Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Adrian Weale's "SS - A New History"

Been a while away from here - busy launching my new book "Berlin at War" - so a couple of reviews to catch up with...

The first is for Adrian Weale's "The SS - A New History". This review was first published in the Financial Times.

Every writer – and every publisher – cherishes novelty. We all need a new angle, a new interpretation or new material. The word ‘new’, therefore, seems to be the sprinkling of gold dust that accompanies every publication.

So, too Adrian Weale’s new history of the SS. Given that the last large-scale studies of Himmler’s black-clad elite were published a generation or so ago, Weale has certainly timed his book well.

He has also chosen a subject that exerts an enduring if often ghoulish fascination. From its origins as a personal bodyguard to Hitler, the SS developed into the most loyal and ideologically committed organisation in the Third Reich. The very vanguard of Nazism, it was a movement whose authorship and complicity in some of the era’s most heinous crimes would earn it criminal status at the end of the war and the darkest of reputations.

Moreover – and curiously given the acres of print routinely devoted to the subject of Nazism and the Third Reich – there are still questions about the SS that remain to be addressed; such as how a select garde du corps morphed in wartime into a motley body of warriors nearly a million strong; or precisely how the vast economic empire of the SS – which handled everything from the fruit of its prisoners’ labours to the gold teeth of its Jewish victims – was integrated into the wider German economy. Overarching them all, of course, is the question that Weale poses for himself at the outset of his book - how the soldiers of the SS willingly participated in some of the most bestial operations in human history; the mass murder of men, women and children.

There should be much, then, for any new history of the SS to discuss. The organisation’s intellectual and political world, for instance, a curious mix of think-tanks and thugs, high-flown theory and murderous practice, would be worth some investigation.

Also, the new morality of the SS would surely merit a chapter. It was this, after all, that provided the pseudo-philosophical underpinning that enabled many SS men to do what they did. Liberated from ‘outmoded’ concepts such as pity or Christianity, they saw mankind sorted into a league-table of races with Aryans and Nordics at the top and Jews and Slavs consigned to the status of vermin. In their ruthless and murderous treatment of these latter categories, they viewed themselves as soldiers in a Darwinian, life-and-death struggle for racial superiority, through which they would forge the new Germany.

For all its potential, Weale’s book addresses few of these points, however. It is certainly well-constructed and well-paced, providing an easy-reading account of the salient points in the story. It also provides useful potted biographies of the main characters – Himmler and Heydrich – as well as those lesser-known villains such as Christian Wirth, Franz Stangl and Odilo Globocnik, and the solitary hero Kurt Gerstein, who infiltrated the SS solely to report to the outside world on its murderous activities. Yet, crucially, it offers little that is genuinely new.

Weale’s is a competent and engaging synthesis, but there is more to the story, and more is required if the adjective ‘new’ is to be appended to the book with any real justification.

Part of the problem is the author’s choice of sources. Lacking German, it appears, Weale is left with a rather restricted range of material with which to work. Unable to avail himself of the many academic studies and specific investigations that have appeared in recent years, therefore, he concentrates primarily on published, English-language volumes, which though sound, do not provide sufficient depth or variety.

As a result, though there is ample scope for a more thorough-going and thoughtful approach to the subject, Weale’s book is disappointingly pedestrian, telling most readers little that they didn’t already know. Though he tells his story well enough, Weale does not provide enough in the way of a novel approach, a new interpretation, or fresh insights. The ‘new’ history of the SS, it seems, still awaits its author.

© Roger Moorhouse 2010

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