Complicity Part One

by padraigcolman

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday February 10 2015.

Colman's Column3

Willing executioners?


A number of historians have asked, “How did ordinary people bring themselves to participate in torture and euthanasia in Nazi Germany?” Was this something particular to the Germans or could people of other nations be complicit in similar atrocities? Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis, in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, imagines a Fascist dictatorship in the USA.



In Death and Deliverance, Michael Burleigh studies the character, background and motives of those who carried out the mass sterilisation and euthanasia of German mental patients in the 1930s. In 1920, Karl Bonhoeffer, chairman of the German Psychiatric Association, acknowledged that the exigencies of war had meant that the profession “had to get used to watching our patients die of malnutrition in vast numbers, almost approving of this, in the knowledge that perhaps the healthy could be kept alive through these sacrifices”. This was a thin end of an evil wedge.

During the 1930s, Bonheoffer gave lecture courses to those charged with implementing the compulsory sterilisation policies introduced by the National Socialists. These policies were no secret. The Nazi government sought to involve the wider public in their eugenic measures by opening the asylums to public inspection. In 1935, over 2,000 tourists marched through one of the asylums in the Rhineland. From 1934, parties of a hundred or more regularly visited Eglfing-Maar in Munich.

Hermann Pfannmüller, director of Eglfing-Maar, was a fanatical Nazi and an advocate of “racial and genetic biology. He was amused when one visitor recommended setting up a machine gun in the asylum entrance to clear away the inmates. In 1989 in Potsdam, Burleigh himself watched propaganda films produced to promote euthanasia. The films educated audiences in the cost of caring for the mentally ill. These funds would be better spent on housing or food for normal people.

Sterilisation evolved into euthanasia. However, it is clear that mercy played no part in the killing. Between 1934 and 1945, 400,000 people were sterilised in the cause of eradicating “degenerative heredity”. Under the programme known as T4, daily murders became a matter of routine, with doctors falsifying death certificates to cover up lethal injections and starvation. The Nazis extended the concept of a “life unworthy of life” to include mentally and physically disabled people, Jews, Gypsies, and Homosexuals. Up to 350,000 were killed. The gas chamber technology used by the Nazis was developed when the large number of adult and child euthanasia cases required more efficient means than lethal injections and starvation.

What kind of people could do this kind of thing? The asylum administrators’ annual reports demonstrate what Burleigh describes as “a high degree of enthusiastic complicity”. The psychiatrists themselves were not noted for their intellect or ethics.

Even bureaucrats were not remote from the killing. Secretaries shared their offices with jars of gold teeth extracted from the slaughtered. All T4 employees were entitled to cut price dental treatment, which used gold from the mouths of their victims.  Most of the personnel engaged in asylum work did not have vocations as carers. Many of the murderers were women – doctors such as Mathilde Weber, who ran a “special” paediatric ward at the Kalmenhof, and hundreds of nurses. Burleigh writes that once one has abandoned stereotypes about medical professionals one finds “that these people were often bitter, frustrated, disillusioned, tired, underpaid and undervalued”. The long years they had spent in nursing inured them to suffering of others. Burleigh gives pen portraits of a few of these women, pointing out that it “was possible to refuse to carry out these policies; the only sanctions that existed concerned breaking the code of secrecy”.

Male orderlies tended to be from a lower social class and showed no evidence of a vocation for caring for the sick. They were labourers or drivers who had been made unemployed by the depression. Party membership and asylum employment provided social mobility, enabling minor functionaries to become camp commandants.

After the war, some of the Nazi eugenicists were executed. Many of those who did the hands-on killing  received light sentences. Most melted into the general population under new identities.


In Ordinary Men, published in 1992, American historian Christopher Browning looks through the archives and analyses interviews carried out in the 1960s with policemen who had the job of shooting Jews en masse. The Order Reserve Police Battalion 101 was a unit of just over 450 men from Hamburg, which had been used in 1942 to round up Jews from Russian and Polish ghettoes.


As well as collecting Jews for transportation to death camps, the reserve policemen also carried out massacres themselves. The battalion was responsible in Poland for the shooting of 39,000 Jews and the deportation to Treblinka of 44,000 more. In March 1942, some 75 to 80 percent of all victims of the Holocaust were still alive. Eleven months later, 75 to 80 percent were dead–the result, Browning says, of “a short, intense wave of mass murder,” in Poland.

Browning concludes that these killers were not devils or Nazi fanatics or even virulent anti-Semites. These were ordinary middle-aged men of working-class background – 63% were working class but few were skilled workers. They were mostly dockworkers, truck drivers, warehouse or construction workers, machine operators, seamen, waiters. The majority were from a social class that had been anti-Nazi in its political culture.

These men were ordered to round up Jews, and if there was not enough room for them on the trains, or if they were unable to walk, to shoot them. Sometimes, they were ordered simply to kill a specified number of Jews in a given town or area. On July 13, 1942, the unit’s commander, Major Trapp, ordered his men to round up 1,800 Jews from the Polish village of Józefów and  to select several hundred as “work Jews,” and to shoot the rest- men, women, and children. Trapp told them that if any did not feel up to the task they could step forward and be excused. He wept as he gave the orders. Only a dozen men took the opportunity to hand in their rifles.

As the assignment continued, more found that they could not shoot women and children and they were released to  other duties. One said: “I myself took part in some ten shootings, in which I had to shoot men and women. I simply could not shoot at people anymore.” It was a dirty job. “The shooters were gruesomely besmirched with blood, brains, and bone splinters. It hung on their clothing”. The usual technique was to shoot the victim in the back of the neck. One man reported how “the back of the skull of my Jew was torn off and the brain exposed. Parts of the skull flew into Sergeant Steinmetz’s face. This was grounds for me to, after returning to the truck, to go to the first sergeant and ask for my release. I had become so sick that I simply couldn’t anymore”.

There was peer pressure – one who opted out said his comrades called him “shithead” and ‘weakling’- but there were no serious consequences for opting out. Browning argued that the men of Unit 101 agreed willingly to participate in massacres out of a basic obedience to authority, not blood-lust or primal hatred.

Browning wrote: “These men were not desk murderers who could take refuge in distance, routine and bureaucratic euphemisms that veiled the reality of mass murder. These men saw their victims face-to-face. Their comrades had already shot all the Jews deemed too weak to be deported, and they subsequently worked viciously for hours to prevent their victims from escaping from the train and hence the gas chambers awaiting them in Běžec.“
Critics of alltagsgeschhte – the history of everyday life- say that it draws attention away from the horrors of the Nazi genocide by normalizing the perpetrators. On the other hand, it can show the degree to which the criminal policies of the regime permeated everyday life. How would you or I have behaved in a similar situation – would you be a killer or an evader? Browning writes: “Explaining is not excusing; understanding is not forgiving”. The Holocaust took place because individual human beings killed other human beings on a large scale. The grass-roots perpetrators became “professional killers” in the sense that killing was their job.


Browning argues that it was not just Nazism or Germans that produced such men. There were American units in the Pacific that boasted of never taking captives. “If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances,” he writes, “what group of men cannot?”



Daniel Goldhagen and Christopher Browning have had a running dispute for some time. In his book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996), Goldhagen argues that the vast majority were complicit in the Holocaust because German political culture, developing over centuries, imbued in ordinary Germans a unique and virulent “eliminationist anti-Semitism”. According to Goldhagen, Germany had been “pregnant with murder” regarding the Jews since the mid-19th century and that all Hitler did was merely to unleash the deeply rooted murderous impulses that had been festering within the German people since at least Luther’s time. This was unique to Germany  and because of it, ordinary German conscripts killed Jews willingly.


Goldhagen disagreed with Browning’s argument that the killing carried out by Order Police Reserve Battalion 101 was done in the context of the ordinary sociological phenomenon of obedience to authority.  To Goldhagen, they were not “ordinary men”, but “ordinary members of an extraordinary political culture, the culture of Nazi Germany, which was possessed of a hallucinatory, lethal view of the Jews. That view was the mainspring of what was, in essence, voluntary barbarism.”


Goldhagen charged that every other book written on the Holocaust was flawed by the fact that historians had treated Germans in the Third Reich as “more or less like us,” wrongly believing that “their sensibilities had remotely approximated our own.”

The British historian Sir Ian Kershaw wrote, “The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference,” Other historians have used the term “passive complicity” but largely agreed with Kershaw that there was a chasm of opinion about the Jews between the Nazi “true believers” and the wider German public.


In Part 2, It Can’t Happen Here, I will examine whether the citizens of Nazi Germany were so different.