Americans love World War II. Our modern concept of ourselves is defined by our perceived role in that war. A list of American movies set in the war is so long it can’t be crammed onto a single Wikipedia page.
It was the perfect war. We didn’t chose it. The stakes were absolute. Nothing about our democratic system could have survived our defeat. Our European enemy was a ruthless aggressor, aflame with mindless bigotry, engaged in a campaign of systemized, industrial murder against a series of scapegoated minorities, none more cruelly abused than the Jews. It was an epic battle of light against darkness, in which we found ourselves on the good side.
As a battered world staggered back toward normalcy, an effort emerged to see that that this evil “never again” spread its wings over a civilized nation. Americans embraced this campaign with the Manichean vigor born of our Puritan roots. Hitler became the Satan of our civic religion, and the Nazis its demonic minions. We taught the “lessons of the Holocaust” to schoolchildren. We celebrated our holiest war in art, culture and especially films.
Looking back on our World War II fetish from the perspective of the Trump Era, a horrible miscalculation looms large. In our rush to demonize the Nazis, we missed a vital insight. Most Nazis were ordinary people, pursuing ordinary goals, with little real interest in politics. We created a mythology in which Nazis were so malignant and abhorrent that they could never be relatable. They could never be your smiling neighbor, your admired teacher, your uncle. Why do Americans so deeply cherish our World War II mythology? That mythology turns all of us into saints on a jihad, immune to human nature, forever the good guys. We are learning the horrible truth too late.
Recall as many films, books or other media on World War II as your mind can conjure. How many of them explore the experience of being an ordinary German in 1930 or 1935? What inspired ordinary Germans to join or collaborate with the Nazis? Better yet, what were the French, Dutch or Danish collaborators in the 1940’s thinking? To the extent that this question is addressed at all in popular mythology, we attribute their collaboration to personal evil. That characterization isn’t false, but it is dangerously myopic.
Melita Maschmann was a restless teenager when Hitler came to power in 1933. She joined the Hitler Youth as a rebellion against her parents. They belonged to the Conservative Party which had handed power to Hitler with some reluctance. Through the Hitlerjugend (HJ) she found a chance to make a powerful social contribution rather than merely being groomed for polite society. Her best friend, Marianne Schweitzer, was half-Jewish. With a cluelessness typical of many Nazis Melita urged her to join the HJ.
Why did she do it? In her own words:
Whenever I probe the reasons which drew me to join the Hitler Youth, I always come up against this one: I wanted to escape from my childish, narrow life and I wanted to attach myself to something that was great and fundamental.
What we miss about the rise of Fascism in Europe, to our great danger, was its ordinariness, it’s banality. For Maschmann and millions of other young people, the Hitler Youth was a fun, state-sponsored youth group. They went camping. They traveled on community service missions. Sure there were torches and menacing anti-Semitic speeches, but for years after Hitler seized power they never witnessed this ideology expressed in its inevitable violence. Like Donald Trump’s rants, followers dismissed much of Hitler’s bluster.
From Maschmann’s memoir, remarking on a colleague’s dismissal of anti-Semitic rhetoric:
She had also considered the virulent anti-semitism to be simply a passing excess which the party itself would one day disavow.
It may sound astounding that someone with this viewpoint should have been able to remain for many years in the ranks of the top leadership of the National Socialist Youth movement. I am convinced that this was not just one exceptional case. Many of us there were first and foremost in search of a platform for youth work. We were only secondarily interested in politics, and even then only under duress.
Maschmann rose through the ranks of the HJ, becoming a full-time worker on service missions with impoverished farm families in Eastern Germany. When the Germans invaded Poland she moved in behind them, helping to resettle ethnic German families on land cleared of Poles. As the war advanced, she took an active role in the removal of Poles from lands further and further into Poland. It never occurred to her to ask where the Polish families she was herding onto trains were being sent. The SS men simply explained that they were being resettled farther east. Evil grows slow, but strong, and it thrives on ignorance.
Maschmann’s family was killed in the bombings of German cities. Later in the war she was relocated to Berlin. She escaped the brutal retribution of the Red Army by fleeing to Austria, where she was captured by US troops. After years in post-war internment camps she began to reckon with her past, but it would take many more years for her to acknowledge her crimes. She never saw the concentration camps, and continued to deny their existence long after the war.
Maschmann’s Jewish friend would narrowly escape the country after her father was beaten on Kristallnacht. Marianne Schweitzer and her family were among the lucky few who gained entrance to a United States that was actively turning away Jewish refugees.
Maschmann’s story is common among the Nazis lucky enough to survive the war and escape prosecution, but we never hear those stories. We never hear about the nice, polite, ordinary people who decided for one reason or another to support the Nazis.
Ursula Mahlendorf’s father joined the SS in their small town on the Eastern border in 1933. He wasn’t particularly interested in Hitler or the Jews, but the SS had an excellent local club which he hoped would improve his plumbing business. She joined the HJ after his death in 1935, over her mother’s quiet concerns, because the organization gave her a larger family and a sense of purpose.
Most of the German officer corps in place prior to Hitler’s rise were either hostile to Hitler or at least skeptical. It was illegal for soldiers to belong to the Nazi Party prior to 1933. A large percentage of the men who led Hitler’s armies despised the Nazis, yet still collaborated.
Even before Hitler seized power, Nazis were pastors, mayors, school teachers, doctors and scientists. All over Germany, men who served in roles as police or other public servants joined the Nazi Party for largely personal motives. Most Nazis were ordinary people, with dull lives and no remarkable moral traits of any note. These unremarkable people joined together to unleash a Holocaust on the Jews and trigger a European Apocalypse. By depicting individual Nazis as monsters, we make them otherworldly characters, people we couldn’t possibly know, people who could never be us.
Melita Maschmann relates a haunting story in her memoir.
During the trial of Eichmann I frequently talked to the seventeen-year-old daughter of a Hitler Youth comrade of mine who was shot down as a pilot shortly before the end of the war. One day the girl asked me to describe the particular characteristics of her father, whose friend I had been. I gave her an honest picture of a humorous, helpful, somewhat lazy and not exactly tidy but thoroughly decent man who was particularly fond of animals.
“And he was a real Nazi?” asked the girl.
“Yes,” I replied, “he was a convinced National Socialist.”
“But you said that he was helpful and thoroughly decent…”
How do we grapple with the evil carried out by ordinary people? Here in the US, the same construct plagues our efforts to wrestle with our legacy of slavery and the Civil War. Our own refusal to acknowledge that nice people can spawn horrors preserves a dangerous vulnerability in our culture. From Maschmann:
One day it could happen that someone who wants to stir up trouble will come and say to the young people who were only children at the end of the war: “Look at your parents. Do you believe they are villains or fools? No, of course not. But you know that they were National Socialists. Your schools and the so called mass media have been telling you ever since you can remember that National Socialism was the rule of the devil. You yourselves did not experience it, so you cannot check if these statements are true. But you know your parents better than anything else, and you believe they are decent people. Do you believe they would voluntarily have served the rule of the devil? There is something wrong somewhere. In other words it cannot be true that National Socialism was a bad thing. The democrats have been serving you up with that fairy story for long enough….
Sounds a lot like, “Heritage, not Hate.” How can my people, who I know to be good, have committed such a heinous outrage? If we can’t recognize the complexity of ordinary people, the capacity of indifference to spawn horror, then we won’t be prepared to halt its rise.
Generations of books, films and other World War II entertainment aimed at demonizing the Nazis have carried a dangerous glitch. By hallowing ourselves and our people in those stories, we lost the warnings of that age. Out of that gap in our understanding has emerged a regime that threatens to destroy our democratic experiment. Most Nazis were people just like us, people who loved their children, adored their pets, and treated their families and friends with kindness. Evil can grow in the hearts of otherwise unremarkable, fundamentally decent people. And that evil, if left unchallenged, can engulf the world. It can happen here.
A final quote from Maschmann’s memoir places this dangerous oversight in perspective:
The ghastly thing was just the fact that it was not gangsters and roughnecks, but decent, intelligent and moral people who allowed themselves to be induced to acquiesce in something deeply evil and to serve it.