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?
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.
Denunciation: Personal interests and political gains
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.
An estimated one million or more people
3,000 – 4,000
Einsatzgruppen (killing squads)
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
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
Rudolf Zimmermann was an ‘ethnic German’ peasant in Poland, who worked for the Gestapo following the German invasion. When arrested in East Germany in 1966 he confessed to involvement in killing Jews, saying he was relieved to talk about ‘psychologically burdensome’ experiences. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and died in prison in 1988.
Erna Schwarz was one of ten children from a poor family, and left school aged eleven. In 1940 she was called up for compulsory labour service in the Bernburg ‘euthanasia’ institute, where mentally and physically disabled people were gassed. Deeply troubled, Schwarz unsuccessfully tried to leave. In 1948 she was sentenced in an East German court to three years’ imprisonment.
Ernst Lerch held a high-profile role organising the mass murder of Jews in Poland. But he was never punished for this, receiving only a two-year sentence for illegal membership of the SS. Despite lengthy West German investigations, in his native Austria the case against Lerch was finally dropped in 1976, with public prosecutors claiming ‘lack of evidence’.
Helmut Hensel, who was Rudolf Zimmermann’s former Gestapo boss, had gone west after 1945. More typically, Hensel – in contrast to Zimmermann – neither showed remorse nor admitted guilt, claiming he had ‘known nothing about’ the mass shootings that he himself had ordered. West Germany never brought him to trial.
Friedrich Flick exploited 48,000 slave labourers in his iron, coal and steel industries; 80 per cent of them did not survive due to violence, malnutrition, and hard labour in poor conditions. Handed a seven-year sentence by the Americans, Flick served less than three years after being granted parole for good conduct by both the West Germans and the Americans. Immensely wealthy, he never paid a penny of compensation to those slave labourers who survived.