December 27th, 2006

Resisting the Nazis (Part I)

Nonviolent resistance to totalitarian governments can be very difficult because of Draconian retaliation against such efforts and the resulting climate of fear among the populace, as well as the constant propaganda designed to reduce dissent to a minimum. But not all totalitarian regimes are alike in how far they are willing to go to crush resistance. And even the same totalitarian regime is not always willing to go equally far to crush resistance under all circumstances at all times against all comers.

The German Reich was a case in point. The Nazis were relentless in their drive to conquer Europe and make it Judenfrei. But the Nazis had a hierarchy of countries in their racial pantheon, and treated the inhabitants of those places differentially based in large part on the Nazi system of racial classification.

The top of the heap, of course, were the “Aryans” of Germany and Austria. But countries defined as “Nordic” were considered just about as good. And, although supposedly “Aryan,” the Slavic races were regarded as markedly inferior, so the conquered Poles were accordingly treated far more harshly than the Danes, for example.

In looking at the idea of whether successful nonviolent resistance to some of the Nazis’ harshest edicts was possible, one must always remember this differential treatment of occupied countries. What was successful in one place could never have been so in another. Just as Gandhi’s success depended on the fact that he was facing the relatively humane British, so it was that the brutality of the Nazi occupation in one country wasn’t the same as the Nazi occupation in another. Different policies allowed differential responses, such as, for example, the ability of the relatively autonomous and respected Danes to evacuate and thus rescue their relatively small Jewish population.

The Nazis were well aware of the possibility of resistance and the need for a cooperative captive populace. That’s one of the reasons they thought it best to disguise and keep quiet the scope of their genocide. They feared a public backlash against it, even (or perhaps especially) in Germany.

The Nazi racial laws that singled out the Jews for special persecution started slowly in Germany during the early 30s, increasing the Jews’ isolation from the general public over the years and culminating, as we know, in the Final Solution. There’s a great deal of controversy over how much the German people actually knew about the true nature and extent of the death camps. But certainly extreme persecution of the Jews of Germany and elsewhere was common knowledge, as was their deportation to parts unknown, never to be heard from again. So even if the German people didn’t know everything, they knew a great deal.

Some of those “parts unknown” were in concentration camps in Germany itself, such as Dachau and Mathausan-Gusen. So the Germans in the surrounding area clearly knew about these camps. However, the term “concentration camp” is so familiar that most people do not realize that it’s a general term covering two horrific but somewhat different types of institution: the labor camp and the death camp. The camps in Germany were labor camps.

Although conditions in labor camps were dreadful, and death was a common and expected occurrence in them, the main purpose of these camps was not to exterminate directly, but rather to harshly extract the full measure of hard labor out of the inmates with the least cost. If they happened to die from the conditions there, then so be it—and die they did, in droves. The death camps, however, existed solely for the purpose of efficiently killing virtually all their inmates shortly after arrival.

A related distinction is also not ordinarily understood: none of the death camps was located in Germany. Rather, all six were in Poland. Why was this? Poland had a large Jewish population, and therefore the camps were located near the source and less transport would be needed. But it seems that the Nazi leadership may also have wanted to protect the German population from exact and precise knowledge of what was happening, by placing the death camps far away. Perhaps they didn’t have full confidence that their own populace would support outright extermination if it came to know, unequivocally and undeniably, that this was what was actually happening.

In order to accomplish the task of genocide, especially the all-important initial action of rounding up the Jewish population, the cooperation of the local non-Jewish population was a requirement for success. And, as the example of the Danes shows, that cooperation was not always a given. So it would be best to keep the final destination as quiet as possible, to reduce the probability of protest.

It didn’t always work. In addition to the Danes, the Bulgarians were able to defy the Germans and save their Jews. The Bulgarians were even more autonomous than the Danes (in fact, they were unoccupied German allies). They saved their Jews through a combination of church leadership and the fact that anti-Semitism had never really taken much hold there. The Nazis didn’t want to strong-arm the citizens of countries such as Denmark and Bulgaria, who were not considered enemies, into giving up their Jews. They were willing to wait and concentrate on places such as France where it was much easier to get public cooperation for the roundup of their prey. Later, they thought, they’d tie up loose ends in other places.

Anyone who knows Holocaust history knows that Poland was its center. The Polish people have often been condemned for their participation in the death of their Jews–but, although there was indeed a great deal of cooperation from the Poles, it turns out that the situation was far more complex than that. Not only were there also a great many rescuers in Poland (see this book for a thorough documentation of these stirring tales), but the Poles had a great deal more to lose than most from saving Jews. Not to minimize the accomplishments of the Danes or the Bulgarians, but to be a hero in Poland was a lot more meaningful than to be one in Denmark or Bulgaria–or even, as it turns out, in Germany.

Why? Because Poland was the only Nazi-occupied country in which helping Jews would officially get you the death penalty. Here are the horrific facts (read them and ask yourself if you would have been as brave as the many Poles who did shelter and save Jews):

Poland was the only place where German law rendered any assistance to Jews punishable by death. That punishment was severe and collective: It was meted out not only to the rescuer but also to his entire family and to anyone else who knew about such activities and did not report them. Almost 1,000 Poles were killed this way, including entire families whose children were not spared.

Germans of the World War II era have defended themselves against criticism by saying they not only didn’t know the details of the Holocaust, but if they’d tried to protest, they themselves would have been imprisoned or killed. But in Germany—unlike Poland—this was not true at all. Successful resistance was most definitely possible, as the little-known but fascinating story of the Rosenstrasse Protest shows.

[In Part II, tomorrow, I will explain what this protest was and why it was important.]

25 Responses to “Resisting the Nazis (Part I)”

  1. Flash Gordon Says:

    Hope you can include something in your next installment on the events of July 10, 1941 in Jedwabne, Poland. That was the day that one-half of the town, the non-Jewish half, murdered the other half, the Jewish half.

  2. neo-neocon Says:

    Flash Gordon: Of course you know that’s not what I’m writing about here. That much of Europe participated happily in the destruction of the Jews is a well-known fact that has been documented over and over, as you no doubt well know. What I’m interested in here is the question of what allows resistance to such an agenda and such a regime on the part of those who are motivated to resist. People often glibly assume resistance was either easier than it was, or impossible. In particular, the issue of whether Germans could have resisted more is where I’m headed.

  3. Scarlet Says:

    All the facts are so true and so sad at the same time. I am proud to be Polish. And I am proud that my grandfather was so brave during the war.

  4. david foster Says:

    It’s important to note that Nazi intimidation of potential resistance began *long before* the Nazi party achieved control of the government. Street thuggery was broadly employed against political opponents.

  5. Larry t Says:

    The neo-cons are the nazis. The neo-con/zionist gov’t rountinely violates our Constitutional rights.
    They violate the 1st Amendment by caging demonstrators and banning books like “America Deceived” from Amazon.
    They violate the 2nd Amendment by confiscating guns during Katrina.
    They violate the 4th Amendment by conducting warrant-less wiretaps.
    They violate the 5th and 6th Amendment by suspending habeas corpus.
    They violate the 8th Amendment by torturing.
    They violate the entire Constitution by starting 2 illegal wars based on lies and on behalf of a foriegn gov’t.
    Support indy media.
    Last link (unless Google Books caves to the gov’t and drops the title):
    America Deceived (book)

  6. James Fehr Says:

    Norway was also an example of widespread nonviolent resistance with the successful rescue of much of their admittedly small Jewish population. Resistance was greatly aided by having the support of major social and political entities such as the church and labor unions. Unfortunately there is very little published in English on the subject, as I discovered while pursuing a masters thesis on the topic.

  7. Steve Says:

    I think the Germans could have resisted more. But ordinary Germans only would have resisted to protect Jews in Germany, as in the famous protest that you will discuss tomorrow. The diaries of Victor Klemperer also indicate that more than a few Germans were not happy about the Nazi leadership’s obsession with marking off Jews, making them wear yellow stars, or deporting them to points east and to their deaths.

    I do think non-violent resistance can work, even with Nazis. You can’t kill everyone.

  8. Matthew M Says:

    Larry T,

    You might want to invest in a tinfoil helmet.

  9. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    Does larry t know that book is a novel set in the future? It makes a bit of a difference…

  10. harry Says:

    “Does larry t know that book is a novel set in the future? It makes a bit of a difference…”

    I hear its fake, but accurate. Whats one more work of fiction compared to the weighty volumes of “news stories” produced by the NYT’s over the last 40+ years?

  11. Sally Says:

    Steve: I do think non-violent resistance can work, even with Nazis. You can’t kill everyone.

    “Can’t kill everyone”? Well, re: the Jews, the Nazis gave it a very good shot, and with a little more time would likely have succeeded. Fortunately their time was cut short, by the violent resistance of the Allies. Fortunately as well, the Jews are not impressed with the spurious claims of “non-violent resistance” against the likes of Nazis, and no longer likely to go passively to their doom.

  12. Flash Gordon Says:

    “…In particular, the issue of whether Germans could have resisted more is where I’m headed.”

    They could have. They didn’t.

  13. Zeno Says:

    There’s a book called “Germany’s willing executioners”, I think. Not all, but many Germans were happy to get rid of jews.

  14. harry Says:

    Sally’s right. The non-violent resistance, while trendy and popular among civil rights pacifists is generally practiced only by people who arent threatened with extinction.

  15. Steve Says:

    Harry: I think you and Sally are doing apples and oranges here. What you are talking about are threats to a state, that is, Israel, not threats to Jews as such. Proof of this is that there are 25 K Jews in Iran, and no one says they are threatened with extermination.

    With regard to Israel and actual states that threaten it, e.g., Iran, I am not really sure how a state would practice non-violence against another state. On the other hand, if Israel wants to bomb Iran (Sally has long advocated that Iran be bombed), then, go ahead.

    The non-violent resistance, while trendy and popular among civil rights pacifists is generally practiced only by people who arent threatened with extinction.

    That’s a remarkable reduction of what satyagraha is all about.

  16. Sergey Says:

    In early 20 century there were lots of pogroms in Russian Empire, and in many cases government officials organized them. (The most popular in Arab countries now, anti-semitic fake “Elders of Zion Protocoles” was fabricated by high-ranking officer of Russian secret police, Colonel Rachkovsky.) But Jews in several cases organized armed resistance and saved themselves. Usually several shots into the mob were enough to disperse it; sometimes single mashine-gun burst stopped hundreds of drunk thugs. Obviously, aggressive mobs never expected any resistance.

  17. IllTemperedCur Says:

    Yet as I understand it, satyagraha seems to be oriented more towards the moral victory of being right, rather than the more practical victory of casting aside the rule of the oppressor. Cold comfort indeed when your family lies dead at your feet, and the oppressor’s thugs are lining you up against the wall.

  18. Christopher Says:

    Neo, this sounds like a fascinating discussion, and I’ll be interested to see what you have to say about Hans and Sophie Scholl.

    Zeno – “Germany’s Willing Executioners” is by Daniel Goldhagen, though in the intervening years since it was published, his thesis that (broadly stated) all Germans bear blood guilt for the Holocaust because all participated in one way or another, has been attacked as flawed, and may not be quite the damning indictment he intended.

    I’ll link to those oppositional points when I can dig them out from under the rubble of my desk. . .

    oh, btw, Larry, next time pull a Hillary and just step outside to scream “goddamn Jew bastards!” It’ll achieve the same effect as your BDS screed without wasting precious webspace here.

  19. Sally Says:

    Steve: What you are talking about are threats to a state, that is, Israel, not threats to Jews as such.

    No, I’m talking about threats to Jews as such — or to any other people or groups threatened by a Nazi-like entity that looks upon genocide as a positive policy option. Interestingly, though — and I’m sure quite inadvertently — Steve provides a good illustration of just why a state like Israel is needed to protect its people and their culture.

    As for the pretentiously named “satyagraha” (which neo’s covered at great length in earlier posts), it’s a philosophy tailor-made for three kinds of people: the smugly self-righteous, who enjoy imagining themselves martyrs without ever having to face anything like real Nazis; the pathologically other-wordly, who can continue to exist only within the protections offered by those who do resist violence with violence; and, of course, the genocidal brutes, whose job is simply made easier.

  20. Steve Says:

    No, I’m talking about threats to Jews as such

    Well, then give me an example outside of Israel where Jews are threatened as such.

    As for the pretentiously named “satyagraha”

    Okay, you think Sanskrit is pretentious.

    the pathologically other-wordly, who can continue to exist only within the protections offered by those who do resist violence with violence

    I’m a vet. What branch of the service were you in?

  21. Christopher Says:

    Zeno – sorry, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.”

    Here’s a beginning critique of Goldhagen’s book:

    And you can probably go from there.

  22. Sally Says:

    Well, then give me an example outside of Israel where Jews are threatened as such.

    The entire Arab world, the entire Middle East, the entire Islamic world, increasingly in France and throughout Europe. Not to mention the increasing level of anti-semitism throughout the left and the paleo-right, where it usually goes under the guise of anti-zionism.

    Okay, you think Sanskrit is pretentious.

    No, I think people who like to drop Sanskrit terms into a discussion are pretentious.

    I’m a vet.

    Good for you. And that has to do with what?

  23. Promethea Says:

    Hitler’s Willing Executioners didn’t blame “all” Germans. Goldenhagen’s point was that (1) 1930s Jew hatred was a continuation of medieval Jew hatred. It erupted forcefully when the Nazis gave permission to the Germans to brutalize, rob, and kill the Jews.

    (2) The book gives many examples of how ordinary Germans went far beyond their orders and were not threatened if they didn’t want to torture and massacre the Jews. They enjoyed doing it and they were proud of doing it. They took photos of their work, which they sent home to their families. They also followed orders long after they could have stopped. The end of the book describes the “forced marches” that went nowhere and were meaningless. Goldenhagen also shows how much of the so-called “work” in the camps was meaningless–just meant to make the Jews miserable.

    I haven’t read the critiques of Goldenhagen’s book, but I’ll bet much of the criticism is based on nitpicking.

    Goldenhagen is the only I’ve read who gives a reasonable explanation for the “immiseration” of Jews (a new word for me). They didn’t just “kill” them, they also humiliated and tortured them first. Read about the “forced marches” for example.

    For me, the most important aspects of Goldenhagen’s book is that it somewhat explains how the so-called civilized Germans became crazy sadistic killers.

  24. J.J. Sefton Says:

    Disagree on this point: A concentration camp was a de-facto death camp. The by-product was forced labor to aid the Nazi war effort but the goal was death, just as in the 6 killing centers in Poland.

    And aiding Jews anywhere was a death sentence, whether by immediate execution or deportation to a concentration camp.

    Read not only Goldhagen’s excellent book, but also “The War on the Jews” which was Hitler’s prime goal. Even at its most critical junctures, priority was given to any department that was involved in the Final Solution, transpiration, material, fuel, etc. Everything else, including the military effort on both the Eastern and Western fronts took a back seat.

  25. neo-neocon Says:

    J.J. Sefton:

    I wasn’t making these things up; I put links in the post to the information I’m quoting.

    If you need another link about the differential treatment of helpers in different occupied countries, here’s one. To take a well-known example, consider what happened to the people who were found to have aided Anne Frank and her family in Holland–they all survived, and only two were sent to labor camps (one was released after 6 weeks). And remember, in Poland whole families of helpers were killed, including children. It was risky to help wherever the Nazis were, but there’s no question treatment of helpers was ordinarily far more brutal in Poland than in the western European countries.

    Being sent to a labor camp was not an inevitable death sentence, although if a person passed enough time in a labor camp it probably would have been. There was a difference between the death rates in labor and death camps, although both had very high death rates (and some labor camps and some work details were worse than others; see this chart).

    See this for some statistics:

    Imprisonment in a concentration camp meant inhuman forced labour, brutal mistreatment, hunger, disease, and random executions. Historians have difficulties estimating the total number of victims. But it is certain that several hundred thousand died in the concentration camps. As a comparison, more than three million Jews were murdered in the extermination camps.

    I’ve read the books you suggested and many many others on the subject over the years.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.


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