imageFor Nazi perpetrator Arthur Greiser, it wasn't just about murdering Jews.By Emily Gold Boutilier

For many years, Holocaust historians focused mostly on how Nazi policy evolved from persecution of the Jews to deportation to murder. More recently, though, scholars have placed new import on the minds and motives of Nazi perpetrators, seeking to understand why they did what they did.

Still, few historians have found a way inside the heads of mid-level Nazi officials, including the regional party leaders known as Gauleiters. Catherine Epstein, associate professor of history, is at work on the first major biography of Arthur Greiser, a Gauleiter who, as leader of the Warthegau, an area in western Poland annexed to the Third Reich, oversaw the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Poles and the first mass gassing of Jews.

The Warthegau, part of which had once belonged to Germany, was Greiser’s childhood homeland, and his primary aim as Gauleiter, Epstein says, was to make the area German again. To that end, he imported German people, schools, furniture and architecture. He even planted new trees in an effort to make the climate more like that of Germany.

Greiser condoned the murder of Polish intelligencia and, in 1941, got approval to send 100,000 Jews from the Warthegau’s Lodz Ghetto to the gas chambers. The many Jews who remained were forced into slave labor, Epstein says, creating the furniture and buildings that Greiser so favored.

“It’s not just about murdering Jews,” says Epstein, who has interviewed Greiser’s daughter and read his letters. “It’s about transforming the entire region and making it German. Anti-Semitism is not what pushed him forward.”

Mark Roseman, a Holocaust historian at Indiana University, says Epstein’s work confirms a small number of other studies showing ethnic nationalism to be more important to Nazis than straightforward anti-Semitism. “This is a finding,” he says, “that may well apply to quite a lot of the important figures.”
Greiser was hanged in 1946. The only existing book about him is in Polish and filled with errors, Epstein says. She expects to finish her manuscript in the spring.    

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.