Monday, April 20, 2015

Goebbels: the gift that keeps on giving?

The story about demands (on my publisher) for royalties for quoting Goebbels raises fascinating issues. It is all the more complex because of the fact that the claim on behalf of Goebbels’ estate is being pursued by the daughter of Hjalmar Schacht, Hitler’s Economic Minister, who is a lawyer.

I considered Schacht’s story briefly in my book Serving the Reich; a more detailed account is given in Eric Kurlander’s excellent Living With Hitler. Schacht offers an interesting case study of the complexities of anti-Semitism during the Nazi regime. He was in many respects a liberal, and although he became a supporter of the Nazis and President of the Reichsbank, he lost his influence after a disagreement with Hitler in 1937 (“You simply do not conform to the general National Socialist framework”, Hitler told him two years later) and eventually became a member of the German Resistance. He was imprisoned after the failed assassination plot of June 1944 and sent to Dachau, but survived.

Schacht seems to have been instinctively averse to racial hatred, and was frequently reprimanded by Party officials for speaking out against attacks on Jews and their property. He argued against some anti-Semitic measures on the grounds that they would weaken Germany domestically and isolate it abroad. Put on trial at Nuremberg, Schacht claimed that he had served in the government “to prevent the worst excesses of Hitler’s policies”, although some historians argue that he aided the Holocaust by expropriating Jewish property. He was acquitted at the trials, and later became an adviser to developing countries on economic development.

Schacht’s trajectory shows how unwise it is to attempt to label individuals as Nazi or not, or as pro-/anti-Semite. As I pointed out in my book, few scientists actually served, as Schacht did, in the Nazi administration; but few, too, spoke out publicly against the regime and actively opposed it, as Schacht did. Does this make them better or worse than him?

Either way, the fact that Schacht’s daughter and Goebbels’ family apparently think it is right that the family should get royalties for quoting him – in preference, indeed, to donating such proceeds to a Holocaust charity – should not shock us as much as it might. It’s a reminder that the legacy of the Nazi regime did not vanish either with Hitler’s death or with the fading of his generation. It is of a part with the widespread sense in Germany after the war that the case was now closed and that only the ardent Nazis had questions to answer.

Remember that the postwar trials were notoriously ineffectual, not just because it was extremely difficult and time-consuming thoroughly to investigate any allegation (let alone to prove it) but because many who supported the regime had little difficulty in obtaining the so-called Persilscheine or whitewash certificates of clearance. The most vociferous Nazis in the universities were dismissed without compensation, while others who had doubtless helped the regime were eased into early retirement. Hardly any of the scientists were incriminated. Pascual Jordan, for example, a Party member whose enthusiasm for National Socialism was such that its ideology even seeped into his physics, was issued a whitewash certificate by Werner Heisenberg, who attested that he had “never reckoned with the possibility that [Jordan] could be a [true] National Socialist” (rather inviting the question of what it would take to convince Heisenberg of that). Niels Bohr was less obliging: he replied to Jordan’s request for a letter of exoneration by sending the physicist a list of Bohr’s friends and relatives who had died in the camps.

The ‘denazification’ of German science was actively obstructed even by those who had had no sympathy with the National Socialists. The prevailing attitude was one of resentment at the intrusiveness of the occupying Allied authorities, which led to a closing of ranks and a feeling of solidarity between the most unlikely of bedfellows. Even relatively blameless individuals refused to condemn those who had been clearly implicated in the Nazi regime. Others drew an invidious parallel between the rooting out of Nazis after the war and the persecution of ‘non-Aryans’ before it. For Otto Hahn, denazification involved “attacks against the science of our nation”.

These prevarications and evasions during ‘denazification’ meant that it quickly became impossible to construct a clear picture of how the nazification of German society had proceeded. And it’s German historians who say this. Klaus Hentschel, for instance, has said that “It was one of the most depressing experiences I ever had as a historian to see reflected in the documents how very soon after 1945 the chance of coming to grips with the National Socialist regime was allowed to slip away, thus missing the opportunity to make a frank assessment of the facilitating conditions the regime had set.”

The prevailing attitude was not guilt or remorse, but self-pity and resentment at the indignities suffered in a defeated nation. Visiting Germany in 1947, Richard Courant, the mathematician who had been forced out of Göttingen in 1933, despairingly described its residents as “absolutely bitter, negative, accusing, discouraged and aggressive.” Hartmut Paul Kallmann, the postwar director of the former Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin, who as a ‘non-Aryan’ had been dismissed under Fritz Haber’s directorship in 1933 and had worked for IG Farben during the war, wrote to the emigré Michael Polányi in 1946 saying that “the tough momentary situation [here] is deplored much more than the evil of the past 10 years… The masses still don’t know what a salvation the destruction of the Nazis was to the whole world and to Germany as well.” “It is a difficult problem with the Germans”, Margrethe Bohr told Lise Meitner two years later, “very difficult to come to a deep understanding with them, as they are always first of all sorry for themselves.” In 1947 the president of the polytechnic at Darmstadt complained that for some student “it seemed that the only thing the Nazis had done wrong was to lose the war.”

I think such sentiments still prevail in some quarters. From a certain generation of Germans, I have heard comments in response to my book even from evident anti-Nazis to the effect that “well of course you have no idea how hard it was for us.” In fact I have no doubts how hard it was for them. But such comments are offered as a shield against deeper reflection about the moral fallout. Sometimes it’s worse than that. Even for raising the question that folks like Heisenberg and Debye might have had questions to answer, I was called by one party a “cockroach” – and I can’t imagine for a moment that the similarity with the language used by the Nazis to dehumanize Easter Europeans and Jews could have been lost on that person. (This is not, let me stress, a specifically German response – I’m pretty sure that, as Ian Kershaw has intimated, what we saw in Germany before and after the war could have happened anywhere, mutatis mutandis. We are certainly not free from such language in Britain today, as we have sadly discovered recently.)

So no, there is really nothing so strange or surprising about the Schacht/Goebbels response. I am proud that Bodley Head is standing up to it.


JimmyGiro said...

What is the difference between the Herrenvolk of National Socialism, and the Her-folk of International Feminism... mutatis mutandis?

If Nazi scientists are assumed culpable for failing to bite the hand that fed them, then what of science journalists that fail to scrutinize 'State Science', such as that which prescribes Ritalin to millions of boys , prior to sex education?

Indeed, I suspect that the present study of Nazi scientists is a means of displaying ethical wisdom, without risking exposure of current culpabilities closer to the journalists home.

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