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  • Under the Shadow of the Swastika: The Moral Dilemmas of Resistance and Collaboration in Hitler’s Europe
  • George M. Kren
Under the Shadow of the Swastika: The Moral Dilemmas of Resistance and Collaboration in Hitler’s Europe, by Rab Bennett. New York: New York University Press, 1999. 318 pp.

Studs Terkel characterized World War II as “the good war.” It is a view that still commands assent. Arthur Koestler spoke of World War II as a fight between the gray and the black. The nature of Nazi Germany with its radical violation of what have come to be regarded as civilized values was such that it continues to be viewed as evil that had to be destroyed. Bennett cites Jean Amery’s statement that “The Swastika . . . became the universal symbol of what is humanly and historically intolerable.” Even now few would dissent from this view.

Nazi Germany occupied much of Europe. Occupation policies were almost always brutal—mass executions, torture, deportations, forced labor all were part of Hitler’s “New Order.” In countries occupied by Germany some individuals became collaborators. [End Page 151] Motives for collaboration varied. Some acted out of self-interest. Others, such as Vidkun Quisling in Norway, did so because they believed in and supported Nazi ideology. Many saw collaboration as the lesser evil compared to its alternatives. In France Marshal Pétain and Pierre Laval believed that reaching an understanding with the Nazis would moderate excesses, that their collaboration with them would save lives. Yet German demands increased and “moral contamination became unavoidable”(p. 56) And Vichy and Nazi Germany shared some views, such as anti-Semitism. Laval coordinated Jewish deportations, and encouraged the deportation of children under 16. Civil servants in occupied countries usually stayed on their jobs, as did the police forces who, usually willingly, carried out German demands.

Resistance movements against the German occupation and against collaborators arose as German brutalities increased and as the fortunes of war turned against Germany. Bennett notes the development of a romantic myth of the resistance after the war. Popularized in novels, radio, films and TV—I recall a song by Leonard Cohen glorifying the partisan from the 1960s—the image of the resistance fighter as heroic and morally pure still is widely held. The mass bombing of cities—there is now near universal agreement that the bombing of Dresden was “wrong”—the targeting of civilians and other acts have been questioned, but resistance movements have not received any critical examination. Under the Shadow of the Swastika holds that while we must recognize “the enormous physical and moral courage that it required to engage in underground warfare” (p. 27), moral issues about resistance activities need to be examined. For example, the use of torture by members of the resistance, which Bennett documents in some detail, has not been mentioned in studies about the resistance movement.

The Germans exacted heavy vengeance for the killing or wounding of German soldiers. Depending on time and place, 100 or more hostages might be shot as punishment for the killing of one German soldier. In Kiev as reprisal for a bombing, 1250 people were executed. In Athens in 1942, 300 Greeks were executed in reprisal for the death of General Krech. Max Weber made a distinction between ethics of conviction and ethics of responsibility. By the latter he meant that an action must be judged on its probable consequences. Bennett suggests that members of the resistance had an obligation to take the certainty of German reprisals into account: “The German practice . . . raised the painful question of whether it was right for resisters to endanger the lives of large numbers of innocent people by actions which would bring down extensive reprisals . . . . Burdened with this terrible guilt—the blood of the innocents— resistors constantly had to balance the benefits of paramilitary action against the certainty of savage retribution” (pp. 115–116).

Bennett discusses the still controversial issue of Jewish collaboration and resistance. He examines Hannah Arendt’s controversial thesis that the members of the Jewish councils, the Judenrat, actively collaborated with the Nazis, and significantly [End Page 152] contributed to Nazi success in carrying out the “final solution.” His view is that...

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