Levels of Responsibility Regarding the Holocaust
The hierarchy of responsibility for the holocaust begins with Hitler and ends with the citizens of Germany and the global community. Individually, Hitler held the most power while collectively, the citizens of the expanded Nazi Germany had the most power. Hitler was the visionary of the entire NSDAP regime as none of it would have been possible if he did not rise to power. Germans found a confident and strong political leader in Hitler, whose oratory promised a new and powerful Germany (“Chaos and Consent”). At the time, Germany was in such economical debt and depression and so when Hitler promised ‘a new and powerful Germany’ the German people were all too eager to accept it.
In one of Hitler’s speeches he openly states his goal: “In the east I have put in place with the command to relentlessly and without compassion send to death many women and children of Polish origin and language …only thus can we gain the living space we need,” (“Hitler’s Speech to Generals/War Crimes Tribunals,”). He dictates his vision to his people that the only way for them to have the space, as the superior Aryan race, is to completely annihilate another. However, it was never Hitler who pulled the trigger against these ‘women and children of Polish origin.’ It was his idea that he presented to his people and was gladly planned out by other members of the top leadership and then carried out by soldiers. As the man who developed the Nazi way of thinking, he holds the most responsibility as none of the Nazi agenda would exist without him. People in the top leadership such as Goebbels, Himmler and Goering also hold responsibility for the Holocaust.
While Hitler was the spokesperson and figurehead for the Nazi revolution, Goebbels helped perpetuate Hitler’s ideas: “we cannot allow Jewry as a seat of infection, to exist any longer,” (“Goebbels Solution of ‘Jewish Question'”). Goebbels shared Hitler’s beliefs and devised a plan with Goering and Himmler on how to solve the ‘Jewish Question.’ Goering sends a letter to the Chairman of the Ministerial Council for the Defense of the Reich saying: “I herewith commission you to carry out all preparations with regard to organizational, factual, and financial viewpoints for a total solution of the Jewish question…” (“A Total Solution”). Goering furthers the persecution of the Jews as he helps plot their evacuation. Himmler also assists… The NSDAP soldiers who helped further the Nazi regime or disagreed with it but did nothing about it are just as responsible as their superiors are.
They carried out orders they did not agree with or felt were not ‘significant’ enough to be truly harmful to anyone and therefore, their conscience was free of guilt because they blinded themselves to the impact their actions truly had. One man named Markus Fritsch was “in reality only a railroad switchman, directing trains to the appropriate tracks for the ‘selections,'” and though technically a part of the SS, did not believe himself to be (“Holocaust Documents Part III: Document 5”). Yet Markus knew where his trains were going despite having convinced himself that he could just have easily been switching trains in Berlin (“Holocaust Documents Part III: Document 5”). He was aware that he was taking people to the ‘selections’ and what was most likely their death. Nonetheless he still believes that his part in the NSDAP power structure was minimal when in reality he was just as responsible as the people threw bodies into the crematoria.
The Hungarian Police was another example of different levels of authority. Although Jewish and still members of the ghetto, “The Hungarian police used their rifle butts, their clubs to indiscriminately strike old men and women, children, and cripples,” (Wiesel 16). They did not convince themselves that they were not really helping the Nazis but instead convinced themselves that they were a part of it all. “Faster! Faster! Move, you lazy good for-nothings!” the Hungarian police were screaming.” (Wiesel 19).Their instincts for self-preservation overpowered their morals and past friendships as they beat their own people out of fear.
Hitler’s vision was carried out not only by his fellow officials, but also realized by ordinary citizens. The mindset of being powerless was one shared by the citizens of the German population as well as the International community and the Jews. “You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even talk alone…And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you: it is also genuine uncertainty,” (“No Time to Think”). People “[allowed] themselves to swim with the tide and be carried on a wave of hope because of the security they felt was, in every respect, what allowed the Nazi regime to persist (“Chaos and Consent”).
Citizens felt that the Nazi revolution moved so quickly, and they just allowed life to carry themselves with it to a new level (“No Time to Think”). As they were carried with the revolution, they began to feel alienated from others for possibly feeling differently about the Nazis than their neighbor did. They felt ‘fear of standing alone’ for they thought that none would stand with them. Alone and afraid, they felt powerless and continued to shy away from others until everyone stood almost completely alone. Among the German citizens who supported NSDAP and the citizens who stood by as their country was changed completely are also responsible. Citizens who shared the perspective of the college professor above were exactly the kind of bystanders that helped further the NSDAP policies.
They did nothing to stand against their government even when they felt they were unjust and disagreed with them. The international community did little to help the Jews while they were in crisis and being persecuted by the Nazis. “People everywhere were outraged,” and yet they did nothing to aid the Jewish people (“World Responses”). Thousands of Americans shared this outrage and displayed it at rallies to support the German Jews, still the Jews who were suffering in Germany did not benefit from these shows of support (“World Responses”). Even the president of the United States, Franklin D.
Roosevelt only stood up after he had been urged to do so, and did not take action to rescue the Jews but rather made a speech expressing how “deeply shocked” the United States was regarding the Jews’ situation (“World Responses”). While they hold minor responsibility as the victims, the Jews who did not revolt against early NSDAP policies or instead supported NSDAP in ghettos out of fear and self-delusion hold little responsibility. Eliezer Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and writer, goes on to explain the frame of mind that he and many Jews shared regarding the leadership within the ghettos: “In fact, we felt this was not a bad thing; we were entirely among ourselves. A small Jewish republic…a Jewish Council was appointed, as well as a Jewish Police Force, a welfare agency…a whole governmental apparatus,” (Wiesel 11-12). The ruling powers that governed and beat the Jews within the ghettos were more accepted than an Aryan leader.
The collective is made up of individuals, which raises the point that if Hitler never existed the whole country would be different whereas if one German citizen never existed, things would not have changed. The Jews, German citizens, soldiers, and people of other countries felt that they could be of no help to the Jews and so they waited for the big opportunity where everyone would stand with them, against the NSDAP government. It is exactly this state of inaction that people everywhere adopted that holds them responsible for the suffering of the Jewish people. Perhaps if they stood up early on, when revolting was still possible, there would be no Holocaust and the responsibility would be on merely the top leadership and Hitler.