Perpetration and complicity under Nazism have had long-term consequences for individuals and societies. Collective violence has continued to occur across the world. It is vital to ask what broader insights can be drawn from exploring questions around identity and involvement in Nazi atrocities.
State-sponsored violence entails the participation and complicity of many institutions, professions and individuals. It takes many forms, including mass murder, torture, imprisonment, exploitation, and the withdrawal of rights from particular groups. It can range from daily acts of discrimination, through the removal of the conditions for life, to outright killing.
In these circumstances, many people feel impotent to stand up for those being victimized, and focus rather on their own daily lives. Many feel indifferent to persecution that does not affect them personally, especially if they benefit from it, directly or indirectly. Some people glorify or justify violence in pursuit of national goals; dictatorship and armed conflicts provide a context for genocide.
Later in their lives, most people involved in state-condoned violence construct narratives that minimize their own responsibility and maintain their view of themselves as decent human beings. Institutions, companies and professions may resist acknowledging responsibility or refuse to pay compensation. Some do reflect more critically on their actions and seek to learn from these experiences.
Sympathy for Hitler? Fiction and empathy
In 1977, Nazi hunters finally track down the old Hitler deep in the Amazon jungle. When they put him on trial, Hitler offers a spirited defence: ‘I was not the worst. How many wretched little men of the forests did your Belgian friends murder outright or leave to starvation and syphilis when they raped the Congo?… Some twenty million.’ Hitler insists that he is ‘small game’ in a ‘world that has tortured political prisoners and poured napalm on naked villagers, that has stripped the earth of plant and animal.’
Do you feel sympathy for ‘Hitler’ in this scene? Do you think he has a point or is he just clever at making excuses? George Steiner imagined Hitler speaking like this in his novel The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H. (1979). Steiner was heavily criticized for letting the fictional Hitler express his views, because readers might empathize with him and be distracted from his abhorrent crimes and the victims’ suffering.
But Steiner defended his freedom as a writer to ask difficult questions. Many writers and film-makers use fiction to explore different perspectives and challenge our expectations. Fiction also makes us think about our own responses to violent perpetrators and about why we focus more on some acts of violence than on others.
Justice or forgiveness?
In 2019, 93-year-old Bruno Dey was put on trial in a youth court for aiding and abetting 5,230 murders; he had become a guard at Stutthof concentration camp when he was 17. Trials like this raise questions about justice and forgiveness as perpetrators grow old and weak. Does the passing of time diminish the need for justice? Is there a point where it is better to forgive or forget?
These questions remain relevant in many contexts: some states are demanding compensation for the violence of former colonizers; African-Americans are seeking justice for the legacy of slavery.
The philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch argues that forgiveness is a gift from the victim and must be preceded by the perpetrator taking responsibility for their actions with whatever suffering that involves. He says that justice remains absolutely separate from forgiveness. We might conclude that neither justice nor forgiveness should be compromised by time; nor does a perpetrator’s remorse diminish the importance of justice.
Justice is also about recognising those who were persecuted and traumatised. It is about compensation and remembrance of victims. And it is about raising to attention those who were complicit or involved in perpetration – highlighting the conditions in which they were mobilised to act, and the ways in which they subsequently evaded justice, and sought to deny, justify or reinterpret their past.
People often compare the recent rise of nationalism, racism and divisiveness with the rise of Nazism. There are important differences: political parties in democratic states do not have partisan armed groups to intimidate opponents and impose policies by force; the police and the armed forces are answerable to democratically elected representatives; the judiciary is constitutionally independent. But historical analysis also shows how fragile democratic governments are, how rapidly new norms and authoritarian rule can emerge – and how people can adapt and justify involvement in collective violence.
The underlying issues and challenges remain relevant today. A strong framework of democratic institutions and respect for laws upholding human rights is essential. But even in democracies, public opinion can easily be manipulated, and laws can discriminate against particular groups:
Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi received a Nobel Peace Prize for her role in the country’s transition from military rule towards a more democratic system. She denied that the military committed genocidal massacres against the Muslim Rohingya minority, leading to calls for the prize to be revoked. But in January 2021 she too was a victim of violence in a military coup, when the army ousted her from power.
The ‘Windrush scandal’ of 2018 resulted from the UK Government wrongly designating thousands of UK residents as living illegally in the UK. Citizens lost their jobs, homes and access to healthcare and were wrongly deported. An inquiry concluded that the Home Office had shown ‘ignorance’ in relation to race that was consistent with elements of institutional racism. In 2020 the Equality and Human Rights Commission said that the Home Office had broken the law by not considering how its policies affected black members of the Windrush generation.
Democratic structures are still often misused by autocrats. The leader of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz Party, Victor Orban, proudly deems his country an ‘illiberal democracy’. He has steadily silenced civil society groups, and overhauled Hungary’s constitution so as to accrue more power. Meanwhile, in Poland the ruling Law and Justice Party made significant steps to subordinate the judiciary to the will of the government – and, in a key case against two historians of the Holocaust, to claim that it is the government and the courts, not scholarly experts, who should have the final say in what is to count as valid historical evidence.
Former US President Donald Trump legitimated racism in a speech defending far-right protestors and white supremacists at a rally in Charlottesville in August 2017; and he consistently supported the use of force against peaceful protestors at Black Lives Matter demonstrations following the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020. When Trump lost the November 2020 election to Democrat Joe Biden, he refused to accept the results and concede defeat. Instead, he spread lies about the election having been ‘stolen’, and whipped up mass support, including right-wing groups such as the Proud Boys, and conspiracy theorists such as QAnon. On 6 January 2021, Trump incited his supporters to march on the Capitol; mobs stormed into the building, causing at least five deaths and injuring many more. Democratic institutions finally prevailed and Joe Biden was duly inaugurated as President, but serious rifts have been opened.
Informed historical awareness, willingness to think critically about complex situations, and a sense of responsibility for the consequences of action, remain vitally important.