Jews in the Nazis’ Ranks

"Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and the Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military" by Bryan Mark Rigg (University Press of Kansas, $29.95).

Bryan Mark Rigg’s most controversial assertion is "Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers’" least relevant matter. In a complicated opening chapter, he claims that 150,000 individuals (almost exclusively male) served in the German military who were, by Nazi racial standards and laws, Jews of some quantity. By his calculations, perhaps as many as 6,000 "full" Jews (with four Jewish grandparents) were in the Wehrmacht — but the greater number comes, of course, from the highly assimilated, aggressively nationalistic, and thoroughly acculturated "quarter" and "half" Jews, those with one or two Jewish grandparents, respectively. (The mathematics is darkly amusing: two half-Jewish parents make up one half-Jewish child.)

His numerical assertions aside, Rigg tells a deeply disturbing story. His 430 interviews with still-living Nazi-defined Jewish Wehrmacht veterans and a wealth of both primary and secondary research reveal both a willing naiveté on the part of "ordinary" Germans, and Germany’s enthusiastic collaboration and participation in unadulterated evil. Hitler’s pseudoscientific racial madness co-existed with a cumbersome yet efficient bureaucratic death machine. Careful gradations of Jewish racial profiling and extensive discussions concerning the disposition of the various degrees of partial Jews occupied the minds of Nazidom’s leadership. More time was devoted, for example, at the Wannsee Conference to the status of the mixed Jews (the so-called Mischlinge) than any other element of the "Final Solution."

An entire bureau was created to deal with the Mischlinge. The one "hero" in this sad story is Bernhard Losener, the desk officer for racial law at the Reich Ministry of the Interior. Until overruled by Martin Bormann in December 1941, Losener consistently advocated a separate status for the Mischlinge that would exempt them from the more arduous and deadly Nazi racial legislation.

Those same laws addressed the peculiarities of an assimilated Jewish population. Converts to Judaism were treated legally as Jews, and formally documented as such. SS Gen. Curt von Gottberg, a notorious commander in White Russia who supervised the unbridled massacre of both partisans and Jews, and was an early and avid Nazi, lobbied on behalf of his "half-Jewish" nephews. Consequently, they received a "German Blood Certificate" in 1940, the highest form of exemption from the racial laws. But, as was Hitler’s prerogative, the certificate was conditional, and to be reconsidered at the war’s end.

Hitler personally reviewed and signed the various instruments of exemption. As the war wound on, his demands for documentation grew more complex, and his attitudes toward the Mischlinge hardened. He would review the military records, read the letters of recommendation and carefully study the photographs that partially Jewish aspirants to the Wehrmacht would submit in the hopes of gaining rank and protecting family members, but usually to little avail. Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers would be either drafted into forced labor battalions, shipped East or, if from a military background, into the "Straight to Heaven Detachments."

The ordinary German of Jewish extraction just wanted to be like everyone else, only more so. They wanted to live, love, be patriotic Germans, and earn distinctions. However, even with protective documents, they were still Jews. Early on, Rigg sets the tone of his story:

"After I interviewed half-Jew Heinrich Hamberger in Munich, his girlfriend recommended that he take me with him that evening. He immediately tried to hush her, but she insisted, saying, ‘The young American would find it interesting.’ He explained that his army buddies met in a pub once a month. After discussing the matter, he agreed to take me there, but only on two conditions: first, under no circumstance would I tell anyone about his Jewish descent, and second, I would tell them I studied something else besides Mischlinge who fought in the Wehrmacht. I agreed.

"A few hours later, we entered the pub. Loud voices greeted us, and the smell of smoke smarted our nostrils. I felt odd sitting among these old men singing, drinking and telling war stories. I watched the years melt away as they relived the ‘good old days.’

"After a while, Hamberger left me alone and I started to talk with his former company commander. He wanted to impress upon me how honorable the Wehrmacht had been. I just listened. During our conversation, I told him that during my studies I had come across an anomaly that Jews and men of Jewish descent had fought in the Wehrmacht. ‘Have you ever heard about this?’ I asked.

"The commander looked around, spotted Hamberger on the other side of the room, and nodded his old, scarred head. He lowered his raspy voice to a conspiratorial tone: ‘Don’t tell Hamberger, but we know he’s a Jew.’ I acted surprised and promised not to tell. This event illustrates the universal fear present among many Mischlinge who feel insecure about their ‘Jewishness’ and cower at being labeled ‘Jewish.’"

Many important insights issue from the grasping of the obvious. Obviously, there were many nationalist, militant Germans with partial Jewish backgrounds. Some, like half-Jew Field Marshall Erhard Milch, and quarter-Jew and Nazi Party member Franz Mendelssohn (a descendent of the famous Moses) participated at the highest levels in German military life. Most however, like the pseudonymous Hamberger, just tried to survive their own little part of hell. And in "Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers," Rigg maps out for us more of the contours of Lucifer’s domain.