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'There is a Land Where Everything is Pure: Its Name is Land of Death': Some Observations on Catastrophic Nationalism

Excerpts from: Geyer, Michael (2002). ‘There is a Land Where Everything is Pure: Its Name is Land of Death’: Some Observations on Catastrophic Nationalism. In Sacrifice and National Belonging in Twentieth-Century Germany. Arlington: Texas A&M University Press.

121—I am equally perplexed, turning to my own work—the history of war—by the lack of persuasive thought about what compels men and, indeed, entire societies to go to war & fight to the death.

121-2—It seems quite incontrovertible that the tide had irrevocably shifted against the German war effort in fall of 1942 at the latest—with the battle of Stalingrad demonstrating the point. What is more, the German military and Nazi leadership were perfectly aware of this situation. One of the last entries in the war diary of the Armed Forces High Command records chief of the Armed Forces General Staff, Gen. Alfred Jodl saying: “When the catastrophe of winter 1941-42 broke, it became clear especially to the Fuhrer but also to the Commander-in-Chief that, after this culmination point of early 1942, victory could no longer be achieved.”
       The military effort of summer, 1942, to reverse this fate failed and hence the war was lost. Later, at Nuremberg, Jodl would sum up that “earlier than anyone in the world, Hitler anticipated and knew that the war was lost.” Hitler was unwilling to negotiate. Hitler wanted “to fight to the death.” All this leads to the ineluctable conclusion that the machinery of destruction and annihilation went into high gear at the very moment the war was lost. The Wehrmacht fought for three years and the nation was mobilized in a total war effort notwithstanding the Nazi and military leaderships knowledge that this war effort would not make a difference in the eventual outcome of the war.
       (Further), the German armed forces reached their peak numerical fighting power (in 1943-44) in terms of personnel and materiel, only after the war was strategically lost…At the peak in 1943-44 the size of the German military had increased to 9.5 million with 6.5 million in the army, 2.1 million in the air force and 800,000 in the navy…At its peak, in 1943-44, the armed forces were three times their original size, despite horrendous losses that included the entire Sixth Army at Stalingrad.

123—While the number of dead/mission soldiers in 1940 amounted to a “mere” 62,700/64,500, lethality increased to 191,490/319,200 in the wake of the attack against the Soviet Union in 1941. The following years saw a rapid increase in their number from 443,300/537,900 in 1942, to 449,100/792,700 in 1943, and 458,800/1, 527,600 in 1944.        In January 1943 there were casualties of about 200,000 per month. Casualties increased regularly and reached their absolute maximum in January 1945 with approximately 450,000 per month…More German soldiers were killed in action between July 20, 1944, the date of the failed coup against Hitler, and May 8, 1945, unconditional surrender, than in the entire previous five years of war between 1939 and 1944.
       Civilian casualties followed the same overall trend. Casualties resulting from the air war remained relatively small, despite heavy bombardment, into 1944, but then rose rapidly to culminate in the last half-year of the war. Their overall total is probably around 442,000 men, women and children, although statistics range between 300,000 and 500,000. The flight of Germans from eastern territories in 1944-45 led to the death of at least another half-million people from late 1944 into early 1945.

125—Approximately 300,000 and likely more Germans were put to death for treason, desertion, and signs of defeatism. The death toll from Allied bombing was only slightly higher.

126—Judaeocide was the paradigmatic war the Nazis fought. The book of death also discloses that the war became much deadlier as it went on and that violence began to reverberate back onto Germany and the Germans.

127—The sad progression of mass death hinged on the unflagging German pursuit of war. (The war might have ended) had the German front, any of the fronts, collapsed, had German morale buckled, had there been a more sustained resistance. But none of this happened and, hence, Europe turned into a vast zone of death and destruction with Germans in the role of vicious torturers and murderers, tenacious fighters, and hapless victims. German society, soldiers, and civilians, fought on long after the war was effectively lost and long after it had become apparent to everyone that the war could not but end in disastrous defeat. What compelled them to hold out?

127—For soldiers it was difficult to desert or go AWOL because the military police, the dreaded Geheime Feldpolizei, was everywhere behind the lines, picking up voluntary and involuntary stragglers. The role of open terror especially during the last year of the war is well documented both in terms of a stream of blood-curdling orders that called for the instant liquidation of soldiers and civilians who tried to run away (or just showed signs of wavering) and in terms of the terrifying increase of actual executions which continued to the very last day of the war—and, indeed, beyond into the self-government of POW camps. Germans soldiers and civilians, those who wanted out, were caught between a rock and a hard place.

128—What else could have compelled the German population to hold out, fight, and die in support of a genocidal regime?

129—The German people felt obligated to hang in there are grit their teeth, even if in growing despair, for the sake of community or group…They thought that sacrifice in order to maintain community was a self-evident virtue in catastrophe. Survival, they thought, depended on sticking together, while disaster came with the dissolution of bonds of belonging. They reckoned—and this kind of thinking proved to be fatal—that sacrifice was their survival strategy.

129—The ethos of community, the spirit of the group as opposed to the individual, was paramount to the German war effort. It was a shared, rather than imposed imperative. It was also part of a bargain that expected and, indeed, demanded protection in exchange for sacrifice.

135—The quest for unity & the fear of dissolution formed the core of a claustrophobic and, indeed, paranoid worldview. It reflected an imagination in which the nation was always already threatened by catastrophe & teetering on the brink of disaster. This threat was conceived as simultaneously internal and external to the nation, which is why every exertion to retain the unity of the nation was directed both inside & outside. Internal & external wars were two sides of the same coin. Indeed, if unity was the only hope for victory, internal war became the cornerstone on which the ability to wage external war depended.

135—The majority of people considered sticking together and sticking it out a survival strategy. For them unity was the only guarantee to make it. If unity was lost, community dissolved and disaster beckoned. The will to stick together, could not but extend the war, put into practice what a Goebbels preached and a Jodl demanded, and thus could not but exacerbate the catastrophe.
       It also excised all those who did not belong, who were ready to give up or, for that matter, who were too weak to continue. The exertion to avert a cataclysm got Germans into unprecedented calamity. Struggling to survive, they brought home the very real catastrophe of mass murder and mass death so that in the end they became quite literally sacrificers and victims in a spiral of violence that had no end because they kept turning it.

136—For Jodl it was clear that the nation would fight for the death rather than surrender. For the Nazi leadership the pursuit of self-destruction was the only remaining strategy to snatch victory from what they knew was certain defeat: “Military thought on this matter was quite straightforward. If wars are fought by a people in its entirety, they come to an end only with the collapse of community (or as the effect of inner discord).”
       When Nazi and military leaders attempted to compel German soldiers and civilians to fight to death, they most commonly appealed to family values…A violent practice of shame and shaming: soldiers could not possibly show weakness, if women and children withstood the terror of bombing. And if indeed they showed weakness and were caught escaping the war, they were hanged with a cardboard sign around their neck denouncing them as cowards.
       Death was talked up as the only way for soldiers to redeem themselves in the eyes of their women and children. In the cruel metaphysics of the Third Reich, the only way to be a man was to be dead (or to be a killer). Collective death as a deliberate gambit to ascertain immortality was very much at the heart of the Nazi politics of self-destruction.
General Jodl’s apologia for Hitler, in 1945: “He acted like all heroes have acted in history and like they will always act. He had himself buried on top of the ruins of his empire and his hopes.”

138—Herman Goring’s speech on January 30, 1943, on the eve of the surrender at Stalingrad. He used the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 in order to broadcast an obituary for the heroes of Stalingrad—for those who had died and for the survivors whom he rather wanted to see dead than alive: “And among all these gigantic battles, on gigantic monument, Stalingrad stands out—the battle of Stalingrad.

Once upon a time this will have been the greatest of the heroic battles which will have ever happened in our history…We know a mighty heroic epos of a battle without comparison; this is the ‘Battle of the Nibelungs.’ The Nibelungs as well stood in a hall of fire and flames and quenched their thirst with their own blood—but fought and fought to the last.”

139—Only a battle to death (which is why Nazi propaganda wanted the soldiers in Stalingrad dead) would make those who fought there immortal.

139—In its version of Stalingrad, the SS newspaper Das Schwarze Korps elaborated a variant of Goring’s idea (extolling the virtue of heroic death of the soldiers at Stalingrad): “Their passage is like the path into a land from which there is no return. This is their call: that we all proceed into the land in which they dwell.” The “sacrifice” of those who had died obligated the survivors to fight to the death as well. Sacrifice always entails an act of exchange: you give a gift in order for the gods to give in return. But in the catastrophic version of the SS “Sacrifice” obligated the living to die. What the SS sold as “sacrifice” was, in fact, a curse. The dead had come to rule the living. “We cannot even imagine today the powers which the dead possess over the living,’ extolled Goebbels in December, 1942.
       Goebbels and Hitler deliberately prepared for death—their own and that of the nation—on the funeral pyre made of the ruins of their imperial dreams. Their strategy of mobilization and ideologization during the second half of the war served the purpose of preparing the nation to die. Cinema served as one of the most prominent vehicles to express their fantasy of death and resurrection. Goebbels released his cinematic epos of resistance, Kolberg, in January, 1945. Ever since he conceived of the idea, in 1943, he made no bones about the fact that “his” film was not meant to substitute for heroic death, but it was meant to make it happen.

140—Goebbels complained that the images (in the film) were too brutal. He wanted a sweeter, less violent movie in contradistinction to the starkly realistic scenes that Harlan featured.  However, Goebbels wanted the sweetness in order to convince the Germans that they must die—and since they did not do it on their own, they had to be seduced. Because, in Goebbels’s view, collective death was the only chance to triumph despite defeat. The image of the funeral pyre, the ordered self-destruction, the incitement to fight, the shaming of all those who sought an exit—all this served one and only one purpose: to produce a memorial so that the living would renew the fight whenever they recalled the past.
       The politics of the funeral pyre was a strategy not only to snatch immortality from defeat through a heroic gesture but also to incite the mobilization of generations to come. Collective-death-as-memorial was a theme that Goebbels planted systematically since late 1942…His train of thought…To die meant to be remembered. To be remembered, entailed being avenged. “Our consolation in this hour of remembrance is our unalterable faith, that one day the shining hour of victory will rise from the graves of our dead, our noble fallen.
       This victory will be crowned with the miraculous blessing of the sacrifice of these men and women, for whom we grieve today…The heart of the dead is not silent, but continues to beat, especially in the youth of Germany, who cannot wait to avenge the great sacrifice of your loved ones with an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The hour of revenge has begun! We must see inscribed over the caskets of our fallen the old call to action: Germany must live—even if we must die.”