…by Jonas E. Alexis and Bryan Mark Rigg
Bryan Mark Rigg has a B.A with Honors from Yale University and a Masters and Ph.D. in history from Cambridge University. He has taught as a lecturer at the American Military University. He also has taught at Phillips Exeter Academy. He has been featured in the New York Times and on programs including NBC Dateline and Fox News. Rigg is the author of Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), which won the William E. Colby Award for Military History, was featured on NBC-TV’s Dateline, and has been translated into eleven languages. He is a former officer in the United States Marine Corps.
Rigg is also the author of Lives of Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers: Untold Tales of Men of Jewish Descent Who Fought for the Third Reich (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009) and The Rabbi Saved by Hitler’s Soldiers: Rebbe Joseph Isaac Schneersohn and His Astonishing Rescue (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004). Rigg is also a partner at www.RiggWealthManagement.com and currently working on a Financial Book.
JEA: When I first read your book back in 2011, I was quite shocked and angry at the same time. I was angry because I started reading about World War II right after I graduated from high school. I spent one summer reading Allan Bullock, William L. Shirer, Robert Waite, Ian Kershaw, John Toland, Hannah Arendt, Israel Gutman, among others, and none of those people even remotely suggested that there were people of Jewish descent in Nazi Germany. Your book was indeed a revelation. Then I thought to myself, “Why hasn’t anyone written about this before?”
Shortly after I read your book, I contacted an author who wrote a Holocaust book which was published by the University of California. During the course of our correspondence, I bluntly asked him, “Why didn’t you point out the fact that there were people of Jewish descent in Nazi Germany in your book?” He said he knew these facts but that was not the subject of his book! The book was 360 pages long, but he couldn’t even remotely point out that fact out.
Thank you so much for being so courageous and truthful. How has the book been received?
BMR: Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers has been published in numerous languages and with great reviews. I continue to get fan mail every month, sometimes every week, even though the book was originally published in 2002. I have heard from many people, most notably, Michael Berenbaum, that it is the definitive work on the subject matter. Also, Rob Citino claims it is an amazing piece of primary research. So, I have been blessed that it has been received well throughout the world. In fact, my most recent translation in Swedish got the distinguish Swedish Award for non-fiction this year.
JEA: I’ve read that the book has been endorsed by Michael Berenbaum, Robert Citino, Stephen Fritz, James Corum, Paula Hyman (your former professor), Nathan Stoltzfus, Norman Naimark, Jonathan Steinberg, Geoffrey Megargee, Dennis Showalter and James Tent. What about other historians? What do they say and do you take their criticism seriously? The late Raul Hilberg said that you were quite unbalanced in your approach. Richard J. Evans of Cambridge also said that the title of your book was misleading. What’s your response?
BMR: The list of historians who have supported my work “Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers” are some of the leading scholars in their fields and their endorsements speak for themselves. I discuss the reasons for the title of my book right at the beginning of the book. I am sorry Richard Evans thinks the title is misleading, which it is not, but in the end, we are all entitled to our opinions.
I am thankful that in his recent book on the Third Reich, he does cite my work. He also conducted my orals at Cambridge and gave me invaluable feedback on my work and supports my conclusions. In his recent work on the Third Reich, he has me mentioned in his notes and I am honored to be there—he would not have cited my work if he did not value the research.
JEA: What about Rauh Hilberg?
BMR: Raul Hilberg’s criticism came out when my work was highlighted in a December 1996 article in the London Telegraph when I was still a graduate student at Cambridge University. The writing was not mine and he is not giving commentary on my work. In a 2004 conference in California, I had the chance to spend a whole evening with Professor Hilberg walking around Claremont/McKenna College discussing the Third Reich and the Holocaust. We were both there giving lectures on our fields of expertise.
We also talked about his service in World War II. During this time, he admitted he had not read my book, but in discussing my findings, he agreed with my conclusions and findings. He said he was going to read my book thereafter and later, confirmed he did. He did not find anything troubling with my research.
So, in short, if there is criticism out there about my book, it largely stems from the articles published about my work in 1996 and 1997 before I ever had my Masters or Ph.D. Journalists had shown a lot of interest in my work and we (my professor at Cambridge Jonathan Steinberg and I) went to the press in order to find more interview subjects and find more primary sources. It was not to get fame, but rather, a tactic to reach people in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s who could support me and my research.
The tactic worked since the articles generated hundreds of letters and contacts for my research. In retrospect, I wish I had more control on the subject matter printed about me during that time, but journalism has a life of its own.
JEA: When you were writing the book, weren’t you conscious of the fact that the project could overturn virtually everything we know about Nazi Germany?
BMR: When I met with Simon Wiesenthal in 1996 in Vienna, he told me not to document this study saying we Jews have enough problems as it is. I then asked him why should we ignore something if it is just history since it teaches us about the human condition and behavior. He did not give a good answer. I later followed up with a letter asking him how it should be presented since I was going forward with my study and he did not answer me. I was disappointed in his lack of support, but I understood where he was coming from. In short, we as humans should never avoid a subject matter because it is unpleasant.
JEA: Did you ever think that this issue is too sensitive and may cause too much controversy?
BMR: I knew the subject matter I was exploring was controversial, but this subject matter about Jews and men of Jewish descent who fought the Wehrmacht under Hitler helps us understand some of the most troubling questions about the Holocaust; namely, who knew about the Holocaust?, Why did people follow Hitler? Why is there racism? What is ethnicity? Are there races? And Can the Holocaust happen again? I explore these questions in depth and “Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers” is one of the leading works on the experience of partial-Jews (Mischlinge) during the Third Reich.
JEA: Were there people who wanted to discourage you from pursuing this research? For example, when Norman Finkelstein was writing Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, Alan Dershowitz wrote to the University of California threatening to sue the publisher if they happen to publish the book. Thankfully, the publisher realized that Dershowitz’s accusations were groundless and they ended up publishing the work anyway.
BMR: I had some German academics who were not supportive, but by and large, most scholars I met, once they understood what I was doing, were very supportive. At first, there were indeed several people who did not think I was going to find anything. One of the most distinguished German History professors, Henry Turner, was not supportive at first. Even though he was my Senior Essay advisor at Yale, he did not think I was going to find anything in 1996.
When I returned to Yale to give a talk about my work “Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers” and had a private meeting with several supporters there like Dean Richard Brodhead, Dean Hugh Flick, Professor Paula Hyman and Jeffrey Sammons, Henry Turner decided to attend as well. I was nervous that he was there since he had not been supportive, but as people were going around the table telling “Bryan Rigg Stories” from my Yale days and talking about my research, Professor Turner got up from the table, held up a copy of my book he had brought with me and said,
“I am glad Bryan Mark Rigg never listened to me. Had he done so, this first rate piece of scholarship would have never happened.”
I think that was one of my proudest moments as an academic. Henry Turner was one of the toughest professors I ever had (I think most Yale students who had him would agree with me). But he was an excellent scholar and his praise meant a lot. Since the book has come out, I do not know of any first rate scholar who thinks it should not have been written.
JEA: What I appreciate most about your work is that you go by archival documents and eye-witness accounts. You took the time to interview hundreds of people who were in Nazi Germany and they even gave you access to important documents. This is certainly the work of a first-rate historian and scholar, and no praise can be too high for such a book. What is the book you are working on now?
BMR: For the past two years, I have been writing the biography of Woody Williams, a Medal of Honor recipient from the battle of Iwo Jima. More Medals of Honor were given during this battle than any other battle in American history.
Woody in a four hour engagement took out seven pillboxes and killed 50 Japanese helping the Marines break through a tough line of defense on the island. The success he had helped secure the first airfield on the island which was one of the strategic purposes of the battle. His biography helps one understand the nature of combat with the Japanese during the Pacific War.
Besides being a great story, it helps us understand what the US did to protect the world against fascist Japan and its genocide against Asians. Also, it helps one understand why we dropped the atomic bombs.
JEA: I look forward to reading that work. It’s been a pleasure to read your other books as well. I will be honored to interview you again. Until then, keep up the good work.
 Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939 (New York: Penguin, 2005).
Posted by Jonas E. Alexis on July 28, 2017, With 5179 Reads Filed under History, Life. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.