Hitler’s Willing Accomplices

(8 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

The current issue of the German news magazine Der Spiegel takes the extradition of the Ukrainian concentration camp guard John (formerly Ivan) Demyanyuk from the US to face trial in Germany as an occasion to look at the support the Nazi holocaust policy received in their occupied territories (in English).

The article is at pains to not deflect from the fact that the Holocaust was a policy invented by Germany and Germans and implemented by Germany and Germans – but there can also be no doubt that, without active help from institutions and inhabitants of the occupied territories, the Holocaust’s breadth, scope and sheer efficiency would have been much diminished.

In Germany itself, the Nazis had several years of control of the administration as well as the help of IBM to ensure they knew who was Jewish, where they lived and what they owned, so implementation of the Nuremberg Laws and the later the Holocaust was comparatively easy.  In the occupied territories, they depended on the locals for implementation.

The article looks at various studies done on the subject – the disturbing thing is that there is no way of predicting how an institution or individual would respond.

Institutionally, the occupied-country civil services responded to the Nazi’s anti-Semitic programme with alacrity (especially the Netherlands) or at least put no obstacle in the way of implementation (France); Denmark’s civil service used the institutional power of obstruction to frustrate Nazi policies.  Some allies and puppet regimes implemented the Nuremberg policies with indecent gusto (Croatia, Romania), others without great enthusiasm (Italy).

On an individual level, too, reactions cannot be explained by a formula; while of course many individuals participating in atrocities had no effective choice, the terror and coercion factor alone does not explain the often unprompted actions of individuals especially in Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic States.  The examples given are harrowing.

Clearly, the active participants were always a small minority in any population, and in every population, there were examples of selfless heroism in protecting Jews from persecution.  But there is no template for either the heroes or the perpetrators – in each category there are rich and poor; urban and rural; educated and uneducated; democratic traditions or authoritarian regimes; clerks, professionals, administrators, academics, farmers, workers, artisans; civilians, officers and other ranks; observant or not, of whatever faith.  There is no predictor.

In some populations, special circumstances obtained:  In Poland for example, the Soviets had liquidated most of the Polish intelligentsia (academics, army officers and professionals) in their half of Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact Poland, so that the Nazis found an already traumatised population which blamed “the Jews” in the Soviet hierarchy.  The Croatian Ustasha simply continued a historical enmity against Serbs (which still reverberates today).

And lest we forget, in the occupied territories as in Germany itself, Jews were not the only target of the extermination policies – other social or ethnic minorities were persecuted with the same venom, so that it is often difficult to determine whether the violence was specifically anti-Semitic or more generally social/ethnic cleansing, as in the Croatian/Serb violence or the Romanian – and German – persecution of the Sinti and Roma (Gypsies).

The abiding and humbling lesson for me is that we are individually responsible for our actions, period.  Authority (traditional, charismatic or rational) has to earn our respect, we don’t owe it.

1 comment

  1. I learned a few more new things.  A real eye opener for sure.  

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