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Complicity During the Holocaust

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Allorah loves to write about the humanities and spirituality. She is majoring in History with minors in Anthropology and English.

What Are the Most Convincing Arguments of Historians?

Holocaust complicity includes German and non-German perpetrators, collaborators, and bystanders who facilitated, helped, and/or witnessed the liquidation of the European Jewry. Those who complied with Nazi policy included those inside and outside the Nazi regime from political and military figures to neighbours and friends (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2018). Historians trying to explain complicity in its most basic definition—involvement in the amoral activities of the Holocaust—have put forward a variety of ideas. The most convincing arguments relate to long-standing anti-Semitism, international eugenic ideology on race, reward vs. punishment, and moral indifference on the Jewish question. However, this topic encompasses many academic disciplines, such as psychology, which assert their own arguments. For the purposes of this analytical essay, the paper focuses on the four causes asserted by historians listed above and questions whether or not a simple definition for complicity in the Holocaust exists.

Anti-Semitism and Eugenics Around the Globe

Jews have been the most widely used scapegoats throughout modern history. Global anti-Semitism has existed in the common era dating as far back as the authorship of the Bible. Biblical writers were pressured to replace the Roman perpetrators of the crucifixion with Jews (Browning 2004, 1). The evolution of anti-Semitism from a religious perspective to one that encompassed the entirety of a culture existed outside of the vacuum of Nazism and the subsequent Holocaust. Canonical laws, like the Nuremberg laws, prohibited Jewish people from participating within society – especially concerning their interaction with Christians (Novinsky 2014, 346). Jewish hate due to social, political, and economic reasons accompanied times of crisis. Jewish dehumanization to the point of describing Jews as nonhuman appears during the medieval era when the Bishop of Seville, along with the high clergy, sanctioned such a notion which ended in the expulsion of Jews during the crisis of the Black Death (Browning 2004, 3) (Novinsky 2014, 346). In the eleventh century, European progress beckoned, creating a crisis. Christians longed for values of their traditional Christian faith while Jews embraced progressive ideas. This gave conservative Christians tangible reasons for their xenophobic vitriol towards Jews (Browning 2004, 2). Practices exclusively associated with the Holocaust actually surfaced around the thirteenth century. Examples of this include badges to identify Jews and the construction of compulsory ghettos (Novinsky 2004, 346). Anti-Semitism intensified and spread throughout the westernized Christian world spanning from the Visigoth Kingdom, to the Inquisition, and, eventually, to Nazism (Novinsky 2004, 349). Long standing anti-Semitic attitudes supported an atmosphere of apathy, aggression, and dismissal towards Jews worldwide. A millennium after the first crisis, Jews appeared once again to benefit from modernization changes taking place in Europe after WWI while German small business owners and the elite suffered losses (Browning 2004, 5). Democratic nations feared the spread of communism with the rise of the Leninist and Stalinist Soviet Union. Judaism provided a convenient affiliation to Bolshevism breeding mistrust and paranoia of Jews (Browning 2004, 5). Modernization in the twentieth century gave way, not only to political, but to racial anti-Semitism – something no Jew had the power to change.

Ideology of a racially pure utopic society of Germans created the foundation of Nazism. Hitler sold the idea of a powerful and perfect community with racial improvement, Volksgemeinschaft, to an impressionable German public to gain their approval in the elimination of bureaucratic law making (Kershaw 1998, 532). Hitler, an extremist in every right, shared global attitudes that biology justified racial and social prejudice and discrimination. Social Darwinism at the turn of the twentieth century gave way to the pseudoscience of eugenics from 1911 onward (Kuhl 2002, 13-14). Almost every country entered the race for the perfect race. Eugenicists from the United States, Europe, and the Soviet Union communicated, attended conventions, and exchanged biological solutions to social ills (Kuhl 2002, 13-26). Prominent figures from every area of popular culture supported eugenics as a legitimate science. 1936 saw the first official objections to eugenic reasoning by leading international geneticists (Kuhl 2002, 78). Anti-Semitism of religious justification evolved to xenophobic – “…widely held negative stereotype made up of various assertions that did not describe the real Jewish minority but rather symbolized various threats and menaces that the Christian majority could not and did not want to understand.” – rationalization (Browning 2004, 3). Racially motivated policies and legislation abroad preceded German policies on race. For example, the Reed-Johnson Immigration Act of 1924 by the United States imposed harsh restrictions on the number of immigrants from Eastern European countries and banned immigrants from Asia completely (“Regulating Eugenics” 2008, 1581). Foreign policies motivated by eugenic ideals were the rule instead of the exception and made it difficult for those persecuted by the Third Reich to find refuge (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 2018). For Germans, the promise of a better Germany, in conjunction with fear and coercion tactics, inspired some to become apathetic, and others aggressive, towards the European Jewry.

Punishment, Reward, and Indifference

Denunciation of Jews to Nazi officials became a means of personal safety and economic gain. Robert Gallately agrees with historian William Allen’s and Ian Kershaw’s assessments that the Third Reich perpetuated a punishments and rewards system regarding Jewish interaction (1993, 49-51). Denouncing the hiding place of Jew might result in payment while concealing their whereabouts might result in execution. One such example of economic temptation is the personal testimony of Saul Wiesel who trusted his friend to hide him only to be denounced for five kilos of sugar - the bounty placed on Jewish heads in Slovakia (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 2018). Before the genocide of the European Jewry, non-Jews benefited financially from the expulsion and isolation of the Jews. Auctions and theft of Jewish property, and the calculation of Jewish assets by the Nazi regime, led to the redistribution of Jewish wealth among non-Jews (Bachrach 2017). Gaining a monetary or material reward proved a better outcome than execution. Petras Gelumbiauskas sheltered Jews on his farm in Lithuania only to be denounced as someone aiding Jews – his immediate execution occurred on site (Bachrach 2017). Terror and fear of retaliation existed in the Nazi regime from day one. Individuals admitted they participated in active and passive complicity with the regime to survive (Caplan and Childers 1993, 51). As the years progressed, Germans came to accept at least some of the Nazi racial ideology. Browning states passive complicity existed among most of German society by 1938 to keep classless violence at bay and because it became accepted that Jews "...roles within society needed to be limited and eventually ended" (Browning 2004, 10). The more the Nazi regime succeeded in shunning and isolating Jews from the whole of society, the more the Jews became depersonalized. Depersonalization made it easier to detach the Jew from his or her humanity and show indifference to their fate.

Anti-Semitism’s long history, Nazi propaganda, internationally recognized eugenic ideals, and era of the Great Depression aided the world’s attitude of indifference towards the Jewish question. Anti-Semitism and unprecedented economic depression throughout the western world influenced public opinion on Jewish immigration. Fear of both the unfamiliar and economic loss paralysed potential international aid to the Jews from democratic countries (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 2018). As for the populous of Germany, Ian Kershaw argues “Depersonalization increased the already existent widespread indifference of German popular opinion and formed a vital stage between the archaic violence of the pogrom and the rationalized ‘assembly-line’ annihilation of the death-camps… The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference” (2008, 184). Possibly avoidable incidents occurred due to indifference. For example, as the Jews suffered expulsion from their homes, non-Jews often watched from their porches without protest (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 2018). Indifference also ensured efforts to humiliate Jews went uninterrupted. A favourite method for public humiliation of Jewish men included forcing another Jewish man to cut his beard off, a shameful violation of Jewish law (United States Holocaust Museum 2018). Indifference is not always a negative trait. However, in the context of moral indifference it becomes quite a monstrous concept – a population so morally indifferent they turn their heads the opposite direction when faced with the extermination of a group of people.


Although these arguments prove the most convincing for the complicity of Germans and non-Germans in the Holocaust, defining Holocaust complicity requires more complex analysis than a simple yes or no.

— Allorah

The Gray Area

Anti-Semitism’s history reached as far back as the beginning of the common era and spread across the globe over time. Since that time, Jews have endured persecution repeatedly and consistently by different nations and different peoples. Eugenic ideology on racial purity pervaded nations abroad creating racial policies and programs of their own. Nazism’s use of terror and coercion led to a system punishment and reward. The system motivated non-Jews and Jews alike to denounce people at every turn to either gain a loaf of bread or avoid having their brains decorate the pavement. Indifference existed abroad due to anti-Semitic attitudes, eugenic ideals, and The Great Depression. Within Germany, depersonalization of Jews intensified the moral indifference of non-Jews leading to mechanized mass genocide. These factors provided the Nazi regime with an exploitable atmosphere with which to exterminate the European Jewry once and for all. Although these arguments prove the most convincing for the complicity of Germans and non-Germans in the Holocaust, defining Holocaust complicity requires more complex analysis than a simple yes or no. Labels of perpetrator, collaborator, bystander, and victim are transposable depending on the circumstances and context. At the level of terror which existed during the Nazi regime, do those who turned Jews in to the police qualify as perpetrators when the alternative may have resulted in their own death? “Sometimes historians simply have to accept that they cannot find the hard and fast answers they seek in the inadequate remnants of the past with which they have to deal” (Kershaw 2008, 11). A singular cause to explain complicity in the Holocaust is inadequate and better examined on a case-by-case basis.

You Decide


Bacharach, Susan. 2017. “Some were Neighbors: Complicity & Collaboration, a Workshop with The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum” Queensborough Community College. Kupferberg Holocaust Center Video. Uploaded on September 16, 2017. YouTube Video, 1:15:26 min.

Browning, Christopher R., and Jürgen Matthäus. 2004. The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost.

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Gellately, Robert. "Enforcing Racial Policy in Nazi Germany." In Reevaluating the Third Reich, edited by Jane Caplan and Thomas Childers, 42-65. Teaneck, NJ: Holmes & Meier, 1993.

Kershaw, Ian. 2008. Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution. Jerusalem: Yale University Press, 2008. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost.

Kuhl, Stefan. 2002. Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism. Cary: Oxford University Press, Incorporated. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Lawson, Tom. 2010. Debates on the Holocaust: Debates on the Holocaust. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Novinsky, Anita. “Two Thousand Years of Anti-Semitism: From the Canonical Laws to the Present Day.” In Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity - A Crisis of Modernity, edited by Charles Small, 345-351. Leiden: BRILL, 2014.

"Regulating Eugenics." Harvard Law Review 121, no. 6 (2008): 1578-599.

Spicer, Kevin P. 2007. Antisemitism, Christian Ambivalence, and the Holocaust. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007. Accessed May 23, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 2018. USHM.

Questions, Concerns, Feedback?

Allorah (author) on June 14, 2018:

What papers are you referring to?

Charles floppy D on June 12, 2018:


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