Total War as Total Health: Race, Space and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941-1945
Total War as Total Health:
Race, Space and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941-1945
Review Essay of SS Thinking and the Holocaust
by Brian Crim
Author: André Mineau
Published on: Apr. 2012
SS ideology was the expression of a philosophical self-containing system of thought, articulated around a systematic body of knowledge claiming to integrate humanity inside a global vision of Being. It portrayed itself as a global approach to society and civilization, based on eugenics and ethnic cleansing. SS theory and praxis was a response of the cultural shock brought about by World War I — and promoted total war for the sake of total health.
SS Thinking and the Holocaust is part of Rodopi’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies (HGS) series, which is committed to philosophical examinations of the Holocaust and genocide.
About the author: André Mineau is Professor of Ethics and History at the University of Quebec at Rimouski.
About the Reviewer
Brian Crim is Associate Professor of History at Lynchburg College, where he teaches courses in modern European history and the Holocaust. His research revolves around war, political violence, and antisemitism in modern Germany.
His monograph entitled Antisemitism in the German Military Community and the Jewish Response, 1914-1938 will be published by Lexington Books in 2014.
In October of 1941, just three months into the German invasion of the Soviet Union known as Operation Barbarossa, one of the most dedicated National Socialist generals issued these instructions to the Wehrmacht forces under his command:
The most essential aim of war against the Jewish-bolshevistic system is a complete destruction of their means of power and the elimination of Asiatic influence from the European culture. In this connection the troops are facing tasks that exceed the one-sided routine of soldiering. The soldier in the Eastern territories is not merely a fighter according to the rules of the art of war, but also a bearer of ruthless national ideology and the avenger of bestialities that have been inflicted upon German and racially related nations.1
Not only does Field Marshal Reichenau’s order reveal the extent to which racial thinking pervaded the Wehrmacht, a fact many historians denied for decades, Reichenau delineates in a few sentences the rationale for the genocidal war unfolding in the Fall of 1941. The specter of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ haunted the German Right immediately after the 1917 revolution, endangering Germany’s significant territorial gains in the East.
When revolution came to the shattered German empire in November 1918 the suspected link between Jews and leftist revolutionary sentiment, specifically Bolshevism, became an article of faith within the radical Right. National Socialism portrayed its movement as a bulwark against an impending onslaught from the East. Barbarossa was the military operation conducted in concert with the more methodical destruction of European Jewry behind the frontlines.
Reichenau alludes to the scale of the conflict by noting the invasion must eliminate ‘Asiatic influence from the European culture.’ Nothing short of genocide, a racial reordering of the continent under National Socialist terms, accomplishes this goal. Reichenau assures the Wehrmacht soldier, who is not necessarily as ideologically trained and motivated as his SS equivalent, that the ruthless prosecution of the war is justified and vengeance for crimes committed against Germans decades earlier, if not centuries. Reichenau’s directive encapsulates the National Socialist worldview by framing the clash of civilizations as inevitable and indispensable to saving the German race, thereby vindicating the most extreme measures. ‘Confronted with the pervasiveness of biological evil,’ André Mineau writes, ‘Nazism was the politics of hypochondria.’ (87)
Operation Barbarossa and the Holocaust were inextricably linked to the same massive biological engineering project undertaken by the Third Reich. The vaunted SS, which emerged as the intellectual and ideological elite of the Nazi party and later the state bureaucracy, crafted the most ambitious and a radical solution to Germany’s internal and external problems. SS chief Heinrich Himmler understood Hitler favored those who promised greatness and rewarded valuable state resources to organizations charged with the most vital missions. Himmler maneuvered the SS into an enviable position as the trusted agency responsible for enacting ideology, realizing Hitler’s dreams.
André Mineau’s SS Thinking and the Holocaust is an important contribution for understanding the SS’s special role in the Third Reich, beginning with its complex and evolved ideological worldview. Mineau compels us to regard National Socialism as both evolutionary and revolutionary. National Socialism combined elements of existing movements, or defined itself by what it rejected, but Hitler and associates like Himmler departed from other movements by instigating a truly apocalyptic clash between ‘Aryans’ and Jews.
SS Thinking and the Holocaust examines SS ideology as a ‘philosophical self-containing system of thought’ comprising a global approach to civilization grounded in eugenics and its own particular and comprehensive system of ethics. Mineau writes ‘SS ideology represented the biological subversion of the foundations of traditional morality, while it constituted at the same time the moralization or moral form of Nazi ideology.’ (2)
Mineau analyzes SS thinking by scrutinizing Himmler’s voluminous writings and speeches in addition to internal educational materials, organizing the book into discussions of ontology, anthropology, and ethics. Mineau deftly links SS ideology to the Third Reich’s monstrous atrocities on the Eastern Front, principally the Holocaust, arguing that SS thinkers ‘recycled völkisch nationalism and Nordic romanticism through a modern and bureaucratic machine devoted to the fabrication of biological utopias’. This quest for utopia inspired Himmler’s blueprint for genocide – General Plan East.
Ultimately, the SS was charged with preventing history from repeating itself by safeguarding needed resources for the next bout of total war and suppressing another fatal ‘stab-in-the-back’ sabotaging the German war effort like the Jews and socialists orchestrated in November 1918. National Socialism was a product of the First World War, a movement built on vengeance and restoring racial vitality. The SS investigated this great conflagration for lessons learned and confirmed that ‘industrialized killing’ was not a tragic consequence of the war, but a prototype for dealing with enemies during the next one.
Himmler and other völkisch thinkers interpreted life as an eternal conflict between races the same way Karl Marx declared history the constant struggle between classes. The SS organized itself around the principle that the German race must be immortal, to thrive generation after generation by vanquishing lesser races and expanding Germanic culture, specifically in the East. Conquering the East and preparing it for German settlement was a cherished imperial goal long before there was such a thing as Germany, but the SS could finally accomplish this if given the tools and freedom of thought and action.
Himmler consistently invoked the Teutonic Knights as the heroic blood ancestors of his SS legions and claimed his vision of Germanic peasant farmers colonizing the savage East was the realization of a medieval völkisch utopia. Himmler studied the German experience in the East for important lessons learned. During the First World War the Imperial Army attempted a bold experiment in administration and proto-colonization in northern Poland and the Baltics called Oberkommando Ost (Ober Ost).
Throughout the occupied territories, German military officers and civil servants suppressed communicable diseases like typhus, but succumbed to the confusing ethnic and religious diversity hampering their imperial ambitions. When the military occupation ended in 1918 and the Bolshevik Revolution threatened the German frontier, the prospective utopia of Ober Ost devolved into an unruly region of, as Gabriel Liulevicius writes, ‘races and spaces which could not be manipulated but could only be cleared and cleaned.’2 After initially viewing Eastern European Jews as potential partners and inherently pro-German population given their horrific treatment under Russian rule, the Imperial Army became disgusted by Jews’ impoverished living conditions and supposed political subversion after the Bolshevik Revolution.
Already marked as carriers of typhus, the German occupation accused Jews of spreading the ideological disease of Bolshevism. One of the last communications from the Army Group Kiev, dated October 1918, ended with this portentous statement: ‘The Jew is up to now – despite his outwardly kind mask – our most serious enemy. For our soldiers the continuing attempts of bribery and revolutionary machinations are an increasing danger.’3
Wilhelm von Gayl, the leader of the political section of Ober Ost and a noted anti-Semite during the Weimar era, recalled his own war experience: ’[O]ur soldiers saw in everyday life mostly the comical side of the Jews’ demeanor, whom they like to play tricks on. They loathed them also because of ineradicable filth which they spread about themselves, but only a few saw further and sensed the danger which there began to appear for our people.’4 General Wilhelm Groener, the Chief of Staff for Army Group Eichhorn in the Ukraine between July 1916 and March 1918, blamed Jews for Bolshevism’s popularity in his own sector.
Consider this transcript of a discussion between Groener and other officers: ‘The Jews are hostile towards us. They must be hostile towards us according to their entire past in Russia. They fear us, the bearers of order, the bearers of reaction, and the destroyers of the achievements of the Bolshevik Revolution. Therefore it is in their interest to agitate against us.’5 Groener internalized his experiences in the Ukraine and returned to the chaos of defeated Germany a staunch anti-Bolshevik.
He also continued to assume Jews were behind the Russian Revolution and the November Revolution in Germany. Groener wrote his wife on November 17, 1918 that the Jews were the ‘string-pullers’ of both revolutions.6 The First World War left the race conscious German with an indelible Feindbild (portrayal of the enemy) of ‘the Jew’ which easily morphed with SS ideology during the Second World War.
The Nazi state was obsessed with preventing another military and domestic collapse during the total war against Judeo-Bolshevism. The primary task of the SS, according to Mineau, was guaranteeing ‘the biological security of German Lebensraum’ by eliminating the possibility of a devastating blockade like the one which brought down the Second Reich in 1918 and another leftist revolution inspired by Jews. (82) Barbarossa acquired territory, the bread basket of central Europe, but the SS was tasked with ‘Germanizing’ the land. Beginning in 1940, Himmler and other SS intellectuals devised General Plan East to reorder the continent according to Nazi principles.
Himmler was careful to differentiate his definition of Germanization from previous generations: ‘Our duty in the East is not germanization in the former sense of the term, that is imposing German language and laws upon the population, but to ensure that only people of pure German blood inhabit the East.’7 Himmler pronounced grandiose dreams of German peasant-soldiers establishing a network of villages and guarding against the ‘Asiatic hordes’ left to starve beyond the Lebensraum.
Mineau reminds us throughout SS Thinking and the Holocaust that the SS combined ‘a modern technological problem-solving approach with pre-modern elements of thought, such as agrarian romanticism.’ (31) The results were deadly. Conceived during the euphoria of victory as the Wehrmacht effortlessly conquered huge swaths of Western Russia, General Plan East envisioned the expulsion of thirty one million Slavs to Siberia, the enslavement of an additional fourteen million others, and the resettlement of the ‘cleansed’ land with eight to ten million ethnic Germans.
European Jews were among those to be ‘evacuated’ to the East, although the true meaning of this word was only refined in January 1942 during the Wannsee Conference. General Plan East assumed millions would starve to death in the process, beginning with Soviet POWs and displaced Slavs. Himmler’s document is a testament to SS thinking as well as the hubris of the Nazi elite in the early stages of Barbarossa. The East solved Germany’s food and fuel problems, negating the efficacy of a British blockade, and facilitate the expansion of the German racial sphere. By 1942, however, the breakdown on the Eastern front nullified General Plan East, fueling even more extreme actions on the part of the SS elite.
The November Revolution of 1918 solidified the associative merger of Judeo-Bolshevism and allowed the völkisch movement to flourish. Every Nazi leader was traumatized by the chaos of November 1918 and feared its repetition during any future war. Hitler famously wrote in Mein Kampf that ‘[i]f at the beginning of the war and during the war twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under poison gas, as happened to hundreds of thousands of our very best German workers in the field, the sacrifice of millions at the front would not have been in vain.’8
The belief that Jews conspired to defeat Germany during the First World War and establish a base of operations in Soviet Russia drove thousands of veterans and young adults like Himmler into the arms of radical paramilitary organizations devoted to undermining the Weimar government, the embodiment of ‘Jewish domination’ on German soil. Overthrowing the Weimar Republic and replacing it with a dictator personifying German racial values was the first order of business, but once established, the Third Reich could only secure its expanding borders by thwarting its racial enemies at home and abroad.
Hitler recalls lying in his hospital bed as Germany succumbed to attrition and revolution and swearing this could never happen again. To that end, Mineau writes, ‘non-German’ elements should lose forever their freedom to spread their poison through the German population – this was later to be the task of the SS.’ (77) The legend of Jewish treachery was particularly insidious because twelve thousand German Jews sacrificed their lives during the First World War.
Jewish veterans returned to a shattered German state anxious to rebuild an inclusive national community, but most organized veterans opposed including Jews in any memory of German sacrifice, choosing instead to slander Jewish military service. The Nazi party constructed a memory of the war experience mirroring its racial dialectic. History is racial struggle, and the First World War was a victory for Jews. The next war would not be left to chance.
Total war is total health and the Nazi party consistently portrayed Germany as a patient in danger of racial infection. The SS translated its biological worldview into rational, dispassionate practice. War was a matter of self-defense, a prophylactic, and therefore ethical. The Jewish enemy and the subhuman Slavs were not equal to Germans, so genocide is not immoral. Most importantly, war was part of the natural order of things. In SS thinking, Mineau claims, Operation Barbarossa and the Holocaust combined to act as one ‘gigantic sanitary operation’, representing the ‘politics of antibiotics par excellence.’ (89)
The German military developed a menacing Feindbild regarding Judeo-Bolshevism before the June 1941 onslaught against the Soviet Union. German generals prepared troops for the inevitable racial war through a series of communiqués vilifying the enemy, such as the Reichenau order quoted above. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein recognized the invasion of the Soviet Union as ‘a battle for life and death against the Bolshevik system’ and asserted that Judeo-Bolshevism must ‘[n]ever again … interfere in our European living space.’9
In May 1941 the Wehrmacht High Command issued instructions to the troops that left no doubt about the nature of the conflict. Bolshevism was the ‘deadly enemy of the National Socialist German people,’ an enemy that required ‘ruthless and energetic action.’ Beyond that, the campaign required ‘total elimination of all active or passive resistance.’10 After decades of fostering an antisemitic and völkischworldview, the Wehrmacht was encouraged to act against Judeo-Bolshevism without restraint. Over half of the five and a half million Soviet POWs in the Wehrmacht’s custody died in captivity, largely from systematic starvation and forced labor. Hardly unwilling participants, the Wehrmacht was a vital cog in the machinery of the Holocaust, the blunt instrument the Nazi state wielded before excising the Jewish cancer once and for all.
André Mineau identifies four preconditions necessary for the Holocaust, all of which fell within the purview of the SS. The first is biological antisemitism, an understanding of the ‘the Jew’ as an existential threat to the German nation. There is no compromise with a disease. Second, an imperial drive combined with racial anthropology. The expansive German empire had to reflect a strict racial hierarchy in which Germans subjugated inferior races according to the laws of nature.
Third, only a modern bureaucratic state utilizing law, medicine, industry, and infrastructure could turn SS ideology into deadly practice. Finally, National Socialist values merged with science, creating an unassailable logic behind the genocide. The Holocaust was not the Final Solution, it was the only one. SS personnel regarded their function as an inescapable burden, one only the best and brightest can bear. Himmler gave a now famous speech on October 4, 1943 to SS leaders gathered in Posen, Poland in which the Reichsführer spoke candidly about the ongoing genocide:
Most of you know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, when 500 lie there, or if 1,000 lie there. To have gone through this, and at the same time, apart from exceptions caused by human weaknesses, to have remained decent, that has made us hard. This is a chapter of glory in our history which has never been written, and which never shall be written; since we know how hard it would be for us if we still had the Jews, as secret saboteurs, agitators, and slander-mongers, among us now, in every city — during the bombing raids, with the suffering and deprivations of the war. We would probably already be in the same situation as in 1916/17 if we still had the Jews in the body of the German people.11
With the German offensive stalled and the Red Army on the move, Himmler reflected on Germany’s moment of crisis during the First World War and assured the SS that it could take satisfaction in preventing another fatal ‘stab-in-the-back.’ Isolating Jews, first in ghettos and ultimately in death camps designed specifically for industrialized killing, went hand in hand with military victory. The camps supplied Germany with needed resources via forced labor and confiscated wealth and neutralized a racial enemy bent on fomenting revolution behind the lines.
Once the labor potential was exhausted the killing began in the same installations. If we accept the premise shared by the leading architects of the Holocaust that the Second World War was the radicalization of the First World War, eliminating those deemed responsible for Germany’s defeat in 1918 was a prerequisite for Germany’s salvation. Himmler surely knew by 1943 that a military victory was elusive, but exterminating the ‘anti-race’ on behalf of European culture was in reach even as the front collapsed around him. The SS may lose the war, but SS ideology believed the German race was immortal. If Jews perished from Earth Germany was redeemed, even if its ultimate triumph had to wait.
- Reichenau quoted in Omer Bartov, Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 129.
- Gabriel Liulevicius, War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity, and German Occupation in World War I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 219.
- Bericht über innere Lage, October 31, 1918, BA Freiburg, PH6/II/16.
- Wilhelm von Gayl quoted in Liulevicius, War Land, 120.
- Heeresgruppe Eichenhorn, Kiew Politisches II: 1918, BA Freiburg, N 46/173.
- Egmont Zechlin, Die deutsche Politik und die Juden im ersten Weltkrieg (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1969), 47.
- Heinrich Himmler quoted in Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, Volume I, Chapter XIII, Germanization & Spoliation Poland (Part 3 of 4), Nizkor Project, http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/imt/nca/nca-01/nca-01-13-spoliation-01c.html [Accessed December 11, 2013].
- Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, http://www.hitler.org/writings/Mein_Kampf/mkv2ch15.html [Accessed December 11, 2013].
- Erich von Manstein quoted in Bartov, Hitler’s Army, 130.
- Directives for the behavior of the troops in Russia, May 191, 1941 quoted in Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham, eds., Nazism: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts, 1919-1945, vol. 1 (New York: Schocken Books, 1990), 1086.
- Himmler’s October 4, 1943 Posen Speech, Nizkor Project, http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/people/h/himmler-heinrich/posen/oct-04-43/ [Accessed December 11, 2013].