Military history





On the night of 10 March 1941 a fifteen-year-old girl was woken up suddenly by a noise in another part of the flat where she lived with her family in a working-class area of D̈sseldorf. ‘I heard my stepfather fighting with my mother,’ she later told the Gestapo. ‘He was drunk and I heard him say: “Now it makes no difference. England will definitely win. Germany has no ammunition left.” On this my mother retorted: “When you talk like this, you are not a German and I shall report you to the police.” ’ By this time, the girl had got out of bed and was watching the quarrel through the kitchen door. ‘I observed,’ she went on, ‘that my stepfather took out a knife and pointed it at my mother, saying, “Before you betray me, I will kill you.” I came out to help my mother, but when my stepfather saw me, he put the knife away and tried to hit me with a chair . . . He was later taken away by the police.’1 His wife told the Gestapo that he had said, among other things: ‘Hitler is responsible for our hunger and the war’ and ‘Hitler wanted to hang the Jews, but they should hang him first’. The man denied the allegations and said he could not remember uttering any treasonable statements, since he had been insensibly drunk at the time. Like many similar (if less dramatic) incidents, there was more to this than a woman’s simple disapproval of her husband’s politics. The Gestapo officers assigned to the case realized that, as the stepdaughter said, the man was frequently inebriated and abusive, and concluded that domestic disharmony rather than hard-core political opposition was at the heart of the case. They decided that there was not enough evidence to prosecute, and let the man off after confiscating the knife. In such cases, they usually took the side of the husband: battered wives were not very high on the Gestapo’s list of priorities.2

In other cases, the Gestapo took women’s complaints more seriously. In March 1944, for instance, a D̈sseldorf woman who was bombed out of her home went to seek refuge in her sister’s house. The sister, Frau Hoffmann, had been married to a policeman since 1933, and was away at the time on a visit to her mother in Bavaria. As she entered the house, the woman was shocked to discover the policeman sharing the marital bedroom with an Estonian woman. She contacted her sister in Bavaria to tell her of the situation. When she got back, Frau Hoffmann tried to get her husband to end his relationship with his mistress. But it was to no avail. The marriage went rapidly downhill, with frequent heated arguments and shouting matches. In desperation, Frau Hoffmann unearthed some letters her husband had sent her when he was away. In them, he had written among other things that Germany would never win the war. She also reported that he had been making defeatist statements at his office. Her husband was duly arrested and interrogated. Under pressure from the Gestapo, he was unable to argue away the contents of his letters, and he confessed that what his wife alleged was true. He was tried for undermining popular morale, sentenced to death early in 1945 and executed shortly afterwards.3

Here too, the denunciation sprang from personal circumstances, but the motive did not really matter as far as the Gestapo was concerned. Only about 30 per cent of denunciations to the police in fact came from women. In the vast majority of these cases, the women had suffered abuse or violence from men. Since 1933 the Nazi state had intruded ever deeper into family and private life, and women experiencing difficulties with their relationships were responding by crossing the border between the private and the public in the other direction, thus allowing the regime effectively to co-opt them in its suppression of defeatist or oppositional states of mind. Often, in the aggressively masculine atmosphere of the Third Reich, the women seem to have felt there was no alternative. A woman employee being sexually harassed by her boss, or a wife being beaten and abused by her husband, was unlikely to get a hearing unless she denounced him for a political offence of some kind.4 The state was particularly keen to keep soldiers’ wives in line when their husbands were at the front, and was not going to listen to them if they complained. In propaganda and the mass media, the wives of soldiers, sailors and airmen (Kriegerfrauen) were portrayed as pure, asexual, self-sacrificing, hard-working and above all faithful. Thus Block Wardens, local Party officials and employers all kept a vigilant eye on their conduct. As a result, there were numerous denunciations of women who failed to live up to the saintly image to which they were supposed to conform. A typical case was recorded by the D̈sseldorf branch of the Gestapo in November 1941, when a Frau M̈ller was confronted by the foreman in the packing factory where she worked with allegations about her relationship with a Belgian worker. A shouting match ensued, she slapped the foreman in the face, and he denounced her to the police. Interviewed by the Gestapo, she reported that her husband, a soldier, had had relationships with other women, and had even had children by some of them. Nevertheless, the Gestapo warned her officially that she must behave herself and end her relationship with the Belgian, otherwise they would take much harsher action against her.5

Despite its pressures on soldiers’ wives to lead a chaste life while their menfolk were serving in the armed forces, the Nazi state was far from being the sexually repressive and prudish regime portrayed by exiled adherents of the Frankfurt School of sociology, or the followers of the Marxist Freudian Wilhelm Reich. During the war, people were naturally cautious about having children. With husbands at the Front, there was less opportunity for conception anyway, and many women were reluctant to become what were in effect single mothers. Births fell from more than 1,413,000 in 1939 to only just over a million on average in each of the later war years, while the number of new marriages dropped from almost 775,000 to less than 520,000.6 As war losses mounted, Hitler became increasingly concerned about Germany’s demographic future. On 15 August 1942 he issued an order recalling from the front line the last surviving son in every family where more than one son had been killed, because, he said, in view of the obviously strong hereditary strain of bravery and self-sacrifice in such families, ‘nation and state have an interest in your families not dying out’.7 Heinrich Himmler had already ordered his SS men to have children whether inside wedlock or ‘beyond the limits of bourgeois laws and conventions’, as he put it.8 They had, of course, to be racially pure, and indeed restrictions on marriage to this end were actually tightened up in 1941, perhaps in response to the large numbers of foreign workers now in Germany.9 In January 1944, too, reporting Hitler’s own views on the topic, Martin Bormann issued a memorandum warning of the ‘catastrophic’ position Germany would be in after the war, with the ‘loss of blood’ to the nation consequent upon the mass death of the bravest young men at the battlefront. He suggested a variety of remedies, including educating women in the benefits of having children and relaxing the laws on illegitimacy in a situation where there would be a large surplus of women over men.10

The Nazi regime’s espousal of population growth, extending even to encouraging racially suitable women to bear children outside wedlock, led it to issue popular manuals on how to achieve a happy sex life. One such tract was written by Dr Johannes Schultz; his 1940 book Sex-Love-Marriage gave detailed instructions to both men and women on, among other things, how best to achieve orgasm during intercourse. At the same time, Schultz’s gung-ho attitude to heterosexual sex had a grim obverse side, as he endorsed the extermination of the handicapped in the T-4 Action and staged ‘examinations’ at the G̈ring Institute for Psychological Research and Psychotherapy during which men accused of homosexuality were forced to have sex with a female prostitute, and were sent to a concentration camp if they failed to perform satisfactorily. As far as racially approved heterosexual sex was concerned, Nazi encouragement combined with the circumstances of war to produce what many commentators described as a loosening of sexual morals between 1939 and 1945.11 The Hamburg social worker K̈the Petersen complained in 1943 that women’s behaviour had undergone a marked deterioration during the war; loose morals, debauchery, even prostitution had become common:

Many previously respectable wives have been alerted to the existence of other men through going out to work. In many firms - the tram company is a particularly good example - the male workers seem to have acquired the habit of going after the soldiers’ wives. In many factories too, soldiers’ wives have been led astray by the corrosive influences of some of their ruder female co-workers. Women who previously devoted themselves to their household chores, and were good mothers, have been led by such influences to neglect their housework and children, and to interest themselves only in night-time adventures and the quest for male company.12

The Security Service of the SS reported on 13 April 1944 that soldiers at the front were becoming upset at stories of the infidelities of married women at home. There was a marked increase in female immorality, it claimed, and it was particularly worrying that young women saw nothing wrong in indulging in sexual relationships with racially inferior foreign workers or prisoners of war. Denunciations often led to such women being arrested, and, as Himmler had instructed in January 1940, being put into a concentration camp for a minimum period of one year if their behaviour offended ‘popular feelings’.13

The SS Security Service report of 1944 laid the responsibility for female immorality on female idleness not female employment, especially

the comparatively high family benefits given to soldiers’ wives and widows . . . These women do not have to find a job, since in many cases the level of family benefits even guarantees them a higher standard of living than that which they had before the war. The time and money at their disposal seduce them into spending their afternoons and evenings in coffee houses and bars, they need not give a second thought to treating themselves to expensive wines and spirits, and above and beyond that they are in a position to treat men - mainly soldiers - to them as well.14

Other factors included the eroticization of public life through hit songs and popular films and revues, and a feeling among some women that if soldiers were, as was probably the case, having ‘a bit on the side’, women ‘had equal rights and were also entitled to amuse themselves’.15 Sex was even becoming a commodity, with young women in particular bartering it for scarce foodstuffs and luxuries such as chocolate, silk stockings or cigarettes. Particularly in the final air raids, there was a widespread feeling that life was cheap and could easily be cut short, so women and girls decided to live it to the full while they could.16

Whether all this was part of a general increase in women’s power and freedom of action, however, as some feminist historians have claimed, may be doubted. Certainly, during the war women had to fend for themselves, run their families without the controlling presence of their husbands and develop new levels of resourcefulness and initiative in managing their daily lives. But they did so in circumstances of increasing difficulty, with shortages of fuel and food creating worry and concern, bombing raids or enforced evacuation turning their lives upside down, and the general struggle to survive leading to weariness and exhaustion. Soldiers’ wives who deserted or denounced their husbands were very much a minority. Most kept up regular correspondence with them, asked for their advice in their letters and longed for their return: ‘Ah,’ as one wrote to her husband on 17 April 1945, ‘if only you were here with us, then everything would be much, much better and easier.’17 Men came home on leave at increasingly infrequent intervals in the latter part of the war. Married women customarily kept photographs of their husband prominently displayed in the home to remind the children of his existence, talked regularly about him, and tried as much as possible to make him a presence in family life. For their part, fathers often dispensed advice and encouragement, or censure and criticism, from the front, controlling their family as far as they were able from afar. They even discussed their school reports. ‘Klaus’s mark for English has gone down due to laziness,’ wrote one father, admittedly a schoolteacher, to his wife from the front. ‘He lacks the disciplining influence of a father.’18 ‘I am sending your exercise book back,’ wrote another father from the front to his nine-year-old son in 1943. ‘Carry on so diligently and you’ll make your parents very proud. Your essay on local history is very good.’19


One reason for the relative lack of success of Himmler’s attempt to procure more children for the nation by encouraging illegitimate births lay in the fact that the overwhelming majority of Germans still steered their moral life mainly by the compass of the Christian religion. In 1939 95 per cent of Germans described themselves either as Catholics or as Protestants; 3.5 per cent were ‘Deists’ (gottgl̈ubig), and 1.5 per cent atheists: most people in these latter categories were convinced Nazis who had left their Church at the behest of the Party, which had been trying since the mid-1930s to reduce the influence of Christianity in society.20 Especially in rural areas and amongst older generations, the overwhelming predominance of Christianity encouraged conservative attitudes towards sexual morality, reinforced by the preaching of pastors and priests. This was not welcome to the Nazi hierarchy. During the 1930s Hitler had curtailed the autonomy of the Catholic Church, which had most adherents in the south and west of Germany, as far as he was able, and relations between the Third Reich and the Church had seriously deteriorated as a result. In Protestant north and central Germany, the attempt to create a fusion of Nazi ideology and a Church purged of its ‘Jewish’ elements in the German Christian movement had largely failed, not least because of fierce opposition from fundamentalist pastors in the self-styled Confessing Church. The Church minister Hans Kerrl, an enthusiastic supporter of German Christians, died a disappointed man aged fifty-four on 12 December 1941. The situation within German Protestantism as the war began was something of a stalemate, as neither side really won the battle, and the great mass of ordinary Protestants tried to find some kind of middle way between the two.21

Hitler’s hostility to Christianity reached new heights, or depths, during the war. It was a frequent theme of his mealtime monologues. After the war was over and victory assured, he said in 1942, the Concordat he had signed with the Catholic Church in 1933 would be formally abrogated and the Church would be dealt with like any other non-Nazi voluntary association. The Third Reich ‘would not tolerate the intervention of any foreign influence’ such as the Pope, and the Papal Nuncio would eventually have to go back to Rome.22 Priests, he said, were ‘black bugs’, ‘abortions in cassocks’.23 Hitler emphasized again and again his belief that Nazism was a secular ideology founded on modern science. Science, he declared, would easily destroy the last remaining vestiges of superstition. ‘Put a small telescope in a village, and you destroy a world of superstitions.’24 ‘The best thing,’ he declared on 14 October 1941, ‘is to let Christianity die a natural death. A slow death has something comforting about it. The dogma of Christianity gets worn away before the advances of science.’25 He was particularly critical of what he saw as its violation of the law of natural selection and the survival of the fittest. ‘Taken to its logical extreme, Christianity would mean the systematic cultivation of human failure.’26 It was indelibly Jewish in origin and character. ‘Christianity is a prototype of Bolshevism: the mobilization by the Jew of the masses of slaves with the object of undermining society.’27 Christianity was a drug, a kind of sickness: ‘Let’s be the only people who are immunized against the disease.’28 ‘In the long run,’ he concluded, ‘National Socialism and religion will no longer be able to exist together.’ He would not persecute the Churches: they would simply wither away. ‘But in that case we must not replace the Church by something equivalent. That would be terrifying!’29 The future was Nazi, and the future would be secular.

Nevertheless, when the war broke out, Hitler initially soft-pedalled his anti-Christian policies, concerned that a further worsening of Church- state relations might undermine national solidarity in the prosecution of the war. The regime put pressure on the ecclesiastical leaders of both Churches to come out in public support of the war effort, which they did. A brief suspension of Church meetings by order of the Gestapo in the first weeks of the war was soon lifted. Military chaplains were quickly appointed to troop units and proved popular with the men. But the truce did not last long. As Hitler and the leading Nazis became more confident in the outcome of the war, they began to resume their attacks on the Churches. Protestant church visitation reports in Franconia in the spring of 1941 began recording that ‘the struggle against the Church has been noticeably resumed’. Anti-Christian literature was being distributed by the Party once more.30 Martin Bormann circularized the Party Regional Leaders in June 1941 reminding them that National Socialism was incompatible with Christianity and urging them to do all they could to reduce the influence of the Churches.31 Many of the Regional Leaders, like Arthur Greiser in the Wartheland for example, were already rabidly anti-Christian, and needed little encouragement to follow Bormann’s initiative. Soon churches were being permanently closed if they were too far away from air-raid shelters, church bells were being melted down for gun-metal, Church periodicals were being wound up because of the paper shortage, and Hermann G̈ring, the one leading Nazi who was in overall charge of a branch of the armed forces, banned chaplains from the air force. Citing the need for an intensified war effort, the state abolished some religious feast-days and moved others from weekdays to Sundays. The last vestiges of religious education were formally wound down in Saxony. Church property all over Germany was seized for conversion into maternity homes, schools for evacuated children, or hospitals for wounded soldiers. In September 1940 a blanket ban was placed on new novices joining any monastic order. Then, beginning in December 1940, monasteries and nunneries were expropriated and the monks and nuns expelled. By May 1941 some 130 had been taken over by the Party or the state.32

Expropriations of this kind were, as we have seen, the trigger to Bishop von Galen’s denunciation of the ‘euthanasia’ action in 1941. And indeed, these measures aroused wide disquiet among the faithful. On 31 May 1941, for instance, it was reported in the rural district of Ebermannstadt, in Bavaria, that people were simply ignoring the injunction to work on religious feast-days:

The greatest part of the rural population is still sticking faithfully to its religious community. All attempts to shatter this loyalty have met with ice-cold rejection, and in part arouse discontent and hatred. The (legally abolished) feast-day of the Ascension was just one solid demonstration against the state ban, in the Protestant as well as in the Catholic population. The abolition of Ascension Day as well as the ban on the holding of processions, pilgrimages etc. on workdays is regarded as a mere excuse for the gradual and ongoing general removal of Church festivals altogether, as part of the total extermination of the Christian religious communities.33

Some fifty-nine priests were arrested in Bavaria alone for protesting against the abolition of holy days. This opposition was serious enough. But no anti-Christian measure was more widely resented than a decree issued by the Bavarian Education Minister, Adolf Wagner, on 23 April 1941 ordering school prayers to be replaced by Nazi songs, and crucifixes and religious pictures to be removed from school walls. Crowds of outraged mothers gathered outside the schools where the crucifixes had been taken down, demanding their reinstatement. Shaken by this public opposition, Wagner withdrew his decree after only two weeks. He did not publicize this because he did not want to lose face. Local Nazi hotheads persisted with the action, therefore, incurring even more widespread parental protests and demonstrations when the new school year began in the autumn of 1941. Women gathered thousands of signatures for petitions demanding that the crosses be put back. How could they support their husbands in the fight against Godless Bolshevism, they asked rhetorically, if religion was being attacked at home? They were backed by a powerful pastoral letter from Cardinal Faulhaber, read out from church pulpits on 17 August 1941. The opposition was clearly not going to go away. Humiliated, Wagner had to issue a public revocation of the order, release the fifty-nine priests, order all crucifixes to be put back in the schools, and permit a prayer (with an officially approved wording) to be read out in morning assembly. Hitler carpeted Wagner after this fiasco, and told him he would be sent to Dachau if he did anything so stupid again.34

The protesters’ success was evidence of the depth of their convictions. It was also a product of the piecemeal nature of the measures. Had Wagner implemented them in a concerted overnight action they might have stood a better chance of success. Hitler, Goebbels and even Bormann now realized that the final solution of the Church question would have to wait until the war was over. It was simply too distracting and too damaging to national unity and morale to launch such attacks, especially after the war began going badly. By 1942, Protestant church visitation reports in Franconia were saying that all was quiet once more.35 Pressure on active Party members to leave the Church was continuing, but few were heeding the call. On the other hand, the deteriorating situation of Germany during the war did not seem to cause many people to rediscover religion. ‘The seriousness of the times,’ according to the same report, ‘has led only a few isolated members of the parish who have stayed remote from the Church to return to church services. In general, one can observe only a general apathy in most of the population . . . Regrettably, there is a considerable inclination amongst young people to regard the Church as a quantite’ ne’gligeable.36 This suggested that Hitler had some reason to suppose that Christianity would wither away if the Third Reich lasted long enough into the future. Nazi education and indoctrination were taking the younger generation away from it.

Persecution, as experienced above all in 1941, made the Catholic Church hierarchy extremely wary of engaging in public protests against the regime. Those bishops who were concerned about matters such as the ‘Jewish question, treatment of the Russian prisoners of war, atrocities of the SS in Russia etc.’, as an unsigned memorandum discovered later in Cardinal Faulhaber’s files put it, decided to approach the Nazi leadership with their concerns only in private, confining themselves in public to protesting in general terms about the persecution of the Church and the regime’s attacks on the basic rights, the property, the freedom and the lives of German citizens. A public protest to this effect, dated 15 November 1941, was, however, suppressed on the orders of the senior Catholic cleric in Germany, Cardinal Bertram.37 Bertram was more concerned to keep his head down than most, but throughout the war years, Catholic bishops showed little concern publicly for the mass murder of Jews or Soviet prisoners of war. Even Clemens von Galen remained silent. In his famous sermon of 3 August 1941 condemning the euthanasia campaign he had also referred to the Jews, but only by asking rhetorically whether Jesus had only wept over Jerusalem, or whether he wept over the land of Westphalia as well. It was absurd to think, he implied, that Jesus wept only over the people ‘that rejected God’s truth, that threw off God’s law and so condemned itself to ruin’.38 Even though he was indeed approached by at least one Jew in the hope that he would do something to help the Jews, he did and said nothing, not even in private.39

Conrad, Count Preysing, Bishop of Berlin, was perhaps the most persistent advocate within the Catholic Church of a policy of openly condemning the regime’s maltreatment of the Jews. In August 1943 he had a petition to the regime drawn up which he hoped all the Catholic bishops in Germany would sign. Condemning the brutal evacuation of the Jews from Germany, it did not, however, mention their extermination, and only asked for the deportations to be carried out in a manner that respected the human rights of the deportees. But the Catholic bishops rejected the petition, opting instead for a pastoral letter that asked their flock to respect the right to life of people of other races. Preysing approached the Papal Nuncio, only to be told: ‘It is all well and good to love thy neighbour, but the greatest neighbourly love consists in avoiding making any difficulties for the Church.’40 The relative silence of the Catholic Church in Germany reflected not least the growing concern of Pope Pius XII about the threat of Communism, a concern that became greater as the German forces got into difficulties on the Eastern Front and the Red Army began to advance. The Pope had never forgotten his experiences as Papal Nuncio in Munich during the Communist and anarchist revolutions in 1919, events to which he referred when receiving the new German Ambassador to the Vatican, Ernst von Weizsäcker, in July 1943. As the war went on, Pius XII came to regard the German Reich as Europe’s only defence against Communism, especially after the overthrow of Mussolini and in view of the growing strength of Communist partisan groups in northern and central Italy, and he privately condemned the Allied demand for unconditional surrender. He directed his efforts at using the internationally neutral status of the Vatican to work for a compromise peace that would leave an anti-Communist Germany intact. In pursuit of this goal, he considered it best not to raise his voice against the extermination of the Jews, for fear of compromising the Vatican’s neutrality. Yet this did not prevent him from issuing a series of sharp condemnations of the ‘euthanasia’ programme in letters sent to his bishops in Germany; nor did it stop him from issuing in May and June 1943 public statements of his sympathy with the sufferings of the Polish people, as he had already done in December 1939.41

As he wrote to Preysing in April 1943, the Pope feared that public protests would lead to renewed persecution of the Church in Germany. He was not willing to intervene to help the Jews. A public stance against the killings would not stop them, he thought, and indeed might simply speed them up. With the Germans in Rome, too, open criticism might bring German troops into the Vatican. The most he could do, he told Preysing, was to pray for the ‘non-Aryan or half-Aryan Catholics . . . in the collapse of their external existence and in their spiritual need’. Contrary to what some of his critics have claimed, there is no convincing evidence that Pius XII was an antisemite, or that he had concluded from his experience in Munich in 1919 that Communism was part of a world Jewish conspiracy.42 But on the other hand, he was fully aware by April 1943 that the Jews, including Catholics of Jewish origin, were not just suffering in spiritual and material terms, but were being murdered in vast numbers by the Germans. Pius XII knew, of course, that many Catholic priests in Italy, including some in the Vatican City, were giving refuge to Jews as the Germans began to threaten their existence from the autumn of 1943 onwards. He did nothing to stop such actions, but he took no part in them himself, nor did he utter a single word that might have encouraged priests to undertake them. Ever the cautious career diplomat, Pius XII did what he thought best in the interests of the Catholic Church both in Italy and elsewhere.43

Things were only a little different among German Protestants. On 4 April 1939 the German Christians issued a declaration in Bad Godesberg that affirmed the Church’s ‘responsibility for keeping our people racially pure’ and insisted that there was ‘no sharper contradiction’ than that between Judaism and Christianity. The following month, the Confessing Church replied with a similar document agreeing that ‘the preservation of the purity of our people demands an earnest and responsible racial policy’. Few will have noticed much difference between the two.44 On occasion the Confessing Church did raise its voice in protest. When the Church Chancellery, formally the leading body of the Evangelical Church, together with three bishops, issued an open letter demanding ‘that baptized Non-Aryans stay away from the Church activities of the German congregation’, the leadership of the Confessing Church asked pointedly whether in that case Christ and the Apostles would have been ejected from the Church on racial grounds had they lived in the Third Reich. And as persecution turned to mass murder, one leading Protestant tried to stop the persecution of the Jews. Bishop Theophil Wurm wrote to Goebbels in November 1941, warning him that the campaign against the Jews was helping enemy propaganda. Goebbels threw the letter into his wastepaper basket. Another letter, which Wurm attempted to have passed to Hitler by a senior civil servant, made a similar point in respect of what he called ‘the growing harshness of the treatment of Non-Aryans’.45On 16 July 1943 Wurm tried again. By this time, as he noted, he had lost both his son and his son-in-law on the Eastern Front. Writing personally to Hitler, he declared that the ‘measures of annihilation’ directed against ‘Non-Aryans’ stood ‘in the sharpest contradiction to God’s Commandment and violate the basis of all Western life and thought: people’s God-given, fundamental right to life and human dignity in general’. Although it was ostensibly a private letter, Wurm had it copied and distributed within the Church. On 20 December 1943 Wurm repeated its main points in a letter to Hans-Heinrich Lammers, the head of the Reich Chancellery. ‘I hereby caution you emphatically,’ Lammers replied, ‘and request you in future to be most punctilious in remaining within the bounds of your profession.’ Politics were not the bishop’s business. Nobody apart from Wurm attempted such an intervention, and shortly after his protest, he was banned from writing or speaking in public for the rest of the war, though he contined to preach and take services despite the ban.46


If the Churches did not openly condemn the Nazi genocide of the Jews, or undertake anything to try to stop it, then what was the attitude of the mass of ordinary Germans in this respect? Finding out about the killings was not difficult. Obviously, news travelled fast to the few Jews who remained in Germany.47 In January 1942 Victor Klemperer was reporting rumours that ‘evacuated Jews were shot in Riga, in groups, as they left the train’.48 On 16 March 1942 his diary mentioned for the first time ‘Auschwitz (or something like it), near Königshütte in Upper Silesia, mentioned as the most dreadful concentration camp’.49 By October 1942 he was referring to it as a ‘swift-working slaughterhouse’. 50 ‘The will to extermination is growing all the time,’ he noted at the end of August 1942.51 The mass murders in Auschwitz and elsewhere had, he noted, ‘now been reported too frequently, and by too many consistent Aryan sources, for it to be a legend’.52 As this suggests, knowledge of the mass killings of Jews, Poles and others in the east was not hard to come by. It could be obtained from a variety of sources. The Security Service of the SS reported in March 1942 that soldiers returning from Poland were talking openly about how the Jews were being killed there in large numbers.53 The Nazi Party Chancellery complained on 9 October 1942 that ‘discussions’ about ‘ “very harsh measures” against the Jews, particularly in the Eastern Territories’ were ‘being spread by men on leave from the various units deployed in the east, who have themselves had the opportunity to observe such measures’.54 Civil servants at many levels of the central Reich administration read the Task Force reports or were in contact with administrators in the east.55 Railway timetable clerks, engine drivers and train drivers and other staff on stations and in goods yards could all identify the trains and knew where they were going. Policemen rounding up the Jews or dealing with their files or their property knew as well. Housing officials who reassigned the Jews’ dwellings to Germans, administrators who dealt with the Jews’ property - the list was almost endless.

Some Germans reacted with open enthusiasm to discrimination against the Jews. After putting on his yellow star, Victor Klemperer experienced for the first time being shouted at in the streets by young members of the Hitler Youth.56 In his minutely detailed account of everyday life as a Jew in Nazi Germany during the war, Klemperer recorded a wide variety of reactions by ordinary Germans on the street as they encountered him wearing the star. While one asked him brusquely ‘why are you still alive, you rogue?’, others, complete strangers, would come up to him and shake him by the hand, whispering ‘you know why!’, before passing quickly on.57 Such encounters became more dangerous after late October 1941, when the Reich Security Head Office ordered the arrest of any German who demonstrated any kind of friendliness towards a Jew in public, along with the arrest and incarceration in a concentration camp of the Jew in question.58 Some persisted, however. Sometimes Klemperer was able to identify friendly workers as ‘old SPD men at least, probably old KPD men’, but he received abuse from other workers too.59 On a visit to the Health Insurance Office Klemperer noticed a worker catching sight of his Jewish star and saying, ‘They should give them an injection. Then that would be the end of them!’60 By contrast, in April 1943 a worker removing the effects of an ‘evacuee’ from the Jews’ House in Dresden where Victor Klemperer lived murmured to him, ‘These damned swine - the things they’re doing - in Poland - they drive me into a rage too.’61 Jewish rations were worse than inadequate, but, while some shopkeepers stuck stony-faced to the rules, others showed some willingness to bend them.62

When they forced Jews to wear the yellow star on their clothing, the better for people to identify them, many non-Jewish Germans did not react in the way that Goebbels wanted them to. Jews reported being greeted on the street with unusual politeness, people coming up to them and apologizing, or offering them a seat on the tram. Foreign diplomats, among them the Swedish Ambassador and the US Consul-General in Berlin, noted similarly sympathetic reactions on the part of the majority population, particularly from older people. The public advertisement of the Jews’ persecuted status produced feelings of shame and guilt when it was attached to visible, living human beings.63 Popular reactions to the introduction of the Jewish star were overwhelmingly negative, and those who took it as the opportunity to abuse and attack Jews were in a small minority.64 When, not long afterwards, the police began rounding up Jews in German cities and taking them to the local railway station for deportation to the east, negative public reactions outweighed the positive ones again. Older Germans in particular found the deportations shocking. The Security Service of the SS reported in December 1941 that people in Minden were saying that it was ‘incomprehensible how human beings could be treated so brutally; whether they were Jews or Aryans, all of them in the end were people created by God.’65 The religiously inclined were particularly critical of the deportations.66 In Lemgo a crowd gathered to see the last transport of Jews off at the end of July 1942. Many citizens, particularly in the older generations, were critical, and even Nazi Party members said it was too hard on the Jews, who had been living in the town for many decades, even centuries. 67 ‘On the train,’ noted Luise Solmitz in Hamburg on 7 November 1941, ‘people are craning their necks; apparently a fresh trainload of Non-Aryans to be sent away is being put together at Logenähs.’68 Not long afterwards, she heard a passer-by comment as an elderly Jewish woman was taken away from a Jewish old people’s home, ‘driven together in such a little pile of misery’: ‘Good, that the rabble is being cleaned out!’ But another witness to the action took exception to this comment: ‘Are you talking to me?’ he asked. ‘Please shut up.’69 All through the summer of 1942 Luise Solmitz witnessed the repeated deportations of elderly Jews to Theresienstadt. ‘The whole of Hamburg is filled with the deportation even of the oldest people,’ she noted. An acquaintance reported that ‘whooping children had accompanied the removal’, although Solmitz herself had never seen such behaviour. ‘Once more, Jews have gone to Warsaw,’ she reported on 14 July 1942. ‘I found confirmation of this in the rubbish-bins outside their home, which were full to the brim with the miserable remains of their few possessions, with coloured tin cans, old bedside lamps, torn handbags. Children were rummaging about in them, cheering, making an indescribable mess.’70

An unexpected new challenge was posed to the Solmitz family when Friedrich and Luise’s daughter Gisela fell in love with a Belgian man working in a Hamburg factory and they decided to marry. At the Registry Office, an official told Luise that the Reich Ministry of Justice had turned down the couple’s application to marry, adding:

‘Do the young man’s parents know that your daughter is a half-breed of the first grade? I’m sure they’ve given their consent, but do they know that?’ - ‘Belgium doesn’t recognize such laws or such views.’ - ‘What do you mean, “Belgium”? Today we don’t even use the term “Germany”. We think: “Europe”. No Jew is to remain in Europe. This is my personal view - not the official one, but I notice it from signs that the Jews will be dealt with even more severely than before.’ He said that to me twice. And there I sat, defenceless. ‘Look,’ he continued to lecture me, ‘at what the Jews have done in Russia, in America. Now we’re noticing it for the first time.’

When Luise Solmitz made so bold as to mention her Jewish husband, the official was thoroughly taken aback. ‘Your husband is still here?!’ he exclaimed in disbelief.71


A few people tried to rescue such Jews as they could. The story of the businessman Oskar Schindler is well known: a Czech German and member of the Nazi Party, he obtained an enamel factory in Cracow when its Jewish owner was dispossessed, and employed 1,100 Jewish forced labourers there while also engaging in widespread black market activities, trading in looted art and pursuing other forms of corruption. As time went on, however, Schindler began to be outraged at the treatment meted out to Polish Jews, and managed to use his money and connections to protect those who were working for him. As the Red Army approached, he obtained permission to evacuate his workers to an arms factory in the Sudetenland, although it never produced any arms. The Jews survived the war, but Schindler had lost most of his fortune in protecting them, and he did not prosper in the more orderly business world of the postwar years. He moved to Argentina in 1948, but was forced into bankruptcy a decade later, and returned to Germany, living first in Frankfurt then in Hildesheim, and dying a relatively poor man in 1974, aged sixty-six.72

Another rescuer, the Catholic German army officer and former schoolteacher Wilm Hosenfeld, also began employing Poles and Jews in his army sports administration in Warsaw, to protect them from arrest. ‘How many have I already helped!’ he wrote to his wife on 31 March 1943, adding a few months later: ‘I don’t have such a bad conscience that I must be afraid of any retribution.’73 On 17 November 1944 Hosenfeld stumbled upon a starving Jewish survivor of the ghetto, living in an abandoned house that Hosenfeld was prospecting for use as the new army command headquarters.74 The man turned out to be a well-known professional pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman, whose radio recitals had made him a household name in Poland before the war. Hosenfeld hid him in the attic while the German army command moved in downstairs, and kept him supplied with food and winter clothing until the Germans left the city. He never told Szpilman his name, nor did he, for obvious reasons of security, make any mention in his diary of what he had done. It was not until the 1950s that the pianist, who by this time had revived his career in Poland, discovered his rescuer’s identity.75

There were others, less well known, who helped keep a total of several thousand Jews in hiding in Berlin, Warsaw, Amsterdam and many other occupied cities. They included clandestine groups stimulated by socialist or religious or sometimes simply humanitarian beliefs, such as scouting troops, charitable organizations, student clubs and a whole variety of pre-existing networks. A number of Jews, especially in France, were able to hide in the countryside with the help of friendly or compassionate farmers and villagers. One of many groups devoted to rescue was the Organization for Rescuing Children and Protecting the Health of Jewish Populations, founded in Russia in 1912. Its French branch hid several hundred Jewish children, many of them refugees from Germany and Austria, provided them with false identity papers, dispersed them to non-Jewish families who were willing to take the risk, or smuggled them into Spain or Switzerland. All in all, underground groups such as this managed to hide many thousands of Jews or send them into safety outside German-occupied Europe.76 But these thousands, of course, have to be set against the millions who did not survive.

A small number of individuals also tried to get news of the extermination to the world outside German-dominated Europe. At the end of July 1942 the German industrialist Eduard Schulte, who enjoyed good relations with leading members of the regime, travelled to Zurich, where he told a Jewish business friend that Hitler had planned the complete annihilation of Europe’s Jews by the end of the year. Up to 4 million would be transported to the east to be killed, possibly by sulphuric acid, he said. The information reached Gerhart Riegner of the Jewish World Congress, who organized the British and US embassies to transmit it via telegram to his headquarters in New York. Such reports frequently encountered scepticism amongst those to whom they were addressed. The enormity of the crime seemed beyond belief. The US government advised the Congress to keep Riegner’s report confidential until it could be independently verified.77 More reliable and precise information could only come from an eyewitness. One of the most extraordinary of these was Kurt Gerstein, a disinfection expert in the Hygiene Institute of the Military SS. Gerstein was sent by the Reich Security Head Office in the summer of 1942 to deliver 100 kilos of Zyklon-B to Lublin for an undisclosed purpose. On 2 August 1942 he arrived in Belzec and was present as a trainload of Jews from Lvov came in, were forced to undress, and were driven by Ukrainian auxiliaries into the gas chambers, where they were told they would be disinfected. There they had to wait for two and a half hours, weeping and crying, while mechanics outside tried to get the diesel motor going. Once it started working, Gerstein noted punctiliously, it took thirty-two minutes to kill the people inside the chamber. A devout Protestant, Gerstein was shocked by what he witnessed. On the journey back from Warsaw to Berlin, he told it all to Göran von Otter, a Swedish diplomat, who reported the details in a dispatch to the Swedish Foreign Office after discreetly checking Gerstein’s credentials. The dispatch languished there until the end of the war, kept secret by officials who feared it would offend the Germans. Back in Berlin, Gerstein pestered the Papal Nuncio, the leaders of the Confessing Church and the Swiss Embassy with his story, all to no effect. Gerstein did not, however, as one might have expected, resign his post or ask for a transfer. He continued to deliver consignments of Zyklon-B to the camp, while redoubling his futile efforts to spread information about what was going on. Finally he wrote three separate reports on what he had seen, augmented by information gained by talking to others involved. He kept them secret, however, and it was only at the end of the war that he made them public by handing them over to the Americans. Arrested as an alleged war criminal, Gerstein hanged himself in his cell on 25 July 1945, most probably out of remorse at his failure, or guilt at not having done more.78

It was from Poland that the most determined attempts to inform the world of the extermination programme came. Members of the resistance sent information about the gassings at Treblinka to the exiled Polish government in London almost as soon as they began. On 17 September 1942 the Polish government in exile approved a public protest against the crimes the Germans were committing against the Jews, but it undertook no concrete action, encouraging neither Poles to give shelter to the Jews, nor Jews to seek refuge with Poles. Drawing too much attention to the Jews would in the exiled Polish government’s view distract world opinion from the sufferings of the Poles, undermining the government’s attempt to fight Stalin’s policy of getting the Allies to recognize the Nazi-Soviet border agreed before the partition of Poland in September 1939. Some politicians in the exiled government believed that Jewish influence stood behind not only Stalin but also Churchill and Roosevelt. It might be exerted in favour of the recognition of the Curzon Line. 79 The situation only changed when, in 1942, Jan Karski, a member of the Polish underground, was commissioned by the resistance to go to the west and report on Poland’s plight. The murder of the Jews was fairly low on the list of priorities he was given. Hearing of his mission, however, two members of a Jewish underground group persuaded him to visit the Warsaw ghetto and most probably also the camp at Belzec. Karski reported what he had seen when he eventually reached London.80

His report had a dramatic effect. On 29 October 1942 the Archbishop of Canterbury chaired a large public protest meeting at the Albert Hall in London, with representatives of the Jewish and Polish communities in attendance. On 27 November 1942 the Polish government-in-exile in London finally gave official recognition to the fact that Jews from Poland and other parts of Europe were being murdered on the territory it claimed for its own. Representatives of the government informed Churchill, and on 14 December 1942 Foreign Secretary Eden delivered an official report on the genocide to the British Cabinet. Three days later, the Allied governments issued a joint declaration promising retribution to those responsible for the mass murder of Europe’s Jews.81 The Allies concluded that the best way to stop the genocide was to concentrate everything on winning the war as quickly as possible. Bombing the railway lines to Auschwitz and other camps would only have achieved a temporary respite for the Jews, and distracted attention and resources from the larger purpose of overthrowing the regime that was killing them.82 What the Allies did do, however, was to direct a massive propaganda campaign against the Nazi regime. Beginning in December 1942, British and other Allied propaganda media bombarded German citizens with broadcast and written information about the genocide, promising retribution.83 In Berlin, faced with these accusations, Nazi propagandists did not even trouble any more to issue a denial. In terms of counter-propaganda, Goebbels said,

there is no question of a complete or partial refutation of the Jewish atrocity claims but simply a German action that will concern itself with English and American acts of violence in the whole world . . . It must be so, that every party accuses every party of committing atrocities. This general clamour will in the end lead to this topic being removed from the programme.84

The mass murder of the Jews thus became a kind of open secret in Germany from the end of 1942 at the very latest, and Goebbels knew that it would be futile to deny it.

The evidence does not, therefore, support the claim made by many Germans immediately after the war that they had known nothing about the extermination of the Jews. Nor does it, however, support the argument that Germans as a whole were enthusiastic supporters of the regime’s murderous antisemitism or the claim that hatred of the Jews was a significant force in holding the ‘people’s community’ together either before or during the war.85 Strikingly, the voluminous surveillance reports of the SS Security Service had relatively little to say on the subject. There were good reasons for this. As the clandestine reporting service of the Social Democratic Party noted in March 1940:

The comprehensive terror compels ‘national comrades’ to conceal their real mood, to hold back from expressing their real opinions, and instead to feign optimism and approval. Indeed, it is obviously forcing ever more people to conform to the demands of the regime even in their thinking; they no longer dare to bring themselves to account. The outer shell of loyalty that forms in this way can last a long time yet.86

Open discussion of the persecution and murder of the Jews was thus relatively rare, and seldom reported even by the Security Service of the SS.87 Nevertheless, the available evidence suggests that, on the whole, ordinary Germans did not approve. Goebbels’s propaganda campaigns carried out in the second half of 1941 and again in 1943 had failed to convert them. But if people could not be made to approve of the murder of the Jews, then perhaps their evident knowledge of it could be used to persuade them to carry on fighting for fear of what the Jews might do to them in revenge, particularly if, as Nazi propaganda claimed, the Jews were in charge of Germany’s enemies: Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union.88

The last two years of the war were filled with atrocity propaganda emanating from Goebbels’s mass media: the Red Army in particular was portrayed, not entirely inaccurately, as hell-bent on raping and killing Germans as it advanced. Yet the effects of this were not what Goebbels intended. Far from leading to a strengthening of resolve amongst ordinary Germans, this propaganda only served to reveal deep-seated feelings of guilt that they had done nothing to prevent the Jews being killed. Such a feeling was an unexpected by-product of the continuing Christian convictions of the great majority of German citizens. In June 1943, for example, ‘clerical groups’ in Bavaria were reported to be reacting in this way to Goebbels’s propaganda campaign centred on the Soviet massacre of Polish officers at Katyn’. The Party Chancellery in Munich reported them as saying:

The SS used similar methods of butchery in its fight against the Jews in the east. The dreadful and inhumane treatment of the Jews by the SS virtually demands the punishment of our people by the Lord God. If these murders are not avenged upon us, then there is no longer any Divine justice! The German people has taken such a blood-guilt upon itself that it cannot count on any pity or forgiveness. Everything is bitterly avenged here on Earth. Because of these barbaric methods there is no more possibility of a humane conduct of the war on the part of our enemies.89

When Cologne cathedral was bombed the following month, people said this was in retribution for the burning of synagogues in 1938.90 On 3 August 1943 an SS Security Service agent reported that people in Bavaria were saying ‘that Würzburg was not attacked by enemy airmen because no synagogue was burned down in Würzburg. Others again said that the airmen were now coming to Würzburg as well because the last Jew left Würzburg a short while ago.’ On 20 December 1943 the Protestant Bishop of Württemberg, Theophil Wurm, wrote to Hans-Heinrich Lammers, the long-time civil servant heading up Hitler’s Reich Chancellery, reporting that in many cases the German people regarded

the sufferings that they have had to endure from enemy air attacks as retribution for what has been done to the Jews. The burning of houses and churches, the crashing and splintering on bombing nights, the flight with a few meagre possessions from houses that have been destroyed, the perplexity in searching for somewhere to take refuge, all this reminds the population in the most painful way of what the Jews had to suffer on earlier occasions.91

Just over a year later, on 6 November 1944, the Security Service of the SS reported from Stuttgart that Goebbels’s propaganda graphically portraying the lootings, killings and rapes carried out by Red Army troops in Nemmersdorf, in East Prussia,

in many cases achieved the opposite of what was intended. Compatriots say it is shameless to make so much of them in the German press . . . ‘What does the leadership intend by the publication of such pictures as those in the National Socialist Courier on Saturday? They should realise that the sight of these victims will remind every thinking person of the atrocities we have committed in enemy territory, even in Germany itself. Have we not murdered thousands of Jews? Don’t soldiers again and again report that Jews in Poland have had to dig their own graves? And how did we treat the Jews in the concentration camp in Alsace? Jews are human beings too. By doing all this we have shown the enemy what they can do to us if they win.’ (The opinion of numerous people from all classes of the population.)92

‘The Jews alone will repay us for the crimes we have committed against them,’ predicted one anonymous letter to the head of news at the Propaganda Ministry on 4 July 1944.93 Fear and guilt were driving the great mass of Germans to dread the retribution of the Allies. From 1943 onwards, they were mentally preparing themselves to deflect this retribution as far as they were able, by denying all knowledge of the genocide once the war was lost.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!