“WHO’S AFRAID OF THE INTELLECTUALS?” That is the opening sentence of Jan Mieszkowski’s excellent review of Belgian historian Christian Ingrao’s recent book Believe and Destroy: Intellectuals in the SS War Machine. I have not yet read the book. But Mieszkowski’s review raises important questions about the role of intellectuals in the systematic administration of evil. Questions of the danger intellectuals pose in government that—as I wrote about earlier this week—were often at the center of Arendt’s concern.
Ingrao’s book employs a particular qualitative methodology to explore the question of the role and motives of intellectuals within the Nazi elite—specifically of lawyers, historians, philosophers, and similarly trained professionals who joined the Sicherheitsdiest or SD—the intelligence arm of the Schutzstafel or SS, the paramilitary group that was responsible for many of the crimes against humanity during the holocaust. According to Mieszkowski,
Believe and Destroy focuses on “a group of eighty university graduates: economists, lawyers, linguists, philosophers, historians and geographers.” Drawing on a range of archival sources, Ingrao follows their careers from school and university through their participation in the SD and subsequent efforts to defend themselves in postwar trials. (A dozen members of the group were hanged; most of the others received prison sentences.) He is particularly concerned with the transition from the 1930s, when the SD evolved into an immense surveillance and social science research organization operating inside Germany, to the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, when these men took the first steps toward putting their theories about the Germanification of foreign lands into practice.
Eichmann himself—while not an educated professional—worked in the intelligence area of the SD. His role too transformed itself in the late 1930s under the pressures of the Nazi setbacks in the East. His first job at the SD was, as Arendt writes, in the “information department” where he had to “file all information concerning Freemasonry (which in the early Nazi ideological muddle was somehow lumped with Judaism, Catholicism, and Communism) and to help in the establishment of a Freemasonry museum.”
From 1934-1938 Eichmann came to work for the SD office II-112, responsible for overseeing the activities of Jewish and Zionist organizations. His role was to oversee and administer Jewish relations under the Nuremberg laws that separated Jews as second-class citizens but did not deprive them of their citizenship or certain rights. The Nuremberg laws gave many Jews the false security of believing that if they lived separately, they would be left alone. In that capacity, Eichmann became an expert in Jewish administration and emigration.
But his career only took off in March of 1938 when he was sent to Vienna in the wake of the Anschluss where the official German policy switched from voluntary to forced emigration. Eichmann established a Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Vienna, which within one year had deported over 100,000 Austrian Jews – nearly the entire Jewish population that remained – to concentration camps such as Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Auschwitz. Eichmann proved himself a master at working with Jews and Jewish organizations, someone who “was recognized not merely as an expert on “the Jewish question,” but also on “the intricacies of Jewish organizations and Zionist parties,” and someone who was an “’authority’ on emigration and evacuation,” and “a ‘master’ who knew how to make people move.” He was so successful in getting Jews to work with him to organize the evacuations to the East that he “won four promotions” from 1937-1941. It was this second stage of his Nazi career, dealing with the forced evacuation of Jews from the German Reich, that set Eichmann up for his central role in the Final Solution which began around 1941.
Early in the review of Ingrao’s book on intellectuals in the SD, Mieszkowski quotes Arendt, in order to distinguish “joiners” like Adolf Eichmann from the subjects of Believe and Destroy. Eichmann, he argues, was distinct from the intellectuals who gave the orders that the bureaucrats followed and implemented. The question of this difference, between those who administer intelligently but thoughtlessly and those whose job it is to design and administer the overarching policies raises the question of whether or not there is any difference between the highly-educated professionals who populated the SD and their less-educated subordinates like Eichmann. This question is, according to Mieszkowski, what propels Believe and Destroy. He writes:
In fact, Arendt was well aware that there was a place for the thinking man in the Third Reich. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, she goes out of her way to observe that the heads of the Einsatzgruppen, the paramilitary death squads of the SS that conducted mass killings on the Eastern front, were members of an intellectual elite. How did these men, who did not, unlike Eichmann, suffer from a “lack of imagination,” become an integral part of a sustained genocidal operation of unparalleled scale? The Belgian historian Christian Ingrao’s Believe and Destroy: Intellectuals in the SS War Machine attempts to answer this question.
According to Mieszkowski, Ingrao is engaged in looking more closely and with nuance at the educated elites of the Nazi SD. Here is how he describes Ingrao’s approach:
Examining the early lives of his 80 subjects, Ingrao relates a familiar story about the collective trauma that beset Germans in the aftermath of the First World War and the ensuing rise of völkisch ideologies. Nazism, he argues, was an eminently flexible system that allowed aspirations for Germany’s restoration and fears of foreign threats to the nation to be coordinated with racial hierarchies. His young SS-officers-to-be became part of precociously radicalized networks of associations, which deployed intense political activity presented as a defensive struggle against a universal and Protean enemy, an enemy which, on the “home front,” took the shape of the Spartacist, the Social Democrat, the separatist and — already — a Jewishness to which they were profoundly hostile.
All this is relatively well known. The tale becomes less familiar when Ingrao demonstrates that the dissertations of these young scholars (completed in the early 1930s) betray not a crass Nazification of scholarly practices but a more subtle politicization of research that began with the erosion of the boundary between intellectual inquiry and activism. The resulting Volkstumswissenschaften (social sciences focused on national character) were a heady mixture of history, geography, sociology, ethnography, and economics that would slowly come to be dominated by fascist doctrines — a disturbing reminder that there is nothing inherently progressive about interdisciplinarity.
The review, as well as Ingrao’s book, hold out the promise of understanding who these intellectuals were, what they did, and how they justified their participation in war crimes. It offers a glimpse of their initial self-image as scholars and consultants entrusted with helping the Nazi Party administer the Jewish question and other related social and economic concerns.
And it traces the blurring of the line between analysis and politics that infused scholarship with racism. Ingrao’s aim, Mieszkowski writes, is “to move beyond vague psychological speculations about how these men were able to stomach their grisly responsibilities.” He wants to show how the intellectuals could participate ultimately in executions and other crimes because
the executions were codified rituals with carefully crafted gestures and procedures, all designed to lend the slaughter a veneer of the inevitable while defusing the taboos associated with firing on unarmed women and children.
Mieszkowski has questions about Ingrao’s conclusions, and argues that “the precise contours of Ingrao’s proposed analysis remain a bit vague, in part because his commitment to it seems halfhearted.” Whatever the final verdict may be on Ingrao’s book, Mieszkowski’s review is essential reading. It is your weekend read.