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.
‘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.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-287-0872-28A. Photographer: Koll. 1941/1942.
Renno’s Denial: ‘I only lived in the castle and played the flute…’
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.’
Strategies of justification or denial
Killings of a range of groups were ‘justified’ in defensive terms…
Heinrich Himmler in a speech to senior SS officers in Posen, 4 October 1943
Report from a war correspondent:
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.
How did people later represent their Nazi past?
They said they were…
And that they…
Very few showed remorse or accepted responsibility
Perpetrator or rescuer?