Review – Bartov, “Hitler’s Army”

Omer Bartov, “Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich” (1992) – I’m old enough to remember when the “good Wehrmacht” myth still played with people who should know better. It was a Cold War myth, originally, a way to save face while rearming West Germany, but it got mixed up with all kinds of other ideas about war, memory, etc., that seem to make less and less sense the further we get from it. I imagine some chuds out there still hold to the myth, but you gotta figure they hold the harder the more we understand what the Wehrmacht actually was, both because they like to trigger libs (i.e. anyone who knows anything) and because they like what the Wehrmacht actually did, and pretending it was noble is a good way to have your cake and eat it too.

Because it’s pretty clear, now: the Wehrmacht was, as Omer Bartov put it, “Hitler’s army.” Bartov, an Israeli historian who’s currently at Brown, emerged from a variety of tedious fights in the history of the Third Reich — the debate of “intentionalism” (it was all Hitler’s idea) versus “structuralism” (it was all them reacting to/interacting with structures), the “Historikerstreit” where Nazi apologists like Ernst Nolte burnt their fingers by saying the quiet parts loud — waving a simple, undeniable thesis, backed by archival research and affirmed by where more abstract theorizing was going. Namely, if you hate your boss so much, you usually don’t fight the biggest war in human history and kill tens of millions of people when he tells you to, like the Wehrmacht did in Eastern Europe. The war against the Soviet Union was understood as something other than a normal war, even the wars the Nazis unleashed to swallow up countries like France. It was an ideological and racial crusade, extreme violence — even by the standards of an epoch of bloody wars — was always a part of it, and the Wehrmacht embraced it from the beginning.

There’s a lot of historiographical hedging here — Bartov beats the shit out of rival theories of what kept the Wehrmacht together, most of them obvious Cold War snowjobs, at somewhat tedious length — and the meat of the book comes towards the end. This is where you get the letters and the diaries, and the exposition of the totalizing world that the Nazis made in the killing zone in the East. By 1941, most of the men going into the Wehrmacht had lived under the Nazi regime most of their lives. Many of them had been through the Hitler Youth and they all mainlined propaganda. Above and beyond the specific politics, this propaganda insisted that fighting, suffering, obeying, and above all, killing, is what will make the Reich. In many respects, what Nazism aimed at was creating a sphere where that would be a reality, and they only came close in the East. However bad they were to the French or whoever, whatever they had in mind for the Atlantic powers once they got grips on them (rather unlikely), it was the East where the action was.

Probably the most compelling part to me was Bartov’s explications of a peculiar mental operation that a lot of German soldiers did. You can see this operation attested to over and over again in the literature, and you see other conquerors do it too- British, Americans, I don’t want to say it’s universal but it’s common. And that operation is, treating the human condition that these soldiers see as a result of their army’s actions as an indictment on the people they are conquering, and a justification for further violence.

Germans saw inhabitants of the Soviet Union after said inhabitants were subjected to extreme violence. The Soviets they encountered were scared, hungry, hurt, bewildered, dirty, and often far from home. People in that position don’t usually look or act their best. And it seems that more or less the official position of the Germans out there, as revealed in letters home as well as in official orders and dispatches, is that’s just how Slavs, Jews, Roma, etc. are. They don’t even really bother to say “well, we Germans wouldn’t be like that if we got invaded.” They didn’t seem to need that extra mental armature. They saw hungry, ragged wretches, who they had done most of the work to make wretched, and decided that what they saw meant that the people they were conquering were just wretches who deserve what they get (you’d figure the next step would then be “why are we bothering with them” but nobody seems to have gotten there, either, in any meaningful sense). We know what the consequences of that kind of dehumanization look like.

I’m used to stupidity and to cruelty, but that kind of motivated, but seemingly not quite intentional, divorce between cause and effect… That, I don’t really understand. I think it might be important to understand but ultimately not something you can think your way into. This mental habit was in no way confined to Germans between 1941 and 1945. I had to read “American Sniper” for a project a few years back, and that was Chris Kyle’s basic impression of Iraqis. That’s the logic behind the “shithole countries” remark. That’s how the British saw Indians, Africans, and often enough the Irish. That’s how a lot of American cops look at black, brown, and poor people.

It does seem that “official” first world culture encourages that little voice that says “they’re still people/how do you think they got so wretched, dummy?” And it seems that first world fascists can be reasonably defined as the kids who are mad that that voice got installed in their heads and want to kill it, and kill it in everyone else, joined sometimes by those who lack it entirely and are mad that people say they should have it. And, no, “leftists aren’t just as bad.” A lot of the worst leftists atrocities took place precisely when leftists didn’t do the thing they’re supposed to do, and think seriously about the lives of those in front of them. And it just doesn’t happen as often, or as severely, as crimes motivated by this sort of master-wretch dichotomy that seemingly defines the mental landscape of a lot of people in positions of relative power.

This attitude has to be institutional to get the sort of effect you saw on the eastern front, not just “bad apples” or just the SS. Ultimately, it was the logic behind the whole war. It’s one of, maybe the main, or the only, non-logic behind the concept of race in general. It defined the goals of the war in the east and its conduct. It’s why the Germans couldn’t try to move slow, couldn’t try to meaningfully ally with minority nationalities in the USSR or just Russians who hated Stalin and communism, even as, in many cases, such people greeted the Nazis, went to great lengths to join them. All that dried up pretty soon after the initial invasion, with the way the Germans treated the entire population of the USSR. Assholes like Bandera stuck with it out of a mixture of ideological fanaticism and the knowledge that there was no going back. The SS did some of their major killing actions because the Wehrmacht asked them to, after general Nazi policy so badly alienated the (previously grievously oppressed!) people of the USSR that they were willing to risk the worst retribution possible to strike back.

They were all in it together. The attempt on Hitler’s life by a small clique of Wehrmacht officers was a poorly-organized, half-hearted attempt for a few of them to save their own skins, get the Anglos on side to stop the Soviets from coming for them. The Soviets took terrible vengeance on Germany, but you’ll notice Germany still exists, which is more than would have happened to Russia or anywhere else east of Prussia had the Nazis won. Maybe because the logic of dehumanization was so prevalent in the power centers of the world no one really knew what to make of it when they saw what it all led to. Then the Cold War came along, so official historians and social scientists had a new script, and a new motivation to explain away what we saw, to redeem the Wehrmacht and so on. Well. Pretty much anyone who takes history seriously anymore gets that that’s bullshit, in no small part to Omer Bartov here, but who’s to say whether we’ve closed the barn door after the horse got out? ****’

Review – Bartov, “Hitler’s Army”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s