Why did ordinary people commit atrocities in the Holocaust?

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1. Ordinary people

Around six million people were killed in the Holocaust, the Nazis' systematic attempt to exterminate the Jewish people. Jews from across Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe were rounded up, and either transported to extermination camps where they were gassed, shot locally, or starved and abused in ghettos and labour camps until they died.

This was murder on an industrial scale, and it took an industrial process to do it. From the office workers who planned and oversaw the logistics, to the railway staff who ran the trains, to the community policemen who guarded the streets, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people were part of this attempted genocide.

It can be hard for us to even try to understand how this was possible. We might assume that ordinary citizens were so terrified of retribution from the vicious Nazi regime that they reluctantly went along with it. But the truth is far more disturbing than that. In fact, thousands of people, who had lived side by side with their Jewish neighbours for generations, were quite willing to turn on them and become part of a programme of mass murder.

2. Who were they?

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Although some ordinary people in Germany and occupied Europe were brave enough to help the Jews, others became killers. Looking at the background of just four of the people involved in the Holocaust and wider Nazi atrocities against the disabled and other groups, shows that there was nothing that marked them out as sadistic murderers. Click on the labels to find out more.

3. Why did they do it?

What motivated people to become killers in the Holocaust? Natasha Kaplinsky looks at the evidence.

4. 'Just following orders'

After the war, many of the people who played their part in the Holocaust said that they had no choice but to follow orders. Yet historians and German prosecutors have failed to find a single case of any person being threatened with death or imprisonment for refusing to take part.

The story of Reserve Police Battalion 101 shows that even when given a choice to opt out, ordinary people went on to commit atrocities.

In 1942 the battalion was sent to Poland to take part in the rounding up of Jews. It was made up of ordinary middle-aged men, many with families.

Major Trapp's story

Just three weeks after their arrival, the men were sent to the village of Józefów, home to 1,800 Jews. The commander, Major Wilhelm Trapp, stood up in front of the gathered men. As he began to speak they noticed he had tears in his eyes.

Trapp told his men to round up all the Jews living in this village as there had been reports that they were involved with the local partisans.

He said that they should separate the Jewish men so they could be sent off to a work camp. However, the woman, children and the elderly should be taken aside and shot - and although he did not like what they had been asked to do, it would make it easier if they remembered that, back home in Germany, bombs were falling on women and children.

At the end of his speech, Trapp said that those who did not want to take part, could step aside. Of the 500 men standing there that day only fifteen chose to opt out of the killing. The rest went on to massacre all the Jewish women, children and elderly people in the village.

Over the course of the war the battalion went on to murder thousands of Jews.

5. Called to account

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Although some high-ranking Nazis were prosecuted at the Nuremberg and later trials, many perpetrators were never investigated. The sheer number of people involved made it logistically impossible. Once the Cold War started, the Allies spent less and less time pursuing perpetrators. West German and Austrian authorities were also unwilling to investigate large numbers of their citizens. Some had fled to South America, where right-wing dictatorships offered them refuge. Others found their way to the US, Canada and Britain. Presenting themselves as refugees from communist regimes, they were rarely questioned about their wartime activities.

6. Could it happen again?

In many ways the Holocaust was the most modern genocide the world has ever seen - carried out using all the bureaucratic institutional capacity of the modern state; aimed at eliminating Jews wherever they were caught, anywhere in the world. Might we ever experience anything on this scale again?

Christopher Browning, Holocaust historian

Sadly, one thing that we've learnt is that we seldom learn from history. There are many singular aspects about the Holocaust, but the nature of killers does not seem to be one of them. Any government that has wanted to commit genocide has not failed from a shortage of executioners.

Governments have the power to create an institutional, organisational, situational framework that will harness people to kill. They prey on people's conformity, their deference, and their desire to be held in the esteem of their comrades.

If there are historical circumstances where a traditional dehumanising stereotype already exists, then it’s so much easier to implant fear and dress up what’s being done in terms of self defence against some alleged ominous enemy.

However, we do know from past situations that it doesn’t require centuries of hatred or long term animosity. In fact, mobilization for mass killing has been accomplished very quickly.

Jennifer Welsh, UN Special Adviser

The international community has learnt not only from the Holocaust, but also from the genocide in Rwanda 20 years ago. Since World War Two, the international community has criminalized genocide and established the International Criminal Court, more recently with the creation of the Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda.

They work to create a culture of accountability and to combat a culture of impunity. Those who contemplate inciting or organising these atrocity crimes know that they could be held to account for their actions. They have created a climate in which acts of this kind are no longer seen as something within the domestic jurisdiction of states, or as part of the 'normal' course of war. They are now a matter of international concern, and can be discussed in international forums such as the United Nations Security Council.

Even so, we cannot say enough has been done, as we continue to see some instances of crimes against humanity or genocide which have not galvanized sufficient international action. Given constraints on the capacity of outside actors to respond, or strong political interests working against international action from powerful neighbours, we still do not see consistently strong responses to evidence of atrocity crimes.

Philippe Sands QC, Professor of international law

The current system of international law places important constraints on the power of the state, but it has not stopped atrocity. If there is inadequacy, it is not in the content of the rules but in their enforcement. It is inadequate in many countries, and it is inadequate at the international level. The International Criminal Court has begun to operate in relation to some crimes, but only in Africa, a continent that does not have a monopoly in respect of international crimes.

Mass killings and atrocities did not end in 1945. Around the world there have been terrible events, as we all know, and no continent has been immune from large-scale killings in which great numbers of individuals have been targeted and killed because they happen to be a member of a particular group – racial, religious, ethnic, political and so on. Each situation is different, to be understood in its own context. Could acts akin to the Holocaust happen again today? Yes.