Among friends, a Nazi could even be affable, petting kittens and enjoying Mozart’s music. But in carrying out his tasks, he could just as naturally brutally murder dissidents and Jews.
There is historically no such thing as a “good Nazi.” He is always filthy from a political and moral point of view. A documentary that has just debuted on Netflix —”Ordinary Men: Holocaust Killers”— exemplifies the paradoxes of the images of these war criminals. The medium-length film is directed by Manfred Oldenburg and Oliver Halmburger.
The Nazis didn’t pretend to be good guys. But many of them surprised judges and prosecutors at the Nuremberg Tribunal who sentenced them to execution. They were common, banal men. Nothing predisposed them to commit crimes against humanity.
The numbers that the documentary mentions are not unprecedented. After the war, 172,000 Germans were investigated, but less than 500 were convicted. Among them were the supervisors of the 160 battalions responsible for the extermination of Jews outside the concentration camps.
As for the extermination itself, a historian says in the film that, of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, half died in the gas chambers; around 1 million were victims of prison conditions, such as hunger; and the remaining 2 million were murdered by firing squads. This is where the police battalions come in.
They were supervised by 27 Nazi militiamen who were defendants at Nuremberg. A detailed survey of more than 1 million murders had been located by lawyer Benjamin Ferencz. The central figure of this group was called Otto Ohlendorf, sentenced to death by hanging in April 1948.
Nothing about Ohlendorf resembled a war criminal. Father of five children, he was cultured and educated. The judges, said one lawyer, were stunned by an image so far from evil. He led, however, 600 assassins who fulfilled a kind of quota — the death of 90,000 Jews.
Shortly before being hanged, he received a lawyer who was astonished by the lack of any regret. “If it were necessary to shoot my sister, I would do it.”
Who also stood out was Major Wilhem Trapp. In Poland, he commanded Battalion 101, which at the end of the war had the fourth highest “productivity” in terms of the number of Jews murdered. Trapp had the image of a generous officer among his men. He respected the conscientious objection of those who preferred not to participate in the carnage. One of the historians who followed the group’s trial in 1967 says that those who accepted the crime as normal were brutal and celebrated the death of the Jews at nightly banquets.
Another battalion, with members coming from the city of Hamburg, exterminated its victims inside a forest. There were 1,500 to 1,700 per daily session. In one of them, a guard said he had killed the owner of the cinema he had frequented as a boy and who had taken refuge in Polish territory.
A parenthesis to explain this police, which should not be confused with SS or SA militiamen — riot troops. Germans sought to join it to avoid being recruited into troops that actually fought in the war and in which, therefore, they could die. When, at the end of 1939, Germany invaded Poland, 160,000 volunteers tried to join this police force, which was initially only able to recruit 30,000 men.
Among the officers who formed them was Captain Julius Wohlaut, who had the right to take his wife to Poland. She witnessed the efficiency of her husband who invaded a ghetto, killed a thousand Jews and sent 10,000 others to an extermination camp.
There is the curious case of a captain, Wolfgang Hoffmann, who ended up as a commendable soldier for not complying with the mass execution order. But his case involved another pathology: he wanted to command the killings. However, he was affected by unbearable cramps on the scheduled dates. He couldn’t get out of bed and entrusted the dirty work to subordinates.
The documentary seeks, finally — and in a non-systematic way — to identify the social or professional origin of this “common man” who Nazism transformed into agents of ethical monstrosity.
If they were just soldiers, they were taxi drivers or plumbers. When officers, they had attended university and were often postgraduates. They had access to historical knowledge and should not believe that the Jews were responsible for the 1917 Revolution in Russia. If they believed in so much nonsense, it was because their conscience had been captured by Nazism.