The Holocaust: How Did it Happen and Are We Sure it Could Never Happen Again?

On January 27th 1945, soldiers from the Red Army of the Soviet Union liberated Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. The horrific things these veteran soldiers had witnessed in their fight against Nazi Germany had not prepared them for what they discovered in Auschwitz. Approximately one million people had been murdered in Auschwitz and the survivors were described as ‘living skeletons’. What had occurred in Auschwitz was just one part of the Nazis’ so-called ‘Final Solution’, the name given to the process through which approximately six million Jewish people were systematically murdered. An additional eleven million people were also murdered on the basis of their sexuality, ethnic identity, political background and medical status. How did this happen? How is it that millions of people could be murdered? What led to this happening? The economist Milton Friedman once said:

All of us are affected by the status quo. We tend to take for granted the situation as it is, to regard it as the natural state of affairs, especially when it has been shaped by a series of small gradual changes.

The Holocaust did not happen immediately but was instead the result of a series of measures and actions implemented by the Nazi government which controlled Germany from 1933 to 1945. Adolf Hitler became the chancellor of Germany in January 1933, having won the 1932 election with only approximately 37% of the popular vote. It did not take long for Hitler to extend his power. In March 1933, the Reichstag (Germany’s equivalent to our Parliament) was burned down. The Nazis claimed their political opponents were responsible, though in reality it seems likely that it was the Nazis themselves who committed the act. But what was crucial in this case was the level of fear which the Nazis propagated. Fear that Germany and its people were at risk from an enemy within, and that the only way to tackle the problem was to grant Hitler unlimited powers in the form of the Enabling Act.

Marketed as just a temporary measure, the Enabling Act was never repealed. It provided Hitler and his Government with a legal justification for persecuting groups of people and crushing the civil liberties which German people had enjoyed up until that point. At first this took the form of censoring publications produced by Jewish people. From there, a gradual increase in restrictions occurred. In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were passed, effectively stripping Jewish people of their German citizenship. By 1936, Jewish people had found that they were no longer allowed to vote, and by 1937 they found themselves either barred or dismissed from professions like teaching and they were forced to hand over their businesses. By 1938, Jewish people were forced to carry identity cards and by 1941 they were forced to wear the Star of David.

In that same year, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and it was at that point that different methods for murdering people en masse were tested. Initially, the Nazis tried mass shootings. An organisation known as the Einsatzgruppen followed the main German forces and killed anyone who did not fit in with Nazi ideology, though their methods were considered to be too inefficient and time consuming. By January 1942, during what was known as the Wannsee Conference, the Nazi regime officially determined that they would develop a system involving extermination camps to murder millions of people. The Nazis dressed up their twisted ideas as a form of science; they were not the first and would not be the last government to do so. They applied Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to create a system which claimed that certain groups of people, whether defined by race or medical status, were superior to others and by doing so justified their persecution and criminal actions.

I recall sitting in a lecture at Keele University some years ago. I unfortunately forget the specifics of context, but the lecture dealt with aspects of the Holocaust. The lecturer exclaimed his disbelief that nobody had tried to intervene or stop the mass executions. I remember thinking at the time that it was surely quite easy to explain why such intervention did not happen. It was surely obvious: the Nazis had the full power of government machinery, such as the military, the SS and Gestapo; anyone who did not follow orders would potentially risk being executed themselves, so people were compelled to obey instructions which led to the murder of millions of people. In German legal frameworks there exists the concept of Befehlnotstand, or necessity, where someone may face a situation in which they are required to perform an action and their refusal to do so could lead to drastic consequences to themselves. This was actually used as a defence by those who committed war crimes during the Second World War.

However, the reality of what happened during the 1940s is more disturbing. The Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes was formed in 1958 by the German government to investigate the crimes committed under the Nazi regime. Its research found that, contrary to the implications of Befehlnotstand, there was not a single known case where a German soldier was severely punished for refusing to carry out an order that contributed to the Holocaust. These findings were confirmed in the research conducted by Manfred Oldenburg, who could likewise find no cases where the refusal of either a Wehrmacht or SS soldier to carry out orders led to themselves facing dire consequences. A particularly interesting example where this was the case can be found in the actions of Reserve Police Battalion 101, which operated alongside the Wehrmacht and became a major perpetrator of the Holocaust in Poland. On July 13th 1942, the unit’s commander, Major Wilhelm Trapp, was tasked with executing a group of Jewish people. An eyewitness testimony records that:

Trapp then made an extraordinary offer to his battalion: if any of the older men among them did not feel up to the task that lay before him, he could step out. Trapp paused, and after some moments, one man stepped forward. The captain of third company… began to berate the man. The major told the captain to hold his tongue. Then 10 or 12 other men stepped forward as well. They turned in their rifles and were told to await a further assignment from the major.

This example is especially revealing. It is quite clear that Major Trapp was not prepared to punish anyone under his command for refusing to take part in mass executions. So, if there was no actual punishment for refusing to perform such horrific actions, why then did nobody say anything? How was it the Holocaust happened? The possible answers to such questions are rather disturbing.

In 1996, an historian called Daniel Goldhagen suggested the Holocaust happened precisely because people enjoyed murdering other people. It is no doubt true to an extent that some people indulged in sadistic depravity and mass murder due to some twisted sense of pleasure. One need only think of figures such as Dr Josef Mengele, who performed horrific medical and scientific experiments on Auschwitz prisoners, to find evidence of that. But Goldhagen’s theory has, in the years since, been challenged as an overall explanation for the Holocaust. More recent years have seen the emergence of another, though arguably equally disturbing, theory. A German historian called Sven Felix Kellerhoff has suggested that peer pressure was the key driving force behind the Holocaust. Indeed, the example of Police Battalion 101 also suggests this. The testimony I cited a minute ago not only shows Major Trapp was not prepared to punish a soldier for refusing an order but it also shows how a more junior officer was ready to exert pressure on the men in the battalion. Depressingly, it also shows how only a minority refused to perform the orders. Peer pressure and fear ruled and determined most people’s lack of action and therefore resulted in them following orders without question, even when those orders involved murdering civilians, non-combatants and prisoners of war.

To be sure, there were others who made a stand against the crimes committed by the Nazis. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1944 was partly driven by his disgust at the mass murder of Jewish people. Major Karl Plagge used his position as an engineer in the Wehrmacht to save hundreds of Jewish people throughout the war, as did Helmut Kleinicke, whilst Joseph Hartinger tried to use his legal expertise to fight the Nazis during the 1930s. More famously, the industrialist Oskar Schindler used his position to save thousands of Jewish people whilst the Catholic Cardinal Clemens August Graf von Galen openly criticised the Nazis’ euthanasia programme which was responsible for murdering people on the basis of their medical status. Sadly, in the scheme of things, these people were few and far between; there simply weren’t that many who were strong enough to be what we might call upstanders. Most were either directly involved and complicit or were simply bystanders and allowed horrific events to unfold. But why?

Well, perhaps part of the answer lies in the development of vested interests. The Nazi government forged strong links to key industries and key individuals who led those industries. Significant financial incentives might explain why the Nazis secured such levels of support. Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, for example, ran a vast steelworks empire and stood to gain massively from the Nazis’ need for weapons. Similarly, I.G. Farben, the company responsible for developing the cyanide gas called Zyklon B, received significant contracts from the Nazi regime for scientific research. Many individuals would also profit from the Nazis’ seizure of property which had been owned by minority groups. But vested interests only partly explain why the Nazis were able to murder millions of people.

The 18th-century French writer, Voltaire, once warned that “anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”. Given the sheer scale and volume of propaganda which was produced and circulated by the Nazi government, with key institutions like the media and education being infiltrated and controlled, there is the distinct possibility that those who were complicit may very well have been conditioned into thinking their actions were justified. Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, is reputed to have said words to the effect that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it. With a narrative or belief system established and promoted by the Nazi regime, people may perhaps have thought their crimes were absolved by virtue of the fact that they were following orders from officials. Perhaps they believed that their own criminal actions were acceptable simply because their peers were likewise engaged in them too. I am reminded of the words of the American writer Robert Anton Wilson who observed how “the obedient always think of themselves as virtuous, rather than cowardly”. For some of those who perpetrated the Holocaust, compliance and conformity with the Nazi Government’s ideology, demands and orders was justification enough. But compliance and conformity are precisely what enabled terror to emerge and flourish. One can only wonder what might have happened had more people been prepared to either speak out or take action; the Nazis, after all, appear to have been too intimidated by the influence of someone like Cardinal Galen to arrest him, even though he was openly critical of them.

So where does this leave us? What can we learn from all this? I would like to share with you the concluding comments of a speech that was delivered by US President Lyndon Baines Johnson at John Hopkins University on April 7th 1965. At the time Johnson delivered this speech, the Second World War was still a relatively recent memory and tensions were escalating in Vietnam as the USA was increasing its military commitment in the region. Obviously, this speech was delivered in a different context to that in which the Holocaust happened. However, I believe there is an important and timeless lesson for us all within Johnson’s words and his words were:

Every night before I turn out the lights to sleep I ask myself this question: Have I done everything that I can do to unite this country? Have I done everything I can to help unite the world, to try to bring peace and hope to all the peoples of the world? Have I done enough?

Ask yourselves that question in your homes – and in this hall tonight. Have we, each of us, all done all we could? Have we done enough?

We may well be living in the time foretold many years ago when it was said: “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.”

This generation of the world must choose: destroy or build, kill or aid, hate or understand.

We can do all these things on a scale never dreamed of before.

Well, we will choose life. In so doing we will prevail over the enemies within man, and over the natural enemies of all mankind.

Johnson would go on to try using the power of the U.S. Government to fix various social and racial issues. I would suggest that an important aspect to Johnson’s speech is his imploration that we, as individuals, look to ensure that we have done everything we can. Have we shown respect, tolerance and understanding to the people around us? Have we tackled things which are unjust? Have we had the courage to ask questions, to challenge that which infringes civil liberties and democratic rights? On January 5th 1967, the then Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, made an astute observation that:

Freedom is a fragile thing and it’s never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by way of inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation.

If we sit here and think ourselves far removed from the events of the Holocaust and that such a thing could never happen again, then we are unfortunately deluding ourselves with a false sense of security and self-assurance. Georg Hegel, a German philosopher, observed “the only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”, the implication being that people never learn from the mistakes of the past. Genocides, attacks on groups of people and suppression of civil liberties have happened repeatedly in the decades since the 1940s, with authorities relying on misinformation, peer pressure and fear to control people and compel them into committing horrific acts. History shows that those who should have taken action or spoken out; indeed people who held positions of responsibility and who should have known better, failed to do so. What is extremely worrying is that those who have been complicit in such crimes, either directly or indirectly, have often entered a state of denial in the aftermath of their actions.

But there is much that we as individuals can do to help ensure the very evil which leads to discrimination, persecution and ultimately genocide happening will never emerge again. Be an upstander, not a bystander. Plato once said, “the price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men”. Be informed about the world, people and powers around you; do not simply accept the narratives you’re given. The individual can question and challenge and, if need be, take action and intervene. It is perhaps difficult to do; to be an upstander might risk upsetting the status quo which Milton Friedman alluded to and result in you being targeted too. But equally, it can make a difference and the community, society and perhaps even the world may just end up better off.

Dr. Paul Jones is Head of History and Politics at an independent school. This article is a speech he will deliver this morning at the school to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

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December 2022
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