By Ryan Wu
Dr. Edward B. Westermann, a history professor from Texas A&M University-San Antonio, said at a seminar at Taliaferro Hall last Wednesday that the Nazi drinking rituals during World War II helped facilitate the perpetuation of the Holocaust in the east.
Westermann introduced the lecture by saying that drinking in the military could lead to several physiological problems, including the facilitation of violent behaviors and leading some officers that are moderate-tempered to carry out acts of physical and sexual violence as well.
He said the history of Nazi drinking rituals dates back to the early 1930s, when Hitler’s Stormtroopers would congregate in urban areas and display camaraderie amongst themselves. While they conducted political violence in the Communist neighborhoods, they would drink alcohol and have music playing in the background.
“The verbal ferocity of these songs, the lyrics of the songs that are incorporated into it have been something I wasn’t aware of,” Westermann said.
Although alcoholism was restricted at some levels when the war started, Westermann said, drinking was still widespread among the soldiers because not being able to drink was seen as insociable, according to their social context. They often found amusement by ordering Jewish prisoners to crawl on all fours, or in some cases even committed worse atrocities such as on New Year’s Eve in 1942. On this day, some soldiers went into the Polish ghettos and killed Jews after binge drinking and singing for an entire night.
“It’s hard for us to understand in our contemporary world that there are those who took enjoyment in these kind of activities,” Westermann said.
The most surprising finding for Westermann was the existence of murder banquets where Nazi officers set up drinking stables beside the execution scenes. He said that while the Nazis ate and drank by killing trenches, soldiers would move back and forth to bring prisoners to execution spots. Those who finished executions would go to eat, drink and sing alongside their comrades.
Aside from murder banquets, bars were also common sites for signalling drinking and aggression. He said a bar outside the Warsaw Ghetto that Nazis frequented had murals on the wall depicting a Jew picking up a potato while having a gun pointed at him. A Gestapo officer was seen exiting the bar with a coaster pinned to his blouse depicting the number “1000” in red ink, celebrating his 1000th kill, so alcohol culture was also related to the Nazi mentality of keeping milestones.
“This kind of celebratory nature, with music playing in the background, gives an insight into some of the killing actions we normally wouldn’t think about,” Westermann said.
Sexual violence was also important while considering the implications of Nazi drinking rituals. While sexual assaults were generally frowned upon in Western Europe, in the east they were worsened by drinking. Westermann said a female survivor reported hearing music playing in the background of a concentration camp while a guard assaulted her and yelled, “We have to keep the music playing.”
Westermann concluded by saying understanding the Nazi drinking rituals helps us understand the normalization of killings during World War II and how they reveal the insights into what the perpetrators were thinking.
“This is the way I remember that the things we talk about in academic contexts also relate to personal stories,” he said.
Westermann said he was invited by faculty at this university’s Department of History as he serves his fellowship at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He said looking at the connections between hyper-masculinity and drinking shows us how individuals created their identities amongst their groups and fellow groups, which led to many of their activities during the war.
“Those groups, and those kind of processes helped them become perpetrators,” he said.
Westermann said the implications of such drinking rituals still have relevance today, particularly on college campuses where many teens still engage in alcohol use.
“It’s important to recognize that it’s there because team-building and camaraderie can be a very positive thing, but it can also be a negative thing if alcohol is used in lowering people’s inhibition to do things,” Westermann added.
Mircea Raianu, an assistant professor at the history department, said it was an interesting topic because it connected horrific acts of violence to mundane entertainments like drinking and partying.
He said he was surprised to hear lots of similarities between the Nazi’s hunting rituals and treatment of the native population in many colonial societies.
“The fact he was able to connect that behavior with something happening in Europe, I wasn’t expecting that connection to be made,” Raianu said.