Lives of Hitler's Jewish Soldiers
By Bryan Mark Rigg | University Press of Kansas | 320 pages; $29.95
In the twisted world of the Third Reich, "partial Jews" were categorized as Mischlinge. Incredible as it may seem, thousands of "full Jews" and more than 100,000 Mischlinge - men who had a Jewish parent or grandparent - served in the German military during World War II.
Bryan Mark Rigg wrote of the phenomenon in his previous books, Hitler's Jewish Soldiers and Rescued from the Reich. Here he provides a closer look at the experiences of 21 Jewish and Mischling soldiers in the Wehrmacht.
Rigg explains that until 1940, the Wehrmacht required "half Jews" to serve, albeit with limited possibilities for advancement. After 1940, they were discharged and many were later sent to forced-labor camps. Some stayed on with the help of forged papers. Others were known to have Jewish blood, yet "Hitler could free individuals from the label Jew or Mischling by Aryanizing them with a stroke of his pen."
This he did somewhat capriciously. Rigg reveals that, in addition to thousands of exemptions for soldiers in the lower ranks, some 21 generals, seven admirals and one field marshal of Jewish descent served with Hitler's direct consent. Nods of approval were granted on the basis of "their connections, their family backgrounds, their social rank, their military experience and their phenotypical [Aryan] traits" rather than any logical process.
Almost never did this dispensation extend to relatives. Active Jewish soldiers frequently received news of a family member's arrest, deportation or suicide. Though the Wehrmacht was distinct from the murderous Waffen SS (which included only one Jew, to Rigg's knowledge), clearly "Mischlinge were fighting two wars - one on the battlefields against Germany's enemies and the other at home against the Nazi persecutors of their families and themselves." The author asked his interviewees whether they felt guilty about their military service.
"'What were my choices? Stay in the army and try to survive or go to a concentration camp?'" answered one veteran, voicing a viewpoint held by many fellow Mischlinge.
In addition, "One must not forget that Jews and Mischlinge caught in the Nazi juggernaut had no freedom to act on their own convictions," writes Rigg. "They did what they were told to do and in the army that meant following orders." Others tragically "failed to comprehend what the Nazis meant to do to those they labeled Jewish." Genuine German patriots, they "never thought their ancestry would lead to their deaths."
Luftwaffe Field Marshal Ehrhard Milch - the genius behind the concept of blitzkrieg - served on the strength of a "declaration of German blood" issued by Hitler. Rigg describes Milch as an "opportunist," a "hard-core Nazi" and "a nasty person" who claimed no knowledge of the Holocaust at his Nuremberg trial. In truth, Milch had taken a keen interest in fatal high-altitude physiology tests done on inmates in Dachau.
It was not rare for Mischling soldiers to distinguish themselves in combat, a phenomenon Rigg ascribes to an "inferiority complex as a half-Jew. Many sought glory on the battlefield as a means of improving their self-esteem as well as protecting themselves and their families."
As Rigg's interviews demonstrate, the hope of protecting their families was usually futile. However, some managed to aid their coreligionists in small ways. Paul-Ludwig Hirschfeld told Rigg that he gave food to starving Jewish children he met while serving in Russia and felt that "we did more for our fellow Jews by staying in the Wehrmacht than we could have done had we fled to an Allied country."
Almost universally, the cruel paradox of serving a nation bent on ridding the Reich of Jews forced these soldiers to confront their religious identity. Many who were brought up as Christians remained so, whether or not they were halachically Jewish. Many others became lifelong atheists.
Rigg's fascinating and carefully footnoted account is the result of meticulous research over the course of a decade. It lends a valuable glimmer of understanding to an incomprehensible period of history. These merits stand apart from the book's flaws. Employing an often awkward writing style in which his own voice is prominent, Rigg is frequently repetitive and even more frequently judgmental.
The most glaring example is the story of the rescue of Lubavitcher Rebbe Joseph Isaac Schneersohn by a "half-Jewish" Wehrmacht officer. Rather than merely relating the relevant specifics, Rigg throws in his contention that the rebbe never publicly thanked his German rescuers, nor sought to save others. He adds a two-page critique of the rebbe's Holocaust theology, bringing in quotations from a roster of rabbis to support his estimation of Schneersohn as "not the best of humanity." Whether any of the above is objectively true is beside the point. No book is well served by off-topic ramblings and editorializing.