The Nazi conscience is not an oxymoron. In fact, the perpetrators of genocide had a powerful sense of right and wrong, based on civic values that exalted the moral righteousness of the ethnic community and denounced outsiders.
Claudia Koonz's latest work reveals how racial popularizers developed the infrastructure and rationale for genocide during the so-called normal years before World War II. Her careful reading of the voluminous Nazi writings on race traces the transformation of longtime Nazis' vulgar anti-Semitism into a racial ideology that seemed credible to the vast majority of ordinary Germans who never joined the Nazi Party. Challenging conventional assumptions about Hitler, Koonz locates the source of his charisma not in his summons to hate, but in his appeal to the collective virtue of his people, the Volk.
From 1933 to 1939, Nazi public culture was saturated with a blend of racial fear and ethnic pride that Koonz calls ethnic fundamentalism. Ordinary Germans were prepared for wartime atrocities by racial concepts widely disseminated in media not perceived as political: academic research, documentary films, mass-market magazines, racial hygiene and art exhibits, slide lectures, textbooks, and humor. By showing how Germans learned to countenance the everyday persecution of fellow citizens labeled as alien, Koonz makes a major contribution to our understanding of the Holocaust.
The Nazi Conscience chronicles the chilling saga of a modern state so powerful that it extinguished neighborliness, respect, and, ultimately, compassion for all those banished from the ethnic majority.
Faced with the German degradation and murder of the Jews from 1933 to 1945, historians and, indeed, so many thoughtful men and women have posed no question more insistently than, 'How could it happen?' Claudia Koonz's powerfully written study of the inculcation of a Nazi racialist ethos in the years before extermination answers this question as persuasively as any other to date.
In this valuable and original book, Claudia Koonz analyzes how the Nazis legitimized the Third Reich and facilitated Hitler's consensual dictatorship and genocidal policies. This daring reinterpretation of the relationship between the Nazi leadership, its middle- and low-ranking cadres, and other sectors of the German population shows the gradual shift in public opinion toward the regime's worldview. Ultimately, Nazism created a positive, moral image of itself just as it sanctioned the annihilation of enemies perceived as unethical and immoral.
Claudia Koonz's arresting new book makes the case that between 1933 and 1939, before the Second World War and the Holocaust, the Nazis built a perverse ethical consensus in Germany. Preaching fears of racial weakness along with pride and commitment to a new moral order, self-righteous opinion leaders created an ethnic fundamentalism--of which we have not, she suggests in a closing reflection, seen the last.
This is an artfully written book, with engaging asides and a captivating sense of detail and touching comment that is rare for a volume on Nazism. I don't know where else I've learned so much about everyday life and culture under Nazism.
Hitler, Koonz says, understood the German people's need for a sense of coherence in the wake of what many saw as the degeneracy of the Weimar Republic--and 'he promised to rescue old-fashioned values of honor and dignity' by offering a secular faith to replace lost religious certainties. Koonz explores the promotion of these beliefs in German culture and law, and how they led to the catastrophe of the Holocaust, adding much to our understanding of how a civilized society could reach such infamous levels of violence.
Claudia Koonz...explains in her insightful new book how Germans, who were among Europe's least anti-Semitic people, came to support a leadership that sought to annihilate European Jewry...The readiness of many Germans to acquiesce evolved as a consequence of their internalization of the knowledge that was disseminated apparently by legitimate institutions of the state. As Koonz notes, the indoctrination was successful because there was little reason to question the facts conveyed by experts, documentary films, educational materials, and popular science. The German public was reeducated to support the elimination of Jews, Gypsies, the chronically ill, and other categories of the 'unfit'--all as a moral good, consistent with the dictates of conscience. Koonz's prodigious work is a major contribution to our understanding of the social and ideological history of the Third Reich.
Koonz does not deny the existence of extremist and violent anti-Semites in the Nazi leadership. But her stress on the moderate way their ultimately genocidal plans were presented as necessary cruelties adds an important dimension in our understanding of the Nazi regime and its crime.
Trudl Junge, former personal secretary to Adolf Hitler, once noted that the Führer's success came with his ability to manipulate other people's conscience. On a vast scale, the German people no longer knew right from wrong. Koonz presents a compelling argument to suggest that Junge was in some degree right. The Germans did not surrender their conscience but submitted to its transformation away from conventional Western notions of right and wrong to a radical, racial nationalism that established criteria for assessing moral actions and outcomes.
Koonz displays the gradual transformation of the traditional idea of conscience into something that was utterly shaped by the subordination of one's own self to that of the Volk.
[Koonz] documents in exemplary fashion what the historical actors actually thought, felt, advocated, planned, and organized before they acted...impressively researched, lucidly organized, disturbing, yet eminently readable.
- 368 pages
- 0-15/16 x 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
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