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Germans Confront the Nazi Past

It became a twentieth-century custom for nations to produce, under the auspices of government, official histories of their roles in great conflicts. The US and British studies of World War II are voluminous and uneven. Some contributions, like Samuel Eliot Morrison’s chronicle of the US Navy’s operations and Michael Howard’s and John Ehrman’s examinations of British strategy, are outstanding. Anglo-American campaign narratives suffer, however, from the fact that most were written within a decade of the war’s conclusion, and were subject to the exercise of varying degrees of influence and interference by former senior commanders who were still very much alive and holding high positions in government and in the armed forces.

Even more important, those histories were published while Allied code-breaking activities remained highly classified. As a result, American and British chronicles omit or obscure the critical part played by decrypted enemy signals in determining strategy and battlefield decisions. For example, the official history of the Royal Navy’s role in the Battle of the Atlantic by Captain Stephen Roskill, in many ways admirable, is fundamentally flawed because it ascribes successful U-boat detection to radar, sonar, and high-frequency direction-finding. It says nothing of the fact that throughout the war, the numbers of Allied merchant ships sunk fluctuated in remarkably exact inverse correlation with Bletchley Park’s successes in breaking German naval ciphers.

In a world conducted for the benefit of scholars, the US and British governments would today provide funding to revise the official histories in the light of modern research and revelations. As it is, of course, we must be content with what we have got: Fifties-vintage volumes that provide indispensable information about which regiments went where, and when.

Some nations’ official records are much less reliable than those of Britain and the US. Even in the twenty-first century, a depressingly small number of societies seek honestly to examine their own pasts, in war or peace. The Russian official histories of 1941–1945 are farragoes of nonsense, their version of events dominated by the propaganda requirements prevailing in Moscow when they were written. The French have never attempted to produce an officially sponsored account of their wartime occupation, because there would be no possibility of achieving acquiesence in, never mind consensus about, a version of what took place.

The Germans, however, are more fortunate. Over the past twenty years, the Research Institute for Military History in Potsdam has produced a succession of mighty volumes under the title Germany and the Second World War. These are not in the strictest sense official histories. They do not carry the formal imprimatur of the Berlin government. But they come near enough to amount to the same thing. The merits of the Potsdam chronicles are acknowledged by every student of the conflict. They profit immensely from being compiled so late in the day, when a huge weight of modern research is available to scholars. Those of us with specialist interest keenly anticipate the translations of each massive new volume by Oxford University Press.

The quality of contributions and campaign narratives varies, since each volume is multiauthored. Some recent studies in the series suffer from overdependence on Allied sources. They devote excessive space to—for instance—the conduct of the Anglo-American strategic bombing offensive. It seems otiose for German authors to rehearse a mass of detail about Allied activities that are already familiar to historians.

The importance of the Potsdam works derives from their meticulous examination of German documentary sources, which enables their authors to tell the story from a German perspective. They go to extraordinary lengths to display objectivity and detachment. Few, if any, readers of other nationalities could convincingly argue that this account attempts to mitigate, far less deny, the enormities of the Nazi era. Sometimes, indeed, the writers express themselves as if they were men and women without nationality, determined to blame others for nothing. In the latest volume, consider the circumlocution employed to note the fact that the Red Army frequently massacred German prisoners:

In the context of the brutal fighting in which the German invaders often came up against defenders whose fury had been further heightened by propaganda there is also evidence of treatment of German prisoners of war in contravention of international law.

The tone of the book is ponderous, bloodless, passionless, almost obsessive in its anxiety to acknowledge German guilt and eschew judgmentalism. Far from displaying any hint of partisan animosity toward the Allies, the authors write of “the growing number of enemies combating German aggression.” They note the belief of some German army officers in the summer of 1944 that the Führer should be told the truth about the plight of Germany. They contrast this with Claus von Stauffenberg’s view that Hitler must be killed, and comment with extravagant caution: “This uncompromising stand was most probably justified.” But it seems mistaken to tease about an issue of such gravity. It is unsurprising, indeed admirable, that German historians chronicling the era of Germany’s deepest shame approach their task as if sorting eggshells.

The latest volume comprises a series of essays on aspects of wartime German society. Its authors consider shifts of public mood and morale; contemporary awareness of the persecution and murder of Jews; the social makeup and battlefield fate of a typical Wehrmacht division; the experience of being bombed; the influence of the National Socialist Party and its propaganda machinery on day-to-day life and thought; and the role of domestic resistance.

In the autumn of 1939, in contrast to 1914, there was little popular appetite for war. General Ritter von Leeb wrote to the army’s commander in chief on October 3, describing a “bad mood among the population, no kind of enthusiasm, no flags flying on the houses, everyone looking for peace. The people feel war is unnecessary.” The Nazi leadership, aware of the uneasy torpor, identified the party’s foremost task as the mobilization of popular spirit. Hermann Göring addressed German workers a few days after the attack on Poland: “I call on you every man, every woman, young men and young women. We are all of us fighting in the front line.”

At the outset, however, not only did such appeals strike no chord, but there was a widespread delusion that the Führer himself wanted to halt the fighting. The authors write: “Most Germans were quite sure that Hitler would soon end the war that had been forced on them, since in the end what mattered to him was ensuring peace.” All this changed in 1940. Germany’s triumph over France roused national euphoria, which ebbed only slowly during the years that followed, amid the invasion of Russia and the rising tempo of Allied air raids. Stalingrad marked a turning point, of course, after which most Germans were acutely fearful for the future of their nation. If few suffered any sense of guilt—they placed overwhelming blame for Europe’s plight on the Allies—they knew that crimes had been committed, for which a terrible retribution would be exacted.

Yet opposition to Hitler or even criticism of him remained extraordinarily muted. Most people were willing to believe that he was indeed “the greatest general of all time,” as Berlin’s propaganda asserted. As late as September 1944, an NCO wrote home from the front: “Once the Führer lets his new weapons say their piece, then final victory will come as well.” The National Socialist Party’s membership rose from 5.3 million in 1939 to around nine million in early 1945. A decade of social and educational indoctrination had been overwhelmingly successful in convincing younger Germans of the virtues of ruthlessness, cruelty to lesser races, and the rectitude of any course of action adopted by Germany’s ruler.

The party appropriated responsibility for many measures that displayed its concern for public well-being, above all the relief of air-raid victims. Huge quantities of furniture were shipped from Jewish homes all over Europe, whose occupants had been dispossessed and murdered, to replace German household goods destroyed by bombing. Between March 1942 and July 1943, for instance, the contents of 22,623 Dutch dwellings were transferred to German ownership, along with those of 47,569 French and Belgian homes. Between 1941 and 1945, the property of 30,000 Jewish families was sold at public auction in Hamburg. Most of the 100,000 successful bidders were well aware of the goods’ provenance, but took them anyway.

Even for those tempted to criticize Germany’s leadership, fear of the consequences was strong. The authors note that the impression of ubiquitous surveillance was more potent than its reality. Small towns possessed only one Gestapo agent apiece. But it was well understood that anyone who voiced dissent would pay a price. An administrative officer in Braunsweig who decided that the war was lost and slashed his wrists was saved by medical assistance obtained by the city’s Kreisleiter, who then had the man shot for defeatism. Two days before US troops arrived in Wetzlar in March 1945, the town’s Kreisleiter was hanged for defeatism after he put up a sign proclaiming “Welcome to our liberators.”

According to the findings of the research institute, almost every German was aware of the existence of concentration camps, and most believed that their inmates, whether Jews or mere dissenters, deserved their fate. The authors write that collective tolerance of the camps was founded in social rejection of the categories of people assumed to be imprisoned there. Many such institutions were located on the outskirts of urban areas. The authorities in Dachau welcomed the creation of the camp there, believing that it would stimulate the local economy. Prisoners were widely employed on public works in full sight of the population, especially to clear air-raid damage. In Bremen, their striped garb caused them to be known as “zebras.”

Amid a desperate shortage of labor for rubble removal, authorities in Cologne arranged for hundreds of prisoners to be quartered on a ship anchored on the Rhine, to ensure that they were readily available once the bombers departed. Prisoners were not, of course, admitted to air-raid shelters, and thus they perished in large numbers during Allied attacks. German civilian doctors displayed no reluctance to sign death certificates for concentration camp inmates who died while working in the cities, even when it was plain that these were victims of their guards’ brutality or casual shooting. The mayor of Düsseldorf urged that more effort should be extracted from prisoners: “if these people were pushed harder, we could get many hundreds more work hours out of them, or even more,” he wrote in November 1943.

The authors consider the German people’s indifference to the fate of concentration camp victims to be part of the vast deceit in which the entire nation colluded:

The lie of Auschwitz became the lie of German society, whereby secret knowledge of secret evil was passed off as ignorance…. Living a lie was normality in German war society…. Only a few beacons of truth…rose above the sea of liars.

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