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Randall L. Bytwerk

We Did Not Know!

Nazi propaganda and the Holocaust.

Two books, published almost simultaneously in 2006, add significantly to our knowledge of the public face of the Holocaust. Peter Longerich's "Davon haben wir nichts gewusst!" Die Deutschen und die Judenverfolgung 1933-1945 ["We Didn't Know Anything About That!" The Germans and the Persecution of the Jews] is the more ambitious of the two. Longerich tracks Nazi public rhetoric on the Jews for the twelve years of Hitler's rule, and attempts to reveal the German public's thinking about what it heard and saw. Jeffrey Herf's The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust focuses on Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda during the war, and makes no determined attempt to analyze how it was received. Neither book presents startling news, but both provide an astonishing amount of carefully considered evidence from the period. Most readers of Books & Culture will prefer Herf's cogent analysis to 448 pages of reasonably clear German, but despite their areas of common focus, the books are worth reading together.

The two present parallel, and largely consistent, chronological surveys of what Germans saw and heard during the war. Besides the familiar public statements by Hitler, Goebbels, and other Nazi leaders (e.g., Hitler's statements like this one: "If Jewry imagines itself to be able to lead an international world war to exterminate the European races, then the result will not be the extermination of the European races but rather the extermination of Jewry in Europe!"), both books trace the propaganda found in newspapers and posters. Longerich provides a greater sampling of newspapers, and also considers newsreels, the radio, and Allied broadcasting and leaflets, but the wider range of sources does not lead to significantly different conclusions.

Both books give only limited attention to the comprehensive system of Nazi speakers and propagandists at the local level, who regularly received guidelines on what they were to say about Jews in speeches and conversations. The Nazis saw such word-of-mouth propaganda as more effective than magazines and newspaper articles (a widely circulated print during the Nazi era showed Hitler speaking to his early followers, with the caption: "In the beginning was the word"); considering such material would have strengthened both analyses, even if the conclusions would not have changed greatly.1

The focus of Nazi anti-Semitism varied. After the signing of the German-Soviet pact in August 1939, public anti-Semitism diminished considerably, to be renewed suddenly after the June 22, 1941 attack on the Soviet Union. As enormous numbers of Jews were killed in 1942 and 1943, Nazi propaganda attacked the Jews through every imaginable channel. After mid-1943, with the bulk of the killing done, the intensity declined somewhat, but anti-Semitic propaganda hardly vanished.

The Nazis presented World War II as a defensive struggle against Jewish plans for world domination. The Jews were out to destroy Germany, in a literal, biological sense. The only response was to exterminate the Jews first. The war was a matter of life or death. Either Germany and its people would survive and the Jews would perish, or the Jews would triumph over the bodies of murdered Germans.

As both books point out, "the Nazis combined blunt speech about their general intentions with suppression of any facts or details regarding the Final Solution" (Herf, p. 268). German media completely ignored the death camps, such as Auschwitz, and mass shootings. Specific guidelines ordered propagandists to avoid such details. There were many rumors and reports from soldiers home on leave—but it was surely difficult for an average German to use such information to know what actual horrors were occurring (though some succeeded in so doing). Germans, in short, knew that bad things were happening, but had no clear idea just how bad those things were. In this, Nazi propaganda was following a successful strategy. If Germans had known for certain what was going on, there is little doubt that even many of those who were anti-Semitic would have been horrified. Just as it is possible for people to ignore the AIDS catastrophe in Africa while still being moved by the tragedy of individuals, so Germans, in J. P. Stern's words, knew enough to know that they did not want to know any more.

The record of what Germans did hear and read is stunning, and both books bring more of it together than is available anywhere else. Longerich and Herf convincingly demonstrate that Germans could not claim that they did not know anything about the Holocaust. In Herf's words: "Claims of ignorance regarding the murderous intentions and assertions of making good on such threats defy the evidence, logic, and common sense" (p. 267). Longerich draws a similar conclusion: "The German public was generally aware of the mass murder of the Jews" (p. 240).

Although Nazi propaganda was more than clear about the general intention to murder Jews, what Germans thought about the Jews, as opposed to what they knew about the Holocaust, is a vehemently disputed question, and one probably impossible, as Herf suggests, to resolve. The positions range from self-exculpatory claims of ignorance (as in Longerich's title) to Daniel Goldhagen's assertion in his 1996 book Hitler's Willing Executioners that Germans in general were possessed by an "eliminationist anti-Semitism" that led them to welcome Nazi persecution of the Jews.2

Herf does not try to untangle what Germans actually thought after this barrage of anti-Semitism. Having done one thing well, he chooses not to do a second less well: "The beginning of wisdom in these matters is a certain restraint and much less certainty regarding what 'ordinary Germans' made of the Nazi propaganda," he writes. He is reluctant to claim that Germans in general were eager to kill Jews. The Holocaust, he suggests, depended on a significant minority of fanatic anti-Semites who were surrounded by a society in which anti-Semitism was commonplace.

Longerich, on the other hand, uses a great range of sources to deduce what was going on in German minds: government and party morale reports, legal records, exile publications, Allied intelligence reports, diaries, and oral histories. Along the way, he provides a careful analysis of the strengths and weaknesses (mostly the latter) of the various sources. The problem is that, in a closed totalitarian system, there is nothing resembling a Gallup Poll one can use to decide what people think with reasonable confidence. To report too much public unhappiness was bad for a Nazi bureaucrat's career, since his job was to keep morale high. After extensive analysis, Longerich comes to an unsatisfying conclusion. Germans in general, he thinks, knew enough about what was going on to put on a face of indifference and passivity with regards to the Holocaust, but their motivation "must be seen as an attempt to escape any responsibility for events by ostentatious ignorance."

Surely that was true of some, perhaps even many. But the nature of human evil is more complicated than Longerich's conclusion suggests. A significant number of Germans did hate Jews, and were happy to suspect that they were being killed. Others were concerned about what they thought might be happening, but through cowardice, the more immediate pressures of the war, the social isolation and removal of Jews from German life, or other reasons did not think about the Jews very much.

To what extent are we who enjoy what former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl called "the blessing of a late birth" justified in judging Germans who, for whatever reason, did nothing about the persecution of the Jews? Christians, it should be noted, were not much better in this respect than anyone else. Although Longerich frequently notes Nazi concern about opposition to anti-Semitic policies from both Catholics and Protestants, the number whom we can hold up as role models is discouragingly low. Is ignorance, pretended or real, an excuse?

Herf touches on an answer in noting that Nazism was more than a political movement. It claimed to be a worldview, offering an explanation for all aspects of life. Radical anti-Semitism provided a structure in which "all riddles were solved, all historical contingency was eliminated, and everything became explicable" (p. 6). Later, he concludes that Nazi leaders really believed most of what they said about the Jews; they "pushed to the extreme the widespread human capacity for delusion and belief in illusions" and "supplied a narrative of events that seemed to offer an iron-clad explanation of them as well as justification for uniting ideology and practice in war and mass murder" (pp. 269-270).

Nazism (and its totalitarian cousin Marxism-Leninism) can perhaps be seen as an example of what Christ meant with the parable of the empty rooms: "When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest, and does not find it. Then it says, 'I will return to the house I left.' When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first." The Holocaust was not done in secret. It followed from a worldview that the Nazis proclaimed loudly and clearly, one that filled a spiritual vacuum for many Germans, one that people chose to accept. In light of that worldview's plain speaking, the excuse "We did not know anything about that!" cannot withstand scrutiny.

Randall L. Bytwerk is Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Calvin College. His most recent book is Bending Spines: The Propagandas of Nazi Germany and the German Democratic Republic(Michigan State Univ. Press). His German Propaganda Archive (www.calvin.edu/cas/gpa) provides English translations of much Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda.

1. This is an area I consider in "The Argument for Genocide in Nazi Propaganda," Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 91 (2005), pp. 37-62.

2. Goldhagen, by the way, had a predictably negative review of Longerich's book in the Hamburg daily newspaper Die Welt (May 6, 2006).

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