Over the past few days I have been writing about the German invasion of the Soviet Union and the fact that senior leaders of the Wehrmacht actively cooperated with the crimes of the Nazi regime against the Jews, Soviet prisoners of war, and Soviet citizens. I have pointed out that Hitler’s ideology of the racial superiority of his Aryan Master Race and the corresponding view that the Jews and Slavs were untermenschen or subhuman justified the most extreme measures that the Nazis used to kill millions of innocent people through extermination, ethnic cleansing, and extermination.
There was a common myth after the Second World War that the regular German Army, the Wehrmacht, fought an honorable and clean war while the criminal actions of war crimes and genocide were the fault of Hitler, the Nazi Party, and the SS. It was a comforting myth because it allowed a great number of men who agreed with Hitler’s policies, and often assisted in them to maintain a fiction of honor and respectability. While for the most part the German Army in the West fought according to international norms of conduct, it was a different matter on the Easter Front, where following Hitler’s lead the Wehrmacht from its senior officers in down was often at the tip of the spear in enforcing Hitler’s racial and ideological war.
This came form the top. In addition to the Commissar order, also known as the Criminal Order, Field Marshal Keitel offered this directive to units fighting on the Easter Front:
“In view of the vast size of the conquered territories in the East, the forces available for establishing security in these areas will be sufficient only if instead of punishing resistance by sentencing the guilty in a court of law, the occupying forces spread such terror as is likely, by its mere existence, to crush every will to resist amongst the population.
The commanders concerned, together with all available troops, should be made responsible for maintaining peace within their areas. The commanders must find the means of keeping order within their areas, not by demanding more security forces, but by applying suitable drastic measures.”
Field Marshal Walter Reichenau issued what is something’s known as the Severity Order to his 6th Army which was part of Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt’s Army Group South. Von Rundstedt, who was not a Nazi and who maintained his reputation after the war expressed his “complete agreement” with it and urged other subordinates to issue similar orders.
“The most important objective of this campaign against the Jewish-Bolshevik system is the complete destruction of its sources of power and the extermination of the Asiatic influence in European civilization. … In this eastern theatre, the soldier is not only a man fighting in accordance with the rules of the art of war, but also the ruthless standard bearer of a national conception. … For this reason the soldier must learn fully to appreciate the necessity for the severe but just retribution that must be meted out to the subhuman species of Jewry…”
An order was issued by General Erich Von Manstein’s Eleventh Army in November 1941 which stated in part:
“Jewry constitutes the middleman between the enemy in the rear and the remainder of the Red Armed Forces which is still fighting, and the Red leadership. More strongly than in Europe it holds all the key positions in the political leadership and administration, controls commerce and trades, and further forms the nucleus for all unrest and possible uprisings.
The Jewish-Bolshevist system must be exterminated once and for all. Never again must it encroach upon our European living space.
The German soldier has therefore not only the task of crushing the military potential of this system. He comes also as the bearer of a racial concept and as the avenger of all the cruelties’ which have been perpetrated on him and on the German people…
The food situation at home makes it essential that the troops should as far as possible be fed off the land and that furthermore the largest possible stocks should be placed at the disposal of the homeland. Particularly in enemy cities a large part of the population will have to go hungry. Nevertheless nothing which the homeland has sacrificed itself to contribute may, out of a misguided sense of humanity, be given to prisoners or to the population unless they are in the service of the German Wehrmacht.
The soldier must appreciate the necessity for the harsh punishment of Jewry, the spiritual bearer of the Bolshevist terror. This is also necessary in order to nip in the bud all uprisings which are mostly plotted by Jews…
Manstein claimed that he did not remember the order at his trial and that he sought to ensure that his troops did not engage in conduct not fitting of the honor of soldiers. He included the following in the order: “Severest action to be taken: against despotism and self-seeking; against lawlessness and lack of discipline; against every transgression of the honor of a soldier.”
In his defense at Nuremberg Manstien attempted to mitigate the damning words of the order. He explained that “I do want to point out to you that if it says here that the system must be exterminated, then that is extermination of the Bolshevik system, but not the extermination of human beings.” Despite Manstein’s clarification of what he meant in the order it would be hard for soldiers and commanders receiving the order as written could hardly have been expect not to interpret it literally. Likewise his order mentions the intentional starvation of Soviet citizens and harsh invectives against the Jews.
Like Von Rundstedt, Manstein too would be rehabilitated and for the most part his complicity in Hitler’s racial and ideological war forgotten.
There are many other examples of German Army commanders at various levels issuing orders similar to Von Reichenau and Von Manstein as well as accounts of Wehrmacht units cooperating with the Einsatzgruppen in various mass extermination actions against the Jews, including the action at Babi Yar. In many cases the cooperation was quite close as evidenced by the report of the commander of Einsatzgruppe C to Berlin on November 3rd 1941:
In a great number of cases, it happened that the support of the Einsatzkommandos was requested by the fighting troops. Advance detachments of the Einsatzgruppe also participated in every large military action. They entered newly captured localities side by side with the fighting troops. Thus, in all cases, the utmost support was given. For example, in this connection, it is worth mentioning the participation in the capture of Zhitomir, where the first tanks entering the city were immediately followed by three cars of Einsatzkommando 4a.
As a result of the successful work of the Einsatzgruppe, the Security Police is also held in high regard, in particular by the HQ of the German Army. The liaison officers stationed in Army HQ are loyally briefed of all military operations, and, besides, they receive the utmost cooperation. The Commander of the 6th Army, Generalfeldmarschall von Richenau, has repeatedly praised the work of the Einsatzkommandos and, accordingly, supported the interests of the SD with his staff.
It is true that in some cases individual Wehrmacht officers refused to cooperate with the Einsatzgruppen in their operational areas, but without the cooperation of the Wehrmacht the extermination campaigns against the Jews and other Soviet citizens could not have been successful.
One has to ask what it takes for otherwise ordinary and law abiding people to carry out crimes of such magnitude. I do believe that the answer is found in the racial ideology that posits certain races as being less than human. The examples of such belief in action litter human history and are not limited to the Germans of the Nazi era. The disturbing thing as that the men who perpetrated the Nazi crimes against humanity and genocide were not unique. The actions of the Japanese army in China, Korea, and Southeast Asia to include the Rape of Nanking and their Unit 731; the American genocide committed against the Native American tribes and the enslavement of Blacks; the extermination of the Herero in German Southwest Africa, the Rwandan genocide, the mass killings of Bosnians by Bosnian Serbs, the Armenian genocide committed by the Turks, and far too many more examples show this to be the case.
I think one of our problems is that we want to believe that evil is simply done be evil people. That is why when we see a Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or the monsters of the so-called Islamic State, we are often strangely comforted. This is often because we can point to a single person with a wicked ideology and say “they are evil,” all the while forgetting that they are, or were, like us, also human.
There is a scene in the movie Nuremberg in which an American psychologist named Gustave Gilbert questions the commandant of Auschwitz. When he asks the commandant if he felt guilty for the extermination of the Jews in his camp the commandant said “does a rat catcher feel guilty for killing rats.” Thereafter Gilbert confronts Herman Goering pointedly asking the number two Nazi “A rat catcher catching rats”. Is that the kind of thinking it takes to carry out state sanctioned mass murder? Not just blind obedience but also a belief that your victims are not human?”
Goering replies: Let me ask you this. What was Hiroshima? Was it not your medical experiment? Would Americans have dropped bombs as easily on Germany as it did upon Japan killing as many civilians as possible? I think not. To an American sensibility, a Caucasian child is considerably more human than a Japanese child….
What about the negro officers in your own army? Are they not allowed to command troops in combat? Can they sit on the same buses as the whites? The segregation laws in your country and the anti Semitic laws in mine, are they not a difference of degree?
The tragic thing is that while Gilbert was certainly correct in his question to Goering, Goering was also right. For all that is good about America there is a persistent strain of this kind of thinking which deems other people, especially non-white people as inferior racially, culturally, and intellectually. Over the decades we like to think that we have become better but the underlying attitudes are still present today, sometimes in plain view, but often just under our veneer of civility and good manners, but what maintains that civility is quite fragile. In his history of Auschwitz British historian Laurence Rees wrote:
“human behavior is fragile and unpredictable and often at the mercy of the situation. Every individual still, of course, has a choice as to how to behave, it’s just that for many people the situation is the key determinate in that choice.” The German military officers who took part in the campaign in the East were terrifyingly normal. They were raised in an advanced society, highly cultured, well educated, and raised in the cradle of Protestantism. Yet many of them became willing participants in crimes of their nation that are unimaginable. But the fact is that the character of nations can be as fragile as that if individuals. As Americans we like to think that we are different but our history often belies this, even our military history and this is part of our conundrum.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote of the struggle:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
When I taught ethics at the Joint Forces Staff College I challenged my students to deal with these kinds of questions. They are not easy and they require that we look into the darkest reaches of our hearts to see what we will do when we are confronted with choices to obey orders that go against the values of the institution but may reflect the more troubling aspects of our culture. Some of these men and women I am sure understood and will not break under pressure, but I am not so sure about others, and I worry about them in the crisis. The fact is we are only as good as we are in the crisis. Historian Timothy Snyder wrote something that we should not discount when asking the question about how ordinary men become war criminals:
“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”
This is something that we most ponder because it would not take much in our present day where the old ethnic race hatreds, religious hatreds, and resurgent nationalism are again raising their head not only in our own country, but around the world. I will address this in the recent American context next week. So until tomorrow, when I publish something more personal and unrelated to this subject.