Just following orders to the death: the German experience of life under the Nazi regime

Hitler Youth - Eichmann - Nazism and War - After the Holocaust
April 15, 2005

Sixty years after the liberation of Auschwitz, historians still seek to comprehend the Nazi era and its legacy. These four books form part of an ever-growing historical literature with this aim.

Michael Kater's Hitler Youth traces the history of the Nazi youth movement, examining the imposition of uniformity and conformity within the Hitler Youth, issues of training and leadership and its emphasis on authoritarianism, war and expansion. There is a discussion of the role of the League of German Girls in times of peace and war. Kater also shows that the Hitler Youth "was not always an expression of monolithic cohesiveness". Inadequate recruitment and training led to shortcomings in the leadership of the movement. He notes that incompetence, abuse and corruption were widespread.

Although membership became compulsory in 1939, Kater points out that "too many teenagers came and went or did not enrol". Some disliked the routine, others rejected the conformity of the movement. A fascinating chapter on dissidents and rebels deals with well-known resistance movements such as the White Rose and other youth cliques opposed to the regime such as the Blasen or "Bubbles". The members of this Munich-based group disliked the limitations placed on their personal freedom by the Hitler Youth. Similar groups of dissenting youths formed in cities throughout Germany, some of which became involved in open confrontations with the Hitler Youth. Kater discusses the Swing Youth - bringing to bear his expertise on jazz in the Third Reich - and analyses the measures taken by the regime against dissenters.

He also examines the attitudes and responses of the Hitler Youth to the war, as well as its wartime role (the Hitler Youth served as flak helpers between 1943 and 1945). In the final months of the war, the Hitler Youth formed anti-tank brigades and units to secure strategic bridges. Hitler's young followers were ultimately required to take their part in the struggle, facing death, until the end of the war.

The final chapter considers the legacy of the Hitler Youth in the postwar period. It deals with re-education and reorientation after the war, as well as issues of complicity and guilt. Based on a range of sources, this book will be useful for scholars and students of modern German history, but is also likely to appeal to a wider readership of those interested in the history of the Third Reich.

David Cesarani's Eichmann: His Life and Crimes is compelling. He explains that before Adolf Eichmann's capture by the Mossad in 1960 and his trial in Jerusalem in 1961, he was a relatively obscure figure. Much of the iconography that surrounded Eichmann afterwards was influenced by Hannah Arendt's depiction of him as "terribly and terrifyingly normal". Eichmann epitomised Arendt's theory about the "banality of evil". For decades, Eichmann has been regarded as either a desk-killer or a follower of orders. Although Cesarani aims to dispel the myths surrounding Eichmann, he states that this does not mean he was a decent man. He shows his subject as a knowing perpetrator of genocide.

Without adopting a judgemental tone, he critically examines Eichmann's development to establish how he became a genocidaire . The investigation into Eichmann's youth suggests that although he was brought up in Linz as a Protestant German within a nationalist, right-wing milieu, there was nothing extraordinary about this. Cesarani traces the developments in Eichmann's early career and his entry into the Sicherheitsdienst, the security service of the Nazi Party. He considers Eichmann's developing role as an emigration expert between 1938 and 1941. He then deals with the period incorporating the Final Solution and examines Eichmann's role in managing genocide like a business.

Eichmann's point of no return was when he witnessed mass murder and did not turn away. Once he crossed this point, he was committed to the task in hand. Eichmann claimed that after the Wannsee conference of January 1942, when the "Popes" had spoken, he felt no personal responsibility for the fate of the Jews. Cesarani argues that "either Eichmann wanted to kill the Jews or he didn't care if they perished". He analyses Eichmann's part in the deportation and death of Hungarian Jews in 1944. Drawing on new evidence, Cesarani shows how Eichmann fled Europe in 1945, describing his life in Argentina and eventual capture. He then explores Eichmann's trial, following the last stages of his life, to his execution, cremation and the disposal of his ashes at sea.

More than four decades have elapsed since Eichmann's execution and, unlike the sensationalist accounts that appeared in the aftermath of the event, Cesarani's biography is balanced, concluding with the sobering thought that "Eichmann appears more and more like a man of our time. Everyman as genocidaire ". This meticulously researched book deserves a wide readership.

In Nazism and War , Richard Bessel pares down Nazism to what he considers to be its essence: war and racism. Bessel's concise narrative is divided into four sections, each relating to the central theme of war. The first section deals with the consequences of the First World War and the rise of Nazism. Bessel underlines the significance of the legacy of the defeat of 1918 - including the Treaty of Versailles and the "bleeding frontier" with Poland - for the German psyche. The second part of the book examines the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1939 as a prelude to war.

The third section deals with the Second World War itself. As well as giving an insightful narrative of the war as it unfolded, including the Final Solution, Bessel deals with issues such as the war economy and the exploitation of foreign labour. He explores the war's impact on civilian life in Germany. He describes the consequences of the Allied bombing campaign and analyses the impact of the street-by-street struggle for Berlin between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army in the closing weeks of the war.

Bessel seeks to shift the commonly held image of "Germany's war" away from the invasion of the Soviet Union and the battle of Stalingrad to these last months of the war, a time of chaos and senseless destruction. He demonstrates how the horrors of the "final struggle" ousted earlier memories of Germany's war in the way it was subsequently remembered.

The last part deals with the aftermath of the war, examining not just the practical consequences (including food shortages, dislocation, prisoners of war and displaced persons), but also the impact of the war and of Nazism in the German popular memory. Bessel shows that the Germans viewed themselves as victims of war, not as perpetrators of Nazism: "For many Germans, the Second World War came to mean the terrible suffering they endured during its last months, rather than the comparatively good life they had enjoyed in the early war years, or what Germans had inflicted on others." This is a lucid, insightful book that will be useful to students of modern European history as well as to those specifically interested in the history of Nazism and the Second World War.

Eva Kolinsky's After the Holocaust examines the struggles of Jewish survivors after the liberation of the concentration camps and their experiences in the following years. Kolinsky begins her study with an overview of the experiences of the Holocaust and strategies for survival.

This provides a useful context for her examination of the liberation of the German camps. Kolinsky uses the case studies of Buchenwald, Belsen and Dachau to highlight the shock at the discovery of conditions in the camps and the challenges faced by liberators and survivors in the immediate aftermath of liberation. There was neither a standard pattern of liberation nor any agreed plan for dealing with the needs of survivors.

Kolinsky argues that for survivors, "life after liberation remained buffeted by unpredictability". Most Jews had hoped to leave Germany, which became "an interim, a waiting room, a staging post between past and future". But some stayed, despite very poor living conditions. She examines the position of Jews as displaced persons in Germany and considers the re-establishment of Jewish communities there after the Holocaust. With fewer than 11,000 Jews (compared with 500,000 in 1933) "Jewish life in Germany could not replicate or reinstate the German-Jewish culture that had been destroyed". In addition, there was little material support for them, and restitution and compensation were slow to emerge.

Yet, by 1951, the Central Council of Jews in Germany believed that Jews could live in a "fruitful symbiosis" within Germany. During the 1950s, a symbiosis between Jews and the West German state did occur at the public level of institutions and ceremonial events. However, "at the private level of daily living, unease and a sense of distance were less readily dispelled". Although it was no longer state sponsored, anti-Semitism still existed. While this book focuses on the decade after the war, Kolinsky's epilogue addresses developments in the Jewish community in Germany since then, including the issue of identity of young Jews nowadays. She makes excellent use of testimonies not only of camp survivors but also of liberators, aid workers and government officials to underline her powerful account of the difficulties faced by Holocaust survivors.

Lisa Pine is senior lecturer in history, London South Bank University.

Hitler Youth

Author - Michael H. Kater
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 348
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 0 674 01496 0

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