Pressures and temptations were great to betray Jews or others dehumanized by the polarizing effects of racism, antisemitism, violence, war, and occupation during the years of Nazi rule in Germany and Europe. Awareness of the cultural prejudices and social-psychological factors that influenced human behavior in those extraordinary times may sensitize us when confronting ethical dilemmas and difficult choices today.
Countless ordinary people played roles in the Holocaust and the years leading up to mass murder and genocide. What responsibilities do citizens have today to help safeguard rights and freedoms in our democracy? What must we do upon witnessing expressions of hatred or prejudice in our schools, communities, and workplaces? How will we face moral and ethical challenges in our roles as students, teachers, lawyers, judges, doctors, police, soldiers, business owners and employees, and government officials? What are our obligations when we learn about abuses of human rights abroad that might be early warning signs of future mass atrocities and genocide?
Being a leader in one’s group, school, or community and an engaged citizen sometimes requires exercising courage in situations where it would be simpler and easier not to speak out or “swim against” the tide. Let us take to heart the words of Willy Brandt, German Chancellor (1969–1974) who many years ago when addressing the widespread moral collapse in Nazi Germany said: “Too few people made conscious choices against evil” when it could have made a difference.39