Who were these National Socialists? In any case, you could not necessarily recognize it by a hoisted swastika flag, said the publicist Sebastian Haffner in exile in England. “Everyone in Germany” is currently doing something like that. Membership in the party or in a Nazi branch does not mean too much either. From Haffner’s point of view, the “real Nazis” were a “psychological species” of their own, those who “unreservedly agreed to this general and permanent sadistic orgy” and participated in it.
Even at the time, this drove many observers of the Third Reich: Was a National Socialist who wore a brown uniform? When the Allies set out to search for the attitudes and sentiments of the Germans in the ruins of the dictatorship, they found a lot, just no one who was enthusiastic about the regime.
Ulrich Herbert, one of the most prominent historians of National Socialism, has been dealing with this question for many decades. His work provided the impetus for many younger people to deal intensively and critically with research into National Socialism. As a young doctoral student, he himself carried out a groundbreaking study on the life and the racist use of forced laborers – at a time when hardly anyone was interested and the companies had still locked their archives in many cases.
He is interested in the history of the völkisch movements, the National Socialist extermination policy and its effects until the post-war period. His new book is not an overall representation, but contains some of his essays – mostly already published in different places – on central aspects of the Third Reich. The re are worthwhile, sometimes sparkling pieces that can be found here again and also give an insight into the life of a researcher.
Many supposedly “remained decent”
So who were the National Socialists? Herbert is one of those people who warned early on against taking it easy on this point. For a long time after the end of the war, the image of the “Nazis” dominated as a gang of rough SA thugs who had blindly submitted to their “Führer” and his clique around Goebbels, Himmler and Goering.
Many people tried, like Albert Speer, the major Teutonic architect and armaments minister, to present themselves as a “good Nazi”; as someone who came from a good family and remained “decent” despite all the brutality of the war.
“Remained decent”: That was, as it were, the bourgeois mark of distinction with which the academic elites, professors, civil servants and industrialists like to describe themselves in order to mark their distance from the brutal butchers of the Gestapo.
Actually, they just wanted to prevent worse. Herbert describes in many of his contributions how much this stereotype of the National Socialists as the supposedly “other” shaped the self-image of many Germans in the young Federal Republic.
With his research, the Freiburg historian has contributed a lot to the fact that this perception has changed in the meantime and that those who supported the machinery of annihilation through their bureaucratic knowledge, their scientific expertise and the partial identity of the goals have come into focus.
The sharp demarcation between “the National Socialists” and “the Germans” is not only wrong, but in many cases an attempt at apologetic self-exoneration.
Many Nazi terms were open to differently radical interpretations
The essays repeatedly revolve around the functionaries of mass murder, many of whom were well educated and often joined the Nazi movement as ethnic academics in the crisis years of the Weimar Republic. Anti-Semitism and anti-parliamentarism went hand in hand.
It was precisely the essence of National Socialism that terms such as “race”, “leader” and “community” were open to differently radical interpretations. And it was precisely this openness from which National Socialism drew part of its violent dynamism and its attractiveness. This amalgam of ideas was explosive, as it promised many things at the same time – and made it possible to think together violence, expansion and the “purification of the national body”.
Herbert’s contributions range from the analysis of the academic elite, the comparative history of the camps and occupation policy to the decision-making process for the mass murder of the Jews and to the search for clues as to how this violent legacy and the personal continuities could even be turned into a functioning democracy.
His answer: On the one hand, “the reduction of responsibility for mass murder and genocide to a few, usually already deceased figureheads” enabled “a putative general relief of almost all surviving ex-National Socialists, even in leading positions”.
On the other hand, however, it is primarily the “crouched opportunism (…) as an expression and prerequisite for the political neutralization of this group” that can be recognized. “Quite a few of those who (…) saw their opportunism rewarded, actually turned into convinced democrats.”
One can argue about how far this change of heart actually went. And the discussion about the formative power of the “Volksgemeinschaft”, which, as Herbert thinks, was “apparently very limited”, is far from over.
That at least the folk gentlemen who have committed themselves to the fight against democracy were often academically educated and also liked to wear pinstripes and ties – this book also reminds us of that. History quickly becomes the present.
Dietmar Süß teaches modern and contemporary history at the University of Augsburg.