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Murray Polner: Review of Thomas A. Kohut’s “A German Generation: An Experiential History of the Twentieth Century" (Yale, 2011)

“Franz Orthmann,”one of Kohut’s subjects, was a child of the middle class, and “absolutely susceptible” to the “powerful sense of revitalization” he dreamed the Nazis would create.  He joined the party in 1938 after the Anschluss with Austria, ecstatic about the realization of a Greater Germany.  He also enlisted in the army, became an officer and always believed he was serving a noble cause.  But had he ever known of the sadism at home and on the various fronts?  Only rumors, he answered. “I never gave a thought to what it all meant, and there was much about the Propaganda Ministry that one shouldn’t simply dismiss out of hand.”  Besides, he added, “I believed that I was serving in a great cause.”

But what about the many civilians victimized by genocide?  Orthmann says that when a soldier described several killings he had seen he called him a “pig.”  After a driver for the Oranienburg concentration camp told him of gas chambers, of Jewish children “tossed up in air and spitted on bayonets” he says he finally became convinced that the rumors were true.  All the same, after Richard von Weizacker, president of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1984 to 1994, told the German parliament that all Germans knew about the concentration camps and the savagery, Orthmann became incensed, at first claiming it wasn’t so.  He finally changed his mind when he personally heard an SA man boast of the mass killing of Jews. 

Magdalene Beck, another composite interviewee, was eighteen when the Nazis came to power.  Her husband was a soldier.  An early and unswerving enthusiast for the Nazis, she claims to have nevertheless been apolitical.  Though Jews in her town suddenly were nowhere to be seen in their homes and local schools, she looked away [111] even though stories began circulating about horrific happenings to civilians in Poland, Russia and elsewhere in conquered lands.  She and many Germans have always defended their silence, arguing that individuals who objected to what their government was up to were helpless before the power of the Nazi state.  Dissenters had all been crushed early on and always the penalty for opposition was often execution, the fate of the White Rose trio and the July 20 plotters, for example.  In the documentary film Elusive Justice, Heinrich Gross, who ran a homicidal institute which euthanized children, justifies his role by saying, “If you were a staff member and refused to participate, you would be killed by the Nazis.”

Resist?  “You are asking someone to resist who knows what will happen to him if he opposes such a dictatorial regime,” she told Kohut, echoing Gross and far too many Germans.  “He’ll implicate his whole family.  You try that!  You try that!”  There is some truth in that few individuals anywhere dare to challenge their tyrannical governments.   Yet silence also meant that conforming and passive Germans had little to fear from the Nazis, except as Kohut notes in his mesmerizing book, that they ultimately paid a heavy price:  six-and-a-half million non-Jewish Germans died in the war, five-and-a-half million of them soldiers.
In the final days of the war, with the Red Army approaching and stories of massacres in East Prussia circulating, Beck said she was terrified of rape, given the stories of mass rapes in Germany and Poland by Russian troops,  though she said nothing about what her countrymen had done to Polish and Russian and women.  And yet when Russians soldiers finally arrived, she says, they were unexpectedly kind, especially to children.  But, echoing the Nazi line, she was frightened of black American soldiers and told her children to avoid taking candy from them, fearing that it might contain poison.

“I was never one of those fanatical Nazis,” Magdalene Beck told Kohut after the war, “but I believed in it with all my heart and soul, and I worked for it.”