Hitler's genocidal henchman
BIOGRAPHY: Model Nazi: Arthur Greiser and the Occupation of Western PolandBy Catherine Epstein Oxford University Press, 433pp. £30
ON A SUNNY morning in July 1946 a vast crowd of 15,000 Poles attended a public hanging in the recently liberated city of Poznan. The man executed that day was Arthur Greiser, the former Nazi Party leader in the so-called Warthegau, a part of western Poland annexed to Germany after the invasion of September 1939.
Few people outside Germany and Poland will remember Greiser today. Yet at the peak of his career during the war he was arguably one of the most powerful local Nazi administrators in Hitler’s empire. From his headquarters in Poznan Greiser carried out a ruthless policy of Germanisation in western Poland, a policy that aimed at total control over the conquered population, the obliteration of its former national character and the extermination of all those whose existence could not be reconciled with Nazi ideology. The utopia of an ethnically cleansed Nazi empire was to be created through the identification of “valuable” racial stock among the non-German populations and the parallel expulsion and murder of those deemed “racially unsuitable”.
Greiser’s fiefdom was the territory in which the Nazis came closest to realising this dystopian vision, despite the enormous scale of the bloody task ahead of them: close to five million people lived in the Warthegau in 1940, and almost 4.2 million of them were Poles, 400,000 were Jews and just over 325,000 were German. Greiser was not easily deterred by unfavourable statistics. In transforming the Warthegau into a “German space” he pursued a ruthless dual policy of expelling and murdering Poles and Jews while resettling up to 500,000 ethnic Germans in his fiefdom.
In her excellent new book, Model Nazi, the American historian Catherine Epstein explores how Greiser became a key figure in the execution of Hitler’s murderous plans for eastern Europe. Based on previously untapped sources, including private letters from the 1930s and interviews with Greiser’s surviving relatives and former associates, she provides a refreshingly sober and balanced account of Greiser’s life, an account that avoids traditional cliches about Nazi perpetrators and aptly describes the twists and turns that transformed a “normal” young man from Germany into a perpetrator of genocide.
Born in 1897, Greiser came from a middle-class family in the Prussian province of Posen, an ethnically diverse part of imperial Germany. In Greiser’s youth the German minority made up the province’s ruling elite, but Poles constituted close to two-thirds of the population. Shortly after the Great War broke out, in 1914, Greiser volunteered for military service like millions of other young men in Europe at the time. Over the next four years he served as a scout, aerial observer and combat pilot. After years at the front he experienced Germany’s humiliating defeat, in November 1918, and the outbreak of severe ethnic violence in his home town: in December 1918 a Polish uprising led to the loss of the Posen province to the new state of Poland.
The dual experience of defeat and ethnic conflict radicalised Greiser’s political convictions. He joined the Nazi party in 1929 and quickly rose in its ranks to become senate president of the free city of Danzig, then under the formal control of the League of Nations. The outbreak of war between Germany and Poland in September 1939 propelled Greiser into the position of Nazi territorial leader of the Warthegau, a position that he would hold on to until the Red Army marched into western Poland in the spring of 1945. Shortly after the end of the second World War, in May 1945, Greiser was extradited to Poland and sentenced to death for crimes against humanity.
Apart from providing the first scholarly account of Greiser’s intriguing life in English, Epstein’s findings reinforce two important trends in recent scholarship on the Third Reich. First, she makes a convincing case for examining Greiser’s anti-Jewish policies within the broader context of Nazi Germanisation policies. As several recent studies have shown, plans for the ethnic “cleansing” of Nazi-occupied Europe went far beyond the Holocaust, whose implementation Greiser oversaw in western Poland. The Holocaust was the beginning, not the end, of Hitler’s murderously ambitious plans for postwar Europe. Had the Nazis triumphed in the second World War, eastern Europe’s Slavic populations would have experienced similar waves of expulsion and murder.
Secondly, Epstein’s biography further undermines the traditional understanding of Nazi leaders as either insane criminals or coldly rational technocrats of death – images that dominated in the first decades after the second World War. Epstein shows that there was nothing in Greiser’s childhood and youth that made his subsequent conversion to genocidal extremism inevitable. Just like most of the other leading figures of the Third Reich’s terror apparatus, including Himmler and Heydrich, Greiser had no premeditated plan in 1939 to implement the largest genocide in history. One of the great strengths of Epstein’s biography is the way in which she traces Greiser’s gradual radicalisation within the general context of war, nationalist obsessions, and jealous Nazi infighting, thereby providing a balanced interpretation of how ordinary men turn into mass murderers.
In so doing, Epstein succeeds in turning the spotlight on the men who implemented Nazi policies on the ground. For many years the mass murder of the Jews in particular was seen as a particularly horrible example of the degeneration of modern bureaucracy and the effects of dehumanising technology that found its ultimate expression in the anonymous killing factories of Auschwitz. In reality, neither the killing of the Jews nor the persecution of Poles and other “undesirables” was an impersonal process. Much of the killing was carried out through face-to-face shootings, and the key decisions were often made by men on the ground like Greiser.
For all of these reasons Epstein’s book is a most welcome addition to the vast literature on the Third Reich and an important contribution to the debate on the origins, manifestations and consequences of racially motivated mass murder.
Robert Gerwarth is director of UCD’s Centre for War Studies (warstudies.ie)