Books and Authors: the Holocaust

Monday, May 15th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — It was a rare and astonishing sight in Nazi Germany — a public protest by Germans against the Holocaust. And its outcome persuasively challenges an argument used by Germans since the end of World War II: resistance to Hitler would have been futile.

On Feb. 27, 1943, about 200 German women married to Jewish men who had been rounded up for the gas chambers stood on Berlin's Rosenstrasse shouting, ``Give us back our husbands!'' The demonstration grew to more than 1,000 over the next few days, and the protesters ignored demands by armed SS and Gestapo men that they disperse.

Remarkably, Hitler relented. Fearing the protest could turn public opinion against the regime, the Nazis released 1,700 Jews who were married to Germans — while continuing to send other Jews to join those who were being killed in death mills like Auschwitz.

This extraordinary episode — the only open demonstration in Germany against the deportation of Jews during the Holocaust — is recounted in a new book by Eric A. Johnson, ``Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews, and Ordinary Germans.''

Johnson uses the protest to buttress a central theme of his book: Ordinary Germans who lived during the Third Reich years are wrong when they argue it would have been futile for them to rise up against Hitler, or to at least protest his terror.

There is no certainty that mass protests against Nazi policies would have ``shut down'' the Third Reich, says Johnson, a professor of history at Central Michigan University.

Nonetheless, Johnson writes that ``had the silence been broken ... millions of Jews might not have died.''

Johnson does not attribute ordinary Germans' wartime acceptance of mass murders to an ``eliminationist anti-Semitism,'' as does Daniel Goldhagen in his controversial book, ``Hitler's Willing Executioners.''

It is true, writes Johnson, that ordinary Germans were guilty of complicity in Nazi crimes.

But he continues, ``It is also necessary to realize that most Germans were motivated not by a willful intent to harm others but by a mixture of cowardice, apathy and a slavish obedience to authority.''

Ever since Allied troops walked into concentration camps and found emaciated prisoners and cadavers 55 years ago, the world has been trying to understand how Germans could have allowed Hitler to kill 6 million Jews and other victims.

After all, Germany gave us Beethoven, Bach and Wagner. How could evil emanate from a land blessed with such a glorious cultural heritage?

Johnson is the latest to try to understand this contradiction.

Perhaps he has not nailed down the final answers. Nonetheless, his new book gives insight into Hitler's 12-year dictatorship. Indeed, a number of critics have proclaimed ``Nazi Terror'' to be a benchmark work in Third Reich studies.

Johnson's recounting of the 1943 Rosenstrasse protest in Berlin is more or less an aside in his 636-page scholarly work, which is published by Basic Books. It was also written about in a 1996 book by Nathan Stolzfus, although most people have probably not heard about it.

The core of Johnson's book — and what makes it original — are chapters in which he examines the Gestapo, Hitler's secret police, and those in which he writes about how Germans had little to fear from Nazi repression so long as they weren't Jewish, Communists, Jehovah's witnesses, homosexuals and others hated by Hitler.

Johnson read more than 1,100 files that had been kept by the Gestapo and by Nazi courts in three Rhineland communities — the city of Cologne, the town of Krefeld, and the small town of Bergheim.

In addition, he interviewed perpetrators of Nazi crimes and Jewish survivors.

There's Emanuel Schaefer, the Gestapo's commanding officer in Cologne who oversaw the deportation of thousands of Jews from that city to death camps. Before arriving in Cologne, he had rapidly risen through the ranks of Nazi spy and storm trooper organizations. Schaefer, writes Johnson, had a large personal role in starting World War II.

The war began shortly after Germany accused Polish troops of attacking a German radio transmitter along the border. In fact, Hitler had sent storm troopers — dressed in Polish uniforms — to stage the raid themselves to create a pretext for invading Poland. And it was Schaefer, says Johnson, who was handpicked by Hitler to lead the storm troopers in their staged attack.

In Johnson's book, readers also meet lower-ranking Gestapo officers, like Richard Schulenberg, head of the Gestapo's ``Jewish desk'' in Krefeld. Schulenberg was responsible for arranging the deportation of Krefeld's Jews. One day, writes Johnson, Schulenberg rode a Jewish woman on the handlebars of his bicycle to a collection point where Jews were being taken before being shipped off to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Johnson uses the likes of Schaefer and Schulenberg to reject what he says is a recent trend in Third Reich studies: to view the Gestapo as ``normal police officers'' who were reliant on denunciations from the populace to carry out their dirty work. This view, writes Johnson, ``underestimates the ruthless effectiveness of the Gestapo.''

Still, only certain kinds of people really had reason to fear the Gestapo — those viewed by Hitler as subhuman or his enemies.

Germans would occasionally do things that violated Third Reich edicts, such as telling anti-Nazi jokes and listening to German-language BBC radio broadcasts, which informed them about the murder of Jews and about the war. But the Nazis showed leniency toward such crimes, so long as they were committed by ordinary Germans, and not by someone in groups targeted by Hitler.

Johnson sees in this a ``Faustian bargain,'' with the Gestapo permitting minor expressions of opposition from the populace in exchange for Germans' silence about the murder of Nazi victims.

``Nazi terror posed no real threat to most ordinary Germans,'' Johnson argues.

Although Johnson disagrees with Goldhagen that ordinary Germans were animated by an ``eliminationist anti-Semitism,'' he still holds them culpable for Hitler's crimes.

Johnson also castigates German clerics who were too cowardly to encourage their congregations to oppose Hitler, and praises the few who did dare to stand up to him, such as German Communists.

Johnson ends his book with a chilling encounter that perhaps expresses the feelings of some Germans who eagerly served under Hitler and now are trying to come to terms with that in their twilight years.

In his last interview before leaving Germany after five years of research for his book, Johnson went to the Cologne apartment of an 88-year-old man. The man surprised Johnson by admitting he had been a guard at the Dachau concentration camp and a member of the auxiliary SS.

``He enjoyed telling me about his past,'' writes Johnson.

But the man became somber while relating that his six-man SS detachment had shot 300 Jewish women and children on the eastern front. He told Johnson the most horrible part was ``wading among the bodies in the ditch with the other members of his detachment to administer ``mercy shots.''

Three times the man got up from his couch and went over to Johnson to point to the middle of his calf muscle to show how deep the blood had been.

And each time the elderly man repeated: ``Can you imagine? Can you imagine?''