Reviews — From the August 2009 issue

Kinds of Killing

The flourishing evil of the Third Reich

( 2 of 9 )

This great war was not one war but many, fought in different places, under different circumstances, and at different times; but the German troops remembered to bring with them to new encounters the bad habits formed when they invaded Poland. Their behavior was still able to produce surprise. “Where is the traditional German sense of honour,” wrote one inhabitant of occupied Athens. “They empty houses of whatever meets their eye. In Pistolakis’ house they took the pillow-slips and grabbed the Cretan heirlooms from the valuable collection they have. From the poor houses in the area they seized sheets and blankets. From other neighborhoods they grab oil paintings and even the metal knobs from the doors.” Of course, the pillowcases became bags for bearing off heirlooms, and the knobs, if metal, were needed back home. Looting was rarely random among the officer class.

Like a monstrous babe born from the brow of Rabelais, this war was only a few months old and already it had become a major crime against humanity. The German government, noticing that too much booty was escaping the clutches of the State, simply announced in September of 1939 that it had acquired for its own use the contents of the entire store. Acquisitions then began in earnest. The army took over farms and anything else that might supply food; universities lost their scientific instruments; every iron object, length of copper, or zinc downspout, steel girder, tin saucepan, and—yes—doorknob, was scooped up, melted down, and sent to work in the mills of the Reich. “Even the Warsaw Zoo’s collection of stuffed animals was taken away.” There appeared to be a bounty on Polish priests, who were deported, incarcerated, shot. Schools were closed and their equipment destroyed. Businesses were commandeered and landed estates requisitioned. As the winter grew harsh, the German police borrowed the Poles’ sheepskin coats if they saw a serviceable one pass in the street. In town after town, the names of the avenues and alleyways were replaced. In sum, everything Polish was banned, burned, stolen, eaten, removed, imprisoned, or deported, and sooner or later entire populations were slaughtered far more carelessly than cattle.

With acres of their fields burned, crops requisitioned, and farmers enslaved, the population began to starve. Rations, if you were a Pole, came to no more than 669 calories a day. Jews received 184. An officer’s spit might contain that much. Robbers roamed the roads and forests. Diseases spread as the body’s resistance failed. In France, when Germany overran it, refugees fled one city only to fill another. Friends turned upon friends. Denunciation replaced “bonjour.” So the campaign of extermination was going nicely. Thin women were the only ones around but nonetheless inviting, exchanging syphilis for a few hundred calories of love.

On the eastern edges of Poland, where the Russians were employing very similar methods of murder and deportation, conditions, though sometimes different, were no better, and the killing contest, at an admittedly rough count, continued to turn out a draw. Jews scarcely knew which way to run nor dared they stay in place, since anti-Semitism was, in Poland (as it was in Hungary, Romania, Ukraine), a flourishing native plant. Evans is succinct: “The deliberate reduction of Poland to a state of nature, the boundless exploitation of its resources, the radical degradation of everyday life, the arbitrary exercise of unfettered power, the violent expulsion of Poles from their homes—all of this opened the way to the application of unbridled terror against Poland’s Jews.”

is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of A Temple of Texts. His essay on Katherine Anne Porter appeared in the January issue.

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