For years I taught Holocaust history and showed my students the film “Europa, Europa” based on the life of Slomo Perel, a story about a young Jewish boy who joins the Hitler Youth and winds up in the Wehrmacht as a means of avoiding persecution and death. I often wondered how many other young Jews did the same and fought for the Nazi regime. The answer to that question is clearly laid out in Bryan Mark Rigg’s study, HITLER’S JEWISH SOLDIERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF NAZI RACIAL LAWS AND MEN OF JEWISH DESCENT IN THE GERMAN MILITARY.
Mischlinge is defined as “half caste, mongrel or hybrid,” the key term that permeates Rigg’s narrative and the vehicle used to categorize half and quarter Jews as designated by the Nazis after the Nuremberg Blood Laws of 1935. According to Rigg perhaps 150,000 Mischlinge served in the German military and Adolf Hitler played a central role in the process.
As Rigg develops his narrative a number of things become clear. The Nazi reaction to racial laws was not consistent and, in many cases, appeared hypocritical as many Nazis including Hermann Goring, Head of the Luftwaffe did not conform to racial laws. Many military officials believed that half and quarter Jews were experienced and excellent soldiers who they would need in combat and found Hitler’s anti-Semitism to be irrelevant to the Wehrmacht. The war was paramount and the use of Mischlinge at least up until the invasion of Russia in June 1941 was the primary concern of German generals. Following the summer of 1941 more and more Mischlinge would be thrown out of the Wehrmacht and deported to die in Hitler’s ovens as Martin Bormann, a rabid anti-Semite who opposed the concept of the Mischlinge serving in the German military would become Hitler’s secretary and right hand man.
Riggs is determined to explain that the lack of uniformity on the part of Nazis toward Mischlinge was very confusing for these half and quarter Jews and created an Eriksonian identity crisis as they suffered from extreme role confusion. Many realized that the only way to survive was to enlist or be drafted into the Wehrmacht and prove themselves to be brave and outstanding soldiers. They believed that this could save their families in addition to themselves. Many tried to shed their Jewishness as soon as society allowed and others who fought for Austria and Germany in World War I believed that the assimilation they achieved through their service would assist them. In the end this approach did not save most from death, though a large number did survive some through luck, some through perseverance and playing the Nazi system ingeniously, and lastly, some received special exemptions from Hitler himself who was intimately involved in categorizing people reflecting his obsession over racial policy.
Riggs approach to his topic does not lead to a smoothly written monograph. In fact, it reads like a well cited dissertation as he relates countless examples of individuals within the Wehrmacht, the Nazi hierarchy, and Jewish citizens who were greatly affected by Nazi racial policy and the categorization of the Mischlinge. Riggs stresses the confusion felt by Nazi leadership as the Mischlinge were part German and could be a significant asset in the war. But Hitler despised most of them as he saw them as invisible and with the ability to infect the Aryan with their inferior blood.
For the Mischlinge themselves they would be deprived of citizenship, the rights to sleep with Aryans, university education, etc. The racial laws forced Mischlinge to dramatically alter their lifestyle “causing many to live without confidence.” The result was numerous divorces as people tried to protect themselves, children disowned, and many grandparents rejecting their grandchildren. In this instance Riggs needs to provide more than anecdotal evidence in discussing how families were destroyed and how individuals came to terms with their loss of identity.
For the Nazis it was very difficult to identify Mischlinge and further they did not have the necessary resources to accomplish the task. Riggs does provide a historical breakdown of the number of Jews that had fought in the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, and other conflicts to arrive at his 150,000 figure which seems accurate. For the Mischlinge most were unaware they were even Jewish until after 1933.
Riggs effort is well researched. He provided voluminous foot notes, a strong bibliography, in addition to interviewing over 400 Mischlinge and their relatives, and received access to many of their personal records, both in their possession and government archives.
Despite the valuable information that Riggs provides the title of the book is misleading as historian Richard J. Evans argues that the monograph is not about Jews as is commonly understood, but about Mischlinge or people that were categorized as half or quarter Jews, many of which were unaware that they were Jews in the first place. These people were neither Jewish by their own identity, religious law, or even Nazi law. The book’s title is a teaser because it appears to the uninformed that the book is about Jews in the Wehrmacht which is not accurate and many of these Mischlinge were anti-Semites themselves. Interestingly as historian Jeremy Noakes argues less than 10% of half Jews saw themselves as Jewish, and only 1.2% of quarter Jews considered themselves as Jewish. Riggs had an opportunity to explore the nature of Jewish identity beyond Nazi definitions, but he chooses to forgo that opportunity. Further, Riggs relates that with few exceptions, none of the men he interviewed had any idea of the abuse and massacres that occurred as the Nazis tried to exterminate German and European Jewry. Riggs concludes that “like most other Germans, many Mischlinge knew about deportation, but did not equate them with systematic murder.” Further, Mischling serving in the Wehrmacht did not understand what was happening to their loved ones. Most claimed they learned what happened to their relatives after the war.
Riggs is successful in digging up a great deal of fascinating detail, but he does not really add to the historiography of Nazi Germany except for Hitler’s obsession with minute points of racial doctrine and how that concern was translated and executed by Wehrmacht leadership and German soldiers in general. I agree with David J. Fine in his H-Net Review in the Humanities and Social Sciences of July 2004 that the book “will be of interest to students of the Wehrmacht and Nazi racial policy, [but] it falls short of exploring the bigger questions of the role of Jews in supporting the Nazi state or of German soldiers’ acknowledgement of their role as perpetrators in the Holocaust.”