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A picture taken on December 12, 1944 shows Nazi soldiers hidden in a small Alsatian village, esatern France, surrendering to an Allied patrol. Getty Images
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Germany and the Concept of Collective Guilt

Do only psychopaths commit horrible mass crimes, or are we all more responsible than we are willing to admit? Two new histories of the Nazi war machine examine their leaders—and their soldiers.

David Mikics
August 01, 2016
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A picture taken on December 12, 1944 shows Nazi soldiers hidden in a small Alsatian village, esatern France, surrendering to an Allied patrol. Getty Images

Even when it should have been clear that World War II was lost, Germans still lined up behind their leader. In 1945, the last year of the war, more than 60 percent of German POWs professed their faith in Hitler, the man who had led their nation to ruin. Such desperate clinging to charismatic authority has occurred in other times and places, and it raises a hard question: To what degree were the German people as a whole—not just their leaders—responsible for the evil of Nazism? The idea that the worst evildoers (in this case, the top Nazis) have abnormal psyches might just be a way of defending ourselves against the immoral darkness that inhabits us all.

Joel E. Dimsdale in his Anatomy of Malice: The Enigma of the Nazi War Criminals searches for the key to human evil in the psychiatric examinations undergone by the Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials in 1945-46. Dimsdale, a well-known psychiatrist, begins with a grossly unscientific sample: He appears to have chosen the four among the 22 Nazi defendants whose mental lives seem most abnormal. And so he gives us a highly selective parade of fanatical Hitlerites: the clearly demented Rudolf Hess; the sex-addled Julius Streicher, publisher of the outrageously anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer; and a victim of brain damage named Robert Ley, who as head of the German Labor Front helped to set up slave labor factories. Finally, Dimsdale throws in Hermann Göring, a longtime favorite of those who think that lack of morality and freakish behavior go together in history the way they do in horror movies.

Two of Dimsdale’s four case studies found themselves sidelined by the Nazis before WWII was in full swing. Hess flew to Scotland in 1941, gripped by the fantasy that he could make peace with England, but instead wound up in a British military hospital. A Nazi judge put Streicher under house arrest in 1940 after he insulted Göring in print. Ley was the most cracked of the bunch: “If it is at all possible, I would like to have a Jewish person as my defense counsel,” he declared at Nuremberg. A severe alcoholic with frontal lobe damage, probably from a WWI injury, he killed himself in the Nuremberg jail before he could come to trial. Göring, the head of the Luftwaffe, was a more central figure. Dimsdale sees Göring as “a classical, charming narcissistic psychopath,” but the label of psychopath seems misplaced here. Göring was a cross-dressing drug fiend who loved the high life, but in spite of his well-known eccentricities, he didn’t have a lunatic bone in his body. The smug, hyperarticulate Göring, who delighted in running rings around the prosecutors, was just a far more intelligent version of your average murderer.

Ley, Streicher, Göring, and Hess form a picturesque rogues’ gallery, but they are unrepresentative of high-level Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, most of whom lied and dodged their way through the trial in perfectly ordinary fashion. Typical was Hans Frank, the head of General Government Poland, as vulgar an anti-Semite as any of the others and a more determined mass murderer than most. Frank announced at Nuremberg that he had converted to Roman Catholicism and now felt like a different person: “Sometimes I wonder how that man Frank could have done those things” during the war, he mused. Because what he had done was so atrocious, Frank’s conversion was a laughable instance of chutzpah. But it was also an ordinary psychic strategy, employed by many a lesser fiend, and by the rest of us too—who hasn’t used dissociation to do the work of repentance?

Dimsdale promises us a detective story, but he finally comes up empty-handed. He admits that psychiatry can offer diagnoses but not answers when faced with human evil. This means that its diagnoses are not very good ones, at least when we are dealing with people who know what they are doing. Psychiatrists can argue persuasively in court that a defendant is too mentally deficient to grasp the idea of good and evil, and therefore not responsible for his crimes. (Such an argument was made for the Japanese war criminal Shumei Okawa, as recounted in Eric Jaffe’s A Curious Madness, and Okawa was spared the death penalty.) But with someone like the mentally agile Göring, psychiatry is of little help.

Dimsdale cherry-picks his examples to cater to our idea that human evil must have something to do with psychopathology. But the verdict goes in the other direction: The overwhelming majority of the Nuremberg defendants did not possess the traits of the mentally diseased. Their Rorschach tests were normal. Yet one of their examiners, the psychologist Gustave Gilbert, still labeled them insane. Gilbert, the Jewish son of emigrés from Austria, described the Nazi defendants as “narcissistic psychopaths whose lives were deformed by a diseased German culture.” This made them more rather than less culpable in Gilbert’s view: “to him [they were] the devil incarnate,” Dimsdale writes.

The other examiner, Douglas Kelley, disagreed with Gilbert. He thought that the Nazis displayed “profound moral failing” rather than mental illness. In spite of his disapproval, Kelley seems to have bonded with Göring and a few of the others. Bizarrely, the emotionally troubled Kelley, who was a professional magician as well as a psychiatrist, committed suicide 12 years after Nuremberg. In his living room, in front of his wife, parents, and children, he swallowed a cyanide pill, the same method that Göring had used.

Dimsdale writes in an elegant, appealing way, and his book is a page-turner, but in the end he has nothing to report. His account of Nuremberg shows that psychiatry reveals little about the problem of human evil. Dimsdale then turns to that old standby, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt argued that evildoers like Eichmann were simply not thinking. For her, as for Plato and Kant, evil was ignorance and proper morality a kind of knowledge that sufficiently thoughtful people could attain. Even if this were true (it’s not), Arendt’s banality-of-evil thesis doesn’t explain why some people don’t think, and why they do dreadful things as a result. After his discussion of Arendt, Dimsdale runs through the usual psychological studies of ordinary people doing evil: Milgram, Zimbardo. Finally, he abandons psychiatry and psychology for the now-fashionable science of the brain. Dimsdale resorts to studies of frontal-lobe impairment and oxytocin, hoping that biology will succeed where Arendt’s philosophy and the psychologists’ experiments didn’t. Oxytocin is the chemical in the brain that causes empathy, Dimsdale explains, and malice is the lack of empathy. What he doesn’t mention is that oxytocin also increases animosity toward outsiders along with good feeling toward one’s own group. Empathy seems to apply mostly to our own team: the Red Sox but for sure not the Yankees. Though Dimsdale fails to admit it, it seems clear that neuroscience is the wrong place to look if we want to understand evil.


The question of Nazi evil extends down through the ranks to the common soldier. How bad was Hitler’s army, the Wehrmacht? For 50 years after the end of WWII, it was assumed that the ordinary German soldier had kept his hands relatively clean in contrast to the men of the SS and the Einsatzgruppen, who had carried out the Final Solution and other crimes against humanity. Then a museum exhibit called Verbrechen der Wehrmacht (Crimes of the Wehrmacht) opened in Hamburg in 1995. (Revised in 2001, the exhibit now resides permanently at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.) Crimes of the Wehrmacht traveled to more than 30 German cities in the late 1990s, and it made shock waves wherever it went. The exhibit’s organizers, German historians Hannes Heer and Gerd Hankel, argued that “the German Wehrmacht’s war against the Soviet Union differed from all other European wars of the modern era, including the campaigns waged by the Wehrmacht against other countries during World War II.” This was a campaign intended to starve, terrorize, and, in the case of the Jews, eliminate the civilian population of the USSR. The Wehrmacht, the exhibit argued, pursued a war of annihilation against noncombatants, and its war crimes were worse than those of other armies—even the Red Army, which raped and pillaged its way across Germany in 1945.

In his multifaceted new history Hitler’s Soldiers, Ben Shepherd explores not just the question of the Wehrmacht’s involvement in war crimes but its military tactics, its leadership struggles, and its weaponry. The book stretches from the late Weimar era to the fall of Berlin and provides abundant detail on every significant campaign that Hitler’s army engaged in. Shepherd gives an in-depth account of the Blitzkrieg techniques and flexible maneuvering that made the German forces so successful early in the war. The reason for the Wehrmacht’s downfall, Shepherd argues, was not just greater allied resources but the Germans’ assumption that their superiority in tactics and military discipline could overcome any disadvantage. Shepherd’s book doesn’t replace Omer Bartov’s classic Hitler’s Army, which still offers the most convincing account of the Wehrmacht’s attitudes toward civilians and enemy soldiers on the Eastern front. But Shepherd’s scope is far larger than Bartov’s. He has produced an authoritative military history of the most feared and respected fighting force of WWII.

Hitler and the Wehrmacht High Command certainly intended for the assault on Soviet Russia to be different from previous military campaigns, particularly the invasion of France in 1940, which mostly spared the civilian population. In May and June 1941, the Wehrmacht’s leaders issued the Barbarossa Decree and the Commissar Order, which gave soldiers a free hand in killing enemy civilians in the name of “the total eradication of any active or passive resistance.” Red Army commissars were to be executed en masse, a clear breach of international law. Given the overstrained supply lines, the Wehrmacht could survive only by plundering food from peasants, and they had no supplies left over for those “useless mouths”—Soviet POWs, nearly 3 million of whom starved to death in hastily improvised camps on the Eastern front. In December 1942, with the German forces in desperate shape, Hitler again commanded that the army use “the most brutal means … against women and children also,” and prevented officers from punishing soldiers who had committed “excesses” against civilians. Hitler proclaimed such excesses were, in fact, commendable.

Shepherd points out that a few of Hitler’s generals were skeptical about their chief’s decision to invade Soviet Russia in June 1941. But none tried to get Hitler to change his mind, because “they themselves lacked better ideas for winning either the campaign or the war.” They mostly shared Hitler’s assumption that sooner or later the Soviet Union would attack Germany: The Wehrmacht’s leaders had thrust themselves into a world of unending warfare, and had no idea how to bring it to an end. As Sebastian Haffner wrote in The Meaning of Hitler, the Führer upended a centuries-long assumption of statecraft: that wars were fought to establish a state’s security and its regional dominance. Instead, with the invasion of Russia, war became a perpetual test of Germany’s strength, a test it was bound to lose.

Hitler’s paranoid worldview in which Jews lurked behind every world crisis infected his generals: General Reinhardt declared before Barbarossa that “Stalin is friendly to us because he isn’t ready yet. As soon as he is armed, his Jewish masters will order him to begin a war against us, either with England or on England’s behalf.” Better, then, to start a preemptive war, since Jewish Bolshevism and Jewish Capitalism would soon combine forces. Yet the Jewish enemy was also, paradoxically, thought to be so feeble that the Soviets could be toppled in a short campaign.

The same assumption that “the Jews” stood behind all anti-Nazi activity was used to rationalize the genocide on the Eastern front. So Field Marshal von Reichenau issued an order to his Sixth Army in the Ukraine in November 1941: “The soldier must have complete understanding for the necessity of the harsh but just atonement of Jewish subhumanity. This has the further goal of nipping in the bud rebellions in the rear of the Eastern Army which, as experience shows, are always plotted by the Jews.” “Experience” showed nothing of the kind: Most partisans had nothing to do with Jews, and vice versa. The German apocalyptic worldview collapsed all enemies into one.

During the invasion of Poland more than a few ordinary German soldiers objected to the massacring of enemy civilians, especially women and children. By the time of Barbarossa such objections had become rare. In his long book Shepherd finds only one instance of a German officer who refused on moral principle to assist the Final Solution. In the spring of 1944 Colonel Emil Jäger argued against the deportation of Corfu’s Jews to the camps on the grounds that the Germans would forfeit their “ethical prestige” in the eyes of the Greeks. What Shepherd calls Jäger’s “clear if delicately worded” moral stance leaps out at the reader. In a dark time he was one of the few Germans who spoke for the moral norms that the Wehrmacht had so decisively discarded. War’s usual moral boundaries had been radically reshaped, and only a handful of soldiers among millions raised their voices in opposition.

The evil of Hitler’s Germany was not individual but collective. It cannot be found where Dimsdale looks for it, in the twisted psyches of the most flagrant Nazi criminals. Instead, Nazi evil relied on the erosion of the established wartime standards that separated combatants from noncombatants and POWs from armed enemy fighters. Only if we learn this lesson can we start to make the motto “never again” a future reality.


To read more of David Mikics’s criticism for Tablet magazine, click here.

David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.

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