Thursday, October 21, 2004

Geitner Simmons is taking his leave of the blogosphere with a bang in his post on the changing view of the nature of Nazi Germany among historians who are coming to accept a view of the Germans as another class of victims of Hitler's dark tyranny.

I have not yet read the Evans book so I won't comment on the specifics of his argument directly but I do find the entire thesis morally troublesome at first glance; not least in the fact that many other scholars have found a great deal of evidence that the average German was unlikely to be menaced by the SS-Gestapo -SD security apparatus. Ian Kershaw documented in his fine two volume biography of Hitler that when the war turned against Germany, the Fuhrer's bedrock support remained the fanatical core of the Nazi Party - the Gauleiters, Reichsleiters, SS fanatics and radical Party functionaries like Goebbels, Bormann and Rosenberg - but the German people followed loyally to the very end. There was low morale and grumbling, the support for the Fuhrer among war-weary Germans was passive - but it was support nonetheless, not resistance or victimization.

If a German was not Jewish or married to a Jew, not an active political or religious opponent of the regime, not mentally ill, a flagrant homosexual or a member of Himmler's numerically small classes of social undesirables, they had little to fear from the Gestapo. Even when ordinary Germans began protesting the secret T-4 euthanasia program that was Hitler's trial run for a eugenic murder machine, the Nazi regime backed down rather than retaliate with widespread terror.

Considering the degree or nuance of Nazi tyranny over the German populace is the job of a historian and I'm confident that Richard Evans, careful scholar that he is, employed his argument with great precision. It remains however, an argument that can easily be stretched to become as insupportable as Daniel Goldhagen's claim that all Germans were made by their cultural antisemitism and Hitler's political sorcery into potential eliminationist murderers. It also smacks strongly of the modern preference for distinguishing between a ghoulish regime and the people it rules over, including the dictatorship's own masses of supporters and bureaucrats. This is frankly an anachronism - no one thought like that at the time American and British bombs were raining on Dresden - not even to the Germans who were being firebombed.

The historiography of the Third Reich is important because Hitler and his regime are now a universal touchstone and a reference for human evil. Allusions to Nazism get injected into political debates across the world, usually inaccurately, by people in lands that never were involved in the European theater in WWII. A few years back, John Lukacs caused a stir by citing in his The Hitler of History, a seldom used, conservative estimate of the Holocaust of 4.2 million dead instead of the usual 6 million or 6.5 million, on methodological grounds. Battles over historical interpretation tend to become heated when discernable groups identify with the narrative of events and in the case of the talismanic nature of the Hitler myth, with it's atavistic barbarism and the moral abyss of the Holocaust, everyone feels that the history touches them in some way.
Check out Naiz Germany: A New History by Klaus Fischer. Very illuminating study. Also, I agree that the Germans were a victim of sorts, whether or not they were menaced by the security apparatus of the party. They were victims in that they paid the price for events that they in effect had no control over. They were victims in the same sense (if not degree) as were the Poles, Russians, French, Slavs, Greeks, Danes, Norwegians, and the British and Americans. Hitler was such an unbelievable monster that everyone suffered under him. Over 3,000,000 German civilians died in the war through bombing and conflict. You can't tell me that they and their families were not victims of Hitler's war whether or not he killed them. The innocents that suffered through the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were victims of their monstrous regimes in the same way, whether or not they were too weak to do anything about it. And for what it's worth, even if discontent had become widespread during the war, the masses couldn't have done anything about it precisely because the control the machiner of the state was out of their hands. In other words, it can work both ways: they couldn't do anything because they were scared and they were scared because they couldn't do anything. Just as in most totalitarian settings, it's best to go along to get along. We lionize the dissidents and the bravehearts precisely because they are such a rare breed.
In my opinion the Germans were not victims - and probably got off quite lightly since they were prepared to exterminate their neighbours whereas they themselves were spared extermination (although Winston Churchill proposed reducing central Europe to a rural subsistence economy -- possibly this war aim was dropped when the Americans joined the conflict).

I think you have to look at the hundreds of thousands of unsolicited denunciations by ordinary Germans against anyone who was deemed "odd", and at the enthusiasm with which ordinary people took up the national socialist policies and made them work. The Nazi leadership was inefficient and full of contradictions. Hitler himself was quite lazy. It was the ordinary people that made the system work and kept it going.

I think you also have to consider that the general population knew very well that they had committed terrible crimes and that if they lost the war they would be punished for what they did. They accepted a collective guilt, and it was this which kept them going right to the bitter end.

Both my parents and all my grandparents lived in London during the Blitz. The bombing terrified them, but it also made them angry to the point where they wanted Germany utterly destroyed. They never spoke of "Nazis" (which seems to be a modern obsession) - it was the GERMANS who had done these things!

Thanks for alerting me to Fischer, I'll probably read that in tandem with Evans after my next Border's vist.

For now however, I still think Nazi tyranny, as experienced by "apolitical ", " Aryan" Germans was of a far different character than the totalitarianism experienced by Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge. While much is made of the irrationality of the Nazi state, it's uses of terror were far more clearly demarcated - selected targeted groups - than the more arbitrary victimization of Stalin's Great Terror and even moreso of Pol Pot's.

The German populace - as Andrew from London noted - evinced real enthusiasm for Hitler ( less so for the Nazi Party)that was absent in the USSR for Stalin, whose personality cult was grandiosely artificial when it wasn't in the symbolic, distant, Good Tsar-Evil Counselors vein.

There were fairly evident " rules " for survival in Nazi Germany and the regime was far more attuned to pleasing public opinion than in the Communist tyrannies. Which is not to say that the German people ultimately controlled the Nazi regime - you are correct they did not - but the Nazis were generally inhibited in taking the same harsh measures with Germans that they imposed in the occupied territitories.
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