By Peter Fritzsche (Guest Contributor)
Seventy-five years ago, Helmuth James von Moltke, the great-grandnephew of the famed general in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, and later, a lonely prisoner of conscience whom the Nazis would execute in 1945, thought the world was coming to an end. Working for the German military in Berlin, he knew a great deal. “The day is so full of gruesome news that I can hardly write,” he confided to his diary on October 21, 1941: “In Serbia, two villages have been burned to the ground. 1700 men and 240 women have been executed. That is the ‘penalty’ imposed for an attack on three German soldiers.” These outrages were “just the first ominous signs of the coming storm.” “Since Saturday,” Moltke added, Berlin’s “Jews are being rounded up.” “What do I say,” he wondered, “if someone asks: and what did you do during these times?” How can “I sit at the table in my heated apartment and drink tea?” The Nazi machinery of destruction continued to supply a steady stream of victims: “Russian prisoners, evacuated Jews, evacuated Jews, Russian prisoners, executed hostages.”
In fall 1941, Berliners could see the Holocaust taking shape. Elisabeth Freund, a young Jew, reported on the “horrible wave of anti-Semitic propaganda:” “Along the whole Kurfürstendamm signs hang in almost every shop,” she noted: “‘No Entry for Jews’ or ‘Jews Not Served.’ If you walk along the street you see ‘Jew,’ ‘Jew,’ ‘Jew’ on every house, on every window pane, in every store.” CBS new correspondent Howard K. Smith pointed out the “jet-black” leaflets littering mailboxes. They have “a bright yellow star on the cover” with “the words: ‘Racial Comrades! When you see this emblem, you see your Death enemy!’” Nazi Germany was startlingly frank about its life-and-death struggle with the Jews. By contrast, in Albert Camus’ veiled novel about World War II, The Plague, it took a long time before city officials dared to use the word “plague;” notices were put up where no one would see them, and newspapers only slowly reported on the death of victims. There was no such hesitancy about what the Nazis considered to be the Jewish plague in 1941.
Ordinary Germans understood the broad outlines of the destruction of Jewish communities. They deliberated the deportations of neighbors occurring around them. “The ones from in our neighborhood have had to assemble themselves in Bremen,” wrote one Red Cross helper–“in 2 big schools, right near Heinz and Alma. There they reside with kit and caboodle and they look just terrible.” But these small flickers of sympathy had to be extinguished; “Jews now have to take responsibility for their own kind.” At the same time, news about the murder of Jewish civilians in the Soviet Union–the destination of many of Germany’s deported Jews–raced across Germany. News about Babi Yar, the “big bloodbath” of Kiev’s Jews at the end of September 1941, reached a schoolteacher in Breslau already on October 11. The rumors usually came in three parts, revealing a genuine sense of horror. First, there was the information that the victims included women and children; second, came the fact that victims went to their deaths naked or partly naked; and third, the revelation that SS shooters, the Nazi paramilarities, sometimes went mad. The reference to the SS shows that already in 1941 Germans distinguished SS killers from the allegedly “clean” Wehrmacht, the regular troops.
The mix of pity, horror, and justification was typical, but came in different combinations. Germans plainly deliberated their regime’s anti-Jewish actions and decided for themselves where exactly to put the information about German killers and Jewish victims. Loyal Nazis such as the Red Cross worker embraced the racial doctrines of the regime, including “special treatment” for the Jews. The course of events, as persecution gave way to outright murder, pulled them deeper into the Third Reich. Others confronted the horror engulfing Jews but since they distinguished “SS shooters” from the regular army, they understood the crimes as outrages undertaken by fanatics rather than as part of a comprehensive state policy. Appalled at the fate of the Jews, a large number of Germans still located the Holocaust on the periphery of wartime events. Nazi sympathizers endeavored to excise empathy altogether by putting Germany’s Phoenix-like rise from defeat in 1918 to victory so near at hand in 1941 first, while doubters of all kinds contained dangerous knowledge by putting the source of anxiety to the side in order to preserve their benevolent idea of Germany.
Peter Fritzsche is the W. D. & Sarah E. Trowbridge Professor of History at the University of Illinois. The author of nine books, including the award-winning Life and Death in the Third Reich, he lives in Urbana, Illinois.