Do we need more studies of the Holocaust? It is difficult to avoid the question as one considers this volume. The literature on the subject is enormous and still growing, as the impressive thirty-one–page bibliography of this study also indicates. Clearly, historians, philosophers, and social scientists have refused to agree with the sentiment often expressed that the unique horror of the Holocaust is basically incomprehensible. The subject continues to stimulate morbid fascination and renewed efforts to understand it. These studies have been inspired by the hope that they will not only lead to deeper understanding but could also contribute to preventing the recurrence of similar catastrophes. Unfortunately, as the huge massacres in Cambodia and Rwanda suggest, these hopes remain unfulfilled. The desire to purify the world of variously defined undesirable groups persists and remains the common denominator of major outbursts of political violence.
Aside from curiosity and the hope that understanding might modify human misbehavior, several considerations may justify further studies of the Holocaust. The most obvious would be new source materials; the second, new questions and the possibility of new findings and insights, based on the new sources and questions. At last it may be argued that there is room for studies (such as this one) which summarize, synthesize, and evaluate what has been learned over time about these matters from the innumerable sources already available.
The desire to purify the world of variously defined undesirable groups persists.
The study here reviewed meets many of the criteria suggested above. Most importantly, it uses new and highly informative sources, never before used in English texts—German court records about the perpetrators tried, the forty-nine volume collection of 929 German trials published between 1968 and 2012. The study also makes use of correspondence between German soldiers and their families, which often includes revealing references to the extermination of Jews in the territories occupied by Germany. Perpetrators obviously benefits from the circumstance that the author’s native language is German, making accessible the large German literature on the subject, in addition to the court records. Guenter Lewy grew up in Germany and lived under the Nazi regime for six years.
The volume includes information about an aspect of the Holocaust that has received relatively little attention, namely, the way German courts dealt with the lesser-known perpetrators. There is also a chapter on the obscure group of people who refused to participate in the killing. Of special interest are chapters on specific perpetrators, largely based on the legal documents. Lastly, Lewy succeeds in compressing and thoughtfully analyzing a huge amount of information in a slim volume. It is also noteworthy that, unlike many other books on the same subject, Perpetrators comes with a number of remarkable photographs which “convey a reality that mere words can never produce.”
Admittedly, the major question raised in this volume is not new. Virtually every author who has written about the Holocaust has raised it and tried to answer it with various degrees of success. Guenter Lewy writes:
How could such terrible deeds happen in the heart of Christian Europe and among a nation known for its poets and thinkers—a people that had produced Schiller, Goethe, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms? What had converted so many seemingly ordinary people into killers, willing participants in what is probably the worst crime in modern history? . . . The work focuses on how and why this unprecedented series of events could happen, on the role played by individuals in the unfolding program of murder, and on the issue of personal responsibility.
There are other important subsidiary questions about the Holocaust that the author seeks to answer: Was it predetermined by Nazi ideology, and more specifically Hitler’s beliefs, or was it improvised, one of several ways the Nazis sought to solve the “Jewish problem”? What motivated the lower-echelon perpetrators (as distinct from the better-known planners and legitimizers) who guarded, mistreated, and murdered Jews? Was it their beliefs, obedience to authority, solidarity with their fellow perpetrators, material rewards, or their warped and sadistic personalities? What mattered more, predisposition or situational factors? How and why did conventional anti-Semitism become transformed into the kind which culminated in large-scale, systematic extermination? How important was Hitler’s role in the “Final Solution”?
The answers here offered are judicious, dispassionate, and nuanced. Regarding the character of the perpetrators and their motivation, Lewy writes:
There have been many attempts to explain why so many seemingly ordinary Germans became willing participants in the murder of the Jews. One scholar has tallied forty-one different theories. These explanations include the potential for evil in human nature and the psychological characteristics of the perpetrators, . . . such situational factors as group pressure and the desire for conformity. Nearly all historical accounts also invoke the role of anti-Semitism . . . ranging from mild prejudice to a strong hatred. . . . Many of these competing explanations are partly right, but none alone is sufficient to account for the phenomenon . . . . [T]here was no single socio-cultural environment that characterized the majority of the security service, and no particular personality, authoritarian or otherwise. . . . The causes of their behavior could not be found in defective personality but rather in a situation that legitimized participation in mass murder.
He also writes:
The actual perpetrators acted out of a variety of motives. Some were convinced haters of Jews . . . others killed out of a sense of duty, to advance their career, because they followed orders, or because they wanted to conform to the group. There was no uniform Nazi perpetrator type. The majority . . . were not sadists . . . . Finally, in addition to dispositional elements, we must reckon with situational factors.
The author is critical of various theories of the Final Solution, including the structural approach that focuses on the bureaucratic machinery and de-emphasizes individual perpetrators and their motives. Relying on information from the German trials, he rightly considers Hannah Arendt’s idea of “the banality of evil” (personified by Adolf Eichmann) “fully discredited” and inapplicable not only to Eichmann (“an ardent Nazi and convinced anti-Semite”) but also to the “actual killers” discussed in this volume. Lewy has little doubt that “the system rewarded brutality” and observes that “the large majority of the guards abused the inmates . . . . Violence and brutality were considered proof of commitment” notwithstanding Himmler’s supposed intentions to make the mass murders impersonal and less inhumane.
Lewy has little doubt that “the system rewarded brutality.”
Lewy is also critical of Stanley Milgram’s conclusions derived from his famous experiments about obedience to authority, which supported Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil. Lewy doubts that “any person at any time can be transformed into a mass murderer . . . . [M]any of the perpetrators of the Holocaust did not kill simply as a result of obedience but acted with anti-Jewish fervor. . . . [The experiment] fails to explain the many hate-driven cruelties.” He also writes: “the fate of the Jews . . . was not only the result of orders from above but also the consequence of more and more violent actions initiated at the lower echelons of command.”
In turn he disagrees with the diametrically opposed view of Daniel Goldhagen, who accounted for the Final Solution by a special German “racial eliminationist anti-Semitism.” Lewy correctly points out that members of several other ethnic groups (Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Croats, Romanians, etc.) “murdered Jews as efficiently as, and often with more brutality than, the Germans.”
The men who carried out the mass shooting . . . came from different parts of German society, and not all of them were Germans. There was no typical perpetrator. . . . [T]here were sadistic types . . . committed Nazis . . . opportunists who hoped to better their status, “ordinary men,” who followed orders or killed so as to not break ranks with their comrades.
Lewy also points out that “a sizable percentage of the killers were devoted Nazis who murdered out of ideological conviction. Their zeal was not the result of sadistic inclinations . . . . A high proportion were well educated.” As to Hitler’s role in the Final Solution, while he never issued a specific order to exterminate the Jews, he made clear, that as a matter of collective self-defense, the Jews had to be eliminated, especially in their incarnation as “the Jewish-Bolshevik rulers in Moscow.” Ian Kershaw wrote that “without Hitler’s fanatical will to destroy Jewry . . . the Holocaust would almost certainly not have come about.”
Concerning the part played by Nazi propaganda in generating and justifying murderous anti-Semitism, the author’s convincing propositions are not entirely compatible with one another. On the one hand, he writes that “prior to 1933, the Germans arguably were the least anti-Semitic people in Europe though hostility to the Jews existed for centuries.” But, on the other hand, he writes that “The German people embraced an anti-Jewish posture without being terrorized or brainwashed” [my emphasis]. Two pages later, he quotes with approval a German author who concluded that “The Nazi policy succeeded because it was anchored in deeply rooted anti-Jewish sentiments which permeated all classes.” Later he also writes that “indoctrination confirmed the hostility toward Jews and thus contributed to the readiness to murder them.” It is not clear how indoctrination differs from “brainwashing” (that was not required, see above) and how the idea of “deeply rooted anti-Jewish sentiments” is compatible with the author’s assessment that prior to 1933 Germans were not particularly anti-Semitic. And the “steady drumbeat of hatred calling for the elimination of Jews from German society” also sounds like a form of indoctrination or attempted brainwashing. He further writes that German soldiers were prepared
to embrace racial murder by a six-year campaign of relentless vilification that had depicted the Jews as . . . a dangerous bacillus that threatened mankind. . . . Correspondence from the eastern front shows how successful Nazi propaganda had been in spreading anti-Semitic teaching. Most of the writers of these surviving letters were lower-ranking officers or common soldiers who expressed their loathing of Jews in . . . graphic language. . . . The letters reflected the conviction that the Jews represented a dangerous subhuman lot, and this demonization legitimized their murder.
These somewhat divergent propositions may be reconciled by the suggestion that “The demonological view of the Jews inherited from Christian theology easily merged with the new secular anti-Jewish sentiments.” If so, it would seem that although German anti-Semitism (of the non-murderous kind) was widespread, propaganda was required to convert it into the lethal variety.
The author also makes several completely reasonable statements about the influence of situational factors which are nonetheless somewhat contradictory. He writes that “situational elements exert a powerful influence on human behavior,” but on the next page he observes that “situational factors no more than genes dictate or determine behavior. Different individuals react differently in identical circumstances.” All true.
A supposedly defensive anti-Semitism was inseparable from the Nazi campaign of purification.
Lewy clearly reached the conclusion that ideology had much to do with the behavior of those who implemented the Final Solution without any moral revulsion:
they simply considered the Jews outside of their circle of human obligations and responsibility. . . . German participants in the Final Solution could do their dirty work without being fanatic anti-Semitic ideologues, though many certainly were certainly that . . . . Ideological commitment varied but the great majority of Germans had arrived at the conviction that the Jews were a menace that had to be countered. . . . They did not perceive the killing operations as atrocities but as necessary brutal tactics against people who had been officially designated as Germany’s dangerous enemy.
Hence a supposedly defensive anti-Semitism, even if not intense, was inseparable from the Nazi campaign of purification:
The destruction of the Jews was portrayed as the necessary precondition of achieving peace and order in the world. . . . For many officers and rank-and-file soldiers, obeying and carrying out the unpleasant assignment . . . was made easier by the fact that the victims were Jews, whom they had been taught to despise. . . . To maintain their psychological equilibrium, they convinced themselves that the killings were righteous. . . . [W]ith the passage of time, the killing became routine.
Numerous motives, dispositions, and circumstances converged to provide the preconditions for the Final Solution. After carefully examining a variety of interpretations of the motivation and behavior of the perpetrators, the author firmly rejects the deterministic view of human behavior, including that of the perpetrators:
None of these factors creates causality or dictates a person’s behavior. . . . Even if people’s perceptions and actions are affected by social, cultural, and biological circumstances human beings at all times enjoy freedom of action. . . . [H]umans react differently to diverse external pressures. They are influenced but not coerced by them.
The book ends on an understandably judgmental note:
even in the worst corners of the Nazi system, there existed the possibility of avoiding the extraordinary evil ordered from above. The fact that so few availed themselves of this possibility remains an ineradicable blot on an entire German generation.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 5, on page 68
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