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Hitler’s Foreign Executioners, by Christopher Hale

I love history.

Because I love history, I like to see history books that take on difficult topics, expand understanding, challenge perceptions.

When someone picks up a history book, my respect for that person grows. However, I also feel a duty to help the history consumer who may look at a well-put-together book and take it all at face value.

And when the author of a history book botches up a number of details, that’s a problem.

This brings us to Hitler’s Foreign Executioners: Europe’s Dirty Secret, by Christopher Hale.

Hale, a documentary producer and journalist, sets forth to explain that the Holocaust was not merely a German production, but that soldiers and civilians from many European countries took active, willing, and destructive parts in it. He was motivated to do so by a ceremony honoring Latvian SS veterans as patriots, when in reality the Latvian SS were guilty of Holocaust atrocities and don’t deserve to be honored by anyone. I believe he is responding to the rising tide of far-right sentiment in Europe that keeps finding reasons why Jews are somehow bad, and why therefore, the Holocaust really wasn’t quite so bad.

He had a good idea there, because some people evidently need a reminder of just how widespread and awful the atrocities of WWII Europe were. I don’t; I know. I was interested in new evidence, research, and analysis to add to my store of understanding.

And he has screwed it up. It annoys me.

The problem is that he makes many factual errors. I don’t like factual errors. These are factual errors no academic historian worth even a bachelor’s degree would make, much less a professor of history.

He has ‘heavy’ Ju-52 ‘bombers’ pounding Yugoslavia, when in fact the Tante Ju was a transport. It was capable of bombardment, but the Luftwaffe had far better bombers (none truly heavy, by the way) and far too few Ju-52s. I’m pretty sure that the Ju-88s, Ju-87s, Do-17s and He-111s, all main Luftwaffe bombers, did the bulk of it. Hale doesn’t even know which bombers were which.

He has Nazi Germany ‘seizing’ the Ploesti oilfields in Romania. This is false. Romania joined the Axis in late 1940, and Hitler had no need to seize anything. Romanian oil in large part fueled the Nazi war effort, supplied without qualms. Hale evidently doesn’t realize that Romania joined the Axis of its own free will, which overlooks a fact that would help his case.

He describes the June 1941 Iași (Romania) pogrom as the first large-scale pogrom of the war. This is ridiculous. To think it not ridiculous, one must decide that Kristallnacht (1938) was somehow not a pogrom. There had already been quite a few pogroms, which is not to minimize Iași, simply to point out that Hale’s wording is recklessly imprecise.

He believes that the Yugoslav Army, crushed by the Germans and Italians in April 1941, fielded only five divisions. That’s ridiculous. It had over thirty divisions, and while much of it was low in training or morale, to suggest that it was half the size of the Dutch Army Hitler overran (ten divisions) in May 1940 is silliness. Hale does not seem to know anything about the orders of battle for the conflict.

And that’s all by page 87 of a 400-page book.

Ah, one might rejoin, but aren’t those all just minor details that do not detract from his primary point? Yes and no, in that his primary point happens to be well supported by evidence whether or not he supplies it correctly. Here’s the problem with a journalist who doesn’t know or understand the minor details. While I give Hale credit for providing lengthy footnotes and sources, I do not want to have to check them all. When he has the accepted details right, I feel less compulsion to verify everything he says. When he gets them wrong, and puts out a sloppy book, I begin to wonder how far I can trust his account and use of the sources. This undermines his credibility in a very unfortunate way. If he thinks the Ju-52 is a bomber, and that the Royal Yugoslav Army had only five divisions, I with good reason question his basic knowledge of the facts. And if I must question that, then I can’t believe him without digging up all his sources and verifying them.

I don’t buy a book expecting to have to do that. However, in my case at least, I know enough about the war and the Holocaust that if I wanted to dedicate a few months to the job, I could check them all and make my own determinations. Or, far better, I could read one that doesn’t make me think the author didn’t really care about getting the history right.

This is terrible. We needed this book. The overwhelming body of evidence–and believe me, I am aware that Rosh Hashanah will begin in my time zone shortly after I post this, and yes, that bothers me–documents what Hale is saying. The attempted eradication of European Jewry, which ‘succeeded’ to an appalling degree and which we call the Holocaust, is supported by oceans of evidence. More to the point of this book, most European nationalities had some sordid hand in the Holocaust. Some participated with gusto that embarrassed and concerned even the SS, which is saying rather a lot. People should know that. People should know that this monstrosity is part of the history of the nations whose people participated in it, whether that bothers those nations or not (and if it doesn’t, that bothers me). And when anti-Semitic groups start trying to paint mass murderers as decent human beings, we need books to bonk them on the head with. Thick ones. good ones.

Hale could have written one of these, but he failed, because he either did not know the fundamental facts, or did not consider them very important. I cannot see another logical reason; I do not think he set out to be wrong. I think he just doesn’t know and doesn’t think it’s important. His training is to create an impression, which is what documentaries do: present in a short time the selected information that will tell the viewer how to think.

Fundamental facts are important, whether Hale thinks so or not. Command of the fundamentals is the basis on which to build an argument. Without it, one undermines one’s own basis. The poor proofreading I can pardon. A series of flagrant mistakes, I will not.

Thus, the assistance to the history consumer that I promised: before you buy it, take a look at the author’s main line of work. Most of the truly lousy history books I have read were not written by professors of history. Most were written by journalists. Hale is a documentary producer, and based on many of the documentaries I’ve watched, that suggests he’s in the entertainment business. Fine and good–but when he starts to write history that the layman will tend to believe, he is loansharking in my temple, and I will lash his journalistic ass out of it.

Even if I agree with the conclusion he reached.

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Scumbag studies: my quest for SS-Sturmbannführer Alfred Helmut Naujocks

Some people are fascinated by serial killers. Some seek out evidence of conspiracies. I’m fascinated by enigmatic scumbags. SS-Sturmbannführer (SS Major) Alfred Naujocks was one such.

In Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer described Naujocks (pronounced ‘NAW-yokes’) as an ‘intellectual SS ruffian.’ I wouldn’t say that the ‘intellectual’ part is well supported by the record. Not that he was an idiot, but Naujocks wasn’t much of an idea guy. He did excel at carrying out dirty deeds when so tasked, and thought very well under pressure. He was daring, clever and ruthless. And of all the old Nazis who needed to answer for crimes, he is one of those who eluded justice. In fact, I still haven’t been able to learn that much about him.

The body of work on Naujocks begins with Shirer’s mentions of some of his deeds. It then proceeds to an affidavit he gave while in U.S. captivity in late 1945, presented at the Nuremberg trials. Naujocks himself escaped custody before he could face the tribunal. His trail went cold until 1960, at which time a journalist named Gunter Peis penned an autobiography called The Man Who Started the War. Here are the tantalizing lines from end of Chapter One, which tells of his surrender to U.S. troops:

He pulled his chair up to the table, sat down and began to think. Soon he was typing slowly, carefully. The story he wrote at length was fascinating, incredible and very detailed. It was also quite untrue.

What follows is the story that in 1945 would have hanged Alfred Naujocks.

Peis knew his storytelling work; that’s a lead that makes one want to believe, and to read on in any case. Here’s the problem: there’s no more reason to take this book at face value than there is to believe his entire Nuremberg affidavit. That’s not to say it’s all lies, just that it’s from a source with plenty of motive to lie. By 1960, as I understand it, Naujocks wasn’t in the best of health (he was born in 1911, so that would make him only 49), hadn’t been much of a success in business, and probably needed money. A lurid tale would sell better, one would think, and not many people were likely to come forward with authoritative knowledge to refute his account. Most of those who could have, one supposes, would have preferred to remain inconspicuous. The book may have been his last special operation, and surely his most self-serving.

In any case, we now know that he died in 1966 in Hamburg, where he had apparently lived unmolested. For years many had assumed he must have escaped to Spain or South America, as did many Nazi fugitives from justice, and there is now reasonable evidence now that he did not. He probably managed to lose himself in the postwar chaos and ocean of damaged or destroyed records that resulted from the bombing, invasion and final collapse of the Third Reich.

There are two other books on Naujocks. One is in German, and a very kind native speaker is reading and digesting it for me. I have an e-copy which I could feed with great effort to an online translator, but I hope that my Austrian friend will be able to point me toward the parts that answer questions. The other is not a book yet, but a manuscript by an English author, for which the agent has evidently not yet found a publisher. I wish he would self-publish it, or at least accept my offer of free and confidential proofreading, but neither seems forthcoming. Not knowing what it says, I have no way to evaluate its research or historiography.

What I have pieced together so far, and feel reasonably certain is true except where I label doubt, is this much:

Born in 1911 in Kiel, perhaps with some Baltic forebears (‘Naujocks’ originates from the Lithuanian surname ‘Naujokitis’), he joined the Nazi party in 1931 after being attacked by a left-wing gang. At that point, Hitler had not yet taken over full power in Germany. It didn’t take Naujocks long to make a name for himself as a thug. In 1934 he joined the SS-SD, the SS and Nazi party intelligence organization. He was involved in special operations in Czechoslovakia prior to its partition and absorption. He claims, unconvincingly, to have propagated the disinformation that triggered Stalin’s purges of his officer corps.

His autobiography’s title refers to the Gleiwitz (Polish: Gliwice) incident, a faked Polish attack on a border radio station just prior to (and meant as a pretext for) Hitler’s declaration of war on Poland in 1939. It is the event most notoriously associated with Naujocks, thus the one you would be most likely to see mishandled on a History Channel special (if they ever get tired of dippy reality shows about pawn shops and storage lockers). Later that year, he carried out the abduction of two British intelligence agents on Dutch soil, spiriting them back to Germany. Peis tells tales of Naujocks counterfeiting British currency and operating an espionage brothel in Berlin, which might be true. Naujocks worked for one of the most powerful and feared Nazis alive, SS-Obergruppenführer (SS General) Reinhard Heydrich, and stories differ as to how he managed to incur Heydrich’s personal wrath. Naujocks’ amusing story is that he made the mistake of listening in when Heydrich himself was using the brothel.

In any case, Heydrich was one of the worst possible people any German could piss off, which meant Naujocks was lucky not to be shot in the neck. Heydrich instead saw Naujocks kicked out of the SS-SD and sent to the Eastern Front with the 1st SS Panzer Division (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler), one of the Waffen SS’ elite divisions. Wounded in action, he was sent back to Germany. In the meantime, a couple of daring Czechs had managed–at the cost of their lives and many others–to assassinate Heydrich, thus removing the practical obstacle to Naujocks’ re-employment with the SS-SD. He is implicated in murder/reprisals against the Belgian and Danish resistances in 1943-1944. With the writing on the wall for Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich, Naujocks surrendered or deserted to the Americans, gave the aforementioned affidavit, escaped, did whatever he did for twenty years besides sell his story to Peis, and died in 1966.

And I may soon know more. Or have reason to believe more. Because whatever the truth of Peis’ tale, there is little doubt that it would take minimal amendment to make his lead accurate: if the Allies had learned the full truth in 1945, they would have hanged Alfred Naujocks.