The minds behind the monstrosities
Believe and Destroy: Intellectuals in the SS War Machine
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.