In Masters of Death, Rhodes gives full weight, for the first time, to the Einsatzgruppen’s role in the Holocaust. These “special task forces,” organized by Heinrich Himmler to follow the German army as it advanced into eastern Poland and Russia, were the agents of the first phase of the Final Solution. They murdered more than 1.5 million men, women, and children between 1941 and 1943, often by shooting them into killing pits, as at Babi Yar.
These massive crimes have been generally overlooked or underestimated by Holocaust historians, who have focused on the gas chambers. In this painstaking account, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes profiles the eastern campaign’s architects as well as its “ordinary” soldiers and policemen, and helps us understand how such men were conditioned to carry out mass murder. Marshaling a vast array of documents and the testimony of perpetrators and survivors, this book is an essential contribution to our understanding of the Holocaust and World War II.
No matter how much we may think we know about Nazi Germany, one question will haunt us to the end of time: Why did the citizens of an apparently civilized nation acquiesce in mass murder? Six years ago, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen offered an unsettling answer in Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, in which he argued that the Holocaust was made possible by the extent to which German culture was poisoned by anti-Semitism prior to the rise of Adolf Hitler. Most scholars believe Goldhagen's thesis to be grossly overstated, but his book was discussed throughout Europe and America and triggered a hot debate over the issue of collective responsibility for the Holocaust. Richard Rhodes' Masters of Death and Yaacov Lozowick's Hitler's Bureaucrats are far more sober in tone than Hitler's Willing Executioners, but they both engage the reader directlyand valuablyby addressing different aspects of the same troubling question.
In Masters of Death, the author of Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist makes the leap from run-of-the-mill killers to full-blown serial murderers. Here, Rhodes' subject is the SS-Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi "task force" detailed to carry out the large-scale killings of European Jews starting in 1941. Even for Nazis, it turned out to be an unexpectedly tough job, and Heinrich Himmler failed to anticipate the psychological effects on his troops of shooting hundreds of innocent men, women and children and shoveling them into mass graves each day. Sickened by so depraved a task, the so-called Master Race took to boozing, looting, tortureanything to relieve the stress.
Himmler was outraged. A fussy,colorless disciplinarian who looked less like an Aryan than a milksop ("If I looked like Himmler," one Nazi functionary groused, "I would not talk about race!"), he was, in Rhodes' biting words, "a Schreibtischtäter, a desk murderer, a physical coward willing and even eager to order others to kill." Moreover, he was determined that his men should exterminate the Jews with a minimum of damage to their tender psyches:
"It is the holy duty of senior leaders and commanders personally to ensure that none of our men who have to fulfill this burdensome duty should ever be brutalized or suffer damage to their spirit and character in doing so. This task is to be fulfilled through the strictest discipline in the execution of official duties and through comradely gatherings in the evenings of those days which have included such difficult tasks. The comradely gathering must on no account, however, end in the abuse of alcohol. It should be an evening on whichas far as possiblethey sit and eat at table in the best German domestic style, and music, lectures and introductions to the beauties of German intellectual and emotional life occupy the hours."
By then, Himmler had come to the conclusion that there had to be a more efficient and less stressful way to dispose of Jews en masse. The SS went to work, and soon the gas chambers were up and running. Mass murder and mass production were blended together in the ghastly burlesque of modernity, which the Nazis, with their genius for euphemism, dubbed "the Final Solution."
Before Daniel Jonah Goldhagen there was Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher who put her own idiosyncratic spin on the Holocaust in her widely discussed 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. According to Arendt, Adolf Eichmann and the other SS functionaries who planned the Final Solution were not monsters of criminality but utterly ordinary men who were swept up in the self-perpetuating momentum of a bureaucracy gone mad. As director of the archives at Yad Vashem, Israel's official center for Holocaust commemoration, Yaacov Lozowick has had ample opportunity to reflect on Arendt's much-discussed thesis, and he refutes it conclusively in Hitler's Bureaucrats, demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that Eichmann and his colleagues sincerely believed Jews to be subhuman and conspired with malice aforethought to wipe them off the face of the earth.
Considered solely as a piece of historical scholarship, Hitler's Bureaucrats is an impeccable piece of work. But Lozowick, like Rhodes, writes not as a disinterested scholar but as a human being, at once horrified and mystified by the Holocaust, and it is his moral analysis of the "banality of evil" argument that lay readers will find most compelling. Having noted with surprise that only one of the books about the Holocaust in his personal library contained an index entry for the word "evil," Lozowick goes on to say:
"Just as a man does not reach the peak of Mount Everest by accident, so Eichmann and his ilk did not come to murder Jews by accident, or in a fit of absent-mindedness, not by blindly obeying orders and not by being small cogs in a big machine. They worked hard, thought hard, took the lead, over many years. They were the alpinists of evil."
At a time when professors and philosophers hasten to assure us that all morality is conditional and one man's evil is another man's good, such blunt talk about the Holocaust is bracing. It is usefulindeed, essentialto be reminded that even in our bland Age of Relativity, some things aren't a matter of opinion.