December 29th, 2006

Resisting the Nazis (Part II)

[Part I here.]

By early 1943, the time of the Rosenstrasse Protest, the Final Solution were well underway. The Nazis had been very careful about their policy of extermination of the Jews; one can view the entire operation as a series of slowly escalating experiments to see what the German public and the world would tolerate.

The persecution of the Jews started out with a group of racial laws in Germany (the Nuremberg Laws) that isolated and ostracized them from other Germans; previously the Jews of Germany had been among the most assimilated in Europe. What happened as a result? Not much, apparently. Here is a summary of German reports of the time evaluating the responses of the general population of Germany, reported to have been either “satisfaction,” “enthusiasm,” “understanding,” or “silence” (the latter in the predominantly Catholic town of Aachen, which bordered Belgium).

The Nazis were well aware that their policies required cooperation, active or at least passive, from the public. They had learned this during an earlier “experiment,” the T4 program, which had involved murdering the mentally and/or physically disabled. When word had gotten out about the T4 program, there were massive protests (the only large ones for any policy of the Hitler regime) and Catholic officials spoke out publicly to criticize it.

As a result the program was officially scrapped, although it continued to a certain degree in a more clandestine way. But this outcome shows the power of German public opinion, even for the Nazis. They were indeed worried about the perception of the public towards their policies, and weren’t willing to create public discord by firing on German demonstrators and causing a backlash.

This is an interesting fact. The Nazis were indeed brutal killers, but they were canny about what they did. Mass murder of their own people–in the style of other tyrants such as Stalin and Pol Pot–was most definitely not the style of the Nazis. They needed and wanted the cooperation of the German people, and were well aware of how far the people could be pushed before they would withdraw that cooperation and begin to cause trouble. Therefore the Nazis carefully calibrated their moves, backtracking (or becoming more secretive and hidden) when the rumblings threatened to get out of control.

The reaction to T4 clearly indicates that a stronger protest by the German people to the Nuremberg Laws, and then to the roundups of Jews, could have either halted the entire endeavor or made it far more difficult. T4 had another significance: it was a chance for the Nazis to perfect some of their techniques, since it featured the first mass gassings, cremations, and even the decoy shower heads in the gas chambers, all prototypes for the techniques of the death camps.

Other well-known early “experiments” in mass killings–this time of the Jews–were the notorious Nazi “Einsatzgruppen” mass murders on the Eastern front in Russia and Eastern Europe. These killings were quite different from those in the subsequent death camps. They featured open-air shootings over mass graves dug by the victims themselves, and were supervised by the SS but were mainly performed by squads of specially trained German and Austrian police.

Although not publicized, these killings could hardly be kept totally hidden from the German people, as Goldhagen’s controversial book Hitler’s Willing Executioners makes clear. Nor were they secrets to the occupied countries involved–in fact, locals were sometimes recruited to help out with the proceedings.

The relatively primitive and bloody chaos of these massacres on the Eastern Front occurred mainly in 1941 and early 1942, and were limited to those occupied territories. Later efforts were the death camps, a more “refined” and hidden “solution” to the problem, as well as a far more efficient one: less manpower and ammunition required.

It is sobering to think that the near-extermination of the Jews of Europe occurred without anything resembling the protest that marked the German reaction to the T4 program. It’s sobering partly because it’s very clear that such protests would, and could, have been at least somewhat effective. The Nazis were clearly afraid of the power of public opinion–at least in Germany, at least for pragmatic reasons.

The one example (besides the T4 protests) of this type of group demonstration by a significant crowd of Germans was a very specialized one. Known as The Rosenstrasse Protest, it is a relatively little-known event in the history of the Third Reich,

Because of the prewar assimilation of the Jews of Germany, there were a number of intermarriages, especially in Berlin. When the Jews of Germany were rounded up and sent to the camps, these Jewish spouses were spared–temporarily.

This in and of itself is in interesting fact, another example of the Nazis’ cunning. Rounding up regular Jews was one thing, and they correctly surmised it was unlikely to occasion more than a ripple among the ordinary German population. But taking away the Jewish spouses of “regular” Germans could be expected to be a much more emotional undertaking. And so, mindful of the need to keep the public calm, the selection of those spouses was postponed.

The roundup action, in early 1943, was meant to be a birthday present for Hitler:

The Gestapo called this action simply the “Schlußaktion der Berliner Juden” (Closing Berlin Jew Action). Hitler was offended that so many Jews still lived in Berlin, and the Nazi Party Director for Berlin, Joseph Goebbels, had promised to make Berlin “Judenfrei” (free of Jews) for the Führer’s 54th birthday in April.

It was mostly successful; 8,000 of the 10,000 rounded up were not spouses in mixed marriages, and they were sent off to Auschwitz with hardly a ripple. The 2000 remaining were the spouses (all husbands, actually; I’ve never seen a report that mentioned what may have happened to Jewish wives in mixed marriages). In a spontaneous reaction, their non-Jewish wives came to the place where they were being held–an office in central Berlin that gave the protest its name.

The weeklong demonstration grew in numbers and seriousness, although it was never officially organized. SS guards threatened to shoot the women, but the wives were defiant and no shootings ever happened. In fact, the men were released, and even a few who had already been sent to Auschwitz were returned.

What was going on here? Once again, we see the Nazi respect for public order and the desire not to push the German people one ounce beyond what the latter could and would tolerate. Two thousand Jewish men remaining in Berlin were considered a small price to pay to maintain the public order. The plan was to take care of them later–but “later” never happened; almost all the men survived the war safely in Berlin.

In a recent book on the matter, Nathan Stoltzfus concludes that the German people had far more say in Nazi policies than they would have you believe. The evidence is fairly clear that protests would have made a difference. The sad fact is that the Germans were only energized a few times to engage in protests, and only in certain very specialized situations.

Many who advocate nonviolence consider it almost a panacaea. It is not, of course. The Nazis had a particular and relatively benign and respectful attitude towards their own people that not all tyrannical regimes share. For a peaceful protest to be successful, there must be that all-important attitude on the part of the government: a modicum of respect for the people involved, and a reluctance to upset them by a show of force and muscle. Because if the authorities decide to go for brutality and power, nonviolent protesters can be easily deterred and silenced.

Gandhi didn’t think so, as I’ve written here. The type of absolute pacifism he suggested is both unrealistic, given human nature, and absolutely ensures a mass bloodbath if the authorities being challenged are brutal enough. As I discussed in the linked piece, Gandhi famously advocated that the Jews go willingly and meekly to the slaughter to prove a point and take the moral high road.

But it turns out he would have done far far better to have suggested to the German people that they undertake nonviolent protests in order to protect the Jews–if, in fact, they had any motivation to do so, which seems to have not been the case. Because it’s clear from the evidence that protest by the German people themselves would have been successful in forestalling the Holocaust, as it was for other resisting groups such as the Danes and the Bulgarians whom the Nazis happened to respect.

One remaining question is whether the German people knew, or should have known, their own strength. In order to have the courage to act en masse in protest, most people need to believe they are not going to be mowed down in cold blood by superior firepower. The overwhelming evidence is that, if the Germans had been paying attention, they ought to have known their influence because of the precedent set in T4. The nearly inescapable and sorrowful conclusion is that most Germans simply did not care enough about what was happening to the Jews to mount any sort of protest at all, because if they had, it would have been successful.

28 Responses to “Resisting the Nazis (Part II)”

  1. Jimmy J. Says:

    Whoa! A pretty bold assertion. Well researched and laid out, it really does indicate how masses of people (the Germans as a whole) can be co-opted through clever manipulation.

    It also indicates, IMO, the power of latent tribalism. The Jews, after all, were not of the same tribe, whereas most of the mentally and phusically disabled of the T-4 program were probably Germans.

    The program Hitler laid out for the superiority of the Aryan peoples was bound to create a sense of clear boundaries between the Germans and the “other.” (Jews and other non-Aryans.)

  2. Sally Says:

    A very interesting post, neo, particularly the issue of what caused the Nazis’ unusual sensitivity to the concerns of their own people or people they thought were like them. As you point out, this wasn’t the case with Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc., so it’s not as though totalitarian regimes in general are afraid of attacking the people of their own state. And it certainly can’t be because the Nazis were just too nice. Rather, I think it has to do with the fact that each totalitarianism has a notion of its own “base” or source of legitimacy. For the nazis, that base was the German people as a nationality, and Aryans as a race — and since the support of these kinds of people was essential for the ideological legitimacy of the nazis as such, they couldn’t be attacked in any concerted or massive way. For the communists, on the other hand, the base wasn’t a national grouping at all, but rather a particular class — the “proletariat”. They could and did systematically murder any number of their own citizens but still retain their ideological legitimacy in the eyes of their supporters so long as they could label their victims as either bourgeois or “class-traitors”.

  3. Promethea Says:

    Neo, I’m repeating my comment on your previous post because I’m afraid it will get lost. I don’t think Goldenhagen’s book is all that “controversial.” I think he’s been slammed by people like Finkelstein who have their own agenda. The reason I mention this and am reposting my comment is that I recently read Goldenhagen’s book and what shocked by what I learned. (And I’ve been reading about the Holocaust for many years.) What shocked me was the purposelessness and fun many ordinary Germans had in torturing and killing Jews.

    People who are interested in recent history should read this book, especially now that Jews are once again being threatened by another Holocaust–which is again partially funded from Europe for whatever sick reasons they have.

    My re-post follows:

    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 and maps 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.

  4. neo-neocon Says:

    Good point, Sally, about the philosophical underpinnings of Nazism. I was going to go into that in the post, but I thought it was already long enough!

  5. Steve Says:

    1. I think there is safely in numbers. Think of Sophie Scholl, and the White Rose, those folks were beheaded.

    2. Sure the Germans could have done more for the Jews, but, as I posted yesterday, they were not likely to protest against what was happening in the East, that was occupied territory, and there was a war going on.

    3. Israel is free to bomb or invade Iran at any time. It is clear that it is in Israel’s interest to bomb and/or invade Iran. And it is clear that Israel is entirely justified in bombing and/or invading Iran. I am not sure it is in the interests of the United States to do these things, however.

    4. I find it odd that people are so opposed to non-violence (the dreaded Sanskrit is omitted). Take the case of those non-Jewish people living in the West Bank and Gaza. They have no means of redress against being surrounded, having their monies held, against having their water controlled, or their land seized, dunam by dunam. They can only resist non-violently or violently. Which would you prefer? If they are going to resist Israeli control, I would much prefer that they use non-violent means.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Steve – how do you justify the claim that Israel is entirely ‘jusfified’ in attacking Iran?

    Or, an even harder comment to comprehend, that it it in Israel’s interest to attack Iran?

  7. Sally Says:

    I haven’t read Goldenhagen’s book, but I’ve read enough to recognize the nauseating elements of sadism and humiliation that pervaded the German — not just nazi — treatment of Jews that was so prominent a feature of that country once the nazi seizure of power gave it the nod that was all it needed. I know there were Germans who resisted this, to their great credit, and I’m sure there were many others who were at least ashamed of it. But the realization that a great many people of a modern, industrialized, post-Enlightenment culture actively leaped at the chance to torment a group they saw as both outsider and as a safe victim is truly sickening. It was like the worst of schoolyard bullying, but writ across an entire nation and with the full violence of the state behind it. The statement that later they “were fighting a war”, if offered as an excuse, is just contemptible.

    The only point I’d add — but I’d add it in caps if I thought it would help — is that this tendency is not limited to Germans nor to the political right, then or now. You’re quite right, Promethea, to point to analogies in our current circumstances.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    “I don’t think Goldenhagen’s book is all that “controversial.” I think he’s been slammed by people like Finkelstein who have their own agenda.”

    Goldenhagen’s thesis has been slammed by the majority of Holocaust scholars, Promethea…

  9. expat Says:

    You also have to understand how the Nazis worked from the bottom up. An individual shopowner might not have have wanted to refuse to sell to Jews, even if he was uncomfortable with or didn’t like them. But then a brick is thrown into a shop window and his kids are tormented at school by a couple of bullies who call them Jew lovers. So he stops selling to Jews. Then he gets more and more sucked in. He sits in a bar where the Nazis are telling jokes about Jews, and if he doesn’t laugh, everyone suspects him. Next week, he has his own joke to tell. The local Nazi leaders knew the people and knew their weak spots. They knew how to make neighbor distrust neighbor. They took weak, prejudiced people and walked them step by step down the path to the holocaust. This is not to say that there weren’t many true believers. But many who might have formed a mass of resistance were cleverly coopted. They did nothing when they could have and then denied what was happening.

    Perhaps the most obnoxious group were the academics, the judges, and the industrialists who saw getting rid of the Jews as an opportunity to get ahead.

  10. Sally Says:

    Steve: They can only resist non-violently or violently. Which would you prefer? If they are going to resist Israeli control, I would much prefer that they use non-violent means.

    As he so often does, Steve again presents us with an instructive confusion. The first question to ask is whether the Palestinians are justified in “resistance” of any sort, rather than simply getting on with the business of making a community and a life for themselves. Then, once you clear your head of the morally self-congratulatory but vapid fumes of satyagraha (to inject a little Sanskrit), and once you’re certain that your complaints are justified, the question simply becomes one of effectiveness. Against the likes of Israelis, for example, non-violence would have a real chance. Against a nastier enemy, you have to calculate whether risking violence is likely to do you more benefit than harm — when you lose a war, for example, you lose at least some of what you had before the war, and your condition is worsened. But under any circumstances, strapping bombs to your children and sending them out to blow up school busses and weddings is both stupid and evil, since it does great harm but with little practical effect (assuming your enemy has even a little more backbone than the Western left).

  11. Anonymous Says:

    “Against the Israelis non-violent resistance would have a real chance”

    That comment is quite debatable – as is the one that implies the Israeli occupation is benign.

    In fact, one can quite easily ascertain and conclude, using historical references based in real history, that Israel has no interest in real peace(withdrawing completely from occuppied territory).

    One can even go back a day, and observe Olmert discussing ‘peace’ with the Palestinians and then approving new construction of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land(illegal under international law – and also breaking an agreement with the U.S under it’s own ‘brokered’ attempt at ‘peace’).

    Interestingly, we can also observe the real value of attacking Israel in order for it to observe it’s obligations under interational law – as in 1973 when Eygpt attacked Israel; only after the war did Israel agree to return the Sinai and sign a peace agreement with Sadat – despite years of Egyptian peace overtures based on territorial concessions and appeal to the UN, Israel and the U.S.

    The Palestinians, predictably face even more extreme rejectionism from Israel – also easily concluded by serious historians. Non- violence will not get Israel to grant concessions -as history has proven.

    Only when the occupation becomes unsustainable and too costly to Israel will it cede Palestinian territory necessary for a Palestinian state along the Jewish state.

  12. Christopher Says:

    Promethea -

    I suspect your comments were addressed to me concering Goldhagen’s book. I take no real position on it, but simply wanted to let Zeno in the other thread know both about it and that there was some controversy as to his conclusions. I’ve been familiar with the “continuation of medieval Jew hatred” since reading Waite’s “The Psychopathic God” lo these many years ago.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    The first question to ask is whether the Palestinians are justified in “resistance” of any sort, rather than simply getting on with the business of making a community and a life for themselves.

    It just occurred to me how wonderfully racist your ‘question’ is, Sally.

    You should be proud.

  14. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    How quickly the accusation of racism drops from some lips, eh?

    There is also a volume edited by Ernst Klee “The Good Old Days,” recording the observations of perpetrators and bystanders in their own words.

    People have to believe that their actions will have some effect to take action. Nazi psychological warfare, convincing folks that resistance is futile, was imperfect but still effective. Others learned to better create hopelessness later. As the Nazis used new techniques to discourage and intimidate, it is perhaps true that small changes in the reactions of the German populace would have changed things.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    Actually AV, it was a carefully considered response.

    Though it wasn’t terribly difficult to see – I bet you could figure it out all by yourself….

  16. holmes Says:

    Steve with yet another threadjack. You are a loathsome individual, Steve, with a mind muddled with moral relativism.

  17. Sally Says:

    Anony (11:25 pm): You should be proud.

    Really? Why?

    Only when the occupation becomes unsustainable and too costly to Israel will it cede Palestinian territory necessary for a Palestinian state along the Jewish state

    You wish.

    Only when the “intifada” becomes unsustainable and too costly for the Palestinians will it abandon its obscene dream of driving the Jews into the sea and settle for “a Palestinian state along the Jewish state”.

  18. Sergey Says:

    The most valuable lesson of Nazi barbarism is that so-called “progress” has nothing to do with improving human nature. The latter can not be improved in any meaningfull way, except by artificial selection on such a scale which itself is too barbarous to advocate. Biologically, humans are merciless predators, and no “enlightment” can change this the least bit. Arguably, some human populations are genetically more prone to aggression than others, as Konrad Lorenz supposed in his book “So Called Evil, or Natural History of Aggression”. Germans, it seems, have very tremendous potential for sadism and brutality, as shown by history of Thirty ears war in 17 century and is not unexpected, if one took into consideration thousands years history of German tribes as it is described by Roman and Greek historicans. Slavic tribes, Poles included, are also posess such character traits. It can be contrasted by Julius Caesar’s description of Galls as totally unfit to warfare: “They need too good food and too good vine to go to war, and could not even cross Alps, they will catch cold before rising to passings”.

  19. michael Says:

    Apparently, there was a division of the Nazi party in northern Germany somewhat separate from the section that Hitler came to dominate in Munich. I didn’t know this until I read Rosenbaum’s book, but I am assuming that a close friend’s father from Bremen who was an early Nazi and emigrated here in the twenties was associated with that group. ‘Pinkie’ as he was called because of his, formerly, red hair was unflappable. Relaxing into personal coversation, I might toss the most moral insult that occured to me at him to which he would, good naturedly, laugh. Someone would offer that Pinkie said he would protect his Jewish client were there to be some new Naziism and I would feel like a dog that didn’t know if he wanted to go outside or stay in the house. To return to Pinkie, he would, in summers, go back to Germany as a young man and would invariably be in a bar where some insult to somebody would occur to which he would object, then be accosted as not German or Nazi enough to which he would announce that he was member xxy of the Nazi party and so outranked this person. Well after some years of this, his parents told him that ‘Germany had changed’ and that ‘he should not come back to Germany.’ In his last years, Texas Monthly became aware of his strange story and repeatedly tried to get him to do an interview. He always declined, in a friendly way I am sure. I don’t know that he believed the Nazis would get him, but he wasn’t taking any chances.

  20. harry Says:

    Anonymous:
    “Actually AV, it (playing the race card)was a carefully considered response.”

    No, it was the usual oft-used, patented, knee-jerk liberal reply and the easy way out.

  21. Anonymous Says:

    “Obscene” dream?

    Liberation is far less obscene than stealing and plundering, wouldn’t you agree?

    Race card?

    Sorry – I just call it like I see it. And that comment is racist – plain and simple.

    Why don’t you ask me why instead of being a troll?

  22. Anonymous Says:

    Sally: “You wish.”

    That’s why you should be proud, Sally.

    Because – you are.

  23. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    I guess anonymous believes if he keeps saying it, he makes it true.

    I have read over Sally’s comment. I don’t see it as racist. I stand by my original assessment.

  24. Sally Says:

    AVI: you have to realize that, for most of those on the contemporary left, “racist” is a word that’s pretty much entirely lost its meaning. It lingers on as a kind of empty epithet, roughly meaning just “bad person”. Another illustration of the general degradation of much of the left in our time.

  25. reader_iam Says:

    Neo: Well done.

  26. Sergey Says:

    The term “racism” in its original meaning denotes belief that different human races are so vastly different that genetics determine their culture and social capabilities. Such belief now virtually does not exist in developed countries, and the latest manifestation of it was Nazi ideology. So to keep using race card as a tool of blackmail, leftists re-invented this notion, and now call “racism” any deviation from their dogma that all people are just the same, and if you prefer company of those who share your cultural heritage and historical memory, you are racist. Remarkably, this apply only to whites (Jews included); everybody else have a licence to self-segregation under cover of multiculturalism. So, we have Orwellian situation: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”.

  27. Isaiah Hunahun Says:

    I see Nathan Stoltzfus all the time — I might hip him to the blog via this post. Great one Neo :)

  28. Tom Grey Says:

    Another fine post set, neo. I’d like to mention that Slovakia’s leader in WW II, the priest Jozef Tiso, was willing to send Slovak Jews to Germany into concentration camps. When he heard that they were death camps, he ordered the trains to be stopped. (This analysis is controversial — he has been heavily demonized as clerical fascist.)

    The thing is, Jews are NOT Slovaks — and didn’t marry Slovaks. They married Jews. And they were more successful. Jews who refuse to allow their children to marry non-Jews are racist: “I have x-type friends … but I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one of them“.

    Anyway, in Slovakia, in WW II, there was NO death penalty, and no state executions. After the war, Tiso was executed by Czechs (esp. commies), in a show trial, for treason to Czechoslovakia. A country which was really the mini Czech empire and which successfully did ethnic cleansing of some 3 mil. Germans out of the Sudetenland after the war — the same kind of ethnic cleansing of Jews that Tiso initially accepted but then stopped.

    Slovakia is listed as losing some 130 000 people in the War — but if 90 000 were the Jews they sent off (and were murdered by the Nazis), Tiso did a GREAT job at saving Slovak lives from death in war.

    Even today in Slovakia there is significant Jew-hatred, but almost no Jews. It’s very strange.

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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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