Commentary Magazine


The House Built on Sand, by Gerald Reitlinger

The Nazis in Russia
The House Built on Sand: The Conflicts of German Policy in Russia, 1939—1945.
by Gerald Reitlinger.
Viking. 459 pp. $6.95.

 

The two World Wars of our century were acts of a single historical drama, and the whole period since the years that produced the crisis of 1914 seems, in retrospect, to be all of a piece—a time of military violence and social convulsion. Yet the intellectual and moral effects of these wars have been very different. One has only to compare the vivacity and originality of the 20’s with the flatness and impotent disillusionment of the 50’s to appreciate how great the difference has been. It is enough to compare the two spates of postwar novels to notice a remarkable decline in energy and in the sense of moral outrage.

This decline helps to explain the curiously passive attitude toward the catastrophe of Nazism. Those of us who are old enough to remember the electric storm of “revisionism” in the 20’s and 30’s, the unrelenting castigation of conventional diplomats, generals, and “merchants of death,” have been awed by the terrible stillness of the 50’s. In the field of historical inquiry there has been, until quite lately, a tacit moratorium on investigating and discussing Nazism. It is a striking fact, for example, that despite the evidence supplied by the unravelling and denouement of Hitler’s program, the most revealing studies of his character and mentality belong to the inter-war period. Such contemporary historians as Alan Bullock and Walter Görlitz are simply not in the same class as the Konrad Heidens and the Walter Rauschnings.

Perhaps no subject reveals the desert of interest and reflection more clearly, in this country, than the study of the Jewish catastrophe under Nazism. Despite the frenetic search for thesis subjects and projects for foundation grants, there has been no attempt to deal with this catastrophe historically and on a large and comprehensive scale. Such passivity is in sharp contrast to the activity not only of Yiddish and Hebrew writers but of students in France and Great Britain as well. Until his recent death, the lamented Philip Friedman worked unremittingly in this field. Leon Poliakov’s Harvest of Hate, published in 1951, was another significant contribution to the attitude of the powers toward the anti-Semitic program of Hitler. And in the last ten years, Gerald Reitlinger has produced three valuable works dealing with several aspects of Nazism. His first, The Final Solution: The Attempt to Exterminate the Jews of Europe, 1939—1945, published in 1953, has been little noticed or read in the United States, but remains the most important single volume on the process of extermination. The second was The SS: Alibi of a Nation, 1922—1945 (1957); and his latest, The House Built on Sand, is before us now.

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Mr. Reitlinger is not a trained or professional historian. Born in England and educated at Oxford, where one is taught that the man comes before the specialist, his first interests were art and archeology. The war, however, turned him to writing history in the classical vein, that is, to writing about important events of which the memory and impact are still fresh. Mr. Reitlinger has ignored the Rankean tradition of the 19th century, which deterred the historian from feeling, not to say thinking, too much about his subject. In all his books, Mr. Reitlinger has allowed himself to be horrified by what the Nazis did. Yet he has also been objective and scientific. He has read widely in primary sources, industriously assembled and classified the relevant data, and carefully documented his story.

Essentially, his narrative in The House Built on Sand deals with the conflicts of personality, procedure, and jurisdiction among the satraps appointed by Hitler to rule and exploit his Russian domain. Here, as in his two previous books, Reitlinger demonstrates a talent for giving life and color to the historical episode—the concentrated series of facts that cluster around an event and lead to a climax. His accounts of the “terror by hunger” practiced by Erich Koch in the Ukraine, of the slave labor hunts carried out by Fritz Sauckel, of the partisan bands, and of the organization and adventures of the Vlasov army are both factual and dramatic. Above all, he illuminates the quarrels concerning jurisdiction and aims, the rivalries and intrigues of power, and the procrastination, incoherence, and inefficiency at the top that characterized German rule in Russia, and indeed the Nazi regime in general.

The House Built on Sand contains a veritable “rogues’ gallery” of the hierarchs of Nazism who were most prominent in dealing with occupied Russia. Among these men Alfred Rosenberg, the “philosopher” of racism and the minister for Eastern Affairs, occupied a central but eventually wholly impotent position. He was not, says Reitlinger,

an absolute nonentity, but he would have been one if fate had not landed him in such an interesting position . . . one can imagine him very well fulfilling a different career, most of the time in a cheap Parisian Left Bank hotel. East European and heavily overcoated in appearance, one sees him enjoying a café reputation, despite the dullness of his eyes, as a genius who will one day produce a book of monumental and world-shaking obscurity.

Sauckel, the chief of labor recruitment, leaves two impressions on Reitlinger. “One is that of a simple, hard-working, patriotic man, the other that of an overambitious small-town boss, a nonentity who owed his position only to the fact that he had personified National Socialism in an area [Thuringia] once considered Red.”

Less confused, and more able and brutal, was Erich Koch, the master of the Ukraine, whose very brutality came, so to speak, from the heart rather than the head. Though he had been sympathetic to leftist movements in his earlier career, he cared little what kind of assignments he carried out under the Nazis. Koch summed up his own behavior in an inaugural speech to his staff in 1941: “Gentlemen, I am known as a brutal dog; for that reason I have been appointed Reichskommissar for the Ukraine.”

Finally, Reitlinger presents a rather sympathetic portrait of the Russian rebel, General Andrei Vlasov, who, when his Russian peasant housekeeper “slammed the door in the presence of two German officers . . . grimly observed, ‘Excuse me, gentlemen, ein Untermensch.”

The Russian de Gaulle was an expression that came easily to the lips of the Ostpolitiker, but, except for his great height, his air of melancholy, his solitude and his passionate sincerity, Vlasov had little in common with that greater and stronger man. Vlasov lacked the austerity of a dedicated leader. A frustrated being, a character from a Chekhov play, always on the way to Moscow, redeemed from desperate tiresomeness by an over-average appetite for women and strong drink, lovable nevertheless and easily winning the loyalty of strangers—but for what end?

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These vignettes certainly dramatize the anarchy of the Nazi administration in Russia. But Reitlinger argues that this administration simply was not part of any consistent policy; Hider’s proposed program for Russia was the result of “pure raving lunacy.” No human mind, Reitlinger continues, can register Hitler’s concept “of a country of 180 million people, in which every person capable of quoting a sentence of Marxist dialectic and every responsible leader down to the lowest village headman or starost had been murdered . . . of that large portion of the earth’s surface, coming to life afterwards under handpicked socialist leadership of limited intelligence.”

This argument, however, is a criticism of the ultimate possibilities of Hitler’s program; a more relevant approach should have asked whether or not Hider would have tried to put the program into effect. For was the idea of running Germany first by criminal adventurers and then by a future elite produced by barnyard breeding any more conceivable? Yet there is no doubt that Hitler was in fact attempting to do so.

Reitlinger is of course aware that Hitler outlined his colonial empire for the East in Mein Kampf in 1926 and that he “never withdrew his original standpoint.” Yet he insists that Hitler’s later moves do not add up to any policy, let alone a consistent one. According to Reitlinger, Hitler could see “present alternatives clearly, but could never perceive anything beyond the successful achievements of the next move. Thus the colonialism, with which Hitler was associated and which he had to abandon in the face of defeat and the opposition of his own chiefs, was never thought out at all, because he saw nothing beyond a Germany that had been made the dominating power of the western hemisphere through the defeat of one rival.”

It is quite true that it is impossible to make sense of Hitler’s administrative maze and his turns of tactics; but it is also true that in the end the original aims of Mein Kampf show through the interstices of that maze. For in the end, Hitler sided with those satraps who acted in the spirit of making Russia a slave colony of Germany or, to put it another way, in the end those satraps prevailed who acted in this sense of Hitler’s apparent aims. What is more important to note, however, is the fact that the aims of Mein Kampf were continuous with the policy of the more ambitious pre-Nazi Ostpolitiker, even though Hitler gave to that policy a characteristic touch of literal-mindedness, intransigence, and savagery.

Apart, then, from the question of the broader implications and the background of Hitler’s Russian policy, Reitlinger has written a valuable contribution to the study of the administrative methods and practical implementations during Hitler’s regime. That between these daily actions and the wider aims of Nazism there always was a great gap, is, in fact, a truth applicable to the Thousand Year Reich as a whole. But to discuss this problem would have taken Mr. Reitlinger beyond the limits he has set for himself in this study.

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