Can a new history of the Nazi period seriously make any claim to originality? Nazi Germany: A New History doesn't contain anything that will not already be familiar to the informed general reader, and what is marketed as "new" about the book - an emphasis on Hitler's "diseased personality", the Bavarian background of the Nazis, the brainwashing of the young - is in fact familiar, and in any case these particular chapters amount to little more than a few dozen pages out of almost 750. Nazi Germany does, however, manifest a quality few such histories have previously managed, namely an accomplished and engaging literary prose style. Fischer may have the earnest Biro-wielding undergraduate in mind as he cautiously (and sometimes infuriatingly) balances claims and counter-claims, and he is for some reason reluctant to bring home the full horror of the Holocaust, but overall he manages to combine, with subtlety and understatement, the historical, economic, social and psychological elements into a clear and detailed narrative.
Daniel Jonah's Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust is a profoundly dark and upsetting study which presents in graphic detail exactly what ordinary Germans did to Jews during the Second World War. In what may well be the most important book yet published on the Holocaust, Goldhagen calls into question the validity of the sort of brief critical overview Fischer and historians like him produce. Refuting the idea that we can't come to terms with the Holocaust because it was essentially inhuman and evil, he is not embarrassed to state his belief that his book "makes sense" of what the perpetrators did and explains how they were allowed, and how they allowed themselves, to murder six million Jews. Goldhagen's painstaking research has produced new data that will have to be taken into account in all subsequent discussion of the subject.
German men and women did not, as has often been assumed, have to kill Jews under orders and under threat of severe punishment if they refused. Most of those who did the killing were volunteer soldiers, who elected to take part in these mass executions, although they were aware that they could have been excused. Goldhagen has discovered that not one single German soldier was punished for refusing to kill; indeed, many were allowed to be transferred to non-killing military exercises, after airing objections (merely practical, of course, and never moral).
Those men and women could have said no, but they chose to say yes; they acted rationally and, in a fundamental way, humanly; and it is the terrible human situation they chose to create, with all the knowledge that it reveals about the wickedness of humanity, that Goldhagen has so disturbingly recreated: the unspeakable horror of making men, women and children dig their own graves and lie face down before shooting them in the back of the head; the blood and brains that splattered the uniforms of those Germans who were doing the killing; the joy they took both in humiliating Jews before their deaths and in the act of slaughter itself. The pictures that illustrate Hitler's Willing Executioners - many of them printed here for the first time - heighten the sense of the reader's despair: a German soldier takes aim at a Jewish mother, who turns her back in a hopeless, heartbreaking attempt to protect her little child; a gleeful crowd in Vienna watches Jews scrub a street with small brushes; Lithuanians, with their shirt sleeves casually pulled up, beat Jews to death in a square in Kovno in June 1941, under the eyes of German soldiers casually chatting.
Goldhagen traces a tradition of German anti-semitism going back to the 19th century, and uses this ingrained prejudice to explore a social context in which Germans could justify to themselves the complete annihilation of the Jews. And here, for me, is a serious problem with the book. The emphasis on Jews, and on attitudes towards Jews, may well explain to a certain extent why Germans killed them, but it does not explain why they killed a million gypsies or more than a hundred thousand homosexuals, or millions of Slavs: all these groups are mentioned by Goldhagen only briefly and in parentheses. Hitler's Willing Executioners was originally written as a PhD thesis, which may partly account for these exclusions: complicating incidence and perspectives are driven out by the force of the central argument, particularly if they challenge important claims to "originality". Germans killed Jews, as well as homosexuals, gypsies, socialists, Slavs and so on, because they enjoyed doing so, that much Goldhagen makes clear; so by extension we should conclude that human beings, as history shows and as Goldhagen also acknowledges, if given the right (or wrong) circumstances, enjoy carrying out such mass slaughter, whatever group has been singled out for victimisation. Anti-semitism was the excuse for the Holocaust of the Jews; but human nature was its root cause.
Armando, in From Berlin, gives a more personal account of just how ordinary people allowed for, or at least didn't object to, the situation they were confronted with. He grew up near Armersfoot concentration camp, and has remained obsessed with the fact that his childhood playground was its periphery. After moving to Berlin in 1979, he set about recreating that city's past. The result is this book, a mesmerising if simple reflection on the present and its relationship to the past, and the difficulty of relating the apparently serene streets he walks through to what took place in those same streets 50 years previously.
Tom Bower's Blind Eye to Murder: Britain, America and the Purging of Nazi Germany was originally published in 1981. The publication of Hitler's Willing Executioners makes this revised edition of Bower's book all the more timely. The story it tells, then revolutionary but now accepted with a sort of resigned disgust, concerns Nazis accused of the most appalling crimes, who were not only not being prosecuted but were allowed either to escape to live peaceful lives in South America or to regain their former positions in the German state hierarchy itself, where they remained until their retirement or death, or still remain.
The main strength of Bower's book is his ability to make general points by citing specific examples, such as the case of Heinrich Lubke, who during the war years designed concentration camps and had been an organiser of slave labour. In March 1964, when Lubke was the President of the Federal Republic, he honoured Heinrich Butefisch with one of Germany's highest civilian awards. During the war Butefisch himself had also been very busy, mainly playing a central part in the I G Auschwitz project. Most infamous, though, was the case of Klaus Barbie, who worked, it has transpired, for the Allied intelligence services; but he was only one of many similarly employed.
Of approximately 150,000 known mass-murderers, only about 30,000 were prosecuted, almost all of them in Eastern Europe. If the American insistence, after the war had ended, on the continued prosecution of war criminals was too little, too late, it was still in marked contrast to the British, whose reluctance to put any weight behind the war-crimes trials is still today a cause of shame, especially since documents Bower published revealed the Foreign Office to have been aware of the Holocaust from as early as 1941.
Bower has updated Blind Eye to Murder to take account of new documentation outlining the controversial use by Allies of former Nazi scientists and the explosive revelation in 1986 that thousands of murderers had settled in Britain after 1947, with the full knowledge of ministers. It would have been more rewarding, however, for Bower to have put a bit more effort into incorporating the less sensational events of the last decade into his Second Edition, and updated the whole book properly.
It was during the Eighties that Ingo Hasselbach, author of Fuhrer-Ex: Memoirs of a Former Neo-Nazi, came of age. In 1987, when he was 19, he was sent to prison for shouting "The Wall Must Fall" at a rally, and met former Gestapo leaders in the jail. It was the beginning of years of flirtation with fascists and ex-fascists, initially in East Germany but afterwards around the world. He founded the first official Neo-Nazi political party in East Germany and took part in numerous attacks on immigrants and others he and his friends considered undesirable. He subsequently resigned from the organisation he had founded, and his testimony against others landed many of his former friends in prison.
Hasselbach claims that "I wrote this book not only to tell my story but to provide the first complete expose of the Nazis' international network of paramilitary camps, indoctrination, and friends in high places." On this level the Memoir works, but on all others it is thoroughly unaccomplished. It is written in barely readable prose, and Hasselbach himself comes across as insincere, fraudulent and self-obsessed.
He also refuses, with one exception, to accept any responsibility for any serious violent act, and claims he "never got a kick out of attacking foreigners", but simply "went along with the leadership". He concludes: "What my life will produce is unpredictable. In five years maybe no one in the scene will know Ingo Hasselbach personally anymore and a new leader will come along. You can't tell. Young people have such short memories." Fuhrer-Ex is chiefly an attempt by a vain, egotistical character to keep his name in the public prints.
In Beyond the Swastika, Peter O'Brian's aim is to advance the cause of contemporary Germany by distancing it from its recent past. He writes that "in Germany, events which would appear trivial or tangential in most liberal democracies can and do trigger national debates over the security and sincerity of liberal democracy in the land. It should come as no surprise, then, that concern over resurgent German nationalism has swelled in the wake of Unification." O'Brian is of the opinion that the constant search, however noble or necessary, for the wickedness of the covert neo-Nazi has blinded us to the pernicious underside of the reformed German liberal. German liberalism and nationalism, he goes on to explain, have historically been seen as oppositional movements, but they in fact reinforce one another. It's a convincing thesis.
John R Bradley is the editor of The London QuarterlyReuse content