Commentary Magazine

The SS: Alibi of a Nation, by Gerald Reitlinger

Bureaucrats of Murder
The SS: Alibi of a Nation, 1922-1945
By Gerald Reitlinger
Viking. 502 pp. $6.50.


Today, more than a decade after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the early flood of memoirs and sensationalized first-person stories is being succeeded by sober, heavily documented histories and biographies. All too few English-speaking scholars are engaged in the task of mining the Nuremberg trial records and the Nazi archives and sifting the truth from the voluminous accounts by former Axis and Allied politicians— an essential task if we are to see the Nazi era in proper perspective and assess its true significance in Western history.

Few writers have made fuller use of these materials than the British scholar Gerald Reitlinger, who in his previous book, The Final Solution1 carefully reconstructed the exact sequence of events from the first Nuremberg Laws to the mass shootings on the Eastern front and the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz. Reitlinger’s new book tells the story of the SS from its roots in the years of Freikorps violence after the First World War to Himmler’s final betrayal of his men when he chose to commit suicide rather than defend their self-proclaimed idealism and pan-Europeanism before the Nuremberg tribunal. The scope of the book is vast: the SS played a leading part in, among other important episodes, the blood purge of 1934, the Blomberg-Fritsch crisis in Nazi relations with the High Command, the suppression of the Resistance Circle after the failure of the July 20 plot against Hitler, and the Arrow Cross putsch in Hungary in the last year of the war. The background of intrigue, clashing personalities, and bureaucratic in-fighting which shaped the course of each of these events is described in detail. In addition, the origin and military exploits of each division of the Waffen (Armed) SS are recounted, and the growth of the SS concentration camp empire is once more reviewed.

Reitlinger’s central concern is to determine as accurately as possible who made what decisions on whose authority, when SS jurisdiction collided with that of the army, the Foreign Office, or the Party Secretariat, and when the SS had the cooperation of these rival powers, whether as a result of infiltration or through the compliance of their leaders. A list of short biographies of two hundred and fifty persons mentioned in the book is appended to help the reader find his way through the dense texture of the narrative. Briefer, popularized accounts drawing on Reitlinger’s labors may be expected to appear in the near future; indeed, Edward Crankshaw’s Gestapo: Instrument of Tyranny2 has already attracted rather more attention than the two books by Reitlinger on which it leans heavily.



If reitlinger has a thesis it is to refute the “state within a state” view of the SS by showing how closely all SS activities—including racial extermination and the administration of the concentration camps—interlocked with and depended upon the cooperation of the High Command and the “respectable” agencies of the German state. The picture of Nazi Germany that emerges from both of Reitlinger’s books is of a vast, fumbling, unwieldy network of bureaucracies manned by official automatons, cynically intelligent careerists, and frightened stupid men, with the barest sprinkling of race fanatics who genuinely relished the deeds that are the lasting monument of the regime. From this perspective, totalitarianism looks rather less novel than a writer like Hannah Arendt has found it to be, but Reitlinger goes too far in the other direction. Perhaps Nazism was not a unique historical phenomenon, but what can it mean to assert, as Reitlinger does, that “there was never a less revolutionary person than Adolf Hitler”?

For the chief race fanatic was Hitler himself; the two Nazi leaders with most intimate access to him, Bormann and Goebbels, were cut from the same cloth. But like Himmler, who plainly had little taste for mass murder, these three were remote-control killers who did not see “what happened at the end of the telegraph line.” Reitlinger quotes a reference by Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief bureaucrats of murder, to “the grinding of the mills of Auschwitz,” and this suggestion of an impersonal mechanical process which once started continued under its own momentum is the true image of the death camps. The camps embodied the mad Hegelianism, the trance-like carrying out of the logic of an idea even against the personal feelings and wishes of its executors, that Hannah Arendt has seen as the essence of totalitarianism.

The general reader is not likely to be very interested in a great deal that Reitlinger records. Only the professional historian cares today what the High Command thought when Sepp Dietrich was put at the head of an army, or whether Walter Schellenberg was in communication with the July 20 plotters against Hitler. In this respect the present book differs from its predecessor: everything relating to “the final solution” is here made to seem important—from the entomological imagery of the Nazis’ early anti-Semitic speeches to the details of the unsuccessful early careers of the demi-intellectuals sent by Heydrich to organize mass shootings in Poland and Russia. But as Reitlinger writes in conclusion to his long story:

The machinery of the SS as a state within a state will be forgotten because it never achieved its end. The successes of the SS in the field will be forgotten because the SS never fought as an army and its leaders never achieved more than local tactical control. The idealism of the SS will be forgotten because it meant nothing beyond loyalty to one man. But the racial transplantations, the concentration camps, the interrogation calls of the Gestapo, the medical experiments on the living, the mass reprisals, the manhunts for slave labor and the racial exterminations will be remembered forever.

One hopes that he is right—forever is such a very long time. Immediately after the war, when the knowledge and the horror were still fresh, everyone was saying with the sense of embarrassment that comes from uttering the obvious, “These things must never be forgotten.” Today the same words are uttered in tones of desperate entreaty. After reading Reitlinger’s books, one feels that the world needed a century of peace and serenity to ponder the meaning of what happened. Instead we find ourselves in conflict with another totalitarianism, more disciplined, more spiritually primitive, less obscenely savage, and thus more formidable.



1 Reviewed in COMMENTARY, January 1955.

2 Reviewed in COMMENTARY, February 1957.


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