Professor emeritus Henry Lea discusses effects of WWII
Approaching the podium in the University of Massachusetts’ Herter Hall, Henry A. Lea, professor emeritus of German and Scandinavian studies, took a deep breath before he addressed a gathered audience of students and faculty on what was destined to be a sensitive issue.
“It is a difficult topic I’ll have to impose on you because of the subject matter,” Lea began. “Please consider this as much an academic report as much as a historical one.”
The subject matter in question for the lecture, hosted by the UMass department of German and Scandinavian studies on Oct. 27, delved into the ramifications of World War II. The lecture, titled, “Criminals with Doctorates: An SS Officer in the Killing Fields of Russia, as Told by the Jewish Novelist Jonathan Littell,” was an analysis of the novel, “The Kindly Ones” by Jonathan Littell.
Focusing on the Einsatzgruppen case of the Nuremberg trials following Germany’s defeat in the war, the narrator in the novel is an SS officer who becomes a part of the death squads sent out by the Germans across Russia to kill the Jewish population and other “undesirables,” and is later forced to stand trial with his fellow SS officers for such crimes.
For Lea, who was born in Germany but later emigrated to the United States, the Einsatzgruppen case was especially poignant to his past as an interrogator in the American Armed Forces. Working for the U.S., Lea served as an interrogator of prisoners of war and later as an interpreter during the Nuremberg trials, including the trial examined in Littell’s novel. The Nuremberg trials held from Nov. 1945 until Oct. 1946 were a series of tribunals in which the SS forces were tried for crimes against humanity. The SS officers, who were under the command of German officer, Heinrich Himmler, were responsible for carrying out the most severe of the Nazi Party’s crimes against humanity as ordered by Hitler.
From his own viewpoint during the Einsatzgruppen case, Lea said the SS officers seemed to have no sympathy for the people they planned to exterminate.
“I can recall no remorse as was played out in the novel,” Lea said.
As depicted in the novel, Lea read a scene during the trial in which an SS officer defended his actions while also trying to gain some sympathy for what he deemed the psychological suffering of his men who had to carry out the orders.
“The victims knew what was going to happen to them, they were resigned to their fate,” says the officer in the novel. “The men suffered from nervous exhaustion, more so than the people they had to shoot.”
In response to the dismissals of responsibility by the assembled defendants, Lea also read a passage from the novel in which one judge addressed an SS officer who claimed if he had not carried out his orders, his replacement most certainly would have.
To the SS officer in question who was being interrogated about several executions he conducted, the judge stated, “You can never be absolutely sure what the next man is going to do. It is your responsibility and you cannot be sure someone else would have done the same thing. If you had left on that day, nobody would have been shot.”
According to Lea, the rationale of the judge in the case was based on the presumption that the SS police would not have stopped their brutalities until all the Jews had been killed.
In an ironic twist, Lea described how the loyalty of the officers to their home country of Germany did, at times, interfere with the orders they gave in regards to harming their own countrymen. The novel describes one German officer who, upon receiving orders to execute a group of German Jews, refused to do so because they were of his country. The officer received no severe punishment for his disobedience, and after a brief stay in the infantry, he had resumed his position in the SS forces.
The characterization of this German SS officer was, as Lea said, common among some of the German officers. Though, he added, these officers had not given a second thought to the execution of Russian Jews. According to Lea, Russians Jews were “barbaric” to the Germans because they were foreigners; therefore, the Germans were able to detach themselves from their actions in these circumstances.
The SS officer depicted in the novel is described by Lea as a sociopath committed to self-preservation at all costs. Despite all the destruction this officer carries out in the name of Germany, he, according to Lea, disregards all responsibility for his actions with his repeated saying of, “I observe and do nothing.”
According to Lea, the Littell uses heightened narration of events throughout the novel in order to highlight their historical significance, particularly in the depiction of the interrogations. The reality of the devastation left in the wake of the SS Party was inconsequential, according to Lea, because of the unwavering devotion the officers held for both Hitler and their home country of Germany.
“In case Germany loses the war, none of the assembled Nazi leaders would be able to plead ignorance during the trials,” Lea said. “They stand together and fall together.”
Despite having a “shaky plot” and lacking some fluency, Lea said, speaking from his own experience, the novel provides a comprehensive historical account of the atrocities during WWII.
“The novel is remarkable for exposing Nazi crimes in Russia, especially for its wealth of thought provoking ideas,” Lea said.
“The book has dramatized to me that I was a part of an inexplicable event,” Lea said.
Jennifer Heshion can be reached at email@example.com.