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We now know why we should read a Nazi memoir: because it shows the need to examine the discourses that haunt nations even today. Then, the documents of historic trials such as Nuremberg, offer insights, via the documentation, on how cults and political parties worked.
Documents and texts produced by such parties, cults and organisations, written by the foot soldiers and “ordinary” men and women who decided to go and work in the killing fields of Nazi Germany, Poland and other places are, however, more difficult to come across. Daniel Goldhagen set out to find answer to the question – “When Hitler decided on the annihilation of the Jews, why did the Germans actively participate in the plan?” – and his search resulted in Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996), a meticulous, if controversial, documentation of the “ordinariness” of Nazi executioners.
But, better than these “looking-back” texts is a volume published in 1938, on the cusp of the World War. Built on a collection of over 700 autobiographical essays of different lengths collected in 1934, a year after Adolf Hitler acquired power, the book set out to examine why middle-class youth, farmers, bank clerks, soldiers, in their millions, between 1928 and 1933, joined the Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party and transformed it into a political movement.
Theodore Abel, a Columbia University sociologist, collected these first-person accounts in order to ask: what motivated the ordinary Germans to become Nazis? Why was National Socialism an attractive political movement? Abel proposed an essay contest for “the best personal life history of an adherent of the Hitler movement”, with cash prizes for the “most detailed and trustworthy accounts”.
The participants had to provide full details of their family life, education, economic conditions, memberships in associations, participation in the Hitler movement, and important experiences, thoughts and feelings about events and ideas in the post-war [i.e., World War I] world.
Abel’s aim was to understand from these autobiographies the reasons why people flocked to Hitler. The result of this massive project was Abel’s Why Hitler Came Into Power, a unique and frightening text from within the minds and consciousness of people who went on to become Nazis.
Here is why
In Auschwitz, in a Primo Levi episode that would provide the most horrific “slogan” (if that is what it is), the thirsty Levi breaks off an icicle to quench his thirst. A Nazi guard snatches away the icicle, and the bewildered Levi asks, “Why?” The guard responds: “Here there is no why.” That such an event came to a pass merits, however, a “why” question.
Midway through his book, Abel asks “the why of the Hitler movement”. He offers four responses:
- The prevalence of discontent with the existing social order.
- The particular ideology and programmes for social transformation adopted by the Nazis.
- The National Socialist organisational and promotional technique.
- The presence of charismatic leadership.
We can see the answers to the “why” from the accounts in the volume. It is to be kept in mind that these accounts are about the “why” of joining the Nazis, well before the Second World War, but it requires only a small imaginative leap to ask the same people who join totalitarian parties, hate mobs and such organisations even today.
Abel demonstrates how discontent offered a “common focus for many oppositions” and made “concerted action on a large scale possible”. “Discontent on the part of individuals had a direct effect upon their subsequent joining of the Hitler movement,” writes Abel. Hitler projected national unity was based on a racial doctrine, “the idea that common blood binds individuals into a Gemeinschaft [community] and that racial intermixture is the cause of disunity as well as the deterioration of native stock.” A worker’s autobiographical account in Abel’s book states:
Faith was the one thing that always led us on, faith in Germany, faith in the purity of our nation and faith in our leader…Some day the world will recognize that the Reich we established with blood and sacrifice is destined to bring peace and blessing to the world.
An account by an anti-Semite records how he listened to speeches about the Jewish conspiracy, prosperity and threat. At a gathering, he records, “everyone cried: ‘Out with the Jew!’” The mass media contributed to the general feeling: “Every honest German artisan was of the firm conviction that everything printed in a newspaper was true.”. The man writes, “In Germany everything in politics and economics at that time depended on Jews,” and so, “I occupied myself with the Jewish problem.” He decides: “Fight against the Jew by all means, as the embodiment of wickedness and evil.” When he first read Mein Kampf, he was “gripped by the greatness of thoughts…I was eternally bound to this man.” Hitler, the man concludes, “was given to the German nation as our savior, bringing light into darkness”.
The account by a soldier describes the corruption in German Marxism, and how, when he embraced Nazism, he found his Gemeinschaft. The sacrifices, he writes, were borne for the sake of this Gemeinschaft. Hitler’s call to duty was enough, he writes:
Honors and dignities do not matter. All that counts is that as soldiers of the front we keep out promise to Germany… The Leader is calling, gun in hand! And everything else falls away.
“The story of a middle-class youth” is the autobiography of a young man’s discovery of National Socialism (which was initially opposed in schools and in most families, as he notes). His conversion makes him realise: “I made up my mind that I would have to choose between politics and family.” Enrolled in the party, he describes how the “Fuehrer had … promised …to bring freedom and food to the German people.” In the countryside, “the peasants clung to the Fuehrer with reverence and love, and even in the larger cities the working class raised its hand in respect to him.” For the middle-class youth, “we will find strength in our Fuehrer, who arouses in us the slumbering ideals of Germanic freedom and heroism.”
From these accounts we can see the answer to the “why”: why the middle-class youth, the worker, the soldier – all took to National Socialism and then to Hitler. Given an enemy, a purpose, an ideology and a charismatic leader, the ordinary German found a route to glory and prosperity for the entire race. And nothing would hinder the march on that route.
It is on that march, unstoppable, brutal, often inexplicable that, when faced with the bewildered Jew’s question, “why”, the Nazi was able to respond without hesitation, “here there is no why”.
Why we need to understand the Why
Abel’s collection provides astonishing first-hand accounts of the process and cultural psychological conditioning through which the ordinary Germans were able to explain, defend and even rationalise to themselves and to those who listened, the extermination of the Jews, and the need for war. Melita Maschmann, a propagandist in Nazi Germany, in Account Rendered: A Dossier on My Former Self, writes:
On the “Night of the Broken Glass” our feelings had not yet hardened to the sight of human suffering as they were later during the war. Perhaps if I had met one of the persecuted and oppressed, an old man with the fear of death in his face, perhaps…
This is another of the responses, alongside the many in Abel’s work, to the “why”. The depersonalisation and dehumanisation of the “enemy”, reducing them to an unimportant life form so that there was no guilt in the Nazi when executing or torturing them, is captured in Maschmann’s memoir (Maschmann corresponded with Hannah Arendt after the war).
In his interviews, available in Gitta Serenyi’s Into that Darkness: An Examination of Conscience, Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, the largest of the extermination camps, described how he began his career in the police, “flushing out villains here and there…it was all good experience and I knew it wouldn’t hurt my record”. His interviewer Serenyi notes how “however terrible the stories he was telling, Stangl was constantly to fall back into police jargon… ‘he was a villain’”. Later, when asked how he could take part in the extermination, Stangl says:
It was a matter of survival…The only way I could live was by compartmentalizing my thinking….if the “subject” was the government, the “object the Jews, and the “action” the gassings, then I could tell myself that for me the fourth element, “intent” was missing.
In a nation’s history, when discourses of dehumanisation, metaphors of animalisation and excess [the fear of minority numbers] are employed against communities, then we should recall how the ordinary men and women in Nazi Germany came to accept that the extermination of a race was integral to “their” nation. When we see cults and politics – and they become interchangeable after a point – offering answers to the “why” in the form of scapegoating or victim-blaming, we are on the cusp of disaster. The “intent”, as Stangl claims, is missing because he, like all Nazis, was trying to survive.
However, Goldhagen in his book examining the “why”, again, of everyman’s participation in the genocide, argues that “acts of initiative” (Germans who on their own set out to torture and kill) and “excesses” are “really both acts of initiative, not done as the mere carrying out of superior orders”. He proposes that “whatever the cognitive and value structures of individuals may be, changing the incentive structure in which they operate might, and in many cases will certainly induce them to alter their actions”. In a debate at the Holocaust Museum with Christopher Browning (author of Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland), Holocaust scholar Lawrence Langer and others, Goldhagen would put it pithily:
The German perpetrators, namely those who themselves killed Jews or helped to kill them, willingly did so because they shared a Hitlerian view of Jews, and therefore believed the extermination to be just and necessary.
Incentive structures and the “vision” offered by leaders that rewire the cognitive include: the law refusing to take its course, rewards by the party/organisation, even a career. Such structures embolden and produce the “initiative” to go after the Jews that Goldhagen saw in the ordinary Germans. This is an initiative that has been tragically replicated since then: “heroes” pointing guns at “enemies” in public spaces, hate speech targeting communities, law enforcement officials rewarded in their careers for being biased against communities, and others. If there is a reward in selling someone down the river, the cognitive dissonance that otherwise would prevent inhuman behaviour, is no longer in operation.
There is no “why” in the minds of the perpetrators because the “why” has been provided for, by the party, the cult, the leader. This is not to say that they have signed away their minds. Rather, the minds have been rewired through regular dollops of incentives, immunity (from prosecution), and the “whys” provided top-down. Clearly, the ordinary Germans no longer needed to ask “why” since the incentive structures of “pure” Gemeinschaft, race or nation, the illusion of prosperity for the “pure” are adequate to alter cognitive and value systems.
What Abel’s documentation of the ordinary-as-excess, like Goldhagen’s, teaches us is this: if we do not ask “why”, the heinous actions we see around us will be explained as “why not”.
Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad.