Books May 2009

Hitler's Co-Conspirators

New histories reveal that the Nazi Regime deliberately insinuated knowledge of the Final Solution, devilishly making Germans complicit in the crime and binding them, with guilt and dread, to their leaders.
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Photo by Hugo Jaeger/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

The past two years have seen a flood of major works on Nazi Germany, books that include Life and Death in the Third Reich, Peter Fritzsche’s analysis of everyday life; Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, a collection of essays focusing on social history, by Ian Kershaw, the author of the definitive biography of Hitler; Germany and the Second World War: German Wartime Society, the multiauthored, 1,000-plus-page English translation of the ninth volume of the gargantuan, quasi-official chronicle of the war issued by Germany’s Research Institute for Military History; and, just published in March, The Third Reich at War, by Richard J. Evans, the third and concluding volume of a work that will almost certainly be for a generation the authoritative general history of Nazi Germany in English.

The Final Solution is at the heart of all these books. This focus may seem obvious now, but 30 years ago, study of the extermination of the Jews hadn’t yet entered the mainstream of scholarship on Nazi Germany. In fact, the standard single-volume history, Karl Bracher’s analytical The German Dictatorship, devoted a mere 13 of its 580 pages to the subject. Also all but ignored 30 years ago were the attitudes and opinions of Germans toward the Jews and toward the anti-Jewish policies of the Nazi regime, an issue that today’s historians consider central. Most striking is these books’ consensus: despite their authors’ different aims and methods, and despite their contending interpretations of a host of questions, they all agree that, contrary to claims made after the war, the German people had wide-ranging and often detailed knowledge of the murder of the Jews.

None of the authors uses that conclusion to render easy moral judgments, nor to argue that the population fervently embraced the regime’s lethal anti-Semitism (pace Daniel Goldhagen’s now largely discredited Hitler’s Willing Executioners). But both indirectly and explicitly, these books make clear that just as the Final Solution itself is now understood to inform so many aspects of Nazi Germany, so too the Germans’ knowledge of the murder of the Jews influenced and altered the history of the Third Reich and the war it started.

Three decades of scholarship (a good deal of it undertaken by Kershaw, as well as by the historian David Bankier, in his innovative study The Germans and the Final Solution) reveal that from the very onset of the war, it was impossible not to know the Jews’ fate. Soldiers and officers wrote home of mass shootings (one letter explicitly details the massacre of 30,000 Jews in a single town), and when they returned on leave, they spoke of the murders in private and in public. Reports of the killing squads, which detailed the number of murders, were routinely routed to midlevel bureaucrats in various departments in Berlin. The “White Rose” student resistance movement in Munich declared in its 1942 manifesto that 300,000 Jews had been killed in Poland, a crime “unparalleled in the whole of history.” News of Auschwitz—the death camp within the borders of the expanded German state, exchange 2258 on the German telephone system—reached the diarist Victor Klemperer in March 1942, and by that October he was describing it as “a swift-working slaughter-house”; another diarist recorded hearing an official of the SS security service on a suburban train brag about the number of victims killed at that camp every week. When the BBC beamed detailed descriptions of the workings of the death camps to Germany in 1942, the Viennese diarist Ludwig Haydn said that “with regard to the mass murder of Jews, the broadcast merely confirms what we know here anyhow.”

The Final Solution, too vast in scale and scope to be comprehended fully, was also too vast to be kept secret, as Evans explains:

Railway timetable clerks, engine drivers and train drivers and other staff on stations and in goods yards could all identify the trains and knew where they were going. Policemen rounding up the Jews or dealing with their files or their property knew as well. Housing officials who reassigned the Jews’ dwellings to Germans, administrators who dealt with the Jews’ property—the list was almost endless … The mass murder of the Jews thus became a kind of open secret in Germany from the end of 1942 at the very latest.

Summing up the evidence he has weighed and sifted for 30 years, Kershaw concludes:

Hard information, not just vague rumor, was being brought back to the Reich and was available. Its extent was considerable, the information itself often impressive in its detail. Only those anxious to shut their ears … could have been utterly ignorant. And only the willfully ignorant could have imagined a drastically different fate for the Jews than was actually in store for them.

Germans responded to this knowledge in various but all-too-predictable ways. True, Nazi rule had penetrated and altered popular attitudes, so by 1939 most Germans believed that Jews should be segregated or removed from the “folk community.” But the anti-Semitism of most Germans stopped far short of genocide—only a small minority overtly approved of the Nazis’ war against the Jews. Of course, an even smaller number publicly condemned Nazi policy and were prepared to help the Jews: whatever their private feelings, most Germans responded outwardly with indifference, and with an attitude nicely characterized by Bankier as knowing “enough to know that it was better not to know more.” Although certainly not a commendable stance, it’s hardly surprising. For one thing, as Kershaw writes, “the vast majority of Germans had plenty of other things on their mind.” The Final Solution reached its height just as Germany’s military fortunes began to ebb. Severe wartime privations, ever-mounting death tolls, growing anxiety about the fate of loved ones engaged in a savage and increasingly desperate struggle on an ever-retreating Eastern Front, the disintegration of everyday life caused by an ever-intensifying Allied bombing offensive against Germany’s cities—all crimped human empathy, to say nothing of collective action.

So, obviously, did fear. Throughout his history, Evans has chronicled the corrosive effects on German society of the Nazis’ network of surveillance and intimidation. In this latest volume, he perceptively highlights the effectiveness of the Nazi state’s coercive methods of winning and sustaining popular compliance, and the constrictions thus imposed on even the most innocuous individual action.

Retrospective condemnation is easy—this was a largely anti-Semitic population that had embraced the psychological and material benefits bestowed by a homicidal regime, and that remained inert in the face of what we now call genocide. But Kershaw’s analysis of a still-obscure study done by Michael Müller-Claudius, a German psychologist, at the very time the Final Solution was being implemented is illuminating. Müller-Claudius prompted 61 longtime Nazi Party members (all had joined the party or the Hitler Youth before the Nazi seizure of power) to discuss anonymously their views of the regime’s anti-Jewish policies. Five percent applauded the notion of exterminating the Jews—but the same percentage fully rejected anti-Semitism. Twenty-one percent displayed a degree of moral sensibility (advocating, for example, a future Jewish state). The remainder, 69 percent, showed what Müller-Claudius called “indifference of conscience”—an attitude that could contain some sympathy for the Jews but was at best resigned and at worst callously uninterested. Many of the respondents in this group linked their indifference to the risks inherent in adopting another, more sympathetic, view: “The Gestapo is very sensitive about it. Talk about the subject is not wanted.” If even longtime party members—people presumably unusually committed to Nazi ideology and well-insulated from the regime’s suspicions—were so cowed, one can imagine the constraints the general population felt.

As the social historians of the Reich probe more deeply, it’s increasingly clear that although knowledge of the Final Solution prompted action by only a heroic few, that knowledge—and Germans’ accompanying quiescence—nevertheless loomed large in the mind, and in many cases the soul, of the nation. This was deliberate on the part of the regime. In their public pronouncements Hitler, Goebbels, and Alfred Rosenberg married the bluntest language about an exterminationist policy toward the Jews with a complete absence of detail regarding implementation of that policy. Or the regime would wink at the population, as in a famous speech Goebbels made in 1943: when describing Nazi plans for the Jews, he said “exter—” and then theatrically corrected himself with the word exclusion. By establishing the murder of the Jews as an open secret—open enough that awareness of it pervaded society but secret enough that it couldn’t be protested or even openly discussed—the Nazis devilishly nudged the nation into complicity, and further bound the population to its leaders.

The crime revealed and concealed by that open secret became for many Germans the central psychological fact of the war. For those with the exceedingly rare courage to support an acute and active conscience—most notably, the conservative aristocratic officers, including Claus von Stauffenberg, behind the July 1944 plot against the Nazi regime—the war of extermination was the Third Reich’s irredeemable disgrace. It was a crime that demanded the Nazis’ overthrow and brought upon Germany a “blood guilt” (the term used almost ritualistically) that could not be expunged. The members of that humane, honorable, retrograde bunch embraced political attitudes ranging from the romantic reactionary to the quasi-corporatist to the quasi-authoritarian. They “bore some of the responsibility for the rise of Nazi rule,” as the historian Winfried Heinemann remarks in Germany and the Second World War, but “they also produced the only resistance that presented any real threat.” (For those dedicated to liberal democratic values—and aren’t we all?—history provides few better lessons of the fact that we must take, and embrace, our heroes where we can find them.)

But the letters, diaries, and SS reports on the popular mood reveal that even for the many who possessed a more commonplace sense of their own interest, the Final Solution emerged as their nation’s defining act, one that would provoke a terrible retribution. This dread was no doubt in part, as Evans maintains, “an unexpected by-product of the continuing Christian convictions of the great majority.” But it was also rooted in a matter-of-fact understanding that, as a soldier who had witnessed the massacre of a village of Jews on the Eastern Front put it, “God forbid we lose the war. If revenge comes upon us, we’ll have a rough time.” The foreboding arose, too, out of virulent anti-Semitism. Even if the Jews had started the war and were therefore responsible for their own suffering, so the thinking went, they would nevertheless thirst for revenge, so the Germans didn’t dare surrender. Indeed, they came to see the Allies’ relentless bombing offensive (which incinerated, suffocated, or blew apart some 600,000 Germans) as, variously, an act of divine justice, an act of righteous retribution delivered by the U.S. and Britain, or the revenge directed by an international Jewish conspiracy. But whatever the force animating this vengeance, its agency—Allied air power—was clear, and Germans seem to have agreed on its cause: what Germany had done to the Jews. The air war, which brought the front to the heart of Germany with increasing terror, seemed to serve as “a link,” as Fritzsche puts it, between “what happened to Jews and what was happening to Germans.” For a very few Germans, this conclusion led to a wish for Germany’s defeat. For most, it spurred a desperate commitment to fight on.

And here the open secret of the Final Solution was pivotal. By 1943 at the latest—the year that inaugurated the most terrible phase of the air war, with the firebombing of Hamburg, and the year in which the Wehrmacht’s back was broken at Stalingrad and Kursk—the war was lost for Germany. Yet for nearly two more years the Germans would continue the struggle. With its fighter force obliterated and its cities naked before the Allies’ fire from the sky, Germany saw civilian deaths in air raids increase nearly tenfold in 1945. The army, already bled white in a series of desperate retreats, would suffer more battlefield deaths in the final 10 months of the war than it had in the previous five years combined. Many factors help explain the ferocious tenacity of German soldiers and civilians. One of them was a justifiable terror of the Red Army. But the suffering that the German civilians endured came preponderantly from the western powers’ slaughter from the air, and until the very end, German soldiers fought as hard in the west as in the east. Surely, one factor—one whose power cannot ultimately be determined—was the Germans’ fear of the terrible reckoning that must follow from their open secret, a secret Goebbels obliquely but unmistakably shared with the nation in a grim 1943 exhortation to fight to the bitter end: “As for us, we’ve burned our bridges behind us … We will either go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or the greatest criminals.” The Final Solution had given the Germans no way forward but Armageddon.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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