Ordinary Citizens’ Role in the Holocaust

"Kiev Jew Killings in Ivangorod, 1942" from Wikimedia Commons via the Polish Government.

“Kiev Jew Killings in Ivangorod, 1942” from Wikimedia Commons via the Polish Government.

Back in October, 2013, I read this piece from The Chronicle Review (part of the Chronicle of Higher Education).  It introduced me to a recent book entitled Hitler’s Furies:  German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (2013) by Wendy Lower.  This book looked at the action of several groups of women in relation to the Holocaust.  Recently, I acquired my library’s copy and read it.  As I expected, it reminded me strongly of Christopher R. Browning’s Ordinary Men:  Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992).  Thus, afterwards I reread that book.  Previously, it was covered as part of an Honors undergraduate seminar course I had on the Holocaust.

As most only think of death camps when they contemplate the Holocaust, both books issue a stark reminder that not all of Jewish victims of Nazi Germany met that fate.

Cover of Ordinary MenOrdinary Men is a classic of Holocaust literature and it was the first book that attempted to explain the action of the men who committed the crimes without focusing on the fact the men were following orders.  Police Battalion 101 serves as the basis of this study because when the unit was tried for war crimes in the 1960s all surviving members were subjected to a detailed interrogation.  Browning studied the transcripts of these interviews and noticed several startling patterns.  Yes, often men did follow orders, but the men of the unit had been given the option to opt out of the mass killings by their commanding officer.  Few took advantage of this (pages 56-57 for the main offer and it’s takers; subsequent individual points where individuals later changed their mind).  Of the men that participated, it was discovered that most did so not because of orders or a commitment to Nazism but because of the need for conformity-few wanted to be the odd man out (172-174).

I know I started my summary of Ordinary Men with the overarching themes and observations.  Let me backtrack and explain a bit about the unit’s actions.  Police Battalion 101 was one of many behind-the-lines units charged with carrying out the policies to make Eastern Europe Judenfrei, or free of Jewish people.  These units were responsible for mass killing, often in the woods outside of towns, and for managing the evacuation of the ghettos (aka sending the Jews to concentration or death camps).  Attention was paid to the mass killings, especially the unit’s first at Józefów, Poland, as it set the tone for the rest of the unit’s term of service and provided the best evidence for the men’s actions (chapters 7-8).  Also to note, the Police Battalions did not consist of soldiers, but conscripted men too old to be drafted into the military.  Often they were lower class and the vast majority (approximately 75%) were not supportive of the Nazi ideals (47-48).  Browning also discussed how this affected the men’s decisions.

As evidenced above, many Jews in Eastern Europe met their fate before reaching the work or death camps.  Also, it was not always from by the hand of sadist SS officers and troops.Cover Hitler's Furies

What Ordinary Men began, Hitler’s Furies continued.  Lower examined the role of female ordinary citizens in the Holocaust, and often overlooked category.  While many were direct participants, because women were not seen as independent murders, most were never tried as war criminals, locally or at Nuremberg.  The book follows approximately a dozen well-documented cases often using surviving Nazi records, war crimes trial transcripts, and memoirs of several of the women to demonstrate their participation.

Most women were in one of three categories: nurses, secretaries (and sometimes also lovers) of top Nazis, or wives of top Nazis.  As the book demonstrates, nurses often participated directly in euthanasia programs and at the gas chambers.  Secretaries often served as desk murders when writing and transmitting orders.  For example, one Liselotte Meier, the secretary and lover of Hermann Hanweg, not only issued orders in Hanweg’s name but also helped plan and accompanied him to multiple massacres (100-104).  Other times they were observers who did nothing to help the victims.  Nazi wives, especially those with husbands in the SS, often directly killed Jews as sport.  One example of this is Vera Wohlauf (also discussed in Browning’s book), who wore her husband’s military overcoat and hat while pregnant and whipped Jews Order Police Battalion 101 was rounding up for a massacre. She may or may not have participated in the killing.  Another is that of Liesel Willhaus who killed Jewish farm laborers with her rifle from her villa’s balcony in the presence of her children (133-136).  And these examples are just the most shocking.

At the book’s end, besides completing each woman’s story, Lower offered some psychological insights to why these women acted as they did both during and after the war (most denied involvement).  She realized the percentage of women perpetrators and accomplices were higher than normally found in society and that most were not violent in postwar life (chapter 6).  As mentioned in my introduction, reading this reminded me strongly of Browning’s research on the men.  The men also resumed postwar life with relative ease, but Browning points out most drank more after the killings, likely out of guilt (he points this out multiple times).  Like Ordinary Men, I think Hitler’s Furies is destined to become a classic of Holocaust scholarship.  That said, I still think there is more that could be researched on the role of women, if the records still exist.

"Einsatzgruppe A" from Wikimedia Commons courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

“Einsatzgruppe A” from Wikimedia Commons courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

On the same topic and on my “to read” list is Hitler’s Willing Executioners:  Ordinary German’s in the Holocaust (1997) by David Jonah Goldhagen.  However, it is important to note that this book is critical of Browning’s work and it promoted a new afterwards to Ordinary Men subsequent editions published in 1998 and after (including in my copy).  I need to read it before I can really compare Goldhagen’s work to the two covered here.

So why am I mentioning these books and their themes?  It goes back to the old adage, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.”  Both of these books demonstrated how ordinary citizens can do extraordinary things (and not the good kind) under certain conditions.  Browning pointed out the need for conformity was stronger than obeying orders.  Thus, in a way, conformity is an unspoken order.  Lower reminded her readers that often nurses killed because they realized death would come to their patients later anyway and why prolong their suffering (153)?  She also pointed out many women claimed their husband’s influence drive their actions more than anything, but that could just as easily be a post-war excuse (155).  Both Browning and Lower reminded readers that anti-Semitism was state ideology within Germany at the time so all citizens were led to believe Jews were a lesser, undesirable race.  Often, this meant carrying out action against the Jews led to a German’s rise through the ranks (Lower, 155-156).  The lesson we need to take from these actions is that all humans are equal and that killing for any reason is not normal nor desirable.  We need to realize the need to think for oneself and not let peer-pressure affect our actions.  Perhaps if that had been the case in 1930s and 1940s Germany, the Holocaust could have been avoided.  The Holocaust is history that does not need to be repeated, but sadly it already has in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Sudan.  It would be great if it never occurred again.

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4 thoughts on “Ordinary Citizens’ Role in the Holocaust

  1. Pingback: Two Year Anniversary! | Amy's Scrap Bag: A Blog About Libraries, Archives, and History

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