Death’s Heads

Christian Ingrao’s analysis of university-educated SS members is dense but compelling, drawing blurred lines that demarcate good and evil

Books History

On March 20, 1941, eight months after the start of Operation Barbarossa, an exhibition opened at the Prinzessinnenpalais in Berlin’s Unter den Linden, which revealed the Nazi regime’s project for the colonisation of the east. These plans had been drawn up by the SD, or Sicherheitsdienst, the general staff of the SS.

While a veil was drawn over the number of people who needed to be exterminated to make way for the new German settlements, exhibits showed the new, Prussian-style Angern, or model villages, that would be planted here and there, and the way that the newly-Germanised Warthegau in particular would become the country’s new bread basket. 

There was to be the usual amount of patronage for those who fell in line with the system: a new time of gifts. The architects who designed the villages and the regional centre at Littmannstadt (the former Lodz) — which would require complete redevelopment — would profit most; but not just architects. There would be a need for all sorts of planners, economists, jurists and experts on Teutonic folklore to create a thoroughly brave new world. 

The graduates who produced these and other — generally lethal — plans are the subject of Christian Ingrao’s book Believe & Destroy, a dense and slightly amorphous study based on a prosopographical analysis of 80 case histories of university-educated members of the SD. 

These men had ridden to power behind Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS. Originally Hitler’s praetorian guard, the middle-class SS had stolen a march on the lowly, thuggish SA at the time of the Night of the Long Knives of June 30, 1934. Himmler slowly constructed his power-base by taking over control of regional police forces. Together with his second-in-command Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler recruited young graduates to construct an ideology that was to some extent based on the obiter dicta of Mein Kampf. The “artist” Hitler had left it to others to work out the finer detail.

The minds of these young graduates were fertile ground for anyone wishing to cultivate Nazi radicalism. As Ingrao demonstrates, many had lost fathers and brothers in the First World War, and had themselves been active in protest against the territorial truncations inflicted on Germany after 1918.

Ingrao concentrates on the part these men played in the invasion of the east and in particular, in the genocide of the Jews. Many agreed with Heydrich that “the fate of the world” was being decided in Russia. By creating a tabula rasa, SS men were conceiving nothing less than a new world order.

For most of them there was a chance to put their mettle to the test during their Osteinsatz, an almost obligatory period of service on the Eastern Front. A number of SS Einsatzgruppen were at work behind the lines murdering Jews, commissars and other Russian civilians. Such work required cold fortitude. As Ingrao shows, they all reacted differently, some were clearly just sadists, others, however, suppressed their more human emotions in order to provide an example for the men serving under them. In some cases the experience of killing — babies in particular — led to psychological trauma. Alcohol was a palliative. 

Some of the SD men thought they were acting in self-defence by killing Jews and commissars; that had they shown pity, these men, women and children would have done the same to them, and their wives and children. The ideologists among them saw themselves to be performing a constructive role too, in preparing the ground for Germany’s new empire. The absorbing figure of Otto Ohlendorf provides an illustration here. Not only did he order the deaths of some 90,000 Jews while commanding Einsatzgruppe D, but he succoured the ethnic Germans on the Volga and constructed schools and other institutions for them. They were to be the human material with which a new Nordic east would be populated. 

Believe & Destroy is a dense book based on Ingrao’s doctorial dissertation and packed with useful information on this important Nazi cadre. Sometimes his concentration on their genocidal roles leads him to miss out on other interesting aspects of their work: Werner Best, for example, whose role in Denmark remains ambiguous; or Franz Six, a former university teacher who headed the Informationsabteilung (Information Department) and who carried out research into the enemies of the regime while unwittingly employing several of them on his staff. One of these was Adam von Trott, who described his boss as a “badly trained police dog”. Six was prominent in SS foreign policy and he and his assistant Horst Mahnke, tried to protect Trott after his arrest on July 25, 1944. The SS was hoping to secure some sort of peace too and was aware that the opposition was negotiating with the Allies. The blurred lines that demarcate good and bad are what make the study of the Third Reich as compelling as it is repulsive.