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Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews, and Ordinary Germans

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The Nazi Terror

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The Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews, and Ordinary Germans
By Eric A. Johnson
Basic Books, (2000)
ISBN: 0-4650-4908-7

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - May 14, 2002

One of the perennial questions that surrounds the Holocaust is, what role did 'ordinary' Germans play in the prosecution of the Nazi's Final Solution? In Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews, and Ordinary Germans, Eric A. Johnson tackles this question head-on. He also tackles the contentious issues surrounding just who were the men of the Gestapo. Were they innately evil? How were members of the Gestapo were chosen? Why did they do the horrific things they did? And, is there any justification in the inane claim of, 'I was just following orders'? Johnson also takes a hard look at what, exactly, ordinary Germans knew about the mass murder of Jews, and what they thought about it. He also looks at how the Nazi terror campaign affected the lives of both Jews and Germans.

In the pages of this book, you will also learn how the Gestapo, as a body, was organized and how it worked. Johnson describes the organizational structure of the Gestapo, and how they exercised so much control over German's military and civilian endeavors. He also describes, in detail, what it was like to be questioned by the Gestapo, how the various methods of torture they used to elicit answers. One surprising fact (at least to me) that Johnson illustrates in this book, is that, as an organization, the Gestapo was structurally weak. It had relatively few offices, and a very small power base. Yet, despite these supposed deficiencies, they wielded a tremendous amount of power, both politically and militarily. His study of the Gestapo, in this book, primarily concentrates on their activities in Cologne, Krefeld, and Bergheim.

Johnson is a Professor of History at the Central Michigan University, and he has based much of the research for this book on his years of research into the subject, and his investigation of Gestapo and Justice archives and other documents. He also interviewed Nazi perpetrators, and survivors of the Nazi death machine. Besides the discourse on who was responsible for the Holocaust and how much guilt needs to be laid at the feet of ordinary Germans, Johnson also explores the ever-changing realm of Holocaust studies, and the various theories expounded to explain how it could have happened.

Does this book, once and for all, answer all the questions surrounding the Holocaust? No, and it is unlikely that any book ever will. Yet, this book goes a long way in helping the reader to understand what motivated the many people to commit such horrific crimes that, before they were committed, no one in their wildest imagination could have foreseen the events that were to come. Johnson also dispels the myth that the Nazi's ruled Germany through terror and that those who worked for the Nazi machine did so out of fear. Rather he attempts to prove that the actions of the Nazi regime, regarding the mass murder of Jews and other 'undesirables', was perfectly acceptable to a large segment of the German population. This book will also help to explain just who was at fault, and how the Nazi's efforts to exterminate the Jews would not have been as effective as it was, had it not been for the voluntarily, and willing, cooperation of a large portion of the German, civilian population. Johnson, is however, quick to point out that all Germans cannot be painted with the same brush. Some worse than others, while others risked their own lives to try and save their Jewish neighbors.

This is a shocking, and amazingly enlightening narrative. It is an excellent addition to the body of work describing and exploring a horrific period of human history that has become known by the simple moniker - The Holocaust.

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