Marching Into Darkness – The Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Belarus
By Waitman Wade Beorn
Harvard University Press – £29.95
”Now in the expanses of the East, with pretentious uniforms, titles, salaries, daily allowances and rations… [is] a type who decks himself out with revolver and whip or whatever he feels will lend him a natural mastery, superior bearing and genuine manliness. The idle and worthless type of… bureaucrat… the eternally hungry ‘Organizer’ with a swarm of like-minded Eastern hyenas, his whole multitudinous clique, recognizable by the two big ‘Ws’ – women and wine … people who enjoy Eastern luxury in food, lodgings and transport all the more the more modest their original circumstances. It is understandable that professional soldiers would take an instant dislike to these kinds of political hangers-on and carpetbaggers.”
Marching Into Darkness – The Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Belarus, tells it as it is and how it truly must have been from the perspective of academic analysis, translucent objectivity, fine nuance and just a hint of wrought, gut instinct. A suave, altogether considered synthesis, which, in this day and trash-induced age of warped historicism (take a bow Mel Gibson and all your sycophantic Hollywood hyenas), is compelling, if not refreshing, to say the least.
One of the reasons being, it might not be particularly sexy to write about what transpired in Belarus during the initial months of invasion by an array of German armed forces and calculated murderers, but if you’re going to read about it, then this meticulously well researched work is as good a place to start as any. As Geoffrey P. Megargee, author of War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941 confirms: ”It allows us to see the choices that were available to the perpetrators, and the process by which many ordinary German soldiers gradually turned into willing criminals.”
To be sure, Waitman Wade Beorn has herein written a book that is dark and dense, regal and real in equal measure; thus making for a read that is both fascinating and frightening.
Fascinating, because it gives the reader an insight into the psychology of what lies behind mankind’s blatant potentiality for cruelty. Frightening, because so much of the Nazi Party’s crass indoctrination of its foot soldiers – along with much of the then populace as a whole – wasn’t any different to that which has always taken place amid a fundamentally myopic policy of scapegoat tactics.
And if a bit of self-righteous religion can be thrown in for good measure, then so much the better. One need look no further than what’s currently taking place amid the blood soaked cities and towns of Northern Iraq.
Moreover, the opening quote of this review (from the seventh chapter ‘The Golden Pheasant and the Brewer’) triggers something of an insight into the power-crazed mindset of those in charge during the Belarus Holocaust. But as Beorn makes crystal clear in the book’s Introduction, the ease with which so-called ”professional soldiers” flippantly murdered on a seemingly relentless, colossal scale, really ought not to have been anything to be particularly proud of.
Especially given the implementation.
Especially given the reasoning – or profoundly tragic lack of: ” Nazi authorities deliberately leveraged the manpower and increased territorial reach of the army to alleviate difficulties being encountered by the dedicated killing units in the East such as the Einsatzgruppen. Jews were intentionally conflated with a partisan movement that was largely illusory, and this ”connection” was then used to explicitly justify the involvement of the German army in the murder of Soviet Jews. This is not to say that most soldiers truly believed this construction. Rather, the Jew-Bolshevik-partisan calculus provided a convenient cover story, an ideological fig leaf, and a potential psychological shield to obfuscate and obscure increasingly brutal violence. The Wehrmacht integrated this Jew-Bolshevik-partisan well and quickly: in less than a year, German army units were killing Jews independently and reporting the victims as dead partisans.”
At times chilling to the bone, not to mention the soul, Marching Into Darkness is a work that cannot help but make one reflect upon the aforementioned calculus of depravity and pointless death. Equally so, one cannot help but grope for some sort of answer or explanation. Even if only to quench our own subliminal, nightmarish scenario, for what’s currently taking place in so many parts of the world today.
Might it be said that Beorn tentatively touches on this in the penultimate chapter ‘Hunting Jews in Szczuczyn,’ wherein he writes: […] the greater the personal commitment or self-involvement implied by the action and the smaller external justification for that action, the greater the dissonance and, therefore, the more powerful the need for self-justification. In order to escape this threat to our mental well being, we seek to change either our beliefs or our actions to bring our mental and physical states into congruence. In many situations, it is easier to change beliefs than acts. Often, individuals overcorrect, becoming more violent. This theory is borne out by the Holocaust. Most men found it more difficult to physically stop participating than to rationalize their behaviour. We have these mental gymnastics in every case.”
Whether or not this constitutes, or at least hints at an explanation, is open to individual conjecture. Either way, this book goes some way in explaining how easily and how quickly, male induced euphoria during war, can, and quite often does, evolve into sadistic, depraved murder.