Bryan Mark Rigg. Lives of Hitler's Jewish Soldiers: Untold Tales of Men of Jewish Descent Who Fought for the Third Reich. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009. xiv + 314 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-1638-1.
Reviewed by David Yelton (Gardner-Webb University)
Published on H-German (June, 2010)
Commissioned by Benita Blessing (Oregon State University)
Bryan Mark Rigg's Lives of Hitler's Jewish Soldiers: Untold Tales of Men of Jewish Descent Who Fought for the Third Reich recounts the military experiences of selected German men of mixed Jewish-Gentile descent (officially labeled Mischlinge [mixed race, or crossbreed] during the Nazi years) who served in the Wehrmacht. Rigg's book seeks to explain why these partially Jewish men served a regime based on a virulently anti-Semitic ideology that launched a policy of persecution and genocide against those people that it considered to be of full or partial Jewish ancestry. This is Rigg's second book on this topic and follows his very successful Hitler's Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military (2002). As with most sequels, this book disappoints somewhat, since it generally echoes the first book's themes.
Rigg estimates that 150,000 men of mixed Jewish-Gentile ancestry served at some time in the German Wehrmacht. He contends that the primary motivation for their service was a desire to protect themselves and their families from the Nazi regime. Most of the individuals profiled in twenty-one mini-biographies had hoped that exemplary soldierly conduct would prove their loyalty to Germany. Some men sought medals for bravery. Many of these soldiers wanted official protection from government persecution based on their Jewish ancestry: various Nazi provisions permitted a kind of "Germanization" that replaced officialracial status as part Jewish (such as the Deutschblütigkeitserklärung, or the Gehemigung). This explanation for voluntary military service by these Jewish-Gentiles seems plausible.
Another common theme raised by Rigg's biographies is that identity was never a clear-cut issue for these men--and indeed remained complex after 1945. Many of these soldiers stressed that they did not identify themselves as Jewish until the Nuremberg Laws forced that definition upon them. Some admitted to feeling hostility, alienation, or resentment towards their Jewish relatives and ancestors. Indeed, until the Nazis informed them of their Mischling status, several men had never known they had Jewish ancestry. All of them recalled viewing themselves as patriotic Germans. After the war, most of the men were either non-religious, Christian (two became pastors), or otherwise distanced themselves from any Jewish identification. The title of this book, which refers to the men as Jewish, is thus questionable. Although Rigg discusses extensively the topic of identity, he does not explore it deeply. Nor does he investigate the possibility that these men may well have served in the Wehrmacht to prove to everyone--perhaps even to themselves--that they were German, not Jews.
The book is largely based on oral histories. In addition to the interviews, Rigg utilized personnel records and secondary sources, particularly for the more prominent individuals such as Luftwaffe Field Marshal Erhard Milch. Given the source base, the work inevitably suffers from the limitations that interviews impose: conflation of events, forgetfulness, selective memory, reluctance to offer the full truth (particularly regarding difficult issues, such as their knowledge of the Holocaust), and self-justification. Rigg is a sympathetic author and, presumably, interviewer. This attitude towards his interview subjects probably coaxed these men into divulging more information than one might expect. Yet, at the same time, Rigg refrains from asking hard questions about the motivations of these men.
While Rigg's conclusions are largely enlightening and reasonable, he does not address the issue of whether the experiences of his interlocutors are representative of all, or even most, mixed-ancestry Wehrmacht soldiers. Rigg never explains how he chose the individuals for this book. To be sure, the mere availability of some men justified interviewing them, but he seems to have also sought out famous individuals, such as Milch or General Helmut Wilberg. Their presence in this book adds little to his argument beyond establishing that some Mischlinge achieved high-ranking offices after Adolf Hitler himself exempted them from the Reich's racial laws. Likewise, the story of Major Ernst Bloch, who was involved in the rescue of the Lubbavitcher Rebbe Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, receives considerable attention. This example, however, only illustrates that a few Jewish-Germans helped rescue Jews.
The book, part of the University of Kansas's highly regarded Modern War Studies, contains information of interest to the specialist. Nonetheless, its target audience is unclear. Several sections, such as his overview of the Wehrmacht's history, are unnecessary for historians of World War II. Likewise, other, tangential, issues detract from Rigg's focus, such as his discussion on how postwar Germany has better confronted its war crimes than has Japan (pp. 130-131).
In both style and content, the book is flawed. It is frequently repetitive; for example, details about the same set of brothers in chapter 1 are also in chapter 2, and nearly identical explanations of Hitler's banning of half-Jews from the military in 1940 appear throughout the book. Rigg's extensive introductions of his interviewees may have been intended to personalize their biographies, but they are sometimes light-hearted, awkward, and superfluous. Readers will not learn more about these soldiers' histories with descriptions of, for instance, a ninety-year-old "who moved with great energy" (p. 76-77) or "a kindly 'grandpa' type who has enjoyed his life and family" (p. 41). It is almost embarrassing to read that one man had "enjoyed the company of women and had been quite the player when young" (p. 77).
The book is riddled with errors and careless phrasings. In one instance, Rigg writes, "During the period known as the Phony War--between 1 September 1939 and 9 May 1940, the date when fighting broke out between the Allies and Germany in the west …" (p. 60). This troubling statement moves the actual invasion date ahead by one day and presents the German invasion as an unimportant border incident. Similarly, "The success of the Blitzkrieg style of attack on Poland encouraged Hitler soon thereafter to invade France" (p. 80) distorts--or ignores--significant scholarly work on Nazi wartime strategic thinking. Rigg maintains that General Helmut Wilberg "developed the operational concept called Blitzkrieg" (p. 171), although there is general agreement in the field that no single individual created this concept. Surprisingly, we learn that General Wilberg faced difficulties in Spain "because the whole infrastructure of the country had been destroyed," an exaggerated assertion (p. 190). Rigg mentions that a German Jew "emigrated to Israel" in the late 1930s (p. 88) and that a soldier's anti-tank unit employed "bazookas" (p. 245) in late 1941--when neither the country nor the weapon existed at those times. These mistakes and oversights detract from Rigg's argument.
Overall, Lives of Hitler's Jewish Soldiers performs the important function of preserving stories of men whose life experiences illuminate an interesting aspect of life during the Third Reich. It also highlights the complexity at the individual level of the Nazis' effort to implement radical policies based upon a simplistic racial dichotomy. Rigg also shows that average Germans did not fully accept the Nazis' racial ideologies; some Germans protected individuals whom they did not believe should be persecuted as Jews. Moreover, the book demonstrates that the Third Reich was inconsistent in its persecution and genocide of those it labeled Jews. These contributions to the scholarly research on race and the Holocaust are not new; indeed, Rigg made them in his previous book. For those interested in German-Jews and the Wehrmacht, Rigg's book is worth reading, with the caution that the book's subtitle of "Untold Tales" may claim too much.
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David Yelton. Review of Rigg, Bryan Mark, Lives of Hitler's Jewish Soldiers: Untold Tales of Men of Jewish Descent Who Fought for the Third Reich.
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