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Background

Some Were Neighbors

How Was the Holocaust Possible? Previous Causes and Motivations Next

Range of Involvement in Events of the Holocaust

After the war many ordinary Germans and Europeans claimed that they were “not involved” in Nazi crimes.1 The construction of such postwar memories—and abdication of any responsibility for what happened—belies the reality of the widespread, sometimes active involvement of people at all levels of German society and beyond. Many onlookers to events who approved or tolerated what they witnessed without expressing dissent were also “involved” in making the Holocaust possible.

Within Nazi Germany many individuals became active or semi-active participants in Nazi racial and antisemitic policies aimed first at the isolation, impoverishment, and forced emigration of German Jews during the 1930s, then during World War II (1939–1945), the annihilation of European Jewry. They included civil servants engaged in their “normal work” such as finance officials processing the steep “tax on Jewish wealth” levied in 1938 or inventorying property seized following the wartime deportations; clerks who kept files of documents listing “race” or “religion” and addresses used in police roundups; teachers at all educational levels whose lessons incorporated racist and antisemitic content.2 Individual citizens chose to be “involved” when they voluntarily denounced their co-workers and neighbors to the police because of their alleged transgressions as Jews, “friends of Jews,” anti-Hitlerites, or gays.3 Teenagers also played a role in many communities when they enjoyed their newfound power to harass with impunity Jewish classmates and their parents—adults to whom youth were generally taught to defer—thereby contributing to the targeted group’s isolation. Many ordinary Germans became invested in the ongoing persecution after acquiring Jewish businesses, homes, or belongings sold at bargain prices or benefiting from reduced business competition as Jews were driven from the economy.

Outside Nazi Germany, many individuals—from leaders, public officials, and police to ordinary citizens—collaborated with the Nazi regime following the German occupation of or alliance with their countries during World War II.  People helped in their roles as clerks and confiscators of property; as railway and other transportation employees; as managers or participants in round ups and deportations; as informants; sometimes as perpetrators of violence against Jews on their own initiative; and sometimes as hand-on killers in killing operations, notably in the mass shootings of Jews and others in occupied Soviet territories in which thousands of eastern Europeans participated as auxiliaries and many more witnessed. In communities across Europe where the Germans implemented the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” they needed the help of individuals with local languages and knowledge to assist them in finding Jewish neighbors who evaded roundups.5

Many more people—the onlookers who witnessed persecution or violence against Jews in Nazi Germany and elsewhere—failed to speak out as their neighbors, classmates, and co-workers were isolated and impoverished—socially and legally, then physically. Only a small minority publicly expressed their disapproval. Other individuals actively assisted the victims by purchasing food or other supplies for households to whom shops were closed; providing false identity papers or warnings about upcoming roundups; storing belongings for those in hiding that could be sold off little by little for food; and sheltering those who evaded capture, a form of help that, if discovered, especially in Nazi Germany and occupied eastern Europe, was punished by arrest and often execution. In small acts of kindness that usually required more civic than physical courage, some individuals publicly embraced their Jewish friends and neighbors when they were being taken from their homes to deportation trains or pressed sandwiches or blankets into their hands. Jewish survivors often vividly remembered these moments because of their humane and exceptional character.

In the field of Holocaust Studies, scholars have traditionally divided populations into three categories: perpetrators, victims, and everyone else—the “bystanders.”6 The examples above, in documenting a range of behaviors in various contexts, help to disaggregate this large group, often regarded as a homogeneous and static population. The illustrations show the possibilities for acting in ways more—or less—beneficial to the victims. They also prove that postures relative to the events could change over time. A witness could become a semi-active or active participant under certain circumstances or in specific situations, depending on the kinds of temptations and pressures of the moment within his or her school, workplace, or community.  

Because the term “bystander” usually connotes silence and passivity rather than involvement, some scholars have advocated not using the misleading term. Instead of splitting the “bystanders” into two black and white categories—a majority of “indifferent” or “apathetic” persons and a small minority of “altruistic” “rescuers,” they study the many shades of gray and the dynamic movement along a spectrum of behaviors.7 This development parallels a wider trend that has seen many scholars shift from looking at the Holocaust as “history from the top,” concerned with the chronology of events and stages of persecution, to a broader social history. As Michael Wildt writes, the practice of societal antisemitism—“neighbors, colleagues, customers, acquaintances, and relatives—went unnoticed for a long time.” Many local studies and telling research on economic plundering as it spread complicity through broad segments of society within Germany and other countries, has put “the social dimension of the persecution of the Jews into the spotlight.”8