Friday, December 29, 2006

Resisting the Nazis (Part II)

[Part I here.]

By early 1943, the time of the Rosenstrasse Protest, the Final Solution were well underway. The Nazis had been very careful about their policy of extermination of the Jews; one can view the entire operation as a series of slowly escalating experiments to see what the German public and the world would tolerate.

The persecution of the Jews started out with a group of racial laws in Germany (the Nuremberg Laws) that isolated and ostracized them from other Germans; previously the Jews of Germany had been among the most assimilated in Europe. What happened as a result? Not much, apparently. Here is a summary of German reports of the time evaluating the responses of the general population of Germany, reported to have been either "satisfaction," "enthusiasm," "understanding," or "silence" (the latter in the predominantly Catholic town of Aachen, which bordered Belgium).

The Nazis were well aware that their policies required cooperation, active or at least passive, from the public. They had learned this during an earlier "experiment," the T4 program, which had involved murdering the mentally and/or physically disabled. When word had gotten out about the T4 program, there were massive protests (the only large ones for any policy of the Hitler regime) and Catholic officials spoke out publicly to criticize it.

As a result the program was officially scrapped, although it continued to a certain degree in a more clandestine way. But this outcome shows the power of German public opinion, even for the Nazis. They were indeed worried about the perception of the public towards their policies, and weren't willing to create public discord by firing on German demonstrators and causing a backlash.

This is an interesting fact. The Nazis were indeed brutal killers, but they were canny about what they did. Mass murder of their own people--in the style of other tyrants such as Stalin and Pol Pot--was most definitely not the style of the Nazis. They needed and wanted the cooperation of the German people, and were well aware of how far the people could be pushed before they would withdraw that cooperation and begin to cause trouble. Therefore the Nazis carefully calibrated their moves, backtracking (or becoming more secretive and hidden) when the rumblings threatened to get out of control.

The reaction to T4 clearly indicates that a stronger protest by the German people to the Nuremberg Laws, and then to the roundups of Jews, could have either halted the entire endeavor or made it far more difficult. T4 had another significance: it was a chance for the Nazis to perfect some of their techniques, since it featured the first mass gassings, cremations, and even the decoy shower heads in the gas chambers, all prototypes for the techniques of the death camps.

Other well-known early "experiments" in mass killings--this time of the Jews--were the notorious Nazi "Einsatzgruppen" mass murders on the Eastern front in Russia and Eastern Europe. These killings were quite different from those in the subsequent death camps. They featured open-air shootings over mass graves dug by the victims themselves, and were supervised by the SS but were mainly performed by squads of specially trained German and Austrian police.

Although not publicized, these killings could hardly be kept totally hidden from the German people, as Goldhagen's controversial book Hitler's Willing Executioners makes clear. Nor were they secrets to the occupied countries involved--in fact, locals were sometimes recruited to help out with the proceedings.

The relatively primitive and bloody chaos of these massacres on the Eastern Front occurred mainly in 1941 and early 1942, and were limited to those occupied territories. Later efforts were the death camps, a more "refined" and hidden "solution" to the problem, as well as a far more efficient one: less manpower and ammunition required.

It is sobering to think that the near-extermination of the Jews of Europe occurred without anything resembling the protest that marked the German reaction to the T4 program. It's sobering partly because it's very clear that such protests would, and could, have been at least somewhat effective. The Nazis were clearly afraid of the power of public opinion--at least in Germany, at least for pragmatic reasons.

The one example (besides the T4 protests) of this type of group demonstration by a significant crowd of Germans was a very specialized one. Known as The Rosenstrasse Protest, it is a relatively little-known event in the history of the Third Reich,

Because of the prewar assimilation of the Jews of Germany, there were a number of intermarriages, especially in Berlin. When the Jews of Germany were rounded up and sent to the camps, these Jewish spouses were spared--temporarily.

This in and of itself is in interesting fact, another example of the Nazis' cunning. Rounding up regular Jews was one thing, and they correctly surmised it was unlikely to occasion more than a ripple among the ordinary German population. But taking away the Jewish spouses of "regular" Germans could be expected to be a much more emotional undertaking. And so, mindful of the need to keep the public calm, the selection of those spouses was postponed.

The roundup action, in early 1943, was meant to be a birthday present for Hitler:

The Gestapo called this action simply the "Schlu├čaktion der Berliner Juden" (Closing Berlin Jew Action). Hitler was offended that so many Jews still lived in Berlin, and the Nazi Party Director for Berlin, Joseph Goebbels, had promised to make Berlin "Judenfrei" (free of Jews) for the F├╝hrer's 54th birthday in April.

It was mostly successful; 8,000 of the 10,000 rounded up were not spouses in mixed marriages, and they were sent off to Auschwitz with hardly a ripple. The 2000 remaining were the spouses (all husbands, actually; I've never seen a report that mentioned what may have happened to Jewish wives in mixed marriages). In a spontaneous reaction, their non-Jewish wives came to the place where they were being held--an office in central Berlin that gave the protest its name.

The weeklong demonstration grew in numbers and seriousness, although it was never officially organized. SS guards threatened to shoot the women, but the wives were defiant and no shootings ever happened. In fact, the men were released, and even a few who had already been sent to Auschwitz were returned.

What was going on here? Once again, we see the Nazi respect for public order and the desire not to push the German people one ounce beyond what the latter could and would tolerate. Two thousand Jewish men remaining in Berlin were considered a small price to pay to maintain the public order. The plan was to take care of them later--but "later" never happened; almost all the men survived the war safely in Berlin.

In a recent book on the matter, Nathan Stoltzfus concludes that the German people had far more say in Nazi policies than they would have you believe. The evidence is fairly clear that protests would have made a difference. The sad fact is that the Germans were only energized a few times to engage in protests, and only in certain very specialized situations.

Many who advocate nonviolence consider it almost a panacaea. It is not, of course. The Nazis had a particular and relatively benign and respectful attitude towards their own people that not all tyrannical regimes share. For a peaceful protest to be successful, there must be that all-important attitude on the part of the government: a modicum of respect for the people involved, and a reluctance to upset them by a show of force and muscle. Because if the authorities decide to go for brutality and power, nonviolent protesters can be easily deterred and silenced.

Gandhi didn't think so, as I've written here. The type of absolute pacifism he suggested is both unrealistic, given human nature, and absolutely ensures a mass bloodbath if the authorities being challenged are brutal enough. As I discussed in the linked piece, Gandhi famously advocated that the Jews go willingly and meekly to the slaughter to prove a point and take the moral high road.

But it turns out he would have done far far better to have suggested to the German people that they undertake nonviolent protests in order to protect the Jews--if, in fact, they had any motivation to do so, which seems to have not been the case. Because it's clear from the evidence that protest by the German people themselves would have been successful in forestalling the Holocaust, as it was for other resisting groups such as the Danes and the Bulgarians whom the Nazis happened to respect.

One remaining question is whether the German people knew, or should have known, their own strength. In order to have the courage to act en masse in protest, most people need to believe they are not going to be mowed down in cold blood by superior firepower. The overwhelming evidence is that, if the Germans had been paying attention, they ought to have known their influence because of the precedent set in T4. The nearly inescapable and sorrowful conclusion is that most Germans simply did not care enough about what was happening to the Jews to mount any sort of protest at all, because if they had, it would have been successful.

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