Ordinary Germans and the ‘Final Solution’

On 4 October 1943, in Posen, Heinrich Himmler gave a speech to senior SS officers, which he repeated in more or less the same form two days later to Party Regional Leaders and other prominent figures, including Joseph Goebbels and Albert Speer. The speech contained what have since become some of his most notorious utterances. ‘The evacuation of the Jews’, he declared, ‘…is a laudable page in our history that will never be written.’ The Jews were a threat to the Reich, he declared. Therefore they were being killed, and not just the men:
We were approached with the question, what about the women and children? – I decided to find an absolutely clear solution here too. ? Thus I did not feel I had the right to exterminate – let’s say then, kill them or have them killed – the men while I allowed their avengers, in the form of their children, to grow up and avenge them upon our sons and grandsons. The really difficult decision had to be taken to let this people disappear off the face of the Earth. For the organization that had to carry out the task, it was the most difficult we had so far had.
Several months later, on 5 May 1944 and again on 24 May 1944 he repeated these sentiments in addresses to senior army officers at Sonthofen, describing how difficult he found ‘the fulfillment of this soldierly command that was issued to me’ to exterminate the Jews. Killing the women and children as well as the men, he implied, was his own interpretation of Hitler’s order; the reference to a ‘soldierly command’ could only be a reference to Hitler himself, since there was nobody else from whom Himmler would accept commands of any kind. Hitler himself was clear enough about his own overall responsibility, however. As he remarked to senior military personnel on 26 May 1944: ‘By removing the Jews, I have removed from Germany the possibility of the construction of any kind of revolutionary cell or nucleus…Humanitarianism would mean the greatest cruelty towards one’s one people, here as in general, everywhere.’ It was a life-or-death struggle. If the Jews were not eliminated, they would exterminate the entire German people. Not only the generals and Party satraps, but also Himmler himself seemed to share the view that the extermination of the Jews was a crime, a necessary crime in their view, but a crime none the less: for why, otherwise, would the history books to be written in the future never dare to mention it? Such a crime would invite retribution should Germany lose the war. So these speeches, delivered at a time when Germany’s military situation was becoming steadily more desperate, were designed not least to remind the senior Party figures and generals of their complicity in the genocide, in order to ensure that they would carry on fighting to the end, a point fully grasped by Goebbels, who wrote in his diary on 9 October 1944 that Himmler in his speech ‘pleaded for the most radical solution and the toughest, namely to exterminate Jewry, bag and baggage. That is certainly the most consistent solution, even if it is also a brutal one. For we have to take on the responsibility of completely solving this question for our time.’
To SS leaders, on 4 May 1944, Himmler had an even more explicit message. He had no doubt that they would fight to the end. He wanted to remind them, however, that the extermination of the Jews had to be carried out wherever and whenever it was possible, and without any exceptions:
“The Jewish people will be exterminated”, says every Party comrade. “It’s clear, it’s in our programme. Elimination of the Jews, extermination and we’ll do it.” And then they come along, the worthy eighty million Germans, and each one of them produces his decent Jew. It’s clear the others are swine, but this one is a fine Jew. Not one of those who talk like that has watched it happening, not one of them has been through it. Most of you will know what it means when a hundred corpses are lying side by side, or five hundred or a thousand are lying there. To have stuck it out and – apart from a few exceptions due to human weakness – to have remained decent, that is what has made us tough.
Even the SS men who carried out the murders, therefore, were told by Himmler that what they were doing would be regarded by most of humanity as a terrible crime, if they were not already conscious of the fact. More strikingly, perhaps, he made it clear that the mass of the German population felt, at the very least, ambivalent about the extermination; all of them, without exception, felt that some Jews at least should be kept alive, and that some Jews were fine and decent people. In essence, they had no real understanding for the genocide: only those fanatically committed Nazis who carried it out were really wholly in favour of it.
Himmler’s speeches, sharing in chillingly explicit terms the responsibility for the extermination of the Jews with key groups in the German military and civilian leadership, raise a number of questions which I want to address in this evening’s lecture. How much did ordinary Germans know? Did they approve or not? Were there any individuals, groups or institutions that tried to stop the extermination?
As Himmler’s language suggested, Hitler and the leading Nazis believed that Germany had lost the First World War as the result of a ‘stab-in-the-back’ by Jewish subversives and revolutionaries at home, and as soon as they came to power in 1933 they began the systematic persecution and dispossession of Germany’s small Jewish minority, succeeding in driving around half of them out of the country by the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939. The conquest of Poland brought a far larger Jewish population under the control of the Nazis, who removed them from their homes and confined them in overcrowded, insanitary and poorly supplied ghettos in the major cities, where they remained, in terrible and deadly conditions, while the German administrators argued over whether it was better to let them die or co-opt them into providing labour for the German war effort. In June 1941 the German invasion of the Soviet Union brought many more Jews under Nazi control, while Hitler, Goebbels and the leading figures in the regime now firmly believed that Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt, who was supplying the Allies with increasing quantities of munitions and essential goods, were acting on behalf of a world Jewish conspiracy aimed at defeating Germany and annihilating the German race.
A barrage of propaganda to this effect sent the signal to Himmler and the SS to begin the process of extermination, first by mass shootings behind the Eastern Front, then by asphyxiation in mobile gassing vans, and finally in specially constructed gas chambers set up in murder camps in the occupied areas of East-Central Europe. In January 1942 a conference of senior officials in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee resolved on measures to co-ordinate the murder programme, and listed further countries from which the Jewish population would be deported to the East and killed, including nations not yet conquered by the Third Reich, such as Ireland and Iceland. By the middle of 1943 the murder programme was mostly complete, though the occupation of Hungary by German forces a year later led to the killing of more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz. Altogether during the war, some 3 million Jews were murdered in the extermination camps. 700,000 were killed in mobile gas-vans and 1.3 million were shot by SS Task Forces, police units and allied forces or auxiliary militias. Anything up to a million Jews died of hunger, disease or SS brutality and shootings in the concentration camps and especially the ghettos that the Third Reich established in the occupied territories. A precise total is impossible to arrive at, but it is certain that at least five and a half million Jews were deliberately killed in one way or another by the Nazis and their allies. Since the opening of the archives in the former Soviet bloc in the 1990s it has become clear that the probable total is around six million, the figure given by Adolf Eichmann, the senior co-ordinator of the programme, at his trial in Jerusalem 1961.
There was, it is clear, next to no resistance on the part of ordinary Germans to this unprecedented act of genocide. For some years after the end of the war, Germans themselves explained their inaction by claiming they had not known about it at the time. But a great mass of research, most of it by German historians, since the 1960s has shown this claim to be false. Finding out about the killings was not difficult. Obviously, news travelled fast to the few Jews who remained in Germany. In January 1942 Victor Klemperer, a Jewish professor protected from deportation, though not from discrimination, by the fact that he was married to a non-Jewish German woman, was reporting rumours that ‘evacuated Jews were shot in Riga, in groups, as they left the train’. On 16 March 1942 his diary mentioned for the first time ‘Auschwitz (or something like it), near Königshütte in Upper Silesia, mentioned as the most dreadful concentration camp.’
By October 1942 he was referring to it as a ‘swift-working slaughterhouse’. ‘The will to extermination is growing all the time’, he noted at the end of August 1942. The mass murders in Auschwitz and elsewhere had, he noted, ‘now been reported too frequently, and by too many consistent Aryan sources, for it to be a legend.’ As this suggests, knowledge of the mass killings of Jews, Poles and others in the East was not hard to come by. It could be obtained from a variety of sources. The Security Service of the SS reported in March 1942 that soldiers returning from Poland were talking openly about how the Jews were being killed there in large numbers. The Nazi Party Chancellery complained on 9 October 1942 that ‘discussions’ about ‘”very harsh measures” against the Jews, particularly in the Eastern Territories’ were ‘being spread by men on leave from the various forces units deployed in the East, who have themselves had the opportunity to observe such measures’. Civil servants at many levels of the central Reich administration read the Task Force reports or were in contact with administrators in the East. Railway timetable clerks, engine drivers, and train drivers and other staff on stations and in goods yards, could all identify the trains and knew where they were going. Policemen rounding up the Jews or dealing with their files or their property knew as well. Housing officials who reassigned the Jews’ dwellings to Germans, administrators who dealt with the Jews’ property – the list was almost endless.
Finding out about the gassings was far more difficult. The camps were located away from major centres of population, though within easy reach of them by rail, the killings took place behind barbed-wire fences not in trenches in the open, and German troops were generally located elsewhere in the region. Soldiers writing to their families or coming home on leave generally had no direct knowledge of these killings. Nevertheless, news of the gas chambers also reached Germany, if by a somewhat circuitous route. It was from Poland that the most determined attempts to inform the world of the extermination programme came. On 17 September 1942 it approved a public protest against the crimes the Germans were committing against the Jews. Jan Karski, a member of the Polish underground, was commissioned by the resistance to go to the West and report on the situation, though the plight of the Jews was fairly low on the list of priorities he was given. Hearing of his mission, two members of a Jewish underground group persuaded him to visit the Warsaw ghetto and most probably also the camp at Belzec. Karski followed his orders, and reported what he had seen when he eventually reached London.
Karski’s report had a dramatic effect. On 29 October 1942 the Archbishop of Canterbury chaired a large public protest meeting at the Albert Hall, with representatives of the Jewish and Polish communities. On 27 November 1942 the Polish government in exile in London finally gave official recognition to the fact that Jews from Poland and other parts of Europe were being murdered on the territory it claimed for its own. Representatives of the government informed Churchill and on 14 December 1942 Foreign Secretary Eden delivered an official report on the genocide to the British Cabinet. Three days later, the Allied governments issued a joint declaration promising retribution to those responsible for the mass murder of Europe’s Jews. The Allies concluded that the best way to stop the genocide was to concentrate everything on winning the war as quickly as possible. Bombing the railway lines to Auschwitz and other camps would only have achieved a temporary respite for the Jews, and distracted attention and resources from the larger purpose of overthrowing the regime that was killing them. What the Allies did do, however, was to direct a massive propaganda campaign against the Nazi regime. Beginning in December 1942, British and other Allied propaganda media bombarded German citizens with broadcast and written information dropped from airplanes about the genocide and promising retribution. By this time, although it was a crime punishable in severe cases by death, an estimated 15 million Germans were listening to the German-language broadcasts of the BBC, since they no longer trusted the propaganda pumped out by Goebbels’s co-ordinated radio stations in Germany, and they can have had few doubts about what was being done at Auschwitz, Treblinka and elsewhere in their name.
In Berlin, faced with these accusations, Nazi propagandists did not even trouble any more to issue a denial. In terms of counter-propaganda, Goebbels told his staff,
there is no question of a complete or partial refutation of the Jewish atrocity claims but simply a German action that will concern itself with English and American acts of violence in the whole world…It must be so, that every party accuses every party of committing atrocities. This general clamour will in the end lead to this topic being removed from the programme.
The mass murder of the Jews thus became a kind of open secret in Germany from the end of 1942 at the very latest, and Goebbels knew that it would be futile to deny it. Himmler’s
The evidence does not, therefore, support the claim made by many Germans immediately after the war that they had known nothing about the extermination of the Jews. Nor does it support either the argument that Germans as a whole were enthusiastic supporters of the regime’s murderous antisemitism, or the claim that hatred of the Jews was a significant force in holding the ‘people’s community’ together before and during the war. Before the First World War exterminatory or eliminationist antisemitism was a creed held by only a tiny minority on the extreme fringes of German politics. The liberal parties, and especially the massive labour movement, had a long record of open opposition to it, even if they tragically underestimated its potential importance. Under the Weimar Republic, it was more violent and obtrusive than before, and exerted a stronger hold over the parties of the Right, but it still has to be remembered that the Nazis scored less than 3 per cent of the vote in the 1928 Reichstag elections, and indeed they deliberately underplayed antisemitism in their electoral propaganda from this point until they came to power in 1933 because they realized it had little or no appeal to the German electorate. The incessant barrage of antisesmitic propaganda from all the organs of government and the co-ordinated media from 1933 onwards, and the elevation of antisesmitism to a central place in teaching in the schools, ensured that by 1939 the belief that there was something called ‘the Jewish problem’ had become widespread, and that anti-Jewish prejudice was particularly strong amongst the younger generations. Nevertheless, there is no evidence to support the view that the mass of ordinary Germans were filled with active hatred of the Jews, even during the war.
Nevertheless, strikingly, the voluminous surveillance reports of the SS Security Service had relatively little to say on the subject. The reason was the undoubtedly extreme degree of coercion and terror to which the mass of Germans, particularly in the working class, were subjected by the police, the SS, the Party, the Hitler Youth, and many more agencies of the regime. During the war, a raft of draconian treason laws was introduced; spreading gossip or even telling jokes about the Nazi leadership was subject in serious cases to the death penalty; the prison population doubled; and the number of executions rose to around 15,000, of which fully half were of German civilians, the rest being of foreign workers. It may be tempting to dismiss fear as an excuse, but the temptation must be resisted. Fear and terror were very real elements in the Nazi dictatorship, and made any kind of open criticism of the regime a risk most people were not prepared to undertake. As the clandestine reporting service of the Social Democratic Party noted in March 1940:
The comprehensive terror compels “national comrades” to conceal their real mood, to hold back from expressing their real opinions, and instead to feign optimism and approval. Indeed, it is obviously forcing ever more people to conform to the demands of the regime even in their thinking; they no longer dare to bring themselves to account. The outer shell of loyalty that forms in this way can last a long time yet.
Open discussion of the persecution and murder of the Jews was thus relatively rare, and seldom reported even by the Security Service of the SS.
There were, however, two institutions that retained a relatively large degree of freedom to say what they liked. The first was the Church, both Catholic and Protestant. In July and August 1941 indeed a series of public and widely distributed sermons by the Bishop of Münster, Clemens von Galen, articulating the concerns of many of his congregation, forced the regime to bring the mass gassing of the mentally ill and handicapped to a halt, and Nazi officials up to and including Goebbels, though furious, concluded that Catholics would be lost altogether to the war effort if Galen was arrested and executed. Nevertheless, there was a considerable amount of persecution of the Churches, with Protestant and Catholic priests who criticized the regime being arrested and sent to concentration camps in quite large numbers during the war as well as earlier.
Persecution, as experienced above all in 1941, made the Catholic Church hierarchy extremely wary of engaging in public protests against the regime. Those bishops who were concerned about matters such as the ‘“Jewish question, treatment of the Russian prisoners of war, atrocities of the SS in Russia etc.”, as an unsigned memorandum discovered later in Cardinal Faulhaber’s files put it, decided only to approach the Nazi leadership with their concerns in private, confining themselves in public to protesting in general terms about the persecution of the Church and the regime’s attacks on the basic rights, the property, the freedom and the lives of many German citizens (implicitly meaning Jews). A planned public protest to this effect, dated 15 November 1941, was, however, suppressed on the orders of the senior Catholic cleric in Germany, Cardinal Bertram. Bertram was more concerned to keep his head down than most, but throughout the war years, Catholic bishops showed little public concern for the mass murder of Jews or Soviet prisoners of war. Even Clemens von Galen remained silent. Even though he was indeed approached by at least one Jew in the hope that he would do something to help the Jews, he did and said nothing, not even in private
Conrad, Count Preysing, Bishop of Berlin, was perhaps the most persistent advocate within the Catholic Church of a policy of openly condemning the regime’s maltreatment of the Jews. In August 1943 he had a petition to the regime drawn up which he hoped all the Catholic bishops in Germany would sign. Condemning the brutal evacuation of the Jews from Germany, it did not, however, mention their extermination, and only asked for the deportations to be carried out in a manner that respected the human rights of the deportees. But the Catholic bishops rejected the petition, opting instead for a pastoral letter that asked their flock to respect the right to life of people of other races. Preysing approached the Papal Nuncio, only to be told: ‘It is all well and good to love thy neighbour, but the greatest neighbourly love consists in avoiding making any difficulties for the Church.’ The silence of the Catholic Church in Germany reflected not least the growing concern of Pope Pius XII about the threat of Communism, a concern that became all the greater as the German forces got into difficulties on the Eastern Front and the Red Army began to advance. The Pope had never forgotten his experiences as Papal Nuncio in Munich during the Communist and anarchist revolutions in 1919, events to which he referred when receiving the new German Ambassador to the Vatican, Ernst von Weizsäcker, in July 1943. As the war went on, Pius XII came to regard the German Reich as Europe’s only defence against Communism, especially after the overthrow of Mussolini and the growing strength of Communist partisan groups in northern and central Italy, and he privately condemned the Allied demand for unconditional surrender. He directed his efforts, therefore, at using the formal internationally neutral status of the Vatican to work for a compromise peace that would leave an anticommunist Germany intact. And in pursuit of this goal, he considered it best not to raise his voice against the extermination of the Jews, for fear of compromising the Vatican’s neutrality.
Contrary to what some of his critics have claimed, there is no convincing evidence that Pius XII was an antisemite, or that he had concluded from his experience in Munich in 1919 that Communism was part of a world Jewish conspiracy. However, as he wrote to Preysing in April 1943, the Pope feared that public protests would lead to renewed persecution of the Church in Germany. He was not willing to intervene to help the Jews. A public stance against the killings would not stop them, he thought, and indeed might simply speed them up. With the Germans in Rome, too, open criticism might bring German troops into the Vatican. The most he could do, he told Preysing, was to pray for the ‘non-Aryan or half-Aryan Catholics…in the collapse of their external existence and in their spiritual need.’
Things were only a little different among German Protestants. On 4 April 1939 the pro-Nazi German Christians issued a declaration in Bad Godesberg that affirmed the Church’s ‘responsibility for keeping our people racially pure’ and insisted that there was ‘no sharper contradiction’ than that between Judaism and Christianity. The following month, the oppositional Confessing Church replied with a similar document that agreed with the need for ‘a serious and responsible racial policy for keeping our people pure’. Few will have noticed much difference between the two. As persecution turned to mass murder, however, some leading Protestant voices were raised against the persecution of the Jews. Bishop Theophil Wurm wrote to Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in November 1941 warning him that the campaign against the Jews was helping enemy propaganda. Goebbels threw the letter into his wastepaper basket. Another letter, which Wurm attempted to have passed to Hitler by a senior civil servant, made a similar point in respect of what he called ‘the growing harshness of the treatment of Non-Aryans’. When the Church Chancellery, formally the leading body of the Evangelical Church, together with three bishops, issued an open letter demanding ‘that baptized Non-Aryans stay away from the Church activities of the German congregation’, the leadership of the Confessing Church asked pointedly whether in that case Christ and the Apostles would have been ejected from the Church on racial grounds had they lived in the Third Reich. On 16 July 1943 Wurm tried again. By this time, as he noted, he had lost both his son and his son-in-law on the Eastern Front. Writing personally to Hitler, he declared that the ‘measures of annihilation’ directed against ‘Non-Aryans’ stood ‘in the sharpest contradiction to God’s Commandment and violate the basis of all Western life and thought: people’s God-given, fundamental right to life and human dignity in general.’ Although a private letter, it was copied and distributed within the Church. On 20 December 1943, Wurm repeated its main points in a letter to Hans-Heinrich Lammers, the head of the Reich Chancellery. ‘I hereby caution you emphatically’, Lammers replied, ‘and request you in future to be most punctilious in remaining within the bounds of your profession.’ Politics were not his business. Nobody apart from Wurm attempted such an intervention, and shortly after his protest, he was banned from writing or speaking in public for the rest of the war.
The Churches, therefore, did very little in the end to stop the genocide. It is arguable of course that it was not really in a position to do much anyway. The same did not apply, however, to the army, which had a long tradition of proud independence that still had not entirely vanished by the 1940s despite its extensive subversion by the Nazis. It was above all from within the army that a resistance movement emerged, first in 1938, then again in 1942-4, which sought to overthrow the Nazi regime above all because it appeared to a number of officers that Hitler was leading Germany to military defeat. Other loose groups and dissident individuals, overwhelmingly from the German aristocracy and the senior ranks of the civil service, coalesced around the resistance, though their views on many issues diverged strongly from one another.
One of the factors motivating the German resistance was undoubtedly outrage and shame at the regime’s treatment of the Jews. Already in late August 1941, Helmuth von Moltke, the leading figure in the idealistic Kreisau Circle who met to discuss alternatives to the Nazi regime, was writing to his wife about the mass murder of Jews and Soviet prisoners of war in the East. This was, he said, burdening the German people ‘with a blood-guilt that can never be expunged in our lifetime and can never be forgotten’. In similar vein, Ulrich von Hassell, former ambassasdor to Italy, confided to his diary on 4 October 1941 that General Georg Thomas, the chief procurement officer of the armed forces, had reported on his return from the Eastern Front on ‘the continuance of repulsive cruelties, particularly against the Jews, who were shamelessly shot down in batches.’ ‘Hundreds of thousands of people have been systematically killed just because of their Jewish descent’, noted a memorandum drawn up by former Mayor of Leipzig Carl Goerdeler, the main political figure in the resistance, and its candidate to lead a post-Hitler civilian government, on the postwar future of Germany in November 1942. After the fall of Nazism, Goerdeler and his co-authors promised that the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 and all laws specially affecting the Jews would be abolished, though the reason they gave was not that they were unjust, but that they were unnecessary because the very small number of Jewish survivors would no longer constitute a ‘danger for the German race’. Nor did this prevent the resisters from drawing up plans to classify the surviving Jews on the basis of their race as much as their religion.
A number of the military participants in the conspiracy had themselves ordered actions against the Jews, including for example Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, army commander in Paris. As the senior official in Regional Leader Wagner’s Silesia, Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg had implemented antisemitic and anti-Polish policies with enthusiasm, including the forced labour conscription or deportation of Poles and Jews. It was above all the German military defeat at Stalingrad, which he took as evidence of Hitler’s military incompetence, to drive Schulenburg into the opposition; and indeed for many of the military figures among the resisters, the belief that Hitler was responsible for the worsening situation of Germany in the war was also crucial. Wolf Heinrich, Count von Helldorf, Police President of Berlin, also involved in the conspiracy, had actually taken a leading part in persecuting the capital city’s Jews in the 1930s. The plot even included among its supporters and informants Arthur Nebe, commander of SS Task Force B in the Soviet Union, responsible for the murder of scores of thousands of Jews; his motives for joining the opposition were particularly obscure. Some of the conspirators, including Prussian Finance Minister Johannes Popitz, disapproved of the methods used by the Nazis to deal with ‘the Jewish question’ because they were too extreme, not because the idea of discriminating against the Jews was wrong in itself. As all this suggests, many of them had initially supported the Nazis for their racial policies as well as for other reasons. Well before 1944, however, such views had been all but obliterated by the view that, as Goerdeler put it, ‘the Jewish persecution…has taken the most inhuman, merciless and deeply shaming forms, for which no recompense can be adequate.’
By 20 July 1944, when Claus von Stauffenberg detonated his bomb in Hitler’s field headquarters with the aim of killing the German leader and setting in motion a coup attempt in Berlin and elsewhere, codenamed Valkyrie, the conspirators were clear that they would not succeed in overthrowing the regime. They finally conceived of their action as a moral gesture, to show some Germans at least were opposed to Nazism and its criminal policies. Nevertheless, had Hitler’s life not been spared by a series of chances, the likelihood is that the coup attempt would have led to a civil war between its supporters and opponents in the army, the latter backed by the SS, and that the war would have been shortened by some months, thus saving many Jewish, German, and other lives.
The moral revulsion of the conspirators, qualified and in some cases compromised though it may have been, was not unique. Some Germans reacted with open enthusiasm to discrimination against the Jews. After putting on his yellow star, Victor Klemperer experienced for the first time being shouted at in the streets by young members of Hitler Youth In his minutely detailed account of everyday life as a Jew in Nazi Germany during the war, however, Klemperer recorded a wide variety of reactions by ordinary Germans on the street as they encountered him wearing the star. While one asked him brusquely ‘why are you still alive, you rogue?’, others, complete strangers, would come up to him and shake him by the hand, whispering ‘you know why!’, before passing quickly on. Such encounters became more dangerous after late October 1941, when the Reich Security Head Office ordered the arrest of any German who demonstrated any kind of friendliness towards Jew in public, along with the arrest and incarceration in a concentration camp of the Jew in question. Some persisted, however. Sometimes Klemperer was able to identify friendly workers as ‘old SPD men at least, probably old KPD men’, but he received abuse from other workers and also from the young. On a visit to the Health Insurance Office Klemperer noticed a worker catching sight of his Jewish star and saying ‘”They should give them an injection. Then that would be the end of them!” And in April 1943 a worker removing the effects of an ‘evacuee’ from the Jews’ House in Dresden where Victor Klemperer lived murmured to him “These damned swine – the things they’re doing – in Poland – they drive me into a rage too.’
When they forced Jews to wear the yellow star on their clothing, the better for people to identify them, many non-Jewish Germans did not react in the way that Goebbels wanted them to. Jews reported being greeted on the street with unusual politeness, people coming up to them and apologising, or offering them a seat on the tram. Foreign diplomats, among them the Swedish Ambassador and the US Consul-General in Berlin, noted similarly sympathetic reactions on the part of the majority population, particularly from older people. The public advertisement of the Jews’ persecuted status produced feelings of shame and guilt when they were attached to visible, living human beings. Popular reactions to the introduction of the Jewish star were overwhelmingly negative, and those who took it as the opportunity to abuse and attack Jews were in a small minority. When, not long afterwards, the police began rounding up Jews in German cities and taking them to the local railway station for deportation to the east, there were further negative public reactions.. Older Germans in particular found the deportations shocking. The Security Service of the SS reported in December 1941 that people in Minden were saying that it was ‘incomprehensible how human beings could be treated so brutally; whether they were Jews or Aryans, all of them in the end were people created by God.’ The religiously inclined were particularly critical of the deportations. In Lemgo a crowd gathered to see the last transport of Jews off at the end of July 1942. Many citizens, particularly in the older generations, were critical, and even Nazi Party members said it was too hard on the Jews, who had been living in the town for many decades, even centuries.
‘On the train’, noted the former schoolteacher Luise Solmitz in Hamburg on 7 November 1941, ‘people are craning their necks; apparently a fresh trainload of Non-Aryans to be sent away is being put together at Logenähs.’ Not long afterwards, she heard a passer-by comment as an elderly Jewish woman was taken away from a Jewish old people’s home, ‘driven together in such a little pile of misery’: ‘Good, that the rabble is being cleaned out!’ But another witness to the action took exception to this comment: ‘”Are you talking to me?’” he asked: ‘”Please be quiet.”’ All through the summer of 1942 Luise Solmitz witnessed the repeated deportations of elderly Jews to Theresienstadt. ‘The whole of Hamburg is filled with the deportation of these removal even of the oldest people’, she noted. An acquaintance reported that ‘whooping children had accompanied the removal’, although Solmitz herself had never seen such behaviour. ‘Once more, Jews have gone to Warsaw’, she reported on 14 July 1942: ‘I found confirmation of this in the rubbish-bins outside their home, which were full to the brim with the miserable remains of their few possessions, with coloured tin cans, old bedside lamps, torn handbags. Children were rummaging about in them, cheering, making an indescribable mess.’
A few people tried to rescue such Jews as they could. The story of the businessman Oskar Schindler is well known from Steven Spielberg’s movie Schildner’s List: a Czech German and member of the Nazi Party, he obtained an enamel factory in Cracow when its Jewish owner was dispossessed, and employed 1,100 Jewish forced labourers there while also engaging in widespread black market activities, trading in looted art and other forms of corruption. As time went on, however, Schindler began to be outraged at the treatment meted out to Polish Jews, and managed to use his money and connections to protect those who were working for him. As the Red Army approached, he obtained permission to evacuate his workers to an arms factory in the Sudetenland, although they never produced any arms. The Jews survived the war, but Schindler had lost most of his fortune in protecting them, and he did not prosper in the more orderly business world of the postwar years. He moved to Argentina in 1948, but went bankrupt a decade later, and returned to Germany, living first in Frankfurt then in Hildesheim, and dying a relatively poor man in 1974, aged 66.
Another rescuer, the Catholic German army officer and former schoolteacher Wilm Hosenfeld, whose voluminous diaries and letters have recently been published, also began employing Poles and Jews, in his army sports administration in Warsaw, to protect them from arrest. ‘How many have I already helped!’, he wrote to his wife on 31 March 1942, adding a few months later: ’I don’t have such a bad conscience that I must be afraid of any retribution.’ On 17 November 1944 Hosenfeld stumbled upon a starving Jewish survivor of the ghetto, living in an abandoned house that Hosenfeld was prospecting for use as the army command headquarters. The man turned out to be a well-known professional pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman, whose radio recitals had made him a household name in Poland before the war. Hosenfeld hid him in the attic while the German army command moved in downstairs, and kept him supplied with food and winter clothing until the Germans left the city. He never told Szpilman his name, nor did he, for obvious reasons of security, make any mention in his diary of what he had done. It was only in the 1950s that the pianist, who by this time had revived his career in Poland, discovered his rescuer’s identity; this incident too is recorded in a movie, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist.
There were others, less well known, who helped keep a total of several thousand Jews in hiding in Berlin, Warsaw, Amsterdam and many other occupied cities. They included clandestine groups stimulated by socialist or religious or sometimes simply humanitarian beliefs, such as scouting troops, charitable organizations, student clubs and a whole variety of pre-existing networks. But these thousands, of course, have to be set against the millions who did not survive. Schindler’s list may have been remarkable, but Hitler’s list was much, much longer.
The vast mass of Germans did nothing to stop the extermination. Yet it was clear enough that they did not positively support it either. A degree of low-level antisemitism may have played a part, customary acceptance, however grudging, of government orders, above all, fear of arrest and imprisonment, fear sufficient to deter all but the most committed from taking any action. Goebbels’s anti-Semitic propaganda campaigns carried out in the second half of 1941 and again in 1943 had failed to convert Germans to the idea that the Jews had to be killed. Such evidence as we have suggests that the majority, excluding fanatical Nazis, and particularly including the middle-aged and the elderly, those with a socialist or communist past, or those who were committed Christians, saw it as immoral, unjust, even criminal. But if people could not be made to approve of the murder of the Jews, then perhaps their evident knowledge of it could be used to persuade them to carry on fighting for fear of what the Jews might do to them in revenge, particularly if, as Nazi propaganda claimed, the Jews were really in charge of Germany’s enemies, Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union.
This too proved counter-productive. The last two years of the war were filled with atrocity propaganda emanating from Goebbels’s mass media: the Red Army in particular was portrayed, not entirely inaccurately, as hell-bent on raping and killing Germans as it advanced. Yet far from leading to a strengthening of resolve amongst ordinary Germans, this propaganda only served to reveal deep-seated feelings of guilt that they had done nothing to prevent the Jews being killed. Such a feeling was an unexpected by-product of the continuing Christian convictions of the great majority of German citizens. In June 1943, for example, ‘clerical groups’ in Bavaria were reported to be reacting in this way to Goebbels’s propaganda campaign centred on the Soviet massacre of Polish officers at Katyn. The Party Chancellery in Munich reported them as saying:
The SS used similar methods of butchery in its fight against the Jews in the East. The dreadful and inhumane treatment of the Jews by the SS virtually demands the punishment of our people by the Lord God. If these murders are not avenged upon us, then there is no longer any Divine justice! The German people has taken such a blood-guilt upon itself that it cannot count on any pity or forgiveness. Everything is bitterly avenged here on Earth. Because of these barbaric methods there is no more possibility of a humane conduct of the war on the part of our enemies.
When Cologne cathedral was bombed the following month, people said this was in retribution for the burning of synagogues in 1938. On 3 August 1943 an SS Security Service agent reported that people in Bavaria were saying ‘that Würzburg was not attacked by enemy airmen because no synagogue was burned down in Würzburg. Others again said that the airmen were now coming to Würzburg as well because the last Jew left Würzburg a short while ago.’
Just over a year later, on 6 November 1944, the Security Service of the SS reported from Stuttgart that Goebbels’s propaganda graphically portraying the lootings, killings and rapes carried out by Red Army troops in Nemmersdorf, in East Prussia,
in many cases achieved the opposite of what was intended. Compatriots say it is shameless to make so much of them in the German press…”What does the leadership intend by the publication of such pictures as those in the National Socialist Courier on Saturday? They should realise that the sight of these victims will remind every thinking person of the atrocities we have committed in enemy territory, even in Germany itself Have we not murdered thousands of Jews? Don’t soldiers again and again report that Jews in Poland have had to dig their own graves? And how did we treat the Jews in the concentration camp in Alsace? Jews are human beings too. By doing all this we have shown the enemy what they can do to us if they win.” [The opinion of numerous people from all classes of the population].
‘The Jews alone will repay us for the crimes we have committed against them’, predicted one anonymous letter to the head of news at the Propaganda Ministry on 4 July 1944. Fear and guilt were driving the great mass of Germans to dread the retribution of the Allies. From 1943 onwards, they were mentally preparing themselves to deflect this retribution as far as they were able, by denying all knowledge of the genocide once the war was lost. Only two decades or more later, with the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, followed by the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt, and the emergence into adulthood of a new generation of Germans educated in a democratic state and determined to ask awkward questions of those who had lived through the Third Reich and done nothing, did the situation begin to change.