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*Editor’s Note: A new series on the Holocaust from Alex Grobman, PhD 

The question of how and why the Holocaust occurred in Western civilization remains an issue of concern because it reveals something about the nature of our society and humanity. Among the myriad moral dilemmas the Holocaust raises is how members of the SS, especially those in the Einsatzgruppen (the mobile SS killing units), the Wehrmacht (German military), and the German police, were able to torture, brutalize and engage in the mass murder of Jews and other fellow human beings? This series of essays will explore whether they were in a position to decide to become willing executioners, reluctant accomplices, or find ways to evade involvement in mass murder. [1]  

  1. M. Gilbert, who served as a prison psychologist at the Nuremberg war crime trials in 1945‐1946, said the most challenging question ever posed to him on this subject was raised by Israeli Attorney-General Gideon Hausner at the Adolph Eichmann Trial, which began on April 11, 1961, in Jerusalem. During direct examination as a witness for the prosecution, Hausner asked “What kind of mentality did the mass murderers of Hitler’s SS possess to be able to do the horrible things they did?” Although the Israeli court disallowed the question, since it wanted to focus on the judicial question of Eichmann’s guilt, Gilbert said the question about human nature still persists: “What kind of animal species is it that organizes and executes senseless, coldblooded, systematic slaughter of its own members, and how do some of its members become qualified to perform this inhuman destruction of their fellow human beings?” [2] 

In practically all Nazi trials in the Federal Republic of Germany defendants claimed they “could not disobey, despite their mental dissociation from their orders, for fear of being shot themselves,” declared Helge Grabitz, Senior Public Prosecutor in Hamburg. Accused individuals, who did not have criminal records before or after the Third Reich, defend themselves in court as honorable citizens who unintentionally “got mixed up in all of this,” due to the circumstances at the time.  

When defending themselves, Grabitz observed, they exhibited impeccable memories, except for the crimes under consideration. They claim to have joined the SS completely naïve of its criminal character in order to secure employment during a period of economic crisis. They present themselves as working on behalf of the community’s needy or as elderly ill men with loads of medical records. There were of course Nazi leaders who murdered Jews, Gypsies and other “subhuman creatures,” not only without suffering any consequences, but “were even decorated for their crimes.” [3]  

Were these people ordinary and average individuals or a “new inhuman personality type” that Gilbert designated as “the murderous robots of the SS”? [4] Did they ever experience a conflict between the law and their conscience, since only an individual is capable of assuming moral responsibility for one’s actions? [5]  

“The Beginning of a Significantly New Era” 

The Holocaust has emerged “as the beginning of a significantly new era, one in which the extermination of human life in guiltless fashion became thinkable and technologically feasible” declared Father John T. Pawlikowski, Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. “It opened the door to an age in which dispassionate torture and the murder of millions became not just an act of a crazed despot, not merely an irrational expression of xenophobic fear, not just a drive for national security, but a calculated effort to reshape humanity supported by intellectual argumentation from the best and the brightest minds in society. The Holocaust was not the product of a crazed despot but the brainchild of some of the most sophisticated philosophers and scientists’ Western society had yet patented.”  

The challenge and “thus the basic moral question that emerges from a study of the Holocaust is how we today grapple with a new sense of freedom and power within humankind in a context of a highly sophisticated technological capability with the capacity for massive destruction.” [6]  

Father Pawlikowski is correct that the Holocaust ushered in a new age, which is why the Holocaust is not a Jewish issue alone. It speaks to the nature of the Western civilization because the subject begins with the Jews. “No other group was persecuted with the same relentlessness and the same disastrous consequences as the Jews of Europe,” observed German historian Peter Longerich. The Jews were the primary victims of the “European experience of race asserted historian George Mosse “and they were to be exterminated root and branch.” This was not the case “with any other victims of European racism….” [7] 

The notion that the Jewish people should be completely annihilated “was not a tactically motivated threat,” Longerich said, “but the logical consequence” of the belief which “dominated” the entire National Socialist agenda, that the German people were locked in a life and death struggle with their mortal enemy–international Jewry–in which their very existence as a nation was in peril. [8] In other words, one of the primary goals of this racist war of extermination was the permanent  “removal” (Beseitigung) of the Jews of Europe. [9]  

Jews were considered a satanic force and the cause of virtually every evil in the world. Jews were allegedly involved in an eternal plot to control the world using any nefarious methods necessary. Communism and capitalism were said to have been created as a means to manipulate the world and dominate its people. Jews were accused of infiltrating modern society and using their skills to direct the government, the stock exchange, the press, the theater, and literature. [10]  


[1] Hans Buchheim, “Command and Compliance,” in Helmut Krausnick, Hans Buchheim, Martin Broszat and  Hans-Adolf Jacobsen, Anatomy of the SS State (London: St James’s Place: William Collins and Sons and Company Limited,1968),305-306); Michael Wildt, Search & Research, Lectures and Papers 3: “Generation of the Unbound: The Leadership Corps of the Reich Security Main Office” (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2002). Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 375-406; Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews Third Edition Volume III( New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2003) 1059, 1080- 1104; David Bankier/Jacob Golomb (eds.), “Karl Jaspers, The Question of Guilt,” (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press and Yad Vashem, 2006); Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2013); Guenter Lewy, The World of the Holocaust Killers (New York:  Oxford University Press,  2017); Ian Rich, Holocaust Perpetrators of the German Police Battalions: The Mass Murder of Jewish Civilians, 1940-1942 (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018); Peter Merkel, The Making of a Stormtrooper (Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1980); Peter Merkel, Political Violence Under the Swastika (Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1975). 

[2] G.M. Gilbert, “The Mentality of the SS Murderous Robots,” Yad Vashem Studies Volume V (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem Studies, 1963):35; Edward B. Westermann, “Stone-Cold Killers or Drunk with Murder? Alcohol and Atrocity during the Holocaust,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 30, Issue 1, Spring 2016, Pages 1–19. 

[3] Helge Grabitz,  “Problems of Nazi Trials in the Federal Republic of Germany,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies  Volume 3 Number 2, 1988):216, 219; Donald M. McKale, Nazis after Hitler: How Perpetrators of the Holocaust Cheated Justice and Truth (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011). 

[4] Gilbert, op.cit.36. 

[5] Shmuel Hugo Bergman, Yad Vashem Studies V (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1963): 12. 

[6] John T. Pawlikowski, (1993) “The Holocaust: Its Implications for Contemporary Church-State Relations in Poland,” Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe Volume. 13 : Issue. 2 , Article 2; John T. Pawlikowski, “The Holocaust: Its Challenges for Understanding Human Responsibility,” in Judith H. Banki and John T. Pawlikowski eds. Ethics in the Shadow of the Holocaust: Christian and Jewish Perspectives (Franklin Wisconsin: Sheed & Ward, 2001), 261-289; Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2001), 262); x-xi, xiii-xiv; Yardena Schwartz, “Just Outside Hiroshima, a Holocaust Education Center Flourishes,” Tablet (June 14, 2018); Elwyn Smith, “The Christian Meaning of the Holocaust,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies Volume 6 (1969) 419-422. 

[7] George L. Mosse, Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism (New York: Howard Fertig, 1978), xii-xiii. 

[8] Peter Longerich, Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 422-43); Yehuda Bauer, “Against Mystification,” in The Holocaust in Historical Perspective (Seattle: Washington University Press, 1978), 41-42. 

[9] Peter Longerich, The Unwritten Order: Hitler’s Role in the Final Solution (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus Publishing Limited, 2003.),196-197; Lucy S. Dawidowicz, Ed. A Holocaust Reader (New York: Behrman House, Inc., 1976), 32. 

[10] Bernard Lewis, Semites & Anti-Semites (New York: W.W. Norton 1986)23;  Robert S. Wistrich, Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred (New York: Schocken Books, 1991), 33;  Jacob Katz, From Prejudice To Destruction: Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1980),142; Robert S. Wistrich, “Once Again, Anti-Semitism Without Jews,” Commentary (August 1992), 45-49; Barbara Miller Lane and Leila J. Rupp, Nazi ideology before 1933: A Documentation (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1978): 47-59; David Berger, Ed., “Anti-Semitism: an Overview,” in History and Hated: The Dimension of Anti-Semitism (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Jewish Publication Society, 1986):4; Peter Schafer, Judeophobia: Attitudes toward the Jews in the Ancient World (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998):180-195; Jacob L. Talmon, “Mission and Testimony: The Universal Significance of Modern Antisemitism,” in Israel Gutman and Livia Rothkirchen, Eds., The Catastrophe of European Jewry (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1976), 127–174.); Jacob Katz, From Prejudice to Destruction: Antisemitism 1700–1933 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997); Christian Streit, “Wehrmacht, Einsatgruppen, Soviet POWs and Anti-Bolshevism In the Emergence of the Final Solution,” in The Final Solution: Origins and Implementation, David Cesarani, Ed.(London: Routledge,1994), 111. 


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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.