Benjamin Carter Hett is Professor of History at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. In his “Introduction” to the diary of Werner Otto Müller-Hill, published in English in 2013, he discusses the perplexing historical question of the degree of awareness most Germans had of the atrocities perpetrated throughout Europe during Nazi rule.

Hett describes the traditional stance of historical research and then explains the shift that has occurred in the field in recent years.

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Hett writes:

In the early days of historical research on Nazi Germany, most scholars assumed that Hitler’s Reich had been a monolithic and ‘totalitarian’ society, in which, through a combination of brutal terror and brilliantly orchestrated propaganda, Germans were reduced to the status of a helpless and unthinking mass. Had this been true it would be entirely idle to speak of ‘public opinion’ in Nazi Germany. But research over the past couple of decades has pointed up many limitations in this model of Nazi society, and many old beliefs about the Third Reich have been overturned. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of ‘Public Enlightenment and Propaganda,’ was by no means the sinister master of mass deception that he claimed to be and that many historians, themselves perhaps hypnotized by Goebbels’s extensive and important diaries, had earlier taken him for. Perhaps he did not need to be: the regime in any case enjoyed genuine, strong, and unforced support from a majority – though by no means all – of its citizens. But there were real limits on how far the Nazis could impose their views on Germans. They succeeded in winning popular compliance where their message went with the grain of German beliefs, whether in matters of religion, national defense, economic management, or sexuality, to take a few examples.

This newer and more complex understanding of the Third Reich naturally casts an important, and disturbing light on German’s compliance with (or at least nonresistance to) the regime’s worst crimes. Virtually obsessed with the fear of a wartime breakdown of morale on the home front, the regime was sensitive to public opinion and often willing to cater to it. In summer 1941 public sermons preached by Klemens von Galen, the Catholic bishop of Münster, forced the regime to scale back its ‘Euthanasia’ program of the murder of Germans with physical and mental handicaps. In February and March 1943, when the Nazis set out to deport Jewish men married to non-Jewish women from Berlin to the death camps in Poland, mass protests by the ‘German’ wives and other women in Berlin’s Rosenstrasse forced the regime to back down and let the men go, and even to rescue a few who had already been sent east. But wider protests against the treatment of Jews were conspicuous by their rarity; institutions like universities, professional associations, government ministries, and churches (as distinct from a few individuals such as Bishop Galen or the theologian Dietrich Bonehoeffer) did not protest at all.

Of course, individual human beings, as much as the societies they inhabit, are complex and will almost always evade easy generalizations. The Germany that the Nazis took over in 1933 was a sophisticated modern society, with long-standing and often bitter divisions between classes, political parties, confessions, and regions. The Nazis succeeded in gaining substantial support from different kinds of Germans to different degrees; their propaganda (‘one people, one state, one leader’) could paper over the real divisions among Germans, but could not make these divisions disappear….

It seems safe to say that most Germans mot of the time accepted most of the regime’s broader claims. Letters and diaries from 1941, for instance, from soldiers and civilians alike, reveal a striking readiness to believe that German’s war against the Soviet Union was ‘preventive,’ that the German attack has narrowly averted a catastrophic Soviet assault on Germany. Research on the last phase of the war shows many Germans still invested improbable hopes in ‘wonder weapons,’ a fatal split between the Allies, or in the Adrennes counteroffensive of Christmas 1944 (the Battle of the Bulge)…

Research on what the German people knew is most sensitive, but most important, when it comes to the Holocaust. Historical research has dispatched the common postwar apologetic claim that the mass murder of Jews had been a terrible secret of which Germans only learned when Hitler was defeated. But of course there are different kinds and degrees of ‘knowing.’ Considerable evidence points to widespread German civilian knowledge of the ‘Holocaust by bullets’ – the mass shootings of Jews by SS Einsatzgruppen (special task forces) in Poland and the Soviet Union in 1941 and 1942. Knowledge of the ‘Holocaust by gas’ – mass murder by poison gas in camps built for the purpose, like Treblinka or Sobibor – was more limited and probably more widespread in eastern Germany than in the west. But perhaps the most important point is that, in the words of historian Ian Kershaw, ‘the road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference.” Most Germans simply did not care very much one way or another what was happening to the Jews; between 1942 and 1944, when most of the killings took place, Germans were dealing with a steadily worsening war, mounting battlefield casualties, and escalating aerial bombardment of their cities. As Kershaw writes, the fate of a small and unpopular minority simply ranked well down their list of priorities.

Hett, Benjamin Carter, “Introduction” Werner Otto Müller-Hill. The True German: The Diary Of A World War II Military Judge. trans. Jefferson Chase. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, pp.xxi-xxv.

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There will no doubt ever be complete the historical consensus on the degree of awareness average Germans had of the lies and deception of their government and the horrific treatment by the Nazis of the Jewish people.

But, whatever knowledge the average German did, or did not, possess, it is certainly disingenuous to state that “Most Germans simply did not care very much one way or another what was happening to the Jews”, without immediately acknowledging that the same statement could equally be made of the rest of the world community.

Between 1933 and 1945 no one much cared to raise a voice of protest against the Nazi catastrophe that raged throughout Europe. Given the fact that the average German had a great deal more reason to remain silent on the fate of the Jews than anyone living outside of Nazi hegemony, the guilt of western democracies in the face of the Jewish slaughter may be that much greater.

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