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*Editor’s Note: Part XV in a new series on the Holocaust from Alex Grobman, PhD  

Without the “prior deprivations, ostracism and institutionalized plunder of the German Jews—in full view and with the increasing approval and complicity of millions of Germans—The Final Solution would not have been possible,” asserted historian Avraham Barkai. [1]


The fact that people were becoming accustomed to mass murder surely played a part in this process, opined George Mosse. Although there were massacres in the 1890’s, they were not critical in changing people’s perceptions. What occurred in World War I was more important in transforming this attitude. But it was the Japanese invasion of China that was especially significant, for this was the first time in Germany and elsewhere that there were “inconceivable figures of Chinese killed” being broadcast over the radio. [2]

When Raul Hilberg was asked why the Germans murdered the Jews, he replied: “They did it because they wanted to do it.”[3] “No other government and no other regime would have the strength for such a global solution of this question” declared Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda.”[4]

Most perpetrators viewed their involvement in the mass murder as “a perfectly normal job. These were average citizens who attended to business of killing for some time, as though on a temporary job change, only to return later to the civilian occupation for which they had been trained.” [5] In terms of their “moral makeup,” they were similar to the rest of the German population. They were not a “different kind of German.” They were a cross-section of the population,— “every profession, every skill, and every social status was represented in it.” [6]

When American psychologist G. M. Gilbert asked Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, if he ever had ever considered whether the Jews merited their fate, “he tried patiently to explain that there was something unrealistic about such a question because he had been living in an entirely different world. ‘Don’t you see, we SS men were not supposed to think about these things; it never even occurred to us.” [7] Gilbert said it “apparently meant nothing to him that he had murdered millions of people; he had no hesitation in describing everything in detail; and without any attempt to share blame, or to attempt defense or anything ; quite spontaneously-certainly not with any urging on my part.” [8]

Although annihilating the Jews “was certainly an extraordinary and monstrous order,” Höss said, “nevertheless, the reasons behind the extermination program seemed right. I did not reflect on it at the time: I had been given an order, and I had to carry it out. Whether this mass extermination of the Jews was necessary or not was something on which I could not allow myself to form an opinion, for I lacked the necessary breadth of view.”

Furthermore, “If the Führer had himself given the order for the ‘final solution of the Jewish question,’ then, for a veteran National Socialist and even more so an SS officer there could be no question of considering its merits. ‘The ‘Führer commands, we follow’ was never a mere phrase or slogan. It was meant in bitter earnest.” [9]

What can be said about the morality of the German perpetrator applies to Germany as well, because of the nature of how the process was structured administratively and jurisdictionally, and the budget constraints, which precluded selective recruiting of personnel or training them to engage in mass murder. Every lawyer who worked in the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), which served as the organization that oversaw the “Final Solution,” was assumed to be qualified to become a member of the Einsatzgruppen. Any bureaucrat in an appropriate position in the Deutsche Reichsbahn or working as a chemist at I.G. Farben, could easily be posted at a concentration camp. In other words, all essential positions were staffed with whatever persons were available. No moral issue proved intractable Hilberg concluded. When every person involved “was put to the test, there were few lingerers and almost no deserters. The old moral order did not break through anywhere along the line. This is a phenomenon of the greatest magnitude.” [10]

“The sensational fact, the really horrifying feature, of the annihilation of the Jews,” declared German historian Heinz Höhne, “was that thousands of respectable fathers of families made murder their official business and yet, when off duty, still regarded themselves as ordinary law-biding citizens who were incapable even of thinking of straying from the strict path of virtue.” Himmler expected the mass massacres had to be implemented “coolly and cleanly” Höhne said; “even while obeying the official order to commit murder, the SS man must remain ‘decent.’” [11]

When the soldiers returned to their homes, they took with them “the images and horrors of the war, the perverted morality which had formed its basis, and the distorted perception which made living through it bearable.” Each family had at least one soldier who served at the front. These young men then went on to become laborers, bureaucrats, lawyers, physicians, psychologists, politicians, teachers, bankers, judges, professors and journalists. The murder of the Six Million was perceived as simply just another facet of the war, not something especially exceptional to the Nazi Germany’s very distinctive war. Since many more Germans experienced the strategic bombing raids and the occupation of their land then had witnessed the extermination camps, they are the memories that remained embedded in their minds. Thus, the German people were no longer directly connected with the destruction of European Jewry, and became “something that had not been executed by them, but in their name.” Defeat had transformed the Germans into victims. And victims cannot be held accountable. [12]


[1] Avraham Barkai “Volksgemeinschaft, ‘Aryanization’ and the Holocaust,” in The Final Solution Origins and Implementation David Cesarani, Ed (New York: Routledge 1994),33.

[2] Yehuda Bauer and Nathan Rotenstreich, The Holocaust As a Historical Experience (New York: ‎Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc.1981), 244; for an example of the numbers killed by the Japanese, please see

[3] Emil L. Fackenheim, “Holocaust and Weltanschauung: Philosophical Reflections on Why They Did It,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies Volume 3 Number 2, 1998) 197.

[4] Joseph Goebbels, The Goebbels Diaries 1942-1943 (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1948), 148.

[5] Helge Grabitz, “Problems of Nazi Trials in the Federal Republic of Germany,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies Volume 3 Number 2, 1998):216.

[6] Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews Volume III (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2003),1084.

[7] Heinz Höhne, The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS (London: Secker & Warburg, 1970), 389.

[8] Gideon Hausner, Justice in Jerusalem (New York: Harper & Row, 1966),339.

[9] Commandant of Auschwitz : The Autobiography of Rudolf Hoess (Cleveland, Ohio: The World Publishing Company,1959),160. In other words, “Führer befiehl wir folgen”[Führer, command, –we follow you].”

[10] Hilberg, op.cit. 1084-1085.

[11] Höhne, op.cit. 382.

[12]Omer Bartov, Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 183-186; Omer Bartov, Murder in Our Midst: The Holocaust, Industrial Killing, and Representation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); 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),27-31; TRIALS OF WAR CRIMINALS BEFORE THE NUERNBERG MILITARY TRIBUNALS UNDER CONTROL COUNCIL LAW No. 10 NUERNBERG (OCTOBER 1946-APRIL 1949) VOLUME IV/1.


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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.