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Review: Life and Death in the Third Reich

J. Schatzel works in healthcare administration in rural upstate New York and has a master's degree in history.

Life and Death in the Third Reich

Throughout Life and Death in the Third Reich, Peter Fritzsche’s chronological analysis of Nazi understanding and treatment of European Jews throughout the Third Reich, presents readers with an articulate examination of German understanding of Nazi treatment of the Jews. According to Fritzsche’s thesis, the “doctrines of race war guided German policies from the start,” and Nazi Germany was supported by the German people due to Nazism’s promise of securing “German power and sovereignty.” [i] While it has long been debated how much knowledge of the violence of the Holocaust was known to and supported by the German public, evidence such as the importance of train stations to the conduction of the “final solution,” [ii] and other such evidence are used by Fritzsche to argue that Germans were aware of the violence; even if the grotesque nature of the Holocaust was not fully comprehensible, its nature was known. As pointed out by Fritzsche, the German mayor of Auschwitz knew that Jews were being taken to the camp “over there behind the meadows” and not surviving their stay. [iii] “Secret Germany” was not a secret as Fritzsche argues, stating that “Jews had largely disappeared, and had they not lost the war, the Germans in the Third Reich would never have seen Jews again.” [iv] Such speculation is evidence of Fritzsche’s confidence in his thesis, which he further provides proof of through his analysis of Jewish witnesses [v] and German witnesses [vi] of the Holocaust.

Throughout the monograph, Fritzsche uses diaries and letters of people such as Lore Walb and Karl Durkefalden to show that such writings hold communication and justification of German feelings of national duty held by Nazis. Fritzsche contends that Germans supported Nazism for a variety of reasons, including professional obligations, family cohesion, coercion, genuine belief in the justification of Nazi tactics, and a myriad of other rationalizations evidenced throughout diaries written during the Third Reich. [vii] Through a “racial coordination of social life,” [viii] German Jews became non-German, and pogroms were instituted to aid in the “annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” [ix] In this “empire of destruction,” [x] Jews wrote letters, diaries, and compiled secret archives to document the German “atrocities the Nazis were committing.” [xi] Letters home from soldiers also detailed Nazi violence and depicted the enemy with typical Anti-Semitic imagery employed by Nazi propaganda. [xii] Fritzsche analyses a variety of primary sources of such origins to assert his thesis, relying heavily on diary accounts of Jewish and Nazi Germans spanning 1934-1945.

As stated by Fritzsche, Nazism “promoted an ideal of German Life” closely tied to the sense of “near death” experience and victimization experienced by Germans after World War I. [xiii] The National Socialism embraced by the Third Reich juxtaposed life with death, and survival with annihilation, through radical promises of German prosperity attained through the murder of a demonized Jewish “other.” [xiv] Fritzsche uses an analysis of Nazism as a “social renovation and imperial conquest” to explore the ways in which the German people identified with and collaborated in the “new racial order of National Socialism” through the lenses of racial camaraderie and racial struggle. [xv] Fritzsche places his work within the historiography of the Third Reich, including such works as Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel, [xvi] and using Erich Dwinger’s Death in Poland [xvii] not as a historical nonfiction account, but as a fictional story reflecting nonfictional contemporary German sentiments. While providing the reader with brief glimpses into life in the concentration camps by relying on documented primary sources, Fritzsche acknowledges a lack of holding Germans accountable for enabling Nazi Anti-Semitic violence within former historical accounts of the Third Reich. [xviii]

Fritzsche’s analysis of the extent of German knowledge of the Holocaust contends that Nazism’s racial genocide fundamentally altered global comprehension of mass murder. [xix] According to Fritzsche, Nazism presented an outward appearance of a unified nation within a racial identity, adhered to through “racial grooming” amidst a cultural shift toward unconditional destruction of enemies of a racially pure Germany, to achieve National Socialist “standards of conduct.” [xx] In an analysis of the relationship between German citizens and the Third Reich, Fritzsche emphasizes the initial compulsory nature of the “Heil Hitler” greeting, gradually becoming more sincere over time as loyalty to Hitler as a charismatic Fuhrer strengthened parallel to German loyalty to Nazism. [xxi]

As coerced Nazism transformed into a self-asserted national revolution, Fritzsche asserts that the “Nazi Phenomenon” [xxii] emerged from a collective discontent with the Weimar Republic, growing into an eventual state of “national enthusiasm for Nazi Violence.” [xxiii] Driven by national unity, Nazi supporters were often initially reluctant, but eventually accepting of Nazism through what Fritzsche identifies as an “ongoing process” [xxiv] of conversion to the “Volksgemeinschaft.” [xxv] According to Fritzsche, embracing “national solidarity” [xxvi] mobilized German citizens toward the Nazi transformation of Germany into an economic and military power incomparable to the humiliated nation defeated in World War I. [xxvii] Through greetings, participation in marches and May Day, listening to radio broadcasts of German nationalism, and adherence to Nazi propaganda and regulations, Germans of the Third Reich came to a gradual acceptance of Nazism in an assault on cultural alternatives to German National Socialism. [xxviii] Nazi volunteerism provided a means for citizens of all social classes to exert leadership roles within their community, as the Nazi movement rose to a state of acceptance Fritzsche contends was “consuming the nation.” [xxix] Believing the Nazi promise of economic uplift, [xxx] enticed by “Strength Through Joy” [xxxi] programs, and with the belief that Germany was a “tenacious underdog finally asserting its rights,” [xxxii] “A large minority of Germans supported the National Socialism in 1933, but ultimately the majority of Germans found the regime to be legitimate.” [xxxiii]

The growing German emphasis on “Just Us” [xxxiv] ideology and Anti-Semitism after 1933 were embodied by the “collective reception” [xxxv] of the propaganda industry, as “Nazi propaganda found plenty of consumers willing to applaud the nationalization and heroicization” [xxxvi] of Germany. The “racial grooming” [xxxvii] of Nazi regime tactics enforced the 1935 Nuremberg Laws of racial categorization, and produced vast amounts of prescriptive literature intended to embrace eugenics and justify genocidal means of establishing Germany as a “racial regime.” [xxxviii] Through such means as encouraging an increased Aryan birthrate, mandated sterilization of “unfit” populations, and “elimination of foreign matter from the racial stock of the German people,” Germans embraced the “New Era” offered by Nazism with the belief that such actions would purify the humiliated nation. [xxxix] “Genetic reconstruction” [xl] was a mobilizing force in which many Germans embraced Nazism as a means of establishing ethnic supremacy within a culture of increasingly pure “racial hygiene.” [xli] Nazi use of community camps to indoctrinate youths aided in the ethnic justifications of genocidal concentration camps, embraced by National Socialism as “the making of the people.” [xlii] According to Fritzsche, as “racial vocabularies infiltrated everyday speech,” [xliii] the German people became increasingly tolerant of violence toward Jews to solve the perceived “Jewish Problem.” [xliv] As ascertained by Fritzsche, “Anti-Semitism was tried on, and often it fitted.” [xlv]

The “imperial project” [xlvi] mobilized ethnic Germans in support of Nazi war against Poland, and contributed to German public acceptance of a “final solution” of ethnocide to rid Germany of the “Jewish Problem.” [xlvii] According to Fritzsche’s analysis, many Germans supported Nazi colonizers because they believed Nazism could enable the expansion of the German Empire to places such as Poland and France, as propaganda in promotion of such immediate action projected feelings of national and racial invincibility. [xlviii] Fritzsche questions the extent of German loyalty to Nazism within the German military, due to deceptive Nazi practices of obscuring their genocidal practices from immediate public knowledge. [xlix] In an analysis of whether German soldiers held a genuine “ideological commitment” to Nazism, or merely an “ethic of comradeship,” [l] Fritzsche contends that mere comradeship was not enough to allow soldiers to kill Jews in accordance with such ideology, and that such actions required an ideological agreement with Nazism as well as desensitization over time in the “ongoing struggle to assume the role of killer” within National Socialism. [li] According to Fritzsche, concessions to changing circumstances and a growing sense of “victory euphoria” aided in Nazi mobilization of efforts in a shift from removal towards extermination to establish a German “Garden of Eden.” [lii]

According to Fritzsche, Anti-Semitic cynicism ran deep in the Third Reich, and the German people were not “mere spectators” of the Holocaust, they were instead active participants. [liii] Turning Jews over to authorities for removal, and auctioning Jewish property, Germans enabled Nazi violence with the belief that such actions were justified due to the perceived role of the Jews in causing allied bombing of Germany. [liv] The German people’s knowledge of the Holocaust, was embodied in a growing sense of shame recorded in diaries, letters, travel accounts, and other such documentation heavily cited by Fritzsche. [lv] Through an analysis of such documents, Fritzsche concludes that a distinction between the German people and the Nazi administration existed, in which Nazis were the perpetrators of the Holocaust, while the German people as a nation were the enablers of Nazi-conducted genocide. [lvi] Fritzsche characterizes the German people as “collaborators” [lvii] in the Jewish extermination, although he does caution that German individuals may sometimes have acted one way in public, “but thought in another” despite an encroaching sense of national solidarity. [lviii] According to Fritzsche, “the violence Germans had suffered could not screen out all knowledge about the violence the Germans themselves had meted out.” [lix]

[i] Peter Fritzsche. Life and Death in the Third Reich. (Massachusetts: Bellknap Press, 2008). 220.

[ii] Ibid., 227.

[iii] Ibid., 218.

[iv] Ibid., 230.

[v] Ibid., 235.

[vi] Ibid., 250.

[vii] Ibid., 33.

[viii] Ibid., 124.

[ix] Ibid., 141.

[x] Ibid., 143.

[xi] Ibid., 144.

[xii] Ibid., 145-149.

[xiii] Ibid., 4.

[xiv] Ibid., 5.

[xv] Ibid., 6-7.

[xvi] Ibid., 296.

[xvii] Ibid., 3.

[xviii] Ibid., 300.

[xix] Ibid., 15.

[xx] Ibid., 17-18.

[xxi] Ibid., 23.

[xxii] Ibid., 26.

[xxiii] Ibid., 28.

[xxiv] Ibid., 36.

[xxv] Ibid., 38.

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[xxvi] Ibid., 40.

[xxvii] Ibid., 45.

[xxviii] Ibid., 49-51.

[xxix] Ibid., 56.

[xxx] Ibid., 58.

[xxxi] Ibid., 60.

[xxxii] Ibid., 63.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 64.

[xxxiv] Ibid., 69.

[xxxv] Ibid., 71.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 75.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 77.

[xxxviii] Ibid., 84.

[xxxix] Ibid., 86-87.

[xl] Ibid., 89.

[xli] Ibid., 95.

[xlii] Ibid., 98.

[xliii] Ibid., 106.

[xliv] Ibid., 119.

[xlv] Ibid., 121.

[xlvi] Ibid., 155.

[xlvii] Ibid., 167.

[xlviii] Ibid., 183.

[xlix] Ibid., 199.

[l] Ibid., 201.

[li] Ibid., 202.

[lii] Ibid., 204.

[liii]Ibid., 256-257.

[liv] Ibid., 257.

[lv] Ibid., 265.

[lvi] Ibid., 268.

[lvii] Ibid., 272.

[lviii] Ibid., 278.

[lix] Ibid., 306.

Special Thanks

Special Thanks to Hartwick College, Oneonta NY, for the use of their beautiful library!

Special Thanks to Hartwick College, Oneonta NY, for the use of their beautiful library!

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