Responsibility for the Holocaust  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
responsibility, historical and philosophical interpretations of the Holocaust

Historians differ as to where the responsibility for the Holocaust lies. Intentionalist historians such as Lucy Dawidowicz argue that Hitler planned the extermination of the Jewish people from as early as 1918, and that he personally oversaw its execution. Functionalists such as Raul Hilberg have argued that the extermination plans evolved in stages, as a result of initiatives from bureaucrats who were responding to other policy failures.


Reflections on motivation and the issue of responsibility

Historical and philosophical interpretations

The enormity of the Holocaust has prompted much analysis. Hannah Arendt, in her 1963 report on Adolf Eichmann, presented him as a symbol of dull obedience to authority in what was at first seen as a scandalous book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), which has since become a classic of political philosophy. Thus, Arendt opposed herself to the first, immediate, explanation, which accused the Nazis of "cruelty" and of "sadism". Many people who participated in the Holocaust were normal people, according to Arendt, and that is the real scandal. This led Stanley Milgram's to conduct psychological experiences on obedience, opening up the way to understanding the psychological experiences of "authority" and charisma. The question of charisma was renewed by Gustave Le Bon's 19th century studies about crowd psychology. Thus, his work acquired new force, although Hitler himself had been inspired by Le Bon's description of propaganda techniques to write Mein Kampf. Furthermore, Hannah Arendt and some authors such as Sven Lindqvist and Olivier LeCour Grandmaison tried to point toward a relative continuity between the crimes committed against "primitive" people during colonialism and the Holocaust. They most notably argued that many techniques that the Nazis industrialized had been experimented on in other continents, starting with the concentration camps invented during the Second Boer War if not before. This thesis was met with fierce opposition by some groups who argued that nothing could be compared to the Holocaust, not even other genocides: although the Herero genocide (1904–1907) and the Armenian genocide (1915–1917) are commonly considered the first genocides in the 20th century, many argued that the Holocaust had taken proportions that even these crimes against humanity had not achieved.

The Holocaust was indeed characterized by an industrial project of extermination; compared to it, other genocides seemed to lack "professionalism". This led authors such as Enzo Traverso to argue in The Origins of Nazi Violence that Auschwitz was "an authentic product of Western civilization". Beginning his book with a description of the guillotine, which according to him marks the entry of the Industrial Revolution into capital punishment, and writes: "Through an irony of history, the theories of Frederick Taylor" (taylorism) were applied by a totalitarian system to serve "not production, but extermination." (see also Heidegger's comments). In the wake of Hannah Arendt, Traverso describes the colonial domination during the New Imperialism period through "rational organization", which lead in a number of cases to extermination. However, this argument, which insists on the industrialization and technical rationality through which the Holocaust itself was carried out (the organization of trains, technical details, etc. — see Adolf Eichmann's bureaucratic work), was in turn opposed by other people. These point out that the 1994 Rwandan genocide only used machetes.

Others have presented the Holocaust as a product of German history, analyzing its deep roots in German society: "German authoritarianism, feeble liberalism, brash nationalism or virulent anti-Semitism. From A. J. P. Taylor's The Course of German History fifty-five years ago to Daniel Goldhagen's recent Hitler's Willing Executioners, Nazism is understood as the outcome of a long history of uniquely German traits", writes Russell Jacoby.<ref> "Savage Modernism", Russell Jacoby, The Nation, October 13, 2003 issue </ref> Furthermore, while many pointed out that the specificity of the Holocaust was also rooted in the constant antisemitism from which Jews had been the target since the foundation of Christianity (and the myth of the "deicide people"), others underlined that in the 19th century, pseudo-scientific racist theories had been elaborated in order to justify, in a general way, white supremacy. In his works on "biopolitics", philosopher Michel Foucault also traced the origins of "state racism" to the eugenicist policies invented during the 19th century. (One of the few compliments that Foucault accorded to Freud's psychoanalysis was that Freud adamantly opposed such a project of "racial hygiene".)

Who authorized the killings?

Hitler authorized the mass killing of those labelled by the Nazis as "undesirables" in the T-4 Euthanasia Program. Hitler encouraged the killings of the Jews of Eastern Europe by the Einsatzgruppen death squads in a speech in July, 1941, though he almost certainly approved the mass shootings earlier (the Einsatzgruppen death squads to be used in Operation Barbarossa were formed in early spring of 1941). A mass of evidence suggests that sometime in the fall of 1941, Himmler and Hitler agreed in principle on the complete mass extermination of the Jews of Europe by gassing, with Hitler explicitly ordering the "annihilation of the Jews" in a speech on December 12, 1941 (see Final Solution), by which time the Jewish populations in the Baltic states had been effectively eliminated. To make for smoother intra-governmental cooperation in the implementation of this "Final Solution" to the "Jewish Question", the Wannsee conference was held near Berlin on January 20 1942, with the participation of fifteen senior officials, led by Reinhard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann, the records of which provide the best evidence of the central planning of the Holocaust. Just five weeks later on February 22, Hitler was recorded saying "We shall regain our health only by eliminating the Jew" to his closest associates. Nevertheless, no written order from Hitler exists.

Arguments that no documentation links Hitler to "the Holocaust" ignore the records of his speeches kept by Nazi leaders such as Joseph Goebbels and rely on artificially limiting the Holocaust to exclude what we do have documentation on, such as the T-4 Euthanasia Program and the Kristallnacht pogrom.

Who knew about the killings?

Some claim that the full extent of what was happening in German-controlled areas was not known until after the war. However, even though Hitler did not talk about the camps in public, numerous rumors and eyewitness accounts from escapees and others gave some indication that Jews were being killed in large numbers. Since the early years of the war, the Polish government-in-exile published documents and organised meetings to spread word of the fate of the Jews (see Witold Pilecki). By early 1941, the British had received information via an intercepted Chilean memo that Jews were being targeted, and by late 1941 they had intercepted information about a number of large massacres of Jews conducted by German police. In an entry in the Friedrich Kellner diary, "My Opposition," dated October 28, 1941, the German justice inspector recorded a conversation he had in Laubach with a German soldier who had witnessed a massacre in Poland. Other entries in his diary clearly show the people of Germany were aware from the beginning of the atrocities. Churchill, who was privy to intelligence reports derived from decoded German transmissions, first began mentioning "mass killings" in public at the same time. In the summer of 1942, a Jewish labor organization (the Bund) got word to London that 700,000 Polish Jews had already died, and the BBC took the story seriously, though the United States State Department did not. In the United States, in November of 1942, a telegram from Europe which contained word about Hitler's plans was released by Stephen Wise of the World Jewish Congress, after a long wait for permission from the government. This led to attempts by Jewish organizations to put Roosevelt under pressure to act on behalf of the European Jews, many of whom had tried in vain to enter either Britain or the U.S.

On December 17, 1942, however, after receiving a detailed eyewitness account from Jan Karski, the Allies issued a formal declaration confirming and condemning Nazi extermination policy toward the Jews. The US State Department was aware of the use and the location of the gas chambers of extermination camps, but refused pleas to bomb them out of operation. On May 12, 1943, Polish government-in-exile and Bund leader Szmul Zygielbojm committed suicide in London to protest the inaction of the world with regard to the Holocaust, stating in part in his suicide letter:

"I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being killed. My comrades in the Warsaw ghetto fell with arms in their hands in the last heroic battle. I was not permitted to fall like them, together with them, but I belong with them, to their mass grave.
By my death, I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people."

The death camps were discussed between American and British leaders at the Bermuda Conference in April of 1943. The large camps near Auschwitz were finally surveyed by plane in April of 1944, many months after the German air force ceased to be a serious danger. While all important German cities and production centers were bombed by Allied forces until the end of the war, no attempt was made to collapse the system of mass annihilation by destroying pertinent structures or train tracks, even though Churchill was a proponent of bombing parts of the Auschwitz complex. Throughout the war, Britain also pressed European leaders to prevent "illegal" Jewish immigration and sent ships to block the sea-route to Palestine (from which Britain withdrew in 1948), turning back many refugees.

Debate also continues on how much average Germans knew about the Holocaust. Recent historical work suggests that the majority of Germans knew that Jews were being indiscriminately killed and persecuted but they did not know about the Final Solution and the specifics of the death camps. Robert Gellately, a historian at Oxford University, conducted a widely-respected survey of the German media before and during the war, concluding that there was "substantial consent and active participation of large numbers of ordinary Germans" in aspects of the Holocaust, and documenting that the sight of columns of slave laborers were common, and that the basics of the concentration camps, if not the extermination camps, were widely known.

Other scholars, like Peter Longerich, have argued that most Germans did not know about the mass-murders as they were occurring.. There was an order to keep the Final Solution a secret (under death penalty) among the estimated 300,000 persons involved in implementing the plan. Helmuth James Graf von Moltke gives an estimation of less than a tenth of the population in 1943. There were rumours of gas chambers.

Who carried out the killings?

A wide range of German soldiers, officials, and civilians were in some way involved in the Holocaust, from clerks and officials in the government to units of the army, the police, and the SS. Many ministries, including those of armaments, interior, justice, railroads, and foreign affairs, had substantial roles in orchestrating the Holocaust; similarly, German physicians participated in medical experiments and the T-4 euthanasia program. And, though there was no single military unit in charge of the Holocaust, the SS under Himmler was the closest. From the SS came the Totenkopfverbände concentration camp guards, the Einsatzgruppen killing squads, and many of the administrative offices behind the Holocaust. The Wehrmacht, or regular German army, participated directly far less than the SS in the Holocaust (though it did directly take part in the massacre of some Jews in Russia, Serbia, Poland, and Greece), but it supported the Einsatzgruppen, helped form the ghettos, ran prison camps, occasionally provided concentration camp guards, transported prisoners to camps, had experiments performed on prisoners, and substantially used slave labor.

German police units, all under the control of the Nazis during the war, also directly participated in the Holocaust; for example, Reserve Police Battalion 101, in just over a year, shot 38,000 Jews and deported 45,000 more to the extermination camps. Even private firms helped in the machinery of the Holocaust. Nazi bankers at the Paris branch of Barclays Bank volunteered the names of their Jewish employees to Nazi authorities, and many of them ended up in the death camps.


Stanley Milgram was one of a number of post-war psychologists and sociologists who tried to address why people obeyed immoral orders in the Holocaust. Milgram's findings demonstrated that reasonable people, when instructed by a person in a position of authority, obeyed commands entailing what they believed to be the suffering of others. These results were confirmed in other experiments as well, such as the Stanford prison experiment. In his book Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), Wilhelm Reich also tried to explain this obedience. The work became known as the foundation of Freudo-Marxism. Nobel prize winner Elias Canetti also addressed the problem of mass obedience in Masse und Macht (1960—"Crowds and Power"), developing an original theory of the consequences of commands both in the obedient person and in the commander, who may well become a "despotic paranoiac". Two recent "experiments", one called The Third Wave and one conducted by Jane Elliott, tried to answer the question of: "How can a people be a part of something terrible and then claim at the demise that they were not really involved?"

Herding and other factors

The Holocaust is a clear example of two factors at work. One is described by the "boiling frog" theory, which says that an enormous change will not be noticed if it occurs in gradual steps. The other factor is the primal and powerful mechanism of herding, which has its home in the limbic system and ensures that individuals conform to the group. This mechanism has evolved through natural selection to ensure that human groups survive. Together, these factors make conforming to the group a stronger impulse than breaking out, even if the individual does not agree with what the group is doing. So long as the gradual changes in group behaviour are small, herding can eventually take the group towards a state that is far removed from past behavior and is more and more extreme. Thus, participants in the Holocaust may have privately felt horror or disgust at what they were ordered to do but stayed in line with the group. These effects have been exploited many times in history by demagogues and revolutionaries; they are also seen in bullying.

Studies of mass psychology, kick-started by Carl Jung but currently being developed under various labels, suggest that the causal mechanism for crowd behaviour is the reverse of what is commonly believed. The socionomic perspective says that, rather than persecution making people fearful and downtrodden, fearful and downtrodden people look for someone to persecute.

The Jungian-socionomic analysis says that after the humiliation of World War I, the economic ruin of the Weimar Republic, being forced to pay war reparations and the Great Depression, it was natural for the German people to become angry and look for someone on whom to vent their anger; herding behaviour amplifed this anger and the Holocaust was the result.

Religious hatred and racism

The Nazis considered it their duty to overcome natural compassion and execute orders for what they believed to be higher ideals. Crowd psychology has attempted to explain such heinous acts, although Gustave Le Bon's The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895) was also a major influence of Mein Kampf, in particular relating to the propaganda techniques described in it. Sadistic acts were perhaps most notable in the case of the genocide committed by members of the Ustashe, whose enthusiasm and sadism in their killings of Serbs appalled Germans, Italians, and even German SS officers, who even acted to restrain the Ustashe. However, concentration camp literature, such as the writings of Primo Levi and Robert Antelme, describe numerous individual sadistic acts, including some committed by Kapos.

Martin Luther (a German leader of the Protestant Reformation) made a specific written call for harsh persecution of the Jewish people, including that their synagogues and schools be set on fire, prayerbooks destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated. Luther argued that Jews should be shown no mercy or kindness, should have no legal protection, and that these "poisonous envenomed worms" should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time. "Martin Luther's On the Jews and Their Lies" American historian Lucy Dawidowicz, concluded that the line of "anti-Semitic descent" from Luther to Hitler is "easy to draw," in her book "The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945". Adolf Hitler wrote of his admiration of Martin Luther in Mein Kampf.

Some authors, such as liberal philosopher Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist or French historian Olivier LeCour Grandmaison have also linked the Holocaust to colonialism. They argue that techniques put in place during the New Imperialism period (first of all, concentration camps during the Boer War), as well as the pseudo-scientific theories elaborated during this period (e.g. Arthur de Gobineau's 1853 Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races) had been fundamental in preparing the conditions of possibility of the Holocaust. Others authors have adamantly opposed these views, on behalf of the "unicity" of the Holocaust, compared to any other type of genocide. Philosopher Michel Foucault also traced the origins of the Holocaust and of "racial policies" to what he called "state racism", which is a part of "biopolitics".

Finally, many have pointed the ancient roots of antisemitism, which has been present in the Western world since the foundation of Christianity. These sentiments were not different in pre-war Germany than elsewhere, but the Nazis were the first political party to organize, promote, and officialize antisemitism, while withdrawing legal protection from Jews. Modern efforts at ecumenism, in particular by the Roman Catholic Church which has asked the Jews for a pardon, are being made in order to avoid a repetition of such acts.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Responsibility for the Holocaust" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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