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Between Fanaticism and Terror: Hitler, Stalin and The Noise of Time

nytimesdimitrishostakovich

Between Fanaticism and Terror: Hitler, Stalin and The Noise of Time

By Claudia Moscovici

During WWII much of Europe was caught in a vice between fanaticism and terror; between Hitler and Stalin. The plight of tens of millions of people falling victim to Stalinism on the one hand and Fascism on the other is eloquently captured by Gustaw Herling, a Polish prisoner in the Soviet Union:   “I think with horror and shame of a Europe divided into two parts by the line of the Bug, on one side of which millions of Soviet slaves prayed for liberation by the armies of Hitler, and on the other millions of victims of German concentration camps awaited deliverance by the Red Army as their last hope” (Gustaw Herling, A World Apart, 175-76). The similarities between these two evil dictators obsessed with acquiring unlimited power are far greater than their differences. Yet it’s worth noting that they selected their targets differently. Stalin’s purges covered every segment of Soviet society, almost indiscriminately: the Communist party; the Politburo; even the army, navy and air force in a time when preparations for war should have been a priority.

Julian Barnes, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2011, describes the arbitrary nature of Stalin’s Great Terror with exquisite literary skill and historical insight in his new biographical novel about the composer Dimitri Shostakovich, The Noise of Time (New York and London: Knopf, 2016). Tellingly, the title phrase is borrowed from Osip Mandelstam’s memoirs, who himself died in a transit camp during the Great Terror in 1938. In personalizing the plight of millions by focusing on the tribulations of a single life—particularly that of a famous man—Barnes illustrates that nobody was immune to Stalin’s subjugating power. Even the great Soviet General and Chief of Staff, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the composer’s patron, fell victim to Stalin’s paranoia in the purge of the military of June 1937.

By some miracle or good fortune, Shostakovich’s life is spared by Stalin. But the composer’s reputation isn’t; rising and falling with the vicissitudes of the Soviet regime, which the narrator calls “the Power”. In 1936, Shostakovich suffers a humiliating reprimand for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, deemed by Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper and propaganda mouthpiece, to be representative of the “fidgety, neurotic music” of the bourgeoisie. Although later Stalin himself calls the composer at home and undoes some of the damage to his reputation, Shostakovich, along with millions of others, lives in constant fear of the dictator’s arbitrary—and often fatal–displays of power.

Success and failure have a way of boiling down to the same thing in totalitarian regimes, which subsume artistic merit to ideological whims. Even after Stalin’s death, during Nikita Khrushchev’s milder regime, when the composer is pressured to join the Communist Party in order to become the Chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers, Shostakovich feels almost as pained and humiliated as he did when he was vilified by Stalin’s acolytes in Pravda. In channeling the character of Shostakovich so compellingly and revealing with a keen sense of irony the arbitrary nature of Soviet totalitarianism, Barnes depicts its nature as well as those who had suffered its effects first-hand: authors such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Eugenia Ginzburg.

By way of contrast to Stalin’s arbitrary purges, Hitler honed in on one main target: the Jews. His single-minded focus on destroying the Jewish people could only be called, in his own words, “fanaticism”. He remarked: “Any violence which does not spring from a firm spiritual base will be wavering and uncertain. It lacks the stability which can only rest in a fanatical outlook” (Mein Kampf, 171). There are many hypotheses about what might have caused Hitler’s hatred of Jews, ranging from psychological to sociological and biographical explanations. These speculations, however, only make sense in hindsight. Nothing in Hitler’s adolescence, when pathology usually shows up, gave any obvious sign of the tremendous anti-Semitic hatred that would later dominate his life.

Biographers state that Hitler was a mediocre student, receiving bad grades in physics, mathematics and German. His preformed better in art, but wasn’t that original. As a young man, he pursued his artistic career in Vienna for about six years. Some state that Hitler’s anti-Semitism grew out of the frustration that he wasn’t accepted to the prestigious Vienna Art Academy. They surmise that he may have blamed his failure on the Jews. Perhaps there’s some truth in that, but there’s evidence to the contrary as well. Hitler continued to sell his art and make a living from art sales, supplemented by funds from his family. Interestingly, as Raul Hilberg states, “Apparently, two of the [art] dealers were Jews” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 4).

WWI seems to have been a major turning point in Hitler’s life. But even then nobody could have guessed that this mediocre soldier would rise to absolute power and wield death and destruction throughout Europe. Hitler was decorated the Iron Cross First Class during the war, but only the second or third time he was recommended for it: incidentally, by a Jew (Lieutenant Gutmann). At the end of the war, Hitler was gassed and spent a considerable period of time recuperating in a hospital. There he had time to contemplate what might have brought about the humiliating defeat of Germany. The company commander of the unit to which Hitler belonged in 1919 asked soldiers the question why Germany had lost the war. Hitler wrote down an answer that prefigured the major themes of Mein Kampf, his autobiographical treatise written in prison and published in 1925-26. He distinguished between an anti-Semitism based on reason, which would have staying power, and an anti-Semitism based on emotion, manifested in pogroms. Only the former, he predicted, could efface the Jews from the face of the Earth. (See Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 5)

So to return to our earlier question: why did Hitler target the Jews as the main scapegoat and object of his vitriol? He offers a direct answer to this question in Mein Kampf:

 

“The art of leadership as displayed by really great popular leaders in all ages, consists in consolidating the attention of the people against a single adversary… Where there are various enemies… it will be necessary to block them all together as forming one solid front, so that the mass of followers in a popular movement may see only one common enemy against whom they have to fight. Such uniformity intensifies their belief in their own cause and strengthens their feeling of hostility towards the opponent” (Mein Kampf, 110).

 

This statement reflects the cold and calculated reasoning Hitler alluded to as early as the note of 1919. He targeted the Jews as his scapegoats and victims for strategic reasons. Hitler’s explicit intent was to simplify the root of all social and economic problems to the Jews—outsiders in most European countries–and coalesce all forces and people against this common enemy. His choice wasn’t primarily a matter of genuine emotion, nor only of a pathological, sick hatred. As for Stalin during the Great Terror, it was primarily the product of an insatiable and malicious will to power. This ultimate answer–which boils down to evil for its own sake–could have never offered a satisfactory response to the question most often scribbled by victims on cell walls, in prisons, concentration camps and gulags, a question which still echoes to this day: “Zachto—Why?”

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Lebensraum: Genocide, Slavery and Ethnic Cleansing in the Nazi expansion campaign

lebensraumnewyorktimes

Hitler’s idea of Lebensraum–or, literally, creating more “living space” for Germany and the Germanic people by expanding to other areas of Europe and the Soviet Union through ethnic cleansing, deportation and genocide—was not original. This essentially colonialist concept had been around since the Middle Ages, while the term itself was coined in the early 1900’s by the German ethnographer Friedrich Ratzel. However, in his implementation of Lebensraum, Hitler transformed colonialism into a process of pillaging and mass murder of unprecedented proportions, with tragic consequences for humanity. Claiming that the Germanic people didn’t have enough room and natural resources to sustain their growing population, Hitler wanted to build an Aryan empire by conquering large parts of Europe and the Soviet Union, including Poland, the Ukraine and Russia. In order to achieve this goal, Hitler intended to kill hundreds of millions of their inhabitants and enslave the rest, annihilating and subjugating entire populations whom he considered “subhuman” or, at any rate, far inferior to the Aryan master race.

To prove the so-called inferiority of the conquered nations, Hitler inverted, in a characteristic move, cause and effect. He began a ruthless policy of terror, starving the captured people, humiliating them, killing them, and imprisoning them in labor and concentration camps. This mistreatment dehumanized the victims, often reducing them to animal-like behavior in their hopeless struggle to survive. Hitler then launched a propaganda campaign that “demonstrated” the behavior of the conquered people was abject and animalistic, to prove that they were inferior to the “civilized” German race.

The WWII historian Antony Beevor documents in his magnificent book, The Second World War (New York, Little, Brown & Company, 2012) that, following Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, “By February 1942, 60 percent of the 3.5 million Red Army prisoners had died of starvation, exposure or disease” (418). A quarter of the population of Belarus perished due to the Germans’ savage oppression. In addition, millions of Jews were rounded up in conquered cities and villages and shot by the Einsatzgruppen, or incarcerated in ghettos, concentration and death camps. Hitler aimed to achieve his top two, interrelated, goals simultaneously: to create more living space for the Germans by clearing vast areas of their native, “undesirable” people.

Although they agreed on the basic principle of Lebensraum, top Nazi officials disagreed about how to best achieve it. Vying for influence, they offered competing proposals. According to Beevor, Alfred Rosenberg, the minister of the Eastern territories, wanted to secure the cooperation of former Soviet nationalities, such as the Ukraine, in a joint struggle against the Soviet Union. Initially, many Ukrainians welcomed the German invasion and collaborated with the Nazis. The tide began to turn, however, when they realized that they were mistreated by the Germans as much, if not more so, than they had been by the Soviets. In Germany, the most “radical” views about how to achieve Lebensraum prevailed.

Herman Göring, appointed President of the Reichstag (1932-1945) as well as Minister (Reichminister) of Economics and of Aviation, preferred the method of starving out the native populations and bringing in German and Germanic people on those lands. Heinrich Himmler, the Reichführer or Chief of German Police and Commissioner for Strengthening the German Nationhood, opted for the most brutal method: ethnic cleansing through mass murder, either by shooting or gassing. In the end, Germany adopted all three strategies, focusing in particular upon the ruthless solutions proposed by Göring and Himmler, which were most closely aligned with Hitler’s racist ideology and sociopathic tendencies.

Both Hitler and Himmler envisaged an idyllic German empire stretching to the Urals, built upon the blood and sacrifice of those they considered to be “subhuman races” (Untermenschen): including the Jews, Slavs and Gypsies. The notion—and practice—of creating more Lebensraum for the German people inseparably combined utopia and dystopia by turning a mad fantasy into an all-too-real nightmare. As Beevor elaborates, “Nazi ideas for the future constituted little more than a grotesque fantasy… Himmler dreamed of gemütlich German colonies, with gardens and orchards built across the former killing grounds of his SS Einsatzgruppen. And to provide a holiday center the Crimea, renamed Gotenhau, would become the German Riviera” (418). The result of this so-called utopic vision of an Aryan master race dominating most of Europe and the Soviet Union was the horrific abuse and death of tens of millions of innocent people, the devastation of entire cities and villages, and the destruction of natural resources that would take years to replenish.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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On Hitler’s Niece and writing historical fiction

 

Geli Raubal and Hitler

Geli Raubal and Hitler

On Hitler’s Niece and writing historical fiction

by Claudia Moscovici  

If you want to know about Hitler’s life, then read Ian Kershaw’s Hitler: A Biography (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010). If you want to find out as much as possible about the history of the Nazi movement and Hitler’s role in it, then read Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives by Alan Bullock (Knopf, 1992). But if you want to get a sense of who Hitler was a human being, I encourage you to read a very well written historical novel by Ron Hansen called Hitler’s Niece (Harper Collins, 1999).

Hansen traces Hitler’s abnormal psychology from the perspective of Angela Maria (“Geli”) Raubal (1908-1931), his half niece. Geli is intelligent, beautiful, full of joie de vivre and untouched by the political obsessions and anti-Semitic hatred of her uncle and his cronies.  She maintains an ironic distance from Hitler’s fanatical followers—Rudolf Hess, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, Alfred Rosenberg and others—who also appear in the novel. Compared to her, however, they’re wooden characters in a farce, much as they were in real life. These vain men are fawning and obsequious, hungry for power and always ready to not merely follow, but also anticipate Hitler’s orders and wishes.

By the author’s own admission, however, the novel doesn’t adhere strictly to historical facts. It is only inspired by them, particularly by Bullock’s book Hitler and Stalin, which Hansen states provoked his fascination with Geli Raubal. (Author’s Note, 307-308) The novel describes Geli’s life, from beginning to end; from birth to tragic death. We find out that her father died at the young age of 31, leaving her mother, Angela, to take care of three kids (Geli, Leo and Elfriede) with almost no source of income. After seeing that Geli, at seventeen, had bloomed into a lovely young woman, Hitler invited her to be his housekeeper and companion. Her mother gladly accepted this unorthodox arrangement, in the hopes of making possible a better lifestyle for their family.

Becoming Hitler’s companion, caretaker, maid and eventually his mistress, Geli catches a glimpse of the inner workings of the Nazi party and its key players’ rise to power. Above all, Hitler’s Niece shows us, up close and personal, how a psychopath capable of genocide “falls in love.” Even after her death, Hitler called Geli the love of his life. Neither Eva Braun, his doting life companion, nor any other woman could compete with his obsession with Geli.

GeliRaubal

Geli Raubal spent six years either living with Hitler or being in frequent contact with him. For a period of time, she lived in his Munich apartment while she studied medicine and took music lessons. She also accompanied him to the opera, cinema, and the many other social functions he attended. The plot of the novel hinges on their sexual tension and on Geli’s psychological trauma as she becomes, increasingly against her will, his sexual partner in a sordid, sadomasochistic relationship that sickens her and intoxicates him. The more she tries to escape, the more possessive, dependent and desperate he becomes. As the narrator states, “She was his escape, his torpor, his surrender to the vacillation and passivity that were increasingly part of his nature” (220).

Need and obsessive desire, however, don’t imply love. For love to exist, the lover has to be able to consider, empathize with and fulfill the beloved’s own needs, as a separate individual. Hitler can’t do that. He “loves” his niece like a man who is incapable of real love. His idea of flirtation is bragging incessantly about himself. His idea of “affection” is engaging in perverse and demeaning sexual rituals. His idea of respect for women gives way to a fundamental misogyny and traditionalism that require them to serve him. His idea of passion is possession and control of the object of his desire.

Hitler demands to know at all times where Geli is, what she is doing and with whom. He retains the freedom to see other mistresses—including Eva Braun—but keeps a tight leash on Geli, discouraging other suitors. Once Emil Maurice, Hitler’s good-looking Corsican chauffeur begins dating Geli, Hitler finds a pretext to dismiss him. “She is with me,” Hitler snarls when another man, Schirach, asks his permission to take out Geli on a date. (244)

Caught in the vortex of her uncle’s overpowering addiction to her, Geli cannot escape the misery that dominates her life. When she expresses her distress, her friends turn their back on her and even her mother would rather, essentially, prostitute her to “Uncle Alf,” “the patriarch” of the family, rather than face poverty again. At the end, Hitler’s Niece adds an interesting but largely speculative twist to the story. Although the official version is that Geli committed suicide in 1931, in the novel, Hitler, realizing that he can no longer master his niece, beats her, breaks her nose, and then shoots her. His entourage quickly covers up the murder and presents it to the police and the press as an act of suicide. This adds an intriguing element of mystery to the plot, turning Hitler’s Niece into a detective story. But the novel’s main strength remains the psychological aspects of the drama. Hansen helps us see that there is not much difference between Hitler the public man, who could order the murder of millions of innocent people, and Hitler the private lover who could destroy the object of his desire rather than risk losing her.

Given this novel’s many strengths, it’s surprising to me that Hitler’s Niece received some scathing reviews, particularly from The New York Times. In “Springtime for Hitler, in love with his niece,” Michiko Kakutani offers a lengthy plot summary and then dismisses the novel as a poor representation of history which takes away from the gruesome reality of Hitler’s “public crimes, crimes that tragically were not speculative imaginings of a novelist, crimes that have been consigned to the margins of this inept and voyeuristic novel” (NYT, September 7, 1999).

http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/09/05/daily/090799hansen-book-review.html

I completely disagree with Kakutani’s harsh assessment and standards of evaluation in this case. The role of historical fiction is not to convey history accurately or in great detail. That is what (nonfiction) history books do. In my opinion, the role of historical fiction is to do exactly what Hitler’s Niece does so well: namely, find inspiration in real historical events to imagine the mindset, emotions and desires of its key figures. Often only more marginal characters, such as Geli Raubal, or Hitler’s niece, can give us a three-dimensional picture of the monster whose acts have marred the pages of history.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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Filed under book review, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, fiction, Geli Raubal, historical fiction, Hitler, Hitler's Niece, literary criticism, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, On Hitler’s Niece and writing historical fiction, Ron Hansen

Total annihilation: The death factories

I.G. Farben at Auschwitz/Monowitz-Buna from Wikipedia

I.G. Farben at Auschwitz/Monowitz-Buna from Wikipedia

Total annihilation: The death factories

by Claudia Moscovici

Hitler’s explicit goal, formulated as early as Mein Kampf in the mid 1920’s, was to annihilate the Jewish people. What did total annihilation mean for the Nazis? It wasn’t enough to deport the Jews from Germany and other German-controlled countries to concentration camps. It wasn’t enough to isolate them in ghettos. It wasn’t enough to take their property and assets. It wasn’t enough to send them to labor and death camps in Poland.  It wasn’t enough to shoot them in the back of the head and pile them up, dead or alive, into mass graves. It wasn’t enough to burn their corpses, after gassing them, in crematoria. The Nazi regime wanted to destroy the evidence that their victims had ever existed. To do so, they had to hide or cover up their immense crimes against humanity. Each shred of evidence of Jewish existence—even the victims’ hair–was either destroyed or transformed and reused by German industry.

To accomplish the goal of exterminating millions of innocent civilians, the Nazis had to first invert the concepts of right and wrong: not only in their ideology, but also in the minds of party members. Hitler used the phrases “the Jewish question” and “the Final Solution” to outline his plans for mass murder. He rarely issued written orders concerning the fate of the Jews. Instead, he allowed his subordinates—Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi Minister of Interior; Reinhard Heydrich, the Chief of Police and of the Gestapo; Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, and Oswald Ludwig Pohl, the Financial Administrator of the SS in charge of the concentration and labor camps–to state explicitly, as well as to carry out, his implicit yet crystal clear orders of deportation and extermination of the Jews.

The concentration camps became, quite literally, death factories. The existence of these camps had to be kept, for the most part, secret from the German public, who might disapprove of it. Hitler had learned a lesson from the vocal protests against Action T4, the “euthanasia” program he instituted in 1939 in several German mental hospitals. While being more or less hidden from the German public, however, the extermination of the Jews was also loudly proclaimed as a point of pride for the initiated SS soldiers. Addressing SS leaders at Posen in 1943, Himmler describes acts of cowardice and of unspeakable cruelty against defenseless civilians—men, women, children and even babies–as acts of great civic courage, “decency” and heroism:

“We can talk about it quite frankly among ourselves and yet we will never speak of it publicly. It appalled everyone, and yet everyone was certain that he would do it next time if such orders should be issued…. I am referring to the Jewish evacuation program, the extermination of the Jews. … Most of you will know what it means when a hundred corpses are lying side by side, or five hundred or a thousand are lying there. To have stuck it out and to have remained decent, that is what has made us tough. This is a glorious page in our history that has never and can never be written.” (see Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham, Eds., Nazism 1919-1945, volume 3: Foreign Policy, War and Racial Extermination, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, University of Exeter Series, 2001).

Due to the demands of the German economy during the war, the question arose how to make maximal use of Jewish prisoners before killing them. Oswald Ludwig Pohl came up with the solution of doubling the role of some of the extermination camps—including the largest, the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex–as labor camps. This generated Monowitz-Buna, also called Auschwitz III, a slave labor camp established in October 1942 in collaboration with the German chemical company I. G. Farben. The company produced butadiene-based synthetic rubber (in Buna Works) as well as, more notoriously, Zyklon B, the toxic chemical used to gas millions of victims. Rewarded for his ingenuity, Pohl rose to power in the Nazi regime, serving as the financial administrator of the SS in charge of 20 concentration camps and 165 labor camps.

Although supportive of Pohl’s utilization of Jewish slave labor for the German economy, Himmler insisted that the Nazis must never subordinate their main goal—the eradication of the Jewish race—to economic objectives: not even during the war, when there was a labor shortage. The solution, for the Nazi regime, became the infamous death factories: selecting (most) prisoners deemed unfit for work for immediate extermination in the gas chambers, while working to death those deemed capable of labor. Even those who were chosen for immediate extermination were exploited to the very last. The Nazis extricated from their victims every possession: even the clothes on their backs, which were given to other prisoners, and their hair, which was shaved or cut off and used as stuffing for mattresses. The death factories thus fulfilled their intended role of total annihilation: by exterminating the Jewish people while also removing the last trace of their existence from the face of the Earth.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

 

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Action T4: From “Euthanasia” to the Final Solution

Christian_Wirth:WikipediaCommons

Action T4: From “Euthanasia” to the Final Solution

by Claudia Moscovici 

Since the late 5th century BC up to current times, the Hippocratic Oath has been taken by doctors to ensure the ethics of the medical profession. Above all, the Hippocratic Oath forbids doctors from causing deliberate harm to their patients. Doctors pledge: “I will prescribe regiments for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone. I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such council.” The most egregious violation of medical ethics was perpetrated by Nazi doctors. “Euthanasia,” as practiced by Third Reich physicians, set the precedent for the Final Solution. From September 1939 to August 1941, when he began facing objections from German religious leaders, Hitler started experimenting in Germany with Action T4. The program was euphemistically described as “euthanasia”. In practice, however, it entailed the extermination of individuals in psychiatric institutions deemed “mentally incurable”. Over 70,000 patients in mental hospitals were killed under this program. Even when Hitler officially ended it in 1941, the practice continued until the end of the war. In concentration camps, it took an even more dangerous and deadly form.

“T4” is an abbreviation of Tiergarten Street Number 4 in Berlin, the address of the Charitable Foundation for Curative and Institutional Care, directed by Philipp Bouhler and Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician. As Robert Jay Lifton explains in The Nazi Doctors, the “euthanasia” program initially employed lethal injection. Later, in order to kill people in greater numbers and more efficiently, Nazi physicians began using carbon monoxide. This method of killing was also implemented later to kill Jews, Gypsies and Poles in concentration camps.

In 1939, Christian Wirth (featured in the picture), one of the SS officers in charge of exterminating the Jews in Poland, designed a gas chamber that was disguised as a public shower. Instead of water, patients were inundated by a toxic gas. Witnesses describe Wirth as a malicious sadist, similar to Dr. Josef Mengele, the notorious “Angel of Death”. Corporal Franz Suchomel recalls: “From my activity in the camps of Treblinka and Sobibor, I remember that Wirth in brutality, meanness, and ruthlessness could not be surpassed. We therefore called him ‘Christian the Terrible…” (Arad Ytzhak, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, p 183-186).

The gas used at first was carbon monoxide, but that was deemed as too slow acting. The Nazis then turned to Zyklon B—a cyanide based pesticide—to murder 1.2 million people in gas chambers. The process, deemed a quicker and “more humane” method of killing (compared to shooting or carbon monoxide), in actuality caused a slow and excruciating death. In The Diary of Petr Ginz: 1941-1942, Chava Pressburger pays homage to her brother Petr, who died in Auschwitz at the tender age of 16. She is particularly pained by the thought that her brother died such a gruesome death:

“I ask readers to forgive me for returning to that terrible description. The witness in question worked in the gas chambers. His task was to wait for the people shoved into the gas chamber to suffocate; then he had to open the chamber and transport the heaps of corpses to the ovens, where they were to be burned. This man could barely speak for tears. He testified that the position of corpses suggested what went on inside the hermetically sealed chamber, when it began to be filled with toxic gas. The stronger ones, led by an overpowering instinct for self-preservation, tried to get to the top, where there was still some air left, so that the weaker ones were trampled to death” (131).

Conceptually, the distance between the Action T4 program practiced in German mental hospitals and the mass murder in concentration camps was not so great.  The T4 program offered the framework for the killing machine implemented in the Final Solution. As Allan Bullock observes in Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, Action T4 set the following precedents for mass extermination:

1)    it established an atmosphere of secrecy, shrouded in a language filled with codes and euphemisms to describe torture and murder;

2)    it implicated doctors in murder through a procedural façade of professionalism (including physical examinations, diagnoses, and the administration of “medicines” or “operations”);

3)    from the very beginning, it set Jewish patients apart from others for “special treatment”. Jews did not have to meet the T4 criteria—namely, of being diagnosed with incurable diseases or mental disorders—in order to be killed. They could be killed simply because they were Jewish. (Hitler and Stalin, 746)

Perhaps the most valuable lesson Hitler learned from the T4 program was to take the killing machine outside of his own country. Following vocal protests by the Protestant pastors Paul-Gerhard Braune and Fritz von Bodelschwingh and by Cardinal August Count von Galen, Hitler decided to bide his time and kill more covertly: not on German territory, where he wanted to remain popular, but elsewhere. The opportunity presented itself when he attacked Russia in Operation Barbarossa, beginning on June 22, 1941. With the onset of war, all bets were off. The Nazis used war against “the Bolshevik empire” as a justification for putting into practice everything they had learned from the more limited Action T4 “euthanasia” program: this time to kill Jews, Gypsies and Poles on an unprecedented mass scale.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Between Fanaticism and Terror

HitlerStalinWikipediaCommons

Between Fanaticism and Terror

by Claudia Moscovici

During WWII much of Europe was caught in a vice between fanaticism and terror; between Hitler and Stalin. The plight of tens of millions of people falling victim to Stalinism on the one hand and Fascism on the other is eloquently captured by a Polish prisoner in Russia:   “I think with horror and shame of a Europe divided into two parts by the line of the Bug, on one side of which millions of Soviet slaves prayed for liberation by the armies of Hitler, and on the other millions of victims of German concentration camps awaited deliverance by the Red Army as their last hope” (Gustaw  Herling, A World Apart, 175-76).

The similarities between the two dictators obsessed with acquiring unlimited power are far greater than their differences. Yet it’s worth noting that they selected their targets differently. Stalin’s purges covered every segment of society, almost indiscriminately: the Communist party; the Politburo; even the army, navy and air force in a time when preparations for war should have been a priority. On the other hand, Hitler honed in on one main target: the Jews. His single-minded focus on destroying the Jewish people could only be called, in his own words, “fanaticism”. He remarked: “Any violence which does not spring from a firm spiritual base will be wavering and uncertain. It lacks the stability which can only rest in a fanatical outlook” (Mein Kampf, 171). What could have led a human being to want to efface the Jewish people from the face of the Earth? There are many hypotheses about what might have caused Hitler’s hatred, ranging from psychological to sociological and biographical explanations. These explanations, however, only make sense in hindsight. Nothing in Hitler’s adolescence, when pathology usually shows up, gave any clear sign of the tremendous anti-Semitic hatred that was lurking within him.

Biographers state that Hitler was a mediocre student, receiving bad grades in physics, mathematics and German. His did better in art, but wasn’t that original. As a young man, he pursued his artistic career in Vienna for about six years. Some state that Hitler’s anti-Semitism grew out of his frustration that he wasn’t accepted to the prestigious Vienna Art Academy. They speculate that he may have blamed his failure on the Jews. Yet there’s evidence to the contrary as well.  Hitler continued to sell his art and make a living from the art sales, supplemented by funds from his family.  Interestingly, as Raul Hilberg states, “Apparently, two of the dealers were Jews.” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 4).

WWII seems to have been a major turning point in Hitler life. Yet even then nobody could have guessed that this mediocre soldier would rise to absolute power—and wield destruction—throughout Europe. He was decorated the Iron Cross First Class during the war, but only the second or third time he was recommended for it: incidentally, by a Jew (Lieutenant Gutmann). At the end of the war, Hitler was gassed and spent time recuperating in a hospital. There he had time to contemplate what might have brought about the humiliating defeat of Germany. The company commander of the unit to which Hitler belonged in 1919 asked the question why Germany had lost the war. Hitler wrote down an answer that was to echo the major themes of Mein Kampf, his autobiographical treatise written in prison and published in 1925-26. He distinguished between an anti-Semitism based on reason, which would have staying power, and an anti-Semitism based on emotion, usually expressed in pogroms, which wouldn’t efface the Jews from the face of the Earth. (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 5)

So to return to our earlier question: why did Hitler target the Jews as the main scapegoat and object of his vitriol? He himself offers a direct answer to this question in Mein Kampf:

“The art of leadership,” Hitler states, “as displayed by really great popular leaders in all ages, consists in consolidating the attention of the people against a single adversary… Where there are various enemies… it will be necessary to block them all together as forming one solid front, so that the mass of followers in a popular movement may see only one common enemy against whom they have to fight. Such uniformity intensifies their belief in their own cause and strengthens their feeling of hostility towards the opponent” (Mein Kampf, 110).

This statement reflects the cold and calculated reasoning Hitler alluded to as early as the note of 1919.  He targeted the Jews as his scapegoats and victims for strategic reasons. Hitler’s explicit intent is to simplify the root of all social and economic problems to the Jews—outsiders in practically every European culture–and coalesce all forces and people against this common enemy. This choice isn’t primarily a matter of genuine emotion, nor only of a pathological, sick hatred. As for Stalin during the Great Terror, it’s primarily the product of an insatiable, malicious will to power. This ultimate answer–which boils down to evil for its own sake–could have never offered a satisfactory response to the question most often scribbled by victims on cell walls, in prisons, concentration camps and gulags, a question which still echoes to this day:  “Zachto—Why?

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory 

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Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism: Why the Jews?

arendt-hannah-the-origins-of-totalitarianism1Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (Part I): Why the Jews?

by Claudia Moscovici

Hailed as a classic by the Times Literary Supplement and ranked by Le Monde as one of the 100 best books of 20th century, Hannah Arendt’s monumental study, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), sketches a political philosophy of the rise of Nazism and Stalinism. In her discussion of the rise of the Nazi movement in particular, Arendt refutes previous explanations of the dissemination of anti-Semitism and its vicious culmination in the Holocaust.

She dismisses explanations of anti-Semitism that she considers “ahistorical,” which do not take into account how prejudices and discrimination against the Jews, occurring throughout the centuries, turned into the center of racist ideology for the Nazi movements.  To understand the historical difference between previous anti-Semitic tendencies and actions—even ones as severe and deadly as pogroms—and the Nazi extermination camps, Arendt describes the unique nature of totalitarian power.

In the first part of the book, Arendt refutes common misconceptions of anti-Semitism. Her arguments focus upon a central question: Why the Jews? How and why did the Jewish people throughout Europe come to be targeted for discrimination, abuse, mass deportation and extermination?

1. The rise in nationalism did not cause a corresponding rise in anti-Semitism in Europe

One common answer to this question explains the radical rise of anti-Semitism in Europe in terms of the rise in nationalist sentiments and its “xenophobic outbursts”. Arendt contends that just the opposite is true: modern anti-Semitism grew as nationalism declined throughout Europe. Nazi ideology, while making use of nationalist sentiments in its rhetoric, actually emphasized the international character of “race”. Hitler never hid the fact that his aim was to ensure the supremacy of the “Aryan” race in Europe and, if possible, throughout the world by subjugating and even eliminating “inferior races”. He turned prevalent feelings of national fervor, anti-Semitism and xenophobia into a transnational racial war.

2. The Jews were not randomly selected as Nazism’s main target and victims

Arendt goes on to refute another common misconception: namely, that the Nazi movement could have selected any other group as the main target of its hatred and abuse. After all, it did include other groups in its categories of “undesirables,” including the mentally handicapped, Gypsies and even the Poles (or the Slavs in general, whom Hitler planned to enslave if he had won the war).  But nobody can deny that the isolation and extermination of the Jews was Hitler’s—and, consequently, the Nazi movement’s—primary obsession. The Nazis pursued the mass deportations and extermination of Jews even at the cost of an economic loss and even after the battle of Stalingrad, when they began to lose the war. This is not, however, because the Jews are perpetual scapegoats and victims. “The theory that the Jews are always the scapegoat implies that the scapegoat might have been anyone else as well,” Arendt points out. “It upholds the perfect innocence of the victim, an innocence which insinuates not only that no evil was done but that nothing at all was done that might possibly have a connection with the issue at stake.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 5) So then why were the Jews targeted as the Nazi regimes primary enemies and targets?

3. The Jews were targeted by the Nazis not because of their vast influence, as was claimed by fascist movements, but because of their statelessness and powerlessness

Nazi propaganda held the Jews responsible for everything that went wrong—economic crises, Germany’s humiliation after the Treaty of Versailles, unemployment, etc. This implied that the Jews were a unified people that had an incredible political power. Hitler described his war against the Jews as a self-defense against a “Jewish conspiracy” to take over the world. Yet, Arendt maintains, the opposite holds true. “Anti-Semitism reached its climax when Jews had similarly lost their public functions and their influence, and were left with nothing but their wealth.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 4) Arendt plausibly argues that Jewish wealth without political power and social influence began to be seen as parasitical in nature. It stirred envy rather than respect and contempt rather than compassion: at least in people already inclined to finding scapegoats for their troubles.

4. Totalitarianism subjugates perfectly obedient people

No doubt, there’s a personal, quirky and irrational component to Hitler’s obsessive hatred of the Jewish people, which became part and parcel of his insatiable drive for power. Hitler justified his desire for total control not only of the German people, but also of Europe and eventually the world, in terms of “saving” the Aryan race from imminent contamination and eventual destruction by the Jews. Yet he targeted Jewish victims who not only had no desire to take over the world, but also who didn’t have the means to do it. In general, Arendt argues, the victims of totalitarian terror are selected because of their helplessness and innocence, not because of their power and culpability. The assault upon the Jewish people, she goes on to illustrate, was only the first step in a reign of terror of unprecedented proportions that would aim at nothing short of the destruction of ethical values and of human identity itself.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

https://literaturesalon.wordpress.com

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