Historian’s new biography profiles a “Model Nazi”

August 11, 2010

Model Nazi, a new biography about Arthur Greiser and his cruel oversight of western Poland between 1939 and 1945, sheds light on a relatively unknown yet influential figure in Nazi Germany–the man who initiated the first mass gassing of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.

The book’s author, Amherst College history professor Catherine Epstein, says Greiser’s upbringing and personality has parallels to other individuals who ended up playing key roles in genocides throughout history.


Professor Epstein recently sat down
with Peter Rooney, Amherst College
Director of Public Affairs,
to discuss Model Nazi.

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Professor Epstein will be reading from her book and answering questions about it at AmherstCollege’s Frost Library on Wednesday, Sept. 22, at 4 p.m. She recently sat down with Peter Rooney, Amherst College Director of Public Affairs, to discuss Model Nazi, which was named an Alternate Selection for the History Book Club. An edited transcript follows below, along with a link to audio from the interview.

How did you come across the story of Arthur Greiser?

I had become very interested in stories of ethnic cleansing. I was originally interested in the area of western Poland, where Greiser became a leader, and I was going to tell the story of four waves of ethnic cleansing in that area between 1880 and 1950.

However, once I really settled in on this, I realized that each of these waves had been fairly well researched. But I discovered Arthur Greiser and found that his life had spanned these four waves. He was born in the area when it was part of Germany. After World War I, he and his family had to leave the area because it became part of Poland. In the interwar period he was in the town that is now called Gdańsk but then was called Danzig, which was a real outpost of ethnic German nationalism. Danzig had been decoupled from Germany after World War I, and that’s where Greiser made his career and became an important Nazi. I realized that I could tell this ethnic cleansing story through Greiser.

Tell me about the region he controlled—the population, geography, major cities—and about Greiser’s responsibilities there.

He was second in command in Gdańsk during the interwar period. But the area where he was the Nazi territorial leader later on was called the Warthegau. This is a fairly agrarian area, but there are two major cities there; one is Poznań and the other is pronounced “Wooodsh” but spelled Lodz with all sorts of weird accents over it (Łódź). Łódź was a very well known textile area and Greiser made a fuss to get it included in his territory because it had industry whereas Poznań had very little industry.  Poznań was the capital of his fiefdom. About 5 million people lived in this territory–close to 4.2 million Poles, about 400,000 Jews and about 325,000 ethnic Germans.

How long did it take to research and write this book?

It took me seven years to research and write, but that’s actually fast for a historian! I had a sabbatical in 2003-04 and did all the research in Berlin and Poland and various other archives in Germany. I came back, wrote a bunch and had another sabbatical, and then finished it all up. Then it took another year to get it published.

I think what’s very unusual about this book is that it draws on an awful lot of private sources. We don’t have these kinds of private sources for second ranking or even top-ranking Nazis. Greiser wrote hundreds of letters home during World War I, when he was a soldier. He wrote dozens of letters during the 1930s to his mistress, whom he later married. Then he wrote letters from when he was in prison in 1945 and 1946 to his wife. These provide fascinating background that help situate him and help to explain all the other things he did.

How did you come to interview Greiser family members?

A Greiser family member discovered me. I had won a  grant from AmherstCollege and it was dutifully put up on the college website. Greiser’s grandniece Googled his name to see if anyone had written anything and she discovered me.

She in turn put me into contact with Greiser’s only surviving daughter, whom I have now met several times. Her name is Rotraut Fülleborn, and she had spent her life trying not to find out what her father did. She lives in Hamburg and was born in 1930.

She was very willing to talk to me, but the first thing she said was, “You’re going to write about the good my father did, right?” Of course, I asked her, “What’s the good that your father did?” and she said, “Well, he helped some Jews get out of Danzig in 1938.”

That’s actually true. Greiser did do everything he could to make the Jews leave Danzig in 1938. At the time it was viewed as an incredibly brutal act that the Danzigers were forcing out the Jews. It’s only in retrospect that we think that was good because the Jews got out then instead of getting murdered as they would have been later.

How evil was Greiser in comparison to some of the other notorious Nazi figures?

I would say he’s pretty bad, but he was not personally corrupt. Like many Nazis, aside from the evil things he did politically–having people murdered off and things like that–he was actually a pleasant creature. If you read his letters home as an adolescent he seems like a doting son and a nice brother. He lived fairly luxuriously but he was no Göring, who was famous for his luxurious lifestyle. He was pretty nice to his second wife. But what he did was pretty bad. I would say that during and after World War I he lived the experience that made Nazis out of Germans. He lived this hyper-nationalism and in the end he was sort of caught up in this world where it did not seem odd to murder people for nationalistic goals. It seems very odd to us, but it’s not something that’s so unusual, unfortunately.

Catherine Epstein, Associate Professor of History

Does this book shed any new light about the whys and hows of genocide–on  what motivates people to be part of it and on how the momentum builds to carry it out?

My research does fit in with a strand of research that finds that individuals who come from border lands, from ethnically contested areas, tend to be the most aggressive perpetrators of genocide and ethnic cleansings. Greiser certainly fits that role, along with Adolf Hitler, of course, who was an Austrian, but if you look at even recent cases such as Rwanda, many of the most aggressive perpetrators came from ethnically more contested areas. There does seem to be something to that–people who are the most fearful of losing their lands are the ones who can become the most nasty ethnic cleansers.

I also think that what’s unusual about my work is that I show through Greiser that the policies he adopted in the Warthegau–the bringing in of ethnic Germans, getting rid of Poles and murdering Jews–all fit into a broader program of Germanization. I think you can make an argument that the Nazis were more about the Germanization of all of Eastern and Central Europe. The Final Solution was part of this, but it wasn’t even intended to be the main part.

Tell me a bit about Greiser’s personality and his relationship to his family.

Let me explain why the book is called Model Nazi. Once Hitler put Greiser in charge of the Warthegau area in 1939, Greiser immediately started talking about how he wanted to make it a model Gau, or territory. What I argue in the book is that throughout his career Greiser was trying to forge himself into a model Nazi. Why would he do this?

It turns out he had all these biographical strikes against him:

He fought in World War I, as a combat pilot, but he was shot down almost immediately. He appears to have had a mental breakdown in the summer of 1918. He was a Freemason in the 1920s and Hitler and the Nazis detested Freemasonry. They felt it was almost as bad as being a Jew. It’s likely that Greiser was one of the highest ranking Nazis to have been a Freemason at all. Greiser had a very nasty divorce in 1934, just when the Nazis were trying to win an important election in Danzig, and he joined the Nazi Party in 1929–pretty late for a territorial leader.

Greiser, I argue, really suffered from inadequacies and he felt he could never be a good enough Nazi. He’s got these personal insecurities that made a difference in his career and propelled him to some really radical notions, which, in a different constellation and had he felt more politically secure, he might not have done. I think those personal reasons can help explain his actions.

How did Greiser treat Poles in the region?

Very nastily. He adopted anti-Polish policies that were the harshest policies throughout occupied Poland.  These ranged from lower food rations to different park benches to not being allowed to go to museums, theaters or restaurants. There was very little schooling for Polish kids. What one might call an Apartheid regime was set up.

Greiser was very eager to prevent Poles from reproducing, so if you were a Pole you couldn’t marry until the age of 28 if you were a man and 25 if you were a woman. He actually wanted to murder 35,000 Poles who had tuberculosis, but in the end Hitler said no.

And he was responsible for initiating the first mass gassings of the Final Solution?

Yes, Greiser really did initiate the first mass gassing of Jews in Europe. These were Jews who were moved from the Łódź ghetto, which was the second largest ghetto in all of Nazi-occupied Europe, second only to Warsaw. Those Łódź Jews were murdered in Chełmno, which is not one of the best-known murder camps but was the first to go into operation.

There’s been some debate about whether he was really responsible, whether he was taking orders or doing this on his own. My research comes down pretty strongly on the side of, “He did it, he was the one seen in charge, he was the one who issued certain orders in order to have the mass gassings begin.”

How did Greiser meet his end?

He was tried and sentenced to death by a Polish Court in July 1946. He was the first person convicted according to Nuremberg concepts.

Is he known in Poland? Is he a notorious figure there?

Your average Pole on the street would not know Greiser. Even your average Pole in western Poland wouldn’t know him. But 15,000 people came to his hanging in July 1946, so it was a large public hanging.

Why are books, movies and television shows about the Nazis so fascinating to people?

If we think of the 20th Century, the Holocaust is its nadir. It’s the fulfillment of evil, particularly evil in a supposedly civilized land. The Holocaust and Nazism are really important to think about when we think about how societies go wrong. And these are modern societies, not unlike our own. In that sense it makes sense that people are really interested in Nazis.



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