Innocent Bystanders?

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US Marine Corps Reserve Captain P. Dickson interrogated German civilians in the Rhineland in March 1945

US Marine Corps Reserve Captain P. Dickson interrogated German civilians in the Rhineland in March 1945

What are the true sentiments of these people of the cities and towns and villages of the Rhineland? To what extent do they reflect what we must expect as we thrust eastward into the heart of the Reich? To what extent are they Nazis in the accepted sense of the word, and to what extent are they just “Germans”, i.e. German speaking men and women of the Rhine valley? …

None of the civilians interrogated, from the janitor’s wife to the university professor, gave evidence of sensing personal guilt in the slightest degree. That all Germans, regardless of individual political leanings, must bear the mark of shame has simply not occurred to these people. Affirmations of hatred of their “Nazi” masters, expressions of relief at the arrival of the Allies – especially of the Americans – are too frequent and commonplace to merit attention. Some referred to their “Government” as “criminals”, but others, like the janitor’s wife, obstinately declined to employ any term stronger than “those idiots” … who are insisting … upon the senseless destruction of the “Fatherland”. …

No admission was made to a member of the occupying forces that it was a regime composed of anything worse than mentally unbalanced individuals. Again, a complete lack of a sense of guilt. … If, as of course often occurs, Hitler, and now more often Himmler, is named as the chief criminal, the interrogator is left to feel that his subject is in no way related to these men or to their colleagues, that there is no inner connection, no link between the rulers and the ruled. …

If care is not taken, these people may succeed in convincing some of us that in the final analysis, they, as Rhinelanders and Catholics, are nothing more than innocent bystanders at the scene of the crime. …

The long-term problem, the eradication of the Nazi spirit and of German militarism, is closely associated with one of the major difficulties concerning our M.G. men – how to identify a “genuine” Nazi. Screening [for Nazi Party membership] can accomplish a great deal … But in the natural desire to eliminate all suspected Nazi sympathisers, ownership of the Party button is being overestimated as a final criterion. On the other hand, little attention is paid to the degree of support an individual lent to the Party.

  1. What was Dickson’s assessment of Germans’ attitudes towards Nazism and the Nazi leadership?
  2. How did they represent their own involvement?
  3. How significant was membership in the Nazi Party for the Allies to identify “genuine Nazis”?
  4. Do you agree that someone might be a Party member but less implicated than someone who never joined the Party but who supported and benefitted from the regime in other ways?
  5. To what extent are “Guilt” and “Shame” useful to understand Germans’ responses to Nazism?
  6. How did Catholics and the Catholic Church respond to Nazism?

University of Warwick, Modern Records Centre, Richard Crossman Papers, Mss.154/3/PW/1/109-115, Report by US intelligence officer John P. Dickson, ‘Notes on a Trip to Western Rhineland Area,’ 21-28 March 1945.