Thursday, January 29, 2004

Resistance-Fighter, Post-War

There's a phrase I learnt from a Jonah Goldberg column back in 2001 that struck me at the time as particularly funny, something about there being so many Frenchmen falsely claiming resistance membership after liberation that a new term had to be invented just for such individuals - "maquis d'apres-guerre" ("resistance fighter, postwar"). What makes it amusing is that there's plenty of truth to it, and if this tendency to historical amnesia was commonplace in France, it has taken on endemic proportions in Germany. It would seem that everyone from that era "secretly opposed Hitler" at the time, if the utterences one hears from German sources are taken at face value, but such claims have always struck me as nonsensical. If everyone either opposed or was indifferent to the man's message, who were those adoring crowds lining the streets of Berlin and Vienna as he was chalking up victory after victory? Who were those fanatical young men chanting "Führer befehl, wir folgen!" ("Leader command, we will follow!") as late as 1943?

Daniel Goldhagen's attempt to get at the truth about German support for Hitler's goals was easily brushed aside as so much hysterical axe-grinding, but Robert Gellately's Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany presents a far more formidable challenge to those who would wish to efface the guilt of most Germans of the time for the record, even as they work to present a deceitful picture of Germany as the innocent victim of the Allied "war crime" of area-bombing. Here's a Publishers Weekly review of Gellately's book that is worth quoting:

Using newspapers and radio broadcasts of the day as evidence, Gellately (The Gestapo and German Society), Strassler Professor in Holocaust History at Clark University, effectively demonstrates how "ordinary Germans" evolved into a powerful base of support for the Nazi regime. Although Hitler and the National Socialists had never garnered an outright majority in elections before 1933, the author convincingly shows that "the great majority of the German people soon became devoted to Hitler and they supported him to the bitter end in 1945." The Nazis achieved this political miracle by "consensus." The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued that political regimes could hardly expect to use unlimited terror against their subjects a technique combining the threat of terror and coercion would be more effective. Using Gramscian theory is hardly new in an analysis of Nazi Germany, but Gellately does make a provocative claim: that the Nazi use of terror against certain categories of "undesirables" (first Communists, Socialists and trade unionists, then Catholic and Protestant opponents, then the mentally and/or physically impaired, then the Jews and Gypsies) was purposively public and that most Germans agreed with such policies. Decrees, legislation, police actions and the concentration camps were not meant to be hidden from the German people, but in fact were extensively publicized. Some of the same arguments have been made in Adam Lebor and Roger Boyes's Seduced by Hitler (Forecasts, Mar. 26), but readers will notice that Gellately offers a far more sophisticated argument and more abundant evidence than Daniel Goldhagen's cause celebre, Hitler's Willing Executioners. In truth, Gellately's work is what Goldhagen's book could have been, but wasn't; that is, a closely reasoned and tightly constructed analysis.

I don't believe that the Germans of today should continue to pay penance for the sins of their fathers, but I think the historical reality of broad German support for Hitler's policies worth recalling every so often, if only to fight certain tendencies that are alive today in that country's media. Germany was not in any sense a "victim" of Allied war efforts, but a thoroughly deserving recipient of a much-diluted portion of the bitter medicine it handed out so many millions of non-German origin; nor were the postwar Vertriebenen by any measure "victims" either, as they had been all too happy to enjoy the fruits of overlordship during the brief period of German superiority; finally, to use the German war experience as a blanket condemnation of any war at any time or place, let alone as an excuse for inaction in the face of tyranny, is the height of immorality.