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How Was the Holocaust Possible?

“At crucial junctures, every individual makes decisions, and . . . every decision is individual”
— Raul Hilberg, Refugee from Nazism and leading Holocaust scholar

The Role and Motivations of Ordinary People

By Susan Bachrach, Curator, Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration & Complicity in the Holocaust

How was the Holocaust possible? No one questions the decisive role of German chancellor Adolf Hitler and other leaders of the Nazi regime (1933–1945). Less well understood is the dependence of these ideological “true believers” on so many others often motivated less by extreme beliefs (including the radical, racist form of antisemitism espoused by zealous Nazis) than by opportunism, pressures to conform to new norms and laws, and other influences that drive human behavior even in less extraordinary circumstances.

An expanding body of research documents the role that ordinary people in Nazi Germany and Europe played in the Holocaust. Examples of divergent behaviors in similar contexts show that more latitude for individual discretion existed than is often recognized. This was true even in Nazi society, where the ruling regime’s dystopian vision of a collective, biologically homogeneous “national community” resulted not only in the persecution of Jews and other groups (Roma, people with disabilities, gays) but more generally, in the radical devaluation and suppression of individual rights and freedoms.

People had choices. Many individuals actively participated in the stigmatization, isolation, impoverishment, and violence culminating in the mass murder of six million European Jews. Many others supported the participants from the sidelines, tolerated their actions, or benefited from them. Still others disapproved of what they witnessed, sometimes silently, sometimes by publicly speaking out, and sometimes by helping the victims, in lesser or greater ways.