Germans behind the Nazi terror were often very ordinary

A fascinating new museum has just opened in Berlin documenting the often faceless bureaucrats behind Hitler’s Final Solution. Such almost casual brutality was driven by ideology but also a strong desire to advance one’s career. What’s killing a few Jews between the hours of nine and five?

The center also reveals the worst historical legacy of the German Federal Republic. The fact that thousands of murderers and their accomplices were able to lead quiet lives in post-war Germany, undisturbed by the criminal justice system. The site of the exhibition is probably the most historically contaminated place in Berlin. The complex on what was once Prinz Albrecht Strasse, just a stone’s throw from today’s government buildings, was the headquarters for the Third Reich’s brutal repression.

In 1933 the Gestapo made the former art school at Prinz Albrecht Strasse 8 its headquarters. The adjacent Hotel Prinz Albrecht became the SS headquarters in 1934 and that same year the SS intelligence service, the SD, took over the Prinz Albrecht palace on nearby Wilhelm Strasse. It was from this complex of buildings that Hitler’s officials administered the concentration and extermination camps, directed the deadly campaigns by the SS death squads and kept an eye on the regime’s opponents.

The “Final Solution” that was discussed at the famed Wannsee Conference on Jan. 20, 1942 was also prepared here. A group of ministerial officials and SS functionaries based here chose the venue for the conference of high-ranking Nazis, where the plan for the murder of Europe’s Jews was hatched.

Hitler was rarely at the complex. He preferred to stay away from Berlin, sometimes ruling from his Wolf’s Lair military headquarters and sometimes from his Bavarian mountain retreat. But this was where the brains behind the Nazi crimes, such as SS leader Heinrich Himmler and SD chief Reinhard Heydrich, had their offices.

Climbing the Career Ladder

And they surrounded themselves by men who didn’t necessarily fit into today’s stereotype of a Nazi war criminal, neither boorish sadists nor bloodless bureaucrats. They were ambitious university-educated men, aged around 30 and more likely to be ideologues than technocrats. They alternated between serving at the Berlin headquarters and in foreign posts, like young managers at a big company making their way up the career ladder. And after the rupture of 1945 most of them simply faded away into the background.

Erich Ehrlinger, for example, a lawyer from Giengen in southern Germany, who at the age of 25 was already a staff leader at the SD main office, before becoming a commander in the German security police in Ukraine and leading the 1b Einsatzkommando, or mobile death squad. A case against him in 1969 was dropped because he was deemed incapable of standing trial. Yet Ehrlinger lived for another 35 years.

Then there was the Munich businessman, Josef Spacil, who joined the SS at the age of 27. He was stationed in an occupied area of the Soviet Union as an SS economist, then came back to Prinz Albrecht Strasse to serve as a department head. He appeared as a witness in the Nuremberg Trials but was never prosecuted himself.

Photographs of a group of young lawyers, Werner Best, Ernst Kaltenbrunner and Hans Nockemann, stare down from the walls — all were born in 1903. “One easily forgets that National Socialism was a young movement,” say Andreas Nachama, the director of the new documentation center.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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