Book Review: “Nazis After Hitler: How Perpetrators of The Holocaust Cheated Justice and Truth” by Donald McKale – posted 2/25/2014
I had not planned to review this book but I must say it surprised me. The book addressed important questions that, in my opinion, still evade adequate attention. Questions like: what happened to the perpetrators of the Holocaust? How much justice was done? Why did so many war criminals get away with their crimes? The great value of this book is that it goes right at those lingering questions and it provides clear, well-reasoned answers.
Without knowing that much about the period immediately after World War 2, I had held a relatively positive conception of the Allied effort to seek justice against Nazi war criminals. I suppose this was because of Nuremberg.
Professor Donald McKale’s book “Nazis After Hitler” paints a far darker picture. Contrary to my uninformed and probably widely shared assumptions, McKale shows how the postwar world felt little obligation to ferret out and bring perpetrators to justice. The sad truth is that there was no day of reckoning for most of the criminals who carried out the Holocaust.
I found the story perversely fascinating. It combines the worst acts committed by a motley collection of desk murderers, ideological fanatics and sadists and a world incapable of any commensurate response to the awful crimes committed. How the pitifully weak response happened cannot be easily reduced but I will try and synthesize some of the major threads that run through the book.
The extent of the Nazi crimes were not initially well understood by the outside world. Millions had been murdered by the Nazis but the Nazis went to considerable effort to try and cover up their crimes. The Holocaust as we know it now was not as clearly delineated then. The world did not yet have the benefit of memoirs by people like Primo Levi and Victor Klemperer, histories by Raul Hilberg, the movies Shoah and Schindler’s List, and the TV docudrama Holocaust.
There were disagreements among the Allies about how to address the Nazi war crimes. The British and Prime Minister Winston Churchill favored summary execution of Nazi leaders. President Roosevelt opposed summary executions and favored postwar trials. Surprisingly, Stalin agreed with FDR on this point. In June 1945, the Allies agreed to hold the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg to prosecute “major” war criminals.
A significant dilemma was the scope of the German war crimes. What do you do when massive numbers of citizens are engaged in a grossly criminal enterprise? How do you separate out those who deserve punishment from those who do not? What is appropriate punishment, particularly when so many are implicated? The Allies decided to concentrate on those they initially considered the worst of the worst. There were other trials but McKale shows how the Cold War lessened the focus on the Nazis.
The jurisdiction of the IMT was also a problem. The IMT tried crimes against peace, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and participation in a common plan or conspiracy to commit those crimes. There was no clear statement specifically addressing the Holocaust against the Jewish people. In retrospect, it is clear that the IMT’s jurisdiction reflected lack of awareness of the crime against the Jews.
The system of gas chambers and concentration camps engaged the efforts of many thousands of people. The Wehrmacht, the German armed forces, included 20,000,000 soldiers. The German Nazi party also included many millions. In assessing responsibility, where do you draw the line? Who is guilty and how far down the line do you go? In the best of all possible legal worlds, you would have had an individualized assessment of perpetrators wherever they were in the hierarchy if they had dirty hands. Nothing even remotely like that happened. Nothing ever happened to the overwhelming majority of perpetrators.
Immediately after the war, McKale wrote that, among the German people, the Third Reich was instantly forgotten. No one knew nothing. The typical stance was denial. Germans were not exactly stepping forward, acknowledging guilt. McKale tells an interesting story about a young German woman, Katharina von Kellenback, who sought to find out about her uncle’s role in the Holocaust. The 1979 TV broadcast of Holocaust prompted her curiosity.
von Kellenback ran into “a near perfect wall of silence”. Family members brushed off her questions and acted like they had been victims. von Kellenback described “a monumental vanishing act” that erased the consciousness of the perpetrators. She correctly characterized this evasion as a conspiracy of silence.
Through her own research and efforts, she found out her uncle, Alfred Ebner, had been an early and fanatical follower of Hitler. He had been deputy commissioner of the Pinsk region’s Nazi civilian administration, a role that included responsibility for the local Jewish inhabitants. It turned out he had been directly responsible for implementation of Nazi extermination policies. He had organized the ghettoization of Pinsk-area Jews, mostly women and children. He supervised the confiscation of Jewish property , the exploitation of Jewish labor and the starvation of the Jewish population. Under Himmler’s directive, between October 29-November 2, 1942, a Nazi battalion under his authority marched Pinsk’s remaining Jews from the ghetto and shot them in large trenches. A few managed to get away.
After the war Ebner disappeared back into the general population, started a business, and lived with his family in Stuttgart. In 1962, he was arrested but he was not indicted until March 1968. He and other members of the Nazi police battalion were charged for several hundred cases of malicious and cruel murder.
To obtain a murder conviction, the prosecution had to prove Ebner acted because of racial hatred. Ebner denied any personal hatred of Jews. He presented himself as a loyal civil servant who followed orders, following the Eichmann example. As witnesses could not verify that he personally did any shootings, some charges went away. Testimony did establish that in the summer of 1942 he ordered 40 sick and mentally retarded Jews be shot. He led those Jews to the trucks that transported them out of the ghetto to be shot.
However, the judges in his case dismissed the charges for lack of evidence. McKale reported that Ebner’s case never went to trial. The Court later suspended proceedings against him in 1971 for reasons of his alleged poor health. Later in 1978, the court dropped all charges. Ebner died peacefully in 1987 without acknowledging anything.
Unfortunately this type scenario was common. Years went by and victims died. Personal identification was difficult as peoples’ appearance changed; perpetrators changed their names; and they moved. So many victims had been murdered in the most anonymous fashion imagineable and they were not around to point any finger at a perpetrator. Politics changed and the Cold War struggle dominated all attention.
As I had said previously only a tiny minority of the estimated several hundred thousand Holocaust perpetrators were ever prosecuted. Ebner at least had been prosecuted even if he evaded punishment. According to McKale.from 1945 to 1992, the West Germans investigated 103,823 persons suspected of committing Nazi crimes. Courts convicted 6,487 (of which 5,513 were for non-lethal offenses). 13 people received the death sentence; 163 got life in prison; 6197 got temporary imprisonment and 114 got fines.
McKale says that nearly all of the convicted got light prison sentences.
As part of the denazification effort in West Germany, the Americans, the British and the French classified perpetrators into one of five categories: major offender (criminals), offender (active supporter of the Nazi Party), lesser offender (persons who collaborated in less serious ways), followers (persons who joined Nazi organizations but had not participated in their actions) and the exonerated. A typical category 1 criminal was looking at imprisonment in a labor camp from 2 to 10 years along with confiscation of property. McKale says classification was enormously difficult. He gives many examples and shows how hard it was even to prosecute big-time Nazis who committed major offenses.
I think it is fair to say that the West Germans lacked the political will to do justice. So many people were implicated and silence offered mutual protection.
I had previously mentioned the Cold War. The onset of the Cold War against the Soviets figured into the weak prosecution of Nazis. The Americans and the British quickly became far more interested in integrating West Germany into its anti-Soviet effort than in pursuing an agenda from the last war. The Americans moved to recruit Nazis – not prosecute them.
The East German response to the Holocaust was equally compromised for a different set of reasons. The East Germans could not acknowledge the Jewish specificity of the Holocaust. The party line, following the Soviets, would not recognize that any single group had been specially victimized by the Holocaust. All victims could only be seen as anti-fascists. The Soviets had their own anti-semitism and the inability to see the world, rather than ideology, was part of that. GDR statistics from 1945-1964 show that Soviet-dominated German courts convicted 12,807 persons of “Nazi and war crimes”. 118 received death sentences, 231 got life in prison, and 12,458 got varying terms of imprisonment.
McKale shows that the East Germans actually placed Bernhard Bechler, a former professional military officer in the Nazi army and a committed National Socialist, in charge of denazification in Soviet-occupied East Germany. Bechler was uninterested in uncovering and purging Nazis who had engaged the Holocaust. The East Germans decided against a blanket dismissal of former Nazis from government administration. They were fearful about public reaction so they did not take strong steps. Generally speaking, witnesses who testified before East German denazification boards claimed they had never supported mistreating Jews or any group. That, of course, leaves the question how the Holocaust ever could have happened.
Professor McKale explains how the arguments made by Nazis after the war reappeared later out of the mouths of Holocaust deniers. I found myself less interested in that later part of the book. I think Holocaust deniers are nutty and don’t deserve that much time because they lack all credibility even if some crazy people still make the arguments. I found myself dwelling more on the power of anti-semitism. Behind all the excuses about following orders lurks the anti-semitism. I think Professor McKale deserves credit for taking an unflinching look at the Holocaust perpetrators. His book is a necessary corrective to widely shared misconceptions.