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The Racial State: Germany, 1933-1945.

Both Michael Burleigh of the London School of Economics and Wolfgang Wippermann of the Free University of Berlin have written previous related monographs based on primary sources, but in this volume they synthesize a wide range of existing literature about the racial programs of the Third Reich. (They are generally more attentive to British and German works than to American or Israeli scholarly literature.) Burleigh and Wippermann stress that racial anti-Semitism and racial ideology took particularly strong root in Germany during the nineteenth century, which later enabled a fanatical Nazi regime with the active support of professional elites and the acceptance of large segments of the German public to pursue a unique, hierarchical racial utopia. Although they develop a convincing and sometimes vivid picture of how racial ideology was transformed into Nazi practice, specialists will not find this book entirely to their taste.

The authors present compact and generally accurate descriptions of Nazi policies toward Jews, Sinti, Roma, other ethnic minorities, homosexuals, and those considered hereditarily ill and asocial. They also cover the racial aspects of Nazi policies and programs for German youth, women, and in a less successful chapter, men. The two authors generally refrain from detailed chronological development, but do offer revealing examples from selected primary sources of racial laws, first-person accounts of killing actions, and police reports on public attitudes.

Some observers might quibble with the authors' expansive definition of racial programs. Nazi leaders certainly considered positive programs for "Aryan" women and youth essential to the continuation and supremacy of the race, but did that motive supersede all others, and did motive alone (and whose motives?) turn these programs into racial efforts?

With such a broad topic, Burleigh and Wippermann must pick and choose what to emphasize. They seem particularly eager to show the participation - and sometimes the initiatives - by professionals and technocrats in the design and implementation of racial programs leading to, and including, mass murder. The authors do a good job of establishing the range of "respectable perpetrators." A number of academic and medical racial experts began work in the Weimar years, and graduated to prominence and power under the Nazis. Others were able to carry on careers after the war in the Federal Republic. Some forms of Nazi persecution, such as a 1935 modification of the Reich Criminal Code provision against homosexual acts, were not repealed until long after the war. The authors do not overlook the victims of persecution, some of whose accounts also are quoted at length. Some categories of victims (or their heirs) were never compensated after the war.

The theoretical framework of this book is a bit odd. In their historiographical introduction Burleigh and Wippermann sharply criticize those who have attempted to relativize the barbarities of Nazi Germany through inappropriate comparisons (Nolte et al.), those who have allegedly limited the complicity of the German people by stressing the totalitarian character of the regime (Bracher et al.), and also those scholars who have found "modern" or modernizing characteristics in particular areas of the Third Reich. After assuming political motivations on the part of particular authors, Burleigh and Wippermann then complain that the various historical controversies have unfortunately been conducted polemically, and that students can easily lose sight of the larger picture. So the two present authors supposedly restrict themselves to the limited task of providing students with the "factual basis" from which they can then approach wider questions.

Of course, Burleigh and Wippermann do not simply provide "the facts." So they step into a number of the historiographical controversies unannounced and without engaging adequately those who have offered alternative interpretations or even raised important issues. For example, they argue that Nazi policies toward Sinti and Roma (they do not like the term Gypsies) closely paralleled those toward Jews. There is currently a heated debate on this point involving scholars in a number of countries, but one could hardly discern from this book even that the comparison might be complicated. The Jewish question was salient, even urgent, for Hitler and much of the Nazi elite. Hitler hardly was aware of the Sinti and Roma, and Himmler considered pure-blooded Gypsies to be less dangerous than "mixed-breeds." Organizational and bureaucratic arrangements - the responsibility of the Criminal Police for the Sinti and Roma - must also be factored in. If a "Final Solution" for the Sinti and Roma nonetheless evolved, and there is a reasonable argument for it, it would require a different explanation both with regard to ideology and implementation. In short, Burleigh and Wippermann may well be correct about the Sinti and Roma, but their conclusion requires more in the way of evidence, analysis, and explanation than they provide.

In a very short conclusion (and without specifically identifying their targets), Burleigh and Wippermann again attack previous scholarly emphasis on the Third Reich's modern elements: to judge the Third Reich modern means to judge Nazi crimes comparable to the crimes of other regimes, they argue. But they also explicitly reject the notion of intended regression to a barbaric past. The Nazi racial utopia, they insist, was something unique.

Their critique, I fear, conflates several different issues. The enthroning of a racial elite and the purging of perceived racial impurities were fundamental characteristics of the Third Reich. This determination, however, hardly resolves all the questions about unintended effects and comparability. The results of some Nazi policies were quite different from what their creators wanted, and other societies transfixed by paranoias of their own might have ruthlessly pursued (or might still pursue) racial or class utopias too. Out of fear of "relativizing" the Nazis' crimes, the authors have gone too far toward rejecting both comparisons and detailed analysis.
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Author:Breitman, Richard
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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