(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Eric Johnson is a professor of history at Central Michigan University. He is a specialist in criminology and modern German history. His previous books on the Holocaust includeUrbanization and Crime: Germany 1871-1914 (1995) and The Civilization of Crime: Violence in Town and Country Since the Middle Ages (1996), coedited with Eric H. Monkkonen.

Many recent scholars have argued persuasively that ordinary Germans and not just Nazis and members of the Gestapo and the SS should be held responsible for the crimes against humanity committed during the Nazi reign of terror from 1933 to 1945. In his 1996 book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996), Daniel Goldhagen argued that the Holocaust would not have taken place without the full cooperation of the German public. Goldhagen’s book provoked a lively controversy in Germany because he questioned the revisionist claims that most Germans did not know about the “final solution” until the liberation of the concentration camps in 1945 and would have opposed the Holocaust had they known of the enormity of the crimes committed by the Nazis against the Jews and all who opposed their policies. The title of Johnson’s book on the Gestapo contains a clear reference to Goldhagen’s analysis of the role of “ordinary Germans” in the implementation of the Nazis’ program of exterminating the Jews.

Some German reviewers criticized Goldhagen’s book, claiming that his accusations were too general. This argument can certainly not be made about Johnson’s book, which he based on rigorous research conducted on Gestapo and court archives in three German cities. He selected a very large city (Cologne), a medium-sized city (Krefeld), and a small city (Bergheim). In his introductory chapter, he persuasively justifies his choice of these three cities. First of all, Gestapo and court records have been very well preserved in all three cities, and they are accessible to scholars. Second, the diversity in size of these three cities can serve as a model for the operation of the Nazi reign of terror throughout Germany and other occupied countries. Finally, in the 1933 election, the number of votes for Adolf Hitler by citizens of these cities was somewhat lower than the national average. Johnson argues that this fact is important because it suggests that the residents of Cologne, Krefeld, and Bergheim were not at first rabid supporters of National Socialism.

Johnson’s research is very impressive. He thoroughly went through all the relative documents in the archives of these three cities, and he reveals a solid knowledge of historical studies on the Gestapo and the Holocaust. He also supplemented his research by sending questionnaires to Jewish and non-Jewish people who had been at least of adolescent age in Cologne, Krefeld, and Bergheim during the Nazis’ reign of terror.

In the years immediately after World War II, many people had the mistaken belief that the Gestapo was an extremely large and efficient agency that did not need to rely on informants or ordinary Germans to arrest Jews and others whom the Nazis viewed as enemies. Approximately 170,000 people lived in Krefeld during the Nazi years, and there were never more than fourteen Gestapo officers and two secretaries for this entire town—that is, there was less than one Gestapo employee for ten thousand residents. Gestapo records in the Krefeld archives clearly reveal that many Jews and other Nazi enemies had been arrested not as a result of investigations started by Gestapo officers and their paid spies but because of denunciations made by ordinary Germans against their neighbors and coworkers. The motivation for such unsolicited collaboration with the Gestapo varied. Sometimes denunciations were made after a dispute with a neighbor or the ending of a love affair and not for ideological reasons. Both Jews and Gentiles were denounced by their neighbors, but Johnson demonstrates that the Gestapo systematically treated Jews much more harshly than non-Jews for violation of Nazi laws.

Johnson explains very well that the first targets of the Nazis from 1933 to approximately 1935 were Communists, whom the Nazis viewed as a threat to their power. Some prisoners were brought to trial, but many were either sent directly to concentration camps or assigned “special treatment,” a euphemism for immediate execution by Gestapo officers. On their own authority, Gestapo officers could order the torture or execution of any prisoner they had interrogated.

These executions were carried out either in local Gestapo...

(The entire section is 1874 words.)