Murray Polner: Review of Thomas A. Kohut’s “A German Generation: An Experiential History of the Twentieth Century" (Yale, 2011)


Murray Polner is the author of numerous books, the former editor of Past Tense, and a book review editor for the History News Network.

Reviewing Ian Kershaw’s The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s German, 1944-45 in the New York Times, James J. Sheehan wondered why everyday Germans, facing imminent defeat in mid-1945, “continued to obey a government that had nothing left to offer them but death and destruction.”  That’s not an easy question.  Why did they and their fellow Germans blindly follow murderers and thugs they had once hailed and faithfully served?  Could it have been simply obedience to leaders?  Or was it, Thomas A. Kohut asks, a tribal tendency to “belong and, consequently to exclude?”  Kohut, professor of history at Williams College and author of Wilhelm II and the Germans: A Study in Leadership, has no definitive answer –nor does the vast literature about the subject.  The virtue of this book is that he does try to see that blood-spattered era through the eyes of individuals, rather than politicians, generals and others justifying what they did and didn’t do.

A partial if still unsatisfying answer may nonetheless lie in Kohut’s fifteen-year quest to collect sixty-two oral histories of “ordinary” Germans, many of them composites, a method to which some may object.  He explains that while the sixty-two “cannot be equated with an entire generation” they do show “significant characteristics of the generation to which they belong, at times to a pronounced degree.”  Kohut tells us his father was a Viennese Jew, a fact which would have meant his death had he not fled to the U.S. in 1938, a detail which may explain his remark, “I do not particularly like the interviewees.”  It’s hard to know when and if personal feelings and ideology cloud a scholar’s view.  Whatever the truth, his conclusions have been corroborated by many scholars, few of whom “liked” the people they wrote about.

All sixty-two were German Protestants, all born before World War I, all members of German youth movements. They were happy that the Nazis won the January 1933 election and were overwhelmingly supportive for most of the following years as fervent Nazis.  One of his interviewees hailed the Anschluss with Austria in 1938 and proudly served in the military.  Another spoke of the good life until it all came crashing down with the arrival of devastating bombing raids and allied armies from east and west.  Once the war ended they needed to rationalize their behavior, but were blindsided when their adult children of the 1968 generation wanted to know why they had so enthusiastically favored so brutal a regime.

Kohut devotes much space to Germany from World War I to the Weimar Republic, a weak democratic government despised by putative and actual Nazis but also by run-of-the-mill Germans trapped by raging inflation, massive unemployment, and bitter and divisive political wars, all of which attracted them to promises of jobs as well as dreams of renewed German power.  Actually, Germany’s fate was sealed when the German Communist Party (KPD), following Moscow’s orders, slandered the Social Democrats (SPD) as “social fascists” in the 1933 election, thus splitting the opposition and allowing the Nazis to win.  This review concentrates on the Nazi epoch that followed.

The issue of anti-Semitism was raised in his interviews because it was so prominent during the Nazi era.  Jews had lived in both German states and later unified Germany for centuries and contributed much to music, the arts, sciences and literature as well as political and economic life.  Yet, emboldened and persuaded by incessant Nazi propaganda, many of the sixty-two accepted the anti-Jewish line.  Enabled by the silence of the Catholic and Protestant churches (though church politicians felt brave enough to speak out against the Nazi’s euthanasia plan), they either “looked away”—or approved—when confronted by the sight of Jews  beaten on public streets, their businesses shattered, and their disappearance from cities, towns and villages.  Writes Kohut: “One way to characterize the interviewees’ knowledge of the Holocaust before the end of the war is that they knew facts that should have led them to conclude that atrocities were being committed against Jewish people.  It took an act of will not to have known what was going on.” 

How could they not have known, at least from stories they surely must have heard from furloughed and wounded soldiers, especially those who served in Poland, the Baltic states, and Russia, where Jews were regularly murdered by Germans and their Baltic, especially Latvian, and Ukrainian allies.  Germans filled and volunteered for the Einsatzgruppen death squads, murderers of an estimated one million Jews, plus many others (only fourteen of the killers ever received death penalties in postwar war crimes trials and even then though few were executed; most had their sentences commuted and in 1958 all surviving executioners were freed).  There is too the glaring example of the “ordinary men” in Christopher Browning’s searing book of the same name (0rdinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland), the story of a Hamburg police force, most of whom physically rejected by the army, but willing to kill  every Jew they could find.  Browning’s thesis was that they became mass murderers because of their deference to authority.  Yet in Hamburg, known in pre-Hitler Germany as “Red” Hamburg for its large number of Communist sympathizers, they were not scorned by the populace when they returned from their bloody service.


“Franz Orthmann,”one of Kohut’s subjects, was a child of the middle class, and “absolutely susceptible” to the “powerful sense of revitalization” he dreamed the Nazis would create.  He joined the party in 1938 after the Anschluss with Austria, ecstatic about the realization of a Greater Germany.  He also enlisted in the army, became an officer and always believed he was serving a noble cause.  But had he ever known of the sadism at home and on the various fronts?  Only rumors, he answered. “I never gave a thought to what it all meant, and there was much about the Propaganda Ministry that one shouldn’t simply dismiss out of hand.”  Besides, he added, “I believed that I was serving in a great cause.”

But what about the many civilians victimized by genocide?  Orthmann says that when a soldier described several killings he had seen he called him a “pig.”  After a driver for the Oranienburg concentration camp told him of gas chambers, of Jewish children “tossed up in air and spitted on bayonets” he says he finally became convinced that the rumors were true.  All the same, after Richard von Weizacker, president of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1984 to 1994, told the German parliament that all Germans knew about the concentration camps and the savagery, Orthmann became incensed, at first claiming it wasn’t so.  He finally changed his mind when he personally heard an SA man boast of the mass killing of Jews. 

Magdalene Beck, another composite interviewee, was eighteen when the Nazis came to power.  Her husband was a soldier.  An early and unswerving enthusiast for the Nazis, she claims to have nevertheless been apolitical.  Though Jews in her town suddenly were nowhere to be seen in their homes and local schools, she looked away [111] even though stories began circulating about horrific happenings to civilians in Poland, Russia and elsewhere in conquered lands.  She and many Germans have always defended their silence, arguing that individuals who objected to what their government was up to were helpless before the power of the Nazi state.  Dissenters had all been crushed early on and always the penalty for opposition was often execution, the fate of the White Rose trio and the July 20 plotters, for example.  In the documentary film Elusive Justice, Heinrich Gross, who ran a homicidal institute which euthanized children, justifies his role by saying, “If you were a staff member and refused to participate, you would be killed by the Nazis.”

Resist?  “You are asking someone to resist who knows what will happen to him if he opposes such a dictatorial regime,” she told Kohut, echoing Gross and far too many Germans.  “He’ll implicate his whole family.  You try that!  You try that!”  There is some truth in that few individuals anywhere dare to challenge their tyrannical governments.   Yet silence also meant that conforming and passive Germans had little to fear from the Nazis, except as Kohut notes in his mesmerizing book, that they ultimately paid a heavy price:  six-and-a-half million non-Jewish Germans died in the war, five-and-a-half million of them soldiers.
In the final days of the war, with the Red Army approaching and stories of massacres in East Prussia circulating, Beck said she was terrified of rape, given the stories of mass rapes in Germany and Poland by Russian troops,  though she said nothing about what her countrymen had done to Polish and Russian and women.  And yet when Russians soldiers finally arrived, she says, they were unexpectedly kind, especially to children.  But, echoing the Nazi line, she was frightened of black American soldiers and told her children to avoid taking candy from them, fearing that it might contain poison.

“I was never one of those fanatical Nazis,” Magdalene Beck told Kohut after the war, “but I believed in it with all my heart and soul, and I worked for it.”

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