Lives of Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers

David Cesarani | Published in History Today

Even before he completed his doctorate, Bryan Rigg won notoriety by publishing in a newspaper his sensational findings that ‘thousands of Jews’ had served in the German armed forces under Hitler. In the ensuing controversy it was pointed out that most of the hapless men who were defined as Mischlinge (mixed-race) by the regime did not consider themselves to be Jews, even if the Nazis did and even if they were Jewish according to Jewish law.

However, Rigg persisted and his research appeared as Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers in 2002. With his eye for sensation he followed it with the story of a German army major, categorised as a half-Jew, who assisted the rescue from Poland in 1940 of the leader of an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect. His latest book recycles in a different format much of the material from the previous two.

Given this caveat, there is a lot here that anyone fresh to the subject of Mischlinge will find perplexing, fascinating, moving and faintly revolting. In two dozen case histories Rigg exposes the absurdity of Nazi racial classifications and the painful dilemmas inflicted on men and women denied the right to be who they wanted to be.

The majority were raised as Christians but because they had a Jewish-born parent or grandparent found themselves labelled a half- or quarter-Jew. Until late 1940 they were able to serve in the Wehrmacht and many fought like tigers to demonstrate their loyalty. Some hoped military service would avert worse persecution of their fully Jewish relatives. They were quickly disillusioned. The services were forced to expel them and their relatives ended up being deported to death camps.

A few got certificates of ‘German blood’ or ‘clemency’ from Hitler himself because of their value to the Reich or their proven heroism. It hardly mattered to them that they served a genocidal master. Rigg even tracked down some Jews who entered the Wehrmacht under false papers and survived – at the cost of fighting for an anti-Jewish regime.

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