Omer Bartov. History and Memory. Volume 9, Issue 1/2. Fall 1997.
Recent research on the involvement of the German army in the Holocaust has begun to transform our understanding of the scope, course and context of the Nazi attempted genocide of the Jews. It also has some important implications for the study of the Third Reich, its historiography and the lacunae that can still be identified in the scholarship on the period.
In what follows I begin by briefly sketching out some of the distinguishing characteristics of the literature on the Wehrmacht in the early decades of the postwar period. I then discuss the important advances in the scholarship on this issue made between the late 1960s and the reunification of Germany and proceed to examine the most recent research on and interpretations of the Wehrmacht’s role in the Holocaust. Finally, I point out what is still missing from this growing body of scholarly work and suggest some ways of addressing these lacunae and enhancing our understanding.
Until the late 1960s the German army was generally presented in Germany and in much of the rest of the world as a professional organization that had fought a host of enemies with remarkable tenacity and skill and had little in common with the ideological world view and criminal policies of the Nazi regime. This view was disseminated by Wehrmacht veterans in postwar publications such as military formation chronicles and former generals’ memoirs, just as much as in popular fiction and film; it was also the official line of the West German government. German scholars rarely challenged the notion of the Wehrmacht’s “purity of arms” even as they gradually shifted toward a positive evaluation of the military-conservative opposition that had attempted to overthrow Hitler, allegedly due to the threat he posed to the army’s “shield of honor,” and more obviously because of the looming defeat by the Allies whose anticipated catastrophic consequences might have been somewhat diminished by doing away with the Nazi leadership. Western scholars generally accepted this view, not least because their perspective of the war was based on the manner in which it was fought in the West, where, with the possible exception of the very last months of the fighting, both sides adhered to some conventions of warfare that had long disappeared under torrents of blood and material devastation in the East.
The German soldier’s presentation as a professional fighter, untouched by or uninvolved in the crimes of the regime, was of course directly related to the context of domestic and international political circumstances immediately following the end of the war. Domestically, it seemed impossible to rebuild West German society without as narrow as possible a definition of the so-called Nazis and their accomplices. The idea that the Wehrmacht as such might have been a criminal organization was not only anathema to German public opinion, but would have implicated such vast portions of German society in Nazi criminality that one would have had either to declare a general amnesty (thereby legitimizing the notion of unpunished crimes) or to give up altogether the possibility of resurrecting some form of a German national entity. Considering that as many as twenty million Germans had passed through the ranks of the Wehrmacht at one point or another, neither of these options was realistic, especially in the face of a perceived Soviet threat and the rapid deterioration of international relations that swiftly led to the Cold War. Not only was it unthinkable to eliminate Germany as a nation, it also very quickly transpired that the hopes and expectations of some Nazi leaders and Wehrmacht generals in the last phases of the war, namely that Germany would be a crucial factor in a Western anti-Communist alliance, were to be realized within a few years after the collapse of the Third Reich.
The Nuremberg Trials and the attempted denazification of postwar Germany eventually served precisely this end, since in both cases the criminality of the regime and the extent of participation in crimes of war and genocide were defined in a manner that made possible the quick reemergence of the German state and society as somehow purged of the misdeeds of the past. If the initial purpose had been to punish and purge, the ultimate result was to acquit and cover up. One should point out that this was not merely a consequence of either the inability to imagine the horror of genocide and find the appropriate legal discourse for it or of cold political calculations; it also manifested the sheer meaninglessness of indicting a whole nation and therefore served to demonstrate humanity’s incapacity to confront the crime of modern genocide in a manner compatible with its scale and enormity and the range of agencies, professions and individuals that must perforce be complicit in it. Since 1945 we have witnessed many more cases of genocide whose makers were eventually welcomed back into the community of nations, not least because the evil they committed could never find appropriate retribution.
It should also be noted that the state of knowledge regarding the army’s involvement in Nazi crimes was not a function of any substantial lack in archival sources. Large quantities of German documents were taken to Britain and the United States after the war and later returned to Germany; much of the material eventually used by scholars had been available long before it was examined. What was lacking in those first two decades was scholarly interest, not evidence, as well as the more obvious limitations imposed on research by the vast amounts of material and the laborious process of its organization and categorization. At least as crucial, however, was the impact of certain interpretive concepts of Nazism specifically and methodological conventions about historical research more generally. This meant that during the reign of the paradigms of totalitarianism and fascism, scholars were often more interested in theory than in fact, and that with the emergence of social history, historians devoted little attention to the military. Consequently, the only scholars to examine army records were so-called “pure” military historians, whose interests lay more in tactics and strategy, command and logistics, than in ideology and criminality. Mainstream historians therefore tended to rely mainly on the memoirs of German generals and veterans’ accounts for the reconstruction of the soldiers’ experience in the war. And precisely because former soldiers understandably stressed their professionalism and denied any ideological or organizational links with the regime, they were viewed as objective and reliable sources. It took a generation of scholars more skeptical about the explanatory power of the old paradigms, less trustful of former soldiers and, not least, willing to Undermine the myths on which West German society was founded, to finally venture into the archives and begin to write the history of the Wehrmacht’s relationship with the Nazi regime.
German scholars such as Gerhard Ritter and Friedrich Meinecke, former Wehrmacht generals such as Heinz Guderian and Erich von Manstein, as well as Western military historians and former officers such as B. H. Liddell Hart and J. F. C. Fuller, and scholars such as Gordon Craig and John Wheeler-Bennett all stressed the vast distance between the “old” officer corps and the upstart Nazis and found it unthinkable that such respectable and “correct,” if perhaps conservative and even reactionary, officers and gentlemen could have condoned, let alone organized, a criminal war and unprecedented genocide. There were, to be sure, some rotten apples, who were justly condemned at Nuremberg; but by and large, it was argued, they were unrepresentative of the whole. Soviet claims that the Wehrmacht had engaged in genocidal war in the East were—with some reason—dismissed as communist propaganda. Western generals by and large preferred to think of the war they had fought as chivalrous, and of the enemy as worthy of the fight. And military historians, as indeed much of the public, were more interested in the heroic exploits encapsulated in such popular novels and films as The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far than in the horrors of genocidal war.
All this began to change thanks in large part to the efforts of a few outstanding and courageous German scholars, some of whom belonged to an important German research institute closely linked to the West German Ministry of the Interior and the Bundeswehr, which eventually produced a massive study, as yet still uncompleted, of the Wehrmacht in World War II. Complemented by works written outside of Germany, this important body of literature is thus the outcome of a joint, and often contentious and controversial, effort by historians of several nations working over a span of some three decades who have, by the early 1990s, succeeded in drastically changing our understanding of the Wehrmacht’s role in the Third Reich.
The publication in 1965 of the two-volume work Anatomie des SS States, which included an important analysis by Hans-Adolf Jacobsen of the so-called Commissar Order (the instruction to kill on the spot all political officers attached to Red Army units captured by the Wehrmacht), heralded the beginning of scholarly writings on the criminal activities of the Wehrmacht during its campaign in the Soviet Union. This was followed in 1969 by a comprehensive study of the policies of ideological indoctrination in the Wehrmacht written by Manfred Messerschmidt, a path-breaking work on the maltreatment and murder of Soviet prisoners of war by Christian Streit, published in 1978, and a thorough investigation of the collaboration between the Einsatzgruppen, the death squads of the SS and SD, and the Wehrmacht by Helmut Krausnick and Hans-Heinrich Wilhelm, which appeared in 1981. Along with several other studies such as Volker Berghahn’s comprehensive article on “educational officers” and Klaus-Jürgen Müller’s analysis of the army’s relationship with the Nazi state, these works established a new standard for the examination of the role of the Wehrmacht in the planning and execution of Hitler’s policies in the East. Moreover, since 1979 the Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt (Institute for Military History) in Freiburg (recently moved to Potsdam) has been publishing a massive series of volumes on the Third Reich and World War II. These tomes, and especially Volume 4 published in 1983, written by such leading German scholars in the field as Jürgen FÖrster, Bernhard Kroener, Rolf-Dieter Müller, Wilhelm Deist and Gerd Ueberschär, have vastly expanded our knowledge of the Wehrmacht and its links with the regime’s policies. Put together, this literature has had a major and lasting effect on the scholarship on the Third Reich and has become a sine qua non for any future research on the period, superseding older works by non-German scholars such as Alexander Dallin and Robert O’Neill. The enormous archival ground work on which these studies were based swept aside many of the conventional assumptions on the Wehrmacht. Among them, and most important to the present context, was the idea of the army’s professionalism and ideological detachment.
What the works cited here demonstrated was that, contrary to previous assertions, the Wehrmacht had come under the influence of the regime from very early on and remained a major tool in the implementation of Nazi policies until the very end of the war. This was expressed in the Wehrmacht command’s willingness, if not eagerness, to subject the troops to substantial ideological training; in its participation in the planning and brutal execution of conquest and occupation on a vast scale; and in its central role in doing away with conventional rules and regulations of warfare, all of which deeply implicated it in the war of destruction and subjugation conducted by Germany in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Such revelations, though anchored in a mass of documentation, were not immediately or easily accepted in Germany. Indeed, one characteristic of these publications was that they were repeatedly greeted in the media and by the public with expressions of astonishment and disbelief, horror and rage. As even some of the most recent debates on the Wehrmacht, to be discussed below, have indicated, the views expressed by these historians are still encountering a great deal of public resistance, although by now most scholars tend to accept them. The political impact of these works is of course immense, since they not only call for a profound reevaluation of the meaning and implications of the Nazi regime for German society during and after the war, they also discredit some of the most dearly held assumptions on the ability of postwar Germany to “come to terms” with its past.
Nevertheless, this body of scholarship suffers from several serious limitations. Employing a rather traditional methodology, these historians have mainly focused on the upper echelons of the military and the regime, have emphasized matters of higher policy and decision making and have shown a distinct reluctance to identify the links between the penetration of Nazi ideology into the Wehrmacht, its criminal conduct vis-à-vis the local population and enemy soldiers especially in the East, and the planning and implementation of the Holocaust. As will be noted in the next section, the connections between the Wehrmacht and the genocide of the Jews have only recently begun to receive appropriate scrutiny by historians. For the moment, however, let me first discuss a few more studies, mainly by non-German scholars, which have complemented and enriched the existing scholarship by concentrating on a “view from below” of the Wehrmacht, that is, on the manner in which the rank and file of the army behaved during the war, were influenced by the ideology of the regime and the views of their immediate superiors, and ultimately perceived their own actions at the front.
Studies of soldiers, rather than generals, were motivated both by developments in historical research and by the increasingly obvious limits of earlier work on the Wehrmacht. The new trend among historians in the 1970s and 1980s to “lower their gaze” and examine the everyday lives of “ordinary” people, rather than focus on either high politics or anonymous structures and mechanisms, was reflected in attempts to write an “Alltagsgeschichte” of the Wehrmacht somewhat akin to works being written at the time on German civilian society. Similarly, the spate of “local histories” that strove to gain more insight into social and political changes by focusing in depth on a limited community was reflected in studies of discrete military units. At the same time these studies tried to test the assertions of scholars writing about the top echelons, according to which the efforts to indoctrinate the troops were largely unsuccessful and the criminal orders issued by the high command rarely reached the units on the ground. Ironically, therefore, the very same historians who had documented the involvement of the Wehrmacht in Nazi policies were unwilling to go so far as to concede that the soldiers were actually influenced by their generals’ decision to implement the policies of conquest and genocide dictated by the regime and to legitimize them by employing Nazi ideological arguments. Instead, they assumed that the troops were far more preoccupied with their own survival and accepted at face value the apologetic postwar argument by field commanders that they had refused to hand down to the soldiers such orders as the Kommissarbefehl of which they claimed to have strongly disapproved. Thus the new studies that focused on the lower echelons were consciously aimed at investigating the extent to which the troops were both influenced by ideological arguments and received and carried out the criminal orders of the regime and the army high command.
Works in this vein began appearing in the mid-1980s, but more than ten years later one can say that there is still a great deal of research to be done in this area. Earlier works by Theo Schulte and myself have more recently been followed by Stephen Fritz’s and Thomas Kühne’s studies. Despite the rather meager scholarship on the everyday life of the troops, these scholars both tend to debate each other’s conclusions and have met with a fair amount of criticism from other quarters. Nevertheless, some of the more fundamental findings of these studies seem to have gained acceptance within the larger academic community. Among those most relevant to the present context is, first, that the soldiers were indeed exposed to a massive indoctrinational effort by the military authorities. Second, that especially as regards ideological teachings that had already been disseminated among German youth prior to their conscription in school, the Hitler Youth and the Labor Service, and which corresponded to preexisting prejudices in German society, the concerted propaganda aimed at the troops was largely successful in molding the men’s views on the supreme quality of their political leadership, the inhuman character of the enemy, the ruthless manner in which fighting should be conducted, and the catastrophic consequences of defeat. Third, that under the combined influence of a dehumanizing ideology and a brutal war the troops of the Wehrmacht were involved in widespread crimes against enemy soldiers and the civilian population, acting both on orders by their superiors and in many instances also on their own initiative, even when such actions were explicitly forbidden by their commanders. All these factors put together led to what I have called the “barbarization of warfare” on the Eastern Front which resulted in the devastation of vast tracts of land, especially in the occupied parts of the Soviet Union, and caused the deaths of millions of civilians and POWs whether by outright murder or from starvation, epidemics, exposure to the elements and economic exploitation. In other words, both from the perspective of the generals and from that of the troops on the ground, the campaign in the East was conducted as a war of annihilation.
Taken as a whole, the scholarly study of the Wehrmacht and its relationship with the Third Reich, Nazi ideology and the policies of conquest, subjugation and annihilation pursued by the regime has made major strides in the past thirty, years. However, one crucial area has been sorely neglected until very recently, namely, the role of the army in the genocide of the Jews. This was partly caused by disciplinary compart-mentalization, whereby military historians studied issues deemed relevant to war and occupation, to which genocide did not seem to belong, while historians of the Holocaust refrained from studying the Wehrmacht and focused either on the agencies directly involved in organizing genocide or on the victims. Partly, this was a result of ideological and national biases, which in the German case meant that one found it exceedingly difficult to associate the Wehrmacht—for a long time after the war seen as the organization least contaminated by the Nazis and most representative of the common folk—with the Holocaust—recognized as the very worst of the many crimes committed by the Third Reich. Still another reason for this neglect was the realization of the implications that the potential findings of such research would have for the understanding of postwar German society, let alone for the many veterans and their relatives whose numbers have begun dwindling only in recent years. If the argument that the Wehrmacht’s soldiers were involved in war crimes was already explosive and has indeed met with a great deal of resistance in Germany, associating the army with the Holocaust is far more disturbing. After all, the argument could have, and indeed has, been made that there was nothing unique about the involvement of German troops in wanton destruction, looting, exploitation and murder; war is hell, and nothing better could be expected of soldiers fighting in such terrible conditions as on the Eastern Front. The fact is that even those who rejected this position, such as myself, have written on the barbarization of warfare from the perspective of the troops and within the context of a horrendous war, which somehow made the narrative more palatable by making for a certain empathy with the soldiers themselves. The Holocaust, however, has commonly been presented as separate from the war (even if genocide on this scale could only have been practiced within its context), and its perpetrators were seen as separate from the soldiers. Associating the two therefore threatens to undermine the last defensive barrier of the Wehrmacht’s remarkably solid postwar fortifications. Precisely because in Germany the Holocaust was seen as the epitome of evil, it had to be ascribed to perpetrators kept rigidly apart from the rest of the population; linking it with the Wehrmacht therefore opens the floodgates and erases all distinctions, for the army included (virtually) everyone, and the survivors of the war became the founders of the two postwar Germanys. No wonder that this has always been perceived as a most threatening exercise.
In the mid-1980s, just a few years before reunification, the German academic community and much of the more respectable media were shaken by a controversy over the uniqueness of the Holocaust and the manner in which the history of the Nazi regime should be contextualized in the creation of a new German national identity. The Historikerstreit, as it came to be called, is relevant to the present discussion for two main reasons. First, because it concerned the effort by some German scholars to “normalize” the single most horrible undertaking of the Third Reich, the Holocaust, by linking it to other cases of genocide carried out by other states at other times in history. Second, because it included an attempt to present the German army’s war in the East as a desperate struggle against an invading Bolshevik-Asiatic enemy who threatened to destroy not only Germany but the rest of Western civilization. Hence the “revisionists” of the Historikerstreit were interested neither in denying the Holocaust nor in refuting claims about the barbarous manner in which the war in the East was conducted by the Wehrmacht, but rather in relativizing them both as “unoriginal” and as “necessary” because genocide had been originated by the very same regime whose alleged genocidal intentions had made fighting a barbarous war necessary, namely, the Bolsheviks.
As several critics of the historians’ controversy noted at the time, the Historikerstreit introduced no new evidence, nor any original interpretations, but was a political and ideological debate over the sense and meaning of the past and the manner in which it should (be allowed to) influence the present. In one sense, it was a rearguard action by conservative historians at a time when a growing number of scholarly works indicated that the Nazi period could neither be confined to a socalled criminal clique nor traced back to foreign origins, nor indeed be presented as a reaction to even greater dangers. And yet, although the “revisionists” themselves have been largely discredited, the sensibilities they reflected have not gone away, indeed, have surfaced repeatedly since then in reaction of works the Nazi and in the to a new wave on era context of a newly unified Germany.
One such case has been a controversial and unique exhibition that has been circulating in Germany and Austria for the last couple of years, provoking a flood of media reports, political pronouncements and academic responses. The exhibition, entitled Vernichtungskrieg: Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941 bis 1944 (War of Annihilation: Crimes of the Wehrmacht, 1941-1944), is the first public display of documents and photographs collected in German archives, and especially in the archives of the former Soviet Union and other East European states formerly under communist domination, concerning the criminal conduct of German soldiers in the East during World War II. What has been most shocking to many German visitors and commentators has been the clear evidence that the Wehrmacht was deeply involved not “only” in killing POWs and partisans or in carrying out large-scale operations of collective punishment against civilians, but also, in a direct and massive manner, in the implementation of the Final Solution. The exhibition, organized by Hannes Heer and Klaus Naumann of the Hamburg Institut für Sozialforschung and accompanied by an important collection of essays edited by the organizers and written by leading scholars in the field, unleashed a public debate over the extent to which the Wehrmacht could indeed be called a criminal organization, a designation that had previously been eschewed by most scholars ever since the Nuremberg Trials, where only the SS was seen as worthy of that title.
Among the many reactions to the exhibition (which some cities in Germany refused to host and which met with especially strong opposition in Bavaria and Austria) was a series of articles in the influential weekly Die Zeit, subsequently published in a special issue under the title Gerhorsam bis zum Mord? Der verschwiegene Krieg der deutschen Wehrmacht (Obedience to Murder? The Hidden War of the German Wehrmacht). Clearly, the argument of the exhibition touched a raw nerve, for here one could no longer speak of excesses by individuals or a few criminal generals, nor about SS atrocities or crimes committed “behind the back of the fighting troops,” since the evidence was there for all to see: photographs taken by the soldiers themselves of massacres, hangings and torture, documents directing military units to murder Jewish communities, clear indications of the close collaboration between the SS and the regular army. Moreover, an important article by one of the organizers, Hannes Heer, presented previously unknown documents taken from newly opened archives, showing the process whereby Wehrmacht units had become directly involved in genocide. Heer’s findings were obviously only the tip of the iceberg and indicated that further research in formerly inaccessible archives would possibly lead to far more information on this dark episode in the Wehrmacht’s history. Once more, the conventions of scholarship on the army’s involvement in Nazi policies were shaken, and many old assumptions had to be revised.
Indeed, even before the storm over the exhibition had receded, Germany found itself embroiled in an even bigger and more disturbing controversy. The book that caused the row, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, is only marginally relevant to this article. But the debate in Germany is highly revealing and tells us a great deal about the difficulties Germans still face in relating the Holocaust to actual flesh-and-blood killers rather than to anonymous forces or evil leaders. For whatever the faults of the book in question (and they are many), it shows in no uncertain terms the involvement of middle-aged German men, not distinguished by either ideological fervor or political affiliation, in the brutal torture and murder of thousands of Jews in face-to-face situations which, at least initially, they could have in fact chosen to avoid. If the book is written with a great deal of passion and rage (which does not add to its argument but has increased its appeal to readers), reactions in Germany were also passionate and often ill-considered. Although the killers with whom Goldhagen is concerned were not soldiers, they in many ways resembled the type of reservists one would have encountered in any number of regular army units. That they apparently not only willingly killed Jews but also enjoyed their “work” was highly unsettling to a public grown used to far more detached interpretations of that past and to explanatory models which kept the horror and gore at bay.
The storm over Goldhagen’s book is thus related to the general reluctance to accept the involvement of regular army soldiers in the Holocaust. Since the men of the reserve police battalions greatly resembled the so-called “sober” army reservists who were said to have been mainly concerned with their own survival, one could assume that the latter might just as readily part in, pleasure have taken and derived from, the mass murder of men, women and children. This would in turn mean that millions of Germans who came back from the war in 1945 could have well been, at one time or another in their military career, “willing executioners.” To be sure, this vision of a postwar Germany inhabited by innumerable killers contradicts Goldhagen’s more comforting assertion that the Germans had miraculously been transformed after 1945 or 1949 and no longer harbored the anti-Semitic sentiments he believes were the main motivation for the Holocaust. But this is only one of the many contradictions in a work whose main importance and interest lies in its reception rather than in its inherent value as a scholarly study.
Just as the storm over Goldhagen’s book seems to be ebbing (though it is has now begun in France and Italy with the recent publication of the book in those countries), another revelation promises to fuel the debate over the Wehrmacht and further clarify the links between the case of the police battalions and the criminal activities of the regular soldiers. Recent reports inform us that some 1.3 million pages of cables sent by German murder squads in summer 1941, which were intercepted and decoded by British signals intelligence but have only now been declassified by the United States National Security Agency, clearly show that not only SS and police units but also regular army formations were involved in mass killings of Jews from the very first days of “Barbarossa,” the German invasion of the Soviet Union launched on 22 June 1941. Although much of this has been known before, these documents provide more details on the beginning of the Holocaust and the apparently universal participation of German agencies on the ground in its implementation. Quite apart from raising questions about Allied reactions to mass killings, since contrary to their subsequent assertions of ignorance they now appear to have had the information right at their fingertips, these cables are certain to ignite another debate over the participation of the fighting troops—the professional soldiers—in genocide. Moreover, it has also been reported that the Russian government has handed some 15,000 documents of its own to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which include information collected by Russian agents behind the lines, translations of German documents, and eyewitness accounts compiled by the Soviet War Crimes Commission at the end of the war. All of this, along with an unknown number of documents still being unearthed in Russian and East European archives, is certain to significantly enhance our knowledge on this period and seems to point in the direction of far more killers and accomplices, and higher numbers of victims, than had been previously estimated, not least due to the direct involvement of the Wehrmacht in the killing. There may of course still be room to debate the question of whether the Wehrmacht as such was a criminal, indeed a genocidal, organization; but its participation in genocide on a grand scale seems no longer in doubt.
The Soldiers’ Victims
For all the progress made in the scholarship of the Wehrmacht, its historiography still suffers from one major lacuna, which in turn reflects a more general problem in the historiography of the Holocaust, namely, the interaction between perpetrators and victims. As we have seen, the first step toward contending with this hiatus, that of recognizing the role of the army in genocide, has been made, although the scholarship on this issue is still in its infancy. Thus, for instance, the mammoth ongoing publication Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, despite its immense contribution to our knowledge of the Third Reich during World War II, has refrained from devoting even a single chapter to the involvement of the Wehrmacht in the murder of the Jews. Indeed, since the institute charged with its production, the Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, was moved from Freiburg to Potsdam in the wake of German reunification, it seems to have been undergoing a quiet conservative transformation, with the result that the vision of its former academic director, Manfred Messerschmidt, to produce a social history of the military, may well be eroded, and future publications be devoted to traditional, “pure” military history reminiscent of such works written in the pre-1914 and interwar periods. Nevertheless, as more and more evidence becomes available, it will be impossible in the long run to avoid writing on the Wehrmacht’s role in genocide. The problem that remains to be resolved, therefore, is not one of documentation, but rather, just as was the case in the early postwar decades, a problem of perception, methodology and political, ideological or national bias. For the all too rigid separation between works on the perpetrators and works on the victims, which afflicts much of the scholarship on the Holocaust, reflects the limitations of the historians writing on the event much more than the limits of sources, understanding and representation. It is to this issue that I turn in this final section.
If the perpetrators made no distinctions between their victims, but rather wished to see them as a gray, faceless mass of (sub)humanity, most of the victims were not in a position to distinguish between the various affiliations of their persecutors. The killers deprived their victims of any specific identity by designating them all as “Jews,” a term which meant that they were targeted for extinction. The victims spoke of their persecutors as “Germans,” whether they were regular soldiers or SS men, Gestapo agents or civilian administrators, a term which meant that they were all potential murderers. But it is the task of the historian to do away with these generalizing categories which, as the case of the Holocaust so clearly demonstrates, begin by erasing individual identity and thereby create the preconditions for annihilating vast, anonymous masses of human beings. German historians, among them historians of the Wehrmacht, have done a great deal to make finer distinctions between the various categories of Germans involved or not involved in the genocide of the Jews. But they have done very little to investigate the victims; rather, they refer to them as the perpetrators did, namely, as “Jews,” a term seen as synonymous with “victims.” And yet, when writing the history of any historical event, including genocide, as well as the specific case of the German army’s involvement in the Holocaust, it is just as important to include the perspective of the victims. On the face of it, a history of the genocide based on the documents of the perpetrators may appear to be more reliable than one using accounts and memoirs by survivors; for while the former cites official documentation found in respectable archives, the latter employs “subjective” evidence that lacks any official sanction. But such a history perforce creates a false picture of the event and thereby distorts our understanding. If we sec the victims only through the killers’ eyes, we become necessarily complicit in their dehumanization; not only do we learn very little about the victims’ experience (which was of little concern to the perpetrators), we also gain only limited knowledge of the perpetrators’ own conduct, since we must take their word for it rather than view it also from the perspective of those on the “receiving end.” Indeed, it is precisely because the victims’ perspective has generally been eschewed by German historians off the Holocaust, just as much as by historians of the Wehrmacht, that an array of misunderstandings and misperceptions has corec into being. For as long as we view the soldiers’ actions only through their own eyes, we are bound to perceive their victims merely as the products of the “process” we wish to explain rather than as protagonists of equal importance and relevance to the historical event we claim to be reconstructing.
The Wehrmacht used an array of euphemisms to describe its victims. This, of course, reveals a certain sense of embarrassment, or at least worry, on the part of superiors about their soldiers’ reactions to the killing of innocent men, women and children. At the same time, however, it appears that soldiers accepted and employed these euphemisms as they went about their “work” of widespread killing. But one would like to know much more about actual encounters between soldiers and those they killed, and that makes it necessary to investigate the other side as well. Who were these so-called Bolsheviks and enemy agents, partisans and guerrillas, Asiatics and Untermenschen, Mongols and Jews? To be sure, it was easier to shoot women and children if one designated them as enemy agents, less disturbing to wipe out whole villages if one called them partisan nests, seemingly self-evident to murder commissars if one claimed they were Jews. Yet the historian may employ these same euphemisms only when constructing the soldiers’ perspective, and even in that case one assumes that not all soldiers failed to see through them and recognize the humanity of their victims. When reconstructing the event as a whole, one must also include the victims’ perspective; without doing so, historians cannot fully grasp the meaning and nature of that which they have set out to explain.
There is nothing remarkable, of course, about empathizing with more than one group of protagonists when writing on a given historical event. And yet, especially when writing one’s own national history, this is often a difficult exercise, which calls for both greater detachment and keener sensibilities, let alone more specialized knowledge of peoples and cultures with which one may initially be less familiar. What is called for is not a sense of pity or compassion for victims about whose normal, previctimized existence one is largely ignorant, for both the existence and the disappearance of abstract beings can elicit very little historical understanding. Difficult as it may be, what is needed is to familiarize oneself with the victims as ordinary human beings, not as an exotic and now extinct species, who led lives not markedly dissimilar to one’s own. And it is just as important (but also more common in recent German historiography) not merely to condemn the perpetrators for their actions, but also to uncover their pre-perpetrator existence and view them, once more, as people not fundamentally different from oneself. For the historian needs to recognize that only a fine line distinguishes between us and the perpetrators, and between us and the victims; it is precisely this fine line that needs to be identified and explained, rather than any abyss that makes for simple distinctions.
What has distinguished German scholarship on the Holocaust in general, and on the Wehrmacht in particular, is therefore its lack of interest in the victims. Conversely, German scholars of the Third Reich have concentrated on two major interpretive modes, both of which make for pronounced detachment between them and the victims. The first is the grand explanatory models of the Holocaust, and most especially the so-called functionalist school and its more recent revisions and rearticulations. These are works that seek to identify a process whereby certain administrative and bureaucratic, as well as at times political and ideological mechanisms ultimately led to genocide. Reading such scholars as Hans Mommsen, Martin Broszat, GÖtz Aly and Ulrich Herbert, we rarely encounter victims; when victims are mentioned, they appear only as represented by the perpetrators, as threatening imaginary figures or as dry statistics, as administrative abstractions or as ideological constructs. They rarely make an appearance as normal, ordinary human beings. To be sure, one may argue that the victims are not necessary to explain the process that led to their destruction, but to my mind this contention must be rejected since the destruction cannot be explained without being represented, and it cannot be represented without the testimony of the victims. If we wish to understand the psychology of the perpetrators, we must see both what they saw and how they were seen in turn by their victims; not in separate bodies of literature on victims and perpetrators, but in the very same account of an event that contained both types at the same place and time. We must not allow the distinctions that made for genocide determine our historical reconstruction of it. For ultimately, people’s self-perception is derived from the manner in which they and their environment interact with each other. We have no right to eliminate the gaze of the victim.
The other explanatory mode of German scholarship is almost the direct opposite of the first, namely that of Alltagsgeschichte, exemplified in such works as Martin Broszat’s Bavaria project and an array of studies published in the 1970s and 1980s. This mode is also related to biographical portraits and accounts, ranging from Joachim Fest’s Hitler (and the subsequent film) and The Face of the Third Reich to Ulrich Herbert’s intellectual biography of Werner Best. Here we have attempts to understand individuals rather than systems, to see ideology in context rather than as an abstract entity, to unravel the complexities of human psychology rather than of doctrine and structure. Yet all these works suffer from precisely the same absence of the victims. Complexity and ambiguity, identity and personality, are given only to the German perpetrators and bystanders, resisters and collaborators. The other side, those who were in fact either saved or killed due to those attitudes, receive very little attention and hardly any analysis. This is a void noticed not only by outside observers, I believe, but also by the lay German public, and perhaps most of all by the younger generation. Hence, perhaps, one reason for the tremendous public attention given to both Victor Klemperer’s recently published diary and, indeed, to Goldhagen’s above-mentioned book. For what distinguishes Klemperer’s diary from the bulk of German scholarly works on the Holocaust and the Nazi period is that it is an Alltagsgeschichte written from the perspective of the victim, who was simultaneously an insider, a patriotic, conservative, well-educated and Christian German, who was declared a Jew by the regime and employed his great powers of observation to analyze the transformation of German society day by day during all twelve years of Hitler’s rule. Through his eyes another kind of Germany is seen; that is, through his gaze we gain an understanding of the everyday life of the bystanders and perpetrators, victims and their helpers, that we could not have grasped merely by reference to the testimonies of “ordinary” Germans. And since Klemperer was concerned with understanding the gaze of German society at him, he offers us an unprecedented view of the complex relationship between victim and victimizer, which is always, by definition, reciprocal, since neither can exist without the other.
Similarly, Goldhagen’s book, though ostensibly an analysis of the perpetrators, is the only such study that demands and elicits direct and immediate empathy for the victims, by means of its rhetoric, through its obsession and fascination with horror and the resulting kitsch that fills its pages, and by dint of the author’s voyeuristic fantasies of the victims’ sufferings and the perpetrators’ pleasure at causing and observing them. In this sense, this book is related to the spate of quasi-pornographic films on the Holocaust made in the 1970s and 1980s, but it differs from them both by being a scholarly study and by its unrelenting accusatory tone which instills a certain sense of moral comfort in the reader not offered by those earlier cinematic works of fiction on Nazi depravity. Hence, Goldhagen’s detailed (and only partially documented) descriptions of the killings evoke in readers emotions and thoughts that the conventional historical literature fails to stimulate, including, for instance, Christopher Browning’s earlier study of the very same perpetrators, not least because of the latter’s conscious detachment and intentional separation between victims and perpetrators.
This is also true regarding studies of the victims, which are always in danger of representing the perpetrators as not quite belonging to the human race and tend to portray them as evil shadows all cast in the same shape and form. By and large, however, this tendency is more present in survivors’ memoirs than in recent scholarship on the victims and is of course part and parcel of more popular forms of representation, dependent as they are on stark polarities between good and evil. Both in the case of memoirs and in that of popular representation, this is a way of coming to terms with disaster, since only by a sharp distinction between humanity and its murderers can one acquit both civilization and “Man” of the responsibility for murder and thereby continue to exist in the world as a member of the human race; but it is an exercise in selfdelusion that leads away from understanding. The victim too can ultimately be understood only through the relationship with the perpetrator. This is an insight we owe to some of the most remarkable memoirs of survivors, but one that is sorely lacking in German scholarship on the Nazi period.
Returning from this vantage point to the specific case of the Wehrmacht, we can conclude that in order to gain an understanding of the process whereby “ordinary” German soldiers came to practice genocide we must also know more about the interaction between them and their victims. This can and should be done also by German scholars writing today on the Wehrmacht. To be sure, there are now works in progress on the Holocaust by young German historians, but they seem still to be mainly about the bureaucracy and organization of genocide, not about the manner in which the victims experienced it. There is a crucial difference between writing on the concentration camps’ administration and on their inmates, between analyzing the system and trying to comprehend how it translated into reality for those subjected to it. German scholarship has been primarily engaged with the complexity of the emergence of genocide, on the one hand, and with the suffering (or normality) of German soldiers and civilians, on the other. It is time for it to engage no less with the complex mechanism that created widespread complicity in, and even greater indifference to, genocide in German society and the military, as well as with the very real, everyday suffering of the victims. In other words, detachment and empathy could and should be reversed, to the benefit of scholarly understanding of the past and scholarly cooperation in the present.
Hypothetically it is not hard to imagine a work of scholarship written in Germany that would encompass both perspectives, that of victimizers and that of their victims, that would, so to speak, provide both ends of the process. This would eliminate much of the talk about who is to feel more empathy for whom, or who should identify with which group. For the task of the historian is to achieve empathy with the protagonists of the event he or she is writing on; and in the case of genocide, just as in any other historical event, there are always (at least) two sides. True Verstehen, as I see it, can be achieved only by empathy with the other, not through mere pity or shame, guilt or rage, but through learning, study and an effort at understanding. This could be the first step toward reconciliation in the true sense of the word, based on seeing the world through the eyes of those whose humanity had been denied them even before they were turned into ashes.