Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.


Today's `scoop'

Another day, another piece of research. Yesterday many of us learned for the first time that thousands of Jews had fought beside Germans during the Second World War. The reaction in many was one of horror. While 6 million Jews were being exterminated, others were going hand in hand with the Nazis who had dreamt up the Final Solution. Even worse, the research established that 77 senior officers of mixed Jewish race or with Jewish wives had been accepted as having German blood by none other than Hitler himself.

Was this proof of a degree of collaboration, of a level of complicity that might be used to undermine the moral dimension in the lessons of the Holocaust?

The truth is much more prosaic. The research was carried out by Bryan Rigg, 25, an American studying history at Darwin College, Cambridge. For the past four years, Mr Rigg has criss-crossed Germany and travelled as far afield as Canada and Turkey in order to uncover tales of the Mischlinge, those of half or quarter Jewish blood who are not recognised as Jews by other Jews, but who were classified as such by the Nazis.

In the course of his travels, he has unearthed documents which show that two field marshals, 10 generals, 14 colonels and 30 majors in the Wehrmacht were of Jewish extraction. Field Marshal Edward Milch, deputy to the Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering, had a Jewish father, but Goering falsified his papers, declaring: "I will decide who is a German."

Others with Jewish fathers or grandparents won military decorations. Helmut Wilberg, winner of the knight's cross, had a Jewish mother, but he kept his origins secret and went on to develop the German concept of blitzkrieg. Even Helmut Schmidt, West German Chancellor from 1974 to 1982, kept secret the fact that his grandfather was Jewish, and he went on to become a lieutenant in the Luftwaffe. Mr Rigg's research appears meticulous and was described by fellow historians as "useful" yesterday in that it was gleaned from people who lived through paradoxical times or those who lived close to them in the immediate aftermath. But fellow academics and Jewish historians said the revelations were not new and should not really surprise anybody.

"It has been known for a long, long time that many Jews who wanted to hide from Hitler believed that the army was as good a place as any," said Rabbi Albert Friedlander, dean of the Leo Baeck rabbinical training college. "The army was not the Nazi party and elements of it were actually opposed to Hitler.

"Some believed there was a better Germany - a Germany of Beethoven and Goethe that would last longer than Hitler. They had no idea of what was to come, and many would have known nothing about the extermination camps."

Indeed, according to the historian Evelyn Wilcock, author of Pacifism and the Jews, Germans who were half or quarter Jewish were routinely conscripted right up to the start of the war. By the outbreak of hostilities, thousands would have been in the army.

"They had no choice," she said. "The penalty for not serving was death, and the death penalty would often apply to family members, too." And many of those now described as being of Jewish extraction would not then have regarded themselves as Jewish. It is certainly unlikely that someone with a Jewish grandfather would call himself a Jew.

From 1942 onwards, however, Hitler ordered them to be rooted out of the army. Some were sent to labour camps, but others were helped by fellow soldiers or commanding officers, who felt more loyal to those they had fought with than to the Nazis.

There is, nevertheless, the potential for some embarrassment here - not in suggestions that some Jews collaborated, but in the way German attempts to create a pure race are reflected in some ways by Jews themselves. "In one of George Steiner's plays, Hitler turns round to some Jews at one point and says `Where do you think I got the idea of a Chosen People from?'," said Mrs Wilcock. "What is embarrassing is that some of our own people put an emphasis on descent credentials in the same way as the Nazis did in their attempts to create a pure Aryan race.

"The Jewish view of the Holocaust is one of black and white. It is like cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys. But it gets a little blurred when you start talking about Mischlinge from mixed families. And, because the teaching of Holocaust history has a moral and ethical content, it has the capacity to turn children's heads.

"I am Jewish but my husband is not. Recently, a certain Jewish woman suggested that my children should wear badges to show that they are not marriageable. That is precisely the sort of thing that the Nazis did to the Jews in Germany and it is precisely the sort of thing we need to avoid. The racial exclusion of Jews by Jews simply defeats the object."