Myth, Violence, Genocide


by Christopher Hale

There are a number of books about the ‘foreign divisions of the Third Reich’. Most seem to be written for military history buffs and those fascinated by uniforms and arcane details of military insignia. Some are downright sinister. The series of books written by Richard Landwehr, an American ‘historian’ associated with the far right, are overtly favourable and have titles like ‘Lions of Flanders’, ‘Steadfast Hussars’ and ‘Nordic Warriors’.  His Wiki entry includes the following rationale:

“After a generation of slander, vilification and falsehood concerning the European volunteers, the first rays of light are beginning to shine through. Slowly, but surely, their story is being told. As for the soldiers themselves, many are of the belief that they were ahead of their time, both militarily and philosophically, and that their legacy is yet to be fulfilled. For myself, perhaps the most incisive observation was made by the former Waffen-SS Colonel Joachim Peiper in a letter to his comrades while he was being held in American confinement under sentence of death: ‘Don’t forget that it was in the ranks of the SS that the first European died’.”

What Landwehr or his hero SS Colonel Peiper means by this is that the ‘foreign volunteers’ fought against Bolshevism. Landwehr is associated with a number of Holocaust denial organizations. What he doesn’t say here is that ‘Bolshevism’ carries malevolent ideological baggage that explains a great deal about German foreign recruitment.

I confess that I don’t find ‘military history’ very interesting. What I hoped to discover was the logic of German foreign recruitment during the Second World War. Was it merely expedient as some historians claim? Or was it underpinned by ideology? And what motivated collaborators? I chose not to limit my discussion to the Waffen-SS legions and divisions. I look at the SS police battalions and their foreign auxiliaries as a crucial evolutionary step towards the SS military divisions. SS Chief Heinrich Himmler in any case made no fundamental distinction between a policeman and soldier – both were ideological warriors committed to defending the Reich.

In Latvia, many of the police auxiliaries like Viktors Arājs for example went on to join the Latvian SS divisions – now referred to as the ‘Latvian Legion’. Military historians and some Eastern European nationalists argue that the SS police units and the Waffen-SS divisions had different roles and should not be bracketed together.

This is a bogus argument. The German war in the East was conceived as a racial war of annihilation. Any German affiliated military units took part in this war. The role of the police auxiliaries is very well known – but what is sometimes forgotten is that the non-German units of the Waffen-SS took a leading role in what Himmler called ‘Anti Bandit warfare’. ‘Bandits’ was a pejorative term for partisans – but the doctrine of SS ‘bandit warfare’ necessitated the frequent murder of civilians and any Jews who had survived the first waves of mass killing unleashed after June, 1941. German military reports invariably log the number of Jews killed in an anti partisan ‘action’ in a special category.

So what led a Latvian, Ukrainian or Frenchman for that matter to willingly participate in the German ‘war of annihilation’ by joining a police battalion or a Waffen-SS division? I realised, of course, that it would be impossible to explain the motivations of tens of thousands of young men who joined the collaborationist factions that played such a terrible role in the murder of millions of Jewish civilians. Many were no doubt restless adolescents, thieves or psychopaths or all three at once. In that sense alone, this was a war like any other. Such men have been the flotsam and jetsam of armies from the beginning of recorded history. But the mercenary mentality only solves part of the puzzle.

The Germans required these volunteers to not only betray their own nation but to take part in daily mass shootings of unarmed men, women and children. It is hard to imagine that this was not a very turbulent Rubicon to cross for many of the volunteers.

The explanation is I concluded embodied in a single word – Bolshevism. Bolshevism is of course a political term invented in 1905 and meaning ‘majority’. The 1905 Bolsheviks evolved into the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. But after the First World War, ‘Bolshevism’ took on a much more sinister meaning that far exceeded the nomenclature of a political party. How did this happen – and what did the Russian and then Soviet Communist Party have to do with a very old hatred – antisemitism.

Here I can only sketch the dark story of how the notion of Bolshevism became the lingua franca of European antisemites – with terrible consequences after 1939.

The cataclysmic upheaval of the First World War led to the collapse of no less than four empires – the Russian, German, Austro Hungarian and Ottoman. After the Paris Peace Conference – as Margaret Macmillan’s excellent book Peacemakers demonstrates – a number of new nation states emerged from the wreckage of Empire. The biggest was Poland – but other lucky winners included the Baltic States Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The big losers were the Ukrainians – there would be no independent Ukraine for close on a century. In the Balkans, Serbs carved out a new Royal Yugoslavia from the remnants of both the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires.

So – in the 1920s, Europe saw the emergence of new nations. But that was not the end of the national question. The Ukrainians left Paris with nothing but burning resentment – but the new, apparently more blessed Baltic nations and Yugoslavia brimmed with the anxieties of the new born. In Yugoslavia, the Croatians resented the dominance of the Serbs. In the Baltic, only Lithuania had ever been a true nation of sorts – and that was long ago. Latvia and Estonia had been conjured out of fragile cultural and linguistic entities.

The upshot of this rather wobbly new order was the emergence of very assertive nationalist movements and factions. Many historians use the term integral nationalists to describe these new movements – and what that implies is that they preached a kind of national purity. This exclusivist sentiment was the common ideological feature of every single integral national party that sprang from the decayed wreckage of the European Empires. National insecurity in the Baltic states and Royal Yugoslavia, the failure to win an independent Ukraine… whatever the modality of resentment, the end result was always the same – a demand for ethnic purity.

This meant that resentment focused on the marginalised, the outsiders. In the Baltic, with some historical irony, meant the wealthy descendants of German colonisers. But there was a far more potent image of the outside living in the new nations of Europe. This was of course – the Jew. Persecution of Jews was nothing new. But in Europe after the collapse of the old empires, the figure of the Jew took on new significance. However much Jews contributed to the new European nation states (and many had been in the vanguard of independence movements) they remained in the eyes of the more fervent nationalists outsiders. They also acquired a new, chimerical status as agents of a global conspiracy. Jews had for many centuries been represented as clever financial manipulators. (The existence of millions of impoverished Jews especially in Eastern Europe had no impact on this mythology) – but in the 20th Century,  mere cunning evolved into something altogether more insidious.

Ever since the publication of a Russian tract ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, a ridiculous fantasy that was translated with dire consequences into most European languages (in Germany the book was promoted by the Baltic German Alfred Rosenberg, the self proclaimed Nazi Party philosopher), many believed that Jews had organised themselves as a global power that sought world domination. This would be achieved it was argued, on two fronts. The first and more traditional if you like was Wall Street and the levers of the international finance.

The other paranoiac fantasy was new minted. The global Jewish conspiracy had spread from capitalist Wall Street to communist Moscow. In the minds of integral nationalists, Bolshevism was a monstrous Jewish plot to overwhelm Christian Europe.

Bolshevism thus took on a new meaning. It was one that allowed nationalist propagandists to slide between two states of mind. In one, any Jew was an agent of Bolshevism; in the other every Bolshevik was a Jew or the emissary of a Jewish political conspiracy.

In a fascinating essay, Marco Carynnyk has traced the evolution of antisemitic rhetoric in the Ukrainian integral national party the OUN – the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. As early as 1929, OUN propagandists referred to a ‘internal enemy’ – namely Jews. Carynnyk quotes a typical example of OUN doggerel:

    • ‘Know, you Russian-Jewish reptiles,
    • Who for centuries have sucked our blood,
    • That a hellish wrath swirls in our souls,
    • That we will have to meet with you.’

When the German Nazi Party was levered into power in 1933, these poisonous fantasies flooded into the European mainstream – and although they had arisen spontaneously in different nationalist contexts, the ‘Jewish Bolshevik’ provided a powerful ideological common ground – from Kiev to Paris. Although this matter falls outside the scope of this short essay, nationalist movements in Western Europe embraced the same mythology – most significantly in France which had been blighted by poisonous antisemitism since the Dreyfus Affair. In 1940, the defeat of France provoked the same kind of virulent upsurge in ‘Bolshevist’ mythology focused on the alleged ‘treachery’ of the Jewish Prime Minister Léon Blum.

Mythologies that appear to make sense, in very simple terms, of experience have tremendous power. Although antisemitism was relatively muted in the Baltic states until the late 1930s, the signing of the ‘secret protocols’ of the Nazi-Soviet Non Aggression Pact in 1939 and the subsequent division of territorial spoils, galvanised radical nationalists and brought the chimerical figure of the ‘Jewish-Bolshevik’ centre stage – in effect priming the mechanism that would unleash the worst genocide in history a year later.

As the Germans began planning the invasion and occupation of the Soviet Union, they assiduously cultivated the nationalist factions that had long promoted the bond between Jews and Bolsheviks. This process becomes evident, for example, in the relationship between the Reich and the Lithuanian nationalist faction – the Lithuanian Activist Front, the LAF. Joseph Levinson has provided substantial documentation demonstrating how LAF activists ‘played’ the Bolshevik card with murderous consequences. His important book The Shoah in Lithuania provides us with a number of extracts from LAF propaganda issued before the German invasion began on 22 June 1941.

Although both the Germans and the Lithuanian nationalist activists made a distinction between ‘communists’ and ‘Jews’, the continuously associate one with the other – knowing that in the minds of the activists they wished to appeal to, the ‘Jewish Bolshevik’ myth would stitch together the two enemy categories. In one ‘Appeal’ we read:

‘To the Judases of Lithuania… Freedom will come to us over your corpses… Away with the Jews, Communists and Lithuanian Judases…’

Another blurs the distinction even more aggressively:

‘Our fellow Lithuanians… in you are still among the living, COME FORWARD IN THE STRUGGLE AGAINST JEWRY. LET US LIBERATE OUR FATHERLAND FROM THE JEWS…’

Another example:

‘The fateful hour of reckoning with the Jews has come. Lithuania must be liberated not only from Asiatic Bolshevik slavery but also from the age-old yoke of Judaism…’

This last example of LAF invective reveals a perverse sense of historical precedent – the age-old yoke of Judaism has evolved to become ‘Asiatic Bolshevism’.

The consequence of this mythological conflation of Soviet Communism with a Jewry in the chimerical figure of the ‘Jewish Bolshevik’ is well known to readers of As German armies rampaged through Ukraine and the Baltics, the solution to the Jewish problem had to become, for Germans and Eastern European nationalists alike, a violent one.

Christopher Hale is the author of Hitler’s Foreign Executioners: Europe’s Dirty Secret (History Press 2011).

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