A well-known (some would argue cliché at this point, but it’s eternally apt) phrase, coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt when describing the horrors of Nazi Germany — and in particular, the phrase was applied to Adolph Eichmann, one of the main architects behind the Holocaust — is the “banality of evil.” That is, the ways in which the machinations of terror and genocide become as routine as pushing paper; where evil becomes the wallpaper to daily living in a modern, Western society; where those who perpetrated unspeakable tragedies went back home to their wives, children and pets, somehow separating the two; and where the banality is turning the machinery of death into a bureaucracy.
Let me humbly proffer another way of thinking about the horrors of Nazi Germany after reading the German historian Volker Ullrich’s 2021 book, Eight Days in May: The Final Collapse of the Third Reich: the propensity to parry. That is, in the immediate — by immediate, I mean that as literal as I can, as Ullrich’s book almost gave me whiplash in describing just how quickly “normal” life began to resume in cities hollowed out by bombs and depravity — wake of the Third Reich’s collapse, which as with most things, was foresaw months ahead of time with the advancement of American, British and Canadian troops from the west and the Red Army from the East, and particularly pronounced after Adolph Hitler’s cowardly suicide (the rare time those two words can be put together) on April 30, 1945, was how seemingly everyone in German society, from the Nazi elites to the regular German citizenry, parried away any suggestion of culpability with or for the horrors of National Socialism, as if Hitler had been conjured out of thin air and disappeared as suddenly. After all, as Ullrich pointed out, it simply wasn’t the case that the German people were able to rid themselves of Hitler; that had to happen externally. That parrying manifested in outright denial, pretending as if you were secretly helping Jews all along, or a general sense of apathy (“Please don’t detail the horrors of the Holocaust in the newspapers.” (that’s my own summation)), or worse yet, the ways in which many of the Nazi elite and sympathizers were able to either evade justice with light-to-no prison time and/or resume operating in polite society again as if the prior 12 years of the Reich’s hoped-for thousand-year reign had never happened.
It’s appalling, quite frankly, and Ullrich isn’t without words to describe the ways in which the German populace tried to turn its head from reality. However, while I’m coming out strong, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remark upon how the book offers some room for optimism in this regard. As Ullrich notes at the end, the story of Germany in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Third Reich was that of a military defeat and collapse so complete, “its physical destruction so vast, and its crime so unprecedented that more than a few contemporary observers doubted whether this vanquished nation could have any future at all.”
The fact that Germany would go on to have a future in rather short order relative to historical time, no less, is rather remarkable. Ullrich calls the end of the Third Reich an “end,” but also a “beginning,” He provides a quote from centrist politician Hildegard Hamm-Brücher saying “never again would she feel so intensely what it meant to be allowed to live on.” Because that’s the other thing worth remembering: Yes, the vast majority of German peoples and even some contingents in the occupied countries of Denmark, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere who collaborated with the Nazis, lacked a “general sense of self-blame,” as Ullrich refers to it, but also, within Germany, occupied countries and the expatriates who fled Germany, this was a new beginning for them.
One of the parts of the book that made me tear up was when Canadian troops liberated the Netherlands, an 18-year-old Jewish woman, Cary Ulreich, remarked, “Drank half a glass of vermouth. Went to bed at 12:30, but at 2:30, we still hadn’t fallen asleep. How we talked, and how loudly! We’re allowed to do that now. Joy, happiness, gratitude that we escaped with our lives.”
They can do that now! So beautiful and lovely. The human spirit is a heck of a thing, folks. It sounds sappy and cliché, but the fact that the human spirit can endure the horrors of Nazi occupation for a number of years and come out the other side, not unscathed of course, but still vibrant? So beautiful.
In a contrast to the vibrancy of hope in the human spirit is the abject cowardice and delusions in abundance in the finals days of the Third Reich. After Hitler kills himself and his high-ranking associates flee his bunker in the hopes of seeking passage elsewhere, the only image that came to mind was that of cockroaches scurrying away from the dawning of a new light. As it happens, too many for my comfort were able to scurry away, whether by offing themselves before capture (or even after capture), getting to South American countries, or just simply blending back into polite society.
Speaking of contrast, reading the book is impossible without thinking about the context of the Cold War to come between the United States and the Soviet Union. The contrast between the Nazis’ abject fear of the Red Army approaching from the East and willing to do virtually anything, and eventually surrendering, to American and British forces in the West, is stark. They were terrified of the Red Army and for good reason.
One can’t speak of WWII without stepping into tragedy after tragedy and horror after horror and one of those is how much pillaging and raping occurred once the Red Army did take over previously occupied German countries and cities in Germany. An unspeakable number of German women were raped, sometimes multiple times. The depravity shown by the Germans, particularly at Stalingrad, does not then justify what the Red Army did to civilians in Germany.
Something I marveled at while reading Ullrich’s book, and which reflects what I’ve previously written about regarding embracing my ignorance, is that despite how ubiquitous the teachings of WWII are, there is still so much I don’t know, as revealed by this book.
For one, I never knew about the, for lack of a better word, unfortunate, handling of recently liberated Jews from the concentration camps by the Americans. That is, the Jews were lumped in with everyone else instead of being recognized for the particular horror they had went through and that merely replacing the guards from Nazi to American wasn’t enough. Fortunately, American officials recognized how awful this was and separated the Jews out and allowed those within the camps to be the leaders.
Another thing I never really put much of any thought to is the issue of displaced persons, as they were called at the time. That is, millions of foreign peoples brought to Germany to be slave labor and to be what essentially enabled the gears of the Holocaust and Germany’s improbable two-front war to continue apace. Once Germany surrendered, the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union had to deal with the repatriation of those millions of people, which actually was quite the logistical success for the Western countries, not so much for the Soviet Union, who treated DPs rather horribly it seems.
A welcome addition to my thinking about WWII is the role Ullrich supplies throughout the book women played, whether as war correspondents, or just their voices in the wake of the Third Reich’s collapse. I appreciated that, but also, I wish I had known about American reporter, Lee Miller, for example, whose most famous photo was a shot of herself taking a bath in Hitler’s bathtub in his private Munich apartment on May 1, 1945. If that’s not the coolest sentence you’ve ever read, please read it again.
Ullrich doesn’t expand upon it, but I made a note as to another item I wasn’t familiar with before: the fanatical Nazi guerilla movement known as Werewolf, which perpetrated evils against the attempts to rebuild Germany in the places Allied forces had retaken cities, such as murdering Franz Oppenhoff, who the Allies had named the mayor of the westernmost Germany city of Aaachen. I’d be interested to know how long that kinda guerilla movement lasted.
Something I’ve always found interesting, whether in fiction, such as Stephen King’s The Stand, or in nonfiction, is how do people rebuild after something apocalyptic? The Third Reich and its barbaric sweep across history in such short order must be thought of as apocalyptic for those who experienced it; ergo, I’m fascinated by how you reconstitute after that as a people, as a polity, as a culture and as a society. That aspect of the book, which Ullrich provides great detail on, particularly the political part of rebuilding, was fascinating to me and provided perhaps my favorite lines from the book.
Kurt Schumacher, who would become chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Germany and warned against the rise of Hitler, remarked in a 1932 speech that Nazi rabble-rousing was a “constant appeal to people’s bastard within.” (If that doesn’t feel pertinent to today …)
He continued, “If we recognize anything in National Socialism, it is the fact that for the first time in German politics, human stupidity has been completely mobilized.”
Despite my policy differences with Schumacher in terms of him advocating socialism of a different kind, I love this man. He was arrested for his words, surveilled by the Gestapo and sent to the Neuengamme concentration camp. But survived. His level of bravery is remarkable and if there isn’t a movie about him, I need to see one!
Ullrich’s book hits upon several areas for me: 1.) Empathy, of course, at the plight of all those affected by the Third Reich; 2.) Anger at the ways in which the Nazis and the German people tried to acclimate to a new normal by turning a blind eye to recent atrocities; 3.) Hopeful at the endurance of the human spirit; and 4.) Wondering just how a society, but particularly the German society, would “rebound” after Nazism and the whiplash sense I felt at just how quickly the rebounding already began mere days after Hitler’s suicide.
If you think you know everything already about WWII and the Nazis, I promise you you do not and Ullrich’s book would be a welcome addition to someone’s further knowledge on the subject. I highly recommend it and at 271 pages (a good chunk at the end is devoted to the Notes for sourcing purposes), it’s an accessible accounting of the historical record.