They were handsome, brilliant, clever and cultivated. They were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of humans. This book attempts to tell their story. It is based on my doctoral thesis, written between 1997 and 2001. This studied a group of eighty university graduates, economists, lawyers, linguists, philosophers, historians and geographers, some of who pursed academic careers while simultaneously devising doctrines, carrying out surveillance, or gather intelligence on German or foreign affairs within the repressive organizations of the Third Reich, especially the Security Service (SD) of the SS. Most of them were, from June 1941, involved in the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews of East Europe, as members of the mobile commando units known as Einsatzgruoppen and dedicated to slaughter.
My initial ambition was to retrace what the German historian Gerd Krumeich called an Erfahrungsgeschichte, a history of the actual experience of these men, so as to understand how the framework of their lives might have shaped their (monstrous) system of representations. This is where I was able to profit most fully from the heritage of the historians of the Great War: I tried to study children’s wartime lives as a crucial experience, scarred by a collective narcissistic would that was interpreted in the apocalyptic and eschatological terms.
Secondly, I wanted to grasp Nazi activism as a cultural reaction to this first experience, and study it in the light of the anthropology of belief. In other words, I tried to analyse Nazism as a consoling, soothing system of beliefs: the coherence of its discourses and practices is underlined by the analytic tools I use, and embodied in the life stories and careers that I narrate.
This left the experience of the terrors wrought during the journey to the east: the genocidal practices of the Einsatzgruppen and their participation in Germanization and population displacement –policies that were fraught with utopian and murderous tensions. Finally, I sought to conclude my study by investigating how these men faced up to defeat and their judicial defense and fate after the war.
A World of Enemies
Every war opens up a breach in the slow unfolding of works and days. Of course, it leaves certain times and spaces untouched: but, directly or indirectly, it affects all the protagonists. In Germany, the war which broke out in 1914 was no exception. Children – with a few rare exceptions – were neither combatants nor laborers. Thus, the future SS members played practically no part in the German war effort. They were, however, spectators. They were central actors in family relations disrupted by the departure of the menfolk.
When war was declared, there were demonstrations of support, but seriousness and gravity were the dominant note rather than warmongering elation. A positive response was to be found elsewhere, in the sprawling suburbs, where most of the middle classes to which belonged the vast majority of the group we are studying were concentrated. So their own families probably experienced going to war as an occasion for wild enthusiasm and a sense of determination. Though they never mentioned it later, one is able to see the ‘spirit of 1914’, a crystallization of the basic volkisch (ethno-nationalist) desire to unify the nation, a desire which the members of the group were later to share uncompromisingly. It is, then, surely permissible to speculate that, in spite of the silence they would observe on the outbreak of war in their later writings, this period may have left an enduring impression on them.
Every suggests that the loss of men sent to the front, whether this loss was definitive or only temporary, was a mass trauma, The German Empire lost 2 million soldiers, so 18 million family members were directly plunged into mourning and some 36 million in more distant circles of sociability. Then there were the food shortages, nowhere more intensely felt than it Germany. The distinctive food intakes of the middle-classes- meat, fish and fat – more or less disappeared from market stalls and fuelled a flourishing black market. From 1916 onwards the Germans felt that they were literally earning their ‘daily bread’ by the sweat of their brows. Hunger, bereavement, the sense of fighting for one’s daily survival- these were the three main elements in children’s experience of the Great War.
German society, like other wartime European societies, developed system of representations to give meaning to the conflict. Once they were at war, the Germans considered the combats to be profoundly defensive in nature. Newspapers, political commentaries and soldiers letters constructed the image of a conflict into which Germany had found itself thrown unwillingly, and fighting for its safely alone. The war was a question of security: final victory was necessary to break the strategy of encirclement set up by the Allies and ‘attack was the best form of defense.’ As the result partisan attacks behind German line in Belgium but especially after the Cossack invasion of East Prussia and the panic that ensued, the fate of Germany was seen to be at stake, faced as it was with a ubiquitous enemy distinguished by the inhumanity of its fighting methods –an inhumanity that was viewed at least in part from an essentially ethnic and biological hostility.
Although it was defensive, the Great War was all the same endowed with great expectations. War was an ordeal in the medieval sense, and that paved the way to a new era: this was one of the themes that gave meaning to the conflagration, on the front lines as well as behind them. For example, the historian Friedrich Meinecke resorted to the metaphor of the Roman Ver Sacrum, the ritual human sacrifice prefiguring the fertility of a new spring, as a way of expressing the mass deaths of the Flanders battlefields, “For us, their sacrifice means a new sacred spring for the whole of Germany.”
God is now forging out great paths for world history,” wrote one young soldier to his mother, “we are the chosen ones, the chosen tools. Should we really, truly be happy at this? Around me everything is verdant and blossoming, the birds are exuberant and joyful in the light. How much more grand and beautiful will be the spring that follows the Great War!”
In this gigantic struggle against an enemy that was at least partially branded as barbarous and bestial, and utterly pitiless, the fate of the nation was being decided. In many well-off, cultivated homes that constituted, sociologically speaking, the heart of the German consent to the conflict, the war thus became the site of a derivative form of millenarian utopia.
These issues were too important in the eyes of those involve for their children to be shielded from them. The pedagogical efforts made by the society thus took the form of a discourse of legitimization of the conflict that was handed down to children by their parents and toy manufactures and to adolescents in primary and secondary schools; textbooks, exercise books and lectures all started to discuss the war and transmit a heroic sense of morality.
In spite of the high profile of the conflict and efforts at mobilization deployed by the state, however, the members of our group who had the opportunity to relate their childhood experiences of war did not in fact do so. In entering the SS or getting married they were almost all impelled to set down their life story – a mixture of curriculum vitae and personal text in which were described the narrators’ family backgrounds, their academic studies and sometimes even their emotional worlds. Even if only in cursory form, these Lebenslaufe should logically contain their wartime experiences. But only five of them make any mention of these, and even this is often a passing reference –to a father’s death, exodus or captivity. While the traumatic experience of war is not for the most part mentioned, this silence does not mean that the experience was insignificant. Quite the opposite: silence is not a lack of something, but a sign –a sign of trauma. The origin and as well as the consequences of the Great War –the question of responsibility- were often discussed quite passionately – but not its actual progress nor the defeat itself. This was an attitude close to psychological repression.
Whereas as the intellectuals in the individuals in this study were mostly silent about their experiences in the their Lebenslaufe very often mention an active participation in one or other phases of the troubles that shook Germany after 1918; the culture of war born from 1914-18 was preserved in tact. Even as students they were active in combating the communists, separatists and social democrats who threatened to “sabotage national union”, to ‘gobble-up and exterminate the German people’. The kernel of their images and representations of ‘the time of troubles’ was a quasi-apocalyptic anguish shaping a belief in the imminent disappearance of Germany, as a state, of course, but also as a biological entity.
This was doubtless the very essence of the initial traumatic experience of the members of our group, an experience so painful that it made it practically impossible for them to describe their childhoods at all. Once they had become adults, they could rekindle their wartime lives by means of the Abwehrkampf, or defensive struggle, and thus manage at least partly to objectify it...
[This Abwehrkampf was also a way that SS officers justified their genocides in East Europe and Russia and was carried on in the defenses that at least of few of them were required to make at Nuremberg and subsequent war crimes tribunals.]