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Causes and Motivations

Because the Holocaust involved people in different roles and situations living in countries across Europe over a period of time—from Nazi Germany in the 1930s to German-occupied Hungary in 1944—one broad explanation regarding motivation, for example, “antisemitism or “fear,” clearly cannot fit all. In addition, usually a combination of motivations and pressures were in play. For the Holocaust as other periods of history, most scholars are wary of monocausal explanations. Interpretations of individuals’ motivations fall into two broad categories: first, cultural explanations (including ideology and antisemitism); and second, social-psychological ones (fear, opportunism, pressures to conform and the like).

Antisemitism and Support for Nazism

Cultural explanations focus on values, beliefs, and prejudices, particularly antisemitism of various forms, including Nazi antisemitism.

Within Nazi Germany, everyone did not support Nazism or the Nazi regime to the same degree and to the extent suggested by iconic photographs and film footage of Nazi-staged spectacles. As Doris Bergen writes, “Smooth functioning of the system did not require all Germans—or even most—to share every tenet of Nazi ideology. Enough enthusiasts could always be found to stage enormous public shows of support such as the annual Nazi Party rallies. On a day to day basis, the Nazi regime only needed most people to obey the law, try to stay out of trouble, and promote their own interests as best they could under the current circumstances.”9

Many older Germans retained old loyalties. “Beneath the cover of totalitarian uniformity . . .  social and religious structures and even political orientations of the previous period were preserved to a certain extent,” Otto Dov Kulka and Eberhard Jäckel explain.10  Protestant, rural, and northern regions generally Nazified earlier than Catholic, urban, and traditionally more liberal western parts of the country. When Hitler took power in Germany, only a small minority of ordinary people shared Nazi antisemitism that saw “the Jews” as “enemies of the people” and a threat to Germany’s very survival. Nazi propaganda and changing norms and laws did erode older, pre-Nazi ties (to Christian teachings or leftist, anti-Nazi political beliefs), especially in the absence of the public expression of opposing views under the Nazi dictatorship. Still, those who espoused extreme antisemitic views remained a minority.11

The majority of Germans held more moderate prejudices that predated Nazi rule. Many could more easily support measures against “the Jews” in the abstract than the visible persecution or physical harm of Jewish neighbors or business people with whom they had longstanding relations. Thus the limited support of ordinary Germans for the national boycott of Jewish businesses of April 1, 1933, for example, and the shocked response of many Germans to the unprecedented violence and destruction of the Kristallnacht pogroms of November 9–10, 1938.12 Many Germans’ toleration for or acquiescence to Nazi antisemitic policies was facilitated by broader support for the Nazi regime during the years of economic improvement, the popularity of Hitler as a strong leader, and foreign policy successes in the 1930s that restored Germany to great power status after its humiliating defeat in World War I (1914–1918).13

Outside Nazi Germany, the form and depth of antisemitic attitudes varied greatly from areas where the Jewish population was larger and less integrated, such as many areas of Poland and Romania, compared to many countries in western Europe, such as the Netherlands and France, with smaller, more assimilated Jewish populations and traditions of democratic pluralism. Peoples in the Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) and eastern Poland who experienced and suffered under a “double occupation” during World War II, first by the Soviets (1939–1941), then the Nazis (1941–1944), were particularly susceptible to Nazi propaganda and incitement linking “the Jews” to the “Communist” or “Bolshevik” threat.14

Antisemitic attitudes were usually secondary, however, to other considerations. In German-occupied countries, the need to prove loyalty to new German masters, particularly if one had previously cooperated with Soviet occupiers, provided many individuals with powerful motivation to collaborate. The hope that cooperating with the Nazis might yield special rewards, from plunder to political independence (say, for Ukraine or Lithuania) also influenced individuals’ choices. 15 Some leaders, allies of Germany with greater autonomy, from more antisemitic Romania to less antisemitic Italy, chose not to collaborate in all measures, notably turning over Jews for deportation “to the East,” in part to protect their countries’ sovereignty. Toward the end of the war, as German defeat seemed imminent, opportunism and the drive for self-preservation again rose to the fore: some leaders, officials, and private citizens helped individual Jews mainly in the hope of garnering protection against charges of prior collaboration with the German enemy.

Generally, the course of the war proved critical in shaping the choices of individuals at all levels of German and European societies: whether people thought Germany would win—and dominate Europe for the indefinite future—or lose—a possibility that grew after the defeat of German forces at Stalingrad in February 1943.

Social-Psychological Explanations

Let us look more fully at some of these explanations already alluded to earlier in the discussion.16

(1) Fear. “Fear” is a popular explanation for people’s behavior during the Holocaust. Certainly fear for the consequences—if not physical harm than sanctions of some other kind—rose to the fore in various situations and at certain times—say, in the early months of Nazi rule characterized by terror to eliminate political opposition and during the war and occupation, especially in eastern Europe directly ruled by the Germans. Focusing too much on fear, however, obscures and oversimplifies the more complicated dynamic behind the choices ordinary people made with regard to the persecution, then killing of Jews. Citing “fear” seems to imply that in the absence of some kind of coercion, many would have acted more honorably or decently. Overemphasizing fear belies the range of complicit behaviors discussed above. Doing so also ignores the political reality that even within Nazi Germany, leaders were sensitive to public opinion.

“Terror alone,” in Ian Kershaw’s words, “would not have sufficed to quell objections, had the so-called [Jewish Question] been an issue of importance, relevance, and above all self-interest to a large number of Germans.”17 In Kershaw’s view, what happened to “the Jews” was simply not a high priority for most people. This was true of ordinary people who may have had little or only superficial relations with individual Jews and of the traditional elites with more influence—Church, university, military, and business leaders. From the beginning of Nazi rule and the fateful years leading up to them, these leaders failed to speak out against hateful speech, violence, and after 1933, legal measures that progressively stripped German Jews of their rights.

Regarding “fear,” cases of exceptional public protests and the consequences for the participants are also telling. For example, mindful of popular opinion, German authorities did not harm or punish the non-Jewish wives of Jewish men when the women publicly protested the pending deportation of their loved ones in Berlin on February 27, 1943.18 In another instance, when the Catholic Bishop of Münster, Clemens Graf Galen gave a sermon in August 1941 denouncing the Nazi killing of institutionalized Germans (psychiatric patients and others) in the secret “euthanasia” program—knowledge of which had spread—Galen was not punished. That protests in these two cases aimed at specific actions or policies and not the regime itself was significant. In contrast, in February 1943, the university students and associates who belonged to the Munich-based “White Rose” resistance group protested not only the murder of Jews in occupied territories but “the [National Socialist] dictatorship of evil,” and the “senseless” death of German soldiers, which they blamed, using bitter irony, on the “brilliant strategy of the Führer.” This protest clearly went too far, especially at a moment when German forces had just suffered a major defeat at Stalingrad and the regime was cracking down on “defeatists.” In this instance, the consequences were deadly for the courageous students and others (who had miscalculated in thinking the end of the war was near): Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl, Christian Probst, and other members of the resistance group were tried and executed as traitors to the Fatherland.19

Even when it came to participation in the mass shooting of Jews and others (Roma, Communist leaders) in German-occupied eastern European territories beginning in summer 1941, the German police and sometimes soldiers who were involved had a choice. In his book Ordinary Men, Christopher Browning analyzes the factors that turned most men of one police battalion into first-time, then hardened killers. Browning states that there has never been “a single case in which refusal to obey an order to kill unarmed civilians resulted in the allegedly inevitable dire punishment” (execution).20 Browning underscores the need the men felt to conform to the group—not “to step out” of the killing ranks when the commander gave them the opportunity to do so (and a small minority did), and not to appear “a coward” in the eyes of their fellow policemen. A similar dynamic may have been at play for the less studied eastern European collaborators who participated in the German-led shootings; only a few opted out of the face-to-face killing of men, women, and children to serve as guards or in other capacities.21

(2) Gain. Gain came in many forms and dimensions. The systematic plunder of Jewish assets in Germany and German-occupied Europe by agents of the Nazi regime has been well documented.22 For ordinary individuals, “gain” included the acquisition of material possessions either bought at a large discount at auctions or looted after the owners “disappeared”: household linens, furniture, clothing, dishes, farm animals, the emptied farm, house, apartment itself. It included businesses bought at less than fair market or reduced competition because of the liquidation of Jewish-owned businesses. “Gain” could be a matter of survival for truly impoverished families, common in economically less developed eastern Europe or could involve “greed” in the case of less needy beneficiaries. “Gain” could mean employment (as auxiliary police, guard, town official) as the means of survival for the destitute or the opportunity for career or social mobility, for the better-off or as the way to avoid forced labor under harsh conditions (the fate of hundreds of thousands of young men and women in German-occupied eastern Europe).

In Nazi Germany the property taken from the Jews following their deportation was distributed through public auctions, the proceeds of which accrued to state finance offices. According to Peter Fritzsche, “knowledge about these auctions was so completely suppressed in the postwar years that historians have only in the last ten years or so become aware of their extent.” Almost everywhere, before the public auctions began, officials skimmed off a share. Fritzsche mentions, for example, civil servants in Württemberg, who communicated about “the rich booty suddenly available in the town of Baisingen: ‘Dr. Schmal’s easy chair is probably not right for the main office; I suggest instead that we take Wolff’s plush chair as well as Ebert’s chaise longue, since it is particularly nice.’ Then the rest of the furniture was sold off to Germans deprived of consumer goods in wartime and avid for bargains. Some Germans were “appalled by the proceedings.” One Baisinger later testified that her mother would have nothing to do with the fine linens for sale: “she couldn’t sleep in them, she’d not get her rest anymore.”23

In eastern Europe, many Jews entrusted household belongings to neighbors or friends prior to their forced move into Nazi-established ghettos. Goods could then be sold off little by little in exchange for food. This strategy became a matter of life-and-death for Jews, but the temptations for their helpers were great. As Emmanuel Ringelblum, a Jewish resident of Warsaw wrote, “One of the most important economic matters—as it concerns Polish-Jewish relations—is the matter of Jewish possessions and goods given to Poles for safekeeping . . . . The war demoralized people who were decent and honest all their lives, and now without any scruples they appropriated for themselves Jewish property . . . . In the majority of cases, almost 95 percent, they did not return either possessions or goods, excusing themselves that this was done by the Germans through theft, etc.”24

The Germans also expressly used the lure of gain to win the cooperation of locals in the persecution and murder of Jews. In Lithuania, locals who participated in mass shootings got the first cut of property, usually housing, then auctioned off household belongings to the wider population, in this way spreading complicity.25 As Calel Perechodnik, a Jewish resident in Otwock, Poland, wrote, “One thing is certain: The Germans sensed very well that among the Poles not everyone is against the extermination of the Jews and, moreover, that among them are such who will aid in this as the price of inheriting the remainder of Jewish belongings.”26 Perechodnik also recounts how former Polish neighbors visited Jews in the ghetto prior to deportations “to buy things as cheaply as possible because— as they explain—‘when they will deport you, you will leave it behind anyway.’ My housekeeper, a woman who was brought up practically with my wife, also comes to us. However, it is not in order to assure us that we can count on her in time of need. Since we are made to feel that for her we are as living corpses, who is worthy of inheriting our things, especially bedding? Probably only she, who has known us for so many years and is fond of us. In her naiveté she even poses such a question to us. She leaves very surprised and angry because in order not to be bothered by her anymore, we gave her a black skirt.” (Not everyone succumbed to the temptations though: “Others kindly agree to hide Jewish things. Some, taking them, promise that in the worst of situations they will receive and hide the owners.”)27 However small the gain for individuals, the guilt often translated into “rejection and aggression against Jews,” a psychological stance that continued after the war vis à vis survivors.28

“Gain” could also mean the psychological satisfaction that came from taking revenge or settling old scores in a personal conflict. Examples of this abound not only in communities in Germany where police became distressed at the number of denunciations, often false, provided by those with ulterior motives (revenge as well as the desire to reduce business competition), but elsewhere in Europe.29 In rural Butrimonys, Lithuania, for example, a man cut out of the family land inheritance years earlier, sought revenge by reporting one of the heirs, his brother, to authorities for sheltering Jews after German-organized mass shootings began there; officials later killed the brother, along with the Jews he helped hide.30

(3) Deference to Authority. Members of police, paramilitary, or military unit are trained to follow established chains of command. Civil servants also serve in hierarchically organized units where one is expected to defer to one’s superior.31 In these situations, then and now, it is usually in one’s “self-interest” not “to step out” or  “rock the boat.” One’s career or job might be on the line, to say nothing of one’s standing in the group for non-conformist behavior.

In laboratory experiments conducted in the late 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram had someone acting as a “scientist” instruct paid subjects to administer progressively stronger electric shocks to a person in another room. The shocks were not real but the subjects did not know that. A surprisingly high compliance rate (as many as two-thirds of the subjects progressed to the maximum shock levels under certain conditions) led Milgram to conclude that “normal” ordinary people, deferring to a legitimate authority, have the capacity to do harm to others. Revisiting the Milgram research three decades later, British psychologists Steve Reicher and Alex Haslam reaffirmed the broad conclusions but focus on the need for the subjects to “share the goals” of the authority. In their opinion, this provides stronger motivation than coercion.32 The extent to which police and other members of German killing units (and the wider German society) shared the ideological goals of Nazi leaders to annihilate Jews in a “life and death struggle” against these “perilous” “enemies” remains a point of scholarly discussion.33

More broadly, socialization in the family, school, and community mold children into adults who defer to authorities recognized as legitimate. In Nazi Germany, the socialization, including political indoctrination, of young people became a priority for the regime, reflected in the Nazification of education and as of 1939, compulsory membership in Hitler Youth.34 In all societies, youth in the process of developing identities experience different kinds of pressures and temptations than their elders. Their attitudes and beliefs are in flux, which may make it even harder, even if one has moral qualms, to resist the lead of others—dominant peers or older authority figures. Violating the norms of one’s group is difficult for all ages, but youth may feel a stronger impulse to go along, to avoid feeling “different” or risking social rejection. Young people may have a greater tendency to act on impulse or get caught up in the moment. Their limited knowledge and life experiences can affect their perspective and judgment in a way that when they are older and wiser, may stir regret. Such developmental issues made youth particularly vulnerable to exploitation by the Nazis and their collaborators.

(4) Pressures to conform and to rationalize one’s choices. Young or old, the acceptance of radical antisemitic views or Nazi ideology was not needed for people simply to tolerate rather than enthusiastically support anti-Jewish measures (as Nazi “true believers” did). Without others for support, “swimming against the tide” of a rapidly Nazifying culture and society, in Germany or occupied lands, required courage that few individuals possessed.

At the same time, because of humans’ need to eliminate “cognitive dissonance”—mental anguish caused by the divide between one’s beliefs and one’s behavior—the human response is to rationalize one’s choices as quickly as possible. If someone was not disposed to think ill of the victims because of pre-existing prejudices—perhaps that “they” even “deserved” their treatment—Nazi leaders and propaganda provided ample reasons to help them, with time, to come around to this point of view.

Explaining how such psychological pressures play out in people’s lives more generally, Ervin Staub writes, “It is impossible for people to see other humans tremendously mistreated, and not do anything, and not change. Thus one reason for the necessity of change is self-protection. If they view the victims as good human beings, bystanders will experience empathy. As the victims suffer, so will they suffer. To protect ourselves, we distance ourselves from victims. Passive bystanders will also further devalue victims, beyond the cultural devaluation that characterizes their society, and come to see them as deserving their fate. Bystanders can avoid turning against the victims if they identify with the victims, if they help them or resist the system that harms them, if they see the perpetrators as responsible and turn against them. However, without support from likeminded others, this is extremely difficult.” Staub adds that “to stand apart,” people must also have “strong initial values.”35

Mixed Motivations of “Rescuers”

As was true for “bystanders,” motivations for individuals who actively helped Jews by sheltering them in hiding could also be more complex than often thought. Not all such helpers were saint-like individuals motivated by altruistic or religious feelings. For some poor people simply getting the money the victims provided for their room and board became a form of survival during hard times and was worth the risk taken. Some farmers in countries such as France and Netherlands who faced labor shortages welcomed the placement by resistance groups of Jewish teens who could work for them in exchange for room and board.36 It was not unusual for persons who helped Jews to hold moderate or traditional antisemitic beliefs. Some were able to overlook them to serve their own material interests or as part of anti-Nazi resistance efforts. Also, that all forms of antisemitism were not alike bears repeating: one could harbor prejudices against Jews without supporting killing or the genocidal destruction of an entire people. Jews with the best chance of surviving were those who had contacts who were not Jewish. Assimilated Jews thus had the “best chance of finding help”: “Charity begins at home.”37

The Power of “Bundled” Motivations

In their discussion of “networks of persecution,” Gerald Feldman and Wolfgang Seibel use organization theory to analyze motivations for participation in the Nazi initiated persecution of Jews. Viewing the Holocaust as a form of organized mass crime, they argue that “the enormous diversification of motivational sources” as one moves outward from the leading perpetrators to “the periphery” makes “organized evil decisively more dangerous than mobilization through shared goals alone.” They argue that “coercion” or “ideology” alone would not have sufficed as means of engaging the help of so many individuals on such a vast scale, within Nazi Germany and across the continent of Europe. “Much more robust motives” had to be involved for those not initiating the crime, in particular a “broad variety” of “utility maximization” (What is most useful or beneficial in terms of gain or the avoidance of sanctions? For myself? My institution? My nation?).

Antisemitism in an extreme racist form and as state sanctioned policy in Nazi Germany “triggered” the persecution and provided the “indispensable ideological basis of its implementation.” Not everyone involved to a greater or lesser degree in the persecution, however, shared the extreme Nazi variant of this hatred, and for some, antisemitism was not a motivation at all. Regardless, antisemitism “served as a signaling mechanism transmitting a clear message as to what was desired by the persecutors” and “could be used opportunistically according to individual or institutional ambitions.” In this way, “racist ideology” and “individual and institutional utilitarianism” in various configurations were “mutually reinforcing determinants of the persecution.” In the view of Feldman and Seibel, among others, these “robust” “bundled motivations” “explain much—if not most—of the Holocaust’s scale and dynamics.” 38