Museum Fellowship Book Reviews
Hitler's Jewish Soldiers:
The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military
As an undergraduate student studying in Berlin, author Bryan Mark Rigg watched the film Europa, Europa to improve his German. When speaking with an elderly man in the audience who had helped him translate some of the dialogue, Rigg discovered that the man's own story was similar to the one in the film. Thus began Rigg's "nine-year obsession" that became Hitler's Jewish Soldiers.
Rigg interviewed over four hundred former soldiers and documented more, finding people and documents that were previously unknown, to come to the conclusion that perhaps up to 150,000 Mischlinge served in the Wehrmacht during Hitler's reign. This is important because it "tells us how Jewish identity was viewed, constructed, and contested by German citizens, Nazi leaders, military commanders, and the Jewish community within German borders, and for what it tells us about how these perceptions saved some while condemning others to the death camps (1).
The book begins with chapters discussing who is a Jew and who is a Mischlinge. The term Mischlinge means "half-caste, mongrel or hybrid" and is primarily used to describe animals of mixed breeds. However, Nazis used the term first in 1933 defining the offspring of a black person and a Spaniard. Many Germans could see the difference between the two races, but often people were horrified to learn that they were classified as Mischlinge because of their Jewish ancestry. Because of the assimilation and inter-marriage of German Jews, many did not consider themselves Jewish or did not even know that they had Jewish ancestry. Nazis themselves were confused about Mischlinge because they were both Jewish and German. Mischlinge largely owe their survival to Hitler's inability to decide on how to handle them, although had Hitler won the war, they probably would not have been allowed to survive. With the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 defining Mischlinge, many so classified faced social rejection and struggled to become classified as Aryan. Many believed that the best way to prove their "Aryanhood" was to serve meritoriously in the Wehrmacht.
It does seem unexplainable that men would serve a regime that was actively persecuting them. In March 1935, every young man was to serve in the Wehrmacht, so for those not already serving in the military, they no longer had a choice. Some hid their Jewish ancestry successfully; some saw it just as an extension of their life before Hitler; and some saw it as their "salvation" and served to survive. Even when Mischlinge were expelled from military service, there were loopholes and exemptions. Hitler concerned himself personally with the exemptions, spending a significant amount of time reviewing applications (when he could have been working on, say, the Battle of Stalingrad). Although many Mischlinge were simple soldiers, some played strategic roles. Rigg's book documented 1,671 soldiers of Jewish descent who served in the Wehrmacht and/or the SS, or the Waffen-SS, and they vary from soldiers to admirals and even a field marshal.
Rigg brings up the inevitable question of what Mischlinge knew about the Holocaust, Most claimed not to have comprehended what was going on until after the war; they did not want to know and would not or could not believe it. Some even witnessed the deportations of family members, but did not realize their fate at the time. One even manned a flak gun while the Nazis deported his two brothers to an OT forced labor camp. A few of those claimed to know quite a lot about what was going on in the concentration camps, but said it was all unsubstantiated, and who could they ask about the truth anyway? And what could they have done? Some only realized the truth when they were deported from OT forced labor camps to concentration camps, and even then they did not realize the extent of the systematic extermination of Jews.
Although Rigg did not document any Mischlinge that participated in killings of Jews when asked, there were some people of Jewish descent who were perpetrators. Field Marshall Erhard Milch, for example, is considered a German Jewish war criminal, and Dr. Hans Eppinger performed horrible experiments on inmates of Dachau. Rigg found other examples as well, but for the most part these were rare.
Most of the men whom Rigg interviewed, though they might now have mixed feelings or even resentful feelings of their Jewish ancestry, did not feel a need to apologize over their military service. Some did feel guilty over not being able to save family members.
This is an important work in that it reminds many that the Third Reich cannot be understood in extremes of black and white. Not everyone who wore a uniform with a swastika was a Nazi as we use that word today. Not everyone who had Jewish ancestry was a victim of the death camps. The Mischlinge experience clearly demonstrates the complexity of life in the Third Reich (268).
Hitler's Jewish Soldiers is interesting to read, especially in that Rigg included so many personal testimonies. The book is extremely well documented and also includes photos (some then-and-now) of
Mischlinge and copies of Nazi documents showing lists of active officers who are
Mischlinge and an official German Blood Certificate. Although some may fear that revisionists and Holocaust deniers may misuse this work, it documents for the first time the role
Mischlinge played in the Wehrmacht and the complexities and inconsistencies of Nazi racial policies.