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How Ordinary Germans Did It

Robert Capa/International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos
German soldiers captured by American forces, Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, France, June 1944

Growing consciousness of the Holocaust in both academic scholarship and society in general became evident in the late 1970s and intensified in the 1980s. Initially, important research focused on the different roles of Hitler, Nazi ideology, and the structure of the dictatorship in shaping the decision-making process that led to the Holocaust. Research also concentrated on the complicity of various professions and institutions in the Third Reich, and particularly on the SS. Still lacking was careful empirical study of how Nazi racial policy was also carried out by “ordinary” Germans.

Two events in the 1990s altered this situation. The first was the publication of my book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland in 1992, quickly followed by Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust in 1996. The second event was the exhibition of the Hamburg Institute of Social Research, “War of Annihilation: Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941–1944,” which extensively toured Germany from 1995 to 1999 and engendered both high attendance and considerable controversy. Ordinary Men and Hitler’s Willing Executioners overlapped in their focus on Reserve Police Battalion 101 as a test case because its commander had openly given his men—randomly conscripted, middle-aged reservists with a low rate of party membership and little police training and ideological indoctrination—the option not to participate in mass executions of Jews in Poland. Nonetheless the great majority did not avail themselves of this option.

Both books demonstrated that “ordinary” German men—and not just SS fanatics and ideologues, carefully selected and indoctrinated—had become mass murderers. But the two books differed significantly in trying to explain this phenomenon of noncoerced participation. I emphasized universal attributes of human nature and social-psychological factors shaping group dynamics, such as conformity, deference to authority, and adaptation to roles within an occupation unit stationed in enemy territory during wartime. Goldhagen emphasized German cultural particularity in the form of what he described as a deeply ingrained “eliminationist” anti-Semitism, which caused virtually all Germans to desire the death of the Jews and then to kill them with enthusiastic cruelty when given the personal opportunity.

Reserve Police Battalion 101 provided an exemplary case study to test and disprove assumptions about the factors often presumed necessary to explain individual participation in mass killing. Among those allegedly crucial factors were special selection by the Nazi authorities of those who would take part in the Holocaust, overt ideological commitment, harsh discipline and training, and coercion by means of binding orders and threatened punishment. None of these applied to the reserve policemen. But most of the ordinary German men who participated in the Nazi war effort and experienced the reality of the Nazi occupation of Europe did so in the armed forces, and not in the police battalions. Hence the explosive impact of the “Crimes of the Wehrmacht” exhibition in Germany. Despite two decades of scholarship to the contrary, the comforting postwar myth of the “clean Wehrmacht” had survived relatively intact in German popular consciousness into the mid-1990s.

The graphic photographs and chilling letters and documents in the Hamburg exhibition that portrayed the actions and attitudes of ordinary soldiers succeeded where scholarly books had not in finally establishing broader awareness that the horrific crimes of the German war and occupation in the East were not committed solely by, and known only to, the SS. The exhibition had some flaws. Some photographs turned out to have been falsely labeled and others upon closer inspection could not be verified; the letters and documents carefully selected for maximum shock effect may not have been representative in any statistical sense. But the overall lesson to the public was in line with decades of earlier scholarship.

Research on those who took part in Nazi persecution has continued into the new millennium, basically confirming and expanding rather than revising or reversing the earlier findings. No serious scholar has attempted to argue that ordinary German men did not become mass killers or that the Wehrmacht—the institution shaping the experience and behavior of by far the largest groups of Germans in World War II—was not heavily implicated in Nazi criminality. But a wealth of new studies, based on new sources and innovative approaches, has deepened our knowledge and understanding. Two examples are Mary Fulbrook’s A Small Town Near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust and Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer’s Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying: The Secret World War II Transcripts of German POWs.

Mary Fulbrook invites us to transcend the distinction between ideologically driven, hard-core Nazis on the one hand and “ordinary” German men on the other. She wants us to consider the role of the hybrid figure that she dubs the “ordinary Nazi” in the Holocaust. At the center of her case study is Udo Klausa, the Landrat (the principal civilian administrator) of the county of Będzin (Bendsburg), and his wife Alexandra. One great merit of this study is that Fulbrook had access to the personal papers and letters of the Klausa family. A complication is that she enjoyed this access because she knew the Klausa family personally. Fulbrook’s mother and Alexandra were childhood friends until her mother had to flee Nazi Germany for political and racial reasons—she was “an active socialist and a committed Christian…of Jewish descent”—but they resumed their friendship after the war to the extent that Alexandra become Mary Fulbrook’s godmother. One of the most fascinating aspects of Fulbrook’s scholarly study is how she handles her “personal entanglements” in a way that is both transparent and reflective.

Crucial to Fulbrook’s book are the different perspectives provided by her four main sources: contemporary Nazi documentation of the German occupation regime in East Upper Silesia (territory annexed to the Third Reich in 1939), especially the city and county of Będzin a scant fifty miles from Auschwitz; the contemporary letters of Alexandra Klausa; the numerous, self-exonerating postwar accounts of Udo Klausa; and the rare contemporary documents (a teenage girl’s diary, for instance) and postwar testimonies of the Jews of Będzin, who lived in the same town but in a constantly threatened world altogether different from that of the Klausa family. It is the juxtaposition of survivor testimony with Nazi documents, Alexandra’s letters, and Udo’s postwar accounts that lies at the heart of this revealing book.

What kind of person was Udo Klausa and what does Fulbrook mean by the term “ordinary Nazi”? Klausa came from a family of nationalist, conservative Catholics and aspired to a career in either the military or civil service. His frail health precluded the former more than his Catholicism disadvantaged the latter. A party member since February 1933, he allayed the reservations of even the most fervent anti-Christian Nazis by his loyal and efficient service to the regime. Fulbrook summarizes as follows the evaluation of Klausa by a notorious Nazi opponent of the Christian churches:

Despite the fact that Klausa internally “felt himself bound to his Catholic religion,” he had “in no way” let this get in the way of his “practical commitment to the National Socialist cause” and his preparedness “to give his utmost for the Führer’s work.”

Klausa shared the assumptions of many of his countrymen about Germany’s entitlement to imperial rule in Eastern Europe over people deemed racially and culturally inferior. Remarkably oblivious to the human impact of Nazi racial and “Germanization” policies on Jews and Poles, he felt himself to be “decent,” not “really” a Nazi, and an apolitical civil servant who was involved in “only administration.” Through a parallel account of the experience and fate of Będzin’s Jews, Fulbrook demonstrates that what to Klausa was “only administration” was in fact the implementation of policies that humiliated, expropriated, exploited, impoverished, starved, uprooted, and finally murdered the Jews of Będzin. Their families were torn apart and their lives ended by successive levies for forced labor and then selections for deportation to Auschwitz.

The atmosphere of casual racism and imperial entitlement in which the Klausa family lived in Będzin is breathtakingly captured in Alexandra’s letters concerning the challenge of finding and furnishing a new home there. She recorded her first impression: “The town is incredibly hideous, wretched, dilapidated, dirty, I’ve never seen anything like it. The streets are teeming with grimy, ragged, disgusting Jews…. The only habitable house in Będzin is the villa of the Jew Schein, a big industrialist who fled in time.” In fact the Scheins escaped eastward from Będzin in 1939 but were murdered later in the Holocaust. Concerning the furnishing of her new home, she wrote: “The trustee who sets the prices for Jewish furniture was just here…. I will take everything….” While waiting for the house to be painted so she can unpack her possessions sent from Berlin, she complained, “My sole occupation is to walk around and stand around in the house the whole time, in order to prevent any of our things ‘sticking to the fingers’ of the Jews. That is a very annoying business, since they steal like ravens.”

Juxtaposing Udo Klausa’s postwar accounts with the other sources, Fulbrook concludes that he lived in the typical “racist moral universe” of colonialism that took for granted the deaths caused by starvation, neglect, labor, and arbitrary execution before 1942. Of his own responsibility for the human cost of administering and carrying out Nazi policy and thereby facilitating the Final Solution, Klausa seemed oblivious both during and after the war.

Through various untruthful statements designed to both avoid legal liability and create an acceptable postwar identity, Klausa even denied knowledge of the deportation and mass murder of the Będzin Jews in 1942. At the same time he claimed that he fled his administrative post and returned to military service in order to avoid “innocently becoming guilty.” While exposing the falsity of Klausa’s postwar accounts, Fulbrook nonetheless concludes that with the onset of the Final Solution in 1942, Klausa was apparently disturbed by the culmination of Nazi racial policy in a comprehensive program of mass murder that he had facilitated but had not foreseen or desired. The letters of Alexandra indicate that from the beginning of the first major deportations of Jews from Będzin to Auschwitz in May 1942 until Udo’s own departure from Będzin the following December, he suffered a psychological crisis in the form of lassitude and shattered nerves that had no perceptible physical cause.

Still, Fulbrook is emphatic that it was Klausa’s behavior as an implementer of Nazi racial policy and facilitator of the Final Solution that is historically significant in its impact, not whatever secret reservations and strained nerves that he may have hidden while continuing to support the Nazi regime to the end of the war. His alleged qualms were conveniently disclosed to his children and judicial investigators afterward. It was, as Fulbrook writes, the behavior of “Hitler’s facilitators”—“ordinary Nazis” like Klausa—that “propelled the dynamism of Nazism” and “helped pave the way for genocide.”

Fulbrook is not the first historian to discover the central role of implementers and facilitators who neither made policy nor personally killed their victims. Fundamental to Raul Hilberg’s analysis of the destruction of the European Jews as a vast administrative process was his appreciation of the phalanx of bureaucrats whose contributions to defining, expropriating, concentrating, and transporting Jews were essential to the Final Solution. At the core of Eichmann’s defense strategy in Jerusalem was his effort to pass himself off as just one among many such banal bureaucrats, a strategy successful with Hannah Arendt, but not with the Jerusalem court or many historians.

Arendt grasped an important concept but not the right example. What makes Fulbrook’s book a milestone in Holocaust historiography, therefore, is not her discovery of a new category of perpetrator. What is remarkable is, on the one hand, her exceptional access to and use of the personal papers of one such perpetrator family, and, on the other, her skillful juxtaposition of their story against the terrifying reality of the Jewish experience in Będzin.

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