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The Nazi killing mentality

LAURENCE REES: How can we begin to understand why the Nazis felt it acceptable - indeed 'desirable' - to kill so many people?

ADAM TOOZE: Well, I think we’re just at the beginning of unlocking this, as striking as it may sound to say that, given the generations of research there’s been about the history of the Third Reich. We’re really still at the beginning of trying to explore the mentality specifically of the experts who were responsible for this kind of planning. One essential element is no doubt that the Germans are convinced that this kind of war is being waged against them. It is common sense amongst Germans of all political dispositions in the 1920s, for instance, that the British blockade imposed on Germany in World War One killed 600,000 to 750,000 people, mainly women and children. So the Germans understand the war in a very comprehensive sense and as one that is bent on indiscriminate annihilation by both sides and without distinction, necessarily, between the West and the East.

They experienced themselves as victims of an annihilatory war in World War One and I think that’s essential, especially when we’re thinking about food, because food is seen as this fundamental variable. Without it the home front can’t survive, and if the home front doesn’t survive Germany will become victim to yet another effort by the West to starve it into submission. And so what you see in the rhetoric of 1940-42 is this sort of inverting move where we say somebody’s going to starve, but it isn’t going to be us this time. And that, I think, is an absolutely fundamental rhetorical device. Furthermore, we know that this had persuasive power because unlike the Holocaust which, as generations of historians have shown, is euphemised about, it’s not spoken about openly, the Hunger Plan is explicitly documented in instructions issued to the German occupying forces.

So commanders of German garrisons in the rear areas have explicit instructions which say should you feel minded to distribute food to starving Russians, remind yourself and your subordinates that what is at stake here is nothing less than the survival of the Reich and the continuation of the war into its second, third, fourth year. These people have no entitlement to rations, the implication then subsequently and clearly, is that these people will starve and you must preside over their starvation as a matter of national priority. There is no doubt that there was at the higher levels of planning a degree simply of rationalising technocratic abstraction, which is a theme which we see recurring throughout discussions of how the Holocaust works. I am not really sure whether Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil catches the true mentality of these people, because many of them are far from banal and many of them are very highly motivated in ideological terms.

But there certainly is a sense in which they’re distanced from the consequences of what they’re doing, and fundamentally that’s also one of the reasons why it doesn’t work. The Hunger Plan is a plan which is never really fully operational. They can’t make a go of it because it’s not actually realistic to imagine starving to death 30 to 40 million people, given the limitations of German forces behind the lines in Russia in 1941. The groups that you can kill are, for instance, prisoners of war, who die in their millions, but that’s a particularly vulnerable group which you’ve been able to incarcerate. These are essentially prisoners in a prison camp. The idea that you can starve entire cities in any straightforward manner in the end proves to be utterly unrealistic. So you can see that in a sense the abstraction of a lot of this planning also leads to its failure. It isn’t actually a concrete realisable vision, it’s simply the result of a certain set of calculations that you have to make to allow the German war economy to look viable in 1941-42.

LAURENCE REES: Some people still say that the Wehrmacht were actually  fighting a war in which they – as distinct from the SS – weren’t committing these atrocities, but that’s clearly nonsense, isn't it?

ADAM TOOZE: Yes, that’s unsustainable in relation to the Holocaust as we now know, and it’s clearly also unsustainable in relation to the broader civilian population in territories like the Ukraine or the Belarus. Ordinary German soldiers through everyday acts of self-provisioning were condemning to death hundreds of thousands of people in their immediate vicinity and ultimately leading to the destruction of much of the urban fabric of the western Soviet Union. The reason why the German army was willing to sign up for this is, in part, simply driven by necessity. If you go back to what we were saying earlier about the limitations of the military planning for Barbarossa, the fundamental problems the Germans face are logistical. There simply aren’t enough East-West high volume railway lines through which to supply the three major columns in which the Germans advance towards the East. As a result it’s extremely convenient for the planners to be able to assume that large parts of the German army are going to be able to supply themselves from the land. And large parts of the German army, even at critical moments in the fighting like August 1941 when the Smolensk battle is in full swing, are being diverted towards bringing in the harvest, which is a fairly unprecedented event I think. It certainly doesn’t fit with our conventional image of World War Two as a modern war, when a very large part of the German army in the rear areas has to occupy itself with actually just ensuring that there’s enough food provisioned and stocked up for the autumn and the winter.