Since 11 September, there has been anguished speculation about what kind of belief system enables men to commit atrocities. In the search for explanation the terrorists who attacked America have been compared with the Nazis. Despite the element of rhetoric behind such analogies, they are not without some use. If we can learn anything from the psychology and ideology of those responsible for the Nazi persecution and mass murder of the Jews, then Richard Overy's book could not be more timely.
Overy, one of Britain's most original and prolific historians, came across the postwar interrogations of captured Nazis while researching another subject. The transcripts and confessions were the raw material for the Nuremberg Tribunal and have been overshadowed by the published record of the trials, but Overy realised their importance. They were the first time that senior politicians, state officials and military leaders were pressed to account for acts of repression, torture, enslavement, war and genocide. The interrogators wanted to establish their motive, and the results are as relevant today as in 1945.
However, as Overy explains in his substantial introduction to the documents, the judicial process is not always the best way of uncovering the roots of evil. The US was the driving force behind the decision to try the surviving Nazi leaders along with representatives of the state, the military and business. In order to link the disparate accused and pin on them crimes committed before as well as during the war, US prosecutors came up with the idea of charging them with conspiracy. They approached the Third Reich as if it were a branch of organised crime, with a mastermind orchestrating compliant accomplices.
But the determination to convict the accused of planning and waging wars of aggression, and committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, "compelled the American prosecutors to bend historical reality". They could not believe Wilhelm Frick, Minister of the Interior, when he said he had little control over the police forces due to the power of Himmler, who was theoretically his subordinate.
Instead of a tightly-knit gang with a dominant leader, the interrogators had uncovered a court of feuding barons all improvising furiously to gain favour from a distant, impulsive tyrant. Claims of ignorance about specific policies and lack of responsibility for them, which then seemed incredible, are now widely seen as accurate.
The perception of Nazi "Jewish policy" was most distorted by the Nuremberg process. Historians now agree that policy, rather than following a predetermined plan, evolved spasmodically and culminated in genocide for a variety of reasons, of which anti-Semitism was but one. Robert Ley, leader of the Labour Front, may have been a deranged believer in the world Jewish conspiracy, but there was some merit to his rejection of the charges. "Where is the plan? Show it to me... Many of the defendants were never anti-Semitic, let alone participating in a 'common plan'."
Even so, Ley knew more in general than he cared to admit. Although conservative fellow travellers may not have shared Nazi racial goals, as members of the ruling elite they, too, carried responsibility for the barbarism of the regime. A few, like Albert Speer, struggled to admit their guilt while not incriminating themselves too deeply. Others fell into a pattern of "forgetfulness, denial, suicide".
Consequently, middle-ranking Nazis provided the most damning information about the atrocities. Two former SS officials at Auschwitz provided some of the most chilling material in an exchange secretly recorded by a bugging device. One remarked that after the Zyklon-B was dropped into the gas chamber, "It must have been quite agreeable because there was no mess". It got messier in the crematorium where the remains of corpses had to be scraped off the oven walls and equipment to prevent clogging. But "you got so used to it that you could eat your sandwiches in there".
Venturing his own thoughts about the origins of genocide, Overy concludes that relentless anti-Jewish propaganda conditioned Germans to accept the most brutal measures. Among those who progressed to become perpetrators it came down to a "deadly cocktail of uncritical prejudice, moral abdication and reflexive violence".
If men and women are schooled to hate and encouraged to feel no empathy with their dehumanised victims, it will not matter if they are driven by a belief in racial superiority or religious fervour. These interrogations show that even a crushing defeat may not shake them.
David Cesarani is professor of modern Jewish history at Southampton UniversityReuse content