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An “Ordinary Nazi”

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Christopher Browning has an excellent essay in this week’s New York Review of Books that sheds great light on the question of what, if anything, we mean when we speak of an “ordinary Nazi.” His reflections are addressed at two books, the first of which is A Small Town Near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust, by Mary Fulbrook. Fulbrook looks closely at “Udo Klausa, the Landrat (the principal civilian administrator) of the county of Be˛dzin (Bendsburg).” Klausa carried out and administered a racist Nazi policy, but, in Fulbrook’s account, he saw himself neither as a racist nor as a bad person.

klausa

She, following in the tradition of Arendt’s exploration of Adolf Eichmann, asks: How could an apparently upstanding and normal person become so entrenched in carrying out Nazi policies concerning the Jews. Browning writes:

What kind of person was Udo Klausa and what does Fulbrook mean by the term “ordinary Nazi”? Klausa came from a family of nationalist, conservative Catholics and aspired to a career in either the military or civil service. His frail health precluded the former more than his Catholicism disadvantaged the latter. A party member since February 1933, he allayed the reservations of even the most fervent anti-Christian Nazis by his loyal and efficient service to the regime. Fulbrook summarizes as follows the evaluation of Klausa by a notorious Nazi opponent of the Christian churches:

Despite the fact that Klausa internally “felt himself bound to his Catholic religion,” he had “in no way” let this get in the way of his “practical commitment to the National Socialist cause” and his preparedness “to give his utmost for the Führer’s work.”

Klausa shared the assumptions of many of his countrymen about Germany’s entitlement to imperial rule in Eastern Europe over people deemed racially and culturally inferior. Remarkably oblivious to the human impact of Nazi racial and “Germanization” policies on Jews and Poles, he felt himself to be “decent,” not “really” a Nazi, and an apolitical civil servant who was involved in “only administration.” Through a parallel account of the experience and fate of Be˛dzin’s Jews, Fulbrook demonstrates that what to Klausa was “only administration” was in fact the implementation of policies that humiliated, expropriated, exploited, impoverished, starved, uprooted, and finally murdered the Jews of Be˛dzin. Their families were torn apart and their lives ended by successive levies for forced labor and then selections for deportation to Auschwitz.

Browning makes the obvious analogy to Arendt’s characterization of Adolf Eichmann as banal. He argues, however, that whereas Fullbrook is right to see Klausa as an ordinary Nazi, Arendt was wrong to think so of Eichmann. Why this is, however, he neglects to say. For if one reads all the recent research on Eichmann from the Sassen interviews, the obvious conclusion is that Eichmann, like Klausa, was also an ordinary Nazi, with the one meaningful difference that Eichmann had a job that put him in at the center of the Nazi Jewish extermination program, while Klausa’s job left him on the fringes of that same policy. This is an important difference insofar as Eichmann, much more so then Klausa, became a central symbol and facilitator of the holocaust writ large. But how it changes their moral motivations is difficult to see.

soldaten

The second book Browning reviews is Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying: The Secret World War II Transcripts of German POWs, by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer. Soldaten is an excellent book, one I’ve read. It uses recorded conversations of German Prisoners of War to explore the inner and moral frames of German soldiers during the war. Browning writes:

Two such frames of reference were pivotal, they argue. The first was the Third Reich and its “National-Socialist morality,” predicated upon fundamental racial inequality and the primacy of the German Volk community over other groups as well as individual Germans. The second was the war, during which 17 million Germans served in, and identified with, the armed forces and held the widely shared military values of bravery, toughness, obedience, and willingness to sacrifice. Against these two major influences, they argue, other factors such as previous political views and individual predisposition were marginal in shaping behavior.

The authors also note that our contemporary historical understanding of the Nazi era, which places the Holocaust at the center, was not the perspective through which most Germans—both soldiers and civilians—experienced World War II. (Indeed, they might have added that viewing the Third Reich and World War II primarily through the prism of the Holocaust did not prevail within the historical profession and wider society until the 1980s.) But the conclusions the authors draw from these surreptitiously recorded conversations concerning soldiers’ awareness of, attitudes toward, and participation in war crimes and the murder of the Jews are the strong point of the book.

Both A Small Town Near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust and Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying: The Secret World War II Transcripts of German POWs are crucial reading. So too is his review. It is your weekend read.

-RB

Posted on 14 June 2013 | 1:34 pm

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