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Challenging the Myths of Germany's Third Reich

June 04, 1989|Johannes Steinhoff and Peter Pechel and Dennis Showalter | Gen. Johannes Steinhoff was a Luftwaffe fighter pilot who became chief of staff after the war; Peter Pechel was a German army captain during the war, later a TV correspondent in London and Washington; Dennis Showalter is professor of history at Colorado College.

Half a century ago, after six years in power, Adolf Hitler looked invincible. He ordered his generals to prepare for the invasion of Poland, in the blitzkrieg that precipitated World War II. An oral history, "Voices From the Third Reich," to be published this month by Regnery Gateway Inc., examines what it was like to watch and participate in the rise of Hitler from many points of view--concentration camp victims, SS men, resistance activists, teen-age Nazis, emigres. The following is adapted from the book's epilogue:

The Third Reich changed the history of the world, yet it endured for only a brief moment in time--12 years. The years of Nazi rule left Germany's cities destroyed, its people scattered, its government abolished. Foreign soldiers walked its streets as masters while millions of refugees sought safety from an Eastern Europe staging its own solution of the German question by systematic, brutal expulsions.

What had become of the cheering crowds of 1933? Of 1938? Were the wartime Germans a generation of opportunists, rejecting the Nazi order only when the bill came due? This question is particularly significant because of the nature of the National Socialist regime. It was not a state like all the rest, a state which made its bid for world power, fought a war and lost. It was a criminal system that committed its atrocities "in the name of the German people."

But questions of right and wrong are seldom as obvious at the time as they seem in retrospect, even under Adolf Hitler.

The pace of events was rapid enough to sweep along millions of people with a current that seemed to flow ever faster. Modern states and modern ideologies have the means to blur processes of choice and action. Particularly for young people, there was no time to reflect, no refuge from the endless pressure to participate.

World War II had no parallel in history. It was waged without rules or mercy. It assumed a life of its own, as though it would go on forever. Yet at the same time it was waged with malevolent intelligence. No one in Europe escaped it. World War II mobilized children for the front. It made women the prizes of victory. It demanded the annihilation of entire peoples. It generated realities worse than any nightmare. Auschwitz, Stalingrad, and Berlin have in common that the abnormal became the stuff of everyday life. Chaos seemed natural. It was the way things had always been, the way things always would be.

Clear thought was further discouraged by ignorance based on lack of information. Books, newspapers, radio, all were rigidly controlled. Even private conversations involved significant risk. Soldiers, whether at the front or in home garrisons, were in an even more restricted environment than civilians. Thousands of men in Werhmacht uniforms were executed or imprisoned for "damaging the national war effort" by "crimes" as insignificant as listening to foreign radio broadcasts.

If guessing was risky, knowing too much posed more than simple physical danger. Those who by chance glanced into the Nazi abyss promptly looked away. They denied it existed. They talked of "exceptions" or "excesses." They forced themselves to forget. Anything was preferable to the truth, because the truth was too horrible to acknowledge.

The men and women who share their lives in "Voices From the Third Reich" challenge three familiar myths about Germans under National Socialism. The first is the myth of collective opposition, the myth that the German people from the beginning rejected Hitler's siren call. The myth makes everyone at heart a Christian, a Marxist, a simple soldier or something else having as little as possible to do with National Socialism. Susanne Ritters, 17 at war's end, offers a bitter critique:

"We believed in Hitler. We believed in the whole system, the entire leadership. There we were, already half-dead, still believing in victory. We could not do anything else. That was our generation and he was our idol. We didn't just adopt something. It was a given. It came from inside of us. And we sucked it in like mother's milk."

Yet there is also denial of an opposing myth, the myth of collective guilt that makes every German living through this period an active, committed Nazi, endorsing when not supporting every aspect of the regime. Richard Lowenthal, forced into exile as a Jew and a Social Democrat, says he was "very much aware that anti-Semitism had always existed in Germany, but before Hitler's time it was confined to a very small minority. If I were to compare Germany with other countries before Hitler, I could say that there was considerably less anti-Semitism in Germany than in France, to say nothing of Poland or Austria.

"What many people fail to realize is that Hitler did not come to power because of his anti-Semitism . . . . Hitler's coming to power was based on a wave of nationalism and the miserable economic situation in Germany."

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