Fable Agreed Upon

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History, it has been said, is all too often a fable agreed upon. Far underneath myth and legend, in any given period, there is a certain kernel of fact; men did thus and so, they were acted upon by this and that compelling motive, and what they did had certain concrete results. But the exact sequence of events and the chain of causation that went with that sequence have a way of getting lost; the myth-makers get busy, and a later generation may find itself consenting to a fable simply because the time when the truth might have been verified was allowed to pass.

This has a peculiar relevancy to our own times, in testimony of which there is presently available a grim and profoundly disturbing book called The SS: Alibi of a Nation, 1922–1945 , written by Gerald Reitlinger.

The myth which Mr. Reitlinger undertakes to destroy is the belief that Hitler’s SS, under the satanic guidance of Heinrich Himmler, was a state within a state—a compact, ruthless, and murderously efficient Praetorian Guard which terrorized not only the weak and helpless but the strong and mighty as well, compelling bureaucrats, army officers, and everyone else to go along with the most dreadful program of cruelty and murder in all human history. Men of good will were unable to stand before it; against their own inclinations, they consented to an infinity of crimes because they could not do anything else, and no one but the inner circle of SS leaders ever knew the night-marish things which the SS was actually doing.

This, says Mr. Reitlinger, just is not true. The SS (of which the infamous Gestapo was a subordinate unit) did indeed commit the frightful acts of which it stands accused, but it did not commit them without help. It elevated terror to an instrument of national policy, but the terror came down on those who were in no position to defend themselves. Men who could have refused to go along did not refuse; men in no way compelled to work with the SS did work with it, and the whole campaign of mass extermination—which claimed, quite literally, millions of wholly innocent victims—was a matter of common knowledge throughout the government and military hierarchy.

But the myth remains, and it can be damaging. As Mr. Reitlinger remarks, it is becoming the great alibi for a whole nation; it permits men who have a direct share in one of the blackest chapters in all history to deny their own responsibility. It falsifies the record, and this kind of falsification is in the highest degree dangerous.

The SS: Alibi of a Nation, 1922–1945, by Gerald Reitlinger. The Viking Press. 502 pp. $6.50.

Originally, the SS was the inner bodyguard set up in a revolutionary armed mob. But by the middle of 1934, says Mr. Reitlinger, its original excuse for existence had gone. Logically, it might then have become the kernel of a new citizen army. This did not happen, however, because Hitler in fact did not make a revolution. “There never,” says the author, “was a less revolutionary person than Adolf Hitler, who sacked Social Credit theorists and appointed bank managers in their place and who murdered a Roehm only to establish a Blomberg.” He kept the trappings of revolution, but retained the army and the ministries; set up to perform the dirty work of a revolutionary government (like the MVD and its predecessor agencies in Russia), the SS operated under this difference—there had been no revolution.

So the SS became many things, and it all added up to a weird administrative monstrosity. By the end of the war it was engaged in a whole welter of unrelated activities: it had offices for archaeological and ancestral research, offices which collected skulls and skeletons of “sub-human” races, and offices which ran baby farms; it forged bank notes, collected information on alchemy and astrology, supervised the cultivation of medicinal herbs and wild rubber plants, ran such things as a mineral-water factory and a shop for the production of porcelain; it published books, and it operated various night clubs in foreign capitals. It sheltered an overblown wartime bureaucracy so complex that a former official finally confessed that it was all but impossible for any outsider to find his way about in its maze of offices. It had hundreds upon hundreds of subsections, one of which—innocently titled Bureau IVA, 4b—was responsible for the extermination of millions of Jews.

Unraveling this tangled skein is a laborious task, to which Mr. Reitlinger brings the remorseless methods of the objective historian; and (as it seems to this reviewer, at any rate) he proves, right up to the hilt, that the SS was not operating behind a curtain or performing its tasks without the knowledge and consent of the rest of the administrative setup. “Himmler’s police leaders in Russia,” says Mr. Reitlinger, “could call on the Rear Area Commands of the army to supply any units available for the war against partisans, and these operations, conducted by regular troops, were often nothing else than mass executions of the Jewish population.”

The allied prosecutors at Nuremberg tried to segregate the leaders of the SS and to exact some sort of retribution for what had been done, but they had little notion how complicated their assignment really was. For, the author concludes:

“It is not realised how little the Gestapo was an independent agency, and how much its powers depended on the co-operation of the entire German bureaucracy. It is not realised that the massive machinery, by which more than four million Jews were dragged from their homes to die in often very distant concentration camps, ghettos, and gas chambers, could never have been handled by a single obscure department of the Gestapo, could never have been secret and could not have happened at all without the minute interlocking of the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministries of Transport, Finance, and Economics, the two High Command Offices, the Ministries of Labour and Armaments, and above all the Foreign Office.”

Here, in other words, is a historian coming in before the myths have really hardened to insist that the history of this particular part of our times must not become one of those agreed-upon fables. He has been compelled to grope about in some of the muddiest waters which a frequently sinful and misguided human race ever stirred up, but he has done his task ably and his book is of substantial value.