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Lessons from the Holocaust

LAURENCE REES: Are there any lessons that we can take about human nature from that?

CHRISTOPHER BROWNING: To my mind it certainly shows that people are fairly malleable and that we do not have any in-built fail-safe mechanism in human nature that prevents the vast majority of us from committing atrocities. The notion that only psychologically deranged people or psychologically abnormal people do this is a comforting illusion but it is an illusion. The number of people who were involved in this because they were disturbed individuals, sadists and whatever, is minimally small, and the rest of these people become killers, they don’t do it because they were somehow essentially predisposed to becoming mass murderers. Through a combination of socialization, situation and cultural inculcation you reach a point where this becomes not just acceptable but, for many of them, right, necessary and desirable, and they may not like it that they were unlucky enough to be left with the dirty work, but they certainly don’t see it as wrong and that somebody else would be doing it.

LAURENCE REES: And what about those people who say this all happened because there’s something strange in Germans?

CHRISTOPHER BROWNING: Well, of course, the problem there is that we then have to have something wrong with Serbs and Rwandans and Hutus and Cambodians doing it to themselves, or the Turks against Armenians, or even people in the Soviet Union against other people in the Soviet Union. Mass killing became so pervasive in the 20th Century by so many different groups, and of course even in Hitler’s Third Reich itself not all the killers are Germans, a vast number are East European auxiliaries. And they find collaboration, of course, with the French police, the Hungarian police. So that it strikes me that you have too many killers coming from far too many different backgrounds to see a culturally specific explanation that only Germans do this or something of that sort.

LAURENCE REES: But, of course, then people say that the Holocaust is a different type of genocide: it’s unique in its own way and it was the Germans who ordered it?

CHRISTOPHER BROWNING: In some ways the holocaust is singular, I’d avoid the word unique just because that gets you into a semantic argument over what ultimately uniqueness constitutes as an historical event, since all events are unique; but then they say, well, it’s uniquely unique. And that’s a circular argument I don’t want to follow. However, the Holocaust does have certain singular characteristics. It is the genocide that occurs in the most advanced country technologically, bureaucratically and administratively, in a scientific tradition. It is the genocide that was envisaged as the most encompassing over an entire continent and would have gone beyond if the Germans had been able to, and there is the greatest disparity between the victims and the fate that befalls them. In many genocides there is a long history of conflict, there is some real conflict there - not that it justifies genocide - but the genocide is built upon a history of conflict.

The Jews of Europe do not constitute a threat to the Nazis in any way, this is a fantasised and imagined threat. This is, I would say, the most fantasised threat used to justify a genocide. So in those ways I can say the Holocaust is singular. But because an event is singular in some ways does not mean it’s singular in all ways and, in fact, it is in the killers that I find it the least singular. The act of killing lots of people is replicated in all sorts of places around the world; no regime that wanted to make mass murder a key element of its own policy has ever failed to do so because of a shortage of executioners. This is not the bottleneck. Getting people to kill has never been what prevented governments from doing it. So in that sense I would say the notion that the Holocaust is different in some ways is true, but that does not therefore mean the killers are different.