Christian Ingrao, Believe and Destroy: Intellectuals in the SS War Machine
Germany occupies two distinct positions in popular imagination: for centuries, thinkers like Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Luther cast long shadows over European thought. Germany also bequeathed us Hitler. How did a nation renowned for intellectual accomplishment produce such ghastly horror? Did German acumen hibernate through those years? Not so, says French historian Christian Ingrao. His answer is both more complex, and more resistant to pat answers.
Ingrao charts eighty public intellectuals who came into their degrees between the World Wars, achieved significant distinction in their fields, and chose to ally themselves with the SS, especially its intelligence service, the SD. These intellectuals came from throughout the sciences and humanities, as well as all echelons of German society. These students’ wide diversity, and shocking ordinariness, contradicts common preconceptions of Nazi personalities.
Hardly the image of ignorant Nazism from popular culture, Ingrao asserts these were legitimate intellectuals who indubitably advanced their disciplines. These weren’t mere regime puppets bolstered to advance Hitler’s prestige; world-class universities turned them into formidable public intelligentsia. Many made groundbreaking contributions that still receive scholarly study, notwithstanding their authors’ odious politics. Ingrao depicts many performing bizarre mental contortions to reconcile their academic aspirations with Nazism’s naked bigotry.
Often, we must reconstruct what bound these students to militant nationalism. Though the Allies required Nazis to write their memoirs as part of their war trials, Ingrao says, these intellectuals elided huge chunks of their past. Though they came of age amid Kaiser-era wartime propaganda, and most lost family in World War I, their autobiographies resist long-term introspection. Most are guilty of what Ingrao calls “creative reshaping of [their] past.”
Instead, Ingrao teases details from their other writings, academic transcripts, and public records. Many were student activists, achieving authority and respect—think “student council president.” Some struggled to survive and pay tuition, especially in the economic turmoil following the Armistice. And given German culture’s cross-border influence, most were widely traveled, giving them a worldly outlook, and an opportunity to export Nazi ideology.
Importantly, even after these intellectuals embraced Nazism, they didn’t merely fall in line. Ingrao demonstrates that they came from diverse social, economic, and religious positions, swarming Nazism’s surprisingly inclusive ranks. They debated ideology fiercely, and provided sometimes contradictory philosophies to Nazi thought. Their transition into the war machine occasioned as much contention as compliance. Ingrao suggests that, far from monolithic sameness, we might better contemplate multiple Nazisms, yielding multiple appeals to anger and fear.
Teachers and activists often pitch education as the necessary vaccine for violence or hatred. Yet in Ingrao’s telling, education, like any institution, inherently contains the seeds of abuse. These intellectuals, mostly as students (and somewhat later as teachers), managed to reconstruct education as an echo chamber and nationalist propaganda machine. And though he never directly says so, Ingrao implies that if it happened once, it could certainly happen again.
Make no mistake: this isn’t pop history or light beach reading. This book began life as Ingrao’s doctoral dissertation, and even revised, retains that dense academic veneer. Ingrao is a scholar, writing for fellow scholars, and his prose, compressed in tone and brimming with information, demands careful, unhurried reading. Ingrao expects readers as serious, informed, and committed as himself. Undertake this book only with sufficient time and sober purpose.
Among other hiccups, Ingrao often expects readers to share his love of, and prior knowledge about, Twentieth Century European history. He often flippantly dispenses names, dates, and untranslated blocks of German administrative terminology without clarification. He also succumbs to occasional digressions that might make sense to public policy scholars. Translator Andrew Brown catches many of these, but not all; expect bouts of confusion. (Ingrao mercifully includes a very brief glossary, which partly helps, though it’s confoundingly incomplete.)
Ingrao also importantly focuses on reactionary nationalist intellectuals, excluding all else. German universities produced important anti-Nazi voices like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Sophie Scholl, who applied the same studious tools to their resistance that Franz Six and Werner Best applied to compliance. What countervailing forces influenced them? In a book this size (over 260 pages plus copious back matter), this contrast deserves greater consideration.
Yet for readers prepared to embrace Ingrao’s difficult heuristic, he exposes a previously unexamined corner of Nazi thought. Too often, we reject nuance, expecting Nazis to be unremittingly evil: a blandly uniform Satanic horde. Ingrao presents a movement that could be us, if we fail to guard our thoughts. The circumstances that created Ingrao’s subjects are hardly unique, and the frightening possibility of their recurrence demands our thoughtful examination.