Claudia Koonz is Professor of History at Duke University. Her additional publications include, with Renate Bridenthal and Susan Stuard, Becoming Visible: Women in European History (Boston, MA, Houghton Mifflin, 1987), Mothers in the Fatherland, Women, the Family, and Nazi Politics (New York, NY, St. Martin’s Press, 1987), and several journal articles that deal generally with gender and race issues in the history of Nazi Germany.
Professor Koonz teaches within the Program in Women’s Studies at Duke University, and much of what she has written has its focus on this area of scholarship. In writing The Nazi Conscience, however, she has eschewed a focus on gender issues in favor of a broader consideration of the place occupied by what might be termed “cultural ethics” within the Nazi weltanschauung.
More particularly, Professor Koonz examines the way in which the Nazi movement facilitated “the incursion of a secular, ethnic faith into an area of human life traditionally assigned to religion: the formation of a conscience.” Her investigation of this issue is fascinating, and her conclusions and their implications are compelling.
Professor Koonz first draws our attention to the fact that all of the world’s major cultures share a recognition that it is in the common interest of both the individual and society to embrace what is often called “the Golden Rule”, namely that one should treat others as one wants or expects others to treat oneself. While the Golden Rule is a noble concept, Koonz points out that it is often very difficult to determine which “others” are worthy of equal treatment, and which are not. The default position for reconciling this problem is that unworthy “others” are those whom we can identify as not belonging to our community.
The concept of “otherness”, then, carries with it an inherently negative connotation. Nowhere is this more patently clear than in the area of religious belief, where the unworthy “others”—those who are not Catholic, or not Christian, or not Orthodox, to name but a few—are readily identified as the unsaved by the members of a particular “belief community”. Outside the religious context, especially where ethnic and political considerations are paramount, decisions about which persons or groups are worthy of fair and equitable treatment, and which are not, are often made on the basis of what might be described as a secular religion—what Koonz calls “ethnic nationalism” or “ethnic virtue”—and with the same sort of self righteous passion that informs religious decisions.
Professor Koonz suggests that the “Nazi conscience” was defined by a concept of ethnic virtue founded upon four assumptions shared by National Socialists and their kindred spirits. Koonz argues that when the Party succeeded in causing these assumptions to be sufficiently internalized by the recipients of the Nazi message, they brought about the inexorable expulsion of “Germans stigmatized as alien from their fellow citizens’ universe of moral obligation”.
Among these shared assumptions, the first was that the life of a Volk is like that of an organism, complete with stages of life, including birth, expansion, decline and death. The fear of Nazis and others like them was that the Volk, like other western cultures, was in decline, indeed, on the slippery slope to extinction, and that it would be replaced by a “barbarian” culture. For the Nazis, such an unthinkable event could only be thwarted by individual sacrifice and collective effort.
The second assumption shared by Nazis was that, as with every other cultural community, the Volk possessed unique values that were appropriate to its nature and to the environment within which it had evolved. But whereas some contemporary social scientists sought to utilize the distinctions between differing community values as a call for tolerance, the Nazis saw such differences as a means for demonstrating the superiority of the Volk over other ethnic or cultural groups.
The third assumption of the Nazis followed logically, they contended, from the first and the second. When threatened with extinction by an inferior or “barbarian” cultural group, a morally superior community, such as the Volk, possesses the right, and indeed the obligation, to use aggressive violence to defend itself, and if necessary to exterminate, the “lower”, “inferior”, or “barbarian” civilization that threatens its existence.
That such thinking was not limited to Nazis is elegantly demonstrated by Koonz with the following quotation: “The nobility of the Redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them…The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they should die than live like the miserable wretches that they are.”
The author of this revealing quotation was L. Frank Baum, an American journalist who, if recognized at all by Americans, is identified not with the virtual extermination of the Native American, but as the creator of the Wizard of Oz, a work which, in its celluloid form, evokes an entirely different America, in which the only thing exterminated is a wicked witch. The final assumption embraced by the Nazis and their associates is likewise a logical sequitur of its predecessors. In order to fulfill its obligation to defend itself, a government that reflects the “ethnic virtue” of its subjects has the right to annul the legal protections of those of its citizens whom that government defines as “other”.
For Koonz, the principal question to be addressed concerning the “Nazi conscience” is the “process by which racial beliefs came to shape the outlook of the ordinary Germans on whose cooperation Nazi policies depended” (emphasis added). Her method for confronting this issue is to consider the three principal ways in which the Nazis popularized their concept of “ethnic virtue”.
The first of these was the Party’s promotion of Adolf Hitler as a “preacher of communitarian morality among members of the Volk”. Secondly, the Nazi Party, using a group of willing academics that included such luminaries as the philosopher Martin Heidegger, the theologian Gerhard Kittel, and the political theorist Carl Schmitt, launched a public relations campaign designed to “rebrand” Jews as pariahs. Finally, the Party worked to create a consensus about racial aims and strategies among the bureaucrats who would be charged with formulating and administering Germany’s racial policies.
It is remarkable that such a rabidly racist person as Adolf Hitler was capable of realizing that the populace upon which his ultimate success depended did not share his opinions about race, and that overt efforts to persuade them otherwise would be counterproductive. Yet, as Professor Koonz makes clear, Hitler did appreciate the reality of the problem, and had done so since the beginning of his political career. As the Fuehrer had expressed it in Mein Kampf, “the ethnic state must perform the most gigantic educational task [i.e., the transformation of fundamental social values]. And some day this will seem to be a greater deed than the most victorious wars”.
Indeed, Hitler himself took the lead in restraint, thereby sending a message to his minions that could not have been misinterpreted. As Koonz points out, there were only three occasions between April, 1933 and September, 1939, in which Hitler publicly gave vent to his “phobic racial hatred”. In connection with the 1935 Nuremberg Rally, Hitler delivered a speech to the Reichstag in which he laid out the groundwork supporting legislation directed at depriving citizens of Jewish extraction of their legal status within Germany. Two years later, once again as part of the Nuremberg Rally festivities, and before his honored guest Benito Mussolini, the Fuehrer denounced “the Jewish-Bolshevik contagion” and called upon other western leaders to join Germany in confronting the “Jewish-Bolshevist, international league of criminals”. And finally, while celebrating the sixth anniversary of his rule, Hitler announced his prediction that, in the event of another world war, extermination would be the fate of the Jews.
Yet Hitler did not refrain from giving voice to his hatred of Jews, but instead did so more subtly, as by describing unpopular ideas as “Jewish”, saying that the concept of “women’s emancipation” was the product of “the Jewish intellect”, and observing that because of their fear and loathing of the Third Reich, Jews were likely to “wage a battle for life and death” in order to bring it to destruction. Instead of focusing upon the racial danger, Hitler spoke to the issue of moral decay.
The Party rank and file followed their Fuehrer’s example. When they addressed general audiences (i.e., those largely composed of the public at large, instead of the Party faithful), devoted Nazis toned down their racism, emphasizing instead the need for ethnic fundamentalism. Emphasis upon the spiritual qualities of the Volk, rather than on biology and race, characterized the themes favored by Nazi speakers. National Socialism, they said, “is nothing more than the greatest celebration of life.” In print as well, the Party made “the Jewish question” into only one of a mass of other important matters.
In The Nazi Primer, a 1938 translation of a Hitler Jugend textbook, only 3 of the volume’s 256 pages were devoted to Jews. The aim of the Party’s campaign was to persuade the public that the exclusion of Jews from German society and culture was a mere byproduct of ethnic fundamentalism, not its primary purpose. The process described by Koonz went farther than the mere soft-pedalling of racism by Hitler and Party workers. At the Fuehrer’s direction, the Party set out to systematically meet “the most gigantic educational task” of transforming the fundamental social values of Germans.
The person chosen to lead this drive toward ethical transformation was a physician named Walter Gross. At the age of 29 in 1933, Gross was appointed to head the National Socialist Office for Enlightenment on Population Policy and Racial Welfare. For the next dozen years, Gross “infused public culture with knowledge about the supposedly superior Volk and the undesirable ‘others’, by which he meant Jews, the ‘genetically damaged’, African Germans, gypsies, homosexuals, and ‘asocial’ elements (sex criminals, hoboes, and others)”.
In September 1933, within a few short months after his appointment, Gross was invited to speak at the Nazi Party Rally at Nuremberg. On the evening before the commencement of the Rally, Adolf Hitler read the prepared text of each speaker. The Fuehrer approved Gross’s sermon on ethnic morality. Across the national radio net, Gross railed against the financial and cultural costs of maintaining “unworthy” beings at state expense, generally against the “liberal experiment” that had nearly extinguished a healthy Volk, but not about the threat posed by world Jewry.
The Party did more than simply “lead from the top” to mislead German Jews and their gentile countrymen into perceiving the Nazi regime as benign, or to “rebrand” Jews as “others” not worthy of the Volk through the efforts of Gross, his agency, and intellectual elites. The Party also made use of the bureaucracy, now under its complete control, and the instrument through which Germans interacted with their government, to create a social atmosphere hostile to Jews (as well as homosexuals, Gypsies, and others). How to successfully use that instrument to achieve the desired purpose was not self evident.
The question confronting German bureaucrats at all levels of government was how to make life intolerable for Jews in ways that met the expectations of the zealously anti-Semitic within the Party, without at the same time alienating ordinary citizens. During the period 1933-1935, Party bureaucrats wrote hundreds of memoranda and conducted dozens of meetings in which possible answers to this question were debated. The result was the institution of a bureaucratic persecution that, while having the appearance of reason and benignity, turned out to be more pernicious than pogroms. Not only did its calculated façade mislead its victims into believing that the situation was less malign than it was, but its policies, backed by the power of the state, were far more thorough than sporadic violence.
It is in her effort to grapple with the process by which ordinary Germans were brought to view the world through racist lenses that Professor Koonz shines. There is, first of all, the “elephant in the room” that forms the framework of the author’s study, namely the fact that Hitler and the Nazi party were compelled to find a way to reform the attitudes of most Germans about race in the first place. If Koonz had done nothing else in this work, she still would have made an important contribution to the study of the Nazi phenomenon by highlighting this point.
The popular assumption in the United States, encouraged by the media, film and academe, is that Germans are and always have been racially prejudiced toward Jews. If that were the case, however, the Fuehrer and his followers, among other things, would not have toned down their anti-Semitic language in order to avoid a popular backlash. Professor Koonz’s comments on the tendency to generalize about the Germans and their modern history are well worth bearing in mind by anyone who studies this field.
“As tempting as it might be to generalize about “ordinary” Germans’ attitudes toward Jews, any generalization distorts a complex reality. Aside from a hardcore minority of fervent Jew-haters, Germans reacted negatively to what they perceived as unsanctioned violence, but they came to accept measures with an aura of legality. When citizens, whether or not they supported Nazism, ignored one or another anti-Semitic measure, they may have acted out of empathy with Jews or out of defiance against laws that restricted their consumer choices. Although it is wise to remain agnostic on the topic of motivation, it seems clear that Germans were neither brainwashed nor terrorized. Rather, they conformed to regulations of which they approved and circumvented those they disliked. The memoirs of Jewish Germans who emigrated attest to the existence of both violent anti-Semites who drove them out and loyal friends whose civil courage enabled them to escape alive.”
Finally, the broad conclusion that Professor Koonz reaches, as expressed in the ultimate paragraph of her work, is more meaningful in September 2009, than it was when she wrote it six years earlier. Such is the mark of all good historical thought.
“In an age of what critics call moral meltdown, when conventional codes governing private morality relax, the struggle between “good and evil” migrates to the political front. Political leaders who appear to embody the communitarian virtues of a bygone age purport to stand as beacons of moral rectitude in a sea of sin. Although they incite hatred against anyone they deem to be ethnic outsiders—whether sexual degenerates, pacifists, defenders of human rights, or simply misfits—their devoted constituencies share a fear of moral and physical pollution so profound it transcends partisan politics. Long after the demise of Nazism, ethnic fundamentalism continues to draw its power from the vision of an exclusive community of “us” without “them”.