1943 until they were caught and executed; labor leaders like Julius Leber and Wilhelm Leuschner, and—here the biographies are among the most original and informative—churchmen like Martin Niemöller, Bernhard Lichtenberg, and Bishop Konrad Graf von Preysing.

  1. 1

    German Information Center, Statements and Speeches, Vol. XI, No. 19 (October 14, 1988).

  2. 2

    Günter Grass, Dog Years, translated from the German by Ralph Manheim (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1965; Fawcett Crest, 1966), p. 464.

  3. 3

    The New York Review, October 8 and December 3, 1987.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print