[1] Compromised Identities?

[1] Compromised


How do individuals talk about their involvement in state-sponsored violence, at the time and later, and how do historians and creative writers represent them? How far do people’s behaviours and attitudes compromise who they are? And what compromises do states and societies make during and after such violence?

Compromised identities?

Although the reasons for joining a Nazi organisation varied, after 1945 people found that they were tainted by their past, which compromised their future prospects.

On 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed German Chancellor. Democracy was rapidly destroyed, and people who did not fit the Nazi vision of the ‘people’s community’ (Volksgemeinschaft) were excluded and persecuted.

During the war (1939-45), Germans and their collaborators killed around six million Jews and around 16 million other non-combatants, including members of the Polish elites (political leaders, members of the clergy, intelligentsia, and others), Soviet prisoners of war, people with mental and physical disabilities, ‘Gypsies’ (Sinti and Roma), homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and those opposed to Nazism on political, religious and moral grounds.

Who was responsible for violence on this scale, beyond key individuals in positions of power? We often picture perpetration as directly physical: pulling the trigger and shooting innocent victims. We should also think of those who made killings possible: transporting victims to killing sites; ‘securing’ the area; or sorting the possessions of the murdered.

But far wider numbers were complicit or involved in other ways. Millions sustained the wider Nazi system, whether in their formal roles or informally in everyday life. Despite widespread moral condemnation, few individuals or professional and social groups felt their behaviour undermined their own identity as decent people.

Exciting times

Margarethe S. recounts her employment and leisure in and around a concentration camp, the murder of escaped POWs, and the end of the war.

Once the Nazis were in power, they demanded conformity from citizens. Followers wanted to show loyalty and former critics felt the need to demonstrate consent; they started to report others to the authorities.

Initially, people mostly denounced real and alleged political opponents. Some people also tried to benefit personally, or held a grudge against somebody and used politics to make their accusations sound justified.

Fear of denunciation meant that many people dared not speak openly; even children could betray their parents.

When the war started, people often denounced others for contact with prisoners of war or forced labourers. The consequences could now be severe, even fatal.

The government reminded people that denunciation was considered immoral if it was done for personal gain. However, it was an effective means of suppressing dissent. In 1944, a factory supervisor in Apolda (Germany) was denounced for ‘communist agitation’, sentenced to death and executed. After the war, his wife reported a colleague, a superior and some other workers to the police because they had contributed to her husband’s fate or had justified it publicly. In post-war East and West Germany, denouncers were portrayed as the embodiment of Nazism and condemned for their actions.

Office worker Helene Schwärzel sits in the dock in the Berlin-Moabit Criminal Court awaiting sentencing. She stares to her right.

Office worker Helene Schwärzel in the dock in the Berlin-Moabit Criminal Court. Schwärzel was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment in Berlin in 1947 for denouncing a prominent member of the resistance, Carl Goerdeler, in 1944. Goerdeler was executed in February 1945. Denunciation is often seen as a ‘female crime’, but actually fewer than 20 per cent of denouncers in Nazi Germany were women.

© Ullsteinbild/TopFoto, Ulls290129. Photographer: unknown. November 1947.


Denunciations were extremely common, although it was often difficult to draw a direct line from a specific denunciation to an individual’s persecution.

Compromised careers, big and small

There were many employers of forced and slave labour. Among the most notorious was I.G. Farben, which exploited some five thousand slave labourers at Auschwitz-Monowitz. Other companies similarly exploited slave labour; the aircraft manufacturer Ernst Heinkel, for example, employed some 10,000 slave labourers from concentration camps, including 5,939 prisoners from Sachsenhausen at his Oranienburg factory alone. After the war, I.G. Farben was split up into successor companies including Bayer, Hoechst, and BASF. These and other well-known companies continued to benefit from the profits made from slave labour.

The I.G. Farben Buna plant at Auschwitz-Monowitz, 1941–44. Bundesarchv, Bild 146-2007-0057. © Raumbild-Verlag Otto Schönstein/Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, Schönstein2506. Photographer: Raumbild-Verlag Otto Schönstein.

Bruno Bruckner: Photographer, Accomplice, Eye-Witness

Bruno Bruckner photographed victims of the T4 ‘euthanasia’ project. He was never convicted of Nazi crimes, even presenting himself as a victim.

How many people were involved in perpetration?

The answer depends on who you count…

Directly involved

An estimated one million or more people

3,000 – 4,000

Einsatzgruppen (killing squads)

50,000 +

Police battalions

720,000 +

Members of the Army involved in killing civilians

Staff in extermination camps, concentration camps, and ghettos

SS (including SD), Security Police (Gestapo, Kripo), SA and other forces.

Doctors and staff in ‘euthanasia’ institutes

Auxiliaries and collaborators across Europe

Propelling and enabling violence

It is impossible to estimate this number securely. People changed their behaviour over time and depending on context.


NSDAP and Party organizations

Government ministries

Civilian administrators

Judges, experts, professionals

Employers of forced and slave labour

People who were complicit by denouncing others, humiliating and excluding Jews, seeking to benefit materially and professionally from their plight

A map of Europe during the war. There are map pins layered over the image. You can click them to learn more about the region.

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