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Responsibility for the Most Horrific Crimes Issue Research Paper

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Updated: Oct 15th, 2021

It is my conviction that most people understand the nature of the Holocaust, but fail to hold Germany in its entirety responsible. It is unfeasible to think, in my mind, that such a crime could have centred exclusively within one particular movement. Daniel J. Goldhagen, in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners argues that the Holocaust perpetrators “were not primarily SS men or Nazi Party members, but perfectly ordinary Germans from all walks of life, men (and women) who brutalised and murdered Jews both willingly and zealously”. [2] Natalie Weinstein states that the “average Germans gladly, almost gleefully, participated in the torture and mass murder of Jews during World War II” [4]. These quotes perfectly highlight my line of argument: that a significant number of ordinary German people willingly supported and agreed with the mass killings of the Holocaust. It is apparent from the quotes and my own research that the “everyday” citizens delivered just as much pain and suffering as any Nazi associate, and it is the purpose of this investigation to identify just how far the ‘ordinary Germans’ 1 were to blame for the mass genocide of Hitler’s ‘final solution.’

Some may argue that the strict and authoritative fascist government in Germany influenced the acts of the common people. As most Germans were not directly associated with the Nazi party, it is believed they “were coerced into killing, followed orders blindly, succumbed to peer pressure, or simply were unaware of the ongoing genocide” [4]. Researchers such as Christopher Browning and Daniel J. Goldhagen describe the voluntary nature of those involved in the executions, to support the theory that some actually excused themselves as the acts were being committed. He also claims that the existence of “mere ‘negative stereotypes’ contributed to these men’s willingness voluntarily to hunt Jewish mothers and their infants”. This specific view encourages the use of a sympathetic opinion toward those who were indirectly immersed in the killings.

The very core of Browning’s argument reflects the fear and constraint of many Germans with little or no ties to the Nazi party. “The social-psychological conditions, the objective and keenly felt pressures of the group, the fear of being held in contempt by one’s comrades: these were what turned these men into killers” [3]. His argument must be taken into consideration because it cannot be assumed that every citizen performed the deeds advocated by their country. The mindset and beliefs of people differ as you examine larger and larger populations, with Germany as no exception. “You cannot draw the inference from the literature, the art or the politics of those years that the ‘common sense’ of the people was that the Jews ought to be driven out or killed” [1]. “In a sobering conclusion, Browning suggests that these good Germans were acting less out of deference to authority or fear of punishment than from motives as insidious as they are common: careerism and peer pressure” [3]. True motives of those individuals who claimed to have no alternative can be called into question following this position.

The testimony surrounding the willingness of the average German to participate in the fierce operation is enough to provide a firm backing for my argument. It is easy to see how the majority of people can blame such horrid and sadistic actions on outside influence; still there is the impression that the existing pressure was a result of what each individual believed as being the ‘only choice’.[5] As no punishment would be given for refusal to co-operate, why did so many obey? The answer must be that the hate and loathing that had built up among those unable to accept Jewish people as a part of their society. “Eventually, Jews were no longer even human beings in the eyes of Germans. Jews became an “anti-race” that required eradication, according to the Nazis” [6]. How they chose to handle these impressions leaves no room for sympathetic understanding.

Prior to moving on, it is important to show that those who chose to carry out the executions knew how outlandish and unforgivable their actions were. As the Nazi’s promised to exclude all non-Jews from persecution, those who carried out the executions had no real reason to fear any form of retaliation by Nazi officials if they chose not to obey. Once again I shall call on Goldhagen, who provides strong evidence that “Himmler’s order that no German be coerced into taking part in the extermination campaign was respected”. Later testimonies given by the men say, “their officers repeatedly gave them the option to abstain from killing” and that “Some few exercised the option and served in support roles.” Goldhagen also goes onto indicate that “No soldier, it seems, anywhere in the Nazi Empire, was ever punished for failing to kill Jews” [2]. I would agree with Goldhagen to an extent here but it is evident that he seems determined to convict the German people of full responsibility for the Holocaust from the beginning through to the closing chapters of his book. It seems that Goldhagen already possesses the answer, but he still needs his historical evidence, and that is all he gives throughout his work, only now and again scraping over other factors. This then makes Goldhagen only useful to the point where other factors are drawn into the investigation, as his methods used for historical debate are troublesome.

Numerous other accounts rely heavily on the theory that there must have been a fundamental hatred for Jewish people throughout Germany. This seems to be the only way to explain the inhumanity of an event such as the Holocaust. No excuses are to be made and there is no reason to dispute the idea of a ‘frightened society’ who was forced to obey outlandish orders. “They acted as they did because of a widespread, profound, unquestioned, and virulent anti-Semitism that led them to regard the Jews as a demonic enemy whose extermination was not only necessary but also just”[2]. Once again, the essence of Goldhagen’s view can be questioned, as I do not believe that the German people were totally and undisputedly responsible for genocide. However, I do agree that the underlying anti-Semitism that was writhe in Germany had fuelled much of the genocide. Goldhagen again fails to take into account other factors, factors that operated outside the knowledge of the ordinary German populous.

It would be almost preposterous to conclude without the consideration of other factors. One most significant group that deserves examining is the Nazi Party’s secret Police, the SS (or Schutzstaffel). They were often considered as “Hitler’s most ruthless henchmen, men often seen as the very personifications of evil.” [6] From my own inquiry it is impossible to doubt that the well-organised apparatus of the SS was the perfect implement to plan and carry out the merciless atrocities of the Holocaust. However, it is unfair and unjust to claim that full responsibility lie in the hands of the SS and its leaders; specifically Heinrich Himmler.2 They were not the only killers that contributed to the final solution, although they may have been the most barbaric and well organised.

In connection with the German people, new research indicates that large numbers of ordinary Germans (such as policemen, railway workers and civil servants) were part of what has become known as the ‘machinery of destruction’. They also displayed the ability to conduct the mass murders despite the threat of future oppression. It is believed that “many prisoners were shot even after it became known the Himmler had ordered the killing of the Jews to cease. All of this happened when the Germans had clearly lost the war, when the guards knew they could soon be held responsible for the mistreatment of prisoners, and when no one was making them do these things” [3]. These horrifying accounts suggest that average Germans were motivated by hatred, a view that I agree with. The German people did not fear a punishment, as it was clear they would not have received one. This is similar to the SS, although some did fear punishment if orders were not fulfilled. It is conclusive from this that the SS did not necessarily overshadow the acts of the German people. This conclusion adds weight to my argument.

So are there any factors that do take a larger responsibility over the German people? Additional factors still need to be examined before a substantiated conclusion can be reached. For example; how guilty was the German army (the Wehrmacht) for the mass genocide? Historians such as Christian Streit have argued that leading Wehrmacht officers and the majority of German troops were anti-Semitic and willing to co-operate with the SS brutality.

After examining numerous accounts of German soldiers, I still find it difficult to hold the German army more responsible for the mass killings as I do the German people. There is not enough sufficient evidence to hold the army more responsible for the Holocaust. The vicious anti-Semitism was matched easily by the German populous, as was their willingness to participate in the ‘machinery of destruction.’

But what was the driving force behind this ‘machinery of destruction?’ There can be no doubt that this was Adolf Hitler, whose behaviour during his entire political career was characterised by radical anti-Semitism. Hitler’s actions betrayed in one way or another desire to put an end to the existence of Jews within the Lebensraum3 of the German people. This objective carried a very high priority in his political practice.

However an account of Hitler’s role in the Final Solution is complicated by the fact that the dictator avoided the use of written directives relating to the murder of the Jews. Also, after 1940, Hitler made clear that a programme of extermination should not be organised from the Chancellery, a measure also used during Kristallnact4. However new evidence indicates a secret meeting in which Hitler and Himmler had authorised the murder of Jews as partisans. Einsatzgruppen5 was already dealing with Russian Jews in the east, meaning that this was an authorisation for the killing of all European Jews.

Further evidence in Mein Kampf6 indicates Hitler’s anti-Semitic intentions when in one passage he advocates the gassing of 12,000 or 15,000 Jews as a means of winning the First World War. During a speech in 1939, Hitler predicted that war would result in the “annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe”, making war another factor that may have contributed to the Holocaust.

But would Hitler have been able to carry out this ant-Semitic policy of mass murder without the support of the German people? The answer to this is simply no. Hitler would have needed a population either willing to support genocide or willing to ignore it, both criterion being as bad as each other. This adds weight to my argument.

So what does all this evidence point to? In conclusion it seems that much of the information I have gathered centres on the evident fact that most Germans should be held responsible for the most horrific crime in recorded history. Daniel Goldhagen’s argument emphasis my view, that the Holocaust was a unified act of terror performed by loyal Nazi extremists and their fellow Germans. “It also shows that the government’s public anti-Semitic measures were not unpopular and that ordinary Germans did not need to be coerced to carry out the Holocaust itself” [3]. This quote beautifully sums up my conclusion: that the German people were fully aware of their atrocious acts and were in full support of the mass genocide or simply willing to ignore it, despite them being able to do something about it (a prime example being Oskar Schindler7). People must become aware that the “final solution”, in my opinion, was an equation involving Nazi officials, with the significant addition of an underlying anti-Semitism and unwillingness to oppose the atrocities of the Holocaust.. I feel that the German people could have done more to ease the suffering of the Jewish people.

I would agree with Goldhagen when he states that the German peoples anti-Semitic views somewhat blurred their moral Judgement. However it is fair to give some leeway and excuse some German people for their blind ignorance of the matter due to Hitler’s secretive ways, convincing Nazi propaganda and reasons as to where the Jewish people were being taken put the German people at ease. Some were more involved than other where it comes to killing and helping.

Endnotes

  1. Browning, Christopher R. (1922) Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: HarperCollins.
  2. Goldhagen, Daniel J. (1996) Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. London: Little Brown Company.
  3. Reilly, John J. (1997) Convicted of the Wrong Crime. Web.
  4. Weinstein, Natalie. (1996) “Prof. Defends His Theory of ‘Willing Killers.’” Web.
  5. Richard Grunberger, (1971) A Social History of the Third Reich, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
  6. Wistrich, Robert S. (2001) Hitler and Holocaust. New York: The Modern Library.

Footnotes

  1. Those not directly associated with the Nazi Party, those who simply lived under Nazi tyranny.
  2. Reichsfuhrer-SS, head of the Gestapo and the Waffen-SS, Minister of the Interior from 1943 to 1945.
  3. “living space”.
  4. “The Night of Broken Glass”-Jewish pogrom held on November 9th 1938.
  5. Mobile killing squads sent into newly occupied territory to round up and exterminate Jews.
  6. “My Struggle”-widely held as the ‘Nazi Bible’, written by Adolf Hitler during his time in prison.
  7. German businessman, famous for his remarkable rescue of more than 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust.
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