Reader Review: Model Nazi
This is a book that needed to be written. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, over sixty years after a crowd of 15,000 turned out to witness his execution, this is the first full biography of Arthur Greiser to appear in English. It is, I would suggest, a resounding success.
Greiser’s name may not be immediately familiar. Not quite at the level of the likes of Himmler, Goebbels or Goering, Greiser achieved success at the senior middle-management level of the German Nazi Party. As a Gauleiter or territorial leader of the Warthegau, an area of western Poland annexed by Germany, he actively sought to transform the region under his control into a model Nazi state. This involved implementing a process of ‘Germanization’ that included transporting half a million ethnic Germans to the region, deporting hundreds of thousands of Poles whilst imposing a cruel system of apartheid on the remainder, exploiting the slave labour of the Jewish population and, finally, murdering tens of thousands of Jews. Greiser was the first to force Jews into a ghetto, the ghetto of Lodz; the first to order the mass murder of those who were deemed incapable of work; the first to use gas to carry out mass murder; and the first to set up an extermination camp, the relatively small camp at Chelmo. Greiser was also the first war criminal to be executed for crimes against peace.
Epstein argues that Greiser’s crimes were, however, not those of a psychopath or a soulless bureaucrat, nor that he was simply a pragmatic realist or an ordinary man driven to genocide by the pressures of extraordinary times. Instead, building on the work of Michael Mann who claimed that ‘the origins of mass murder lay substantially in embittered ethnic imperial revisionism’, she defends the thesis that Greiser, like many other Nazi criminals, including Hitler, was ‘an example of a particular kind of perpetrator: one shaped by a volkisch (racialized) nationalism rooted in the ethnic tensions of borderland regions’. Greiser came from the Prussian-Polish borderlands, an area that had changed hands a number of times in recent history. As he grew up, he had contact both with Poles and Jews. As a Nazi, however, he had a number of potential weak spots – his war record during the First World War was questionable, he had been a member of the Freemasons, and he joined the Nazi Party relatively late, in 1929. He therefore felt the need to prove his loyalty to the Nazi Party. During the 1930s, feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability, the need to prove himself as a model Nazi, combined with a newly found fanatical nationalism, created a cocktail that would lead to ethnic cleansing and eventually to genocide.
The author tells Greiser’s story in a coherent and even balanced manner. She draws on newly uncovered sources, both German and Polish, including Greiser’s personal letters and interviews with members of his family and a number of his former associates. One of Epstein’s most important contributions to the scholarly study of the Third Reich is her argument that the mass murder of Jews in the Wartegau is best understood as part of Greiser’s massive ‘Germanization’ effort, which he hoped would serve as a model for others to follow. As Epstein describes it: ‘Germanization involved grand cultural programs, huge urban renewal projects, the redesigning of city apartments and rural homes, the alteration of the landscape and climate and, not least, the resettlement, deportation, and murder of hundreds of thousands of individuals’. Epstein also successfully shows that the men who carried out the most heinous crimes of the twentieth century, including Greisler, were ‘men, not monsters; humans, not automatons’. She furthermore argues that, as in the case of Greisler, with his shady war record, his Freemasonry past, his late membership of the party and his consequent need to prove himself, ‘the weak and the vulnerable may well have been more dangerous than the strong and confident’.
Needless to say, Epstein opposes the school of historians who claim that structural processes shaped the Third Reich and the Holocaust. Her book is an excellent demonstration of the importance of human agency in Nazi Germany and in history in general. She concludes: ‘Men like Greiser – with their experiences, passions and ambitions – mattered in the Nazi regime’.
Model Nazi, Catherine Epstein (Oxford University Press)
Paul Doolan is Head of History at Zurich International School.
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