The years 1940-45 saw the greatest human-sourced cataclysm in recorded time. In that period forces under the command of Hitler's Nazis engaged in a carefully planned, clinically executed campaign of murder against the Jewish race. A third of the Jewish race was destroyed, the Jews in Europe annihilated in custom designed "death-factories". The processes of this - rounding up, transportation, & execution were each performed in the main by psychologically normal people. In other words, ANY large number of people set in that place & time would almost certainly have acted in the same way, & with the same results. The Holocaust is like a black mirror to human nature & psychology. To understand the motivation of its perpetrators is to know where the human weaknesses are which change normal men (very few women were allowed to participate) into murderers. The vital, crucial question is "how", in the psychological sense, this cataclysm could happen. Uncountable murders inflicted by people who patently were not insane or evil, but fitted into the normal profiles. Desk operators & bureaucrats who coordinated the deaths of millions. At the front, ordinary folks who fired until they were soaked in their victims blood and the human remains piled around them into a wall. How could they do it? There were two parts to this question which I think need to be explained separately. First, it is necessary  to try & understand what started them off on their bloody service to the regime. And second, we need to understand what factors kept them in that macabre service, long after many of them (notably those at the front) _had_ to have had any illusions about the nature of their roles shattered. In examining this we'll also be checking an opinion in on why the holocaust was _different_, fundamentally to any genocide committed before or since : this is necessary as the two points will be shown to be inextricably linked.

Propagandists at the time sometimes showed an inclination to use the idea of "evil Germans" as a way of understanding how they could perform the deeds. The Germans, to this way of thinking were militaristic Huns who were at your throat when they were not at your feet. They hated Jews, they were racist, they were trying to expand themselves all over the world. This theory never reached any level of credibility & for fairly obvious reasons: any attempt to argue it out drags us to the level of those who claim the evil-Jew theory as an explanation. From this grew another similar idea : that a tiny minority of Jew-hating Evil Germans committed the deeds whilst "normal" Germans simply paid their taxes & stood on the sidelines. Can we say that the crimes were committed by a tiny core of hard, murderous psychopaths (the SS? Concentration camp guards?) whilst pushing the others in that time & place out of the line of responsibility? This one is shaky, unfortunately, for a few reasons. Its well known that the SS ranks were drawn from the ranks of normal citizens, and the boundaries between them are thus quite blurred.

And more evidence than that exists to spoil this theory : in fact the primary evidence against the elite-evil guy idea is overwhelming. Film, survivor accounts and orders sent to the police & army point quite plainly to the idea that it was ordinary men & women serving their government who did the deeds. A microcosm for this could be the story of Reserve Police Battalion 101. They were extensively interviewed by a historian called Browning after the war. These were ordinary men, from a great variety of backgrounds who took various routes to end up in a police division whose purpose when they joined was simply standard police & military operations within the German land. They were unused to war, although a few of their commanding officers had served in World War One 20 years before. They were brought up in an era before Nazism, and from that alone had a wider perspective from which to judge their government & their own role. A few were Nazis, but more were from groups such as the Trade Unionists. Their role was changed during their service at short notice, & they were reallocated to "death duty". And, by 1944 each man in the Battalion had shot an average of 91 people at near point blank range.


Not SS, not evil Nazis, just average men. There are other, more popular theories however,
which have been offered up. In the 1950's the leading explanation was that  war itself was the cause of the disaster. After all, war has a historically documented role in making genocide possible. It's a time of moral chaos & also a time of greatly centralized power for countries at war - when the ideology at the top can have unprecedented impacts. Opportunities for secrecy, for division & hatred are everywhere. However recent events dent this theory by proving absolutely that genocide can be conducted quite extensively in the _absence_ of war - Rwanda for instance.


However the crucial point here is that war is not an adequate _psychological_ explanation, which is what we're after here. Mankowitz noted this point simply & clearly : war provides an opportunity but not a fundamental reason for genocide. In fact World War 2 often hindered the genocide or diverted resources from it : other genocides possibly took place within wars, but the holocaust was quite distinct. This theory does not go far enough.


After the war-theory sank from popularity another theory took its place. Was the holocaust a by-product of a fundamental need to obey orders? The acts were committed under duress, according to this theory. Certainly the Nazi regime was ruthless - could the acts have been carried out by people thinking - if I don't kill them, its me that dies? There's not a lot of evidence to suggest that those carrying out the orders were not nearly so under duress as that though. In fact there's no evidence at all at ANY time during the holocaust of dire retribution being carried out against people who refused to participate in the campaign. Military discipline existed only on the military fronts of the campaign. To continue the previous example : Reserve Police Battalion leader Major Trapp, on hearing of the first orders to kill civilians, wept aloud before his men & made offers that any who wished to avoid the task could do so. This was often the case in civilian brigades, & hardly hinted at dire threat to the men themselves. Not one of the Battalion refused the duty, & this also was mirrored throughout. I think this idea of apparent "unbreachable authority" offers a glimpse of the ultimate reason though, although by itself it falls far short of providing an acceptable answer.

Another suggestion, although not a particularly credible one : it has been suggested there was a "distance" between perpetrators & victims behind which the perpetrators could shelter. After all, the desk workers who allocated resources & wrote the timetables merely did a job much the same as other bureaucrats. Gitta Sereny once conducted a study on men who had been concentration camp leaders & found quite a bit of evidence of these sorts of psychological defenses being employed. The people profiled by Sereny had a tendency to narrow their perception of their role, and to widen their distance from its outcome. Where the sum of a deed (a human death) is greater than its parts (time tabling, transfer, organisation.) There was a considerable tendency to "live in the moment" & to view ONLY the parts. Again, perhaps, a glimmer here, but I think it too falls short. And for vast numbers of people such as those on the front line who carried out the orders directly, this is no explanation at all.

Wartime brutalization then? This too has been "in vogue" as an explanation. Men in a war can become hardened or frenzied, & commit terrible acts they'd not consider in times of peace. This has been quite thoroughly debunked also, however. The brutality to which people who cite this theory refer is what is known as "battlefield brutality" - which is blended from temporary rage, fatigue, or possible personal losses which break loose at the moment of "snapping". Certainly people under this effect can lose their humanity. But these conditions simply can't be said to have applied to the bulk of the massacre squads. The executors had _never_ been shot at in anger, & _never_ been given cause (beyond propaganda) to hate their targets. They were prepared organised, & generally calm at the time they committed the murders. It is quite possible to view brutalization as an effect, but it cannot be said to be a cause for the mens behavior. And the cause is what we're after here.

Those five theories - or combinations of them - have, in the past, formed the mainstream of opinion on the causes. In any situation like this one, debunking popular theories is far easier than creating a new one. However, this is what we now need to do. I need to refer in passing here to an important body of work which has been done in the area of psychological self sufficiency. This work has reflected what is already fairly well accepted: that psychologically, people are not isolated or "complete". People depend on guidance to build a world view. People differ in the source of their guidance but there are 3 essential sources which most -- if not all of us depend on, at least to some extent. The three are, simply stated, religion, science & government. It is the direction of these three "signposts" (in the time & place in which the holocaust occurred) that I'm now going to examine. Even a quick look will hopefully show some startling & completely unique factors in this particular period & place.

The dominant religion in Germany was Christianity. Which of course, at its core, is the philosophical antithesis of Nazism. On many points it is difficult to imagine two beliefs more opposite. Yet, in _some_ ways there were some most interesting similarities. What both offered was a kind of salvation, a way out for the masses which transcended matters of politics or the daily struggles of their lives. And for many in Germany, life had been a struggle. What Nazism offered was above politics - it offered a way to escape the day to day & focus on something higher. In the case of Christianity, a salvation through a higher understanding the promise of eternal rewards. In the case of Nazism, a salvation through the feel of being part of something great, a superior race which would dominate & spread its glory through the civilized world. The ideology is totally different but the appeal has some psychological elements in common. The one was a twisted half-reflection of the other : in fact one could, possibly, be supplanted by the other. Under Hitler, a facade of religious overtones was placed over a doctrine that was religions absolute antithesis. The reverse cross symbol of Nazism was appropriate. Hitler was the Savior, the Christ-figure who offered a way to become divine through the glory of racial superiority. The kind of fanaticism that Nazism inspired was, in the psychological sense, quite similar to the fanaticism that has taken place on occasions (the Crusades being the most obvious) of religious genocide.


But where Religions ultimate end was life, the ultimate end of Nazism was death. Death was not a means to an end, but an end in itself. Mankowitz wrote that the Holocaust was - quite simply - an ideologically driven crusade against demons in the midst. The all-powerful role of God was supplanted in the case of power-imbalances where life & death were in the hands of a few, such as the death camps.


Of course, many in that place & time did not accept religion of any kind, & certainly did not accept Nazism as a substitute. scientifically, there are interesting references to be found though. A great deal of scientific "research" from French & German academics pointed directly at the Nazi doctrine. And foresight was somewhat limited at the time. The pseudoscientific racial studies which had taken place for decades prewar were resurrected. "Research" which resulted in its victims never walking again was conducted in order to "prove" assertions about Jewish cranial capacity & the notion that Jews were human parasites. This information was dug up & passed off once again as science, & was some of the only scientifically labeled information that was widely available at the time. People told often enough these "truths" by those in a position to know better can eventually be converted to a passive belief - or some kind of acceptance. Many people do have a tacit faith in science or in something which classes itself so.



Government need hardly be examined here, as that particular role has been studied massively already. Its enough to say that the government influence under Hitler was overwhelmingly, obsessively anti Jew over a period of years. The race-war was aided by actual war, which allowed the government to encourage psychological distancing. "Us" and "them", the oldest dividing technique there is, was used carefully to strip the Jews of the bounds of honor & obligation which might have sheltered them. The Government had a great ability to bring a long, latent past of anti-semitism seething to the surface. To make active what had been passive.

Between these three pillars, science, religion & government, was created a sense, perhaps, of inevitability. A huge rolling movement which you could roll with or face being ground underneath. Franz Strangl, who headed up a death camp used the line "what could we possibly do?" & this was widely reflected. And the further effect of all 3 was to provide a feeling of belonging to something great, something inevitable & salvationary. All of which was played up in the propaganda & the economic rebuilding of the German state. If there was a cost, a price to be paid - then it would have to be borne. The cost, of course, was staggering. The combination of interlocking & supporting factors came together in a psychological outwash which was greater than the sum of its parts. At the heart of this stood Hitler, the Savior. At its base were the Jews. When people obeyed orders to kill citizens they obeyed not just a commanding officer but a vast & insidious influence. Enough to explain what set the feet of so many people on the terrible paths they chose? Perhaps.

Enough to keep them on with their deeds after the first steps? If we accept that this influence was enough to set peoples feet on the path then yes, because, in a very real sense a "path" is exactly what it was. A one-way path that was almost impossible to deviate from. It was these paths which led to mass murder on such a scale. Once one had damned oneself it can become very, VERY difficult to back out. The will to do so can disappear. Reserve Police Battalion 101 is perhaps a good example again. For whatever reason, they accepted the command to kill the first time it was given. The morale plunged to nothing, the disgust was overwhelming. But after one taint the will to actively resist flagged. As elsewhere noted, several depersonalizing acts had taken place. A kind of narrow, blinkered morality set in that they should not shirk the task & leave it to their comrades. It was not "manly". The distortion already is so great that shooting defenseless targets is a manly act, but there was little questioning of it. And the second and subsequent times were quite simply less traumatic for many as the shock value had gone.

The three prime sources of guidance - each of which might in normal circumstances given context to the others - had been, for the only time in the history of any nation of people, supplanted. The result of all the factors together - was not a single bunch of isolated massacres but a great number of people chained into a kind of constant state of readiness to kill. A different set of factors affected each individual but for a rare time in history, the influences were all there, all in one place & time, and all supporting each other. And from that, the Holocaust rose slowly, a cataclysm grown over years which permeated every level of psychology & history, which had its roots hundreds of years in the past & which will undoubtedly continue to bear fruit into the future as well. 
--Mark G.
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