Jan 18, 2017
The Way They Were: Moral Lessons from Reading Nazi Germany
I was sick of the Holocaust by the time I was 21. As a Jewish American, I had read too many stories: The Devil’s Arithmetic as a child to Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz in college. Sure, I felt guilty, but I couldn’t witness the violence and hatred again and again. None of these books answered my question: How could people let this happen? The American answer has been a simple, villainous caricature. From Indiana Jones’s to Inglorious Bastards, the Nazis are devoid of humanity. We stopped them the only way they understood, with violence.
This narrative didn’t answer my questions. If they were devoid of humanity, then how did Hitler arrive to a joyous crowd of 200,000 in Vienna after annexation? It didn’t stop my blood running cold when, in Berlin, I saw the photos of women in the SS, smiling, laughing, the double lightning bolts pinned fashionably on their lapel. I had to go back to books for my answers: Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum, They Thought They Were Free: the Germans 1933-1945 by Milton Meyer, and When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation 1940-1944 by Ronald Rosbottom.
After this election it’s easy to see how tantalizing the Nazi’s promises were. Germans were promised action and Hitler provided them with jobs and social programs. In the mind of many small town Germans, as Meyer argues in his exploration of the rise of Fascism in Germany, “nobody went hungry, nobody went ill and uncared for.” It was idyllic for the people of Kronenberg because everyone they knew was like them. So they assumed these benefits reached everyone.
Our American retelling erases something critical: the Nazis weren’t devoid of humanity but simply redefined it. They made humanity an exclusive clique people died to be a part of. The Jews, the Roma, the disabled weren’t real humans. They were nothings.
This change in definition stayed with many in Kronenberg. They didn’t wrestle with the Nazi legacy like I did, unable to forget the hundreds of family portraits hanging in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Instead, these men simplified the Nazi party and war into how it impacted them. To them, Hitler was a hero tragically cut down by the war or by Goebbels. By simplifying and denying, they could remember the Nazi years free of shame or guilt. The people systematically killed were nothings to these narratives.
And yet, the more I read of Nazis as everyday people, the more difficult it became to judge them. Is the tailor’s son a villain for joining the SA just to have a job? What about the teacher who joined to try and save himself from being seen as a dissident? Some were terrible antisemites and some just wanted a job. Both were Nazis. I don’t feel certain that I can judge them. Still, an old anger makes it hard to allow compassion alone to win out.
Yet, anger is a dangerous companion. A fire that hot can be fuel or destruction. Anger blinds me to the reality of others. It makes self righteousness easy and understanding hard. It reduces people to the villainous caricatures that left me unsatisfied. It hasn’t provided answers or stopped genocides from occurring again. The only other path I see is trying to understand them. Compassion, as strange as it sounds, is the only way I can find resolution.
It’s far easier for me to empathize with women. Blum captures the harsh realities of World War II for German women in her Ribalow Prize winning novel, Those Who Save Us. In it, Anna, a young woman in the German city of Weimar is seen by an SS officer giving food to prisoners. He makes a deal with her. He pretends to ignore her previous work in the resistance, if she’ll sleep with him. So she does to save her daughter. With so much power on his side, is she even making a choice? This relationship was founded on the threat of death.
The war’s sexist double bind also followed women in the early peacetime: in Paris many would be shamed for having sexual relationships with Nazis by having their heads shaved in public. Women became symbols of male impotence and power. Just like Anna, they are denied their humanity in relationship. After the war, they are like a white pantsuit, dirtied by Nazis hands. They are not good enough to be worn again. In a simple world of good and evil, these women can only be good or bad, one choice ruining them forever.
What is so different about these books from Jewish Holocaust narratives is how successfully the “unwanted” were removed. The Jewish perspective dominates the American narrative. It gives the conflict a moral weight so few wars can have. Yet, no one in Kronenberg had any hard knowledge of the extermination program. Even the fictional Anna, who has some ties to the resistance, has hardly any information about the camps in 1940. She only begins to understand because her Nazi lover has worked there.
Yet, the Holocaust is a story of willful ignorance. “They didn’t know,” Meyer argues, “because they didn’t want to know.” Stories trickled in but were dismissed as crazy accounts or enemy propaganda. After all, accessing and sharing information was far harder before smartphones and social media.
It’s easy to say, like a comic book hero, that the people should have believed. They should have searched out; they should have known. They should have done something, anything. Believing, though, was a risk, forcing you to question friends, family, even the government. Why risk your life when it could all be a terrible lie? Denial makes surviving a war easier. It makes punishing them, however, harder. All it takes is looking at the Nuremberg transcripts to read again and again. I didn’t know, they said again and again. So we let them go.
Denial, however, didn’t die after the war. Many Germans in the 1950s still believed that only Jewish traitors were sent to the concentration camps. The rest, they thought, could leave with the market value of their property. Like fake news today, they refused to believe the the photographs or the thousands of shoes.
Meyer never explains this denial, the answer I craved the most. After all, I lived four blocks away from Comet Ping Pong, the restaurant at the center of “Pizzagate.” It doesn’t matter that I know this family restaurant has never been part of a child sex ring. People disregard that there is no evidence. They continue to spread lies, undermining the safety of my old neighborhood. Living all over the United States, my neighborhood isn’t real to them. To the Pizzagate believers, it’s a terrible evil place, just waiting for a hero to save innocent children.
My search for answers couldn’t end in Germany. Six million Jews died from all over Europe. I needed more than the German perspective, I needed to understand why people in occupied Europe helped their conquerors. Rosbottom began to give me those answers in his book, When Paris Went Dark: The CIty of Light Under German Occupation 1940-1944, delving into Paris under Nazi occupation as well as the resistance and collusion.
Paris, Rosbottom explains, became a city of uncertainty and self preservation. Regulations were constantly changing; rations were never enough; rumors conflicted with news reports; no one was certain if their neighbors were spies for the Nazis. More than the loss of physical space, Parisians lost the psychological space of their city. Their focus narrowed to survival and blending in. Generosity was a life threatening risk.
Perhaps that is the hardest part to swallow. When goodness isn’t easy, many people aren’t good. People don’t turn up their heads, looking for a hero: they keep their heads down. During the war, many valued themselves more than any principle. It took more than beliefs to be good during this period: you had to have a hero’s ability to value something, more than your own life.
And yet, it’s easy to understand why people didn’t do anything. Anna tries to continue to feed Jewish prisoners, despite her affair. One day, she returns home to find him there for an unplanned visit. As he rapes her, she decides she can no longer feed the men. The scene and its moral choice haunts me. Is the higher good to continue to resist and risk a small child? I don’t know that I could have made that choice.
So who did resist? Many were outsiders: immigrants, Jews, communists–the groups Nazis most wanted to purge from their empire. Most were young. One young leader of the resistance, Jacques Lusseyran, estimated that upwards of 80% of the resistance was under the age of 30. Rosbottom reasoned that adolescents natural rebellious tendencies made them more likely to resist. it could have been that the youth had less to lose.
In these intricate and highly connected environments of personal and political, a difficult question arises: how should we define resistance and collusion? There are the obvious extremes with strongly strongly decided allegiances, their actions clearly for a side. They fit easily inside the square lines of the comic book panels.
Yet this conflict happened in a 3D world. How should we define the concierge, the gatekeeper of Parisian apartments, who passively allows their Jewish tenants to be roundup by the police? How do we define Anna with her changing relationships? Separating these people into sides is futile.
One person I wrestled with was Heinrich Hildebrandt, one of the men highlighted in Meyer’s book. Hildebrandt joined the Nazi party to cover up earlier ties with the Social Democrat party. He admitted to enjoying the feeling of belonging as a party member. Yet, he helped his Jewish relatives find a workaround to save their home. When his cousin dies as part of the resistance, he took over custody of her son.
Having read his story multiple times, I don’t know how to define him. Was he merely a coward? Were his small actions enough to be considered resistance? Did he do these small acts to alleviate his sense of shame? He doesn’t add up to either a hero or a villain. Leaving behind the American narrative of certainty, the only answer I have found is a moral grey field.
The only truth I’ve found: The Allies weren’t pure goodness and the Axis wasn’t pure evil. Our comic book retelling denies humanity to both sides. Their mistakes could never be ours and our mistakes didn’t happen. So we forget and now, we may be doomed to repeat them.
Part of the problem lies in how many lived and died never telling their stories. Anna’s own story is shrouded in her silence. Even when Trudy, her daughter, confronts Anna decades later with a witness to Anna’s heroics, Anna denies it. Trudy rationalizes her mother’s denial as “her prerogative as a hero”, to choose who she lives with her own history. Perhaps this allows Trudy to come to terms with her mother’s decades long silence. I can’t help but wonder if the willingness to forget has allowed America to simplify this history. It allows our people to be the victors, our crimes against people from Dresden to Manzanar washed away with their silence. We can erase their stories and forget their humanity.
For too long it has been easier to forget and move on. This forgetting has made us lose a valuable lesson. The crimes of Nazi Germany weren’t the crimes of inhuman villains. These were the crimes of human hatred given methodical training and power. Fear and self-preservation allowed too many to look away and let it happen. After all, it wasn’t happening to them.
As a Jew, I haven’t been able to forget. Never again we repeat every year. The Jewish narrative hasn’t held the illusions of the American narrative. We knew it could happen again. Muslim registries, swastikas, and Nazi propaganda quoted in DC all carry dangerous echoes.
Yet, remembering the past isn’t enough: Holocaust studies programs live in universities while hate crimes rise. Knowing brings with it responsibility. After all, doing nothing allowed millions to die. Ultimately, our terrible past asks me to value something more than my own comfort, even my own survival–the full definition of humanity.
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