A certain controversy and notoriety has greeted the publication of Hitler's Jewish Soldiers. Given the subject matter—that Germans of Jewish background served in the Wehrmacht in surprisingly large numbers—this is perhaps understandable. Since our perceptions of Hitler's Third Reich have come to be shaped above all by our awareness of the racialism at the heart of the Nazi system and the pervasiveness of its attempt to destroy the Jews of Europe, Rigg's assertion seems both shocking and incomprehensible. It is disappointing, then, that for all the important revelations in this book, it is surprisingly mediocre in its presentation.
Rigg is certainly a diligent researcher who has made a prodigious effort to document a paradoxical aspect of life in a racialist state, which is why one wishes that the book had been better written, more tightly focused, and more effectively organized. In addition, despite the book's hyperbolic subtitle, Rigg offers little to expand our understanding of Nazi racial laws and their impact on Mischlinge. Nonetheless, in highlighting the dilemma of the Mischlinge, he makes several points that reinforce the emerging consensus of historians concerning the complexity of life in the Third Reich.
First, Rigg illustrates well the sheer difficulty in attempting to create a racially "pure" national community. After decades of assimilation and intermarriage between German Jews and non-Jews, it proved problematic at best to determine just who was who. Undermining their very notions of racialism, Nazi officials had to rely on church and other religious records to determine who was a Jew. As if this was not ambiguous enough, implementing the racial laws turned out to be not only a contentious process that pitted different ministries and jurisdictions against each other, but one in which key officials within various agencies often clashed over how best to carry out those decrees. The tug-of-war normally pitted party ideologues determined to implement both the letter and spirit of the Führer's will against those who favored a more pragmatic approach. While the former of course included Hitler, who personally studied every request for an exemption to the racial laws, the latter group consisted largely of Wehrmacht and economic authorities (and, for a time, officials in the Interior Ministry) who preferred a more realistic approach, especially given wartime exigencies. The result was a highly inconsistent application of Nazi law.
Rigg's findings also illuminate another key trend in Nazi Germany: the progressive radicalization of the regime's policies, particularly after the beginning of World War II. The attitude of the regime regarding Mischlinge mirrored its policies toward Jews, foreign laborers, and people in the occupied territories: the longer the war lasted, the more extreme racialist measures and those who carried them out became. The relatively relaxed policies of the 1930s, which not only allowed most Mischlinge to continue serving in the armed forces but also included them in the draft, gave way [End Page 489] in the early 1940s to efforts to remove them from the ranks, despite the severe manpower shortage. By war's end, top party officials thought in terms of sterilizing or killing the Mischlinge outright, although debates continued over whether "German blood" would prevail or whether, as Hitler believed, "Jewish blood" would "mendel" out. Significantly, though—and this too reflects the results of recent research that indicates the importance of public opinion within Nazi Germany—Mischlinge ultimately owed their survival to Hitler's inability to decide what to do with them, a hesitance stemming from his fear of social unrest as a result of any immediate move to exterminate them. Along the same lines, Rigg also notes that Nazi officials recognized the need to desensitize the German public to a harsher treatment of the Mischlinge.
For many readers, the key revelation of Hitler's Jewish Soldiers is likely to be the high number of Mischlinge who served in the Wehrmacht, some 150,000 by Rigg's estimate. A...