I have never really done a book review but I felt compelled to read this book and now I want to talk about it. I haven’t got a solid format but when I started writing down my thoughts I realized that I need to break this up into a few sections. Section 1 is just a quick blurb about the book, with no real spoilers. I thought it would be nice to do this so you could decide if you want to read the book before you read my other thoughts. Section 2 is my take on several points from the book that truly interest me. It is filled with things that I did not know, things that suddenly make sense, and things that are eerily familiar to me now. Section 3 is not directly about the book; it’s about WHY I was compelled to read this book at all. I should probably have made it a different post but I just sort of kept typing.
If you’ve watched many WWII documentaries or “based on real events” movies you have probably thought that the men in uniforms where all generic Nazi soldiers. There’s no real distinction called out that I can recall when we see generic henchmen rounding up Jewish families and putting them into Ghettos, or later rounding them up again and loading them on to trains or into trucks to be shipped off to the death camps. Directors and documentarians usually only draw attention to notable characters like SS officers or secret police (Gestapo) but movies like Schindler’s list and Defiance are actually loaded with these militarized police who are carrying out the Nazi’s “Final Solution”
This book explains how these men started as reserve organizations designed to protect the German territories while the army was at the front but were reorganized into para-military police forces whose sole purpose was to find, capture, kill, and ship off all the Jews in their districts. It was not what most of them signed up for but it was what they did. Not only does the author document what they did but also how it affected them (good & bad). The subject is harsh and gritty. The endless tallies of those killed or deported becomes numbing. You will hate these men and, at some point, pity them. This is where bad guys come from.
Section 2: My personal revelations & thoughts
I have pondered more than once how Germany, a country the size of Texas with a population of ~80M people in 1939, managed to raise and army to not only conquer most of the western world, but hold it? That’s a huge area that got bigger as they went and they really didn’t win many allies in most places. Plus, they didn’t WANT allies in most places. The idea of a genetically pure German race required the young men to get married to young women and have lots of babies (that’s in chapter 18 where the author discusses some of the pamphlets given out to the men). In the mean time, how did they increase their territory by orders of magnitude and police it with people who would follow orders? Well, to start with, they employed every one they could in the effort. The entire nation was mobilized but they needed a never ending stream of fatherland loving, patriotic men (and all the young ones were busy dying on two fronts by 1941). So, men who were otherwise unfit or too old to be in the proper military were conscripted into various police groups, eventually organized and controlled by the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler. As the German military brought new areas under their control the Order Police would divide it into districts and enforce the directives of the leaders back home, in this case, the directive was the Third Reich’s infamous “final solution”.
The book starts with lots of data. The chapters are short but not simple. They are dense and packed with names, dates, ranks, populations and death tolls. It was imposing reading the first several chapters but the book opens with a promise to tell the tale of a group of mostly unwitting men who found themselves carrying out a genocide based on orders even their commander could not stomach. I stuck with this book to get to their story and it paid off.
The author doesn’t seem like he’s trying to garner sympathy for anyone. He’s just telling it as it was recorded. Some men liked the killing, some tolerated it, some avoided it, but everyone was affected by it and after the first couple massacres only a small percentage of men openly objected. You get the sense that the war was a diseased body and everyone who touched it got sick.
No one in the book ever openly addresses the question of human equality. Some of the men report that they didn’t want to shoot children because they had children. Others let escaping Jews go rather than expend the effort for something they find distasteful. They prove this over and over by being willing to let others do the killing.
I was amazed at how compartmentalized the plan was.
Order #1: Round up the Jews. This was done over and over, town after town, with no real hesitation or squabbling.
Order #2: Shoot anyone too slow to do what you tell them. This meant the very old and very young. This was a problem and some men refused to participate but many of them got over it quickly enough and it soon became the standard operating procedure.
Order #3: Take everyone out of town and shoot them in the country side. Apparently the Fuhrer didn’t want to move decent white Germans into towns full of dead bodies. This was actually a logistical problem. They started with firing squads trying to march line after line of Jews out into the woods for execution. It was very inefficient, expensive (they needed bullets for shooting the allies) and apparently the effect on the soldiers was so devastating that the Reich had to develop a better idea. This is where the camps and gas chambers came from. It was cold German efficiency (is that an insensitive stereotype?) that led to a design where by a minimum of personnel could dispatch the largest number of Jews with the least psychological effect on the police force. If that doesn’t upset you at least a little bit, you should probably keep it to yourself, Dexter.
This book also throws a sharp contrast on the words used by these men in their testimonies with the meaning of their actions. Even after rounding up and killing thousands of Jews the police men constantly use words like “relocation” “deportation” and “transports” when what they meant was “someone else will kill them”. I got the feeling that these men had a sense of fate here. Google tells me that in German “fate” is “schicksal”. Since there is no voice for the Jews in this book I wondered if they were accepting their schicksal as well (Google;s yiddish translation didn't work right for this). Eventually the Jews figure out that there is no end but death when dealing with the Nazi’s and there are revolts, but by that time, these police men are hardened killers. I am amazed by how many thousands of people were rounded up by so few poorly trained but armed men.
There’s one story in the book about a Commissar who tries, fruitlessly, has to fend off the “relocation squads” to keep his factory workers. At the end of the day he faces a road full of carts full of ammunition and supplies destined for the soldiers and no one to drive them because all his Jewish workers are in a hole in the woods. Don’t be confused this isn’t Oscar Schindler who apparently actually cared about saving people. This man is a politician who can’t make rank if he can’t produce what the leaders want. This is a fine example though of how the policy of the Nazi’s was self-defeating. In another story they send “work Jews” out to dig a big hole, then execute another group of Jews in the hole, make the “work Jews” fill the hole in and then shoot the workers. The book doesn’t say who buried them but I am guessing it was no one.
Okay, I’ve just spewed a lot of random thoughts from the book and now I’m going to get a bit more focused and a lot more morbid. If you don’t like talking about guns, shooting and the mechanics of murdering things, please, skip the next few paragraphs.
This book deals quite frankly with the reality of the “firing squad”. More than once it addresses the instruction and execution (pardon the pun) of the firing squad’s duties. The purpose for this is to break down the “firing squad” into the men who would and would not participate in them by conveying how close and intense the experience was. There is no discussion about the mechanics of shooting someone who is running in the street or hiding in a closet because that is the independent action of the individual shooter but the firing squad was organized on the spot by whoever was in command, and had a mass effect on the whole group of potential volunteers.
Books and movies provide us with a few classic scenarios when it comes to the firing squads of WWII. There’s the disgraced officer or spy character who is given a cigarette by an effete Nazi officer before he is stood against a wall as a line of generic soldiers all take careful aim from some distance away and shoot our poor protagonist through the heart (usually to the swell of an orchestral score). Then there’s the “Nazi soldiers stand the captive Jews at the edge of a hole or ditch” scenario (that starts in chapter 7 and carries on throughout the book) like in this book. Whether they get shot in the front or the back seems to be a matter of directorial choice. Typically they have the people being executed face the camera so you can see their emotions and pain. Sometimes they have the soldiers facing the camera so you can see their cold heartless expressions. Sometimes they set up the shot so you see the faces of the executed and the killers in one shot. And sometimes they have everyone back to you because the firing squad is a set piece in the background of some other shot. The movies love automatic weapons fire so they often have a hand full of soldiers mowing down a whole line of captives (chapter 15). The movies also love the idea of the uber-hard hearted officer who pulls out his pistol and executes one particular captive for some sadistic reason (chapter 9). It’s all very dramatic and lets the movie director control the story but when the police are first organized into firing squads in this book something weird happens that I’ve never seen or heard of anywhere else but I instantly understood it.
Let’s talk about shooting things a little. A bullet is a simple tool that transfers the energy from the gun powder in the chamber of the gun to its inevitable target. The size of the powder charge decides how much energy is available to the bullet. The size of the bullet decides how much energy it can transfer. The materials used to make a bullet, how they are bonded together and the shape of the bullet all affect how well it can transfer its energy to its target. Finally, the make-up of the target decides what happens to the energy when it’s transferred. So, energy in the bullet, ability of the bullet to transfer the energy and make-up of the target all decide what happens when you shoot something.
Example: shooting something light and soft with a powerful, hard bullet usually results in the bullet going right through the target and transferring only the energy needed to punch a hole. Shooting something dense and hard with a weak, soft bullet results in the bullet disintegrating as it expels all its energy on impact.
Hunters have to carefully chose bullet sizes and types to be sure they penetrate the animals deep enough to get to vital organs, expand enough to make a large wound channel, and transfer enough energy to have a fatal effect. While varmint hunting several years ago with a small caliber rifle I was concerned about humane shots on coyotes so I was shooting them in the head. A buddy of mine assured me that my bullet had enough energy to break their backs if I shot them in the shoulder and sure enough at 300 yards my 60gr V-max .223 caliber bullet transferred enough energy on impact with a coyote’s shoulder blade to snap the neck instantly and turned them off like flipping a light switch.
(That’s a lot of words about bullets to get to the following detail.)
Based on this experience I instantly recognized what was going on in Chapter 7 when a doctor instructs some of the men on how to fix their bayonets and use them to aim at a specific point on the back of the neck. The author doesn’t explain fully but the goal was to shoot them in the spine. The 8mm Mauser round they were shooting had over 2500ft/lbs of energy at the muzzle. Even a fraction of its energy transferred up close to the upper spine or brain stem would result in a broken neck and (hopefully) instant death. The police had great difficulty with this at first and often shot their captives in the head or through the neck muscle. Bad neck shots left injured people lying in a hole with dead people and more dead people falling on top of them. Head shots resulted in brain and blood exploding in many directions at once (don’t look so surprised, the skull is basically a big egg and we’ve all broken one of those). The men taking turns in the first firing squads often found themselves covered with blood and gore at the end of a long day of killing. By later chapters the neck shot was commonplace and the men had it down to a science. They learn to make the Jews lay down on their faces. I assume, this way you can rest the bayonet on their spine and not miss.
It’s sad to think that a lesson I learned while hunting animals was taught to these men by killing unarmed people who were deemed to be the wrong race. Many of them must have thought of the humans they were shooting as animals. There are multiple stories in the book of men who refuse to shoot Jews because they remind them of their families. These conscientious objectors would still round them up, march them to their execution, or load them on trains to death camps. It must have been around chapter 14 that I realized this was simply the reality of the world for these people.
The author spends the last chapter trying to tie up the why of this story. Why did these grown men (many of them well over 40 years old) do this? Why did so few object openly. Was it overt racism, sadism, nationalism, brainwashing, peer pressure, or are people just that easy to manipulate? He makes good points and draws his own conclusion but the quote that stuck with me was about the men testifying 25 years later.
“Subjects deny conformity and embrace obedience as the explanation of their actions.”
How much does this reflect on us and our lives? I can’t speak for you, but I’m not murdering people for my beliefs. Am I? What are we doing because everyone else is? Burning fossil fuels? Fighting over fossil fuels? Maybe. Trying to control where people go or what they do with their bodies? Could be? I don’t have the foresight to know these things definitely because I do not see all the options. But I know that I work with a man who is almost 70 and was raised in a very racist part of the deep south. He’s religious, loves his family, pays his taxes and I’ve never seen him be physically abusive to anyone but he often has a terrible time accepting women and non-whites working in certain jobs. He’s not a stupid man but he sees certain rolls in the world around him as belonging to white men. He sees certain indelible traits as belonging to genders and races. When you point out to him that what he’s saying isn’t acceptable, he throws up his hands and says “I know! I Know! Things have changed.” What are we doing right now that is just like that?
Why was I compelled to read this book? I was a voracious reader throughout my childhood and into my early adulthood. Then I got busy with work and family and just stopped. I even quit reading comic books. Reading is an all consuming hobby of mine and I must confess that I read this book in 2 days and have since finished a second book just because. That’s 2 books in 3 days and I haven’t read anything but websites and text books for 20+ years. Well, here’s the deal. When I was growing up history class was boring and tedious. It followed a formula that went: this date + this person + did this thing = memorize it for the test. Teachers could rarely tell compelling stories (plus most of my history teachers where coaches who were required to teach something so they taught a class that never changed). Years later the “history channel” (which was really the WWII channel) came out and I was enthralled, like everyone else for a year or two until it became apparent they were just going to do the same stories over and over until they eventually started talking about aliens. (Norris pauses to shake his head). But now something new has happened to history. First of all, some very well funded TV shows hired real historians to try to show us more realistic historical setting than ever before. Shows like HBO’s Rome opened up a world of interesting daily life details while still having lots of sex and killing. Also the History Channel’s Vikings was awesome (This doesn’t make up for the alien crap and I’m a bit bugged that they crammed a couple centuries of Viking history into one king’s life time) Shows like these added a new level of reality to period pieces. How did people really dress, eat, sleep and live. What did they really think of their leaders, families, friends and enemies? It’s still fiction but it’s a long way from the movies I watched as a boy where Hollywood picked armor and swords for knights because they looked cool and not because they were from the correct country or even century.
To make one of these podcast episodes, these guys pour through piles of books written by professional historians. Historians who often disagree with each other, change their minds from book to book, and can become myopically fixed on details that bore us to tears. The podcasters have to consume all this data, compile it into a big picture and then find the threads of a story that explain not just what happened and who was involved (none of which will be on the test) but what the world was like before, during and after these events. These podcasts are making history accessible to more people by bridging the gap between the dry academic publication and the average person’s desire to hear a true story. This is one of mankind’s most ancient social activities. We gathered around the fires at night for millennia to hear someone tell us how our ancestors braved a harrowing journey, survived a terrible storm, or finally found the herds we hunt today. We want to hear how those who came before us were good or bad and what fates they met.
This new exposure to digestible, palatable history has made me hungry, so I read a book. Good for me.
Post script: (I know this isn't a letter from the 1950's)
I must admit that I live in a very anglo, very protestant area in Texas and I don't know any Jewish people. As part of my due diligence I had to look up in what ways the term "Jew" was offensive. Apparently as long as you use it as a noun it's OK. If I screwed up somewhere please feel free to call me a Nazi since this is the internet and that's kind of the go-to.