[5] ‘Decency,’ duty & strategies of self-defence

[5] ‘Decency’, Duty & Strategies of Self-defence

The Nazi leadership and many collaborators were clearly motivated by racist antisemitism and anticommunism. But not everyone who was involved in persecution and killing was necessarily antisemitic or a convinced Nazi. There was generally a committed core, a wider group that conformed for a variety of reasons, and those who were uncomfortable or opposed. Some people were both murderers and rescuers, or perpetrators in one context and victims in another. The few individuals who refused to kill civilians were put on other duties and did not suffer severe penalties.

At the time, some thought that mass killing was morally and legally justifiable, even necessary for the greater ‘good’ of the German people. However, common motives included career advancement, a sense of duty, and desire for material benefits. Peer pressure and community spirit helped many to go along with killings. Others felt it was wrong but deferred to orders or group pressure.

After 1945, the legal and moral environment changed. Mass murder was condemned. Those involved were confronted by children and grandchildren, media representatives, prosecutors, scholars, survivors, and politicians.

Some defended and justified their behaviour, while others repudiated Nazism but denied their own involvement. Some even denied that any crimes had been committed. Few addressed their past more head-on. They all have in common that they tried to continue thinking of themselves as ‘good’ or ‘decent’ people.

How to be a ‘decent’ Nazi

A Viennese woman speaks positively of her father’s involvement in Aryanisation and her ‘decent’ Nazi husband.

‘The Executioner’, a man who murdered 30,000 people, is waiting to stand trial. He admits he’s guilty, but also claims that he is being used as a scapegoat so that ‘normal people’ can continue feeling innocent. He accuses them of being guilty too, because they tolerated and wished for his actions.

Is the Executioner making excuses, or is he right to question people’s ‘innocence’?

Another man, called Köves, survived the Holocaust, and later works as a prison guard under the Hungarian dictatorship. He tries to be kind to the inmates, but one day hits a prisoner in the face because the prisoner resents his good intentions. Köves is shocked by his own violence and recognises that it could be the turning point to becoming a perpetrator. He realizes that it is impossible to tell beforehand who may perpetrate violence on behalf of the state.

The Executioner and Köves are characters in Imre Kertész’s novel Fiasco. Kertész survived the Holocaust and used his writing to explore moral responsibility for mass murder; how ‘innocent’ people may support murder and ‘well-intentioned’ people may become mobilized for violence. Kertész writes that the colour of life is not black and white, but grey, and that literature can imagine these grey tones.

Victim as perpetrator?

A former Austrian member of the Wehrmacht, whose father was imprisoned in a concentration camp, talks about his role in a public hanging of alleged partisans in Vinkovci.

Men, women and children casually stand, spectators encircling the hanging corpses of Jews who have been murdered at the hands of the soldiers. A soldier takes photos to mark the occasion.

German soldiers take photographs at a public hanging of several men and a woman as partisans near Orel, Soviet Union, 1941/42.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-287-0872-28A. Photographer: Koll. 1941/1942.

Georg Renno was a doctor. In 1940, he joined ‘Aktion T4’, the organised murder (‘euthanasia’) of disabled and mentally ill people. Renno became deputy head of the ‘euthanasia’ murder centre at Hartheim castle (Austria). Later, he selected sick prisoners from concentration camps to be gassed.

After the war, Renno settled in West Germany under the name ‘Georg Reinig’. From the mid-1950s, he felt safe enough to live under his real name again and became a research associate with pharmaceutical company Schering. In 1961, law enforcement authorities tracked him down. His trial began in 1967. After numerous medical examinations, he was finally declared unfit to stand trial in 1975. He died in 1997.

Renno lived in denial and was careful to uphold his self-image as ‘decent’. He maintained: ‘I did not feel anything terrible in the killing, because I felt that death was a redemption for those concerned and that they were given a gentle death through this procedure. […] I consider the inclusion [in the murder programme] of the non-mentally ill concentration camp inmates and the mentally ill who were responsive and able to work, an unlawful killing, which is why I did not take part in their killing – or at least I do not remember doing it.’

Sources: Malte Holler, ‘Georg Renno. Arzt, Massenmörder aus Bockenheim an der Weinstraße’, Gedenkort-T4.eu; Walter Kohl, ‘Ich fühle mich nicht schuldig.’ Georg Renno, Euthanasiearzt (Vienna: Zsolnay Verlag, 2000).

A 1964 cover of Der Spiegel, a German magazine, featuring Wener Heyde, an ‘euthanasia’ doctor who committed suicide in prison before standing trial for murdering children. An X covers his face.

As late as 1964, West German news magazine Der Spiegel published Nazi euthanasia specialist Werner Catel’s justification of the killing of children, who, he claimed, were ‘complete idiots’ (Vollidioten) incapable of ‘normal’ development. Many medical personnel formerly involved in the ‘T4’ murders evaded justice and continued to hold Nazi views. The cover photo shows Werner Heyde, another ‘euthanasia’ doctor, who killed himself in prison before he could stand trial. The ‘X’ over his face might allude to the cross sign used to indicate that someone was already dead (in this case, evading justice).

© Der Spiegel, No. 8, 19 February 1964. Photographer: unknown.

Strategies of justification or denial

Killings of a range of groups were ‘justified’ in defensive terms…
  • An allegedly deadly ‘racial’ confrontation: ‘If we don’t kill them, they will kill us.’
  • Supposed danger from ‘partisans’, including women, old people and young children.
  • An unnecessary drain on resources and an imagined threat to the future ‘health of the nation’, including carriers of supposedly hereditary diseases and people with disabilities.
  • All of these justifications could be applied to Jews, who were portrayed both as dangerous enemies and as ‘vermin’ to be exterminated.

Most of you men know what it is like to see 100 corpses side by side, or 500 or 1,000. To have stood fast through this – and except for cases of human weakness – to have stayed decent, that has made us hard.

Heinrich Himmler in a speech to senior SS officers in Posen, 4 October 1943

Report from a war correspondent:

I saw SD personnel weeping because they could not cope mentally with what was going on. Then again I encountered others who kept a score-sheet of how many people they had sent to their death. […] Who today can determine which were those who wept as they carried out their duties and which the ones who kept a score-sheet?

Source: From Ernst Klee, Willi Dreßen and Volker Rieß (eds), ‘The Good Old Day’. The Holocaust as seen by its Perpetrators and Bystanders (London: Hamish Hamilton. 1991; transl. by Deborah Burnstone), p. 129.

Healthy parents – healthy children!

Poster promoting National Socialist population policies: ‘Healthy parents – healthy children!’, c. 1933-1936, designed by Franz Würbel.

© Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin,
1990/533 / S. Ahlers.

A propaganda poster for the Nazi party. The illustration shows the ideal “Aryan” family - smiling woman, man and 4 children (the boy wearing a Hitler’s youth uniform and the youngest girl holding a doll) with blonde hair and wide smiles.

How did people later represent their Nazi past?

They said they were…

Only obeying orders

Only playing a role

Only a small cog in a machine

Blinded by ideology

And that they…

Feared the consequences of stepping out of line

‘Knew nothing about it’

Were absent when anything nasty happened

Acted in a humane way even while engaged in persecution

Very few showed remorse or accepted responsibility

Perpetrator or rescuer?

Former German member of the German military police on his role in the persecution of Jews in Hungary.