Why did some Germans and other Europeans collaborate in the Holocaust, while others risked their lives to resist? Students in HIS354 Modern Europe asked this question last week, after having read Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, watched the 2005 German movie Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (about the arrest and execution of the students in the White Rose, an anti-Nazi resistance movement) and visited an online exhibit from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum entitled “Some Were Neighbors.” One of the many excellent responses came from History major Elizabeth Hynes ’16, who was kind enough to share this revised version of her essay with us.
Studying the events of the Holocaust truly pushes my limits of “imaginative understanding.” It is especially difficult for me to resonate personally with the millions of ordinary citizens in Germany and other occupied countries who seemingly stood by as Hitler and the Nazis carried out genocide on an alarming scale. The “final solution” was enacted with the precision of a well-oiled machine and required many civilians to tacitly aid in the disposal of thousands of Jews and other Nazi targets. Hitler’s success in implementing the final solution was contingent upon the fact that no one in Germany or other occupied territories would go to great lengths to stop him. In fact, scenes from Sophie Scholl: The Final Days almost seem to indicate that people may have been brainwashed into thinking that Hitler’s xenophobic vision wasn’t all that awful, or at the very least that his actions were a necessary evil: that Germany would never flourish without a bit of initial violence. At any rate, a very large percentage of the population had to be complicit with Hitler’s actions in order for the Holocaust to happen.
It is almost impossible for me to put myself in these people’s shoes. I tend to look incredulously at people who seem to have so much hate in their hearts. I struggle to find common ground or empathize in any way with people who leaned out of a schoolhouse, cheering as hundreds of Jews marched by on the way to their deaths. As a Christian, I want to believe that people have the capacity to be good; I want to believe in the prospect of seeing “the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Psalm 27:13). But I’m finding it really hard to maintain hope in a world where people can be so complicit in the maltreatment of others, a world where hate often seems to prevail.
In light of this, I find that it is ever important to constantly recognize and remind myself of how my own biases could be coming into play. It is easy for me to say that if I lived in Europe during the reign of Hitler that I would have been like Sophie Scholl — I would have stood up and done something. With hindsight bias, it’s easy to point fingers at people and call them bystanders to murder and say that they should have done more. It is easier to pass judgment on others and point out the ways in which their actions are flawed than to admit the commonalities between their attitudes and my own. In an event as gruesome as the Holocaust, the line between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” often seems so clear. However, after looking at the Some Were Neighbors online exhibit and reading Ordinary Men, I think that it’s entirely reasonable to come to the conclusion that there was more going on than just blind hatred or laziness: factors other than some intrinsic heroism or superior moral scruples may have been at play and contributed to complicity in the Holocaust.
As we saw in Sophie Scholl, direct force was one of the main tactics used by Nazis to quell potential resistance. People who stood up to Nazism usually wound up dead. This fact alone probably provided enough deterrence to quell most dissent. Normal citizens could not reasonably go about their daily lives or maintain any semblance of peace of mind without conforming to Hitler’s vision for society. As we saw in Ordinary Men, people could also be forced to contribute more passively to Nazi violence through threats and coercion; people were probably more likely to submit to Nazi activities if they honestly believed that their jobs and livelihoods depended on it. No one wanted to return to the post-Versailles days of economic oppression or abandon their leadership in wartime. Additionally, Hitler may eventually have been able to rely on more insidious forms of power. By 1942, when Nazi violence began to escalate, Hitler had already been in power for nine years. By that time, people in Germany especially had grown accustomed to that way of life. In the face of extreme violence, the natural human response is often to go numb, especially if the violence has a certain air of inevitability. I think this certainly applies in this case. Although some German civilians and other Europeans openly expressed hatred toward Jews and others, many more may have passively accepted anti-Semitism as commonplace.
The troubling truth still remains that not everyone was passive or complicit. A not insignificant amount of people in Germany and other European countries did stand up to Hitler, even in small ways. I cannot possibly make any judgment about why those people found the strength to do so, while so many others did not. If anything, I think the lessons that I can draw from this entire situation focus on something akin to Martin Niemoller’s “First They Came…” poem (see right). It is really easy to look at this situation and say that I would never be blind to such obvious evil or to passively accept such oppression of an entire people group. But, people at the time likely did not see themselves as conspirators to murder, and it may be unfair of me to look at them in that light.
However, though many were not intentionally taking part in the Holocaust, their thoughts and attitudes resulted in the necessary complicity for the Holocaust to happen. Sometimes society subtly tells us to think a certain way about a group of people and we absorb stereotypes and prejudices without even realizing it. People use all kinds of beliefs and social constructs to justify their judgments of other people and I think that the dangers of such thinking were just as prevalent in the 1940s as they are now. If society seems to be telling us to look skeptically at an entire people group, we should probably question why we are being pulled toward such thinking, even if there seems to be no immediate consequences for us in the quiet marginalization of others.
Lately on social media, there have been posts circulating that compare the refusal of many governors to welcome Syrian refugees to the refusal of the U.S. to welcome Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.
This easy correlation is perhaps not entirely valid, but it is certainly something to think about. Too many people learned about the Holocaust in school and came away with the lesson that “Hitler was a bad man” but not much else. I think that we cannot lose sight of the fact the Holocaust shows us just how awful circumstances become when (for whatever reason) people lose sight of their common humanity with others. This timeless lesson is relevant both in the study of the past and in making sense of the present.
– Elizabeth Hynes