Who is Responsible for the Holocaust?

by:

Gabriel

         The world may never know the true story behind the Holocaust, and it is left to speculate on the identity of those responsible. Much of the evidence gathered points in various directions. It is evident that the blame cannot rest fully on Nazi leaders, as it is obvious that the common German citizen was also a part of the attempted genocide enforced by those who served Hitler’s cause. If the question is why or how, you must answer based on your perception of the information obtained from those who had every opportunity to avoid their involvement in the atrocity. Your conclusion should reflect the unmistakable connection between the average German’s actions and the staggering number of executed Jews.

        Most people do understand the nature of the Holocaust, but fail to hold almost the entire country of Germany responsible. It is impossible to think that such a crime could have centered exclusively within one particular military movement. We can see now that "average Germans gladly, almost gleefully, participated in the torture and mass murder of Jews during World War II" (Weinstein). It appears "they were not primarily SS men or Nazi Party members, but perfectly ordinary Germans from all walks of life, men (and women) who brutalized and murdered Jews both willingly and zealously" (Goldhagen 1). These "everyday" citizens delivered just as much pain and suffering as any Nazi affiliate, and must be unmasked for the sake of all those who perished as a result of Hitler’s "final solution." It is not punishment that is sought through this exposure; it is a means of clarifying the Holocaust as an act of a single nation, where no one is left unaccountable for his or her actions.

        However, some may argue that a strict and authoritative government 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" (Weinstein). Researchers such as Christopher Browning discuss 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" (Kern). This particular perception encourages the use of a sympathetic view towards those who were indirectly involved in the massacre.

        The heart of Christopher 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, in Browning’s view, and kept them at it" (Kern). His argument must be taken into consideration because you cannot assume 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" (Reilly). "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" (Browning 1). This position raises a legitimate debate as to the true motives of individuals who appear to have been left with no alternative.

        Yet the testimony surrounding the willingness of the average German to participate in the brutal operation is enough to provide reasonable doubt in the mind of even the strongest nonbeliever. It is easy to see how most people can blame such horrible actions on outside influence; still there is the lingering notion that the existing pressure was a result of what each individual believed as being the only choice. If the orders were strictly optional, then why did they obey if no penalty was to be enforced? Why did they continue if they knew in their hearts that it was an unforgivable act? The answers lie in the hatred that built up among those who could not 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"(Weinstein). How they chose to handle these impressions leaves no room for sympathy.

        It must further be understood that those who chose to carry out the executions were fully aware of just how horrible their decisions were. Any pressure they may have felt should have washed away with the tears of the helpless victims as they held up their weapons to destroy another person’s future. As Hitler’s movement swore to exclude all non-Jewish German citizens from persecution, those who carried out the executions had no real reason to fear any type of retaliation by Nazi officers if they chose not to cooperate. "Goldhagen provides strong anecdotal evidence that Himmler’s order that no German be coerced into taking part in the extermination campaign was respected. According to testimonies later given by these men, their officers repeatedly gave them the option to abstain from killing in any given operation. Some few exercised the option and served in support roles. Some transferred out. No soldier, it seems, anywhere in the Nazi Empire, was ever punished for failing to kill Jews. Nevertheless, almost every soldier who was asked to kill civilians in this way did so" (Reilly). Many other accounts rely on the theory that there must have been an internal hatred for Jewish people in general. 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 need to ponder the idea of a frightened society who was forced to obey unimaginable orders. "They acted as they did because of a widespread, profound, unquestioned, and virulent antisemitism that led them to regard the Jews as a demonic enemy whose extermination was not only necessary but also just" (Goldhagen 1). It is also clear that ordinary Germans 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" (Reilly). These horrifying accounts suggest that average Germans were motivated by hatred, rather than a suspected fear of punishment.

        Much of the information available centers on the apparent fact that most Germans should be held responsible for the worst crime in recorded history. Daniel Goldhagen’s argument reemphasizes the hypothesis that the Holocaust was a unified act of terror performed by Nazi extremists and their fellow German countrymen. "It also shows that the government’s public antisemitic measures were not unpopular and that ordinary Germans did not need to be coerced to carry out the Holocaust itself" (Reilly). All that remains is the acknowledgement of such a contribution in terms of how the Holocaust is viewed by today’s society. People must become aware that the "final solution" was an equation containing Nazi officials, with the addition of many German civilians.

        As we have come to view the Holocaust, we must now try to see why it is important that we reveal all who are responsible for the atrocity. Understanding the significance of identifying those involved will help explain why the number of Jewish casualties is so staggering. These individuals are charged with the greatest crime in recorded history and must be left for judgement in the highest court. Nevertheless it is our duty as a free society to view the perpetrators for everything they truly are. It must be known that Jewish victims suffered because of the hostility these Germans felt overall.

        Whether it is the result of one man or one army, the purpose of including everyone is to show just how wrong Hitler’s "final solution" really was.

Works Cited 

Browning, Christopher R. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.
Goldhagen, Daniel J. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1996.
Kern, Paul. "Goldhagen, Browning and Expertise." 16 Apr. 1996. <http://h-net2.msu.edu/~german/discuss/goldhagen/gold9.html> (2 Mar. 1999).
Reilly, John J. "Convicted of the Wrong Crime." 1997. <http://pages.prodigy.net/aesir/
hwe.htm> (2 Mar. 1999).
Weinstein, Natalie. "Prof. Defends His Theory of ‘Willing Killers.’" 19 Apr. 1996. <http://JewishSF.Com/bk960419/sfaprof.htm> (2 Mar. 1999).

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