Professor Investigates Life of a Historical Villain
By Michelle Fernandez ’11, Contributing Writer
In her compelling new book, Professor of European Studies and History Catherine Epstein presents the life of Arthur Greiser, a powerful Nazi territorial leader best known for his ruthless Germanization policies in western Poland between 1939 and 1945. By exploiting Jewish labor and Polish lands under his forced resettlement plans, Greiser tried to create a uniquely German landscape ethnically, spiritually and physically. But “Model Nazi: Arthur Greiser and the Occupation of Western Poland” goes beyond Greiser’s murderous policies and creates a vivid depiction of a Nazi that challenges traditionally accepted portrayals. Instead of the often contrived images of “evil” perpetrators that dominate historical Nazi literature, Epstein creates an honest depiction of a young man turned perpetrator.

Greiser’s plan included deeply “interconnected” policies towards Jews, Poles and Germans. Greiser’s transfer of ethnic Germans to Poland, the murder and expulsion of Poles further east and the extermination of Jews, Epstein explained, “were not separate stories. It’s important to look at the policies of all these people together to get a richer understanding of what happened.”

In the Warthegau where Gresier was in power, it wasn’t just the Jews that suffered. He implemented a “draconian system against Poles” and ethnic Germans, the very people he intended to help, lived poorly in temporary camps separated from their townships.

Based on personal letters and interviews with Greiser’s family and friends, Epstein shows how a profound insecurity and ambition to succeed in the Nazi party, rather than any particularly deep set racist ideology, transformed Greiser into arguably one of the most effective Nazi murderers in Hitler’s regime.

“Greiser,” Epstein explained, “was hyper nationalist, insecure and ambitious. He was motivated primarily by hyper-nationalism but was not that anti-Semitic by nature. We often think of Nazis motivated by anti-Semitism, but he was not primarily anti-Semitic. That’s not what fed his Nazi devotion.”

The Irish Times calls Epstein’s book “a most welcome addition to the vast literature on the Third Reich and an important contribution to the debate on the origins, manifestations and consequences of racially motivated mass murder.” By analyzing Greiser’s dreams of Nazi success, Epstein’s book highlights the personal, simple and everyday decisions that can lead to the mass murder of millions.

“This person,” Epstein said “affected a lot of people’s lives, so you can’t just forget about him. You need to know about these people. I think some people would see writing a biography as an attempt to sympathize with him but I’m trying to get the complexities out. It’s not interesting to say ‘He’s a monster,’ nor is it historically accurate.”

Epstein began her research for the book in 2003 when she discovered every historian’s dream, a caseload of Greiser’s private letters home and to his mistress from different periods of his life. While the first step may have been easy, Epstein admits that writing the book was challenging.

Greiser’s complex character is of particular interest to Epstein. “I was horrified reading the archives. It was very disconcerting reading what he did,” referring to the challenge of studying heavy topics such as genocidal plans on an everyday basis. “Sure, at times the subject makes me sad … but by and large it comes down to intellectual curiosity. So even though I’m teaching these awful things, you also want to understand them as awful. You sort of get over thinking, ‘Oh, it’s so horrible’ and more, ‘Well, how does this happen? Why does this happen?” she said.

On the challenge of keeping a safe, unsympathetic distance from her subject, “I would have enjoyed spending an afternoon with him, especially when he was younger. He was quite charming and he was out to charm people. He was pleasant and in many ways a nice guy. I can imagine sitting down with him and enjoying that. But … after a while his political views would have been too odious to listen to,” Epstein explained.

When confronted by Greiser’s many endearing letters home, “I would remind myself he really did some atrocious deeds and that takes dominance. So no matter how nice he may have seemed he perpetrated a lot of evil and made a lot of people’s lives miserable.”

Although Greiser never personally killed anyone, Epstein ranked his level of wickedness at 9.5 out of 10. “Greiser was a desk perpetrator. I think initiating the mass gassing of Jews in Nazi occupied Europe is pretty bad. The reason he’s not a 10 is because he initiated these policies in a situation that were part of broader Nazi plans…although Greiser never referred to himself as a model Nazi, he referred to his territory as a model Nazi area so that he could live down his own personal insecurities.”

Epstein has taught numerous classes on Nazi Germany and, more generally, on ethnic cleansing and genocide. In her seminar, “Ethnic Cleansing in 20th Century Europe,” in spring 2009, she asked her students to read some chapters from her manuscript.

“It was tremendously helpful. I really took their criticisms to heart. I put in tables instead of endless streams of numbers. I tried to streamline the details. Some of them had specific criticisms and I tried to work with them. It was a relief that they understood the argument I was making in the book.”

When asked about her favorite part of teaching at Amherst, Epstein joked, “While not everyone writes as well as I want them to, they are engaged in the reading and in the class. There is a level of student intellectual engagement that makes the teaching fun. The part I dislike the most is the grading.”

Now that her book has been published, Epstein plans to devote more time to hobbies like bike riding, swimming, exercising and traveling. She also plans on spending more time with her three children, Nathan, Dora and Stella, who helped with the writing process. “Children distract you and remind you of the happy things in my life. In the acknowledgements I thank them for distracting me.”

A self-proclaimed “pathological workaholic,” Epstein is also excited to catch up on reading and begin an investigation into the place of German history in history college curricula in the United States.

“I can’t imagine not waking up in the morning and doing something with history ... There’s always stuff to do, stuff to read, new things to learn about,” Epstein said.

Professor Epstein’s book, “Model Nazi: Arthur Greiser and the Occupation of Western Poland,” is 451 pages and available at Amherst Books and on

Issue 04, Submitted 2010-09-29 00:33:59