Reflections on perpetration and complicity under Nazi rule
Thirty short films reflect on ways of addressing the Nazi past. Using archival images and contemporary footage, some films recount historical developments and discuss the challenges involved in confronting this difficult past. Others include extracts from interviews with people who were witnesses of or participants in Nazi violence.
From Hostile environment to mass murder
Focusing on select locations, this interrelated sequence highlights key issues in the radicalisation of Nazi violence and the responses of the wider population. The films trace Nazi policies and racist practices from discrimination, exclusion, and violence in peacetime Germany, to deportations and mass killings in eastern Europe in wartime.
The slippery slope: 1933-35
From 1933 onwards, ‘non-Aryan’ Germans were progressively excluded from the Nazi ‘national community’ – with the acquiescence and complicity of many compatriots.
Turning points: Kristallnacht, 1938
Violence against Jews in November 1938 prompted both popular participation and widespread outrage; but those who were shocked felt powerless to engage in open opposition.
Crossing thresholds: Kovno (Kaunas), June 1941
Following the invasion of Russia, German extermination squads and local activists killed Jewish civilians, assisted by the Army, while locals watched.
Organised killings: Wilna (Vilnius) and Ponary
Germans soon organised mass murder in dedicated open air killing sites, such as the pits in Ponary, near Wilna (Vilnius), where people came to observe the killings.
Administration as perpetration: Wilna (Vilnius), 1941-43
Ghetto administration involved selecting the weak for death, while exploiting those still capable of work.
‘We knew nothing about it’: Deportations and the Germans
In Germany, people watched as former neighbours were deported east. They heard rumours of their fate, so why did bystanders not act?
Understanding collective violence
How can we understand the involvement and complicity of people in the Nazi system, and the mobilisation of so many into committing acts of perpetration? Members of the research team discuss key questions of interpretation in these films, richly illustrated with archival photos.
Perpetration and Complicity
Collective violence was the norm in Nazi Germany, yet the justifications of those who were complicit remain under-explored.
Choices, chance or circumstance?
Germans’ responses when faced with the increasing discrimination in their midst depended on how they perceived the circumstances in which they found themselves.
Perpetration as work
Perpetrators could detach their actions from their ordinary daily lives by framing the acts of violence they committed as ‘work’.
Motives and belonging
The Nazis catered to broad interests and created a sense of belonging, which ensured that many turned a blind eye to the increasing violence.
Denunciations were extremely common, although it was often difficult to draw a direct line from a specific denunciation to an individual’s persecution.
Post-war confrontations with a Nazi past were often avoided through denial or by presenting oneself as a ‘decent’ person or even a victim. Culture has played an important role in challenging such positions and thinking about how the past can be represented.
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.
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.
Ernst Lerch: Café Life and Killing Sites
Ernst Lerch played a vital role in the genocide of Jews. He successfully denied any involvement in Nazi crimes and died a respected citizen.
Cultural Reckonings: Artistic Afterlives of Ernst Lerch
Two plays about Ernst Lerch’s Nazi past ensured that his involvement with the mass murder of Jews in Poland would not be forgotten.
Representing violence is a challenging task, as it tends to give a voice to perpetrators, which can be inappropriate or open to misinterpretation.
The pursuit of justice
Those involved in Nazi crimes frequently managed to evade justice, often because of faltering official commitment; particularly in Austria and West Germany, many politicians, lawyers and police officers themselves had a Nazi past, and were inclined to be lenient towards defendants. Some determined individuals continued to seek justice.
There is a tendency to stop proceedings against older perpetrators, often because they do not fit our expectations of who committed violent acts.
The failure of justice in Austria
Austrian investigations into Nazi perpetrators were hampered by a lack of commitment by politicians and their electorates, many of whom were implicated in the Nazi past.
Simon Wiesenthal: Tracking Nazis, Irritating Austrians
Renowned Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal continued his attempts to track down war criminals despite a lack of support from the American and Austrian governments.
Administering Death at a Distance: Dietrich Allers and Euthanasia Murders
Dietrich Allers was a manager in the T4 ‘euthanasia’ project. After the war he resumed his legal career and remained unapologetic about his role.
Judges and prosecutors
Many West German judges were themselves former Nazis who were lenient towards defendants accused of Nazi crimes. But some, like Alfred Spiess, helped mount important trials.
Individual responses to a Nazi past
Excerpts from and discussion of interviews with people who were close witnesses to or involved in processes of racial discrimination, persecution, and atrocities. Ordinary Germans and Austrians addressed the Nazi past in different ways after 1945. Responses range from shame to denial. Oral histories provide fascinating and multifaceted insights into post-war self-representations and justifications. They are always the product of their time and place, and we cannot take what interviewees say at face value.
Good times, bad rumours
Hella P. balances positive memories of the Berlin Olympics and Jewish acquaintances with later rumours of atrocities and post-war changes in values.
Erna F. enthusiastically welcomed her country’s annexation by Nazi Germany in 1938. She admires Hitler and refuses to acknowledge the reality of the Holocaust.
Margarethe S. recounts her employment and leisure in and around a concentration camp, the murder of escaped POWs, and the end of the war.
A former Austrian librarian speaks of her feelings about refusing books to a Jewish reader.
Shame about a Nazi past
A former German nursery nurse reflects on her wartime behaviour towards Polish women and her readiness to denounce an opponent to the regime.
Involvement and self-representation
Interview excerpts and discussion. Involvement in persecution and violence under Nazism took many different forms, including ‘Aryanisation’ of Jewish property, anti-partisan warfare, or facilitating the deportation of Jews. After the war, many people sought to minimise their own or their family’s involvement. Oral histories provide fascinating and multifaceted insights into post-war self-representations and justifications. They are always the product of their time and place, and we cannot take what interviewees say at face value.
How to be a ‘decent’ Nazi
A Viennese woman speaks positively of her father’s involvement in Aryanisation and her ‘decent’ Nazi husband.
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.
Perpetrator or rescuer?
Former German member of the German military police on his role in the persecution of Jews in Hungary.
Keeping the trains rolling
Hugo G., a former German member of the Wehrmacht, speaks of his father’s role as a railwayman in deportations of Jews to Auschwitz.