Who's Who in Nazi Germany

Published in History Today

Who's Who in Nazi Germany

by Robert Wistrich. 359 pp. (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £10.95)

The victims of the Nazi holocaust still make news, albeit forty years after the horrors revealed at the point of liberation of the camps. The camera has frozen these terrible sequences in time. What was needed was a reader's vade mecum exposing the jungle of Nazi operations from top to bottom. This is proferred by the author, who presents us with 350 'succinct biographies of the most prominent and significant individuals who influenced every aspect of life in Nazi Germany.'

What might have been a disconnected list of life portraits in alphabetical order is skilfully avoided. Each is subtly inter-linked with the other by specific facets of the Third Reich such that the totality of their careers reflect the multitude of connections that constituted Hitler's Germany. The author's own value judgments on some of his impossible subjects are remarkably restrained. More effective is his crisp, laconic observations on the manner in which many of the major criminals, thanks to the negligence or indulgence of certain allied courts, escaped due punishment.

Examples of these abound. The most notable was Otto Skorzeny, highly publicised Nazi SS Commando, Hitler's favourite, whose daring and murderous exploits during the war raised German morale, but was acquitted by an American court of 'illegal practices' during the Ardennes offensive. He had led a special brigade of 2000 English speaking Germans disguised as American soldiers (contrary to the rules of war and warranting instant execution if caught!) that seized the Meuse bridgehead and by ruthless methods caused chaos behind the Allied lines. Captured by US forces in Styria in May 1945, he was held for two years before being tried as a war criminal. The tribunal judged him not guilty and he was released. He promptly founded Odessa, an underground Nazi organisation funded with loot stolen from occupied countries during the war, which helped ex-SS criminals to escape from Germany. He ended up as a wealthy entrepreneur with interests in Eire and Spain, dying in his bed in Madrid in 1975.

Hjalmar Schacht, financial wizard of the Third Reich, had been prime mover in Hitler's accession to power, not only by bringing him the crucial support of the big bankers and industrialists (such as Krupps, United Steel and I.G. Farben) but, at the critical point, by actually pressurising Hindenburg into appointing Hitler Chancellor. He was acquitted in 1946, one year after the Nuremberg Tribunal had found him guilty of organising Germany for war, and again acquitted in 1948 after an appeal, nullifying an eight year sentence in a labour camp passed on him by a deNazification court. He, too, subsequently ended his days peacefully in Munich dying at the age of 93. Since there was no permanently co-ordinated judicial system agreed on by the Allies, with bad intelligence to boot, it was no wonder that so many war criminals not only survived but even reached the highest positions in the new democratic government in West Germany.

What is more incomprehensible, and terrifying, was the vast number of intellectuals who masterminded the methods and direction of the crimes perpetrated by the regime. For example, Otto Ohlendorf, Commander of the infamous death squad Einsatzgrupper D in the Ukraine (1941-42), was educated at the humanistic Gymnasium at Hildesheim and later studied law at the Universities of Leipzig and Gottingen. This academically trained bloodhound, and archetypal bureaucrat, was responsible for the execution of 90,000 men, women and children. Unrepentant, his defence in the dock was that the extermination of the untermensch was a historical necessity to secure German lebensraum in the East. He, like many of his ilk, took his cue from the dictator (and perverter) of German cultural life for twelve years – Joseph Goebbels, graduate of the University of Heidelberg and one time pupil of Jewish literary historian and world famous Goethe scholar, Frederich Gundolf. It was the so-called rational and highly educated who applied their intellectual skills to the task of greater efficiency in the exercise of wholesale murder of their fellow men and women.

The author's skilful interweaving of characters and events succeeds in presenting to us a comprehensive record of Hitler's Reich. By cool, dispassionate reporting he exposes a liturgy of evil.