Thursday 22 May 2003

Coercion and consent

“You might also be interested in reading Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which I read back in Feb. or March,” suggested Elaine Nelson, in response to my post about ordinary Germans’ complicity in Nazi war crimes. “I didn’t review it in my media diet blog, but I put a quote into a blog entry about women and war.”

Although I was aware of Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, I recall being put off by the polarized reception the book received upon publication. But, following Elaine’s recommendation, I checked it out at Amazon, only to find—I guess not surprisingly— reviews that are sharply divided between those which characterize the book as brilliant and original and those which describe it as a partisan and repetitive PhD dissertation. I put Hitler’s Willing Executioners in the “maybe” category and returned to reading about the bombing of Germany.

Book cover - Robert Gellately: Backing Hitler, Consent and Coercion in Nazi GermanyLater in the day I was looking for something else at Amazon when it occurred to me that it had been a while since I’d checked out my recommendations. At the top of the list was Robert Gellately’s Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany. Why was I recommended this? Because I’d recently viewed Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Only occasionally am I pleasantly surprised by Amazon’s machine-generated recommendations. In this case, Elaine’s human endorsement had done the trick.

And, it seems, all paths lead to Victor Klemperer. In his introduction, Gellately writes:

A sense of how Germans responded positively to various waves of persecution and even to the spirit of Nazi ‘justice’, is conveyed on almost every page of Professor Victor Klemperer’s recently published diary. It represents the most detailed chronicle we have of the implementation of the repression, especially the measures aimed at the Jews. Klemperer recorded one telling conversation he had in late February 1935 with his last two students, whom he said were ‘completely anti-Nazi’. The fact that they persisted in studying with this Jewish professor showed they had some civil courage. However, when their discussion turned to a recent newspaper story about the trial and execution of two young aristocratic women in Berlin, the students said they found the court’s verdict ‘totally appropriate’. They saw no fault in the procedures of the secret trial, nor were they troubled in the least that the accused had been denied essential legal rights. Klemperer concluded sadly that ‘the sense of justice is being lost everywhere in Germany, is being systematically destroyed’. In this book I examine the background of such stories, explore how coercion and consent were entwined, and finally how and why the German people backed the Nazi dictatorship.

They saw no fault in the procedures of the secret trial, nor were they troubled in the least that the accused had been denied essential legal rights. Doesn’t that sound unpleasantly familiar? Coercion and consent, in the name of Homeland Security.

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Dammit, that's another book for *my* reading list.

Posted by language hat on 23 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

That does sound quite interesting; I'll have to see if it's something my library carries.

As for my original recommendation, I'll have to qualify it by saying that he probably could've cut at least a hundred pages (maybe even twice that) and had a better book for the trimming.

And for myself, I'm coming to some of the same thoughts as your conclusion in my recent readings on the US involvement in SE Asia in the 70s and before. None of this is uplifting reading, and I'm having a difficult time finding a path to action from it.

Posted by Elaine on 23 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Another good book (and you may already know of this one) is "Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition and Racism in Veryday Life", by Detlev J.K. Peukert, which is a very good examination of the small ways in which some Germans attempted to resist, and the ways in which others tried to ignore what was happening.

Posted by awful on 23 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I've pointed to this quote from Musil's 1933 notebooks so often (particuarly since Bush came into power) that I should really be ashamed of myself, but somehow I'm not:


"The feeling is growing that the new arrangements will not be so bad after all and that, overall, there will be a liberation from many of the things that were felt, at an unconscious level, to be oppressive. ... Definition: the modern person is a coward but likes to be forced to perform heroic feats."

Posted by Ray on 24 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

awful, thanks for letting me know about Peukert's book, which I doubt I'd have discovered otherwise.

Ray, thanks for the pointer to Musil's journals. The quote you refer to deserves to be cited again and again. (I was astonished to learn from the Amazon reviews that there is no comprehensive biography of Musil, not even in German.)

Posted by Jonathon on 24 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

[Removed (spam)]

Posted by ixel on 5 January 2004 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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