“The First Killings of the Holocaust,” an op-ed by Timothy W. Ryback in today’s International Herald Tribune, describes the surprising impact of Joseph Hartinger, “little more than a middle-aged civil servant with a wife and five-year-old child at home,” upon the genocidal plans of Germany’s Nazi regime.
Ryback’s article focuses on the impact mid- to low-level officials can have on government policy, an idea the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation has made a cornerstone of its genocide prevention programs. In documenting the ripple effects of such a “small fish” in the Nazi government, Ryback exposes the fallacy that many to this day continue to believe: that genocidal governments are monolithic, void of dissenters, and impossible to change from within.
On April 12, 1933, “four Jews — Arthur Kahn, Ernst Goldmann, Rudolf Benario and Erwin Kahn — were executed in precisely that order at a Nazi camp in the obscure Bavarian hamlet of Prittlbach.” Ryback marks this as the first genocidal killing of Jews by the Nazis, and notes that the main characteristics of the process by which these four men were killed — intentionality, chain-of-command, selection, and execution — mirrored (scale and efficiency aside) the distinguishing traits of the Holocaust.
Hartinger was the lawyer assigned to investigate the men’s death, and instead of accepting the initial statement from his superiors — that the four men were shot trying to escape a detention facility — he initiated a formal inquiry. To Hartinger’s suggestion that a serial killing of Jews had taken place, his boss said even the Nazis wouldn’t do such a thing, and terminated the case. Hartinger persisted, launching indictments against the commanding officer and three other SS men at Prittlbach.
Surprisingly, the commandant was removed, and the killings of Jews temporarily stopped. To Hartinger, this revealed the weakness of the still evolving Nazi regime. At the time the Nazis were still very sensitive to international opinion, and had not consolidated power in Germany enough to ignore the orders of the president, Paul von Hindenburg, who possessed the constitutional authority to dissolve the Nazi government and dismiss Hitler as chancellor. Hartinger included all of this in his memoirs, which Ryback uses to pinpoint “that tenuous phase of an emerging genocidal process when intercession could have disrupted and derailed the horrific and now seemingly inevitable outcome.”
For would-be genocide preventers, this story is important because it shows that even genocidal governments are not monolithic. Their goals may not be universally accepted or even known, which leaves them open to undermining in the early stages of their consolidation of power.
With this in mind, the Auschwitz Institute encourages the mid-level government and military officials from around the world who take part in our programs to be on the lookout for opportunities like the one Joseph Hartinger had, so when the time comes, they too can help halt the genocidal process.
Photo: Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation