Sugar Mag is telling some fascinating stories about her grandmother, who was born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1925, came of age during the Nazi years, and had a brief, doomed engagement to a handsome, wealthy young SS officer. Her stories raise the question of how any of us might respond had we been born into a situation that called for extraordinary courage. In comments, Sugar Mag writes:
My grandmother’s parents were not party members but neither did they actively oppose the Nazis, I think they were just trying to get through it.
Based on my own experiences of having married into a German family with a mixed political heritage, I think that this phenomenon – sometimes called “inner emigration” – was widespread indeed. There was a range of accommodation, from simply lying low to joining a party organization in order to fit in or get ahead.
For instance, most young people who were eligible to join the Hitler Youth or League of German Girls (Bund deutscher Mädel, BdM) did so. My mother-in-law has lots of harsh memories of the later war years, but she did have fun with those girls in the late 1930s. The rest of her family responded ambivalently to this. On the one hand, her bourgeois parents looked down their noses at the coarseness of the Nazis, and so they weren’t thrilled about her BdM membership. On the other hand, her father joined the SA (Sturmabteilung, or brownshirts) as a doctor. He was not a true believer but recognized that joining would enhance his professional position, while staying neutral could hurt it. Apparently he thought this would be a lower-profile move than joining the SS, though his exact motives are impossible to reconstruct. He also personally profited when a colleague was forced to sell out for political reasons. He acted opportunistically rather than ethically.
Now, there’s obviously a big difference between this sort of low-level collaboration and inner emigration. Ethically, it’s the distinction between active and passive collaboration. But to be fair, professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, and judges, came under greater pressure to join the Nazi Party or one of its offshoot organizations than did farmers or manual laborers. Professionals who were Jewish or unfriendly to the regime lost their jobs early on or suffered professionally in other ways. There was a host of repressive mechanisms that fell fart short of the concentration camps, and they cultivated fear among those who weren’t already among those persecuted. Thus, most professionals cut loose their Jewish colleagues (this happened already in the spring of 1933 in law and medicine) and cozied up to the regime just enough to preserve and promote their careers. A substantially small number went on to lead the Nazification of the professions and society. Very few actively resisted – unless they were already being persecuted for political and/or racial reasons.
The other side of my husband’s family illustrates the penalties for not accommodating to the regime. His paternal grandmother was fired from her teaching job because she had a long history of involvement in Catholic politics. Prior to 1933, Germany had a specifically Catholic political party, the Center Party, and she had been an active member. Like most political Catholics, she did not suffer imprisonment but was considered too politically unreliable to hold an influential job. Of course, the Nazis realized that they needed an iron grip on the education system to consolidate their power. The results of this were both political and personal: My husband’s grandmother suffered real financial hardship because she was a widow and needed the income, while her son felt like an outsider at school. In the aggregate, the teaching profession became extremely brown, to such an extent that postwar schools in West Germany often employed large numbers of former Nazis because otherwise there would have been a massive teacher shortage.
Given all the repression, peer pressure, and propaganda, it’s amazing to me that any Germans of that generation grew up with a moral compass. Sugar Mag describes how conflicted her grandmother was when she overheard a conversation that ought to have been reported to the Gestapo (according to her teachers) but would have betrayed family and friends. She made what we would now consider the obvious right choice and protected her loved ones. We can never know how she preserved that nugget of morality in the face of propaganda and massive social pressure.
In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, the philosopher Hannah Arendt famously wrote of “the banality of evil” – the ordinariness and routine that greased the cogs of the Nazi death machinery. People collaborated, laid low, and sometimes even resisted for reasons that were ordinary or even petty. Bureaucracy and efficiency obviated the need for moral judgments. People just did their duty, and the sum result was monstrous.
But these family stories suggest how the banality of Nazi evil worked on another level, too: If you happened to be born in Germany in the 1920s or 1930s to a supposedly “ethnically German” family, that was just your life. If you grew up surrounded by militarism and anti-Semitism, it was just your girlhood. It was the framework – the lifeworld – in which you played, went to school, fell in love. And when an evil system is that pervasive, normal, and taken for granted, you have to call on extraordinary moral reserves to resist it.
Like most of us, I’d love to think I would have found that moral core in myself, but I’m not sure. Unless we’re tested, I’m not sure we’ll ever know. And I hope never to be tested in that way.
By the way, I included the Wikipedia references because they’re concise and quite well done, and because they’re convenient, but they would not have been allowed on my reading list for my Ph.D. comps.