This article is an edited transcript of The Myth and Reality of Hitler’s Secret Police with Frank McDonough, available on History Hit TV.
We all have an idea of what a civilized society looks like. We like classical music, we go to the theatre, we play the piano, we like to read nice novels, we like to hear poetry and we take our children for walks in the countryside. We think all those things make us civilized.
But look at Reinhard Heydrich: he had a piano in his office and would play Mozart at lunchtime. Then, in the afternoon, he would organise countless deaths in the concentration camps. He would sign away the lives of millions of people with the sweep of a pen.
It’s important to understand that civilisation is more than just culture. Civilisation is about morality and behaving correctly.
People like Heydrich lost their morality. They believed in an ideology so passionately that they could go to the opera or the theatre and then, on the same night, execute a group of people.
When Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, one of the leaders of an assassination plot against Hitler, was shot dead in a courtyard, some of the people involved in that had probably just been out to dinner or to see a play at the theatre.
The reason people went along with such things was that, like most of us, they had a stake in society, they had nice jobs, nice houses, a nice family. In other words, they subverted their personality for their own personal interests. And that’s precisely what so many people did in Nazi Germany.
Maybe you just want to keep your job?
That was so often the trajectory of the Third Reich. People would tell themselves, “I’m not a member of the Nazi Party, but I do want to keep my nice job as a professor in the university, so I’ll just keep quiet”.
Or the head of a radio station thinking he’d better keep quiet about the fact that he voted for the SPD during the Weimar period.
That’s what most people did. It’s a sad reflection of human nature that the greater the stake in society you have the more likely you are to acquiesce.
A good example might be a lawyer.
So many lawyers were involved in the killing machine. In fact, the SS favoured lawyers because they felt that they could organise the paperwork well. Many bureaucrats went along with the whole thing.
It’s easy to say that Hitler was a deranged lunatic assisted by a gang of criminals, and that the people of Germany were either a bit awful or they were intimidated by the Gestapo. But the truth is more nuanced, and it should force us to think about ourselves.
Not many of us would be among those brave and individual thinkers who would stand up and say, “This is wrong”.
We’re interested in Nazi Germany because when we read about it, we tend to see its people as monsters.
But they weren’t all criminals and monsters at the beginning. They gradually evolved, and they steadily started to accept the premises of what was going on in the Third Reich. It’s a gradual process, a sort of evolution towards evil.
Gradually, by continually compromising, people can end up in that position.
The case of Franz Stangl, who ended up being the commandant at Treblinka, is a good example.
In 1938, when Austria was being invaded, he was a police detective in the Austrian police force. Somebody told him that the Nazis were coming in one Monday morning, so he broke into his personnel file and put in a falsified Nazi Party membership card.
Stangl forged the card; he wasn’t a member of the Nazi party.
When the Nazis occupied, they immediately went through the files of all the policemen and identified Stangl as a party member. It was a tremendous lie, but enabled him to keep his job.
Consequently, he ended up in the T-4 programme, because he was seen as a reliable person. T-4 was a euthanasia programme that aimed to kill off the physically and mentally handicapped.
Stangl then got the job of a commandant at Treblinka, which was a pure and simple death camp. He ended up being the master of death, responsible in one year for nearly a million Jewish deaths.
And it all started with his desire to keep his job, to save his skin.
These are the kind of compromises we should pay attention to when looking at the Third Reich. That moment when one might think, “Well, I don’t really want to lose my job”, is something we can all identify with.
There’s nothing uniquely awful about the people of Germany in that period.
People will compromise with bullying and evil, it goes on all the time.
German efficiency made all of the evil much more streamlined. The concentration camps were built extremely efficiently and there was enormous amounts of documentation surrounding them.
The Gestapo files are extremely detailed. They would go on for days and days interviewing people, recording what they did and taking photographs. It was a highly streamlined system.
When it comes to the actual Holocaust itself, we see the Gestapo organising the deportations. They organised the trains, they booked the trains, they got the victims to pay for their own train tickets without telling them exactly what’s going to happen to them at the camps. There was an orderly system.
Then they recycled. We all have various recycling bins in the back garden. Well, the Nazis were doing recycling in the death camps.
The spectacles were recycled, the gold teeth were recycled, the clothes were recycled – even the hair was recycled.
A lot of women were going around in the 1950s wearing wigs made from the hair of Holocaust victims and they never even knew.
Underlying it all was a tremendous industrial efficiency. On the surface, there were all these Teutonic festivals going on, pretend festivals celebrating Ancient Germany. But ultimately, the regime was running on a Mercedes Benz engine. It was very modern.
The aim of the regime, to dominate the world through force and then to kill people more efficiently, was only achievable through modern technology. That’s how you end up with a factory of death.
Addressing the question of how the Holocaust happened, Götz Alyhas said that it came about through problem-solving and university-educated academics and scientists thinking about how they could kill people in the shortest possible time.
Indeed, many of the people who were involved in Nazism were very highly qualified.