In her famous portrait of Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt raised the question of how seeming ordinary, “banal” individuals could have come to perpetrate the most horrific of crimes, sometimes without ever pulling a trigger. Arendt turned out to have mismeasured Eichmann entirely, but such killers did exist, and the historian Daniel Lee has written a detailed portrait of one: a mid-level officer in the SS named Robert Griesinger. In his appreciative review of the book, Malcolm Forbes writes:
Lee asserts that Griesinger’s reasons for joining [the Nazi party and the SS] were not so much ideological as opportunistic. He was an ambitious lawyer who wanted to get ahead and climb the civil-service ladder. Membership of the SS and the Gestapo facilitated such career advancement. There were other perks. When Griesinger married Gisela Nottebohm (a woman his over-protective mother regarded as “the evil one”), their Stuttgart marital home was, like those of SS officers and Gestapo agents all over the country, filled with the furniture left behind by Jews forced to emigrate. This privilege was probably extended when Griesinger was transferred to the euphemistically titled Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in 1943. The Griesingers’ grand three-story villa was located in an affluent suburb of Prague that had once been home to a significant Jewish population.
But with each successive stage of Griesinger’s life it becomes clear that he was more than just a small cog in a large machine. He might not have taken part in the more brutal aspects of the Gestapo’s work during his two and half years at its Stuttgart headquarters; nevertheless as a Schreibtischtäter, or desktop perpetrator, he facilitated clampdowns and arrests and knew exactly what went on in the torture cells beneath his workplace. He might not have joined the killing squads that roamed western Ukraine in the summer of 1941 systematically rounding up and liquidating Jews (some of them Lee’s ancestors), but as a soldier in the same Wehrmacht unit, he was in close proximity to them and no doubt knew their names. And he might not personally have worked Jews to death in the Protectorate; however, as an official at the Reich’s Ministry of Economics and Labor in Prague he was responsible for deploying Jewish forced labor throughout the Czech lands—if not to a mine or a brickyard, then to the camp-ghetto of Theresienstadt.
This important book shows us how Griesinger and tens of thousands of other seemingly insignificant administrators wielded more than enough power to shape lives and destroy them. As Lee rightly claims, “The famous fanatics and murderers could not have existed without the countless enablers who kept the government running, filed the paperwork, and lived side-by-side with potential victims of the regime in whom they instilled fear and the threat of violence.”
Read more on American Interest: https://www.the-american-interest.com/2020/08/25/portrait-of-an-ordinary-nazi/