Half-shadows of the Reich

Hitler's Jewish Soldiers

March 21, 2003

Jewish generals in the Third Reich? It's true, says Anita Bunyan.

In the mid-1990s, American graduate student Bryan Rigg went out for a drink with a German second world war veteran, Heinrich Hamberger, and his old wartime comrades. Rigg had been interviewing Hamberger - not his real name - in the course of his research into the history of soldiers with Jewish ancestry who had served in the German army during the Third Reich.

Hamberger had been reluctant to let Rigg accompany him. His comrades, he claimed, knew nothing of his Jewish ancestry and Hamberger clearly had no intention of enlightening them. Later that evening, while Hamberger bought drinks at the bar, his former company commander confided in Rigg: "Don't tell Hamberger, but we know he's a Jew." For Rigg, this exchange neatly encapsulated the conspiracy of silence that seemed to exist about the presence of such soldiers in Hitler's army.

Rigg's book breaks that silence. It is the first study to document the history of Jews and men of partial Jewish descent, Mischlinge in Nazi terminology, who fought in the German armed forces during the second world war. Rigg calculates that their numbers may have been as high as 150,000.

Even more startling is the evidence demonstrating that Hitler played a central role in permitting Mischlinge to serve in the army: "Generals, admirals, navy ship captains," Rigg writes, "fighter pilots, and many ordinary soldiers served with Hitler's personal approval." Hitler granted several thousand official exemptions from racial laws to members of the armed forces, and in his lucid and systematic account, Rigg pays special attention to the process by which such exemptions were obtained.

Most Mischlinge did not apply for or receive exemptions. They falsified their papers, denying their Jewish ancestry. Some were protected by their superiors and others simply managed to keep a step ahead of the Nazi bureaucratic machine. They were motivated to varying degrees by loyalty to Germany, fear, opportunism and, in some cases, a naive belief that their service would save their Jewish relatives. Many fought for Hitler, while on the home front close family members were persecuted and deported. The majority of those interviewed by Rigg claimed that they did not know about the regime's systematic extermination of millions of Jews.

Rigg has not simply written a book, he has also built up an impressive archive of documents about the experiences of Jews and Mischlinge in the German army. Between 1994 and 1998 he identified, contacted and conducted videotaped interviews with 231 of these veterans. This contact enabled him to assemble much valuable primary source material, now available to scholars in the Bryan Mark Rigg Collection housed in the German Federal Archives in Freiburg. The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs from the collection. They are significant because we later learn that Hitler paid particular attention to such images when reviewing applications for exemptions.

The letters, diaries and official government documents collected by Rigg document the experiences of more than 1,500 Mischlinge and an incredible 97 "full" Jewish soldiers, including generals, admirals and even a field marshal. The tendency of the book to conflate the experiences of these two groups somewhat obscures the quite unique history of Hitler's full Jewish soldiers. As Rigg comments, "the numbers presented here are insignificant relative to the Wehrmacht 's size, but are startling in the light of the Holocaust". Rigg's extensive, though measured, use of extracts from these interviews and documents enables him to give voice to this remarkable experience, the testimony bearing witness to "a horrific and obscure history".

One reason for the presence of so many men of Jewish descent in Hitler's army was that racial laws governing the armed forces were confusing and highly contradictory. In 1934, General Werner von Blomberg ordered the dismissal of non-Aryan servicemen from the army. Yet a year later, the Nazis explicitly included Mischlinge in their conscription of all young German males. It was the first of many contradictions and obfuscations to characterise Nazi policy towards Mischlinge in the army. During the course of the Third Reich, the laws affecting Mischlinge in the armed forces became increasingly restrictive. In the final analysis, however, many were saved because the Nazis, fearful of broader social unrest, could not agree on how to treat them.

This chaotic state of affairs was characteristic of the polycratic Nazi regime and a product of its competing power centres. For Mischlinge who wished to stay or be promoted in the army, chaos created opportunity.

Policies quickly became outdated and thus difficult to implement.

Mischlinge who wished to be discharged, by contrast, sometimes found themselves in the bizarre situation of having to inform their superiors of developments in the racial laws. A significant number of Mischlinge appear to have been protected by fellow soldiers and superiors. Many officers and administrators in the army hid non-Aryan officers by not reporting them.

Interestingly, many of the Mischlinge who chose to confide in their comrades found them to be sympathetic to their situation. Certainly, Rigg found plenty of "Aryan" officers who were prepared to report Mischlinge in their ranks. Some of these officers were undoubtedly motivated by racist ideology, others by ambition. But the discovery of a significant number of "sympathetic" soldiers in the German army casts an interesting light on the relationship between "ordinary Germans" and the Third Reich. At the very least, it calls into question Daniel Goldhagen's recent contention that ordinary Germans were, almost without exception, eliminationist anti-Semites.

Much more surprising than Rigg's findings about the attitude of ordinary Germans in the army, however, are his discoveries about the unexpectedly flexible attitudes to racial policy of senior figures in the Nazi party.

Hitler was not the only senior Nazi to enforce the racial laws inconsistently. Hermann Göring, Martin Bormann, Reinhard Heydrich and Karl Dönitz, to name a few, also knowingly left several high-ranking Mischlinge officers at their posts or campaigned on their behalf for exemptions. The most significant example was that of "half-Jew" Field Marshal Erhard Milch who became one of the most powerful men in the Luftwaffe. Racial ideology may well have been the driving force behind Nazism, but its implementation was constantly tempered by political pressures and considerations of personal power.

Rigg's account of the motives of "Hitler's Jewish soldiers" provides a fascinating insight into the relationship between German Jews and the German nation, the implications of which could have been further developed in the book. The Mischlinge documented by Rigg were deeply patriotic and thought of themselves primarily as Germans. A particularly interesting finding of Rigg's is that most Mischlinge had felt accepted by mainstream German society before they were identified and persecuted by the Nazis. In the circumstances of the Third Reich, a strikingly large number believed they could prove their "Aryan" qualities by acquitting themselves with distinction in the German army.

This was not an unusual phenomenon. One can see here the influence of the 19th-century ideology of emancipation, whereby the prospect of this was held out to German Jews on condition that they proved themselves to be "good Germans". Military service provided an effective path to social acceptance and many German-Jewish families had strong military traditions.

During the first world war 100,000 Jews served in the German army and as many as 300,000 Jews served in the Austro-Hungarian army. In the Third Reich, therefore, military service offered some men a form of personal escape route. Half-Jew Hans Meissinger claimed that being a soldier "gave me a sense of not being the 'outcast' that I had experienced in civilian life".

Another fascinating aspect of this book is the glimpse it offers of the postwar experience of these veterans. In a polarised postwar landscape of victims and perpetrators, these Mischlinge were unsure where they belonged.

Unsurprisingly, they had little desire to re-establish contact with "German" relatives who had disowned them during the war. Officially rejected by German society, many had also found themselves ostracised by Jewish relatives and by Jewish organisations during the Third Reich. Some were rejected by Jewish relatives after the war. As Helmuth Kopp explained:

"Now my relatives call me the Jewish Nazi."

Many Mischlinge appear to have responded to this estrangement by repressing the memory of their experiences in the war. Most veterans who gave interviews to Rigg had not spoken of their experiences before. A significant number of Mischlinge , especially in Vienna, declined to meet him. Some admitted that they still feared that people, including those close to them, would reject them on learning of their Jewish ancestry. As Rigg suggests: "Most still struggle with identity issues and where they belong. Their experiences under Nazism have been a source of insecurity throughout their lives."

In a dramatic twist to the tale, however, a number of Mischlinge sought to overcome this postwar experience of estrangement by turning for a sense of identity to their Jewish heritage and to the state of Israel. This was despite the fact that most had had little or no contact with Judaism before Hitler, and after the war were not embraced as fellow victims by Jewish survivors. Some even converted to Judaism. Seven of the Mischlinge and Jews documented by Rigg went on to serve in the Israeli army. There is, one senses, the potential for another book to be written about this turn of events alone.

Quite apart from the intrinsic interest of its subject matter, this book forces us to think about the categories we use when writing about the past.

Terms such as "Germans" and "Jews", when used historically, frequently fail to encompass the diversity of historical experience in Germany. As outcasts of historiography, the Mischlinge who served in the German army remind us that the history of Jewish experience in Germany also needs to document the experience of the tens of thousands of descendants of full Jews whose Jewish identity "was born of persecution rather than religious or cultural heritage".

Anita Bunyan is a fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

Hitler's Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military

Author - Bryan Mark Rigg
ISBN - 0 7006 1178 9
Publisher - University Press of Kansas
Price - £24.95
Pages - 433

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