Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Nazi Germany and the Jews

Saul Friedlaender has written a two volume set about the Holocaust. Volume 1, The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939 was published in 1997. This second volume, The Years of Extermination, 1939-1945 came out this year. Both volumes are the kind of really detailed, exhaustive treatment of the subject that most people won't read--and that's a shame.

These are the sort of detailed, nuanced history that needs to be written, and needs to be read. Friedlaender makes extensive use of unpublished papers, personal diaries (some of which were buried by their keepers hours to days before they were rounded up for extermination), and official documents. Unlike the kind of reductionist, goal-oriented history that seems to have become fashionable in some circles today, Friedlaender is comfortable providing information that while it doesn't refute his points, does show that broad statements about group motives and actions can be generally true, but often individually false.

Friedlaender also includes a number of startling quotes from Hitler and other Nazi officials that remind me much of the rhetoric very popular on the left today, about capitalism, plutocracy, the military-industrial complex and its motivations for war. This really should not be a surprise; Nazi is an abbreviation for the German words for National Socialist German Workers Party. While Hitler toned down much of the socialist rhetoric starting in 1931, as some industrialists started to fund the party, it is clear from speeches throughout the 1930s and 1940s that Hitler still regarded his movement as a campaign to protect the people from both communism and capitalism--both of which he regarded as two parts of the same Jewish plot. (That communism and capitalism were diametric opposites seems not to have occurred to Hitler.)

There is one bone that I might pick with Friedlaender's account, and it is a mixture of what I want to be true, and what seems to me to be a deficiency in Friedlaender's assumptions about motivation. A recurring theme of both volumes is that while individual Protestants and Catholics often took steps to protect Jews, or at least to alleviate their suffering on the way to an inevitable death, both Catholic and Protestant church leaders were generally either indifferent to the Holocaust, or passively supported it. (And unfortunately, in some parts of Europe, actively supported it.)

Now, those of you who know about the Confessing Church, which was created by German Protestants who disapproved of the Nazi program, and know about the actions of the Catholic Church in opposing the euthanasia program, may be puzzled by the paragraph above.

What Friedlaender documents was that in the letters and documents of the Confessing Church and of Catholic opposition to the Nazis, there was no opposition to extermination of Jews. There was considerable effort exerted to protect Jewish converts to Christianity, and opposition to the Nazis eugenics program of sterilization of the genetically inferior and extermination of the retarded and mentally ill.

What makes me a bit uncomfortable with Friedlaender's use of these documents is that he seems to accept them at face value, without considering a more Byzantine model. While nothing to be proud of, it may well be that the focus on protecting Jewish converts to Christianity was driven by recognition that there were limits to what could be accomplished when directly confronting the Nazi goverment. This was a totalitarian society that had to choose between winning the war, or extermination of the Jews--and decided that extermination of the Jews was more important. It was also a society that had already demonstrated its willingness to send Christian dissenters to concentration camps.

Friedlaender also points to the occasional expressions of a mild (at least compared to the Nazis) anti-Semitism in many of the official letters sent to the Nazi government. This might be because of the existing anti-Semitism in German society that allowed Hitler to rise to power (although it was pretty clearly not the major reason that the voters elected the Nazis). It might also be the result of the Nazis' continual propaganda campaign against the Jews. I look at a lot of this stuff now, and I find myself wondering how anyone could be taken in so easily by such transparently manipulative and stupid propaganda. But then again, I look at a lot of the election advertising that in America today, and I am amazed that it works, too.

Friedlaender seems not to recognize the possibility that these letters might have made anti-Semitic statements or assumptions as a method of achieving a starting point for discussion. Consider today if you were trying to persuade an elected official who was pro-choice to ban partial-birth abortion. If you started the letter with, "You are going to rot in hell because you are pro-choice! So please vote to ban partial-birth abortion." Well, let's just say that this letter would be unlikely to persuade.

A very clever (or dishonest, take your pick) letter writer might start out with, "Of course a woman has a right to choose--but shouldn't she have made that choice before the third trimester? I am sure that you can see the difference between aborting a blob of cells and aborting a viable third trimester fetus. Please vote to ban abortion." And of course, if you were writing a letter to a government official in America, you wouldn't have to worry that if it was poorly received, that you and your family would be arrested and tortured to death. This was a real concern in Hitler's Germany. To express any opposition at all to Nazi policies required considerable courage.

Perhaps Friedlaender considered these possibilities, and found no evidence to support them. But I must confess that I often found myself asking these questions.

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