History Perverted

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The story is not yet complete. Mr. Reitlinger indicates where the historian’s responsibility lies, and Dr. Kersten presents a slice of the miserable material with which the historian is obliged to work. It remains to take a look at the way in which history wrongly written and basely interpreted can twist the life of a whole nation out of shape.

We stick with the boys in the jackboots—the blackshirts. The exhibit now is a work called Gestapo: Instrument of Tyranny , by Edward Crankshaw, which rounds out the picture presented by the two previous books and which is yet another chapter in the strange tale of bits and pieces which the historian has to bear in mind. Mr. Crankshaw is concerned, basically, with the hideous things that can happen to a people who have perverted history, who know everything about the past except what it really means, who can study history devoutly without ever once realizing that it is really the story of actual, flesh-and-blood human beings.

This book is in a way a blend of the other two. It picks up one of the subsections of the SS—the world-dreaded Gestapo—for intimate examination, and it also concerns itself directly with Himmler himself; and its impact is perhaps the greatest of the three because it makes explicit some of the things that come out of the other two books only as overtones.

There is no real disagreement here. Mr. Crankshaw comes to very much Mr. Reitlinger’s conclusion, and he states it explicitly:

“… the Gestapo did not function as a dark and sinister tyranny, compact and aloof, ruling first Germany, then most of Europe, alone, in secrecy, and unobserved; but, once absolute power had been achieved, merged itself inextricably with the general mood of Germany as a whole, so that in occupied Europe, especially in the East, it is hard to separate the cruelties of the Gestapo and the S.D. from the cruelties of the Wehrmacht. …”

All of which is true enough. Mr. Crankshaw traces the rise of the Gestapo and shows what Himmler had to do with it (and it should be noted that Himmler is not quite the grandfatherly humbler which Dr. Kersten sometimes makes him appear; he was a canny operator who knew at all times precisely what he was up to) and he presents a record which, because it is so compact and so readable, is perhaps the most damning indictment yet put on paper. But he sounds in addition an eloquent note of warning: “… we are clearly going about things the wrong way if we allow ourselves to start with the assumption that only Germans could behave in the manner recorded in these pages.”

Gestapo: Instrument of Tyranny, by Edward Crankshaw. The Viking Press. 275 pp. $3.75.

The Germans had studied history; no people ever studied it more intensively. Yet what they finally got out of it seems to have been something bloodless, a tracing of lines of destiny, a history told in terms of national survival and national defeat. Nowhere in it was the breathing reality of the individual human being made manifest. In a crisis, then, this nation could adopt wholesale slaughter as an instrument for survival, simply because its historians had never hinted that the people who were going to be slaughtered were, after all, people . What followed was, as Mr. Crankshaw puts it, “a rejection of that reality which includes one’s neighbours,” with a false abstraction substituted for reality.

Any history can do this to any people once it ceases to deal with human beings and deals with abstractions. This, perhaps, is the real lesson of the whole miserable business. Here in America we might perhaps begin by reflecting that those atomic bombs we dropped did fall on living human beings. They did not just explode in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; they exploded in the heart of mankind. The historian does not need to turn moralist in order to point this out, but somewhere along the line he does have some sort of moral responsibility. He is talking about men and women.