› Ask yourself:
When studying genocide, we might ask ourselves how the world can let such horrendous events occur. This chapter will allow you to examine this question in more detail by using the Holocaust as a case study for discussing the role of conformers, dissenters, and bystanders. You will begin by brainstorming with classmates why people might decide to conform or dissent and will organize a list of historical identities under these two terms. You will then use primary sources from multiple perspectives to understand why historical characters thought and acted as they did, as well as learning the importance of avoiding generalizations. Afterwards, you will reflect on the role of a bystander and decide where this role fits within the previous discussion and within your own lives.
“Undesirables:” Groups of people deemed unworthy and unwanted by the Nazi regime because they saw them as a threat to Hitler's goal of creating a pure Aryan race. These groups included Jewish peoples, Gypsies, Afro-Europeans, people with disabilities, homosexuals, political enemies, and those of Slavic descent.
“Dissenter:” Someone who rejects, disagrees with, and/or acts in opposition to a cause.
“Conformer:” Someone who supports, agrees with, and/or acts in accordance to a cause.
“Bystander:”Someone who knows of, or observes a situation but chooses not to get involved, neither speaking or acting in confirmation or dissent.
Hitler Youth (German: Hitler Jugend): A youth organization in Germany that trained and educated boys and girls (aged 10-18) to actively support the Nazi regime.
The White Rose (German: die Weiße Rose): A group of German university students who began a non-violent and anonymous graffiti and leaflet campaign against Hitler and the Nazi regime.
Reserve Battalion 101: A death squad consisting of middle-aged and middle class German men who were assigned the task of carrying out the Final Solution in Jozefow, Poland, because they were considered too unfit to be in the German military.
Photo Credit: Yuri Dojc 2014
The Second World War was not only characterized by territorial conquest, but also the strong ideological and racial element connected to it. The racial ideology was founded on antisemitism and driven by Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party (German: Nationalsozialismus—NAZIs). Antisemitism is hatred and/or discrimination expressed towards the Jewish population and is historically associated with their ethnicity and religion, creating tension especially with Christianity and its Christian followers. However, Adolf Hitler gave antisemitism a new shape by adding an economic element to the hate, blaming the Jews for the downfall of the German economy after the First World War.
During the Second World War, countless physical acts of violence were taken against the Jews and other populations deemed "undesirable" by the Nazis, including Gypsies, homosexuals, political enemies, and those with disabilities. Jewish peoples in particular were shot to death, underwent starvation, were poisoned in gas chambers, and burned in crematories. This mass murder or genocide of the Jewish people would come to be known as the Holocaust. Prior to the war, there were approximately 12 million European Jews and by the war's end, approximately 6 million of them survived.
When learning about the Holocaust we might ask ourselves how the world let such a horrendous event occur? The truth is the extent of the genocide was not known until years after the war and new evidence continues to be found today. This seems to contradict the quote in the Overview of this chapter: “Churchill had detailed knowledge of location and magnitude”. Regardless, you may still be wondering how this could have ever happened. In this placemat we will be examining the historical perspectives of different actors associated with the Holocaust and the roles they played as well as their attitudes towards the event.
Taking the time to consider multiple historical perspectives helps inform our understanding of the past and provides us with insight to why certain events occurred as they did. It goes beyond identifying and empathizing with historical actors, to investigating the historical context that influenced the thoughts and actions of people at that time. However, we have to be careful not to make assumptions about the past using our own sets of values and beliefs, because our standards differ from those in other times and places in history. This being said, we can use historical evidence as an entry point to understanding the various political, social, economic, geographic, and emotional contexts that shaped the past and people's perspectives. You will have the opportunity to use the following primary sources to understand different historical perspectives around the Holocaust and decide to what extent the world willingly let the event happen.
“The Lord God conceived the races:
Red Indians, Negroes, and Chinese,
And Jew, too, the rotten crew…
He gave them all a piece of earth
To work with the sweat of their brow.
But the Jew went on strike at once!
For the devil rode him from the first.
Cheating, not working, was his aim;
For lying, he got first prize”
“The Jew has always hated him!
Here is the Jew, as all can see,
Biggest ruffian in our country;
He thinks himself the greatest beau
And yet is the ugliest, you know!”
Source: Bauer, Elvira. Trust No Fox on his Green Heath and No Jew on His Oath. Nuremberg: Sturmer Verlag, 1936.
Permission granted by Randall Bytwerk
"Those who did not want to or could not carry out the shooting of human beings with their own hands...remained by the arriving trucks and kept himself busy at arrival point. It could not be avoided that one or another of my comrades noticed that I was not going to the execution ...they showered me with remarks such as 'shithead' and 'weakling' to express their disgust. I was not the only one who kept himself out of participating.”
“I then cocked my carbine and shot him through the back of the head [an elderly Jew]. Because I was already very upset from the cruel treatment of the Jews...parts of the skull flew...I had become so sick that I simply couldn’t [shoot; kill] anymore.”
Source: Browning, Christopher R. “Ordinary Men” in The Holocaust: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretations, edited by Donald L. Niewyk. Connecticut, Wadsworth Publishing, pp.76-90.
Credit: Yad Vashem
The White Rose was a youth movement active in Munich, Germany from June 1942 to February 1943.
Source: Jewish Virtual Library.
"It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes—crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure—reach the light of day?"
"Since the conquest of Poland three hundred thousand Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way. Here we see the most frightful crime against human dignity, a crime that is unparalleled in the whole of history. For Jews, too, are human beings—no matter what position we take with respect to the Jewish question—and a crime of this dimension has been perpetrated against human beings.“
Source: Inge Scholl, The White Rose: Munich 1942-1943, Trans. Arthur R. Schultz. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1983, pp.73-80.
Those aboard the S.S. St. Louis must, “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.”
4,045 Jewish adults and 4,115 Jewish children rounded up by French police in the bicycle stadium in Paris called Vel’ d’Hiv (V’élodrome d’Hiver), where they were held for four days before being transported to camps. Photo Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Over the two days of July 16th -17th, 1942, French police forces participated in rounding up and killing Jews in Nazi occupied France. Many Jews lost their lives after being forced into this arena by French officers.
Source: French Culture Guide.
"As soon as the soldiers left, we would go into the forest and sing a song. When they heard that song, the Jews knew it was safe to come home.” (1941)
"We didn't protect the Jews because we were moral or heroic people. We helped them because it was the human thing to do.” (1989)
Source: Differences into Opportunities. Harvard Business Press, 2006, p. 27; The Holocaust: Crimes, Heroes, Villains.
Historically, why do you think people living during the reign of Hitler conformed with or dissented against the acts of the Holocaust? Create a mapping of connected thoughts/decisions made demonstrating these linkages.
Take a moment to independently and carefully observe each of the following artifacts (1 through 5). What intrigued you about these artifacts? Did they remind you of personal stories and events? How are they important to our knowledge of the Holocaust?
Complete the following exercises with a partner:
Read the following poem written by German Protestant pastor, Martin Niemoller, during the Nazi reign.
First they Came
First they came for the Socialists,
and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists,
and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Permission: received by Sibylle Sarah Niemoeller von Sell
Source: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. First They Came.
Bartoletti, Susan Campbell Hitler Youth: Growing up in Hitler’s Shadow, 2005
The chilling story of Germany’s powerful Hitler Youth groups.
Boas, Jacob We Are Witnesses: Five diaries of teenagers who died in the Holocaust, 2009 Each diary in this collection reveals the voice of one teenager struggling with terror and clinging to hope.
Krygier, Joseph G. & Victor Breitburg A Rage to Live: Surviving the Holocaust so Hitler should not win, 2012 A historical account of Victor Breitbureg, a Holocaust survivor, who chose to move forward in search of his family.
Lewis, Jon E. Voices from the Holocaust: First-hand accounts from the frontline of history, 2012
The history of the Holocaust from Hilter’s rise to power to the Nuremburg trials. The anthology provides eyewitness testimonies that tell the story from people who were there, and were witnesses to both sides of the horror.
Wiesel, Elie Night, 2006
Originally published in 1982, this new translation provides an autobiographical account of Wiesel’s survival as a teenager in Nazi death camps. The author shares memories of loss, guilt, death and faith at having survived the horror of the genocide campaign that consumed his family. Titles in the trilogy include Night, Dawn, Day.
Every effort has been made to copyright holders for permission to reproduce borrowed material. The publishers apologize for such omissions and will be pleased to rectify them in subsequent reprints and website programming.