Alexander Arndt on Generation des Unbedingten: Das Führungskorps des Reichssicherheitshauptamtes

, March 1, 2007

Jewish Political Studies Review 19:1-2 (Spring 2007)



Reviewed by Alexander Arndt



“With Honest Enthusiasm”:  The Case of Dr. Hans Rössner

In the early 1950s Hannah Arendt planned to publish her biography of Rahel Varnhagen, poet and hostess of the most important literary salon of German Romanticism. Arendt proposed the title Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a German Jewess to her German publishing house, Piper Verlag. For Dr. Hans Rössner, Piper’s director of publishing, the subtitle seemed to be a thorn in his side. In various long-winded replies to Arendt, he tried to convince her to avoid any association with Varnhagen’s Jewish background.

Arendt was somewhat irritated but eventually got her way by speaking forcefully with the head of the firm, Klaus Piper. Rössner, who maintained a servile and admiring attitude toward Arendt until the end of her life, nevertheless intervened several times at Piper to suppress any traces of Arendt’s own Jewishness. Five weeks after her death, Rössner decided not to reprint Eichmann in Jerusalem, a book he had had strong objections about in the first place.

Who was this Dr. Rössner who never failed to express his humble respect and, as he put it, “honest enthusiasm” about working with the philosopher? Born in 1910, he had received a degree in German studies, worked his way up from the Sicherheitsdienst (SD-Security Agency) of the SS to the rank of an SS-Obersturmbannführer, and became departmental official on “Volkskultur und Kunst” (völkisch culture and art) at the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA-Reich Security Main Office)-the institution at the center of Michael Wildt’s elaborate study.

As a research assistant at the University of Bonn, Rössner had mainly been involved in the denaturalization case against leading German dissident writer Thomas Mann in 1936. In his dissertation, Rössner decried the Verjudung (Judaization) of the intellectual circle around the German poet Stefan George. While his RSHA colleagues like Eichmann worked diligently to “purify” Europe racially, Rössner pursued the same “purification” of German culture and literature, removing all Jewish elements. No wonder he encountered trouble working with Arendt, who never found out whom she was dealing with all those years.

The Intellectuality of Evil

That people like Rössner were allowed to pursue such influential careers as senior editor in postwar West Germany remains a scandal until the present. Rössner’s case is only an example of many similar ones described in Wildt’s postdoctoral thesis, presented here in this book, about this “core group of the genocide.”[1] Wildt has been a research associate of the Hamburg Institute of Social Research (HIS) since 1997. This internationally recognized institution stirred up the German public with two myth-shattering exhibitions (1995 and 2001) about the Wehrmacht’s complicity in the Holocaust.

The monstrosity of the Shoah is often said to defy definitive answers; in the words of an SS guard cited by Primo Levi, “There is no why here.” The task of the historian, however, is precisely to ask “Why” over and over so as to explain the mindset of the perpetrators. How is it possible to fulfill the pledge “Never again” if the reasons why it happened in the first place are not fully understood?

Eugen Kogon, one of the first to analyze the SS-Staat in his 1946 book,[2] portrayed the Nazis as frustrated people who had failed to accomplish anything positive in life. At Nuremberg, the judges used the phrase “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” to describe the head of the Einsatzgruppen, Otto Ohlendorf, an outwardly gentle and educated young man. Hannah Arendt tried to highlight the utter banality of thought in the mind of the functionary,[3] and both the intentionalist and functionalist/structuralist schools have used the concept of the “ordinary” to underline the readiness to commit genocide as either a deep-rooted cultural hatred (Goldhagen) or a result of psychological flaws of the ordinary individual when confronted with abnormal situations (Browning).[4]

All these explanations have sparked controversies and failed to satisfy. Wildt, like others, wants to dispose of some of the myths to enable a fresh look at the subject. In his view, one must consider the unique nature of Nazi institutions, especially the one responsible for organizing the Holocaust, to understand the conjuncture of structure and intention that created the necessary dynamic for the genocide. Without a corresponding structure, the individual with a genocidal Weltanschauung will be more or less contained; without lethal intentions, the structure will be ineffective.

To prove this point Wildt singles out the leading corps of the RSHA for his study. Of a total of about three thousand, he chose 221 in leading positions and examined their biographical backgrounds in the context of the emergence of the Nazi movement, the Nazi state, and especially the birth, rise to power, and disintegration of the institutionally unique RSHA. Although the fact of ordinary Germans’ participation in the Shoah is already well known, its organization was in the hands of the RSHA elite and it is here that Wildt finds an exceptional generational and educational homogeneity.

Wildt was inspired by Ulrich Herbert’s influential study of Reichskommissar Werner Best.[5] Best had to leave the RSHA after a conflict with its chief Reinhard Heydrich and was in many ways unsuitable for the organization. The typical perpetrator at the RSHA was in his late twenties or his thirties, had received an academic education with a degree in law or the humanities, and was ready to live out a worldview that demanded an unconditional commitment to fight the war for “racial” purity and supremacy on all fronts.

The RSHA was an “institution of a new type,” structurally unconstrained by traditional legal requirements, of a protean design, and constantly adapting to the needs of war and genocide. Its generation of young functionaries was intellectually prepared both to organize the Holocaust from the desk and to participate as heads of the Einsatzgruppen in the east. Although historian Götz Aly claims that the attempt to implement the plan of racially reorganizing Europe was met by a “chronology of failure” that fostered an accumulative radicalization,[6] Wildt shows that from the start the mindset of this RSHA elite was programmed for radical and untrammeled decision-making, and that the RSHA provided the structure for unleashing the genocidal potential of their Weltanschauung.

Not a Lost Generation

World War I produced a generation of former soldiers traumatized on the battlefields of an unprecedented modern conflict that defied the heroic notions of earlier days. Yet Wildt found that two-thirds of the people who later held significant positions in the RSHA had been too young to fight in it. Instead the heroic ideology of Imperial Germany, postwar socioeconomic turmoil, and the myth of having been “stabbed in the back” influenced them in their youth and fostered a longing for a radical break from the “corrupted” status quo of the Weimar Republic. “Generation,” here, refers not only to being in the same age bracket but also to a shared social background and experiences.

The family background of this generation reveals that the majority were social climbers. They received a better education than their parents. Two-thirds attended a university and 50 percent received doctorates. Although a focus on law and political science dominated, 22 percent majored in humanities disciplines such as literature, history, theology, or philology. Given the extreme-Right and anti-Semitic ideologies that persisted on many German campuses, including the influence of Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, it is not surprising that this education did not immunize against hatred. But these young Germans were not exactly social losers who, committed to a banality of thought, joined a party opposed to intellectual ambition.

What was it, then, that made these educated young men rally behind Hitler? One factor was a biologistic understanding of society that explained the defeat in World War I and the perceived corruption of the Weimar Republic as resulting from degenerative forces opposed to the organic whole of the German people. To secure the survival of the “Aryan race” was a historical mission. The völkisch renewal was not to be tainted by Judeo-Christian notions of empathy and pity. Wildt quotes Heydrich: “Were we to fail to fulfill our historical duty through being too objective and too humane, then no one will make allowances for mitigating circumstances. They will merely say: they did not fulfill their duty to history.”

Second, these men longed for a field of work where they could contribute to this mission directly and actively.  Skepticism, academic distance, and differentiation were considered detrimental to the cause. Every individual had to commit himself totally. Quick, unscrupulous decision-making in the relentless pursuit of a radical goal became a virtue. The ambiguity of their very terminology-“action,” “enemy of the people,” “belief in the absolute idea,” “community of blood and destiny,” “the new will”-facilitated this accumulative radicalization.[7] The Nazi Party and their organizations NSDStB, SA, or SS provided the structures where these young and ambitious people could live out their ideology.

Third, the harsh final years of the Weimar Republic caused widespread apprehension on the campuses. Job opportunities seemed scarce even for the best qualified. The Nazis’ success in 1933 suddenly offered these young people career opportunities that silenced the last doubts of those who initially had despised the Nazis’ vulgarity. Wildt devotes a chapter to members of the Schwarze Hand (Black Hand), an extreme-Right student group at the University of Leipzig that opposed the Nazis even in 1933, and follows some of their careers in the RSHA.

Wildt convincingly demonstrates, then, that those involved in organizing the Holocaust on the highest level were highly educated, young, and ambitious. Their commitment to relentless action and their will to power set the genocide in motion.

A Uniquely National Socialist Institution

Organizing a genocide of that extent required intellect and was not merely a result of anonymous structures. But what structure was needed to allow the “fighting administration” to fulfill their “historical duty” (Heydrich)? According to Ernst Fraenkel, the Nazi state was a dual one: alongside the bourgeois Normative State (Normenstaat) existed the new Prerogative State (Massnahmenstaat). The former ensured that the general socioeconomic order was left intact and provided a sense of security to the German public. The latter created spaces of “unlimited arbitrariness” where Nazi institutions like the SS or the Gestapo were enabled to implement drastic measures against the “objective enemies” of the Volksgemeinschaft (folk-collective).[8]

In other words, Prussian bureaucracy existed next to a “permanent state of emergency.” Combined, both ensured a ruthless efficiency. This symbiosis made the RSHA a “pioneer institution” (Wildt).

Established on 27 September 1939, just weeks after the Germans attacked Poland, the RSHA was truly a National Socialist institution. It merged all the institutions and organizations the Nazis had used to secure their power: the abovementioned Security Agency (SD) of the SS, the Secret State Police (Gestapo), and the Criminal Police under the supervision of Heinrich Himmler. It was an institution designed for the war. It remained highly flexible throughout its existence, shunning bureaucratic stiffness, shifting its organizational structure according to the needs of the war and its genocidal tasks. New departments were created, older ones dissolved, responsibilities transferred with every new challenge the regime faced.

The RSHA’s policies became accumulatively radicalized because this fitted the underlying ideology. The leading corps chose not to remain behind their desks but seized opportunities to fulfill their “historical duty” as heads of the Einsatzgruppen, sometimes shooting and killing thousands themselves. Others worked intellectually and scientifically either to understand the “nature” of the enemy or to invent new methods of genocide.

It was precisely the flexibility of the RSHA’s distinctive culture and the ideological readiness of its members to commit themselves passionately to establishing a new “racial order” in Europe that unleashed an apparatus that organized the death of millions. Virtually unbound by traditional political, moral, and legal restrictions, these men were indeed the “core group of the genocide.”  Although Heydrich’s death in June 1942 did not stop the killing machine, it seems to have been a blow from which the RSHA never fully recovered. Both the individual and the structure relied too much on each other.

The only thing that finally stopped the endeavor, however, was the demise of the Nazi Reich and the dissolution of its Weltanschauung-police.

Second Chances

As Rössner’s example shows, after the war many of the RSHA staff managed to walk away unharmed and pursue careers in the new democratic order. Only a few committed suicide or stood trial; only ten RSHA members were defendants in the Einsatzgruppen trial of 1947-1948 and only one of them, Otto Ohlendorf, was executed. The majority emerged intact and resumed new lives.

Wildt’s last chapter is devoted to their postwar lives. He follows this generation into the often scandalous practices of West German Vergangenheitsbewältigung[9] to underline his thesis: outside the unconstrained Nazi institution of the RSHA, the same people-were they granted a second chance-would have had no opportunity to live out their ideology. They did not turn into democrats, but just as an untrammeled setting had turned them into mass murderers, the lack of such a framework now contained them. In Wildt’s view, this indicates how fragile the democratic transformation of postwar Germany actually was.[10]


Wildt’s exceptionally well-written book is easily accessible despite its length. He offers fresh insights regarding the debate on whether structure or intention was the fundamental prerequisite for the Shoah. In Wildt’s view, both of these converged in an institution that was as structurally unconstrained as the ideological mindset of its members.

Wildt’s massive research and elaborate analysis make it possible to follow some of the main protagonists-known and unknown-from the formative years of their post-World War I youth to their radical careers in the Nazi state through their post-World War II reintegration. Eichmann’s colleagues at the RSHA had been far from banal in their thought. The characterization of Ohlendorf as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” captures the impossibility or reconciling his civilized and murderous sides. Democratic and antifascist politicians rallied in postwar Germany to pardon Dr. Martin Sandberger, who had commanded Einsatzkommando 1a and killed many with his own hands. They could not believe this exceptionally bright man had committed such atrocities. As for Rössner, he became, as noted, director of publishing at one of Germany’s leading houses and probably genuinely admired Arendt’s intellect though he would have killed her two decades earlier.

All the cases Wildt presents show that those who worked diligently to organize the genocide were neither mindless bureaucrats nor half-educated fanatics who would otherwise have failed in a liberal-democratic environment. Wildt raises troubling questions about the role of so-called intellectuals in an unconstrained setting. He demonstrates that intentions and structure cannot be separated. A future task could be to follow up this approach from the “core group” to other perpetrators as well, and also in comparison to other genocides.


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[1] Ulrich Herbert, “Vernichtungspolitik: Neue Antworten und Fragen zur Geschichte des ‘Holocaust,'” in Ulrich Herbert, ed., Nationalsozialistische Vernichtungspolitik, 1939-1945: Neue Forschungen und Kontroversen. (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1998).  9-66.  [German]

[2] Eugen Kogon, Der SS-Staat: Das System deutscher Konzentrationslager (Munich: Heyne, 1995). [German]

[3] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin, 1994).

[4] Daniel J. Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Vintage, 1997); Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993).

[5] Ulrich Herbert, Best: Biographische Studien über Radikalismus, Weltanschauung und Vernunft, 1903-1989 (Bonn: Dietz, 1996). [German]

[6] Götz Aly, “Final Solution”: Nazi Population Policy and the Murder of the European Jews (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[7] The Nazis adhered to what Adorno has called-in reference to Martin Heidegger-a “jargon of authenticity.” Instead of rationally and legally defined concepts like “rule of law” and “state” they used pseudo-authentic terms like Volk (people) resting on irrational concepts like blood and race. Consequently, a definite meaning was always deferred. Wildt cites RSHA-chief Reinhard Heydrich: “National Socialism does not derive from the state, but from the Volk…. Therefore, we National Socialists know only the enemy of the people. He is always the same, and he remains eternally the same. He is the enemy of the racial, völkisch, and spiritual substance of our people.” In other words, whoever was to fall under such irrational categories was considered an enemy.   

[8] Ernst Fraenkel, The Dual State: A Contribution to the Theory of Dictatorship (New York: Octagon, 1961).

[9] An untranslatable term whose approximate meaning is “struggle to come to terms with one’s own past.”

[10] See Norbert Frei, Adenauer’s Germany and the Nazi Past: The Politics of Amnesty and Integration (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

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ALEXANDER ARNDT is a research associate for Knowing Israel, a study-tour program for journalists.