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Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany Robert Gellately Oxford University Press USA


20th June 2013 History Books 28 Comments

Using newspapers and radio broadcasts of the day as evidence, Gellately (The Gestapo and German Society), Strassler Professor in Holocaust History at Clark University, effectively demonstrates how “ordinary Germans” evolved into a powerful base of support for the Nazi regime. Although Hitler and the National Socialists had never garnered an outright majority in elections before 1933, the author convincingly shows that “the great majority of the German people soon became devoted to Hitler and they supported him to the bitter end in 1945.” The Nazis achieved this political miracle by “consensus.” The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued that political regimes could hardly expect to use unlimited terror against their subjects a technique combining the threat of terror and coercion would be more effective. Using Gramscian theory is hardly new in an analysis of Nazi Germany, but Gellately does make a provocative claim: that the Nazi use of terror against certain categories of “undesirables” (first Communists, Socialists and trade unionists, then Catholic and Protestant opponents, then the mentally and/or physically impaired, then the Jews and Gypsies) was purposively public and that most Germans agreed with such policies. Decrees, legislation, police actions and the concentration camps were not meant to be hidden from the German people, but in fact were extensively publicized. Some of the same arguments have been made in Adam Lebor and Roger Boyes’s Seduced by Hitler (Forecasts, Mar. 26), but readers will notice that Gellately offers a far more sophisticated argument and more abundant evidence than Daniel Goldhagen’s cause clbre, Hitler’s Willing Executioners. In truth, Gellately’s work is what Goldhagen’s book could have been, but wasn’t; that is, a closely reasoned and tightly constructed analysis. 42 illus. not seen by PW.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

–This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Gellately (Strassler Professor in Holocaust History, Clark Univ.) analyzes the role of “ordinary” Germans in the Nazi persecution of those deemed social and political outsiders. Under the guise of “law and order,” the Nazis suspended regular jurisprudence and substituted arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. Far from carrying out their activities in secret, the Nazis publicized them as steps to the social, political, and racial regeneration of Germany. Many ordinary Germans actively participated in this process, denouncing neighbors as “asocial” elements for associating with Jews or for “suspicious” activities. Denunciations derived from a variety of motivations personal grudges, economic self-interest, or ideological commitment with the full knowledge of what would happen to the victims. By effectively overturning the belief that Hitler and the Nazi party imposed their ideology upon the German people and maintained control through massed police terror, Gellately’s book forces us to consider the role of the ordinary citizen in the maintenance of the Nazi dictatorship. His arguments are more sophisticated and ultimately more convincing than Daniel Goldhagen’s in Hitler’s Willing Executioners (LJ 3/15/96), which saw the German people’s adherence as mono-causal (i.e., anti-Semitism). Recommended for all libraries. Frederic Krome, Jacob Rader Marcus Ctr. of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Debate still rages over how much ordinary Germans knew about the concentration camps and the Gestapo’s activities during Hitler’s reign. Now, in this well-documented and provocative volume, historian Robert Gellately argues that the majority of German citizens had quite a clear picture of the extent of Nazi atrocities, and continued to support the Reich to the bitter end.
Culling chilling evidence from primary news sources and citing dozens of case studies, Gellately shows how media reports and press stories were an essential dimension of Hitler’s popular dictatorship. Indeed, a vast array of material on the concentration camps, the violent campaigns against social outsiders, and the Nazis’ radical approaches to “law and order” was published in the media of the day, and was widely read by a highly literate population of Germans. Hitler, Gellately reveals, did not try to hide the existence of the Gestapo or of concentration camps. Nor did the Nazis try to cow the people into submission. Instead they set out to win converts by building on popular images, cherished ideals, and long-held phobias. And their efforts succeeded, Gellately concludes, for the Gestapo’s monstrous success was due, in large part, to ordinary German citizens who singled out suspected “enemies” in their midst, reporting their suspicions and allegations freely and in a spirit of cooperation and patriotism.
Extensively documented, highly readable and illustrated with never-before-published photographs, Backing Hitler convincingly debunks the myth that Nazi atrocities were carried out in secret. From the rise of the Third Reich well into the final, desperate months of the war, the destruction of innocent lives was inextricably linked to the will of the German people.

Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany

The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders

The title refers to a caption in the scrapbook of Kurt Franz, the commandant of the Treblinka concentration camp. Underneath the heading “Those Were the Days,” and reproduced here, are pictures of smiling officers at a site where some 700,000 people were exterminated in the gas chambers. To refute revisionist historians who negate the testimony of Holocaust survivors, and to disprove those Germans who said they were coerced into murdering Jews, the German authors–Klee is a journalist, Dressen a lawyer and Riess a historian–present the damning and harrowing diaries, letters, photo albums and official reports of Germans who willingly participated in the Final Solution. A member of a unit that killed 33,771 Jews in the Ukranian Babi Yar ravine boasts: “It’s almost impossible to imagine what nerves of steel it took to carry out that dirty work down there.” Of the annihilation of thousands of Jews in White Russia, a commander says, “The action rid me of unneccessary mouths to feed.” And wagging its tail for the camera is Franz’s dog, which on numerous occasions was set upon Jews to bite off their genitals.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

The title “The Good Old Days” comes from the cover of a private photo album kept by concentration camp commandant Kurt Franz of Treblinka. This gruesomely sentimental and unmistakably authentic title introduces an disturbing collection of photographs, diaries, letters home, and confidential reports created by the executioners and sympathetic observers of the Holocaust. “The Good Old Days” reveals startling new evidence of the inhumanity of recent twentieth century history and is published now as yet another irrefutable response to the revisionist historians who claim to doubt the historic truth of the Holocaust.

The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders










  • 28 responses to "Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany Robert Gellately Oxford University Press USA"

  • Daniel Hopper
    0:25 on June 21st, 2013
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    Traditionally, I have read books on American history rather than European history, but this one caught my eye because of the premise – that ordinary Germans played a role in enforcing Hitler’s mandates of Aryan supremacy.

    Backing Hitler: Consent & Coercion in nazi Germany is a thought-provoking book that looks at ordinary German citizens and their involvement in the governmental policies of forcing “racial purity”. By examining the police (both ordinary uniformed police and undercover officers), Gellately has given us a view into Hitler’s Germany that hasn’t been explored much before.

    Gellately explored the police and contends that ordinary people made up the police force and were consentually backing Hitler’s policies. These people opted to enforce the policies, regardless of whether they felt that the policies were right because their personal experiences told them so or that the propaganda won them over. The folks that were coerced into compliance were often herded into concentration camps such as Auschwitz or Dachau.

    The concepts in the book are well argued, though it appears that the author is not overly familiar with all of the rules of English grammar (i.e. placement of commas, etc.), thus making the book a touch more difficult to read, but it is a book that really should be on your list if you are interested in German history between 1933-1945.

  • Danny Jobes
    1:58 on June 21st, 2013
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    I only came across this book yesterday and purchased it at a discounted price at a chain bookstore. I read it in practically one day – it was a compelling read, though a really painful and harrowing experience. This book is basically a compilation of diary entries, letters, and confidential reports meticulously detailing the acts of persecution carried out against the Jewish populace of Nazi-occupied Europe. The accounts are mostly matter-of-fact, written by German soldiers, SS officers, and also observers [photographers, German army medics etc] that describe the horrible atrocities committed upon European Jewry during the Holocaust. And throughout the book, there are numerous photographs that capture these bestial acts, showing victims being herded to their deaths, beaten, shot,etc.

    What really struck me was that some of the violence against the Jews was not committed by the German soldiers, but by local Gentiles who had lived with the Jews until the Germans came. Case in point is the massacre of the Kovno Jews by a Lithuanian mob – these innocent civilians were set upon by Lithuanian thugs using crowbars and clubbed to death. As one observer noted, there were Lithuanian Gentile women who would hold up their children to witness the massacre, whilst clapping and cheering the mob on. Truly horrific and hard to imagine, though it does attest to the prevalent anti-Semitism in many parts of Europe.

    Truly chilling is the realisation that many of the German guards and soldiers were unrepentant about the atrocities they participated in /witnessed against the Jews – it was all in the line of duty and they were more preoccupied with getting good food, obtaining leave etc.

    This is a terrible book in its gruesome detailing of the murder of European Jewry, but an essential read nonetheless for it portrays the evils of the Nazi regime and also anti-Semitism, and how easy it was to cross the line from morality to barbarity.

  • Dot Riddle
    3:52 on June 21st, 2013
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    Although many books have been written within the past decade regarding the policies and power of Hitler during the ‘Third Reich’-including “Nazi Terror”, by Eric Johnson and the duelling theories of Daniel Goldhagen and Christopher Browning- this is so far the most complete history of the Nazis power and terror. In Gellately’s study, he examines the methods that Hitler and others in all levels of the heirarchy used propaganda and popular german sentiment to shape both policy, the public opinion of said policy, and the manner in which his policies were policed. In every example, from the sweeping national arrests and terror against the Communists, to the use of slave labor at wars-end, Gellately is very thorough in documentation and in using examples to make his points. This is a key point I think, which also happens to be one of the failings of Goldhagen’s book-if an author is going to make a sweeping generalization(for example Goldhagen’s ‘the women camp guards were more brutal and sadistic than the male camp guards’), then he needs more than a few examples to make it. He makes his points very clearly using case after case from Gestapo files and other sources, without demonstrating the tendancy to revert back to the same few examples as proof positive of a specific trait, such as Goldhagen does. Another strong point is that he does not tend to ‘bulls-eye’ on any single topic in his book. Gellately gives a fair accounting of a wide variety of issues in which the German people were willing accomplices in sending Communists, Jews, asocials, and increasingly in the war years, their fellow neighbors and relatives to the gallows or camps. My single largest complaint with this book is in the manner of presentation. It is a bit too clinical at times and never really engaging, such as I found Eric Johnson’s “Nazi Terror”, and the best so far regarding the Jewish persecution; volume 1 of Saul Friedlander’s “Nazi Germany and the Jews”. All in all though I found it to be a very worthwhile read, as it definitely raised some good questions and was a thorough study of Germans during the Third Reich, and their support of Hitler.

  • Reita Krack
    4:52 on June 21st, 2013
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    In this relatively brief but searching analysis of how much the German public knew about the underside of the Third Reich–from violations of civil liberties to euthanasia and the Holocaust–Gellately demonstrates fairly conclusively that there was a fair amount of both media publicity and common knowledge about Nazi excesses. Far from being reluctant to have the public know about their misdeeds, Hitler and the Nazi leadership are shown to have been concerned about how the public perceived what they were doing and to have carefully manipulated public opinion in the process.

    The destruction of civil liberties and the rule of law from the Wilhelmine and Weimar eras was depicted as restoration of “law and order,” in terms that are hauntingly reminiscent of those used by some of the more extreme American proponents of “law and order.” The concentration camps during the prewar era were portrayed as places for reforming and reeducating those who for one reason or another had gone astray politically or socially; in this sense, the common threads of totalitarianism are evident, as the Third Reich sounds similar to Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China.

    Gellately argues persuasively that there were three distinct phases to how the Nazis portrayed themselves and in the degree to which they resorted to radical means of controlling society. The prewar era showed much more concern about public opinion and rationality. Once the War began, the methods became more radical and the arguments to support them became more extreme. (As others have also shown, Gellately posits that this is when the genocide against the Jews really went into high gear.) In the final months of the Reich, literally “anything goes” became the attitude and relatively little concern was given to public opinion–though Gellately argues that the majority of Germans stuck with Hitler to the very end.

    Especially intriguing are the author’s review of a number of Gestapo files on individuals who were accused of betraying the regime in one way or another. From an admittedly limited sample that he has thoroughly analyzed, Gellately demonstrates that the Gestapo and other police agencies had the active cooperation of the citizenry in ferreting out offenders. Indeed, their sources were overwhelmingly citizen complaints, most of them quite open and non-anonymous. But the specifics of a number of these cases are both fascinating and disturbing in the extreme. Clearly, a number of citizens used the Gestapo and the mechanisms of terror to get even with innocent people who had never violated the law.

    Gellately’s final synoptic chapter is the best part of the book and is especially well written. (In fact, it might warrant being read first.) The rest of the book, especially the early chapters, is somewhat turgid and difficult going; one wishes that it had been written and edited as well as the end. But this is a book that will clearly repay the time spent on it. I doubt that general readers new to the subject would find it as useful as those with more background, however.

  • pingstanton
    7:47 on June 21st, 2013
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    The most jarring aspect of this book is the casual, flippant remarks that are made about mass-extermination. Some of the German quotes in this book were taken from diaries and letters to loved ones, and much of it is casual. There is a convenient language spoken. For instance, few people say that they were “killing Jews.” The most common phrase was, “special actions.”

    There are dry reports of incidents written by SS men that could be interchanged with a unemotional report of wheat production on any farm. Only, these reports are about numbers of Jews murdered, or bodies liquidated.

    It is the casual nature of these comments that makes this book so surprising. It’s all so “matter-of-fact.” It’s all so horrifyingly mundane.

    I bought this as a compliment to other books I own about the Holocaust, and few books have matched the surreality of the Nazi “Final Solution” than this book. It is highly recommended, but only for those who want to see the atrocities described from the cold, heartless eyes of the Nazi murderers themselves.

  • Yoyobinks
    8:20 on June 21st, 2013
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    “The Good Old Days (Schoen Zeiten)” is a brilliant example of how ordinary people can allow themselves to be brainwashed and manuipulated into becoming bestial by those in power. I believe this book should be REQUIRED reading for every high school student in America. If one wants to stop prejudice, etc., one need only start here to truly understand the terrible results of such beliefs.

  • Brian Schwartz
    13:02 on June 21st, 2013
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    In an age where some claim that the holocaust did not occur, this book is a must read. What makes this book truly great is the fact that it is composed entirely of recollections and diary entries of Germans.

    The most horrifying recollection was the description of an SS enlisted man grabbing little children(under five years of age) by the hair off of the ground and shooting them with a pistol then tossing their little bodies in the mass grave with other victims.

    It was also compelling that a number of recollections dealt with various enlisted men who were ordered to murder civilians and refused without any negative consequence because of their refusal. While a number of Germans actively participated in the Holocaust, a great number of them refused to murder civilians. The classic defense of “I was only following orders” is indeed put to rest as a falsehood as one of the other reviewers noted.

    In an age of revisionist history with both far right facist slants and politically correct liberal bias the truth is often hard to come by. However, this book is all first person accounts of a well documented period in history.

    A job well done to Mr.(Herr) Klee and his associates.

  • Aaron Snider
    14:48 on June 21st, 2013
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    “Backing Hitler” tackles a difficult question: how much did the German people know about what Hitler was actually doing to the groups he so zealously persecuted? The answer to this, according to the author, is that they were well aware of what Hitler was doing.

    By examining the surviving newspapers, magazines, and dossiers from the police and Gestapo, the author explores what the German people knew, and how they participated in the Holocaust. We learn, for example, that the Gestapo appears to have largely relied on denunciations from the public, not its own research and intelligence.

    The mathematician in me would like to have seen more discussion of the sampling techniques used in the book. In many cases where the author examined police dossiers, he said that he looked at “every other” file. This raises many questions: what exactly does he mean by every other file? What order were the files in: chronological, alphabetical, random, some ordering scheme he used while going through them? This question is not answered. With a good ordering, it would be trivial for him to adjust the files to give the results he wanted to “prove”.

    Ignoring my reservations on the statistical methods used by the author, this book is an excellent discussion on the propaganda fed to the public. It is not an introductory reader for those interested in Nazi Germany, but would make an excellent complement to a book collection with a heavy emphasis on that time period.

  • nomnom
    16:06 on June 21st, 2013
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    This book raises some significant issues on Hitler’s reign over Nazi Germany. For instance the author makes good points (and provides examples) on denunciations which were volunteered by ordinary German citizens. Most of the people of the Third Reich were never cowed by the police apparatus and would eagerly point out – mostly by writing – suspects who were not compliant with the regime. Often these denunciations were not altruistic and could often lead to severe results – incarceration and/or execution.

    The focus of the book is on the legal apparatus, and how justice became more and more arbitrary with little rights to the accused. By using this perspective the emphasis is more on coercion than consent.

    The constant referring to legal examples at times makes the book rather dry. Also much of the data and examples cited on concentration camps are available in other books on Nazi Germany.

    The author also brings out that the presence of millions of foreign workers and their brutal camp system was very visible across the Nazi state. However there was virtually nothing on what the German soldiers on the Eastern Front related to their family, friends and relatives about the atrocities they may have participated in and certainly witnessed in the Soviet Union and Poland.

    There are still many unanswered issues on consent. Why did the German people take so readily to the leadership principal? Fuehrer means “leader” – in no other Western country do the people refer to their political heads of state in such a fashion. Why did the German people love him so much, and follow Hitler into the apocalypse? Although the role of women is examined little was said about the almost sexual adoration they had for their beloved Fuehrer.

    As Mr. Gellately points out in his conclusion – will we ever know why and how they came to accept this level of brutality. I did find different answers in Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”. Even during the 1930′s by listening to and reading the hate-filled speeches on Jews , on Communism, on the liberal democracies – why were the German people so swept up to support the Nazi revolution?

  • communist
    17:44 on June 21st, 2013
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    This book documents the activities of the Einsatzgruppen or “Task Forces” which the Third Reich used to murder millions of helpless children,women and men primarily by firing squad. They murdered more than 38,000 people in 1 day alone at Babi Yar and started murdering with gas only because this method was too inefficient for all the millions the Nazis wanted to murder.

    As others have commented on reviews of other Einsatzgruppen books – this is very,very,very disturbing and difficult reading even for anyone since it describes a depth of inhumanity most refuse to believe is possible.

    Among the horrors this book describes “Mass Murder Tourism” where Wehrmacht officers travel around the Eastern front to watch murder squads conducting “Special Operations”. Of course these special operations were always conducted against unarmed helpless children,women and men.

    Outside of General Johannes Albrecht Blaskowitz, Fmr. Commander of 1,8 & 9 Armies and Frmr Commander of Army Groups G&H. Precious few resigned or protested to OKW about what was going on.

    Oh yes and Von Stauffenberg and company only considered action when the war was being lost otherwise they seem like they would have been very happy with Fortress Europa and the new Lebensraum in the east.
    There were other plots against the Fuhrer before that but none came to fruition.

  • Matthew Kroll
    19:51 on June 21st, 2013
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    Hearing about this book offered few surprises for what was inside on the pages. Absolute chaos conformed into the minds of men who have lost all grasps of humanity.

    This has to be the only book I know of that actually hears out the personal stories of death camp guards, workers, etc. And, unlike the books by Rudolph Hoess, these give a glimpse of the life of the guys doing the shooting rather the ones ordering them. Much different perspective none the less.

    One thing this book does put forth is the interaction of the SS and SD with the Wehrmacht. Actual accounts of Army volunteers for shooting squads proves that the military did know about the holocaust despite what is always thrown back and forth, being involvement depended on who was in charge.

    To understand the basic mantality possesed by the people told about within this book, all you have to do is look at the cover photo and read on.

    Excellent book written by German authors. No holds barred.

  • joovus
    20:11 on June 21st, 2013
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    This book is depressing and very difficult to read for very long. The benefit of the book is to get a first hand glimpse of the atrocities committed by those following Hitler in WWII. It outlines how savage people can become in their feelings toward a religion.

  • Emma Adrian
    22:52 on June 21st, 2013
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    This book is a very interesting read, featuring first hand accounts of the Holocaust. The fact that the book is entirely primary source materials makes it all the more interesting. These are the words of the men who did the deeds and their reaction to it. The book uses letters, diaries, interviews, reports, and all kinds of other materials for sources. It is an interesting read, but the only reason I give it 4 stars instead of 5 is although it is a great source, some of the chapters are rather dry, but overall the book is well worth the read.

  • Blenry Hodget
    2:55 on June 22nd, 2013
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    “The Good Old Days” is a haunting and disturbing glimpse into the Holocaust. This book chronicles a number of events associated with the Nazi attempts to exterminate the entire Jewish people from the globe. Certainly any story of the Holocaust is disturbing to a rational person but “The Good Old Days” presents these events through the words/tales of people who were there – soldiers, killers, non-Jewish citizenry. Most of the events described are related through several people (making the reading a bit tedious) and in all cases the stories, while slightly different in detail – and almost always apologetic when told after the passage of time – would make my stomach wrench at how indifferently the waste of human life was taken. This is especially true in cases where stories are supported by diaries written at the time of the events. It is a oft used generalization that the Germans are a people of exactness and precision. This has never been more true than in assiocation with the Holocaust. The SS and its minions went about their gruesome business with the efficiency stereotypically expected of the Germans – they kept exacting notes, approached it impassively as to not become emotionally attached to the situation (or they were removed from the situation – generally voluntarily, or so it is claimed), and strove to generate more efficient, quick and “humane” ways to dispose of those felt inferior. The passages in this book are presented without any candy coating and thus this text is not for the faint of heart. Yet in doing so the reader is truly left with a feeling of collective human guilt that any culture could perpetrate such acts and in such a detacted fashion. To say that no one in Germany cared about what was happening is unfair, yet it is fair from this text and others on the subject that many were active participants and while some revelled in the experience – which is disturbing enough – most acted as murderers out of duty to service, comrades, Fatherland, and/or their Fuhrer – and this is a TRULY DISTURBING thought. How far mankind is capable of sinking.

    This is a solid 4 star effort. It is only the repetitive nature of the text that keeps it from being a 5 star book. Having said this, it is clear why the editors chose to present each story multiple times from several sources: for impact by showing that these were not simply acts of a few that no one knew about or that were ebing acting fought against – in short to show the impassive brutality and collusion of cause. “The Good Old Days” is recommended reading for anyone trying to understand the Holocaust and how such an event so pivotal in the history of man could have happened. Yet beware of the content going into it – it is highly disturbing and often graphic.

  • Rosenda Sazama
    3:42 on June 22nd, 2013
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    To truly appreciate how ordinary people could commit such evil acts as were committed in the Holoucast, we would do well to remember that none of those who tortured and murdered in the concentration camps were any different than you or I.
    They had families. They managed to reduce the importance of their victims as human beings.
    There is a parallel between what happened in Nazi concentration camps and what is happening now to innocent people incarcerated and dehumanized in Iraq and elsewhere.
    As someone once said, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”

  • Sarah Karen Bowen
    5:10 on June 22nd, 2013
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    I agree with some of the other reviewers of this book, it out does the other books that talk about willing Germans, like Goldhagen’s book. It seems to be more complete on the subject and comes to a very nice and well thought out conclusion. This book should be a must read in your collection on this era of history. If not that, it should be the first on your list for books that show how a lot of the Germans then supported the dramatic views of Hitler. Best book I have read on the subject yet.

  • Christina Lynn
    5:32 on June 22nd, 2013
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    When Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “banality of evil,” she was writing about Eichmann.But after reading this compilation of personal stories,she could have been writing about anyone and everyone who bowed to worship hitler,and blithely went on about their lives,pre-war,when they knew full well what hitler and his monstrous henchmen and women were doing.
    This is a hard read because it is infuriating.They knew what they were doing and didn’t give a damn.True,there were observers who were initially shocked by the torture and murders they were seeing,but they just went away quietly,and did nothing to broadcast what was happening in Germany during the time the persecutions of the Jews was just beginning on a large scale.Pogroms were the forerunner of mass murder.
    Reading this made me sick,but I felt I owed it to the legions of the dead and suffering.
    There really isn’t much else to say about this book. It is meticulously researched and presented in a straight-forward manner.Neither of which makes it any easier to read.But read it. It needs to be read,and you will be stronger for it.

  • Brad Linder
    7:07 on June 22nd, 2013
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    The originality of this book is to illustrate (in both senses) anti Jewish pogroms and the death camps from the viewpoint of the Germans involved. Some, like the truck driver from technical battalion six, simply witnessed atrocities in the Ukraine. Others such as Willi Mentz (the Gunman of Sobibor), were actively involved in the slaughter in the camps. So far as I am aware, there are some original photos here showing nazi personnel at leisure whilst off duty in the camps. Perhaps it was deliberate, but there is no conclusion to the book. The idea could be to let the letters, diaries and reports speak for themselves.

  • Joe S.
    9:51 on June 22nd, 2013
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    In many ways, this is a very difficult book to read. It is page after page detailing the worse large-scale atrocity in history, in the words of the immediate perpetrators and witnesses thereof. On the other hand, much of this “work” is described in such detached, clinical terms, and also mixed in with personal concerns and political rivalries and maneuverings that the writers could almost be talking about just another tough day at the office. This juxtaposition of the atrocious and the banal is in some ways one of the most difficult aspects of the book, as it shows that, far from being incomprehensible monsters, the perpetrators of the Holocaust were simply ordinary, flawed human beings who committed monstrous acts all in a day’s work.

    The authors of the excerpts in the book run the gamut from high-ranking officials to mid-level officers to enlisted servicemen and functionaries such as gas-van drivers. The excerpts include journal and diary entries, official reports, court proceedings and interview transcripts. Many of the chapters are organized around a specific event, such as the beating to death of Jews in Kovno by partisan Lithuanians while German soldiers looked on, or the mass shooting of Jews at the Babi-Yar ravine in Ukraine. These sections feature excerpts from varying viewpoints to get a more complete picture, but the excerpts complement rather than contradict each other and tell a unitary story.

    Other sections explore different time periods and the evolution of the killing methods. Some sections tell of the mass shootings, others of the use of the gas vans, and the final sections tell of the permanent killing installations at places such as Treblinka, Sobibor and Auschwitz.

    Almost all of the sections are accompanied by photographs taken by SS officers and men as well as other German functionaries. Many photos show the atrocities, often in process. The Jews were often made to pose for photos before being gassed or shot. The photos also show the after math, as scores or hundreds of dead bodies lay scattered about or neatly lined in mass graves. Although photography was forbidden at the selection and execution sites, the men took these photos for their own voyeuristic entertainment and memorabilia. Many shared the photos with friends or sent them home to family.

    Other photos show SS mean and others involved in the extermination of the Jews living it up and enjoying their free time, almost always with plenty of alcohol. These pictures particularly predominate in the later sections of the book detailing the extermination of the Jews by gas. This more efficient method of extermination was “cleaner” and less of an attraction for photographing. And because the work wasn’t as directly and visibly brutal, the men were more inclined to live it up. Hence, as the atrocity grew in scale, there were actually fewer pictures of the brutality and more of the high life.

    The book was originally organized and published in Germany for Germans by Germans in order to explore and explode some common myths and misperceptions. For instance, many excerpts tell of how there were no serious consequences for refusing orders to participate in the violence, as there were always plenty of volunteers eager to pitch in to the solution of the “Jewish problem”. This is a direct refutation of the common belief that most participants were only reluctantly following orders because they feared repercussions if they failed to do so. In fact, the SS took significant care for the mental health of the guards and extermination workers. They realized how brutal and “thankless” the task could be, so they rewarded participants with extra rations, alcohol, cigarettes, and leave time, thereby further increasing the volunteers. Also, the switch from death by shooting to death by gas was done largely as a relief for the mental health of the men tasked with the difficult work of the “final solution”.

    In fact, much of the book explores the tension between the “thankless” work of the SS and others for the good of the country vs. the unprecedented opportunities for officers and soldiers to look to their own good. One longer excerpt, for instance, is a diary of an officer who laments the awful conditions of his work while mentioning all the packages and foodstuffs he has or will be sending to his wife, mistress, and other friends and family.

    What is almost completely lacking in any of these excerpts is the Jews themselves. A few writers seemed to recognize some basic humanity in the Jews and opposed unnecessarily brutal tactics such as wrenching children from their parents. And most wrote favorably of methods used to calm the victims by obfuscating the actual purpose of the procedures (e.g., telling people they would be taking a bath, and reminding them to be sure to remember where they put their belongings). But none of the writers questions the underlying mission or the necessity of eliminating Jews. None see the Jews as individual humans with any thoughts, feelings or worth of their own. They could just as easily be slaughterhouse workers concerned for the humanitarian slaying of cattle and pigs.

    It takes a bit of work to get into this book. The excerpts are generally pretty brief and there’s not much of an introduction or explanatory material. There are also a lot of German names and titles/ranks which are difficult to keep track of (although there are helpful appendices at the end detailing some of the major figures as well as ranks, etc.). But such details are largely irrelevant to the overall picture painted, so glossing over many of such details will not impair one’s understanding of the book.

    This book is not for the faint of heart, and readers are advised to take steps to minimize their own traumatization. I personally became noticeably more irritable and had trouble sleeping while reading this book. But nonetheless, I think it’s important to read and confront this book. Not to blame the Germans for what happened then but to look inside ourselves in order to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Germany in the 1930s and `40s didn’t just happen to have a larger than normal supply of sociopathic monsters. The Holocaust was carried out by ordinary Germans caught up in a tsunami of deliberately channeled anger and blame regarding widespread poverty and ruination. There are similar forces at work today after the suffering caused by the global financial meltdown. We all must recognize our own potential for monstrosity in order to avoid being swept up in another tsunami.

  • Dennis Kanakis
    12:21 on June 22nd, 2013
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    This book really makes one shiver. I have read a number of books on the holocaust and World War 2 and this book absolute is the rawest of the books covering the genocide. That is not to say the book had a blow by blow account of the methods of killing, but just the history of this group of solders and the off handed way the mass killing was described. The people doing this killing were just normal guys, not unlike friends, family or myself. Wow, it is just amazing to me the way they try to justify what they were in charge of, the crimes against humanity that they committed. That is what was so disturbing to me. It is much easier to think that the mass killing was done by some group of homicidal maniacs let out of the asylum and given guns that that is not the case.

    The details you get here are very hard to take once you have finished the book and think about it. This is one of the few books that for weeks after I finished it I would continue to think about it I do not think I can recommend this book enough; it really gives you a feel for the tremendous crime that took place. You will not be able to stop reading the book until you have completed it. I could go on and on. Even if you are not overly interested in WW 2 or the Holocaust you should read this book, there is no way you will not be griped by it.

  • dont you know?
    12:32 on June 22nd, 2013
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    Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany by Robert Gellately is a interesting and thought provoking study of what the German people knew and when they know it. Gellately does a fine job delving through the historical achieves, especially old newspapers, to give the reader an insight into what information was available to the German public.

    What is fascinating about the book is the insight which the author only touches on concerning the need of the Nazi Government to form firm a basis of popular support and their decision to take drastic steps to insure that the support did not falter. While the Nazi could act with ruthlessness maybe only equaled by Stalin in dealing with foreigners or subhumans, when it came to its reflation with its Aryan brethren, the Nazis were sure to only go as far as they believed that their policies would be accepted. While this limitation may have ceased with the end of the war, it does not mitigate against the fact that the German public by backing the main polices of Nazism facilitated the regimes evils deeds.

    The fact that the Nazi publicized the formation of the concentration camps and the marginalization of the Jews and Gypsies speaks volumes about the anticipated public reaction. Gellately points out that most Germans saw these steps as part of the larger Nazi law and order campaign as well as moving Germany toward a more wholesome future. What is terrifying about the book is not only that the German public bought in to the Nazi propaganda, but the chance that if they had not that millions upon millions of people might have lived through the war.

    The down side of the book is that at times it is repetitions and it could have used a good editing. The subject matter is dense, but that may not have been able ti be avoided. This is an important book, and even with the above limitations it is a worthwhile read.

  • The Regular Joe
    14:26 on June 22nd, 2013
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    This book provides a wealth of important, firsthand information on the Holocaust by those who were actually involved or viewed the involvement of others. I do not mean to quibble or lessen the impact of the horror that was done but the book does contain several flaws.

    For example, the book does not put to rest the purported myth that people were not punished if they did not willingly participate in the killings. The testimony of a select dozen or so men (some of whose testimony was not obtained in the most enlightened of circumstances, i.e., after beatings, torture, and the threat of death) can hardly be considered representative of the experiences of the several hundred thousand who were involved, many of whom testified, even after being beaten to say otherwise, that there were severe punishments, including death, if they did not participate. Also, later on in the book the testimonies of other participants contradicts the testimonies of those who said they were not punished by stating that people were indeed punished if they did not participate in these, often gruesome, actions. Moreover, the statements of many of those who said there was no punishment when they did not participate is not wholly correct. Many of these people, after refusing to participate, were screamed at by their superior officer and called a coward in front of their fellow soldiers. Among the most humiliating things you can call a soldier, especially by a superior and in front of his comrades, is that he is being a coward in the line of duty. This, in itself, is a form of punishment that would likely haunt and affect these men as long as they remained with those who saw and heard what happened, whether they wanted to admit it or not.

    For another thing, the testimony of Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, is invaluable for many reasons, including, that the reason all the dead bodies cannot, and never will be, found is that the Nazis went about digging up mass graves, pulverizing the remains, and scattering them to the four winds (or in the case of some Auschwitz victims, dumping the ashes into the Vistula River) to hide the evidence of their acts. But Hoess’ testimony that there were 3 million victims at Auschwitz is suspect and most historians now reduce this amount by at least a third and some by almost two-thirds. In this regard, Hoess’ testimony (which it is pretty much admitted now was obtained after torture) that up to 10,000 people a day were killed in Auschwitz makes no sense. He writes that 2,000 people were gassed at a time and would then be taken up to the crematorium where it would take 12 hours to finish burning them. This seems to put a limit of 4,000 people a day who could be killed and disposed of even if the crematoriums were running 24 hours a day. (Admittedly, there may have been Leichenkeller (cellars for the dead, or corpse cellars) at the camp, but still it seems to make no sense to stack up to 6,000 dead bodies a day and the Nazis would have rapidly run out of room, e.g., in just a week there would be a surplus of 42,000 dead bodies.) [I welcome any information from anyone on clarifying this.]

    In addition, the book does not demonstrate the efficiency of the Nazis. On the contrary, it discloses the inefficiency and chaos that often accompanied these slaughters, including people having to be shot repeatedly and others surviving being shot and buried.

    One of the most interesting, and revealing, parts of the book was a 12-page official letter of complaint by an SS lieutenant-colonel to the SS and police general in charge of anti-partisan activities in the Eastern occupied territories, von dem Bach (who, in return for his testimony against other Nazis, escaped execution for war crimes after the war), that the Nazi party district leader for White Russia (gauleiter Kube) was too soft on the Jews. This letter is must reading for anyone who wants to know what the mindset was of certain hardcore Nazis and SS members vis a vis the Jewish people.

    Despite its flaws (including the book’s title, which is a mistranslation, and the book’s cover photo, which was taken at an unknown location of people who have never been identified), all in all the book is still a valuable addition to the history of World War II and an understanding of the Holocaust.

  • Shari H
    17:42 on June 22nd, 2013
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    There is no point, at this late date, for retelling German horrors, unless the retelling provides an insight into what was behind them. This Robert Gellately’s “Backing Hitler” does, successfully but in irritating fashion.

    He also adds some new information not used by earlier historians, from newspapers and Gestapo files.

    For a long generation after 1945, most reports of German atrocity, if they tried to maintain any balance at all, just threw up their hands and asked “How could this have happened?” Stated or implied was a caveat: Germans were human beings, too, so this inhuman behavior could not really be explained.

    Few indeed turned that conundrum on its head to propose that Germans were not humans, at least not humans advanced out of savagery. It was scarcely 10 years ago when Daniel Jonah Goldhagen seriously suggested, in “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” that savagery ran deep and true in Germans. The outrage that greeted Goldhagen’s book was, in the most charitable light, testimony to the reluctance of most people to think anybody could sink so low as Goldhagen sank the Germans.

    Less charitable commentators, like me, saw the antagonism to Goldhagen as the late 20th century expression of 1930s appeasers who declared that Germany could not be nearly as bad as its enemies portrayed it, because Germans had written so much lovely music. This infantile outlook has been all too powerful in the historiography of the Hitler era.

    Gellately knocks the idea in the head, stuns it and drags it off to history’s towering scrapheap of silly ideas. “The great majority of the German people soon became devoted to Hitler and they supported him to the bitter end in 1945″ sums the findings.

    One myth is easily disposed of: the claim that the “good Germans” were unaware of what the Nazis were up to. Gellately finds front page stories in mass circulation newspapers and magazines in which the German public was told about the concentration camps, from the start of Hitler’s regime, and told that they were a good thing — originally to dispose of “Communists.” Some Communists were indeed disposed of, along with, as time passed, an expanding menagerie of unGermans: Gypsies, drunkards, the mentally ill or physically handicapped, even a few Catholic priests who, although the Roman church got on well with Hitler, persisted in a sentimental appreciation for the Catholic Center Party.

    The German version of the Gallup Poll, the Gestapo listeners-in, found that the good Germans massively approved of it. The village of Heuberg preferred to have a concentration camp nearby because it displaced a children’s home, which the Heubergers found offensive.

    Really, it is hard for civilized people to comprehend, much less understand, how German the Germans were. Gellately doesn’t make it much easier. The first half of “Backing Hitler” is mostly a recapitulation of atrocities that are well known already to anybody who has studied Hitlerism.

    Also, he fails to make the crucial distinction between German love of Hitler and love of Hitlerism. Not all Germans loved Hitler, even if most did. The social elite despised him as a common Austrian who spoke German with a hick accent. They sat around, drinking stolen wine and whispering to each other how Germany would be better off without that schwein. Not without his policies, which satisfied them very well, just without the individual.

    In the second half of the book, the pace picks up and Gellately summarizes dozens and hundreds of examples of how ordinary Germans cooperated with the regime. The police state could not have operated without that. There were never more than 7,000 Gestapo men in Germany, a nation of nearly 70 million. Any medium-size American city has more cops.

    There were other police, the uniformed Order Police, the detectives or Kriminal Police, and the rural constables, but for a police state Germany had remarkably few cops. (During the war there were plenty of German cops in the conquered lands, but Gellately explicitly limits his history to Germany proper.)

    The argument of “Backing Hitler” is powerfully persuasive. It offers to English readers a taste of what a new generation of German historians has produced at home, although their books have not generally been translated into English.

    Now the bad word. Gellately is a scholar, but practically illiterate. “Backing Hitler” was not edited or even proof-read. In general, the sense of Gellately’s sentences is clear, although there are a few exceptions, but the book is an agony to read.

    Nevertheless, it should be read, at least until a better version of the same facts is given us by a better writer.

  • what bullshit
    19:29 on June 22nd, 2013
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    this book is disturbing to read,actually the murders commited by the lithuanian criminals made me cringe,as it reminds one that these things are still going on in the world,such as the atrocities commited by the serbians in the balkans,these men are worse than animals,men of the einsatzgruppen and the sonderkommand were not of the same cloth and caliber as soldiers of the panzergruppe or the luftwaffe,very few were awarded merit,most were weak minded criminals given power to do as they please,one can only hope they have no afterlife, they deserve to never live again.

  • Stego
    22:29 on June 22nd, 2013
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    “The Good Old Days” caught my eye upon seeing the cover photo. It depicts several Germans in WWII uniforms at a “Gasthaus” enjoying a few beers, with relaxed and unconcerned expressions. The title was perfect for the content.

    Being in the military, and stationed in Germany when I purchased the book, I was interested in the subject that was never talked about by my closest German friends. Now, I know why my German friends never discussed the war.

    This book is a collection of diaries, official and personal letters, and eyewitness accounts of answers to the “Jewish Question”. There is no hearsay or rumors. It is a cold, hard, and blunt account of the extreme cruelty that people are capable of.

    This is an excellent piece of history that is rarely seen in the U.S. It doesn’t contradict the facts regarding the Jewish extermination. Rather, it makes you understand what it was like to be the “bad guy”.

    The old “I was only following orders” defense is put to rest. A common theme was that the people who took part in the extermination knew that they could refuse. Without any punishment. However, the persons portrayed in the book, felt it was their duty. And some even enjoyed it. The majority of the documents used in this book appear to be written with no emotion. As if accounting for the number of dead, was just another boring task of completing the daily “red tape”.

    It makes you wonder. If you were in their shoes, would you do the same?

  • Jeremy Lambert
    0:59 on June 23rd, 2013
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    Good old days is an historical account of wittnesses inside the einsatzgruppen murders of jews.
    it was not hard to understand that most of the men doing the shooting got sick to the point of having to get drunk to forget.
    what i DID find shocking was that many of these wittnesses told that if they refused to shoot jews, they were assigned to another job…it was not ‘following orders’, or the fact that they either did this job or they were punished severly…. not true. simply, they all could have, had they chosen to, not do the job of shooting jews by massacaring them as they dug their own graves…..
    the soldiers tell their stories, in their own words…
    a riviting account of the ‘good old days”
    i recommend this book to anyone studying nazi history, and those who want the truth instead of propaganda.

  • Forrils
    2:16 on June 23rd, 2013
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    Robert Gellately’s “Backing Hitler” may be the most thought provoking, extensive study as to how and why the German people ultimately embraced both Nazism and Adolf Hitler during the course of the Great Depression and World War II. Gellately makes the startling claim that most Germans were aware of Nazi atrocities – though not necessarily the worst – and yet found them tolerable as a means to combat crime. Indeed, he notes how Germans embraced Nazism as a succesful antidote to the financial and cultural corruption they’d seen in the 1920′s and early 1930′s during the Weimar Republic. With the notable exception of the Holocaust, Nazi goverment officials and agencies such as the Gestapo and the SS did not hide the existence of concentration camps and torture from the general public, but instead, allowed them to be published both in Nazi popular journals and daily newspapers (And the Holocaust itself was not hidden, except for its most virulent, deadly phases, in which Jews were dealt with via “special handling”, the Nazi euphemism for genocide.). Only towards the end, during the final months and weeks of the war, did the German public see the most brutal aspects of the Nazi regime. Yet surprisingly, many Germans continued to support the regime until the very end. Gellately’s premise may seem unoriginal in light of Daniel Goldhagen’s popular book indicting the entire German nation for the Holocaust, yet unlike Goldhagen, Gellately offers substantially more persuasive evidence to demonstrate how a social consensus was reached within German society in support of the Nazi regime. Gellately’s book may be the seminal work looking at how the Nazis successfully used the media in disseminating their philosophy to Germany.

  • Michael Harper
    8:51 on June 23rd, 2013
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    Read it but be careful! The abyss will look back at you. The reports, letters and diary excerpts… This is really the backside of the nazi grandiose facade. Not forget the Holocaust? This book will never let you forget.

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