The moral degradation of the Nazis extended from Munich in the 1920s to Budapest in 1944. Boorish posturing in Munich was transformed when the Nazis became the government (1933). Their rhetoric was codified into the Nuremberg Laws (1935) reaching a predictable denouement in 1938 when Kristallnacht occurred. The barbaric Final Solution (1941) promoted the dehumanisation of the Europes Jewish population and pervasive slaughter. Notwithstanding these hellish events, what occurred in Budapest set horrific lows. In Budapest, Nazis decided that Jews were a commodity to be traded. Western Allies were offered Hungarian Jews for trucks, or taking ‘responsibility’ for their slaughter in Auschwitz. Nazi psychopaths negotiated with the western Allies in various locations using Jews as intermediaries.
Adolf Eichmann orchestrated the destruction of Europe’s last remaining Jewish population centre. Eichmann wanted to promote his career by impressing Himmler with an efficiently organised destruction of the Hungarian Jewish population. His glittering career depended on pleasing Himmler. So Himmler’s proposal that Jews should be traded for trucks and other equipment caused him no moral qualms whatsoever. Eichmann’s unimaginative managerial approach led Hannah Arendt to describe him as banal’*. Given the military situation in eastern Europe in 1944 the Germans definitely needed military equipment and trading Jews appeared to them to be an elegant way of getting that equipment. This point made their proposal more likely to be sincere so far as the Western Allies were concerned.
The battle of Stalingrad (Aug. ’42- Feb ’43) marked the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany. Only delusional Nazis misinterpreted this seismic event. Yet the slaughter of Jews intensified. Albert Speer** recognised the insanity of destroying labour during a period of labour shortages and he instigated both slave labour and forced labour of prisoners of war (from August ’42). So there was a shift in the principles underpinning the Final Solution (Jan ’42) almost immediately. Speer was a dedicated Nazi like Eichmann, but his managerial instincts shuddered at the folly of destroying manpower in an era of total warfare. Speer had no moral problems with using slave labour. The Nazis’ shift after 1942 demonstrated amorality. Individual Nazis corruptly applied themselves to exploiting Nazi domination, Goering led the way by criminally looting art collections. Lower ranking Nazis sold freedom to the desperate. Wealthy Jewish families bought their way out of Budapest (45 members of the Weiss family escaped to Portugal through bribery for example).
Himmler, Eichmann’s chief, understood the existential meaning of Stalingrad. His tour de horizon developed a new war strategy, which was incredible but commanded respect amongst his minions. Himmler wanted a separate peace with the western Allies and a free hand in the war against the Soviets. Selling Hungarian Jews was part of this strategy. They were to be traded at a rate of one truck per 100 Jews. Himmler’s negotiation strategy included a personal guarantee that the trucks would only be used on the eastern front. Presumably he felt, possibly accurately, that the alliance between east and west was purely pragmatic and that they could be divided.
Eichmann needed ‘allies’ in the Jewish community and he created a pact between Zionist leaders and the SS/Gestapo. Kastner was the key man with whom Eichmann negotiated (see addendum) giving a chilling insight to the amoral behaviour of all concerned. The deal didn’t come off, as it meant that the Allies would have had to abandon the Soviets, though they did this immediately after the war, making Himmler’s calculation absolutely correct. So why was this the final act of moral degradation?
The grotesque rationale which the Nazis used to ‘justify’ inflicting dehumanisation of Jews in the 1920s and 1930s developed into industrial slaughter from 1941. Auschwitz is a by-word for a living hell and yet the events in Budapest exceeded even that in moral depravity. Nazi reasoning was abandoned in order to commodify Jews. Pay or they die! This formalised the pervasive corruption of Nazi SS men into state policy and the total abandonment of Nazi ‘principles’.
Only Heinrich Himmler could turn off the liquidation machine. It was in 1944, the year of the assassination attempt on Hitler, when Reichsführer Himmler took over as commander of the Reserve Army, that he authorized me to propose an exchange: one million Jews for 10,000 winterized trucks with trailers. The World Jewish Organization could decide for itself what Jews it wanted to choose. We asked only that they get us 10,000 trucks. Thanks to Himmler’s directive, I could assure them, on my word of honor, that these trucks would be used only on the Eastern front. As I said at the time, “When the 10,000 winterized trucks with trailers are here, then the liquidation machine in Auschwitz will be stopped”.
In obedience to Himmler’s directive I now concentrated on negotiations with the Jewish political officials in Budapest. One man stood out among them, Dr. Rudolf Kastner***, authorized representative of the Zionist movement. This Dr. Kastner was a young man about my age, an ice-cold lawyer and a fanatical Zionist. He agreed to help keep the Jews from resisting deportation and even keep order in the collection camps if I would close my eyes and let a few hundred or a few thousand young Jews emigrate illegally to Palestine. It was a good bargain. For keeping order in the camps, the price of 15,000 to 20,000 Jews – in the end there may have been more – was not too high for me.
Except perhaps for the first few sessions, Kastner never came to me fearful
of the Gestapo strong man. We negotiated entirely as equals. People forget that. We were political opponents trying to arrive at a settlement, and we trusted each other perfectly. When he was with me, Kastner smoked cigarettes as though he were in a coffee house. While we talked he would smoke one aromatic cigarette after another, taking them from a silver case and lighting them with a little silver lighter. With his great polish and reserve he would have made an ideal Gestapo officer himself.
http://www.fantompowa.net/Flame/arendt.htm Quoted from an interview Eichmann gave to Life magazine 28th November and 5th December 1960
*Hannah Arendt Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report in the Banality of Evil 1994
**Reich Minister for Armaments and Munitions; Chief of the Todt Organisation. Astonishingly he wasn’t sentenced to death at the Nuremberg Trials.
***Assassinated in 1958