Tuesday 23 June 2015

Why weren't all the Germans like Maria von Maltzan? By Leslie Wilson

Nazi boycott of Jewish shops. Photo: German Federal Archive

One month after Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, the Reichstag building went up in flames. The arson was blamed on Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist, and he was executed for it a year later. It seems that most historians agree that van der Lubbe did set the building on fire - but what is beyond doubt is that it was a great opportunity for Hitler, who persuaded the President of Germany, Paul von Hindenburg, to suspend civil liberties. In the aftermath, Communists and Social Democrats were arrested, tortured and imprisoned. Some of them never emerged from the 'wild' concentration camps the SA (Brownshirts) set up. Some of them never got so far. The Social Democrat Minister-President of Mecklenburg, Johannes Stelling, was tortured to death and his body was tied up in a sack and thrown into a river. Twelve other Social Democrats were thrown in the same night. Paul Löbe, the former President of the Reichstag, was kidnapped, arrested, and put into a camp. Social Democratic councillor and officials in Braunschweig resigned their posts when they were threatened with violence; one refused and was beaten to death, and this pattern was repeated across Germany. Trades Unions and other 'Marxist' organisations (like the Schrader League that my grandfather had belonged to) were dissolved, often after the premises had been trashed and the administrators beaten or murdered.

And of course, the Nazis began to attack the Jews. Maria von Maltzan, a young German aristocrat, reponded to the boycott of Jewish businesses (which happened in April 1933), in characteristic fashion: 'Posters were fixed to Jewish shops with the words: 'Germans, don't buy from Jews!' I couldn't resist just going into such a little shop, with uniformed boycott supervisors standing in front of it. They stopped me at once and asked what I wanted to buy.' She told them she wanted to pay a bill. Once she was inside, the shopkeeper, an elderly Jewish woman, said to her: ''For God's sake, you're putting yourself in pointless danger!' Maltzan's response was: 'I hadn't thought of that for a moment.'

Maria von Maltzan, from book jacket

Maria von Maltzan was an exceptional person, stubborn, and if not fearless, a risk-taker. One can imagine how easily other people would be deterred by the heavies standing outside the Jewish business, particularly since they probably knew exactly what they were capable of. However, even Maltzan quickly realised that she did need to be careful. The Gestapo interrogated her as a communist sympathiser and a friend of Jews. Possibly she was saved from the worst by her aristocratic status and her father's reputation as a German war hero. Nevertheless, she soon learned that as a person involved in resistance, she couldn't be cautious enough.

And once she had achieved her doctorate in natural history, in Munich, she couldn't apply for any posts in research establishments or biological institutes, because such posts were reserved for Nazi party members, and she wouldn't join the Party.

I have been reading a book which I can't praise enough: Richard J Evans's 'The Third Reich in History and Memory.' It is a collection of essays, elegantly and accessibly written, and in the essay entitled: 'Coercion and Consent', he considers and rebuts the contention of historians that the vast majority of the German people supported Hitler and that an extensive apparatus of terror wasn't necessary.
This is based on the observation that the Gestapo, as an organisation, was far smaller than the Stasi in the so-called 'German Democratic Republic', and that after 1933 the concentration camps (as opposed to the death camps in the East) were used for criminals and 'anti-social elements.' However, these historians are ignoring the role of the courts in prosecuting anyone who stepped out of line, and many of these people ended up in prisons and penitentiaries.

This struck an immediate chord with me, having sat one afternoon in the German historical Institute reading reports from a German court (I think it was Hamburg). The example that stuck in my mind was the man who had joked in an air-raid shelter that Hitler had invaded France to get back his ball, which had been shot off in the First World War. The story about Hitler's missing ball was of course commonplace in Britain, and perhaps the man had got it from secretly listening to the BBC. In any case, he got a hefty prison sentence, and there were many other such cases.

In 1935, 23,000 inmates of state prisons and penitentiaries were classified as political offenders. Others were just guillotined. Contrary to what David Cesarani claimed in the Letters Page of the Guardian when 'Alone in Berlin' was published, the judicial murder of the elderly couple in Fallada's book was far from exceptional.
Ploetzensee prison Berlin: photo ThoKay

When, shortly before her death, I asked my grandmother what it was like to live under the Nazis, she glanced over her shoulder before she answered; so I saw the 'German glance', which her contemporaries in the West had been able to abandon. My grandmother's ongoing mental illness, her hours of brooding and inner anguish, had preserved it intact. What she remembered, first and foremost, from living under the Nazis, was fear. She told me then about Nazi women coming to the house and inspecting everything and then saying: 'You're scum. You'll end up in concentration camp.' That must have been in 1933, when my grandfather was fighting for his job. However, the 'German glance' was necessary, if you were going to say anything incautious, in a world where the Nazi surveillance apparatus extended to the lowest level officials, the 'Blockwart' whose job it was to collect and transfer information about everyone living in his small area. Nazi womens' organisations, schools, and the Hitler Youth, all kept tabs on the population. Bruno Bettelheim undoubtedly had this in mind when he remarked that the whole of Germany was a concentration camp.

Maria von Maltzan couldn't take up the career she wanted because of her political views; other people were threatened with the loss of their jobs if they stepped out of line. My grandfather was one of millions controlled by their jobs (he also had a mentally-ill wife and I would think her safety, every time she was taken into mental hospital, was guaranteed by his being a senior police officer. If he had been a dissident, she might have been murdered as so many patients were.) Nazism was no different from any other totalitarian state; people were controlled through their jobs.

Of course there were people who were enthusiastic about the Nazi state. The unpleasant refugee Czekalla in my novel 'Last Train from Kummersdorf,' talks big about killing people in Russia, and finally mutters that he was meant to be a big landlord out there. Some people will go along with all kinds of abuses for personal benefit - and the Nazi system made it its business to bring out the worst that the human race is capable of. Brutality, racial hatred, callousness, were promoted as virtues in Nazi Germany. Sebastian Haffner, in his 'Defying Hitler' describes how he and his fellow lawyers were taken off to a kind of boot camp and given military training. (this seems to have been standard practice, with professionals) 'It was remarkable,' he observed, 'how comradeship actively decomposed all the elements of individuality and civilisation.' We all know that soldiers commit horrific crimes, both off their own bat, or because they are told to. In his study of German police units who were taken off to murder Jews, Christopher Browning shows how powerful the sense of peer pressure was, in persuading the policemen not to step out, where the option of doing so was given them. ''Who would have dared,' one policeman declared emphatically, to 'lose face' before the assembled troops.' It's a situation I explored in 'Last Train from Kummersdorf' where the lad Hanno tells the girl Effi how his friends were tormenting an old Jewish man, and he walked away from it - and felt guilty afterwards.

photo: Wikimedia Commons

I once gave a talk to a group of schoolchildren about how people could be brought to participate in mass murders, and when I told them about this, the boys, in particular, all nodded reluctantly, and understood exactly what I was talking about. It's what happens in the playground when children are bullied, and I don't think I'm trivialising it when one considers that bullied children often kill themselves.

However, one must also remember that one motive for establishing the 'controlled' situation of the extermination camps and the gas chambers was that the troops who had been carrying out killings were getting post-traumatic stress disorder, which suggests that they did have some kind of conscience about committing murder. And also, the men who stepped out of murder duty were often self-employed, and didn't feel they needed to worry about their future work prospects after the war.

At this point, I can imagine someone saying: 'Oh, yes, but you're fuzzing ethical issues. People are always responsible for their actions.'

And this, according to Richard Evans, is a key issue. 'Anything that implies constraints on the free will of historical actors puts a potentially serious obstacle in the way of establishing their culpability.' In other words, if one questions the validity of the 'consent' of ordinary Germans to Hitler, one provides perpetrators with the excuse that they acted under duress, which could get them off in the courtroom.

I'm not a lawyer, but I can see the ethical problem. It seems to me, though, that those men who took part in the murders of Jews in eastern Europe definitely did commit murder. And if you have done such a thing, it cannot be changed, even if you acted through fear, or, in the case of the younger men, were so conditioned by propaganda and bad teaching that you had no ethical equipment to stop you doing this. You've still done something bad and it cannot be undone. But I think the greater responsibility lies with the people who planned for this to happen.

The idea of willing Nazi supporters, about a nation who were eager to invade other countries (in fact the initial response to the outbreak of war was largely fear and gloom) has been a part of the story the British have been telling themselves about the war for the whole of my life. A few years ago, I went with a Jewish friend to watch the documentary about Belsen which appalled the British when it was shown after the war (it's not easy to watch now, either). The commentator said: 'If you hadn't fought the war, this might have been you.' (It wasn't at any stage stated that the poor people in the camp and the mass graves were mainly Jewish.)
mass grave, Bergen-Belsen. Photo Lieutenant Alan Moore

The fact that the Germans were deemed to be particularly monstrous, peculiarly inhumane and cruel, gave extra lustre to the war that had been fought against them, and undoubtedly made people feel their sufferings had been worth while.

There's something else, though. If you discount the fact that Nazism was a terror state - and I still hear people and read people doing so, even nowadays - it may be a reassurance. 'They' were different, 'they' came from a corrupt culture. If you assert that Nazism could have been fought by simple acts of refusal (there were quite a few, and many of them ended in the deaths of the dissidents), then naturally, it couldn't possibly happen anywhere else, like here. I think that's a very dangerous illusion. If we are convinced, for example, that British people wouldn't stand for that kind of thing, we may ignore the fact that similar structures of surveillance and criminalisation of dissent are being set up, not hypothetically, but now, as I am typing these words.

I think the danger in Britain is not of a sudden slashing clampdown, as in 1933 in Germany, but a slow creeping paralysis that makes it harder and harder for anyone to dissent. Where that may lead is hard to tell because no more than Germans in 1933 are we capable of looking at history from the other end and seeing what is going to happen. However, just consider that people who oppose fracking have recently been described by Tory politicians as 'extremists.' I will say no more.


Joanna said...

Thank you very much for this absorbing and insightful post, with the 'slow, creeping paralysis' a most haunting image.

Christina Koning said...

A powerful and compelling piece - thank you. In my recent investigations into the Occupation period in Holland, and the activities of the Dutch Resistance, I've also been thinking about some of the ideas you explore so thoughtfully here: just why did people collaborate, and how were they coerced into putting up with an intolerable situation? Your post is very illuminating on both these questions.

Leslie Wilson said...

Thank you, both of you. I believe it was a Dutch person who informed on the Frank family.. Why? But I guess wherever the Nazi system went, it subjected people to dreadful choices, or provided some with dreadful opportunities.

Anne Booth said...

This is a brilliant piece. I couldn't agree more. I also really want to read the book you recommend (sorry am v tired and can't work out how to look at your piece and refer to the exact title AND comment!)

Clare Mulley said...

Thank you Leslie. You always make me think, and I have already ordered the Richard Evans book on your recommendation.

Leslie Wilson said...

Thank you, Clare!