Reviews — From the August 2009 issue

Kinds of Killing

The flourishing evil of the Third Reich

( 3 of 9 )

There are several strategies one might employ for lessening the guilt of the Germans without denying the fact of their crimes. A number are currently operating in the guise of (fraudulent) memoirs or romanticizing movies. A few such were cited earlier this year by Jacob Heilbrunn in an article for the New York Times. Heilbrunn remarks that “the further the Holocaust recedes into the past, the more it’s being exploited to create a narrative of redemption.” Recently, stories of German opposition to Nazi actions have become particularly popular. There is, however, little that is exotic or daring about the occasional leaflet campaigns the Social Democrats managed to set going as late as the summer of 1934. Evans, in his second volume, points out that “by this time, almost all the other leading Social Democrats who had remained in Germany were in prison, in a concentration camp, silenced or dead.” Even those who would endeavor to kill
Hitler were mostly motivated by their conviction that Germany was finally losing the war, rather than by any deep-seated objections to his policies. At least, that was the opinion the London Times found in its review of Germans Against Hitler by Hans Mommsen (2008) and Luck of the Devil (2009) by Ian Kershaw. Although one dead fly may ruin an entire porridge, an innocent olive will not render benevolent a poisoned glass.

Richard Evans is a veteran of these revisionist wars, having earned a few medals for his testimony against one of honesty’s enemies, David Irving, who had the chutzpah to sue Deborah Lipstadt (a professor at Emory University) for libeling him in her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1993)—a careful exposure of this movement’s bowel-like (regular, hidden, contemptible) strategies. Evans’s evidence has been presented in his own Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial (2001). Irving lost his case, but these apologists are not easy to discourage. They lurk about the edges of conflicts like this, especially now that the Internet lends its facilities to any voice that cares to attach a pseudonymous name or academic title to a site from which they can fire off innuendos, profit from ignorance, and cast suspicion. Another excellent exposure of revisionist methods can be found in Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s Assassins of Memory: Essays on the Denial of the Holocaust (1987). If there are any purely “intellectual crimes,” denying the reality of the Holocaust is surely one of them.

Still, one excuse that I rather like is the presumption that any group of people, finding themselves in the same sort of situation, their histories stocked with similar resentments, would act in a comparably vengeful fashion. Suppose that I have been a pitiful powerless person my whole life, and the victim of war, humiliation, and economic collapse. Now, suddenly, finally, I carry your life in my holster, I can act with impunity and at whim, but I must remind the world of my elevation by repeated demonstrations, the more vulgar, petty, and disgusting the better. So after I have raped this Polish—Tunisian—Greek—Gypsy girl, who certainly deserved it, I shall invent little sadistic extras to demand of her: that she clean the public latrines with her blouse. Jewish bystanders shall be required to doff their silly hats. Polish scum shall be made to lie flat in the mud and kiss dirt. While they are thus prone I shall try not to wobble when I walk upon one of them, but they are incorrigibly lumpy.

But it was the Romanian members of the Iron Guard who did the human race proud when they forced two hundred Jewish men into a slaughterhouse, flayed them from their clothes, and made them walk the line to their stockyard executions, after which their corpses were hung up on meat hooks that had been run through their throats. Those German “doctors,” who looked upon the Jewish children in their hands very much as we do laboratory mice, yet wishing to erase any evidence of their experiments upon them, considerately shot the kids full of morphine and had them hung on hooks for SS men to yank as one has to tug when extricating clothes from a crowded closet.

“Croatian Ustashe units,” perhaps out of friendly rivalry and to demonstrate that victims didn’t have to be Jewish, “gouged out the eyes of Serbian men and cut off the women’s breasts with penknives.” They also carried out clever sting operations by promising amnesty to any villager who converted to Catholicism and then beating to death with spiked clubs the 250 who showed up at a Glina church for the conversion ceremony. At other times they just used ordinary hammers.

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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