The Banality of Intellect: Christian Ingrao’s “Believe and Destroy”

By Jan MieszkowskiJuly 21, 2013

The Banality of Intellect: Christian Ingrao’s “Believe and Destroy”

Believe and Destroy by Christian Ingrao

Triptych image: Gerhard Katz, photographer unknown, 1926


Intellectuals cannot be good revolutionaries; they are just good enough to be assassins.

— Jean-Paul Sartre, Dirty Hands

WHO'S AFRAID OF THE INTELLECTUALS? Perhaps it’s the same people who can’t get enough of them. Brad Pitt may have been the leading man in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), but it was Christoph Waltz as SS Colonel Hans Landa, “The Jew Hunter,” who stole the show. From the film’s opening scene, Landa is an ambiguous figure, an urbane dandy possessed of great cunning and a remarkable facility with languages yet prone to the exaggerated showmanship of a buffoon. While the pleasurably unnerving spectacle of the evil genius/jester is a venerable trope, Landa complements his campy behavior with the sober declaration that he is far too intelligent to be a true believer in the National Socialist cause and should simply be regarded as a careerist trying to excel at his job. “I’m a detective. A damn good detective,” he tells his American adversaries when they taunt him with his ominous nickname. “Finding people is my specialty. So naturally, I worked for the Nazis finding people. And yes, some of them were Jews.”

Landa is a comic figure, of course, but it is not clear whether he is meant to lampoon the incoherence of our ideas about the Nazis or the vanity of intellect itself. The instability of his persona is a reminder that the study of Hitler’s Germany and the Holocaust is still haunted by questions about what kind of people could perpetrate such unspeakable crimes. One might presume Nazism and intellectualism to be incompatible. In Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), Hannah Arendt notoriously declared that Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief organizational engineers of the Holocaust, was an obedient functionary rather than an evil monster and had “no insane hatred of Jews.” “Neither perverted nor sadistic,” Eichmann was rather, Arendt argued, “terribly terrifyingly normal.” For Arendt, the key to understanding Eichmann’s behavior lies in his “quite authentic inability to think.” Unable to grasp what anyone else’s viewpoint might be — having read, Arendt muses, no more than one or two serious books in his life — Eichmann was condemned to the oblivion of obtuseness. This supercilious judgment is often held up as proof of Arendt’s intellectual elitism. Would she, one wonders, have taken a cosmopolitan Nazi like Landa more seriously?

In fact, Arendt was well aware that there was a place for the thinking man in the Third Reich. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, she goes out of her way to observe that the heads of the Einsatzgruppen, the paramilitary death squads of the SS that conducted mass killings on the Eastern front, were members of an intellectual elite. How did these men, who did not, unlike Eichmann, suffer from a “lack of imagination,” become an integral part of a sustained genocidal operation of unparalleled scale? The Belgian historian Christian Ingrao’s Believe and Destroy: Intellectuals in the SS War Machine attempts to answer this question.

In the 1990s, a high-profile debate took place between historians Christopher R. Browning and Daniel J. Goldhagen about the participation of “ordinary” Germans, people with no party affiliation and little or no ideological indoctrination, in the Holocaust. In Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992), Browning looked at a unit of middle-aged working-class men and concluded that their willingness to carry out orders to execute Jews was proof of their respect for authority and the power of peer pressure, and not evidence of deep-seated anti-Semitism. Four years later, in Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996), Goldhagen vehemently contested this conclusion, arguing that an “eliminationist anti-Semitism” was a cornerstone of German culture and crucial for understanding the readiness of individuals such as Browning’s policemen to slaughter civilians. Interest in this dispute was heightened by an exhibition organized by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research entitled “War of Annihilation: Crimes of the Wehrmacht, 1941–1944,” which toured German and Austria from 1995 to 1999. It made a strong case that the German army was actively involved in the planning and implementation of genocide and was not, as many had presumed, a passive bystander to the crimes of the SS.

The past 15 years have seen efforts to complement this research with studies of elite groups at the center of the Nazi world. Ingrao and others have concentrated on the intelligence arm of the SS, the Sicherheitsdienst (“Security Service” — hereafter SD), painting a picture of an extremely professional organization that attracted ambitious, highly educated young men and became a real academic force before serving as the vanguard of genocide. Believe and Destroy focuses on “a group of eighty university graduates: economists, lawyers, linguists, philosophers, historians and geographers.” Drawing on a range of archival sources, Ingrao follows their careers from school and university through their participation in the SD and subsequent efforts to defend themselves in postwar trials. (A dozen members of the group were hanged; most of the others received prison sentences.) He is particularly concerned with the transition from the 1930s, when the SD evolved into an immense surveillance and social science research organization operating inside Germany, to the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, when these men took the first steps toward putting their theories about the Germanification of foreign lands into practice.

The historian Raul Hilberg, who defended Arendt’s account of Eichmann against its many detractors, famously declared that “the German perpetrator was not a special kind of German” but inhabited “a remarkable cross-section of the German population.” Given the breadth and diversity of the Nazi phenomenon, Ingrao’s focus on 80 men of similar backgrounds and careers might seem to offer too narrow a perspective from which to draw conclusions about their distinctive qualities. Moreover, his decision to term his objects of study “intellectuals,” while effective as a provocation to the likely audience for his book, confers a monolithic identity on a collection of individuals who may not have conceived of themselves as a homogenous unit, much less as part of an intelligentsia.

Ingrao is well aware of such concerns. While at times he appears to come close to romanticizing his subjects — the opening line of the book is: “They were handsome, brilliant, clever, and cultivated” — these are controlled, ironic gestures, designed to foreground the ways in which myth-making can permeate even the most rigorously positivistic historiography. As much as a piece of empirical research, Believe and Destroy is a book about the methodological challenges confronting the study of Nazism, and the narrow path the historian must navigate through a minefield of potential errors. Ingrao argues that existing scholarship on the Nazi elite has been overly reliant on poorly defined concepts of “ambition,” “careerism,” and “obedience,” and the resulting explanations have been either too abstract or too dependent on a “degraded Freudianism.” Not only have scholars ignored the larger cultural dynamics in which Nazi-era Germans lived and worked, Ingrao claims, they have “artificially bridged [the] gap between statistical reality and psychological life.” As a consequence, analyses of the behavior and motives of the perpetrators of the Holocaust have too often devolved into an unproductive series of oppositional diagnoses, as if the people responsible for the genocide must have been either fanatics or opportunists, free agents or pawns, calculating monsters or functionaries unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As if these constraints were not challenging enough, Ingrao’s “social anthropology of Nazi emotions” aims to avoid what he regards as yet another bad habit of historians, namely their tendency to focus on institutions at the expense of studying informal social groups or individuals. As for the political scientists and sociologists who have explored these phenomena, he maintains that they have neglected the affective dynamics of ideology and the systems of interpellation inherent to Nazi belief systems. Ingrao, himself an archival historian, even argues against any simple privileging of archival research, observing that scholars of the Holocaust have embraced a “myth of archival exhaustiveness,” as if one could gradually approach the truth by amassing “all” the data. In this field, he reminds us, there are “too many archives,” more documents in more languages than anyone could hope to peruse, much less master, in a lifetime.

In the face of this methodological negative theology, one could be forgiven for being unsure what form Ingrao thinks his own analysis should take. At first glance, the results are surprisingly ordinary. Examining the early lives of his 80 subjects, Ingrao relates a familiar story about the collective trauma that beset Germans in the aftermath of the First World War and the ensuing rise of völkisch ideologies. Nazism, he argues, was an eminently flexible system that allowed aspirations for Germany’s restoration and fears of foreign threats to the nation to be coordinated with racial hierarchies. His young SS-officers-to-be

became part of precociously radicalized networks of associations, which deployed intense political activity presented as a defensive struggle against a universal and Protean enemy, an enemy which, on the “home front,” took the shape of the Spartacist, the Social Democrat, the separatist and — already — a Jewishness to which they were profoundly hostile.

All this is relatively well known. The tale becomes less familiar when Ingrao demonstrates that the dissertations of these young scholars (completed in the early 1930s) betray not a crass Nazification of scholarly practices but a more subtle politicization of research that began with the erosion of the boundary between intellectual inquiry and activism. The resulting Volkstumswissenschaften (social sciences focused on national character) were a heady mixture of history, geography, sociology, ethnography, and economics that would slowly come to be dominated by fascist doctrines — a disturbing reminder that there is nothing inherently progressive about interdisciplinarity.

Eighty percent of Ingrao’s group entered the SD between 1934 and 1938, when its authority, and funding, were on the rise. With a broad mandate for surveillance and investigation, members of the department followed the methodological dictates of the academic social sciences in which they had been trained to develop a dynamic account of Germany’s cultural and economic life, in the process producing mountains of memos on energy resources, agriculture, and industry. Charged with scrutinizing everything written by potential enemies of the state, these SD intellectuals also developed a robust hermeneutics of suspicion avant la lettre. While other Nazis were solidifying the Party’s reputation as a band of book-burning hoodlums, these men were immersing themselves in the writings of Jews, Communists, Freemasons, and Social Democrats.

In assessing the motivations and ideological convictions of this group, Ingrao finds the evidence inconclusive. About half were active in the party before joining the SS, although it is not obvious whether they received their jobs due to, or in spite of, their political views. Given that only one of these 80 officers was investigated on suspicion of questionable beliefs, it would appear that they easily negotiated the formal and informal expectations they faced in the workplace as they moved up the career ladder, whatever their private feelings.

Had the SD remained a research and surveillance unit operating solely within German borders, this would be a very different story, primarily of interest to administrative historians. But the advent of Operation Barbarossa in June of 1941 and the Nazi invasion of Soviet territory saw a radical transformation of the agenda as the officers were sent to lead death squads on the Eastern Front. Participating in the drive east was ostensibly an opportunity to implement Nazi plans for the restructuring of lands and peoples on an unprecedented scale. Part war, part ethnic crusade, part redemptive adventure, this campaign was supposed to culminate in the “spatial repression” of over 35 million people and the extermination of another 21 million, freeing up vast swaths of land to be repopulated by a Nordic baby boom. Interspersed among these gruesome projections, Ingrao provides striking details about SS designers’ elaborate prototypes for colonial German villages and their ideas for neo-pagan ceremonies to be observed by the Aryan peasants, in effect placing “these new Volksgemeinschaften under the aegis of belief in an SS god.”

For the most part, however, the SD intellectuals’ duties were less grandiose. Following in the wake of the advancing Wehrmacht, they oversaw the mass killing of civilians, primarily by machine-gunning them into ditches. Given their academic backgrounds and experience, one wonders how easily these men were able to put aside their books and memos and take up such ghastly tasks. While a minority of them never overcame the initial revulsion at the slaughter of noncombatants, Ingrao suggests that a majority of the SD officers appear to have performed in this capacity without obvious adverse psychological consequences. Those who stayed in the field “for a long period […] were apparently not affected by it. They never attempted to obtain leave, and never pleaded family or health difficulties as a way of prolonging their holidays in Germany.” A second group, the largest, participated successfully in the Osteinsatz for shorter tours. What is one to make of this information? Should we be surprised that these individuals were able to carry out their horrific duties so well?

According to Ingrao, considerable effort was taken to make it appear to the SS rank and file as if their murderous operations were part of a larger military enterprise. A complex judicial-military rhetoric was disseminated that sought to legitimate the crimes as defensive measures crucial for the self-preservation of the German people, as well as on utopian grounds, presenting genocide as a precondition for the historically inevitable Germanization of the East. Such efforts were complemented by the intense propaganda visited upon the entire Wehrmacht. Inculcated with stories about the bestiality of their foes and the tyranny of the Jewish rulers of the Soviet Union, German troops, Ingrao argues, “entered Russia in an advanced state of psychosis.” He is less clear about whether the same level of delusion beset the SD officers, who were presumably better informed and more capable of resisting such brainwashing, not least since they helped write the scripts.

Of course, one of Ingrao’s explicit goals is to move beyond vague psychological speculations about how these men were able to stomach their grisly responsibilities. To this end, he proposes to treat violence “as a language,” that is, as a system of performances and representations not reducible to the emotions or intentions of an individual or group of individuals. His aim is to show that the executions were codified rituals with carefully crafted gestures and procedures, all designed to lend the slaughter a veneer of the inevitable while defusing the taboos associated with firing on unarmed women and children. Unfortunately, the precise contours of Ingrao’s proposed analysis remain a bit vague, in part because his commitment to it seems halfhearted. On the one hand, he presents gripping accounts of particular spectacles of violence and their role in imposing order. In one memorable example, he describes how two men were “perched on a lorry positioned under a gallows, and the rope was tied round their necks in front of a crowd of Ukrainian spectators and soldiers of the Wehrmacht.” The locals were “dressed up as if they were on holiday, especially the women accompanied by their children,” while the soldiers laughed as they asked the driver to advance his vehicle slowly so that they could photograph the exact moment the men fell. On the other hand, Ingrao forgoes any discussion of the scene’s implications by declaring that such events may have happened only rarely and can therefore not be accorded paradigmatic significance. As effective as he is at detailing the inner logics of “collective ritualistic frameworks,” he cannot bring himself to generalize from his examples.

This would be less of an issue if Ingrao were willing to put more interpretive pressure on the numerous documents at his disposal. Believe and Destroy cites many shocking texts but offers relatively little commentary on them. At one juncture, Ingrao presents us with a couple of letters a Viennese policeman serving in the SS wrote to his wife. “I have volunteered for a special action tomorrow,” he writes:

I will have a chance to use my pistol for the first time. I have taken 28 bullets. This will probably not be enough. It concerns 12,000 Jews of whom, somehow or other, there are too many in the town, and who need to be killed. I’ll have some nice things to tell you between now and when I get back. But this is enough for today, otherwise you’ll think I’m bloodthirsty.

Beyond the observation that the policeman’s writings are “only one example,” if perhaps not a unique one, of such correspondence, Ingrao has little to say about this remarkable document. In the hands of a different interpreter, much could be done with this sort of text, especially given Ingrao’s stated ambition to understand how competing systems of representation helped shape the Third Reich’s genocidal operations. In this particular letter, there is a tension between the exact quantitative assessments of the task’s parameters (28 bullets, 12,000 Jews) and the vague judgments about the likely results (“somehow or other,” “probably not enough”). The policeman’s sense of precisely when he should end his story (“But this is enough for today, otherwise …”) suggests a concern for the potential emotional impact of his tale at the same time as it forces the reader to wonder what additional information he might have to share. This heightens the ambiguity that surrounds the overarching intention of the letter, which claims that it should be imparting information about “nice things,” and, despite its ostensibly gruesome subject matter, may actually see itself as doing so (“I will have a chance to use my pistol for the first time”). It would be interesting to contrast such a document with transcripts from the trials after the war, also quoted by Ingrao. The violence inherent in the struggle for control of the verbal order, already in evidence in the wartime writings, becomes increasingly explicit in the postwar juridical setting as the exculpatory rhetoric of the accused becomes more and more desperate.

This reluctance to treat any particular phenomenon as part of a larger system, coupled with a tendency to let too many of the documents “speak for themselves,” contributes to the sense that Ingrao’s different pieces of evidence don’t cohere. In a chapter entitled “SS intellectuals confronting defeat,” he describes reactions to the collapse of the Third Reich as follows: “each response was […] of an individual kind. However, these reactions were also a figure of the social structure, since they all fell within a typology of behavior that needs to be analyzed in collective terms.” No effort is made to explain how the individual and social registers relate. Moreover, no less than the psychological researchers from whom he tries to distinguish himself, Ingrao casually invokes concepts — “structure,” “figure,” “typology,” and “collectivity” — with little attention to their internal dynamics or to the discourses from which they are borrowed.

For all the fascinations of the material, the conclusions of Believe and Destroy prove disappointing, largely because it is not entirely clear how they have been reached. Having shown that his 80 SD intellectuals allied “scientific rigor with the demands of Nazi elite militancy,” Ingrao declares that “the internalization of the Nazi belief system was thus a matter of fervor even more than of a political and activist calculation.” His demonstrations, however, only partly support this claim, not least since he also describes Nazism as “a consoling, soothing system of beliefs.” While this book offers insight into some of the defining dynamics of the Third Reich, it ultimately leaves us uncertain whether its group of SS officers really internalized fascist beliefs, or if, like Tarantino’s Landa, they went along with the Führer primarily for the sake of their own careers.

For a study of intellectuals, Believe and Destroy remains curiously coy about who or what intellectuals are and why we might expect their personal and professional experiences to be distinctive in the first place. We thus find ourselves back with Arendt’s Eichmann and Tarantino’s Landa, unsure who is the greater villain: the bland functionary or the brilliant careerist. If Ingrao’s book invites us to reflect on our own prejudices about education, erudition, and moral agency, it only hints at what a more thoroughgoing exposition of the foundational relationships between knowledge, power, and violence might look like.


Jan Mieszkowski is Professor of German and Humanities at Reed College.

LARB Contributor

Jan Mieszkowski is professor of German and Comparative Literature at Reed College. He is the author of Watching War (2012) and Labors of Imagination: Aesthetics and Political Economy from Kant to Althusser (2006).


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