The minds be­hind the mon­strosi­ties

Be­lieve and De­stroy: In­tel­lec­tu­als in the SS War Ma­chine

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Loosley Stephen Loosley

By Chris­tian In­grao Trans­lated by An­drew Brown Polity, 432pp, $47.95 (HB)

SOME­TIMES it’s pos­si­ble to judge a book by its cover. Be­lieve and De­stroy by Chris­tian In­grao, a French re­searcher and writer who spe­cialises in the study of Nazism, is such a book.

The cover photo is chill­ing, if not sick­en­ing. It is an in­fa­mous snap taken some­where on the Rus­sian front, circa 1941-42. It shows an emo­tion­less SS man stand­ing the­atri­cally at the edge of a ditch with what ap­pears to be Walther pis­tol in his hand. He is about to shoot an un­armed man who is kneel­ing at the edge of the ditch, look­ing plain­tively, if not quizzi­cally, at the cam­era­man. He ap­pears to be ask­ing why this is hap­pen­ing to him.

The salient re­al­ity of this aw­ful pho­to­graph is that it was one of thou­sands that cir­cu­lated in Nazi Ger­many dur­ing the World War II. It was a pop­u­lar pas­time for Wehrma­cht soldiers and mem­bers of the SS Ein­satz­grup­pen, who un­der­took much of the slaugh­ter, to demon­strate their prow­ess with their tech­ni­cally su­perb cam­eras as well as their weapons.

As can be gauged by th­ese open­ing para­graphs, read­ing this book re­quires men­tal tough­ness and a strong stom­ach, for it takes the reader into some of the dark­est places it is pos­si­ble for hu­man­ity to tread. In­grao, whose book flows from his doc­toral the­sis, has traced the sto­ries of about 80 Ger­man ‘‘ in­tel­lec­tu­als’’ who joined the SS (Schutzstaffel) and SD (Sicher­heits­di­enst).

While the SS rep­re­sented the Nazi Party’s Prae­to­rian Guard, the SD was the re­ich’s se­cu­rity ser­vice. Af­ter Op­er­a­tion Bar­barossa and the Ger­man in­va­sion of Rus­sia in June 1941, the Ein­satz­grup­pen, in­clud­ing many of In­grao’s sub­jects, fol­lowed closely be­hind the armies to liq­ui­date the en­e­mies of the re­ich.

Us­ing tac­tics em­ployed ear­lier in oc­cu­pied Poland, the Ein­satz­grup­pen killed tens of thou­sands of in­no­cent peo­ple, fill­ing mass graves from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Th­ese mass mur­ders pre­dated the cre­ation of ex­ter­mi­na­tion camps such as AuschwitzBirke­nau. In­dus­trial death thereby re­placed or­gan­ised slaugh­ter by fir­ing squads.

SS Re­ichs­fuhrer Hein­rich Himm­ler de­liv­ered a no­to­ri­ous speech in Posen in Oc­to­ber 1943 in which he spoke can­didly to a closed con­fer­ence of Ger­man SS and mil­i­tary about how the Fi­nal So­lu­tion worked in prac­tice. Two days later he spoke to the Nazi po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship with the same mes­sage.

Amer­i­can writer John Toland ob­serves in his au­thor­i­ta­tive 1976 bi­og­ra­phy Adolf Hitler that Himm­ler’s aim was to bind the en­tire lead­er­ship of Nazi Ger­many to the great crime of the 20th cen­tury. That’s prob­a­bly true, but Himm­ler’s the­sis was that the mass mur­ders were nec­es­sary to pro­tect the Ger­man race and that it was ex­tra­or­di­nary that SS men had done their duty and not been af­fected in body or soul.

Com­pare this bar­baric lu­nacy with the re­al­ity of the mass mur­ders. In­grao writes: ‘‘ There was chaos at the place of ex­e­cu­tion. Sev­eral men felt sick. The vic­tims fell into the ditch, some of them were still alive. In any case, I still have a hor­ri­ble im­age in my mind’s eye: there were still move­ments in the mass of bod­ies, and sud­denly some­one rose up from the mass of tan­gled bod­ies and lifted an arm.’’

Or con­sider In­grao’s ac­counts of in­di­vid­ual SS of­fi­cers, such as Adolf Harnischmacher: ‘‘ He was one of those who, armed with a whip, showed a markedly cruel form of in­ter­per­sonal vi­o­lence, lash­ing out at Jews dur­ing the round-ups in ghet­tos be­ing liq­ui­dated. Harnischmacher was la­belled a ‘ sadist’ by wit­nesses who agreed on his state of ner­vous col­lapse, demon­strated by his con­stant al­co­holism.’’

The quotes above are tes­ti­mony enough on the sub­ject mat­ter and sub­jects of Be­lieve and De­stroy. The ques­tion is: How could the Ger­many of Goethe and Schiller have ar­rived at this blood-soaked des­ti­na­tion? Ac­cord­ing to In­grao, for his sub­jects the an­swer lies pri­mar­ily in World War I and its out­come, the Treaty of Ver­sailles.

Ver­sailles pun­ished a Ger­many de­feated on the bat­tle­field but not psy­cho­log­i­cally at home. Ul­tra-na­tion­al­ists held that the politi­cians had ‘‘ stabbed the army in the back’’, a le­gend Hitler was en­er­getic in prop­a­gat­ing. But the puni­tive treaty hit Ger­many very hard, strip­ping it of ter­ri­to­ries in the east and west and im­pos­ing crip­pling repa­ra­tions.

The sub­jects of In­grao’s book of­ten had di­rect ex­pe­ri­ence of French oc­cu­pa­tion of the Ruhr or Saar, of ten­sions on the Czech bor­der or of out­right fight­ing on the Pol­ish bor­der.

For In­grao’s ‘‘ in­tel­lec­tu­als’’, post-war life in the great uni­ver­si­ties of Konigs­berg, Bonn and Hei­del­berg was an in­tro­duc­tion to far­right na­tion­al­ist aca­demics. Stu­dent and sport­ing as­so­ci­a­tions fos­tered a kin­ship of as­sertive Ger­mans in a ‘‘ world of en­e­mies’’. In the wake of the catas­tro­phe of Ver­sailles, the ca­coph­ony of Weimar pol­i­tics and the pri­va­tions of the De­pres­sion, re­cruit­ment into the SS and later the SD gave th­ese men a rea­son for be­ing.

In­grao takes his nar­ra­tive from the trenches of World War I to the war crimes tri­als at Nurem­berg. Un­for­tu­nately, this book still reads like the doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion which forms its core. It is pre­cise and clin­i­cal but lacks the kind of anal­y­sis of char­ac­ter — even of eco­nomic back­ground — that would ex­plain far more about the warped play­ers.

This book does con­trib­ute to a clearer un­der­stand­ing of Nazi cul­ture and the re­sult­ing Holo­caust. But it is a strug­gle to read, and of­ten nau­se­at­ing in its de­scrip­tions of hor­ror.

By far the best chap­ters cover the loom­ing Nazi de­feat in 1945 and the tor­tured and self­ex­cul­pa­tory ev­i­dence given by the war crim­i­nals at Nurem­berg. For in­stance, Otto Oh­len­dorf’s tes­ti­mony is a mas­ter­piece in selfdeception and at­tempted white-wash­ing. Oh­len­dorf’s fate is in­struc­tive. The jus­tice of Nurem­burg may have been vic­tors’ jus­tice, but jus­tice it still re­mains. Those who be­lieved and de­stroyed de­served its full weight.

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