Order as a Premise for Destruction

by Michael H. Kater

Gotz Aly and Karl Heinz Roth. Die restlose Erfassung: Volkszahlen, Identifizieren, Aussondern im Nationalsozialismus. Berlin: Rotbuch Verlag, 1984. 157 pages.

The German people's preoccupation with order is proverbial. Their sense of order always extends to persons. For instance, any foreigner staying in the Federal Republic for more than three months today must register with the regional Auslanderamt, and upon leaving the country, must inform the authorities. Nor are the citizens themselves allowed to be at large. Every one of them, man, woman and child, must be listed with the local police and the civic registry, the Einwohnermeldeamt. If anybody moves to another town, he or she has to deregister and reregister at once, or else suffer a penalty. These practices were reviewed and, where necessary, reinforced after the Baader-Meinhof terrorism in the 1970s. For Ordnung muss sein [Order must be maintained].

This was not always so. As Aly and Roth, explain in their book, compulsory registration was not universally observed in Germany until the first years of the Third Reich. In a way, it did make sense: In 1933 the Nazi government prepared a highly comprehensive national census, and in 1939, after the Anschluss of Austria, conducted another one. Today, social historians of modern Germany are grateful for these censuses, for they help identify and analyze important changes in German society over time. As far as they are concerned, it is a pity that the last census planned by the West German government in 1983 was quashed by popular protest, because many Germans, as putative captives of the computer, feared for their basic individual freedoms.

Aly's and Roth's disturbing booklet helps to make clear the reasons for this fear. In true totalitarian fashion, during the Third Reich details about people's lives were converted into machine-readable forms in order to facilitate governmental control over all its subjects, with a particular view to long- range population planning. Such planning included both the artificial multiplication of the eugenically sound members of the Volksgemeinschaft and the ostracizing and eventual liquidation of the unwanted ones: hereditary alcoholics, imbeciles, habitual criminals (Asoziale), Gypsies, and Jews. It may sound simplistic, but the authors convincingly demonstrate that in the final analysis, Ordnung by punchcard prepared the path to Auschwitz.

Aly and Roth are both members of a new and critical generation of Germans who have become deeply aware of the mistakes of their socially established elders, both in the past and in the present. They are motivated by what in German today is called Sozialengagement, a rare public virtue more apt to render these two suspicious as potential subversives than to guarantee them instant entry into the social register, especially under the right-leaning Bonn Coalition of Chancellor Helmut Kohl (1985). Aly, born 1947, lives in West Berlin where he does research into National Socialist social and public health policy. Roth is a Hamburg physician who once worked as accident surgeon in a highway helicopter emergency patrol, until the authorities rescinded his license for alleged Communist activities. A victim of the notorious Berufsverbot, he has been a tireless investigator of Nazi health discriminatory schemes such as "euthanasia."

Aly and Roth show the extent to which the Nazis embraced the new techniques of data counting and storage provided by the inventions of Dehomag, an affiliate of IBM, with the aid of the fabulous Hollerith card. Above and beyond the aims of the censuses of 1933 and 1939, the social technicians of the SS were eager to develop, in several stages, a Jewish file, encompassing, early in the regime, not only Mosaic Glaubensjuden (who had traditionally been identified in German population records) but also converts. In order to purge the country of all Jews, by extradition or liquidation, it was imperative to count those of German citizenship and those without it, notably the sizeable group of Polish Jews residing in the Reich. Only total registration would engender unqualified success, now, on the German scale, and later, on a European one. As Eichmann told his hangman in Jerusalem merely hours before the execution: Only if all the Jews had run to escape identification and registration, would the genocidal purpose of the SS have been defeated.

Run where? The authors explain that punchcards and passports assisted in the rounding up of Jews of Polish citizenship just before the war, when they were deposited in the no-man's land between the Reich and Poland, before they even had time to think about an escape route. These Jews became the first victims of the Holocaust. At the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, specific information collected about German Jews and educated guesses about the remaining European ones helped in the planning of death assembly lines in occupied Poland, after attempts to resettle the Jews in Madagascar had proved impractical. In occupied Holland, venal Dutch statisticians, overwhelmed by their own recent success in total civic registry, willingly played into the hands of the Nazis, who commended them on their achievements but asked for a complete surrender of the records. Nowhere else were the Jews rounded up as quickly and effectively as in the Netherlands, a phenomenon that was later noted by such political scientists as Raul Hilberg, who nevertheless remained puzzled by the absence of a convincing explanation.

Machines created the basis for millionfold death, but these apparatuses, such as they were, could not be moved by the fate of humankind. Nor could they move themselves, of course. They were controlled by men who possessed the capacity for compassion no less than the rationality for prescience. Hence for this reviewer the details regarding the mechanization and precise duplication of physical routines of Erfassung constitute only one side, the less important one, of the story told in this book. The other side has to do with the people involved in these mechanical processes. And having read about them, I am shocked by two things, even though, upon second thought, some of Aly's and Roth's discoveries actually should surprise no one who has followed the affairs of postwar Germany with reasonable care. First, the men involved in the computerized death of people, in an age before computers, were not all SS men, not by a long shot. Second, as an undeniable consequence of this circumstance, many of those responsible not only survived the end of the war quite nicely but subsequently embarked on another, often infinitely more celebrated, career in the Federal Republic.

Friedrich Zahn was born in 1869 and was president of the Bavarian Statistical State Office from 1907 to 1939. He served the Weimar Republic as felicitously as he had the monarchy, and later would serve the Third Reich. At Munich University he taught statistics and social planning. By 1933 he had become a Supporting Member (Forderndes Mitglied) of the SS. The expulsion of the Jews from the professional union of statisticians he managed "noiselessly," write Aly and Roth (p. 28). He supported Nazi door-to-door collections and subscribed to the V51kischer Beobachter. Fully appreciative of the expanded uses to which statistical procedures were put during World War II, he died in 1946, an honorary citizen of his home town, Wunsiedel.

Zahn was the teacher and patron of Friedrich Burgdbrfer, who succeeded him as president of the Bavarian statistics office in 1939. Burgdorfer was a fanatical apostle of biological propagation; his slogan "People without Youth" became a nationally well-known sobriquet. Obsessed with the dangers arising from the Slavs of Eastern Europe, Burgdbrfer soon was a champion of Germany's renewed militarization. With his own four children serving in the Party and the Hitler Youth, he for his part collaborated with the Race-Political Office of the NSDAP and the German Society for Racial Hygiene. Before the second Nazi census got under way in 1939, Burgdorfer was especially keen to register all the existing Jews in Germany and Austria, not to forget the elusive Mischlinge. In 1940 he contributed an expert's assessment regarding the possibility of resettling over six million Jews in Madagascar and approved the scheme in principle. In summer 1945 Burgdorfer continued working for the victorious Americans, now on the problems of East German refugees. But in the fall of that year he was dismissed, and his professorship revoked. Nonetheless, Burgdorfer received the full pension due to him from his Bavarian office. In 1949 his professorship was reinstated. Eleven years later, his colleague Kurt Horstmann credited Burgdorfer with having remained "scientifically independent and untarnished as a human being," despite some lip service to Nazi population policy (p. 32). At the time of his death in 1967 in Munich, Gerhard Fdrst conceded that much for which Burgdorfer had fought had finally been accomplished. Fittingly, Furst became the first president of the Statistisches Bundesamt in Wiesbaden.

The example of Siegfried Koller illustrates the impunity with which some of the top statisticians of the Hitler period reoccupied their place in German society at points of the greatest importance, above all in the universities. Koller was born in 1908. He received his Ph.D. in 1930 in Gottingen on the basis of a dissertation dealing with statistical applications to blood groups theory. In 1933 he joined the Nazi Party and a year later teamed up with Professor Heinrich Wilhelm Kranz, originally an ophthalmologist who had wormed himself into the Party hierarchy as a leading racial hygienicist, establishing himself at Giessen University. According to my own research so far, Kranz was one of the worst and most criminal medical charlatans of the Nazi era-cloaked in the mantle of a respectable scholar. In due course, Koller completed his second doctorate under Kranz's aegis, this time in the field of medicine.

Then, in partnership with Koller, Kranz proceeded to publish a programmatic monograph, Die Gemeinschaftsunfdhigen, the last part of which was completed in 1941. The declared aim of this publication was to propose the machinery for the identification and total neutralization of Germans not fit as members of the Volksgemeinschaft on account of their "asocial" behavior, much of which was held to be genetically grounded. Physical liquidation of these people, as a possible method of extinction, was not excluded by the authors. Had the scheme been realized, write Aly and Roth, no less than two percent of the population, 1.6 million all told, would have been affected! Among these would have been prostitutes, drunkards, traitors, abortionists, and, especially, work shirkers-in short, anybody whom the regime might deem to be, by its own arbitrary definitions, an internal enemy of the new social order.

According to the authors, Koller was appointed director of a "Biostatistical Institute" associated with the University of Berlin in March 1941. Using this as a base, Koller's mandate was to work up the theories developed under Kranz in Giessen into practical applications for the solution of the Reich's Asozialenproblem, at a central level. Only the adversities suffered by German troops during the Russian campaign prevented the realization of these plans: Koller's expertise was badly needed by the Wehrmacht. Henceforth he served as one of the leading exponents of the new Nazi discipline, "martial medicine."

Koller witnessed the beginnings of the German Federal Republic as an inmate of the Soviet-controlled Brandenburg penitentiary, from 1945 to 1952. But in 1953, this twice-graduated doctor was appointed an official in the new Statistisches Bundesamt in Wiesbaden, charged with the development of its pioneering section, "Population and Cultural Statistics." Koller enthusiastically greeted the introduction of electronic computer technology in 1959, at a time when the number of his students was steadily increasing. In 1963, a special chair in medical statistics was established for him at the University of Mainz. He became the teacher and spiritual mentor of virtually every medical statistician influential in a West German university to date, write Aly and Roth. This man, whom the authors unhesitatingly call a "desk murderer" (Schreibtischmorder-p. 112) today enjoys a reputation as the ranking population and health policy expert of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Aly's and Roth's paperback is inconspicuous, produced, as it was, by one of the lesser-known publishers of the West German leftist scene. It will not be read widely, not in West Germany and, regrettably, not in the English-speaking world. The significance of its subject matter is apparent only after very careful, perhaps even multiple perusal. This is so for two reasons. First, Aly and Roth have been less concerned with the victims of National Socialism who have become a known, a "counted" and recorded quantity, and about whom many tomes have been written. They concentrate, instead, on potential victims, counted and on the lists as well, but saved from certain perdition-fate can be clement as well as cruel-by unforeseen turns in the war. By today's standards of publicity people who got away are not worthy of biography.

Second, and related to the first point, the authors for once do not single out the mentally twisted but colorful SS killers, some of whom, like Dr. Josef Mengele, have become legends. They are more interested in the men behind the scenes, the hardly visible scientists in the laboratories or at the office desks of some university or research institution. Still, it must be remembered that even though, or perhaps because, their profile was a low one, these men succeeded in providing substance for the judgment of Hannah Arendt all the same: that evil is of a banal quality indeed. The quintessential message by the authors of this book is that such evil was by no means reserved for the SS, and that historians had better cast their nets somewhat wider in order to grasp fully the public morality of the Third Reich.

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