Seventy years ago, on the 27th of January 1945, elements of the 332nd Rifle Division of the Red Army liberated the concentration and extermination camps at Auschwitz. This date is now commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in remembrance of the six million Jews murdered by Nazi Germany and its allies during the Second World War.
The word ‘holocaust’ derives from the Greek holókauston, and refers to a religious sacrifice in which the offering is completely burnt. The word was used for centuries to refer to great massacres, and in the decades following the World War II it become the term preferred by English-speaking scholars to refer to the genocide of the Jewish people by Nazi Germany. The Hebrew term for the event is Shoah, which means ‘catastrophe’, a term I think is probably more fitting, however in this article I shall adhere to convention and use the word ‘holocaust’ to refer specifically to the genocide of the Jewish peoples of Europe during World War II.
In this short piece I cannot possibly do justice to an event of such monumental importance and scope, and so I will not try do to so. Instead, I shall restrict myself to sharing some thoughts and observations regarding specific aspects of the Holocaust that I find especially important and interesting.
The Holocaust, in my view, was a singular and distinct historical event. There have of course been many other genocides and atrocities both before and since, but the Holocaust possessed certain features which I think make it unique. In particular, the Holocaust was distinct from other genocides in the organised, mechanised, systematic manner in which the killings were carried out. In the words of German historian Eberhard Jäckel:
“Never before had a state with the authority of its responsible leader decided and announced that a specific human group, including its aged, its women and its children and infants, would be killed as quickly as possible, and then carried through this resolution using every possible means of state power.”
The Holocaust was such an immense logistical and organisational undertaking that essentially every branch of the German state apparatus participated to one degree or other: records of Jewish identity were supplied by the Interior Ministry and local churches, the Post Office delivered deportation and other administrative orders, the Finance Ministry was responsible for confiscating Jewish property and the Reichsbank for laundering stolen money and valuables, universities expelled Jewish students and academics, government-operated railways transported millions of prisoners to concentration and extermination camps, while German companies tested drugs on concentration camp prisoners, bid for contracts to build the crematoria, and provided technologies such as punch card machines and Zyklon-B used in the extermination process. The Holocaust was truly an undertaking which spanned the breadth and depth of the Reich’s state apparatus – it was a national endeavour.
In other religiously-based genocides throughout history (including Jewish pogroms of centuries past), members of the target group were usually able to escape death by conversion (or pretending to convert), but this was not the case during the Holocaust. Anyone with at least three Jewish grandparents who had not converted before 1871 was to be executed, irrespective of their professed religious beliefs. This policy reflected Nazi ideologies concerning the importance of maintaining the purity of the Aryan race, and that the contaminating element of Jewish identity was not primarily social or ideological but biological.
Another unique feature of the Holocaust was the use of extermination camps. As far as I have been able to determine, this is the only time in history where facilities have been established specifically for the mass execution of an entire class of people (as distinct from killing selected persons for religious, entertainment, or judicial purposes). The use of gas chambers for mass murder was definitely a German innovation, one which came after extensive experimentation with different methods of most easily and efficiently killing large groups of people. Other methods that were trialled included shooting, lethal injections, and gas vans, before eventually the Germans settled on the method of extermination by gas chambers, which was found to be capable of dealing with large number of victims quickly, and also placed less of a psychological strain on the perpetrating SS soldiers then did methods like mass shootings.
The Germans rapidly developed a precise and orderly system for conducting mass executions. Jews were rounded up at the point of origin, loaded onto goods trains, and transported to the extermination camps, under the guise that they were to be ‘resettled’. Once at the camps, those seemed fit to work were used for slave labour, while the rest were sent directly to the gas chambers for immediate execution. Prisoners were told to undress for showering and delousing, their clothes and other valuables systematically collected and catalogued for later resale. Even gold teeth were extracted from the corpses to be melted down. After entering the gas chambers the prisoners were locked in, and the poison gas (Zyklon-B was used at Auschwitz) was introduced into the chamber. After about twenty minutes the last of the thumping and screaming – easily audible outside the chamber – died out, and the chamber was opened and the corpses removed and cremated by members of the Sonderkommando, Jewish prisoners forced to work for the Germans before they too were eventually killed. About three million Jews were killed in eight extermination camps in circumstances much like this, including about one million at Auschwitz itself.
The organised, bureaucratic way in which the Holocaust was carried out was quite remarkable and historically unprecedented. During the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, Adolf Eichmann presented a list specifying the number of Jews in every country in Europe, including neutral countries not under Germany’s control. This list is taken as clear evidence that the Nazis planned to eventually extend the Holocaust throughout all of Europe. In this document, Estonia was already listed as Judenfrei (free of Jews), thanks to the actions of the Einsatzgrupppen, who moved in swiftly after the German occupation began. The Einsatzgruppen were special death squads deployed in Eastern Europe, and were responsible for killing perhaps one million Jews. They kept detailed records of their massacres which they provided their superiors to keep track of the progress that was being made towards annihilating all Jews. One such document, called the Jäger Report, survived the war, and contains daily tallies of the number of Jews killed in Lithuania during late 1941. With deadly precision, it shows an end tally of 136,421 Jews murdered, including 46,403 men, 55,556 women, and 34,464 children.
The Germans also kept detailed records concerning the number of arrivals at extermination camps. The Höfle Telegram records 23,611 arrivals at four camps in the two weeks before 21 December 1942. Likewise, the Korherr Report of January 1943 contains detailed information concerning the decline in Jewish populations throughout Europe over the first decade of Nazi rule. Many other such documents existed, but were destroyed in the dying days of the war in an attempt to hide the scale of the atrocities from the occupying Allies forces. Nevertheless, the documentation which does survive clearly portrays the organised, systematic way in which the German state apparatus was directed towards murderous ends, to a degree not found in other genocides.
Another key feature of the Holocaust was its immense scale. Numbers alone cannot do justice to the magnitude of the tragedy, but nonetheless they are useful for providing some context. In 1938, there were roughly 9.5 million Jews in Europe (including Russia). Of those, roughly 8 million lived in Germany, allies of Germany, or regions later occupied by Germany, with most of the remaining 1.5 million living in the UK or parts of Russia that remained unoccupied. The total death toll of the Holocaust, according to Lucy Dawidowicz’s figures (which I consider to be the most complete and accurate), is close to 6 million exactly. This means that the Nazis killed about 75% of all Jews under their control, and about 66% of all the Jews in Europe. Undoubtedly had the war continued for longer, the percentages would have been higher still. It is also important to note that today there are around 14 million Jews in the world (mostly living in either Israel or the USA), compared to perhaps 16 million in 1938, meaning that the world Jewish population has still not recovered from the Holocaust. Owing both to the Holocaust and post-war emigration to the US and Israel, the Jewish population of Europe has fallen from its pre-war high to about 1.5 million today. Many Jewish communities, particularly in Eastern Europe, were completely eradicated, never to be revived. This level of destruction has seldom been achieved in such a short space of time.
There is, I think, a fairly widespread belief that the Holocaust was perpetrated by a small minority of fanatical Nazis, with most ordinary Germans either being kept ignorant of what was happening, or being forcibly compelled by the Nazi hierarchy to carry out murderous actions. The idea, I think, is that evil deeds are done by evil people, and that therefore the lesson of the Holocaust is to keep evil people out of positions of power and influence. I believe this view is essentially false, and that the truth of the matter is much more complex, and also much more frightening.
It is difficult to know how much the average German knew about the Holocaust during the years in which it was being carried out. Certainly many of the details, including the existence of gas chambers, was kept secret. However, various sources of evidence point towards the conclusion that knowledge of what was being done to the Jews, in broad terms, was quite widespread. Given the scale of the undertaking and the involvement of so many state agencies and other groups, as well as the sheer number of camps that existed throughout Germany, makes it very hard to see how knowledge of what was occurring could have been kept secret. In his famous war diary entitled Mein Widerstand, a minor official named Friedrich Kellner recorded how he heard of a massacre of Polish Jews from a soldier on vacation from the front, illustrating the sort of means by which ordinary Germans could obtain such information. On this subject, historian Peter Longerich has said that “general information concerning the mass murder of Jews was widespread in the German population.” And to the degree that they were aware of what was occurring, the reaction of most Germans was, on the whole, that of indifference, or as Ian Kershaw put it so eloquently: “the road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference”. Other scholars have argued that ‘passive complicity’ may be a more appropriate description, highlighting the widespread participation with various aspects of the Holocaust by German civil, military, and corporate bodies, and also the widespread underpinning of moderate anti-Semitism.
In his classic work The 12-Year Reich, historian Richard Grungerber writes:
“In the entire history of the Third Reich no single body – civic, academic or even religious – ever made use of such opportunities as it had for publicly protesting against the regime’s inhumanity. The feasibility of protests of this nature was demonstrated… by Cardinal Galen’s denunciation of euthanasia from the pulpit, which evoked a sufficiently strong resonance to halt the regime’s ‘mercy killing’ programme. But euthanasia victims were flesh of German flesh, and those effected ranged through all classes of society. Some Jews too had self sacrificing and devoted friends… but ‘the righteous among Gentiles’ were individuals, representative only of themselves; as far as the great majority were concerned, Jewish suffering affected beings in another galaxy rather than inhabitants of the same planet as themselves.”
Grungerber here refers to the German forced euthanasia program Aktion T4, which met with such substantial opposition from within the bureaucracy and the churches that Hitler officially cancelled the program in August 1941 (though killings did continue in much greater secrecy until the end of the war). In contrast, no formal protests or organised opposition of this sort took place with respect to the regime’s treatment of the Jews. The sole exception was the Rosenstrasse protest of March 1943, in which a group of German women publicly protested against the deportation of their Jewish husbands, and succeeded in having them released. If only this sort of opposition had been more sustained and widespread, the death toll of the Holocaust of may have been far lower. Alas, as historian Saul Friedländer writes:
“Not one social group, not one religious community, not one scholarly institution or professional association in Germany and throughout Europe declared its solidarity with the Jews.”
Thousands of personnel in the Germany Army actively participated in massacres of Jews (as well as Poles and Soviet prisoners of war) on the Eastern Front. Most Wehrmacht soldiers were not Nazi party members, but ordinary Germans from all walks of life. Such behaviour was encouraged from the highest levels of the Wehrmacht, as for instance in the infamous Severity Order of October 1941, in which Field Marshal Walther von Reichenau declared:
“The most important objective of this campaign against the Jewish-Bolshevik system is the complete destruction of its sources of power and the extermination of the Asiatic influence in European civilization… In this eastern theatre, the soldier is not only a man fighting in accordance with the rules of the art of war, but also the ruthless standard bearer of a national conception… For this reason the soldier must learn fully to appreciate the necessity for the severe but just retribution that must be meted out to the subhuman species of Jewry.”
As far as I have been able to determine, German soldiers were seldom if ever punished for refusing to execute civilians or other participate in genocide. Indeed, I am not aware of any cases of any significant group of soldiers refusing to engage in genocidal activities, or of voicing significant opposition to them. From what I have read, many such operations were carried out by volunteers, and there was generally no difficulty in finding men willing to participate. Explicit compulsion and threat of punishment were simply not necessary.
Supporting the narrative that heinous crimes are committed by evil people is the belief that we, being good people, would never do such a thing. We look at ourselves, we look at our family and friends, we look at those in our community, and for the most part we do not think of them as truly evil people. As such we imagine that the Nazis and any Germans who supported them must have been unbelievably heinous and immoral, as only such an innate inner badness could explain their actions. Of course, most ordinary Germans in the lead-up to the war would have never thought it possible that something like that Holocaust would happen in their enlightened, developed country, and would undoubtedly have been mortally offended had one advanced the proposition that they would do nothing to stop a mass slaughter of civilians. We like to think we are different. Are we really?
Uncomfortably for our self-perceptions, there is considerable evidence concerning the immense power of peer pressure, social normalisation, and obedience to authority in leading people to act in ways which they would in different circumstances denounce as heinous. In his famous experiment, Milgram found that two-thirds of his subjects were willing to administer apparently lethal electrical shocks to others, merely because they were instructed to do so by an experimenter wearing a white lab coat. The Stanford Prison Experiment, Ash Conformity experiments, and The Third Wave experiment, though not without problems, also offer insights into the psychological processes at work in compelling otherwise good people to do horrific things.
The main defence of many Nazi officials and commanders at the Nuremburg Trials was that they had only been following orders (“Befehl ist Befehl“). Although undoubtedly an (unsuccessful) attempt to save themselves from execution, the use of this defence also seems to me to reflect the genuine motivation behind many of these actions – namely that they had been ordered, and it was the job of the soldier and bureaucrat to follow orders. It is also clear, however, that many went beyond the strict ‘call of duty’ in this sense, as there are many documented cases of local civilians participating in or even pre-empting German massacres of Jews, and also of various lower party officials and local administrations vying with each other in developing their own more ruthless anti-Semitic policies. The initiative for the Holocaust came not only from the hatred of those at the top, but also from the longstanding antipathy and crass opportunism of those at the bottom of the Nazi hierarchy.
Too often we forget a crucial aspect of the Holocaust, namely the (as I regard it) totally inadequate response by Allied and neutral nations to news concerning Nazi persecution of the Jews. Particularly deplorable, in my view, was the Évian Conference, convened by Roosevelt in 1938 to discuss what was to be done regarding the increasing number of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. It is interesting to note Hitler’s personal reaction to the conference:
“I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”
This statement parallels other plans and policies of the Nazi regime (e.g. the Madagascar Plan to deport the Jews to the island of Madagascar) to expel the Jews from Europe an resettle them wherever they would be accepted. It is clear from these plans and statements that Hitler really did not care less what happened to the Jews – he just wanted them out of the way. As such, it seems clear to me that the prospects for some arrangement being made were potentially quite good, if only the other nations of the world were willing to help. Apparently thinking along similar lines, an American observer at the conference wrote:
“It is heartbreaking to think of the …desperate human beings … waiting in suspense for what happens at Evian. But the question they underline is not simply humanitarian … it is a test of civilization.”
By my reckoning, civilization failed that test. Virtually all nations present, including the British Empire and the United States, refused to agree to any significant increase in the number of refugees they would accept. The Australian delegate T. W. White said “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one”, echoing the casual anti-Semitic sentiment that was prevalent at the time through most of the Western World.
The failure of the rest of the world to aid Jewish refugees is highlighted by the case of the MS St. Louis, an ocean liner filled with over 900 Jewish refugees which was successively denied entry to Cuba, the United States, and Canada, before finally being forced to return to Europe. Eventually the UK agreed to take 288 of the passengers, with the remainder settled in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, an estimated 250 of whom were subsequently killed in the Holocaust.
Another conference was held in Bermuda between the UK and the US in 1943 concerning the question of Jewish refugees in occupied Europe. Once again, there was no change in policy: the US refused to increase its immigration quotas, and the UK refused to rescind its ban on Jewish refugees being allowed to enter British Palestine.
In December 1942, the Polish government-in-exile issued a report to the Allied government entitled “The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland”, in which they outlined evidence concerning the treatment of Jews in occupied Poland. There is much debate concerning exactly how much the allies knew, when they knew it, and what they could reasonably have done – for instance the debate in 1944 about the possibility of bombing the camp or railway yards at Auschwitz (which was decided in the negative). Although the question is a complex one, my impression of the matter is that the Allies took the matter far less seriously than they ought, and put far less than their maximum efforts into helping the Jewish peoples of Europe. Historian David S. Wyman wrote extensively about plausible additional actions the Allies could have taken in his book The Abandonment of the Jews.
None of this is intended to deny the brave actions of many men and women who risked their lives in various ways to shelter Jews and otherwise save them from deportation or execution. Many such persons are remembered by the Israeli state today as being among the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’. Unfortunately, there were far too few such brave individuals. To many Jews at the time, at must have seemed, as it is written, “surely there is not a righteous man upon earth.”
I think most people draw very much the wrong conclusions from the events of the Holocaust. The message of the Holocaust, in my view, is not that it was a crime so heinous that only a group so uniquely evil and depraved as the Nazis could have committed it. We cannot forget that many high-ranking Nazis were, at least on the surface, decent men who loved their families – indeed, many SS officers brought their families to live with them at the concentration camps.
The true message of the Holocaust, I think is how an underlying long-standing antipathy towards a particular identifiable group can, under the right circumstances, be seized upon and radicalised by a sufficiently motivated and well-organised minority group. It shows us how powerful the words and personality of a charismatic leader can be, and how powerful are social pressures to conform, to obey authority, to keep one’s head down and not make a fuss. Had we lived in that time, with the social pressures as they were and without the benefit of hindsight, I believe that most of us would have acted just as most Germans did – we would have done nothing. Indeed, are there not great calamities and injustices occurring around the world right now to which we react in much the same way?
The events of the Holocaust are, of course, grounded in a specific time and place in history. Nevertheless, I also think that these events exemplify certain primordial characteristics of human psychology – the tendency to conform, to obey authority, to care only for our own, to despise those who are different – of which we should always remain aware and wary. More than anything else, I think the Holocaust illustrates the potentially disastrous consequences of apathy, and the need to be constantly vigilant concerning the suffering of others. In the beautiful words of John Donne:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
If we are to prevent atrocities such as the Holocaust from occurring again, I think it is vitally important to be aware of the true history of these events, and not to sanitise them into simplistic narratives about a wicked few duping and coercing an entire nation to do their evil bidding. If we falsely see the Holocaust as an outcome solely of the Nazi’s unusual depravity and moral shortcomings of mid-20th century Germany, we miss the much broader lessons concerning human nature which this event has to show us, and we likewise ignore the possibility that the same human nature could once again, under the right circumstances, give rise to similarly horrific crimes. As Karl Jaspers said of the Holocaust, in words far more eloquent than mine:
“That which has happened is a warning. To forget it is guilt. It must be continually remembered. It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible for it to happen again – at any minute.”