Review — From the August 2009 issue
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Review — From the August 2009 issue
Discussed in this essay:
The Third Reich at War, by Richard J. Evans. The Penguin Press. 926 pages. $40.
In order to prepare private citizens for the military, a humiliating and painful bullying is generally prescribed. Its aim is to inculcate obedience and create callousness. Leaders must be resolute and heartless, prepared to send any enemy “to their deaths, pitilessly and remorselessly,” as the Führer demanded. Next a campaign of denigration of the chosen opponent is undertaken. This is designed to reduce the humanity of the enemy and to prepare a social web of support for behavior that is basically cruel, immoral, and normally disapproved. It strengthens every aspect of your plans if the society that you represent brings to the project a tradition of paternal domination and abuse, reaching from the family to the Kaiser and to its final station, God. Deep feelings of injury, inferiority, and large reserves of resentment—the fresher the better—are nearly essential. Any widespread unhappiness within your country can then be directed at the selected scapegoat by every available instrument of indoctrination and propaganda. If the enemy can be enticed to return fire, that will help solidify the nation’s resolve. Since a saw’s cut is painful either way it moves, the soldier knows that it is safer to risk death at the front rather than execution in the rear. A general sense of uneasiness helps, as if you knew someone were watching where you walked, reading your mail, and overhearing you talk. This atmosphere of anxiety can be sustained when the agents of power are pitiless. The master craftsmen of the Third Reich, whose state-of-war posture is so painstakingly studied in this superb but disheartening history of bad behavior, had set their sights upon Poland at the time the third and final volume of Richard Evans’s masterwork begins, and had made all the necessary preparations I have just enumerated.
The novelty of the war that was beginning with the German attack in September 1939—aside from the journalistically popular concept of Blitzkrieg—was its unusual aim: not the defeat of another army but the destruction of a population. From Germans already living in Poland the SS formed militias of men whose grievances toward the indigenous population reached murderous levels with astonishing ease, and bands of “red legs” of this sort, obeying only the orders of their hearts, began organized shooting parties. The size of the payback for alleged Polish atrocities was 4,247 on October 7; by November, in Klammer, 2,000 had been added; near Mniszek, 10,000 more Poles and Jews of every age and sex were shot at the edges of the gravel pits that were to serve as their graves; in a wood near Karlshof, 8,000 more were massacred. The cleansing continued, picking up speed as efficiencies improved. Finding so many murderers among ordinary people had not proved difficult. Moreover these unconscionable activities were not the result of a long harsh military campaign and disappointing losses but were available for use the moment the war began, with its immediate, immoderate, and overwhelming victories.
The German army, when it began to do its part, specialized in burning any village in which the least resistance was encountered. The SS, as well as the regular police, were initially disposed to carry out the murder of specific persons instead of the anonymous many, and to be singled out might be a victim’s only victory. This slaughter was ameliorated (the word cannot be read without a grimace) when the authorities recognized that Germany had a serious need for workers, with so many men gone from their jobs and away for the war. Every available body was then rounded up and sent off as a labor replacement wherever one was needed in the Fatherland. The “recruitment” of foreign labor was a considerable preoccupation of German bureaucracy during the entire war and eventually included putting to work prisoners of war from both fronts. Many a Polish house was emptied or a village stripped of its population, so that looting and pillaging became a military habit, and the rape of women was implicitly encouraged by the army. The greed of many in the high command was as huge, and as frankly bragged of, as Falstaff’s pride in his belly. Hitler wanted to establish a museum of stolen property in his hometown of Linz. Göring desired to display his art as he did his hunting trophies above the many sofas furnishing his numerous schlosses.
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.”
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.
Richard Evans’s three volumes of disagreeable details, masterfully ordered and presented with ruthless clarity, are not centrally concerned with actual fighting, although a good account can be found there. His indictment is principally based on the political and cultural climate that created a monster out of an apparently civilized nation-state. And it does not fail to quote from countless witnesses whose eyes had to shed—like tears—their disbelief of a barbarism for which only the human species could find the evil energies. Whether one must wear a yellow star . . . excuses are inadequate; whether one is banished from the queue for daily rations . . . excuses are inadequate; whether one is murdered in an unimaginably mean way . . . excuses are inadequate; whether that wretch whom I shot from a passing window turns out to be twenty or two thousand destined to crumple into open graves . . . excuses are inadequate; and if we feel rage . . . well . . . welcome to our ambiguous skin: victor hates victim for making him victorious.
Murder machines, such as those gas-driven engines of death that the Germans designed to facilitate their task, are the sort of thing that catches the popular imagination, but the quiet, at no point wholly observable, method of starvation is the ultimate choice: profitable while being cheap, and requiring no implements, no death chambers, no immediate executioners either. Disposing of the bodies when you have shot five hundred in the woods, or at the end of a week of inhalations when you have more corpses than you know how to discreetly burn, becomes an increasingly sensitive and annoying problem; so it is comforting to contemplate how economical starvation is, beginning with the victims feeding on themselves, thus reducing smoky fats, with a good chance they will finally fall upon those of their own who have fallen and endeavor to devour them. For sport, in a camp for captured Soviet soldiers, guards would bet on which dogs might leave upon their prisoners the most damaging tooth marks, but this was purely for entertainment and not very efficient for murder on a mass scale.
If you kill all the Jews, who will be left able to accuse you? Hardly anyone else will care and many will be quietly grateful.
The war against the Soviet Union began as felicitously as the invasion of Poland: many quick and easy victories, rapid advances, inconveniently large numbers of captive soldiers, much pillaging including the seasonal collection of winter coats, frequent rapes, pointless vandalism, random killings, and the gradual re-realization that prisoners might be better used as workers than as starvelings. To demonstrate who among the barbarous was Hun in Chief, the Nazis attacked fine homes and furnishings as if the mirrors were shooting back. Soldiers burned some of Tolstoy’s manuscripts when they arrived at Yasnaya Polyana, and in Klin drove motorcycles back and forth over sheets of Tchaikovsky’s musical scores. Mostly, though, soldiers complained of the miserable conditions of life that Russian villages offered them. “Partisan resistance prompted further reprisals, leading more to join the partisans, and so the escalating cycle of violence continued.” This inevitability, ironically, seems to have escaped the notice of present-day nations. What is the use of an upper hand if you can’t spank someone with it?
One of the many shocks this book delivers is the reader’s realization that—after following a trail of murder and usurpation through two and one quarter volumes, during which death is more frequent than the words, cruelty and conflict more common than punctuation, murder spread equally over all their pages—the killing is now going to begin in earnest. “There is also some evidence that Ukrainian nationalists in Lemberg nailed bodies to the prison wall, crucified them or amputated breasts and genitals to give the impression that the Soviet atrocities were even worse than they actually were.” I’m glad they had a good reason. Despite the fact that some Ukrainians were mighty busy beating Jews with the poor man’s arsenal—clubs studded with nails—the Nazis complained that their attempts “to incite pogroms against Jews have not met with the success we hoped for.”
Entire cavalry brigades were now assigned the task of destroying Jews. One such group especially distinguished itself by shooting “more than 25,000 Jews in under a month.” At first, the executioners were not to waste bullets on women but simply to drive them into the Pripet Marshes, the greatest area of swampy woodland in Europe, where they might drown; the marshes were only deep enough for wading, however, so the women, like the men, had to be shot. The Germans were not to be slowed by these setbacks. They found ravines, and in the one called Babi Yar, after undressing and lying down in neat rows—victim upon the just victimized as blanket upon sheet—the Jews were bulleted behind the neck to a total of 33,771.
Men cannot imagine such numbers. They can only perform them.
Any reluctance that was felt by members of the military was overcome by an anti-Semitism almost as old as their ages, by fears of reprisal for themselves, because of the shame they felt at being taken for sissies, and on account of the payments in plunder that fed their greed. “The great majority of officers and men took part willingly . . . and raised no objections.” In some cases, Serbian prisoners would be used to collect from a fresh kill of Jews the contents of their pockets, and the soldiers would risk giving these people penknives to cut off ring fingers. A handy chart, of which Evans has many, shows by means of variously striped shades the numbers killed in the area stretching from Leningrad in the north to Vilna (248,468), from Minsk to Kursk (91,012), Kiev to Stalino (105,988), and Taganrog to Simferopol (91,678) during the years 1941–43. Only once more shall I give in to outrage and cite another particularly instructive moment among thousands that might be chosen, in order to draw your attention to Hans Krüger, head of the local security police in Stanislawów, Galicia, who threw a picnic for the shooters to enjoy between shootings and oversaw the massacre “with a bottle of vodka in one hand and a hot-dog in the other.”
By the time the United States entered the war, the expansion of Germany’s murderous ambitions had grown from one of forcible Polish relocation to pogroms that involved the whole eastern front, subsequently to the entire continent of Europe, and bore unmistakable signs, finally, of global aspirations. This would mean that the assimilated Jews of Germany, who had lost their homes and many possessions but otherwise had been “merely” harassed by a lengthening list that included petty bans on buying flowers or being forbidden to sit in deck chairs or rules denying them cats, would now be removed to camps in the east. The boxcars began their tryouts for grainy documentary movies. Between October of 1941 and February of 1942, fifty-eight trainloads of those “useless eaters,” 53,000 Jews who were declared unfit for forced labor, were carried to numerous relocation sites.
Who could have imagined there were so many Jews; that just removing them to overnite ghettos in Poland or Ukraine would put such a strain upon every mile of track and every engine’s boilers; that so many departments of government would be required, soldiers to shoot them, munitions to make, guards to control them, shovels to dig and to cover their graves? Better methods had to be found for both death and disposal. Perhaps those employed with such success in the programs of euthanasia might be brought into play—sealed chambers and car exhaust—and camps built solely for death’s purpose. So thirty gas vans were built in Berlin. They could kill sixty at a time, an improvement of ten over previous model years. Occasionally a child survived whose mother had so severely swaddled it the fumes could not penetrate the cloth. It was a doubtful stroke of luck since the guards would smash such babies’ heads against convenient trees.
Timing became important. Himmler had to bawl out one overzealous police chief in Riga who had a trainload of Berlin deportees killed too promptly, thus possibly alarming those Jews still in Berlin and causing them to be more difficult to handle. The range of extermination now clearly included the whole of occupied Europe. Yet it was the twentieth of January 1942 before the infamous Wannsee meeting on the final solution to the Jewish question took place.
The propaganda machine was making its own carbon monoxide. Everything the Germans were doing to the Jews the Jews had done to Germans, or would do if they could. They had started the war; they were eating away at the Reich’s magnificent culture; they wanted to destroy Germany as it presently stood. Goebbels instructed the media to be unrelenting. “The Jews must now be used in the German press as a political target: the Jews are to blame; the Jews wanted the war; the Jews are making the war worse; and, again and again, the Jews are to blame.”
During the years 1941–43, Berlin Jews, who were not supposed to have their composure ruffled by hearing the worst of bad news, heard the bad news nevertheless and escaped by suicide. It was a wonder there were any trains left able to carry munitions. The idea that many people still didn’t know what was going on represents another wild lie. If the Jews, who weren’t supposed to know, knew, everybody did. Like the disciplined lines of white crosses at Arlington, numbers representing the sizes of the shipments march across Evans’s text. Perhaps these pages more accurately resemble a schedule of departures than a cemetery, but their meanings are the same.
Until November of 1941, the extermination camps had not yet been built. A score of SS officers would run them; Ukrainians, taken from their own camps and given special training, would provide the raw manpower; and a few specialists recruited from the victims themselves (tailors, carpenters, cobblers, und so weiter) could supply the standard operative skills. All that otherwise might be needed, aside from the airtight gas chambers to create the corpses, earthen pits and crematoria to manage their disposal, were some houses for the SS and barracks for the auxiliary servants of the industry. These camps were extraordinarily efficient except that sometimes the wooden killing boxes began to leak and had to be replaced by concrete ones. At Belzec, the first of these specialized death camps, 75,000 Jews were gassed and their bodies burned in its initial thirty days of operation. Eventually, the number would approach 600,000.
The second camp was modeled after the first except the gas chambers were housed in a brick building. Hot weather, however, caused the corpses in the burial pits to swell and rise from the ground in small hills. This putrefaction began to contaminate the local water. A horrible smell was pervasive and seemed to beckon rats and other scavengers, so the SS filled a pit with wood and set it on fire, but bodies that are already all bones burn badly, even when placed on grills and turned now and then, as you might on a company cookout. Cremations continued to make problems, and scientific studies were undertaken to discover the most efficient methods of getting air to and around mounds of corpses so that the fire could breathe. As the Jews, naked, their possessions confiscated for auction in Berlin, were driven to the gas chambers at Treblinka, the third camp, by biting dogs and men with whips and iron bars, their wails of despair and screams from pain were alarming others, so the SS recruited a small orchestra to drown the hubbub by playing local hit tunes.
When, in April of 1943, Himmler ordered the camps closed and their presence erased, the job was almost done, although the task had become more difficult and on several occasions a few prisoners of war and a passel of Jews had broken out, killing several guards and embarrassing officials. The Germans covered some sites with shrubbery, trees, and flowers; this concealment remained rudimentary, but even the most inadequate erasures would give comfort later to those who denied the existence and/or operation of the gas chambers. By the summer of 1944 grave robbers had arrived, looking for the gold that might have been missed, only to turn up bones and rotting clothes.
Evans supplies very instructive details of the camps’ procedures so that we may measure just how flourishing evil can become when provided with healthy circumstances. The novelty of Auschwitz was the use of a chemical pesticide called Zyklon-B, whose most active ingredient was sulphuric acid and whose lethal fumes were discovered by an accident that asphyxiated a cat. It was used in obedience to the following directions: “The men were herded into the room, the doors were sealed, then powdered Zyklon-B was shaken down through holes in the roof. The warmth generated by the bodies packed into the chamber below quickly turned it into a deadly gas.”
Some camps were for show, like the back lots of movie studios, and were unable to make direct contributions to the killings, only mislead chosen visitors about them. In a few ghettos (Warsaw is the best known) there were uprisings as well as scattered signs of individual resistance by the Polish underground; but what slowed the German war on humanity (besides the Soviet army) was simply the size and consequent inefficiency of it. Evans ascribes the principal cause of the monstrous behavior required of its organizers to their “visceral hatred of Jews,” but the word “visceral” tends to beg the question. How was anti-Semitism, so patently false in all its ages of activity, able to lodge itself in so many minds and thereafter weaken—no, remove—their moral character? How, in general, do people become slaves of foolish ideologies, support them with treasure, allegiance, and time, and act, at their behest, so vilely, so contrary to their own interest? History is full of absurdities masquerading as absolutes. Like whooping cough, beliefs get to children early, make their symptoms chronic, hold out useless hopes, and offer vain excuses. It is reason’s business to disbelieve, but the voices of reason have as much effect here as frogs in a swamp.
This book has many themes that a reader might follow instead of the bloody course I’ve chosen, such as the struggles for power among the many Nazi administrators when any one of them was trying to obtain status, protect his perks, or strengthen his grip, during both sweet times and sour. Hitler repeatedly replaced one medal bearer with another and blamed them for trying to save their troops when the order was to die. Meantime, in the midst of a war that was not going well, there were other wars that developed a personality of their own the way Verdun did during World War I: such as the siege of Leningrad (“the city’s inhabitants were starving, eating cats, dogs, rats and even each other”); the struggle for Stalingrad (“even those who were not hospitalized were sick, starving, frostbitten and exhausted”); or the Battle of Kursk (“the greatest land battle in history”).
As all the wars that made up the Second World War began to go badly, so did the temperament of the German people and their enthusiasm for it. It could be observed that Party members no longer wore their Party badges. After the bombing of Hamburg, angry citizens who observed that symbol in the street might tear the insignia from the wearer’s coat. The Germans could become audibly grouchy if the government cut their ration of bread, but not so much when it killed Jews. By this time in the concluding history of the Third Reich the numbers in the text no longer refer to murdered undesirables or captured soldiers but to bushels of imported wheat, the total of factory workers building airplanes, or the limit of calories allowed each citizen; and the narrative, always heavy with statistics, is likely to sink out of the view of the eye.
In the aftermaths of heavy and repeated bombing, dazed German citizens were forced to find places among the ruins of their cities to bury bodies wrapped in paper like parcels, since the cemeteries were full and incineration was not feasible. What could burn, had. The dead were hidden in mass graves amid household furnishings—beds, jars, pots, clothing, carpets, cabinets—strewn about in a tumble of plaster, bricks, and stones. The picture Evans paints contradicts the view, frequently held, that the bombings did not have any noticeable effect on the German people’s will to fight. That will was weakening rapidly, as was that of the armed forces, increasingly beset on multiple fronts, misled by Hitler’s intransigence, and compelled by the Soviets’ superior numbers to retreat. Such cohesiveness as remained depended upon a continuing hatred of Jewry and Soviet Communism, loyalty to their comrades in arms, and a realistic awareness of the consequences of defeat; as well as a fear of their own officers, frantic to maintain discipline, who were fond of courts-martial, and the firing squads that shot 21,000 men as a result of the incredible 3 million trials ordered for numerous offenses. The Reich also began to lose allies—Bulgaria first, then all of Italy, whose failures Germany was required to punish by corralling 650,000 Italian soldiers for chain-gang-style labor (50,000 eventually died in harness) and executing 6,000 on the occupied Greek island of Cephalonia who resisted.
As the German armies fell back they enjoyed the classic revenge of burning any hospital, handy town, field, or manor they encountered, as well as employing some of the lesser forms of vandalism: feasting in occupied homes, stealing bedding, toys, clothes, shoes, and relaxing after their larger exertions by trying on the owner’s hats, smashing what would readily smash, and leaving toilets aswim with their stools. Jews were required to ransom themselves with gold. This could occasionally work. Members of the partisan resistance were sometimes shot in conveniently located catacombs, an admirable economy of means. The German troops did not fail to use geography as a weapon, flooding the Pontine marshes back to pre-Mussolini levels and reintroducing malarial mosquitoes that produced at least 98,000 cases for them in two years, not all deadly, although the Germans took the local quinine with them when they fled. Straight-out germ warfare was unusual for the Nazis, who preferred more indirect methods—to overwork and starve their victims until they fell ill of disease.
Death is the repeated motif of this essay, and necessarily of Evans’s monumental book, because death and the threat of death were the principal tools of Nazi rule—the noose, the gas, the gun. For citizens, a list of actions punishable by death might begin with the use of a weapon while committing a crime, hoarding food supplies, damaging military equipment, or making faulty munitions, and end with anything that hindered the war effort, including an injurious comment. Criminals serving a term greater than eight years were too costly to the state to keep swaddled in prison’s comforts and were likely to be packed off “for extermination by labor.” Some due for release before eight years had passed were retained until they qualified for this extinction. “So many executions were taking place in Germany’s state prisons by this time that the Ministry of Justice allowed them at any time of the day instead of, as previously, only at dawn.” And the prisons filled and emptied like bowls of peanuts on a bar.
So hospitals, prisons, courts, police, ordinary murderers, labor gangs, suicides, soldiers, Gestapo, the SS, partisans, local militias, enemy fire were all active agents of death, death from all sides the way a billiard caroms: death that fell from the air, death borne by swampy water, death that opened from the earth as if every furrow were a mouth, death by whispered denunciation, death by every means imaginable including highway accidents, common fevers, cancers, strokes, and old age. Yet only one Nazi unit was called the Death’s Head, indicating considerable restraint. Of course, there was little need for public boasting about the regime’s death-dealing skills. The two Christian institutions (the Lutheran and the Catholic Churches) were quite aware of the killing sprees in their countries of residence but remained mum out of fear of reprisals either from the regime if the Nazis won or from the Jews if Germany lost. This also may have been the most common attitude among the general population. “From 1943 onwards, they were mentally preparing themselves to deflect this retribution as far as they were able, by denying all knowledge of the genocide once the war was lost.”
That the war was lost only increased the feverish pace of the killings, which were now defended as a moral necessity, a task to be completed despite temptations to tenderness, and because the cleansing was almost complete. Himmler’s message was: The world may condemn us for carrying out such an unpleasant assignment, but somebody’s got to do it. The Jews who remained to be gassed lived mostly in Hungary, whose Admiral Miklós Horthy had refused so far Hitler’s requests to hand them over. The German army moved in and immediately began carrying out their obligations by transporting 438,000 Jews to -Auschwitz before Horthy was able to put a stop to their shipments.
In the last days, to settle old scores while pretending the enemy was within, Germans began killing one another. It was nearly as if anyone who looked gloomy should be shot. But they were still killing with dedication if not cleverness and invention: 565 inmates of a women’s prison were, in the middle of an icy winter, walked to another jail 22 miles away. They kept falling over one another until only 40 remained. From households there was little to loot, but women were still available for rape. Former dignitaries, foreign and domestic, who hadn’t been murdered but held hostage instead, were executed forthwith. Those in prison for whatever reason were killed simply because they were handy, just in case, and because the Jews were already dead and someone should be dying: “Sick inmates were shot in their beds . . .” Advancing enemy armies made the murder industry in the concentration camps a matter of some urgency. Yet evidence of gas chambers, shooting locales, and burial parks had to be removed too, and it was difficult to clean up and kill at the same time. Russian prisoners of war, retreating along with German troops, died of weather, deep snows, and neglect. Killing was now casual wherever you were in the combat zone. Death marches so disorganized they “meandered across the country, even doubling back on themselves,” at least emptied a camp by scattering bodies over treks of sometimes 250 miles. Nothing but surrender or the arrival of Allied armies slowed and finally ended this last deadly tantrum.
When the Red Army reached Auschwitz it found many corpses, but the SS had left 7,000 prisoners in some stage of life, and they had not destroyed every evidence of the camp’s activity. “Russian soldiers painstakingly catalogued 837,000 women’s coats and dresses, 44,000 pairs of shoes and 7.7 tons of human hair.” Finally, the Germans had acquired enough coats.
The Nazis were down for the count, but the count was only at nine when Allied warplanes kicked dozens of towns nearly out of existence (Dresden, most infamously) and the Red Army arrived to repopulate the ruins by raping the women who remained. They brought with them destruction, pillage, theft, murder, and savage revenge. Death, it seems, was also an Allied deity.
Evans, after his usual sober and responsible account of how the end came for Hitler and Goebbels, writes: “The deaths in the bunker and the burned-out streets above were only the crest of a vast wave of suicides without precedent in modern history.” This penultimate killing was sometimes done out of an ancestral sense of honor, or from the shame and indignity of a trial that would brand them as criminals, or to avoid the mistreatment of their displayed corpses, or out of despair for Germany and the failure of their enterprises; but not often because they were wrong, not because they were guilty, not because they were moral monsters and could no longer bear the creatures of evil they had become.
Afterward, death would add still more to its roster with trials and hangings. Not just the guilty paid its price. In what was perhaps the final irony, many survivors of the camps would kill themselves because they were alive.
William H. Gass 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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