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.

Ekkehard Klausa
Udo Klausa, July 1939

Another example of new, hitherto untapped sources shedding additional light on old issues—the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of ordinary German soldiers and their relationship to National Socialism—is Neitzel and Welzer’s Soldaten, a study of secretly recorded conversations of German POWs in British and American captivity that were not declassified until 1996. To understand the German soldiers of World War II, they argue, “we have to see the war, their war, through their eyes.” This in turn requires the recovery of the “frames of reference” by which German soldiers oriented themselves and made sense of their world.

Two such frames of reference were pivotal, they argue. The first was the Third Reich and its “National-Socialist morality,” predicated upon fundamental racial inequality and the primacy of the German Volk community over other groups as well as individual Germans. The second was the war, during which 17 million Germans served in, and identified with, the armed forces and held the widely shared military values of bravery, toughness, obedience, and willingness to sacrifice. Against these two major influences, they argue, other factors such as previous political views and individual predisposition were marginal in shaping behavior.

The authors also note that our contemporary historical understanding of the Nazi era, which places the Holocaust at the center, was not the perspective through which most Germans—both soldiers and civilians—experienced World War II. (Indeed, they might have added that viewing the Third Reich and World War II primarily through the prism of the Holocaust did not prevail within the historical profession and wider society until the 1980s.) But the conclusions the authors draw from these surreptitiously recorded conversations concerning soldiers’ awareness of, attitudes toward, and participation in war crimes and the murder of the Jews are the strong point of the book.

Many crimes committed by German soldiers, Nietzel and Welzer argue, were “typical less of crimes committed by the Wehrmacht specifically than of war crimes in general.” These included the killing of prisoners, the targeting of noncombatants, and rape. Many POWs told of such acts in order to “entertain” their fellow prisoners and all too often they ended their stories of violence with the boast that “it was great fun.” More specific to the Wehrmacht than granted by the authors, I would argue, was its obsession with resistance by partisans and the “spiral of violence” of anti-partisan war, in which the razing of entire villages and mass murder of civilian populations both became “routine” and were felt by the soldiers to be fully justified.

The authors do note the degree to which German soldiers were “offended” and provoked to unfettered violence by the “dishonest fighting style” (surprise attacks from behind), atrocities, stubborn resistance, and female soldiers of the Red Army. But given the authors’ constant use of the notion of specifically Third Reich “frames of reference,” more could have been said about the underlying assumption of entitlement to bloodless conquest revealed in these conversations. In German eyes, enemy armies and populations stubbornly defending their homeland against the consequences of a horrific foreign conquest were viewed as intolerable. In classic “blame the victim” style, German soldiers felt that their enemies fully deserved the terrible misfortunes they had brought upon themselves by daring to resist.

A very small percentage of the POW conversations—0.2 percent—touched upon the Holocaust, but those that did “reveal that many soldiers were astonishingly well aware of the specific details of the extermination of European Jews.” Many storytellers wallowed in graphic detail, while their listeners responded by exhibiting the curiosity, voyeurism, and group spectatorship (as well as lack of surprise, objection, or disbelief) that were typical of those hearing accounts of the massacres. Antipathy toward Jews was pervasive. Some POWs criticized the horrific methods that were being described but not the policy of genocide itself.

The main concern expressed was not legal or moral but rather a broadly shared awareness of the vengeance Germany would bring upon itself if the war were lost. Among the plethora of Nazi crimes, only the mass death of Soviet POWs from starvation and neglect seemed to elicit at least some “outrage.” Ultimately, the authors conclude, what distinguished the Nazi campaigns in which the Wehrmacht participated from “the standard general practice of World War II” was the elimination of Jews and the Soviet POWs and commissars. “Here, racist ideology made itself manifest.”

The authors note that the POW transcripts “contain just about everything under the sun,” and that a “patchwork” of “contradictory fragments” was far more common than the coherent Nazi worldview expressed by a small minority of “ideological warriors.” Thus the authors often speak of “tendencies” rather than hard and fast generalizations. They describe the heterogeneous and often contradictory POW conversations with appropriate caution, and they reach some useful conclusions concerning Wehrmacht attitudes toward, and participation in, specific Nazi crimes that went way beyond the kinds of atrocities committed by many armies in many wars. But the authors strangely end their book by turning away from this historical specificity to increasingly broad and vacuous generalizations of the kind they had previously avoided. In arguing that “soldiers tended to behave alike” because of the military institution and wartime situation in which they found themselves, they increasingly gloss over the specific situations and ideological pressures that German soldiers encountered on the eastern front.

Arguing, for example, that “it is high time to stop overestimating the effects of ideology,” which “does not explain why soldiers…commit war crimes,” they employ a very narrow notion of ideology. It is for them confined to the self-avowed, coherent Nazi worldview espoused by “ideological warriors” and not the broader “frames of reference” of the Third Reich, such as fundamental racial inequality, that they emphasized at the beginning of the book. (To these I would add a wide consensus on entitlement to empire, as exemplified by Mary Fulbrook’s Udo Klausa.)

The problem stems, I think, from the authors sharply separating out the murder of the Soviet POWs and genocide of the Jews as the “only cases in which the violence can be seen as National Socialist,” and treating all other atrocities as not distinct or new except in their quantitative “dimension.” This blurs a vital distinction—both ideological and situational—between “conventional wars” on the one hand and, on the other, race wars of imperial conquest and subjugation of presumed inferior peoples. In the former kind of conflict atrocities are predictable but occasional and limited, usually resulting from the temporary heat of battle and breakdown of discipline. In the latter, atrocity is systemic and on a large scale.

The full significance of the Nazi war of annihilation in the East as seen through the secret conversations of captured German soldiers is perhaps not fully revealed in the source material. This is because in the British and American POW camps, both naval and air force personnel and army personnel of the North African campaign were overrepresented, and soldiers with prolonged experience on the Russian and Balkan fronts were underrepresented. This imbalance is compounded by the authors’ increasing departure from specific historical situations and the immediate background to events.

One example is the authors’ simplistic comparison of the German soldiers’ participation in the Nazi war of destruction with the behavior of American soldiers in Iraq. After describing the killing by American helicopter gunships of Iraqi civilians who had been mistakenly identified as an enemy threat in the confusion of a single operation, the authors argue that this “analogy…can be extended by definition all the way to the level of genocide” since “the murder of Jews was also defined as an act of self-defense.”

This comparison ignores a crucial difference. In the example of the American helicopter crews in Iraq, operational guidelines to prevent the killing of noncombatants in the heat and confusion of action were not followed, and the killing then escalated as the Americans compounded their initial error by a self-confirming but false interpretation of subsequent events. In the case of the most horrendous Wehrmacht crimes, guidelines were followed, discipline held, and millions died precisely because the system did not break down, and the killing continued systematically for months and years, not minutes.

The Wehrmacht doctrines of collective reprisal and anti-partisan warfare not only contributed to an enormously greater loss of civilian life but they also cannot be separated from Wehrmacht participation in the Final Solution in the way the authors assume. In Serbia, the Wehrmacht shot practically the entire adult male population of Jews and “Gypsies” in “reprisal” for casualties inflicted by Yugoslav partisans. And in the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht fought its anti-partisan campaigns under the guideline “Where the partisan is, is the Jew, and where the Jew is, is the partisan”—with predictable murderous consequences. Given the difference in scale, structure, and duration between the American war crime in Iraq as described by the authors and the pervasive and repeated “anti-partisan” and “reprisal” massacres by the Wehrmacht and their disproportionate impact on Jews and “Gypsies,” the authors’ comparison seems more specious than insightful.

By separating out the murder of the Soviet POWs and genocide of the Jews as the “only cases in which the violence can be seen as National Socialist,” Neitzel and Welzer do not sufficiently appreciate the combined effect of several factors: National Socialist ideology; a pan-European right-wing consensus (both fascist and traditional conservative) on rabid anticommunism and on the identification of Jews as Bolsheviks, and vice versa; a German military tradition contemptuous of any restraint and phobic about partisans; and German cultural assumptions about German superiority and entitlement to empire over Eastern European populations. This combination created a lethal situation that was not historically new but whose considerable novelty lay in the application to twentieth-century Europe of practices of racial imperialism hitherto reserved for non-European populations and territories.

Ironically, because the authors slight specific historical setting, they miss the opportunity to point out its power in shaping behavior in another important case. Using the recorded conversations of Italian POWs, the authors correctly note how different Italian soldiers were from their German counterparts. But the temporal setting is lacking. After 1940, Italian soldiers wisely exhibited an ever-growing disinclination to fight and die (or to become complicit in the Final Solution) as a despised ally on behalf of a German war in which the alternative outcomes were Italian defeat or Italian subordination. But if one looks at the brutal behavior of Italian soldiers when fighting their own wars of racial imperialism in Libya and Ethiopia in the 1930s, the myth of Italian innocence is quickly dispelled, although the scale of civilian deaths was obviously much lower. In short, in analyzing the tendency to commit atrocities, the similarity of race war and imperial conquest must be taken into account as well as the differences in institutional culture between the German and Italian armies.

In conclusion the authors argue that while the Holocaust is the “historically unique crime” that dominates our understanding of World War II today, it “did not define the character of World War II.” The majority of the 50 million lives lost were “not as a result of the Holocaust.” Thus the phenomenon of war itself (and not specific German policies and behavior) should be the center of our attention. They scold social scientists, historians, and, yes, “modernity,” for some presumed naive illusion about the “nonviolent nature” of human beings, and argue that it is “inappropriate” for us “to show outrage or surprise that people are killed and maimed when there is war. If there is war, that’s the way it is.” Basically, the final implication seems to be that we should stop fretting about how and why Wehrmacht soldiers felt and behaved the way they did in World War II, because people are violent, war is hell, and “soldiers kill because it’s their job.” A disappointing and vacuous ending to a book that began with so much promise.