Godwin’s Law states that ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches’. True enough and epithet that neatly encapsulates our endless fascination with the man, Auschwitz, the Final Solution and the Holocaust. Rightly so, each generation needs a book like this for, whilst human nature remains unchanged, keeping the subject at the highest possible profile might just help change human behaviour.
I have nothing to add to all the five star reviewers, Rees writes in a creditably stripped down style which allows the story to tell itself – as such a story always will. What struck me most forcibly about this book however was an idea that arose out of a passage on page two of the introduction. It is apparent that one of Rees’s hobbies is to try to bounce former Nazi’s into unguarded confessions. In conversation with one such in 1990 he got a reply that he would not have expected in a thousand such interviews. When pushed to sum up the experience of the Third Reich in one word Wilfred von Oven (a man with perhaps the most darkly ironic name in human history) answers ‘Paradise.’
Of course! That’s it. In a single word all the confused anguish, all the heart-aching despair over how this all could have happened becomes clear. For a dozen years or so from the early nineteen thirties to May 1945 a population lived in paradise and in such a state of ecstasy anything goes.
So what kind of paradise was this? Not, regrettably the pre-lapsarian version of the book of Genesis. The Nazi paradise was most assuredly post-lapsarian; a perfect world in which denial may have its role, but in which innocence plays no part. The quasi-religious SS rituals invoking Woden and Thor, Dionysian ceremonies in which naked Ayran beauties rode in procession on horseback, the cult of the Medieval Ottonian Heinrich the Fowler the most Germanic of all German kings, invoked by Himmler in séances in Quedlinburg cathedral.
The ranks of steel helmeted, dark uniformed Hitler youth lining the streets and in serried ranks at Nuremburg. The flags, the trumpets, the brotherhood, the secure sense of invincible power. Who would not be beguiled by such things? A heady mixture of myth and rhetoric creating a bond; a force that would right wrongs and redeem a nation from post-Versailles humiliation and shame and – crucially – rid them of the hated Jews authors of all the ills of the world.
With this under my belt, as I read, I understood Rudolf Höss, Adolf Eichmann, Oskar Groening, Josef Mengele and even Himmler himself. It’s just this paradise of ideology that Rees refers to when he seeks to explain why so many former Nazis find confession, or indeed often any sense of wrong-doing, impossible. Unlike in Russia under Stalin and Japan under Hirohito where, although the outcomes were much the same (if not worse in terms of numbers) the Nazis believed in what they were doing. The Russians and the Japanese by contrast acted out of fear of reprisal should they not carry out orders for torture and butchery. In such circumstances future confession is much easier because shifting the blame is easier.
This may be so, but, in the end, are we not just comparing like with like here? The final chapter of the book describes how, as Red Army advanced through Germany its soldiers raped German women with impunity in unimaginable numbers. For a moment we recoil in horror at this unharnessed bestiality. A temptation to somehow side with the Nazis against the Russians because the order and structure of their killing, in contrast with the lustful nature of the Russian, was somehow civilised. This is a thread which runs through the book. So many victims clung to the hope that the Germans were, au fond, decent civilised people – surely they won’t sling us into a gas oven? They may have been, but they did.
So we ask ourselves, is there a difference here? Is violence driven by ideology any less evil than that driven by lust? The answer is, of course, no. It’s even possible to argue that the reasoned pre-meditation of the death camps is even more egregious; Murder One in American parlance.
For those seeking any redemptive sense of the ultimate goodness in human-nature in this book had better look away. This is not Schindler’s List, there’s no happy ending. There are, inevitably heart-warming stories, but the broad sweep is profoundly depressing. Liberated Jews returning home found not a welcome, but an anti-Semitism that had not existed before; their old school friends were now their enemies, their appropriated homes and businesses were not returned, they were beaten and harried out of town and bustled on to boats bound for ….. well, just about anywhere that wasn’t home. The example of Denmark that Rees cites is some kind of freaky blip; the exception that proves the existence of the rule that it doesn’t take much for human beings to behave in a way that questions that we ever knew the meaning of goodness.