Tuesday, August 08, 2006

"Surviving Hitler"

One of the most informative, relevant and compelling history books I’ve read in several years is Surviving Hitler: Corruption and Compromise in the Third Reich. It was written by Adam Lebor and Roger Boyes, journalists whose personal experience includes several years of working in both Communist and post-1989 Eastern Europe. As such, the authors are perhaps better equipped than most to effectively analyze how an individual maintains, alters or surrenders altogether his morality in an oppressive dictatorship.

And it is this focus on personal choices in Nazi-dominated Europe (rather than governments and institutions) that makes the book so intriguing…and yes, disturbing. For the authors believe that even with the strong cultural influences, the ideology, the propaganda, the Gestapo warders and all of the other pressures the Third Reich could bring to bear, individual moral choices were always possible. As the authors say, these choices were “not always between finely contoured options, rarely between unambiguous good and hell-scorching evil, but it was possible to deliberate on a problem and settle on the least bad course.”

At one point, they describe four categories of expressing "Resistenz" -- The first is merely “...demonstrating a lack of enthusiasm, by withdrawing from the collective, by restricting as far as possible all social interactions within the confines of the trusted milieu. The second category or behaviour is dissidence and conformity. Dissidents create their own social space, they go beyond the pure passive form of inner emigration and try to establish contacts with like-minded citizens. Protest means publicly aired confrontation: a worker talking back to his boss, a nurse disapproving of a doctor’s treatment of a patient. Resistance in our full-bodied use of the term suggests planned action against institutions and personal representatives of the regime."

"[These] classisifications make it easier to see how representatives of different groupings in the Third Reich had the possibility of criticizing or even – through passive Schweikian foot-dragging – preventing an obviously wrong or immoral decision. There were resisters and we do not intend to minimalize their actions; they often paid with their lives. But the shadow side of this small minority of brave opponents is the comprehensive pattern of social conformity, of active acceptance.”

Small minority, indeed. For even conceding this somewhat fluid approach to morality, Lebor and Boyes emphasize in the book that resistance to Hitler and his underlings in any degree was tragically and disappointingly rare. The metaphor they emphasize to describe the culture of the Third Reich is “seduction” and they go to great lengths to show the depth and variety of seductive techniques employed. But seduction, even when combined with terror, can be resisted.

Why was such resistance so uncommon, despite the growing awareness of the Nazi's monstrous actions towards the Jews and others? Giving an answer to this haunting question is the foundational purpose of Surviving Hitler. Yes, the authors do a remarkable job in compiling and analyzing the historical data (from the earliest risings of fascism in Germany to its many manifestations in all the corners of Europe eventually dominated by the Third Reich), but the issue of morality infuses each presentation. As such, Surviving Hitler does what great histories always do – it unearths relevant information, reveals its patterns and implications, honestly interprets the meaning of all these connections and then, dares to teach the reader how the history thus shared relates to his own life and values. Furthermore, Surviving Hitler: Corruption and Compromise in the Third Reich is very well organized and very well written.

Along the way, Lebor and Boyes deal with several issues that have often gone overlooked or misinterpreted. For instance, the authors highlight:

*the particular ferocity of anti-Semitism in Vichy France;
*the seemingly contradictory principles of Albert Goering;
*the presentation of a fuller (and not so flattering) picture of Oskar Schindler;
*the profitability of Jewish confiscations to "regular" (that is, Aryan) German citizens;
* the large and small scale corruption that marked not only the Nazi leadership but Third Reich business and social life;
*the few but inspiring stories of Gentile individuals (and sometimes governments) helping to save Jews in those countries invaded by the Nazis;
*the 2,000 “U-boats” (Berlin Jews who received help enough to survive until the war’s end);
*the slide into decadence of I. G. Farben and other German companies;
* the "domestic terror" provided by opportunistic neighbors;
* the unique success of the street protests of the Rosenstrasse women;
* the eugenic horrors of the Lebensborn Project and many other barbaric scientific schemes;
* a non-revisionist presentation of Leni Riefenstahl, especially as compared to the fate of Marlene Dietrich; and much more.

Surviving Hitler: Corruption and Compromise in the Third Reich is a perceptive, provocative and important history. It is one, by the way, I'm not only recommending highly to friends; I’ve ordered five copies (strandbooks.com at $5.95 plus shipping) to hand out as gifts.

I guess you can interpret that as an “endorsement plus.”