In part 1, I talked about the type of men who were attracted to the KL; why they joined, and how they became inculcated and inured to the violence. How they soon became willing cogs in the machine. Here, I’d like to examine the context in which the machine grew, and the motivations which enabled the creation of this vast system of murder.
I’m reminded of the famous dichotomy between two schools of thought concerning the treatment of victims of the Nazi regime – the ‘intentionalist’ versus the ‘functionalist’. In the former, to broadly paraphrase, the treatment of the Jewish people et al was an intention of Hitler from the early days, where he made his mind up that he wished to murder them, and the path was thus straight and clearly defined. Whereas the latter theory is that Hitler had a number of fairly vague prejudices and needed targets for his bigotry, and he then, as time passed and opportunity allowed, set out broader goals which his underlings then strove and fought, often amongst themselves, to interpret and put into practice. The way the KL system developed in response to the demands and pressures of the war and of holding power, indicate that the functionalist argument is the stronger. Even by the mid 1930’s the genesis of the later debates about functionalism versus intentionalism, can be seen. I agree with Ian Kershaw’s assertion that the Nazi State was a composite, although leaning towards functionalist. That is to say, Hitler had a broad framework of ideals, including but not limited to anti-semitism, which he saw as his ‘destiny’ and which guided him from the end of the Great War, and which helped him to develop the scapegoats to explain the shock of German defeat. (Actually, in terms of World Wars, he has a crap record – played 2, won 0.) These principles took shape over time. But he was also a detached dictator in terms of the detailed running of policy, apart from military strategy, where he couldn’t keep his fingers out of the machine. The Nazi state became a plethora of competing power structures – the SS, the Armed Forces, big business, State Ministries, Party organs, all rivals for power. They competed to achieve what they thought Hitler wanted. Much has been made, especially by Holocaust deniers, of the lack of written orders from Hitler as evidence that what went on was largely kept from him. Peter Longerich seeks to resolve this in his book ‘The Unwritten Order”. But the idea of “Working towards the Führer” by those who knew that Hitler liked radical solutions to what he saw as problems or challenges, has much to commend it.
Another thought springs to mind. The phrase ‘Greater Germanic Reich’. This is at once appallingly arrogant and grotesquely hateful. It shows how Hitler and his coterie of Nazi acolytes saw themselves – masters of a Europe where other countries had no right to any destiny other than the one Hitler saw for them – to feed the German homeland, to be raped, used, bled dry, yet expected to be grateful for this Nazi largesse. I’ve read hundreds of thousands of words over many years about this regime. It began as a fascination as to how Hitler could come to dominate and manipulate a people such as the Germans were to do his bidding, as well as how so many of them could fall in line. The more I read, the more I’m appalled by the twisted, tortured attitudes of these monsters, by these malformations of human intelligence. In recent years, I’ve been attracted by a number of excellent works by excellent historians – Kershaw, Evans, Beevor, Cesarani, to name a few – who have sought to understand, and explain, the inexplicable. As I read and learn more, I find my capacity to be horrified, disgusted, reviled doesn’t diminish – if anything, it grows. As knowledge becomes greater, so does revulsion.
It’s informative and startling to look outside the searing distress of humanity and consider the simple numbers of inmates of the KL which Wachsmann quotes during the years of their existence. Hitler became German Chancellor in January 1933, albeit as part of a coalition government of which the Nazis weren’t yet dominant. It wasn’t long, however, before they began to fully grasp the wheel. Following a fire (of somewhat dubious cause) which burnt down the Reichstag building in March 1933, they quickly moved to suppress civil liberties, and set aside the rule of traditional law. In the same month, Dachau began its operation to take Nazi opponents into ‘protective custody’. It was a busy period for the Nazi’s – they also succeeded in passing the ‘Enabling Act’ which effectively suspended the last vestiges of democratic government and fully ushered in the one-party Nazi state.
By October 1934 – little more than eighteen months later – there were 2,400 inmates of SS camps. As they built more camps, harvested people from the prison system, and dreamt up more categories of people they hated and therefore would incarcerate, the numbers grew exponentially. 7,746 by December 1937, 24,000 by June 1938; 50,000 by November of that year.
The outbreak and distractions of war then served to concentrate and encourage Nazi minds rather than divert them – 80,000 incarcerated by December 1941, 224,000 by August 1943, 524,000 by 1944, and a peak figure of 714,211 by January 1945, before liberations and looming defeat began to change the scenario. It finally tallied at 550,000 by April 1st 1945. Yet another depressing element of a depressing story. And, of course, these figures don’t account for those countless thousands of souls – men, women, children, who had passed through this Dantean horror on their way to violence, punishment, torture, slavery, and death. Nazis seldom let you down when you’re looking for grotesque depravity. Let’s hope their true destiny was designed by Plato.
On a side note, looking at these figures bring to mind a book I’m reading alongside KL. (That’s why it takes me longer to get through my books – I can’t restrict myself to one book at a time!) This one is ‘Telling Lies About Hitler’ by one of my favourite historians, and one who occupies several places on my bookshelf, Richard J Evans. For anyone who hasn’t read it, it’s an account of the detective work Evans did as an expert witness for the defence in the libel action David Irving brought against Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt. In her book Denying the Holocaust Lipstadt had identified Irving amongst Holocaust deniers. Irving decided to sue. The outcome was a decisive victory for the defence, with the Judge surmising his findings thus:
“Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; …that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist, and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism….”
Back to KL. Wachsmann demonstrates how, through the Inspectorate of Camps, the IKL, the Nazis maintained that strange mixture of control and oversight which was symptomatic from Hitler downwards. For instance, with typical German efficiency, they maintained a bureaucratic grip on what went on inside the camps, with Commandants required to submit ‘daily updates on inmate numbers and categories, and monthly figures on fatalities and cause of prisoner deaths’ amongst the mass of statistics kept. There was a constant stream of instructions on every aspect of camp administration. Yet commandants were also given much latitude in running their fiefdoms. When Theodor Eicke was promoted from Inspector to take charge of the SS Death’s Head troops in Poland, his successor was one Richard Glücks, who often told commandants ‘You all know much better than me what’s going on.’ Working towards the Führer…
(Reading of Eicke’s promotion reminded me of the use of SS-Totenkopf and Einsatzkommando forces in the Nazi invasions eastward. Although SS-Totenkopf troops had committed war crimes in the invasion of France, (including the murder of 97 British prisoners of war at Le Paradis) it was the activities eastwards, such as ‘Operation Tannenburg’ in Poland, and the atrocities against civilians behind the main invasion of Barbarossa, which make it clear that when Hitler’s thoughts turned eastward, it was more than military success he sought. It was to prosecute a massive racial war, and thereby not only gain his infamous ‘Lebensraum’, but also to eradicate the population of potential opponents such and politically capable elements. It was to destroy people he saw as ‘untermensch’ – which chillingly translates as ‘subhuman creature’.)
Wachsmann regularly demonstrates how the KL system attracted those with a predilection for hatred, cruelty and violence; those without such innate characteristics would soon be indoctrinated and moulded accordingly. The constant hammering of the themes of ‘protecting the German people’ from those seen as anti-social, criminal, racially inferior, or incomparable with what was seen as the German and ‘Aryan’ ideal ensured that camp guards maintained high levels of abusive treatment towards their charges. Small wonder, then, that the step from mass cruelty to mass killing was just that – a step rather than a leap.
It’s also notable that throughout this sorry tale, the shadow of Himmler darkens each chapter. Although there’s never a sense that his empire building was designed to threaten Hitler’s hegemony (and in any case, there were too many rivals, each with their own power-base), it’s clear he saw the SS as the natural replacement for the German state. This SS state was developed to challenge, confront and ultimately replace the traditional structures of Germany; and Himmler saw himself at its head. Of course, in early times, Goering was a major obstacle to this ambition; and as time went on, he found a serious adversary in the shape of Martin Bormann, whose control of Party structures rivalled Himmler’s SS ambitions. Bugger.
I’m expecting to learn more about how Himmler sought to stand above everyone else behind Hitler when I read Peter Longerich’s biography of this chinless criminal. Of course, this rivalry reminds us that whilst Hitler’s acolytes vied to be his most valuable disciple, none made any effort to usurp the Fuhrer – at least not until Hitler was ensconced safely in the bunker in the last week of his life, and there was no chance of his survival. Only then did the rats seek to take the wheel of the ship; and by then they were fervently hoping, against all evidence, that it wasn’t really going to sink. Unfortunately for them…