- Hitler’s Volksgemeinschaft and the Dynamics of Racial Exclusion: Violence against Jews in Provincial Germany, 1919–1939 by Michael Wildt
Entering the current temporary exhibit Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., the visitor soon comes across a photo taken in August of 1933 in the quaint university town of Marburg. The photo shows a young Jewish man dressed in a formal dark suit, carrying a large sign that reads: “Ich habe ein Christenmädchen geschändet” (I have defiled a Christian girl). Members of the Sturmabteilung force him to walk through Marburg’s streets. Civilians and children on bikes accompany this almost festive procession, while smiling Bürger (ordinary, middle-class townspeople), including women with toddlers in their arms, stand on the sidewalk to watch the public humiliation of their Jewish neighbor. The picture is frighteningly arresting in its ambiguous mood, wavering between the cheerfulness of a summer-day parade and the menace of a lynch mob.
This ambivalence gets reinforced in the exhibit’s opening, large-screen video, which shows a similar scene of public humiliation in a small Silesian town. The extraordinary film footage shows the public cutting of the hair of two teenagers accused of race defilement: Gerhard, a nineteen-year-old ethnic German, who had a romance with Bronia, a sixteen-year-old Polish girl working as a forced laborer. After the haircutting the teenagers are marched through Steindorf (today Ścinawa Nyska). While their faces betray an initial disbelief that grows into fright, the procession of townspeople exudes a celebratory mood. At the end of the footage, the audience is informed that the girl was sent to a labor camp and the boy to the Eastern Front. Neither of them survived.
In Hitler’s Volksgemeinschaft, Michael Wildt calls this particular form of local violence the “pillory procession” (p. 173). National Socialists, he writes, used this adaptation of the medieval practice of public shaming to mobilize the Volksgemeinschaft “to violently assert a new racist order” (p. 186).
On the cover of the English-language edition of Wildt’s book—first published in German as Volksgemeinschaft als Selbstermächtigung: Gewalt gegen Juden in der deutschen Provinz 1919 bis 1939 (2007)—is the same photo of the young Jewish man driven through the streets of Marburg. In a peculiar way, one could say that Wildt’s study teaches us truly to see this picture, to absorb it, to feel its impact. It is not brushed aside as simply a mild form of antisemitic violence compared to the later images of carnage that we now associate with the Holocaust. The author seems to ask implicitly: Have we ever paused to attempt to understand the immensity of the public [End Page 483] humiliation that Jews experienced at the hands of their neighbors in villages and towns across Germany before the Final Solution was set in motion? How did German Jews come to terms with the cognitive dissonance arising from the discrepancy between the neighbors they once knew and the neighbors who now betrayed them?
Wildt does not employ the term “cognitive dissonance” in his historical study of the role of the German populace in stigmatizing German Jews and implementing antisemitic violence, but it seems apt. According to Wildt, the concept of the Volksgemeinschaft—as National Socialists came to define it—played a crucial role. Literally translated as “folk community,” Volksgemeinschaft must be understood here as the idea of a racially homogeneous community.
But how did this German Volksgemeinschaft come about? Wildt, professor of modern German history at Berlin’s Humboldt University, wants to “investigate the process of its creation” (p. 2) so as to better understand how ordinary and seemingly decent German civilians—townspeople, neighbors—became onlookers, passers-by, and participants in public performances of violence against their Jewish neighbors. “Without doubt,” Wildt writes, the deliberate creation of the Volksgemeinschaft “was a process of social inclusion” (p. 3). It functioned...