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A lucid explanation of the unthinkable
on August 14, 2008
It's never sat well with me--not really--because no one thing can explain or excuse it. Were the German people stupid? Brainwashed? Intrinsically evil? Forced into obeying? Ignorant, and thus brutal? Victims, and thus innocent? Just how DO you descend from the most sophisticated society on earth to the ultimate symbol of evil, all in only a handful of years? I mean, what are the MECHANICS of it?
Mr. Fritzsche answers my nagging questions beautifully and elegantly. He details the conscious, flexible, deliberate and accidental rise of the National Socialist ideal through what, horrifyingly, we must admit was a brilliant manipulation for the German longing for "togetherness". It's aim was simple--to sever the German people from all ties save that to the group, personified by the State, and its technique was relentlessly collective. In the end, says the author, Germans embraced National Socialism from those they perceived to be their brothers, not their betters. Then Fritzsche tells us how it was done.
By focusing on a few key Nazi concepts--and the "glitter words" that activated Pavlavian responses in Germans--the author illustrates how Nazis coaxed otherwise reasonable people into colluding in--and initiating--mass murder. The inescapable conclusion is that Germans really were seduced, even wooed, into destroying themselves. If this dichotomy offends, then so be it: Fritzsche's aim isn't to prove that Germans participated in genocide (which he takes for granted), nor really why. His aim is to uncover how. Dozens of diaries, letters home, bitter jokes and the occasional panicked non-believer's memoir suggest that Nazism was first inflicted on Germans themselves, who in turn unleashed Hell on the world.
"Yes, yes," You say. "But HOW?" Through, for instance, the "Strength Through Joy" campaign (originally named...are you ready for this?..."Strength Through Fear"),which among other things provided people with free holidays. Through exhausting, dehumanizingly cheery Boy Scout-style camps, where indoctrination mixed with social whirl and brutal exercise to produce the interminable, sleep-deprived, unquestioning "We" (and, not incidentally, the techniques in crowd control used in the Holocaust) Through humiliation, chilling social pressure, radio broadcasts, bullying, terror, constant spying by your neighbors, and finally, with the ratcheting up of backround fear to full-blown psychosis.
Writing this review is hard. If I do it wrong, you will think Fritzsche excuses Germans which he never, ever does. This is an urgent and important book, because when I was in school, I was taught only the most rudimentary details: Nazism suddenly "appeared", yet German-ness contained a latent evil. Later in college, I read about Versaille and the Inflation and the Weimar, yet none of these explain the madness of the Thirties and Forties. Not even the socially sanctioned Jew-baiting explains what happened next. I kept thinking, growing up, "What if it happened here? How would I recognize it?"
A survivor of the camps (whose name I'm sorry I forget) stated bitterly, "It took one week to convince the Austrians what it took five years to convince the Germans to do". It's those years I'm interested in. Fritzsche's style is superb--he takes each glitter word and develops it so thorougly that when you finish the "we're just us" section of the book, for instance, you'll almost HEAR the rustle of terrified postcards thrown from cattle cars, begging for help--it's the only logical conclusion.
And when you're finished with this book, the "good German" will mean more than you imagined--not simply a cipher conforming, nor only depravity unleashed, but also an active, frighteningly engaged participant in what he perceived was thunderous history. If this seems archaic or unhelpful in diagnosing evil, I suggest you get out a map and locate a little country called Rwanda.