In a village in Poland in 1942 you, as a member of a company of middle aged Germans soldiers, are raising your rifle at a crowd of women, children and the elderly. Your commander has given leave to any soldier not to take part in the massacre. Out of 500 soldiers only fifteen choose to opt out: three percent. Are you one of them?
Would I have been one of them? I can’t tell because I have not lived in German society between the Wars. And I am aware that, notwithstanding my freewill, I am a product of my personal history, and that must be strongly influenced by the culture in which I have lived. The best picture I have read of that culture is Sebastian Haffner’s memoirs: Defying Hitler (2000).His account takes us from his schooldays in WW1 to leaving Germany in 1933. Later he was to become a leading journalist. He returned to Germany in 1954 and died in 1999.
In trying to understand their criminal behaviour over three decades I first wondered whether the German nation had particular characteristics which drew them towards their acceptance of Nazi behaviour. Haffner reminds us that Bismarck described how German moral courage, never a strong characteristic, disappeared in front of authority: “insubordination (is) altogether impossible for the German military – whoever happens to be in power.” Elsewhere, Haffner refers to the German inability to recognise “the stink” of evil social activity. They might argue and debate the Nazi system but they were not capable of standing back and simply recognising the odour of evil.
In his later summary Haffner describes Germany, with all its historical fine qualities, as destroyed by nationalism. By nationalism he means an unrealistic attitude of conceit and admiration for anything German. This creates an unquestionable vanity which assumes that the state, whatever its condition happens to be, must be defended, promoted and obeyed. Those who stand back, reflect and question are disloyal and already slipping into treachery.
Against this background the day to day circumstances of Germany, following the first war, were extraordinary. The shock of losing the war destroyed, at least at that time, all the confidence built up over the centuries. The Treaty of Versailles was seen by many as a betrayal by civilian government of the courageous army. Ordered society was replaced by factions of the left and right, all was uncertainty and fear. Add to that gross hyperinflation of the currency and you have a society which needs a saviour. And Hitler was in the wings. His first, and popular, appearance was the “Beer Hall” putsch, followed by a period of prison. And in prison he started to write Mein Kampf.
This, and its second volume, set out his racist ideology which justified any actions which promoted Aryanism, including grabbing “living room”(Lebensraum) in countries to the east. It identified Jewry as an international plot to take over countries from within. It set out a program whereby the rights of the citizen were replaced by the aims of Nazism, leaving liberals in fear of critical comment even among their friends in case they were betrayed to the authorities.
And now I have to ask myself how I would have behaved as a German in the 1930s. Would I have stood up and publicly exposed the Nazi evils? I wouldn’t have been standing up for long. And I have family. Would I have gone along quietly trying to avoid any personal guilty actions? The German Catholic Church seems to have followed such a discretionary agenda, with some success. It was fortunate in that its numbers were so large that the Nazis did not dare to destroy it – although it was suspected that, once the war was won, it would have been outlawed.
I might have looked back through my life as a young German and seen my crippled, disordered country rescued by the Nazis, under an inspirational leader, and turned once again into a nation of consequence. While recognising the evil elements, might I have thought that this was a price that had to be paid: stability versus chaos? I think back to the 1930s and the Spanish Civil War, where many good people, including the then editor of the Catholic Herald, accepted that the bloody restoration of good order under Franco’s autocratic government was preferable to the uncontrolled chaos of a republican victory.
I hope I would have been a hero but I fear I might have failed the ultimate test. At the least I have come to understand how the ordinary, good, Germans of that generation would have shouted out Heil Hitler along with their comrades.