Today we're speaking with Jonathan Maxwell, author of Murderous Intellectuals: German Elites and the Nazi SS
FQ: There are a lot of books written about WWII and the Nazis. Yet, your book uses a slightly different angle to investigate the root causes for the Holocaust. What made you decide to view WWII through extensive background research of many of the leaders of the Nazi party?
I’ve always had an interest in the Holocaust- I’m not sure why. Being so interested in the subject, I read many books about the Final Solution. These were all great books about the Holocaust, but, as the years passed, I noticed that there was a dearth of information in one key area. The Nazi party was filled with intellectuals, but, to my knowledge, no other writer examined this phenomenon in depth. At times, writers alluded to it briefly, but no one had written a book about it. Because of this dearth of information, people don’t know the full truth about the Nazis. Most people know that they were evil, but few persons realize that the party was full of smart, educated professionals. Perhaps the most famous Nazi intellectual was Dr. Josef Mengele, but there were many more of them. Two prominent Nazi scientists had won Nobel Prizes. One death squad commander possessed doctorates in law and economics, while another one held a doctorate in political science. Many-if not most-Gestapo leaders were lawyers, and the typical Gestapo operative held at least a bachelor’s degree.
These men and women weren’t just following orders, either. These intellectuals helped usher Adolf Hitler into power and allowed him to stay in power. Because of their generous financial contributions early on, the National Socialist party became wealthy and influential. Simultaneously, right-wing doctors fabricated dubious research results that “proved” the genetic superiority of the Aryan race. Nazi teachers, professors, and journalists helped to disseminate such corrosive messages. The Nazi scientists produced for Hitler one of history’s greatest military systems, and respected officers gladly supported him. Hitler could not have assumed or maintained power without the backings of the intellectuals.
I looked for books that specifically addressed this particular topic, but I never found one. Finally, I got frustrated, and I wrote a book about it myself.
FQ: As mentioned, Murderous Intellectuals contains an extensive amount of research. How long did it take you to research your book?
I would say a year-and-a-half, off-and-on. People say to me that it must have been daunting to perform such research. Actually, it wasn’t so bad. You just take it one day at a time. In addition, I possessed a genuine interest in the topic, which made performing the research quite enjoyable. This is perhaps my best advice for fledgling non-fiction writers: write a book about something that fascinates you. If you don’t, you’re going to find the writing project to be exhausting and pure drudgery.
FQ: The book is broken down into numerous categories of Nazi “intellectuals” or “elites.” How did you decide who to include within each category?
I chose such persons based on three main criteria. One was educational: I especially focused on persons who possessed at least a bachelor’s degree. This was actually quite shocking. About one-third of Nazi SS officers possessed a four-year-degree. This was at a time when the number of college graduates in Western Europe was minuscule.
Another criterion was social background. I selected individuals who came from upper-middle class or upper-class backgrounds. This was surprising as well: from the beginnings of the Nazi party, it enjoyed support from the wealthy or the affluent. Much of this was due to the fact that wealthy Germans hated communism and liberalism as much as the Nazis did. However, many wealthy Germans joined the Nazi party simply because they were anti-Semitic. In German society at the time, hatred for Jews seemed to run across all class lines. Many Germans-whether rich or poor-were anti-Semites.
Finally, there were the “self-made” elites. They were not particularly well-educated, and they didn’t come from affluent backgrounds. Nevertheless, through fierce intelligence and a good work ethic, they became top-level bureaucrats within the Third Reich. These individuals are perhaps the most surprising. They were tireless workers and superb organizers, and one almost comes to admire their drive and ingenuity. In another place or time, they could have become respectable corporate officers or helpful government officials. Instead, they got mixed up in Nazism, became criminals, and squandered their considerable talents.
FQ: You go into great detail with background information on the "murderous intellectuals." What was the most surprising thing(s) (character flaw, illness, etc.) you learned about one particular Nazi while researching this book?
The physicist Johannes Stark comes quickly to mind. On one level, he was simply brilliant, so much so that he won a Nobel Prize. On another level, he was a seething fanatic. He was one of the main supporters of what was called “Aryan physics,” which was a ridiculous idea. Stark actually helped Germany lose World War II by continually reminding generals that nuclear fission was an idea espoused by Albert Einstein, a Jew. Many German generals wanted the Fatherland to develop a nuclear bomb-they thought it was the only way to defeat Russia, the United States, and Great Britain. Thanks to Stark’s many interventions, the German fission program was abandoned-and Germany would be pulverized by the powerful Allies.
Stark was more than a quack, though. He held a very prominent role in Germany’s university system, and he imprisoned many liberal academics in the concentration camps, where more than a few perished. Stark’s life was so bizarre, I think he symbolized Nazi Germany to a considerable extent. Like Stark, Nazi Germany was idealistic and passionate-but ultimately ludicrous.
FQ: Racism has been in the news lately and you have a whole chapter devoted to both it and ethnic hatred. Do you see these two bubbling to the surface of our society today?
Happily, I do think that racism and ethnic hatred are in decline. Thanks to the Holocaust and incidents like the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., societies are all-too-aware of the devastating effects of racial hatred. I think that most modern people just grew weary of it. People are finally realizing that love-or at least acceptance-feels much better than hate.
FQ: In your chapter on the SS doctors, I was struck by mention of a photographer who was threatened with murder when he expressed discomfort with his job. Do you feel that many people in today's world would simply go along with the powers-that-be in order to save their job/life or have we evolved beyond that?
Personally, I discount the photographer’s story. After the war ended, virtually everyone involved in the Final Solution claimed that they performed their jobs against their will. The enlisted SS members made such claims, and the powerful SS officers made them as well. Therefore, you have a vast army-and an entire society-making the claim that they were innocent in the entire affair. Adolf Hitler was just one man. Germany was and is a massive nation, and Germans could have stopped him quite easily-if they had wanted to.
The sad truth of the matter is that the SS elite didn’t need to threaten people to ensure that they did their part to help perpetuate the Holocaust. Almost always, SS elites attracted recruits by making the jobs especially desirable. At the concentration camps, the SS workers-whether they were enlisted persons or officers-enjoyed excellent pay, generous leave programs, good food, warm, comfortable uniforms, and other amenities. The SS elites even supplied them with unlimited quantities of free alcohol.
This provides a horrifying lesson: many people-then and now-are often willing to do horrendous things just for comfort or self-gain.
FQ: You discuss the importance of the moral education of young people to avoid the tragedy of another Holocaust. Would you discuss this belief a bit further?
Ultimately, I think that the schools should try to instill within young people a moral compass. I’m not advocating teaching from a religious perspective. Rather, I think that we should emphasize a system of values that history has proved desirable repeatedly. I think that most modern people can agree on the validity of these values. These would include critical thinking, individualism, the importance of human dignity, egalitarianism, and a respect for other cultures. I find it more than coincidental that German schools prior to 1945 taught none of these values. Indeed, traditional German education-so authoritarian and hard-nosed-helped to bring on fascism rather than hinder it.