Michael Wildt. Generation des Unbedingten: Das Fuehrungskorps des Reichssicherheitshauptamtes. Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2003. 966 pp. EUR 25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-3-930908-87-5.
Reviewed by Edward B. Westermann (School of Advanced Air and Space Studies)
Published on H-German (September, 2004)
Germany's Best and Brightest?
Upon picking up Michael Wildt's book on the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), one is immediately struck by two aspects of the work: its length of almost a thousand pages and its title, Generation des Unbedingten (Generation of the Unbound). In a meticulously researched, well-written work, Wildt examines a cross section of the leadership of the RSHA, the organization's structure and functional components, and the actions of its members in an attempt to explain the role and importance of the RSHA in formulating, prosecuting, and promoting the racial polices of the Third Reich.
On the one hand, this work can be placed within a larger trend of recent first-rate scholarship examining the structure, function, and activities of the SS and Security Police complex, including Michael Thad Allen's work on the role of the SS and slave labor, Isabel Heinemann's study of the Race and Settlement Main Office (RuSHA), and Andrej Angrick's work on Einsatzgruppe D. On the other hand, Wildt's use of individual biographies to frame his analysis, by focusing on specific persons as exemplars for categories of actors within the RSHA, parallels Ulrich Herbert's widely acclaimed biography of Werner Best. This similarity in approach is not coincidental as Wildt's work was part of a project under the direction of Herbert in his role as the then Director of the Research Center for the History of National Socialism in Hamburg. In fact, those seeking an overview of Wildt's conclusions can find them in Herbert's chapter "Ideological Legitimization and Political Practice of the Leadership of the National Socialist Secret Police" in volume 12 of the German Historical Perspective Series published by Berg in 2001.
In another respect, Generation des Unbedingten continues a recent trend involving increased attention to the role, function, and organization of the Security Police (SIPO) and the Security Service (SD), including Jens Banach's analytical evaluation of the leadership corps of the SIPO and SD and Yaacov Lozowick's Hitler's Bureaucrats. In the case of the former, Wildt's research into the leadership of the RSHA supports Banach's findings concerning the presence of an academic elite within the executive ranks of the RSHA, but Wildt chooses to focus on the "qualitative" description of select individuals versus a broader "quantitative" approach. In the case of the latter, Wildt, like Lozowick, identifies a group of men who are not simply disinterested civil servants, following bureaucratic procedures, but men of action, ambition, and ideological commitment who ascribe to a worldview that facilitates schemes of exclusion, persecution, and, eventually, annihilation when dealing with the putative enemies of the German Volk.
The work is divided into four sections, including "Weltanschauung," "Institution," "Krieg," and an epilogue. In the first section, "Weltanschauung," Wildt examines the political and philosophical underpinnings that shaped the worldview of the generation born between 1900 and 1910. The second section, "Institution," provides a discussion of the planning and conception of the RSHA, created in September 1939, as well as an organizational overview of the functions of specific offices within the Criminal Police (Kripo), the Gestapo, and the SD. The third section, "Krieg," focuses on the activities of the RSHA during the war and the specific role played by the organization's leadership in the radicalization of National Socialist racial policy. The final section, the epilogue deals with the death throes of the Third Reich, post-war legal proceedings, and the subsequent careers of former RSHA leaders.
As the title implies, Wildt focuses on describing a generational cohort born in 1900 or later that came to dominate the RSHA, constituting 77 percent of the organization's leadership (p. 45). Paradoxically, it is the Great War that provides the defining moment for Wildt's Generation des Unbedingten. Unlike the "Front Generation," born between 1890 and 1900, who weathered "storms of steel" on the battlefields of the Eastern and Western Front, most of Wildt's subjects were old enough to be influenced by the war, but too young to participate in combat. Their absence from the battlefield nonetheless shaped their views in which war remained heroic and soldierly values, including toughness, action, and ruthlessness, became virtues.
The end of the war did not, however, mean the end of battle as many of the future leaders within the RSHA experienced their baptism by fire in the Freikorps. Wildt argues that participation in the paramilitary Freikorps, nationalist youth organizations, and nationalist causes substantially influenced the worldview of these men as they adopted the beliefs of the right, including a strong antipathy to Communism and correspondingly to Jews whom they associated with the parties of the Left. For this cohort, the political, social, and economic dislocation of the early post-war period provided an added impulse to create, not restore, the ideal of a new German Reich.
What makes Wildt's group unique, however, was not only their willingness to march and fight within the Saar or Ruhr valleys of an occupied Germany or along the Eastern borders to stem the "Red tide," but their corresponding dedication to march through the halls of universities with equal fervor. Men described by Wildt with the "Faehigkeit zur Hingabe an den absoluten Wert einer Idee" embarked upon academic studies as student "revolutionaries" determined to change society with the self-appointed goal of moving into the ranks of the elite to bring about this transformation (pp. 129-130). However, Wildt is careful to avoid linking these individuals to Hitler and his movement in an inevitable and deterministic march from Weimar to the Third Reich. Although not predestined to join the NSDAP, Wildt contends that the common points of orientation and belief shared by this group of young, ambitious, well-educated men combined with their own nationalist inclinations and visions of a new Germany to facilitate their conversion into the ranks of National Socialism.
As they emerged from universities with professional degrees, Wildt sees a group of politically attuned men whose mission and overwhelming ambition to succeed led them towards positions within the SS and police complex. However, these men did not fit the caricature of myopic desk-bound bureaucrats, but they instead were men of action and decisiveness who joined Himmler's bureaucracy as a "kaempfende Verwaltung," men who approached political problems with the same decisiveness, commitment, and ruthlessness to finding solutions that characterized their participation in earlier nationalist causes and organizations (p. 205).
Wildt identifies the appointment of Heinrich Himmler as Reich Leader of the SS and Chief of the German Police in June 1936 as laying the foundation for the creation of an SS and police empire and setting the stage for Himmler's efforts to pursue his dream of a "rassistiche biopolitische Utopie" led by a "new nobility" of SS men (p. 190). Wildt contends that it was only after the "merging" of the Gestapo, Criminal Police, and SD under the umbrella of the RSHA in September 1939 that Himmler obtained the "critical mass" necessary to release the forces of destruction that marked National Socialism. In this regard, Wildt argues that the destructive impulses of the Third Reich were only released after both the "right men" were found and the "right institutions" created. In other words, both were necessary ingredients for promoting and prosecuting genocide, but neither was by itself sufficient.
In truth, the establishment of the RSHA in the first weeks of the war proved a most inauspicious omen for the "Volksfeinde" of the Third Reich. World War II provided the perfect forum for men characterized by their affinity for action and decisiveness to play a key role in the prosecution of National Socialist racial policy. In Wildt's words, "Was die Beteiligung des RSHA-Fuehrungskorps am Krieg charakterisiert, war nicht die Einberufung, sondern der 'Einsatz'"(p. 411). Wildt demonstrates the decisive part played by RSHA leaders from the killing fields of the Einsatzgruppen in Poland and the Soviet Union to the hallways of Berlin. In the former, men of conviction led efforts of annihilation on the ground, while, in the latter, these same men and their counterparts contributed to the radicalization of Nazi policy in an effort to achieve a decisive and long-term solution to the "Jewish problem." In turn, they pursued this solution in spite of the horrendous implications of its realization, a mentality perfectly in line with their formative experiences, political mindset, and personal ambitions under Weimar.
According to Wildt, the leadership of the RSHA consisted of men equally at ease working on policy drafts to expand the definition of a Jew to include greater numbers of "Mischlinge" or holding a pistol to the head of their victims at the side of a pit in the East. Still he admits that not all men successfully met this standard, as in the case of Erwin Schulz, the commander of Einsatzkommando 5. In this case, Schulz proved willing and capable in the killing of men, but "not hard enough" for the murder of women and children. However, even in this case, Wildt argues convincingly that Schulz's opposition did not spring from a feeling of wrongdoing or sympathy for his victims, but rather from a concern for the effect of these killings on the psychological health and discipline of the men under his command (p. 576). Wildt shows that by the end of the war, Himmler and Heydrich had, in a very literal sense, achieved the vision of a "kaempfende Verwaltung" as men experienced in mass murder returned to leadership positions in the RSHA as a "kampferprobtes Fuehrertum" (p. 600).
In such an exhaustively detailed, well-written work, it is difficult for the reader to find major substantive criticisms. Methodologically, one might question the process of selecting individuals as exemplars to represent specific groups within any organization as a potential problem, especially when these individuals are chosen based on the availability of sufficient source materials to allow for a qualitative analysis of their actions. As in any project, the availability of sources obviously determines the subjects, but the identification of these subjects as representative of larger cohorts remains more tenuous. In this respect, Wildt's detailed description of both the organization and functions of the RSHA and the role of the Security Police and the SD during the Third Reich go far to alleviate any concerns of a non-representative sampling.
Wildt points out that, despite limited resources and a chronic lack of manpower, the leadership of the RSHA remained fixated on the goal of achieving the racial policies of the Reich; however, little attention is given to the role of the Ordnungspolizei (Uniformed- or Order Police) in providing the forces on the ground, both within the Reich and the occupied territories, for turning many of these policies into reality. Likewise, Himmler and Kurt Daluege, the Chief of the Uniformed Police, pursued their own version of a "kaempfende Verwaltung" within the ranks of police by emphasizing initiatives to instill the ideal of a "soldatische Kaempfer" and policeman who were not merely "civil servants" (Beamte) but men with a "soldierly disposition." In short, the message and, to some extent, the experiences, as in the case of Freikorps membership, within the entire SS and police complex have relevant similarities, and it would have been of interest to this reviewer to see Wildt more completely develop the inter-organizational ties between the Main Office of the Uniformed Police and the RSHA and their cooperation in the prosecution of racial policy.
In the end, Wildt argues that it took both a certain type of person and a certain type of institution in order to release the destructive dynamic of persecution and murder that engulfed the victims of the Third Reich. He paints a convincing and detailed portrait of an RSHA leadership corps, consisting not of social misfits or simple-minded, punctilious, and staid "Schreibtischtaeter," but of a well-educated social elite composed in large part of men with Ph.D.s and legal degrees, men of action, belief, and commitment at equal ease with a pen or a pistol in their hands. In Murder in Our Midst, Omer Bartov observed, "if there is any single lesson to be drawn specifically from the Holocaust, it is that precisely our own society, our political and economic institutions, as well as mass and individual psychology, contain the potential of another such genocide." Similarly, for contemporary academics and other professionals, the fact that the "best and brightest" played such a prominent role in leading Germany down the "twisted road to Auschwitz" provides a disconcerting reminder of the susceptibility of even the most educated to the politics of hate and exclusion.
Generation des Unbedingten will undoubtedly remain the standard work on the RSHA for many years to come and it deserves a place on the shelf of every historian and political scientist interested in the history of twentieth-century Germany, the Holocaust, or the role of bureaucratic organizations in shaping policy.
. Michael Thad Allen, The Business of Genocide: The SS, Slave Labor, and the Concentration Camps (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Isabel Heinemann, 'Rasse, Siedlung, deutsches Blut': Das Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt der SS and die rassenpolitische Neuordnung Europas (Goettingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2003); and Andrej Angrick, Besatzungspolitik und Massenmord: Die Einsatzgruppe D in der suedlichen Sowjetunion, 1941-1943 (Hamburger: Hamburger Edition, 2003).
. Ulrich Herbert, Best: Biographische Studien ueber Radikalismus, Weltanschauung und Vernunft, 1903-1989 (Bonn: Dietz, 1996).
. Ulrich Herbert, "Ideological Legitimization and Political Practice of the Leadership of the National Socialist Secret Police," inThe Third Reich Between Vision and Reality, ed. Hans Mommsen (Oxford: Berg, 2001), pp. 95-108.
. Jens Banach, Heydrichs Elite: Das Fuehrerkorps der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD, 1936-1945 (Paderborn: F. Schoeningh, 1998); and Yaacov Lozowick, Hitler's Bureaucrats: The Nazi Security Police and the Banality of Evil (London: Continuum, 2002).
. I address the issue of Security Police and SD cooperation with the Uniformed Police in Edward B. Westermann, Hitler's Police Battalions: Enforcing Racial Policy in the East (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, forthcoming 2005).
. Omer Bartov, Murder in Our Midst: The Holocaust, Industrial Killing, and Representation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 182.
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Edward B. Westermann. Review of Wildt, Michael, Generation des Unbedingten: Das Fuehrungskorps des Reichssicherheitshauptamtes.
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