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HolocaustOctober 1942

Mentality of the perpetrators

What was the mentality of the perpetrators?
1942 was the year in which the Nazis killed the largest number of Jews. And by the autumn the death factories of the Holocaust were working with murderous efficiency. What sort of people could create this hell on earth?

Video Transcript

Commentary: What kind of people could create this place? Auschwitz - the site of the largest mass murder in the history of the world. Just one killing centre in a network of destruction that was to take the lives of six million Jews alone. The Nazis believed that Germans - the Aryan race, as they called themselves - were special. Better people than the rest. Combine that with a passionate belief that the strong had the right to destroy the weak, and you had the beginnings of a very dangerous ideology indeed.

Professor Christopher Browning: So they have a scale in which valuable human life, meaning perfect Germans, can sacrifice imperfect Germans and everybody else. So that the setting up of the German race as this ideal, being the culture-creating race that will be the carrier of progress in the future, becomes the end that justifies any means. And the elevation of that group as a group of human beings devaluates all the others and basically deprives them of their humanity.

Commentary: Leading Nazis saw their beliefs as modern, as representing the latest in scientific knowledge.

Laurence Rees: You argue almost that this was a form of modern progress, just a warped, terrible form of modern progress.

Professor Norbert Frei: Yes, yes. Well, I mean take for instance the idea of racial purity, which was carried out with the theories and instruments which were the most modern at that time. Hitler took it up, gave these researchers and scientists and medical doctors the opportunities, built the political frame in which they could do their work, and all of a sudden we have this terrible way into euthanasia and finally the connection between euthanasia and the extermination of the Jews.

Commentary: The shooting of Jewish women and children, whole families, was justified by the Nazis as removing from the healthy body of society a group they feared and despised. Though many of the murderers scarcely needed scientific reasons to kill.

Professor David Cesarani: If you take large numbers of people who come from the countryside who are used to pretty rough existence, slaughtering animals certainly. If you put them through brutal experiences when human beings are slaughtered, if you also tell them that the lives of certain groups are not worth preserving, it’s not difficult to get those people then to take human lives on a vast scale. And very often the killers are fairly sort of simple-minded, uneducated peasants. Killing a pig, killing a Jew, Jews are pigs - you kill them.

Commentary: The Nazi killers, many of whom operated in the forests of Eastern Europe, had been told the lie that the Jews were part of a worldwide conspiracy against them. That Jewish civilians were just as big a danger to Germany as the soldiers they faced in battle.

Professor Omer Bartov: Many of them are strongly motivated by an internalised sense that Jews have to be wiped out, the Jews are major enemies of Germany. And while you and I can say, ‘Well, how can you look at babies? How can you throw babies out of balconies and smash them?’ which was happening all over the place, they seem to see that differently. Some of them have sadistic inclinations. But many of them are policemen, have worked as policemen before, they probably helped old ladies across the street before. They are relatively decent human beings like you and I, and they have become persuaded that that specific population that they are targeting has to be wiped out.

Commentary: And what the infamous Wannsee Conference, held at this villa in January 1942, demonstrated was that not all the killers were obvious thugs. Here the SS and others discussed key issues in the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews. And of the fifteen people who attended, eight held academic doctorates.

Professor Norbert Frei: These were educated people, at least the managers of the extermination.

Laurence Rees: But we normally see in a culture, we normally value education as a protection against this kind of thing.

Professor Norbert Frei: Yes. Well, obviously this is a too easy way of seeing it.

Commentary: These prisoners of the Nazis had been made to suffer in pursuit of racist plans, drawn up for the most part by clever people who believed that what they were doing was right. After all, their own beliefs and the beliefs of their Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, had told them so.

Laurence Rees: Are there any lessons that we can take about human nature from this?

Professor Christopher Browning: Well, to my mind it certainly shows that people are fairly malleable. That we do not have any inbuilt, 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 are involved in this because they are disturbed individuals, sadists or whatever, is minutely small. And the rest of these people become killers, they don’t do it because they were somehow essentially pre-disposed to becoming mass murderers. But through a combination of socialisation and situation and cultural inculcation you reach a point where this becomes not just acceptable but for many of them right, necessary, 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 wrong that somebody else would be doing it. We know technologically and scientifically we can destroy ourselves with atom bombs now, but we also can destroy large numbers of people with our managerial capacity in terms of targeted genocides. And I think it’s important to understand in terms of human nature that we are not a benign people who are threatened only by a few abnormal sadists. That in most of us there is a capacity to be organised and manipulated in such ways that we will find mass killing acceptable or even desirable, and that that awareness is our first line of defence.


The colour photos of the villa at Wannsee are copyright Gary A. Fagan, and are used with permission.