Tag Archives: Weimar Republic

Catastrophic Miscalculation

 

 

Benjamin Carter Hett,  The Death of Democracy:

Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic

(Henry Holt & Co)

                  Benjamin Carter Hett’s title, The Death of Democracy, may sound similar to several recent works addressing the contemporary decline of liberal democracy throughout the world, including of course in the United States  — the most obvious example being Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s highly regarded How Democracies Die.  Hett’s sub-title better captures the focus and scope of his work: it is an account of how Adolph Hitler and his Nazi party (officially, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party) were able to undermine the Weimar Republic, Germany’s post-World War I experiment in liberal democracy, and achieve power in the turbulent 1930s.  To be sure, there are snippets here that may send readers back to the present.  

                 Hitler “lied all the time” (p.38), Hett writes.  Like most  “basically ignorant people,” Hitler had a complex about “not needing to learn anything” (p.53), and routinely voiced scorn for intellectuals and experts.  The Nazis found their strongest electoral support – their “base” in today’s lexicon – in rural Protestant areas of the country.  Hitler’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, advocated building a “thick wall around Germany . . . a protective wall” (p.109; but with no indication yet to surface that he promised that Poland would pay for the wall).  For the most part, however, Hett, a professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, leaves to his readers the option of drawing lessons for our era from his account of Germany’s post-World War I experience.

                 The sobering story of Hitler’s ascendancy has of course been retold frequently, but Hett tells it concisely and well.  He does so by breaking the story into two general chronological parts, 1914-1929 and 1929-1934.  The first, 1914-29, is a macro-account that includes World War I and Germany’s defeat, the vindictive Versailles Treaty, and the turbulent decade of Weimar politics that followed, when extremists of left and right threatened to undermine the fledgling republic.  Yet, Hett reminds us, up until the Great Depression intervened toward the end of the 1920s, the Weimar Republic somehow managed to find its footing.  

                  The second part, 1929-1934, delves deeply into the background behind the Nazi ballot box insurgency in legislative elections in 1930 and 1932 that led Weimar President, World War I hero Paul von Hindenburg, on January 30, 1933, to appoint Hitler as Germany’s Chancellor  — the head of the Weimar executive branch, roughly equivalent to a Prime Minister within Weimar’s parliamentary democracy.  Hett details the frenetic maneuvering of key Weimar personalities in December 1932 and January 1933 to persuade the aging Hindenburg, then 85 years old, to take the fateful step of appointing a man to run the Weimar government whom he had always distrusted and disdained.  The appointment, Hett emphasizes, was “constitutionally legitimate” and “even democratic” (p.3) under the 1919 Weimar constitution.   

                   Each of he book’s eight chapters begins with a “real time” anecdote that paves the way for the historical narrative that follows.  The first constitutes a powerful scene-setter: the burning of the Reichstag, Weimar’s legislative chamber, on February 28, 1933, one month after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor.   The Nazis portrayed the fire as the opening act of a Communist uprising that provided a pretext to invoke emergency powers, marking that February 28 as the “last night of the Weimar Republic, the last night of German democracy” (p.3).  The final anecdote, the introduction to the book’s last chapter, involves the “Night of the Long Knives,” June 30, 1934, when Hitler eliminated much of the potential opposition to his regime.   The six other chapters also begin with real time anecdotes that add spice to the book’s straightforward, narrowly focused yet engrossing historical narrative.

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                    Hett observes at the outset that Hitler’s Germany is “unique among all regimes in human history in at least one respect: serious historians are unanimous in judging it a catastrophe with no redeeming features.  There is no other regime, not even the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, that can claim such a dubious distinction” (p.8).  But the agreement ends at this point, he indicates.  Historians and intellectuals continue to grapple with the question how and why civilized Germany, with its abundant contributions to European culture, descended into the barbarism of the Third Reich.  No single answer suffices to explain how the land of Beethoven, Bach and Brahms wound up in the hands of Hitler and Himmler.  

                   Like many analyses of Weimar’s downfall and Hitler’s ascendancy, Hett begins with Germany’s loss in the First World War.  It is no exaggeration, he writes, to say that the “answer to all questions about Weimar lies somewhere in the First World War” (p.11).  Weimar Germany never developed a “general social consensus on why the war had been lost or how to respond to the postwar settlement” (p.32-33).  Hett returns repeatedly to a comparison between August 1914 and November 1918 that found its way into right wing mythology in the post WW I era: the purported unity that bound the country together in August 1914, when Germany sent its soldiers off to what was considered a noble cause, versus the disunity of November 1918 when, according to the mythology which Hindenburg helped foster, German troops on the battlefield suffered a “stab in the back” from elites in Berlin and elsewhere, far from the front lines — with “elites” always of course encompassing Jews.   More than any other political party, the Nazis were able to convince the voting public that they could recreate the spirit of 1914 and expunge the stab-in-the-back “betrayal” of 1918.  

                  Hett also follows other analyses in emphasizing how between 1929 and 1933 conservative political elites came to accept Hitler and his unruly followers as a necessary bulwark against what it perceived as the existential threat of Bolshevism.  Authoritarian by disposition and at best only weakly committed to democratic principles, conservative elites reached the conclusion that if a violent Bolshevik uprising were to be averted on German soil, they had “no choice but to find a way to work with Hitler — to use him and his movement” (p.234).  Those who pushed for a role for Hitler in the Weimar government did so notwithstanding their doubts about the Nazi leader and his party, remaining confident that he could be controlled from within – a strong candidate for history’s most catastrophic miscalculation.

                 But if neither of these points of emphasis could be considered groundbreaking, less conventional is Hett’s view that Nazism is best understood as a reaction to “globalism,” by which he means the liberal, capitalist order emanating from Great Britain and the United States, an order based on free trade, the international gold standard and, for Germans, onerous war reparations payments.  After harnessing superior wealth, resources and power to defeat Germany militarily during World War I, Britain and America continued in the post-war era to define the world in which Germany had to operate.   It was a global order that no German could control, a “way of keeping Germany tied down and harmless” (p.108).  More than anything else, Hett argues, the Nazis were a “nationalist protest movement against globalization” (p.106), even if that term was not in use in the 1920s and 1930s.    

                Germans could accept the hegemony of Anglo-American globalization and try to make it work to their advantage.  Or, “against all odds and perhaps against all reason, they could rebel against it.  This was the fundamental foreign policy choice that faced the Weimar Republic throughout its existence” (p.33).  Accommodation to the liberal capitalist order was the reflex of Germany’s democratic parties and politicians, whereas rebellion was the path of the nationalist right.   Among the nationalist groups choosing the path of rebellion, the Nazis offered the most radical approach.  They maintained that Germany could “cut itself off completely from the world economy and rely on its own resources, with no imports, exports, or foreign investment” (p. 109).  Hitler’s frequent invocation of Germany’s need for lebenstraum, living space, in the east should be seen in this light, Hett argues.  Hitler’s “entire program was fundamentally directed to making Germany economically self-sufficient by conquering the Soviet Union” (p.114).  

                 The Nazis and  Germany’s other political parties trolled for votes within the framework of the 1919 Weimar constitution.  That instrument created what Hett terms a “state-of-the-art modern democracy,”  establishing a “scrupulously just proportional electoral system” (p.7) that depended upon coalitions and compromises among Germany’s diverse range of political parties, with small and marginal parties having   outsized n influence.  The constitution also offered protection for individual liberties, voting rights for women, and express equality between women and men.  But Weimar democracy operated in conditions that were “hardly promising: a catastrophic lost war and a hated peace settlement, followed by extraordinary political and economic turbulence” (p.73).  The Weimar Republic witnessed top-level political instability throughout its fourteen years, with thirteen chancellors and twenty-one different administrations.  Yet, despite unfavorable odds, the Republic survived and even flourished in the latter portion of the 1920s, thanks in no small measure to the instrumental work of Gustav Stresemann, Germany’s Foreign Minister from 1923 up until his death in 1929. 

                 Stresemann’s tenure at the Foreign Ministry marked a period when Germany “shed its pariah status and returned to its place as a respected and important force in European and world politics”  (p.57).  During Stresemann’s tenure, Germany joined the League of Nations and obtained significant debt relief.   Weimar Germany’s integration into the international community in the 1920s under Stresemann presents a “forceful reminder that the Republic was not doomed from the start, contrary to another persistent myth” (p.73), Hett writes.  At the time he died in 1929, Stresemann was convinced that Hitler and his party represented the most dire threat to Germany’s reintegration into the international community.

                  Hitler’s rise as force to be taken seriously in Weimar politics coincided with Stresemann’s years as Germany’s Foreign Minister.  The polar opposite to Stresemann “in every important way” (p.54), Hitler led the so-called Munich Beer Hall putsch in 1923 that sought to overthrow the Weimar government.  After serving only a few months in prison for what amounted to an act of treason, Hitler emerged as a national celebrity. He and his Nazi confederates spent the next several years building the party at the grass roots level.   Between 1925 and 1929, Nazi party membership increased from 25,000 to about 180,000.   Hitler by then was convinced that his party could come to power only by peaceable means. 

                The Wall Street crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed dramatically increased unemployment and bankruptcy rates across Germany, enhancing the appeal not only of the Nazis on the political right but also of the Communists on the left.  A potent force with some 360,000 party members by the early 1930s, the German Communist Party was “just as dedicated as the nationalist right to overturning the democratic system” (p.74).   The Communists consequently refused to engage in political coalition building with the  Social Democrats, Germany’s strongest democratic party which, like the Communists, drew its base from the urban working classes.  The Communists hated no party, Hett observes, maybe not even the Nazis, more than the Social Democrats, whom they considered “not just enemies . . . [but] traitors” (p.65).  Stalin’s German auxiliaries, he notes ruefully, “could, and did, frustrate efforts at forming a united left that might have kept the Nazis from power” (p.113). 

                 The Communists had their own paramilitary forces, much like the Nazis’ SA (or Brownshirts), and conflicts between the two were rampant throughout much of Germany as the 1920s came to a close.  By the early 1930s, conditions in major German cities “came close to a state of civil war” (p.127).     

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                   The second half of the book zeroes in on the maneuvering that took place between 1929 and 1933, as Weimar conservatives wrestled with the recurring question: what to do with Hitler and his Nazi party, increasingly successful at the polls at a time when economic conditions were worsening and civil war was threatening.  The lead roles in what amounts to a “palace intrigue” tale belong to three men: Franz von Papen, Kurt von Schleicher, and President Hindenburg.  Papen served as Chancellor from May to December 1932, and as Hitler’s Vice Chancellor from January 1933 into 1934.  Schleicher served as Defense Minister in 1932 and as Germany’s last Chancellor before Hitler, from December 1932 to January 1933, but was at least equally influential out of government.  

                   Hett describes Schleicher as arguably the “most important actor in the last five years of the Weimar Republic” (p.81).  Before becoming Defense Minister, Schleicher served as a sort of lobbyist for the army and, from behind the scenes “made and unmade chancellors and administrations” (p.12).  He was a “champion manipulator and intriguer, always creeping from door to door, whispering in important ears. . . [He was] calculating, manipulative, and often dishonest” (p.81).   Papen, a career military officer and devout Catholic, had an aristocratic air, “smooth, urbane, and always elegantly tailored” (p.146), but was considered an intellectual lightweight who lacked gravitas and expertise in policymaking.

                The Nazis’ string of successes at the ballot box began before Papen’s chancellorship, in the fall of 1930, when they exceeded their own expectations by winning 107 seats in the Reichstag with 18.3% of the vote, compared to 12 seats and 2.6% of the vote in 1928.  In sixty years of German national elections, Hett notes, no party had ever risen so far so quickly as the Nazis in 1930.  The equally anti-democratic Communists also realized substantial gains.  Then, in July 1932, the Nazis won another stunning electoral victory in legislative elections, earning 37.3% of the vote and 230 Reichstag seats.  Although not a majority, the Nazis became by a wide margin the Reichstag’s largest party.  The Communists were the only other major party to gain seats.  The success of anti-democratic parties on both the left and right, Hett writes, was an “unsurprising product of the dramatically worsening economic situation since 1931 and of growing German anger at uncontrollable global forces” (p.150).  

                 The Nazi electoral successes convinced Schleicher that they would be “ideal foot soldiers” in coping with the civil unrest that was threatening to engulf the country.  But he was “not so foolish that he wanted the Nazis to have any real power.  His strategy always ran simultaneously on two tracks: trying to find a way to use the Nazis, if they could be used, but preparing to fight them if they could not be.  It probably never occurred to him that he might be outmaneuvered in his own devious game” (p.93). 

                   In May 1932, Schleicher convinced Hindenburg to appoint Papen as Chancellor.  Schleicher arranged for himself to become defense minister in the new administration and “imagined he would be the real power in the cabinet,” with Papen serving as “his puppet”  (p.147).  Papen’s cabinet, dubbed the “Barons’ cabinet,” was more right wing and socially elite than any of its predecessors.  Papen’s most dramatic lurch away from democratic constitutionality and the rule of law came through what was  known as the “Papen coup,” a national takeover of most of the functions of Prussia, Germany’s largest and most influential constituent state where the Social Democrats were the dominant party.  Papen himself became special  “Reich commissar” and head of the Prussian government.  He defended this move as a preventive action against a communist insurrection.  Hett characterizes the maneuver as a “decisive coup in the coffin of German democracy” (p.150), comparing it to an American president simultaneously removing the governors of New York and California from office and taking over their functions.

            Hett’s narrative reaches a dramatic crescendo in its account of the fateful and frantic months of December 1932 and January 1933, centered around a flurry of meetings in which Papen, Schleicher and Hindenburg searched for an appropriate role for Hitler and the Nazis, with Hindenburg’s son Oskar, a contemporary of Papen and Schleicher, often in attendance.  Hitler consistently refused any role in the government but the chancellorship and, throughout most of the two month period, Hindenburg just as consistently opposed Hitler’s appointment to that position..

            In the first such meeting, on December 1, 1932, when Papen proposed that Hindenburg appoint Hitler as Chancellor, Schleicher countered by proposing himself as Chancellor.  Hindenburg wavered, then determined to give Schleicher a chance to find the best way forward.  Two days later, Schleicher, stepping out fully from his long years in the political backroom, was sworn in as the chancellor.  Schleicher would “try his luck at a broad coalition, his last, desperate effort to bring political stability on right-wing terms without civil war” (p.161).

            Throughout most of the two month period, Hindenburg found the “very idea of having as his chancellor the man he called ‘the Bohemian private’ an outrage” (p.154).  As late as January 26th, Hindenburg told a friend that Hitler was “at best qualified to be his postal minister” (p.177).  But the following day, Friday, January 27, 1933, the Reichstag forced Hindenburg’s hand when senior Reichstag leaders from all parties agreed to hold a session the following week to vote no confidence in the Schleicher government.

             Schleicher saw the appointment of Hitler as the only way out.  Hindenburg still didn’t agree, and Schleicher and his cabinet resigned rather than face the no-confidence vote.  It was only on the following day, Saturday, January 28, 1933, that Hindenburg reluctantly agreed that no other constitutional solution appeared possible other than to form a government under Hitler’s leadership.  Schleicher would serve as Vice-Chancellor, part of a strong “counterweight against National Socialist predominance” (p.178).  Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor the following Monday, January 30th

                 Schleicher, Papen and their associates sincerely believed, Hett writes, that the presence of conservatives in the cabinet, along with the authority of Hindenburg and, in the last resort, the army, “would surely keep Hitler on the straight and narrow” (p.182).  But as a result of Papen’s 1932 “coup” against the Prussian government, the key Prussian ministries were now part of the national government.  Hitler arranged for Hermann Göring to be named Prussian interior minister, placing the Nazis in control of the powerful Prussian state police.

                 From the beginning, the Nazis struck out at anyone who might be a Nazi opponent.  Hindenburg signed a decree on February 4, 1933, giving the police wide powers to break up political meetings, ban associations, and shutdown media outlets.  The Nazis spent much of February 1933 awaiting a Communist coup that never materialized.  Then the Reichstag fire occurred, six days before the country was to vote in another round of legislative elections.  There is still no consensus, Hett indicates, whether the Nazis themselves started the fire.  There is a consensus, however, that Marinus van der Lubbe, the 24 year old Dutch citizen apprehended inside the Reichstag at the time of the fire, could not have started it by himself. 

                  The Nazis immediately characterized the fire as an act of political arson, the opening act of a Communist uprising.  On the morning following the fire, the cabinet passed and Hindenburg signed an executive order known informally as the “Reichstag Fire Decree,” which  “tore the heart out of the democratic constitution of the Weimar Republic” (p.187).  The decree cancelled freedom of speech and assembly, the confidentiality of post and telegraphic communications, and freedom from arbitrary searches, arrest and detention.  The decree became the “legal foundation for Hitler’s twelve-year dictatorship” (p.187-88), in effect the “Constitution” of the Third Reich.  In the course of the next four months, in a “remarkably fast and relentless process of consolidating power” (p.206), most other guarantees of liberty and the rule of law were swept away.  

                 Hett’s narrative finishes in the summer of 1934, first with the June 30th  “Night of the Long Knives,” in which Hitler eliminated the sources of opposition and potential opposition to the Nazi regime.  Hitler contended that he had squelched a percolating plot among his rowdy SA storm troopers, an argument that Hess considers a pretext for Hitler to strike against his more dangerous enemies within the conservative establishment.  In large part because of the genuine unpopularity of the SA, the Night of the Long Knives “restored a good deal of the regime’s popularity within Germany – and the conservative resistance was shattered” (p.230).

                 Hindenburg, long the most influential and perhaps most resistant among Germany’s conservative elite, sent Hitler a telegram praising  his “decisive intervention,” through which his Chancellor had “nipped all treasonous machinations in the bud” and “saved the German people from great danger” (p.229).  Schleicher was among the victims of the June 30th purge, killed by Nazi assassins in his home.  Papen, unlike Schleicher, had been plotting against Hitler but was spared after writing a groveling letter to Hitler complementing him for his “soldierly decisiveness” in “saving the fatherland from an enormous danger” (p.230).

                  Hindenburg died a little more than a month later, on August 2, 1934.  He went to his grave “serene in the belief that his good name had been secured by Hitler’s success in overcoming the political divisions of the early 1930s” (p.235).  Hitler took over immediately the powers of the presidency.  No one could ever replace the esteemed war hero, Hitler explained to the German public, and the office of the president itself was therefore abolished.  Hitler assumed the formal title of “Führer and Reich Chancellor.”  All members of the armed forces and all civil servants were obliged to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler personally.  Hitler’s’ hold on power was “now complete, and all efforts to control or ‘tame’ him had decisively failed”  (p.231).  From Hindenburg’s death in August 1934 onward, “the switches were set for war – a war to overcome the global economic dominance of Great Britain and the United Sates and to make Germany an economic superpower by seizing a massive land empire in eastern Europe” (p.231). 

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                   Whatever one’s views on parallels between Germany in the early 1930s and the United States in the current era, everyone who values democracy should have an understanding of the case of Weimar Germany.  Benjamin Hett presents that intricate case  meticulously — and often chillingly.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

November 19, 2019

4 Comments

Filed under German History, History

Discovering Humanistic Culture in the Land of Hitler and Himmler

Fest.1

Fest.2

Joachim Fest, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood,
translated by Martin Chalmers

      It is nearly impossible to reflect upon the Nazi period in Germany without asking how this exceptionally cultured country could sink to such unprecedented levels of barbarity.  This reflection upon what might be termed Germany’s “duality” – the land of Beethoven and Bach, Goethe and Schiller becoming the land of Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels — is so commonplace as to be a platitude.  But it is also the main thread tying together Joachim Fest’s engaging memoir, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood, recently translated into English.  Fest, born in Germany in 1926, went on after World War II to become a respected historian, one of a handful of Germans who wrote openly about his country’s descent into barbarity during the Nazi period.  His works include a biography of Adolf Hitler and books about Albert Speer and the German resistance to Nazism.  Fest was 7 years old when the Nazis came to power in 1933 and was old enough in 1944, at age 18, to serve in the Nazi military.  Fest died in 2006.

      The duality of the Germany which Fest describes proved fatal to many of his family’s Jewish friends, whose faith in the humanism of German culture blinded them to the true nature of the Nazi regime until it was too late. They had “believed all too unreservedly in reason, in Goethe, Kant, Mozart and the whole tradition which came from that” (p.261), Fest writes. But this duality is also at work throughout Fest’s memoir in his more mundane descriptions of everyday childhood life in Nazi Germany where, within the rigidly controlled and aggresively anti-intellectual Nazi environment, young Joachim discovered humanistic German culture.

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       Fest describes his German childhood world, with the Nazis in firm control by his 7th birthday in 1933, as “utterly political,” where “[m]any conversations and almost all personal decisions were made with an eye to the prevailing situation.” Yet, the “traditional rules of upbringing still applied, in our home perhaps even a little more than elsewhere” (p.76), in large measure because of the structured home environment which Fest’s parents provided.  Fest’s father Johannes dominates the first half of the memoir, the author’s childhood years, then recedes to the background but remains a forceful influence as the author reaches adolescence and early adulthood, which he spent in boarding school and the German military.

     The senior Fest possessed an “authority which was never challenged, still less doubted” within the Fest family, where “fragments of this elevated image increasingly asserted themselves, in the face of all childish and later all adolescent resistance” (p.29). The “Not I” portion of the memoir’s title were words which Johannes dictated to his children, in Latin – etiam si omnes, ego non – “even if everyone else, not I,” from St. Matthew’s gospel, to remind them of the family’s resolute opposition to the Nazi regime.  As young Joachim moved through his childhood years, his father served as the lens with which the son came to view the regime.

      Johannes was from a staunch Prussian Catholic family yet, unusually, also strongly supported the Weimar Republic, Germany’s beleaguered post World War I experiment in parliamentary democracy. “If Prussia and republicanism were not easily reconciled,” Fest writes of his father, “then the contradiction was further sharpened by my father’s strict Catholicism. He was a pious man, who accounted to the ‘Lord God’ (as he usually put it in this context) for each of his private or political decisions” (p.16).  Joannes never wavered in his conviction that a “human being without faith was ‘incomplete.’ Neither reason nor walking upright separated him from the apes; the difference between the two lay in the need for a Beyond” (p.112).

      Professionally, the senior Fest was an erudite primary school headmaster who lost his job during Hitler’s first year in power. Unwilling to join the party and pledge allegiance to the new regime, which he repeatedly termed a “band of criminals,” the author’s father was informed that his “public speeches disparaging the Führer” were the reason for his dismissal (p.35). When handed his dismissal papers, Fest’s father reminded the Nazi bureaucrat in charge that he was a civil servant entitled to certain protections. “You can tell our Führer that. He’ll be very impressed” (p.34), the bureaucrat responded.

       Fest’s mother Elisabeth shared her husband’s opposition to the Nazi regime but was far from supportive of his outspoken hostility to the regime and his refusal to join the Nazi party.  Joannes’ stand in her view endangered the entire family and threatened its stability. On numerous occasions, Fest’s mother entreated her husband to yield to Nazi demands and provide the requisite assurances to the authorities to enable him to continue to hold a  job and maintain the family’s comfortable living standard.  If joining the party would be a lie to those in charge, the author overheard his mother telling his father, “then let it be a lie! A thousand lies even, if necessary!” (p.50).

      The Fest family grew up in Karlshorst, a middle class Berlin suburb.  Joachim was the second son in a family of five children, where the older three siblings were boys and the younger two were girls. Fest’s older brother Wolfgang died serving in Hitler’s military, but the other family members survived the war.  Fest was 13 when World War II began in 1939. By this time, he had developed a precocious interest in poetry, literature, and music, and much of the memoir details the evolution of these interests against a backdrop of ubiquitous pressure to support the Nazi regime.

       Fest’s Aunt Dolley introduced him to opera at age six, when they heard Mozart’s The Magic Flute, an “overwhelming experience” which served as Fest’s “entry to the magical world of music” (p.48-49). Another important influence on young Fest was Father Wittenbrink, the family’s anti-Nazi parish priest.  Father Wittenbrink tried to convince the author that Mozart was the “most convincing proof of the existence of God. . . Every single page of his biography teaches us that he comes from another world” (p.174), Father Wittenbrink argued.  Fest learned poetry through regular visits to the home of the Fest family’s friend, Dr. Meyer, who was incessantly talking about the “books he was reading for the second, third or fourth time” (p.89).

      One of the family’s many Jewish friends, Dr. Meyer disappeared during the war and, although his fate is not difficult to imagine, we never learn exactly what happened to him.  In their last meeting in the spring of 1939, Dr. Meyer ruminated to the young Fest that the great German poets  — and thus Germany’s duality — “bore some of the blame” for the uncertainty he was then facing in his life. He had often considered emigrating and had been “close to making the decision to leave.” But then “trust in the culture of the Germans had always won out” (p.129-30).  Dr. Meyer lamented that he had accepted the idea that a nation that had “produced Goethe and Schiller and Lessing, Bach, Mozart and whoever else, would simply be incapable of barbarism. Griping at the Jews, prejudice, there had always been that,” Dr. Meyer mused.  “But not violent persecution. They wouldn’t do anything to us.” Dr. Meyer’s final words to young Fest were, “You know how mistaken we were” (p.130).

      Joachim and his older brother Wolfgang were sent off to a provincial boarding school near Frankfurt after the war began in 1939. As he left Berlin on the train, Joachim reflected on his German childhood. Although these years had been difficult ones for his parents, his childhood had nonetheless been “happy years” because his parents had “let us feel their fears as little as possible” (p.133).  A volume of Schiller’s work provided Fest with what he described as his “refuge from the irksome features of boarding school” (p.141). But Fest developed a reputation with the school’s administration for impertinence – for being a “wise guy” – as captured in a report from the school sent to Fest’s parents:

Joachim F. shows no intellectual interest and only turns his attention to subjects he finds easy . . . His religious attachment leaves something to be desired. He is hard to deal with. He shows a precocious liking for naked women, which he hides behind a taste for Italian painting . . . He is taciturn. All attempts by the rectorate to draw him into discussion were in vain (p.187).

       In 1944, Joachim reached age 18 and, facing conscription into the German SS, volunteered instead for the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe.  When he told his father by telephone from boarding school that he had volunteered to avoid being drafted into the SS, his father reacted indignantly. “Volunteered!. . . For this war! Have you thought of me? Of us?” Finally, “after long argument and even longer silence we hung up” (p.182). In the letter that arrived few days later, his father wrote, with an “unbelievable lack of caution,” that one “does not volunteer for ‘Hitler’s criminal war’, not even to avoid the SS” (p.182).

       Despite his father’s entreaties, Fest went ahead with his plan to volunteer for the Luftwaffe, where he again found refuge  in literature, music and poetry, abetted by a colleague who shared Fest’s cultured passions. In March 1945, advancing American forces captured Fest and he wound up in an American prison camp as the war ended two months later.  Although Fest initially found his capture a welcome happenstance, a rumor circulated within the camp that its administration was to be turned over to the French.  Fest and his fellow prisoners surmised that the French were likely to be more bent upon revenge than the Americans.  This prompted Fest to organize an ingenious but unsuccessful escape attempt from the camp, one of the memoir’s most memorable sections. Upon his return to prison camp, a book-loving American guard introduced Fest to English language novels, especially Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.

       The memoir ends with the family reunited in devastated Berlin in late 1945, absent Fest’s older brother Wolfgang, who died of a lung infection on Germany’s Eastern Front. Upon returning home, Fest learned that his father at age 50 had been conscripted into the military, where he had been captured by the Russians and imprisoned in a Russian camp. Fest found his father “hardly recognizable: a man abruptly grown smaller, slighter, grey-haired. Most of the time he simply sat there, his eyes sunken, where previously he had always set the tone” (p.260).

      In her husband’s absence during the war, Fest’s mother had “proved to be a robust person and had completely shed her [family] gentleness” (p.259). But upon seeing his mother, Fest was “dismayed by the emaciated, scraggy picture that she presented, and how empty her eyes were” (p.248). When, unavoidably, the name of brother Wolfgang was mentioned, his mother’s “mouth began to twitch” (p.260). Wolfgang’s death was an “unnameable misfortune for our family. My mother had always said as long as we were all alive she would not complain. Now that security was gone. In the almost twenty-five years that remained to her, whenever Wolfgang’s name was mentioned or an episode which had something to do with him, she rose from her seat and left the room” (p.196).

     Fest’s father was given to reflection after the war on why even he and his highly literate friends, all ardent opponents of the Nazi regime, had nonetheless underestimated Hitler.  Until Hitler came to power, his father had always trusted that a “primitive gangster like Hitler could never achieve power in Germany” (p.261). But, in his father’s view, Germans in the Hitler era failed to uphold their cultured heritage. They “lost their passion for introspection and discovered their taste for the primitive.” Their model was no longer the “reflective scholar type of the nineteenth century” but rather, the “tribal warrior, dancing around a stake and showing his chief a painted grimace. The nation of Goethe!” (p.280).

      Remembering his Jewish friends who perished during the war, Fest’s father said that “in their self-discipline, their quiet civility and unsentimental brilliance they had really been the last Prussians; in any case, he had more often encountered his idea of Prussiansim among the long-established, often highly educated Berlin Jews than anywhere else” (p.63). Germany’s dualism, however, undermined them. Their “one failing” was that they were “overwhelmingly governed by their heads . . . [and] lost the instinct for danger, which had preserved them through the ages” (p.63).

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      The prose in this poignant coming-of-age memoir is sometimes dense, making for slow reading, which might be a function of its translation into English from the German original.  But the memoir shines as a statement of how Fest and his family, led by his Nazi-resisting father Johannes, maintained their grasp on Germany’s cultivated heritage during the Hitler years. As this grim chapter in German and European history recedes, it remains useful to be reminded that there were Germans like Johannes Fest who said “Not I” to Hitler’s call.

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

January 16, 2016

5 Comments

Filed under European History, German History, History

More Alike Than Different

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Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies:
German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields 

       In Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, Wendy Lower, a professor of history at California’s Claremont McKenna College, highlights the roles that women played in Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich and the Holocaust. To date, Lower contends, these roles have been largely “suppressed, overlooked, and under-researched” (p.4). Nearly all histories of the Holocaust, Hitler’s project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population, leave out half the population of Germany during the Third Reich, “as if women’s history happens somewhere else,” resulting in an “illogical approach and puzzling omission” (p.14). But the Holocaust, she writes, “could not have been accomplished if a sense of duty had not prevailed over the sense of morality. In favoring perceived duty over morality, men and women were more alike than different” (p.111).

     Lower’s exhaustively researched and lucidly written study revolves around thirteen women who participated actively in the Holocaust. She seeks to demonstrate that their experiences were typical of a vast number of women drawn into the Nazi regime.  Lower provides short autobiographical sketches of the thirteen women and returns to their stories at different points throughout the book. But the full historical record of women’s precise roles in Nazi atrocities is scant, consisting of original wartime documentation, such as marriage applications, personnel records, and Nazi party reports, “devoid of personality or motive,” supplemented by more revealing postwar “self-representations” of women contained in testimonies, letters, memoirs and interviews (p.12). This thin historical record precludes Lower from bringing her thirteen women to life in the way that Eric Lichtblau does in his study of Nazi activists who sought refuge in the United States, The Nazis Next Door, reviewed here in October 2015. Nonetheless, Lower makes a strong case that the experiences of the thirteen women should not be dismissed as anecdotal or aberrational.

     In Lower’s analysis, women were frequently witnesses and accomplices to Nazi atrocities. Less frequently, but not insignificantly, they were themselves perpetrators who “killed Jews and other ‘enemies’ of the Reich, more than had been documented during the war or prosecuted afterward” (p.4). The Nazi ideology did not exhort German women to be killers; that function was, officially if nonetheless implicitly, reserved for German men. Women were above all expected to be fertile, the bearer of “racially pure” Aryan children to serve the Third Reich in the future. In Hitler’s Germany, the “female badge of honor was the pregnant belly” (p.116). Although the Nazi regime “trained thousands of women to be accomplices, to be heartless in their dealings with the enemies of the Reich,” the regime “did not aim to develop cadres of female killers . . . [I]t was not expected that women would be especially violent or would kill. Those who did kill exploited the ‘opportunity’ to do so within a fertile sociopolitical setting, with the expectation of rewards and affirmation, not ostracism” (p.52).

       This opportunity arose most frequently on Germany’s Eastern Front, Poland and the Western Soviet Union, especially Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic republics.  Lower describes the Eastern Front as a “European stage where Hitler and his supporters fulfilled their imperial fantasies,” a space for the Nazis to “carry out criminal policies with impunity” (p.125). She estimates that approximately 500,000 women were assigned to the Eastern Front or volunteered to go, seeking to “fulfill their ambitions and the regime’s expectations, to experience something new, and to further the Nazi cause” (p.85). Of the thirteen women Lower studies, most did not begin their war experiences with the fierce hatred for Jews that underlay Nazi ideology. But their experiences on the Eastern Front “proved transformative. It was in the eastern territories that Nazi anti-Semitism found its fullest and most profound development” (p.163).

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        The thirteen women in Lower’s study came from different parts of Germany and, in two cases, from Austria. They were from middle and working class backgrounds, and from urban and rural areas. They were Catholic and Protestant, with and without university level education. All were “ambitious and patriotic” and, in varying degrees, shared “qualities of greed, anti-Semitism, racism, and imperialistic arrogance” (p.164). Most were startlingly young, in their early 20s, part of what Lower characterizes as a post-World War I baby boom, born during the fledgling Weimar Republic and coming of age in Hitler’s Third Reich.

      Approximately 3,500 women found roles as prison guards on the Eastern Front, very few of whom “exhibited a humane attitude toward the prisoners in their purview” (p.21). Female guards could “choose how cruel and sadistic to be toward prisoners” (p.52).  When female guards abusively managed the prisoner population, Lower argues, they “helped make mass murder standard operating procedure. They lent their organizational know-how and individual skills to the machinery of destruction” (p.109). However, the “first Nazi mass murderess was not the concentration camp guard but the nurse” (p.120).

       Nursing took on an “acutely nationalistic and ideological character” during the Third Reich, leaving “little room for traditional humanitarian ideals” (p.44).  It was the profession that “brought the largest number of German women directly into the war and the Nazi genocide, as nurses occupied a variety of traditional and new roles in the developing racial state” (p.43). Centrally planned mass killing operations, Lower explains, began in the hospitals of the Reich. The Nazi euthanasia program “involved the recruitment of female midwives and of medical personnel, both doctors and nurses. These professionals would eventually murder more than two hundred thousand people in Germany, Austria and the annexed Reich borderlands of Poland, and the Czech lands” (p.121). The first methods were the “sleeping pill, the hypodermic needle, and starvation” (p.120).  The first victims were children.  During the war, “nurses gave thousands of deformed babies and disabled adolescents overdoses of barbiturates, lethal injections of morphine, and denied them food and water” (p.120).

       The Nazi regime also engaged in an extensive program of forced sterilizations of non-Jewish German women. German women and girls were betrayed by mid-wives and nurses who, upon arrival of a child with reported alleged defects, recommended sterilization. In the “civil war for perfect Aryan babies that was underway even before the outbreak of World War II, women made cruel life-and-death decisions for other women, eroding moral sensibilities and implicating women in the regime’s crimes.” (p.23).

        One of the nurses whom Lower studies, Pauline Kneissler, was a Nazi party activist and a member of the Reich Nurses League who worked in Minsk, Belarus during the war.  Promoted to deputy senior nurse in Minsk, Kneissler “could order others to kill and administer deadly doses of sedatives” (p.237). Each day about seventy-five patients died in her ward.  When her boss asked if she was ready to murder without his guidance, she responded that she could and “had done so already” (p.237). After the war, Kneissler told a friend that German medical teams also gave lethal injections to wounded German soldiers, “our own,” as she put it, a subject that was — and, Lower indicates, still is — “taboo” (p.123).

       The women who worked as secretaries and in other administrative positions on the Eastern Front made “enormous” but “publicly minimized” contributions to the implementation of the Holocaust (p.61). They “took dictation and typed up the orders facilitating the robbery, deportation, and mass murder of Jews. They performed these duties with the knowledge that they were contributing to the goal of total extermination of the Jewish people” (p.102).  By the end of 194I, the elite killing squads known as the Einsatazgruppen had completed its first wave of massacres in the Soviet Union, killing close to 500,000 Soviet Jews. “So extensive was the documentation of their gruesome work that after the war American prosecutors conducted a special Nuremberg trial against leading Einsatazgruppen members.” But, Lower notes, “little has been said about those who typed up this damning evidence of the Holocaust” (p.107).

        Another woman in Lower’s study, Liselotte Meier, barely twenty years old when she arrived on the Eastern Front in Lida, Belarus, fell in love with the Nazi Commissar for the region and became his administrative assistant.  Meier participated in the planning of massacres that occurred in 1942-43 in the region, and was by some accounts the most knowledgeable person in the Lida office. She had access to the office safe where most of the secret orders were stored. She kept the office stamp in her desk drawer, which allowed her to sign on behalf of the commissar. This gave her authority to determine “who was and who was not a Jew” and therefore to “decide who would be killed, [and] who could be a spared” (p.104). During secret planning meetings before a mass shooting, Meier took the notes and coordinated the action with the executioners, being “careful about how much she committed to paper” (p.104).

        Whether as camp guard, nurse, secretary, or other function, women on the Eastern Front became adept plunderers of goods and property — crates of eggs, flour, sugar, clothing, and home furnishings — in what Lower terms the “biggest campaign of organized robbery and economic exploitation in history,” with German women “among its prime agents and beneficiaries” (p.101). This indulgence was “not condoned by the regime; Jewish belongings were officially Reich property and not meant for personal consumption. Some plunderers, women among them, were punished and even executed for stealing from the Reich” (p.101).

        Most of the secretaries and administrative support personnel whom Lower identifies would best be described as witnesses and accomplices to Nazi atrocities rather than actual perpetrators. But some engaged directly in the perpetration of atrocities. Such women “slipped into another role – a hybrid characteristic that embodied the stiff Nazi patriot, brazen cowgirl, and cold-blooded anti-Semite. They carried whips, they brandished pistols and rifles, they wore riding pants, and they rode horses” (p.125). Lower documents the shocking case involving Johanna Altvater, who worked as a secretary in Ukraine, where she specialized in killing children. One observer noted that Altvater “often lured children with candy. When they came to her and opened their mouths, she shot them in the mouth with the small silver pistol that she kept at her side” (p.127).  Another secretary, Lisel Riedel Willhaus, wife of an SS commander, shot children from her balcony, with her own child standing next to her.

        Altvater was one of the few women working in administrative positions to be prosecuted after the war.  Despite extensive eyewitness testimony against her, she was twice acquitted, the second time in 1982.  But she was the exception. Very few women were called to account for their role in Nazi atrocities once the war ended.  Women, “especially those who appeared matronly and meek, did not seem capable of committing such atrocities. The physical appearance of the women and gender stereotypes held by the mostly male investigators and judges usually worked in favor of the female perpetrators, whose acts were in some instances as criminal as their male counterparts” (p.196).  Most women returned from the Eastern Front and “quietly resumed normal lives” (p.168), refraining  from speaking publicly about the atrocities they had seen and participated in.  Their silence, Lower argues, was rooted in “feelings of shame, grief, and fear” (p.97), although, she notes elsewhere, their shame “was not necessarily about culpability” (p.9).

         How and why women overcame their stereotypical passivity to participate directly in Holocaust killing are among the book’s central questions. Lower’s penultimate chapter, “Why Did They Kill,” is dedicated to the subject, but she addresses it throughout the book. The crimes committed by female perpetrators, Lower explains, “occurred within a web of professional priorities and tasks, personal commitments and anxieties.”  The perpetrator who accepted the perceived necessity of killing “could in the course of one day shoot Jewish children and then arrive home to coddle her son or daughter.  There is no contradiction here in the mind of the perpetrator: there is, rather, a startling degree of clarity” (p.162). That clarity in Lower’s interpretation may be traced to official anti-Semitic Nazi ideology, which “permeated everyday life, shaped professional and intimate relationships, and generated criminal government policies” (p.155).  Under the Nazi ideology, “Germans and Jews could not coexist.  Female killers, like their male counterparts, developed this conviction after years of conditioning in the Reich, [and] absorbed it from a general climate of popular and state-condoned anti-Semitism in Germany and across Europe” (p.162).

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        Minimizing the violent behavior of Nazi women, Lower cautions, “creates a false shield against a more direct confrontation with genocide and its disconcerting realities” (p.158).  In seeking to remove that shield and enlarge our knowledge of the unfathomable Holocaust, Lower’s chilling account provides another reminder of how a whole class of people, in this case women, could be swept into the orgies of violence to which Hitler’s murderous ideology gave rise.

Thomas H. Peebles
Paris, France
December 29, 2015

7 Comments

Filed under Eastern Europe, European History, Gender Issues, German History, History