Library shelves bow at the weight of World War II books, but none does a great job pinning down two great ponderables: What did ordinary Germans know about the Holocaust, and when did they know it? And did they really support Hitler? Books on those subjects argue in circles.
One man who addresses those questions, by personal experience and scholarly detachment, is Rolf Schulze, 83, professor emeritus of sociology at San Diego State University. Schulze is an intellectual — in spirit, but not in preening.
He is also an energetic thinker who made a living trying to make sense out of idiotic mankind, which by itself makes him qualified to discuss Nazis. He lives in a San Carlos condo and writes about his life and other things less interesting. (He once taught a class on “human sexuality,” which I’m sure had no attendance problems.)
Schulze was born in Berlin in 1932, a year before Hitler took power. He lived through the Nazi regime, observing its terror and horror through a child’s eyes until the end. Time has not dulled his memories, and he does not candy-coat his impressions.
Schulze says the belief that Hitler was wildly popular in Germany is inaccurate. The people were manipulated by the Nazis into war, and they accepted it with great foreboding. Certainly, crowds cheered military victories, but that was giving voice to patriotism, not for Hitler.
Early on, Hitler was appreciated for his job-creating skills. But people eventually realized those jobs were largely to prepare for war.
He analyzes Hitler as would a modern political strategist: Where and with whom did his strength lie, and who was least supportive?
Hitler, in his few elections, all pre-1933, never achieved a majority. Schulze says he was strongest in Catholic Bavaria, where he got his start. He may have been aided by the quiescent approach to Nazism by the church in Rome.
“Pope Pius XII was said to be anxious not to endanger German Catholics should he condemn Nazi policies. His silence against the Nazis resulted in some calling him ‘Hitler’s Pope.’”
He says Hitler was weakest in Protestant northern Germany, where the labor movement, socialists and communists were strongest. Berlin, a workers’ town, was never more than lukewarm toward the Führer. Hitler’s experiences at rallies in Berlin before being elevated to chancellor made him leery of the German north.
Schulze draws a cautious distinction between Catholics and Protestants in their acceptance of Hitler. He says Catholics of that day were far more hierarchical than today, and were inclined to follow the church’s lead. Protestants had a more independent and often more liberal approach to political issues.
Rolf, this is what you academics call a counterfactual: If Hitler had been assassinated, say in 1933, would Germany have gone communist?
“It’s a very good possibility because the left-wing parties were the biggest, most organized opposition to Hitler. They and Nazis competed for support from the same people. That’s why they hated each other.”
The Nazis early on called themselves socialists, but once in power, quickly aligned themselves with industrialists.
Schulze says it is difficult to get a fix on knowledge of the Holocaust because Germans had learned to avert their eyes and keep their mouths shut. Additionally, the Nazis had an iron grip on the press and radio, so opposition voices were not even a whisper.
However, evidence of abused Jews were hard to miss and impossible to deny. Schulze says one prominent author estimates that 1 million Germans knew about the “Final Solution.”
“The SS and Gestapo under Heinrich Himmler were put in charge of Germany’s entire population. Every German over the age of 10 was enrolled in one or another Nazi organization. I was enrolled in the Deutsche Jugend (German Youth) on pain of losing my ration card if I did not comply.”
(Food in Berlin was not as scarce as one might think because foodstuffs were confiscated from the occupied countries and sent home to Germany, he says.)
In the window of his father’s store was a placard displaying the swastika. Even though his father was not a party member, he still had to show allegiance if he wanted to remain in business.
Germany had traditionally been something of a haven for Jews. In 1848, German Jews were granted full citizenship rights. Schulze says the intermarriage rate was so high between Jews and gentiles, Jewish leaders began to worry that Jews would disappear from Germany.
Even so, Schulze says, all of Europe festered with anti-Semitism. In Nazi propaganda, there was a constant barrage about the shifty, greedy Jews who infected Germany.
On and on, the drumbeat continued about vile Jews. Finally, when words became clubs, some cheered and others turned away, but no one dared to protest. To do so loudly was a death sentence.
The fury escalated into mass shootings in front of trenches, and eventually the death camps. Highly cultured Germany turned into a Ku Klux Klan minus the sheets, but with bigger guns.
The morning after the street violence of Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass), Schulze and his father walked past a store with a Star of David scrawled on the window. He asked what it was, and his father didn’t answer but appeared bothered by it. Schulze believes the store owner was a friend.
“The Nazis attracted many under- and unemployed workers, as well as street thugs and idlers. A man could put on the brown shirt of the Storm Troopers and suddenly feel accepted, powerful and recognized, part of something bigger than himself. He became a regimented follower who would do anything for his Führer, including kill.”
For decades, people have shaken their heads in wonder that any humans could be as brutal as many of Hitler’s minions — both military and police. Schulze says there is really no wonder to it. Many individuals, hardened by grievance or social conditions, can be trained to do bestial things once let off their leash. That was true of Germany in the ’40s, and it is of ISIS today.
Schulze’s early memories of the public mood and how it infected him as a small child have stayed with him. He recalls running home from playing and announcing in fright, “Ich have einen Juden gesehen!” (I saw a Jew in the park!)
Children’s minds tend to capture truth as snippets. He remembers an aunt who had a fox terrier that had been trained to reject its food if the word “Juden” (Jews) was uttered when the bowl was set down.
“Near the end of the war, I was in a small town in Saxony, and I saw a column of vertically striped uniformed people, terribly emaciated, being marched down the road. There were maybe a half-dozen guards with their rifles under their arms, not at all worried about these 300 or so prisoners.
“As soon as they were given permission to stop, most of them just almost fell down and began to sleep. Several dropped their pants and began to defecate or urinate along the sides of the road. These people were so skinny, emaciated and tired, I was surprised they could even get up again and be marched away. They were the most bedraggled, dehumanized beings I’ve ever seen. It left a picture that I cannot get out of my mind to this day. I was only 13, but I could not understand that Germans could have done this to people.”
Some Germans protested in their own way.
“There were German generals who saw what some troops did and resigned their commissions. They were allowed to retire. Soldiers who couldn’t do the executions were excused but not punished.”
He relates a story a different aunt told him. During the war, she lived in a Hamburg apartment building with eight units. The official in charge of ration cards gave only seven to the building, because one of the apartments was vacant ... but it really wasn’t. It was occupied by an elderly Jewish woman. Between the rationing official and the residents, they kept the woman concealed and in food for the duration. The woman later immigrated to Israel.
Had their plot been discovered, the official would have been punished, perhaps by being sent to the dreaded Eastern Front.
“(American diplomat) John Foster Dulles said that about 3,000 Jews escaped the Nazis in Berlin alone, hidden by their neighbors and friends,” Schulze says.
His father was drafted into the army and became an officer’s driver. He never fired a shot. Near the war’s end, his entire unit drove west until it met the U.S. Army and surrendered. Many thousands of German soldiers did the same, hoping to evade the clutches of the Soviets and the payback for German atrocities that would be sure to follow.
However, bowing to insistence from Stalin for a share of prisoners who could be turned into slave laborers, the Americans soon transferred Rolf’s father and his unit to the Soviets. He died soon thereafter in a prison camp. His mother survived the war.
Seeking a reason and a meaning for what happened to his homeland, Schulze paraphrases an adage that he says helps make his point: The poor believe in religion, the rich don’t need religion, and the rulers use religion. Just substitute ideology for religion, he says, and that old saying explains Hitler.
Schulze immigrated to America in 1950 and was soon drafted into the Army at the time of the Korean War. After discharge, he went to college on the GI Bill and then began his academic career.
Now settled into retirement, Schulze remains a professor of the old school. He says what he believes and invites disagreement — certainly something he couldn’t have done in the Germany of his memory.
The great anti-Nazi philosopher Viktor Frankl once wrote, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” In a way Frankl did not intend, that truism can be turned on its head. When Germans who had passionately opposed Hitler in the early ’30s felt the rough grip of the state police, they “changed themselves” and grew quiet and compliant. In today’s slang: Their mamas didn’t raise no fools.
Fanaticism stops at no border. It respects no flag. It allows no dissent.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org