by David Harrisville
DAVID HARRISVILLE, University of Wisconsin, Madison

David Harrisville received his B.A. from Carleton College in 2009 and M.A. in 2012 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  His dissertation project, also at Madison under the guidance of Professor Rudy Koshar, is entitled, “Unholy Crusade: The Moral Economy of the Wehrmacht in Russia, 1941-44.”  It examines how German soldiers constructed their moral identities and relied on traditional moral concepts to rationalize their participation in a war of extermination. 

ALEXANDER CHIRILA, Webster University
Director, Library of Social Science’s

Alexander Chirila, Assistant Professor with the Global Citizen Program at Webster University, Thailand, heads up Library of Social Science’s YOUNG SCHOLARS INITIATIVE. “We are seeing a surge in new ways of presenting and assessing information,” Chirila says. Professor Chirila will be working with us—and with scholars around the world—to develop methods for disseminating significant research and writings to a wider audience.

It is tempting to imagine the Third Reich as a land of cynicism, blind hatred and cold calculation—where right and wrong no longer held discernable meaning.  It is equally tempting to view the Nazis as agents of pure evil who savored death and destruction for its own sake.  

Upon close examination, however, it appears that the Third Reich’s criminals convinced themselves that they were doing the world a favor. What’s more, the rise of the Nazis—their ability to carry out their murderous program—depended on the German public’s perception that they and their policies were in fact “good” not simply economically or politically, but also morally. 

While their actions may elude our full comprehension, one can reconstruct Nazi modes of thinking and identify the sources of the popularity of their ideas.  One part of this task, which has so far received only limited scholarly attention, is an analysis of the role of moral ideals in Nazi Germany. How did Nazi leaders and their most devoted followers come to the conclusion that mass murder was a moral imperative?  While the Nazis appear to have been nihilists, their ideology was constructed upon an ethical system with its own internal logic.

Rejecting the claims of humanism and individualism, the Nazi value system rested on the premise that life and history were a struggle for existence among various peoples or races.  Some were strong, and thus worthy of survival, while others—above all, the Jews—were degenerate and, like biological pathogens, represented an ever-present danger.  Nazism sought to eradicate any and all threats to the Aryan Volk, whose existence and health represented the highest moral ideal.

In the Nazi mind, whatever helped the Volk was ipso facto good; whatever harmed it was evil.  All other values revolved around this basic dichotomy.  Victory in the struggle was all that mattered.  In Hitler’s words, “We may be inhumane, but if we rescue Germany we have achieved the greatest deed in the world…. We may be immoral, but if our people is rescued we have once more opened the way for morality.”

While there was no shortage of cynics, careerists and sadists in the Nazi ranks, there were many true believers who convinced themselves that genocide was the surest path to Germany’s survival and redemption. Once we grasp the workings of what Claudia Koonz calls “Nazi morality,” it becomes easier to explain the self-righteous passion with which the Nazis pursued mass murder.

Nonetheless, the true believers recognized that their moral system and its conclusions were too radical to be immediately embraced by their fellow citizens.  One solution was to recruit a vanguard, namely the SS, which would set an example of racial hygiene and loyalty to the Volk.  Another was to employ propaganda, pseudo-science and education to win converts and to persuade the next generation to embrace the Nazi worldview.

A major reason for the Nazis’ popularity among the public was their ability to harness values and ideals already present in German society.  These included cleanliness, selflessness, sacrifice, the desire for community and appreciation of the dignity of work.  Acceptance of Nazi objectives was not simply imposed from above: it was a two-way process. Ordinary Germans projected their desires into Nazi ideology, embracing those elements of the Nazi program that resonated with their deeply-held beliefs.

These moral ideals fueled exclusion and violence. Striving to create a strong, cohesive community, Germans endorsed the Nazis’ strict measures against Jews and other outsiders.  Celebrating hard work and the belief that each German must contribute to society drove the stigmatization of disabled and “asocial” individuals. One cannot separate the Nazi’s belief in their own “goodness” from the evil that their beliefs generated.

The Jew was viewed as the antithesis of the good German, demonized not simply as racially, but also morally, dangerous. Germans were conceived as pure; Jews were degenerate. Hard work constituted the German essence; Jews were lazy. Germans were patriotic and willing to sacrifice for the nation; Jews were unpatriotic and unwilling to sacrifice.

The horrors inflicted by the Third Reich grew out of moral ideals—Germans’ belief that they were acting in the name of virtue. Mass murder was bound to “sacred values” that lay at the heart of German society. How did this come to be? How did the moral ideals of a “civilized” nation produce genocide?