Mary Fulbrook, a distinguished scholar of German history who teaches at University College London, has written in “A Small Town Near Auschwitz” a richly and painfully detailed examination of “those Germans who, after the war, would successfully cast themselves in the role of innocent ‘bystanders,’ even claiming they ‘had never known anything about’ ” the Holocaust. Her specific focus is on a man named Udo Klausa, but she casts a far wider net:

“These people have almost entirely escaped the familiar net of ‘perpetrators, victims and bystanders’; yet they were functionally crucial to the eventual possibility of implementing policies of mass murder. They may not have intended or wanted to contribute to this outcome; but, without their attitudes, mentalities, and actions, it would have been virtually impossible for murder on this scale to have taken place in the way that it did. The concepts of perpetrator and bystander need to be amended, expanded, rendered more complex, as our attention and focus shifts to those involved in upholding an ultimately murderous system.”

Klausa served for part of the war as “Landrat,” or “Chief Executive of the Landkreis or County of Bedzin,” in southern Poland, not far north of what are now the borders with the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Nazi Germany seized Bedzin, along with the rest of Poland, in 1939 and promptly began the ghastly process of rendering it Judenfrei, or free of Jews. At the start of the war, “nearly one-half (some 24,495 or more) of the town’s 54,000 inhabitants . . . were Jewish.” The Nazis went about their business efficiently: “Within less than four years after the German invasion, virtually half the population of the town of Bedzin — the Jewish half . . . were dead.” A survivor of Auschwitz returned to Bedzin in 1945 and reported that “only 160 [Jews] were registered . . . and I assume that even these figures are too high.”

By any civilized measure, it is an appalling story. To Fulbrook it became even more so because the Landrat’s wife, Alexandra, “had been the closest schoolfriend of my own mother; in due course, the former Landrat’s wife became my own godmother, and indeed, in one of my middle names, Alexandra, I am even partly named after her.” She “knew Klausa personally, and all my life have been connected to the Klausa family in ways that, once I discovered Udo Klausa’s former role, made me acutely uncomfortable.”

Her mother, a “committed Christian” but “of Jewish descent,” fled Germany before the war, living in Spain before settling in England; her friendship with Alexandra revived after the war, and they remained close, though certain subjects apparently never were discussed. In considering Klausa’s career as Landrat, Fulbrook has labored mightily to strike the proper balance between professional historian and family friend, and she has succeeded: The judgment she reaches is unequivocal but fair.

‘A Small Town Near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust’ by Mary Fulbrook (Oxford Univ.)

Born in 1910 “in a traditionally Prussian area of Silesia,” Klausa wanted “to follow in his father’s footsteps in the German civil service” and succeeded as a quite young man: “Intelligent, hard-working, ambitious, articulate, and charming in manner, conventionally handsome and with appropriate social connection,” Klausa “was in some senses paradigmatic of many who considered themselves to be ‘decent Germans’ and who sustained the Nazi regime, while distinguishing themselves from those they saw as the ‘real’ or ‘fanatic’ Nazis, and then realized only too late just what depths of criminality this regime actually entailed.” He “was not an independent initiator of Nazi policies, but he faithfully implemented directives passed on to him by his superiors.” Like Adolf Eichmann, he just followed orders.

Whether Klausa ever had on his own hands the blood of Jewish or other victims of Nazi violence is not known, though Fulbrook considers it possible, but he certainly was one of the many who “did indeed just go along with Nazism out of a diffuse sense of not wanting to stand out against the herd, not wanting to miss career opportunities, not wanting to draw adverse attention to themselves.”

With bodies and blood in the streets of Bedzin, with the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau “a mere 25 miles away down the railway tracks,” Klausa surely was fully aware of what was happening in what was at least nominally his jurisdiction. Yes, he tried repeatedly to get into the armed forces and thus presumably to get away from the systematic murder all around him — yes, too, his wife repeatedly mentioned in letters home that he was in a “nervous state,” again presumably because of the murders — but he was a good Nazi to the end, and afterward, as “a loyal and committed civil servant in the Federal Republic of Germany: a convinced democrat, a well-respected administrator, and an upstanding citizen,” he continued to insist that his hands were clean. Fulbrook writes:

“In short, those who had been involved in running the German system in a wide variety of capacities in the area later professed that they had seen and heard nothing at all while an estimated 85,000 people in total were deported in stages out of the towns, villages, and surrounding localities and through the ghettos of Bedzin and Soisnowiec on their way to labour camps and the gas chambers of Auschwitz. These Germans all claimed, however implausibly, that they had been working late, were engaged in other duties, away on holiday, attending a son’s wedding — or, in Klausa’s case, had ‘disappeared’ to the front — at the time of any violent incident or deportation that they might have been been expected to have witnessed; and they had supposedly only at a later date gleaned — or at second hand, by being told — something of what had allegedly taken place.”

Fulbrook is quite right to say that “the tragedy, for Klausa, as for so many rising civil servants of this generation, was that he came to maturity at precisely the moment Hitler came to power.” In trying to lead an ordinary, decent life — and we have no reason to believe that he wanted to do otherwise — Klausa was given a terrible choice: to choose another career and abandon his hopes for himself and his young family, or to go along, “putting the policies of Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich into effect — with particularly virulent implications in the eastern territories of the Reich.”

Fulbrook, torn between her obligations as a historian and her longing “to protect family friends, the surviving members of Klausa’s family,” ultimately reaches what seems to me the only conclusion that is both fair and honest:

“I can see no evidence whatsoever of Klausa having tried in practice to temper or alter the direction of Nazi policies, and much to suggest that he behaved in ways that more than satisfied his superiors. According to his son, Udo Klausa’s real value to the regional government was in his superior administrative abilities and not in any particular commitment to or enthusiasm for specifically anti-Jewish policies, in which he was less than actively involved. Yet ‘mere administration’ in such a context and system was intrinsically deeply compromised and inevitably effected on racial lines. . . . However much I would like to have persuaded myself otherwise, I cannot help but conclude that, whatever Klausa’s perhaps ambivalent inner feelings, the way he behaved had horrendous historical consequences; and hence to have played any such role in this system was morally wrong.”

In reviewing this fine book, I have chosen to emphasize Fulbrook’s account of Klausa’s career as Landrat, but she narrates this within the larger context of what happened in and around Bedzin during those awful years. Many of the stories she tells are gruesome, and reading them is not easy, but they are absolutely necessary to an understanding — even if a tentative and limited one — of what happened then and there, and why the likes of Udo Klausa, decent though they may have been at heart, cannot be permitted to escape the judgment of history.


Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust

By Mary Fulbrook

Oxford Univ. 421 pp. $34.95