Paved with indifference

The Nazi Terror: Gestapo, Jews and ordinary Germans

Eric Johnson <em>John Murray, 656pp, £25</em>

Many of the books recently made available in Britain about the history of Nazi Germany and "the Holocaust" were written originally for American publishers. Which means our view of those events, and the debates we hold about them, are increasingly coloured by the interests of that particular market, one rather different from our own. As a result, the work of British historians, long labouring in that vineyard but not necessarily writing for the large general readership of the US, is often ignored or undervalued over here. We hear more about the provocative but shallow works by American historians such as Daniel Goldhagen or Peter Novick than we do about the solid research done by the British scholars Richard Evans or Ian Kershaw. Indeed, there was once a time, not so long ago, when the work of British historians on Germany could not find English publishers at all.

With this in mind, I was amused to read that the American author of an excellent new book on Hitler's Germany was asked by a New York publisher, on completing his research, why anyone should care about "a book on Nazi terror written by someone named Eric Johnson who is obviously neither Jewish nor German". Even in America, it seems, it may not always be easy to secure a publisher. Fortunately for Johnson and for us, he found one, and his book is now available through the good offices of John Murray.

Johnson is interested in crime and punishment, and in ordinary Germans, and his book is an important and powerful antidote to Goldhagen's unpleasant and overstated thesis that "ordinary Germans" were Hitler's "willing executioners". Johnson argues convincingly that, although the Germans knew perfectly well what was going on, they were essentially bored by the fate of the Jews. They did little to stop the Holocaust, though most of them did not want the Jews to be killed, and many provided them with understanding and support. He echoes the view articulated many years ago by Kershaw that, while the road to Auschwitz may have been built by hate, it was also "paved with indifference".

Johnson's conclusion is based on heavy-duty research into the files of the Sondergerichte, or Special Courts, and (when available) of the Gestapo itself, in the three Rhineland communities of Cologne, Krefeld and Bergheim. The Sondergerichte were established in the aftermath of the Reichstag Fire in February 1933, and the so-called "Reichstag Fire Decree" that gave the Nazi state unlimited powers over the citizenry. Johnson has also examined the records of de-Nazification trials and interviewed survivors. The resulting book is well constructed and readable. It casts a sharp light on the workings of the Gestapo.

Filled with illuminating anecdotes and character sketches of many provincial protagonists, The Nazi Terror is a rather less daunting work than its title might suggest. Against the trend, Johnson emphasises that the Gestapo made rather a small impact on the life of ordinary Germans, most of whom "were usually left alone to control their own lives".

He begins by looking at the victims of the terror imposed by the Gestapo. This was essentially selective. Jews were its most important target, but it was never a blanket phenomenon affecting the entire society. The Gestapo and other Nazi police organs were obliged to focus their rather limited resources "on certain groups of people at certain times". To begin with, it was the left that suffered the most (which is often neglected in studies specifically geared to the Holocaust). "The first requirement" mentioned by Hitler in Mein Kampf, Johnson recalls, was "the elimination of the Marxist poison from our national body". Jews were in the front line, but the terror in the early years was applied "with equal, and sometimes even greater, force against communists and other leftist functionaries and activists".

Later, after the leftist threat had been eliminated, the terror concentrated on potential religious opposition and on people the Nazis perceived as social outsiders: homosexuals, gypsies, career criminals and the physically and mentally disabled. The resistance was not negligible. Johnson pays particular attention to the extraordinary record of the Jehovah's Witnesses, who openly and fearlessly distributed their anti-Nazi pamphlets. Heinrich Himmler was so impressed by their resistance that he hoped to resettle them "in the east" after the war, "where they would serve as a kind of eastern defence wall against Asiatic influence".

Johnson examines the illuminating case of a Jesuit priest, Father Josef Spieker, who caused his order as much trouble as he did the Nazis. Father Spieker electrified his Cologne congregation one day in October 1934, by announcing that "Germany has only one Fuhrer. That is Christ." After a spell in a concentration camp and in prison, he crossed the frontier to be rather coolly welcomed by a Jesuit college in Holland. The Jesuit General in Rome refused to see him, and he was packed off to the other side of the world, to Chile. When he continued to preach anti-Nazi sermons, he was banished to a forgotten village far from the capital.

While overt opponents of the regime were pursued relentlessly, ordinary Germans remained curiously unaffected by the terror: "Most Germans may not even have realised until very late in the war, if ever, that they were living in a vile dictatorship". Nazi terror was unleashed against Jews, and against innumerable Slavic Untermenschen in the east, with barely a beep of protest.

Yet ordinary Germans knew that they themselves had little to fear from the Gestapo or from the concentration camps. They just had to be careful, as they had been under previous German governments. They were neither perpetrators of great crimes nor even participants in their own history; they were simply bystanders.

This does rather let everyone off the hook. Some Germans were more guilty than others. Johnson makes a clear distinction between "ordinary Germans" and the provincial Gestapo officers and Nazi judges that he has studied. These men played a crucial role in coating Nazi terror "with a legalistic gloss", helping to legitimise their activities among a largely faithful German population. Their signal assistance to the Nazi cause has often been downplayed, largely because most of them escaped censure.

In the 1930s, the Nazis destroyed the left, obliged the churches to keep silent and forced thousands of Jews into exile. By the outbreak of war in 1939, the Jewish community in Germany, which had been more than half a million in 1933, had dropped to less than 200,000 - only twice the backlog of asylum-seekers in Britain.

Richard Gott and Martin Gilbert's study of appeasement, The Appeasers, is being reissued by Phoenix Press