Reviews — From the August 2009 issue

Kinds of Killing

The flourishing evil of the Third Reich

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.

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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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