Why did WE Kill?

Lecturer: Elly Dlin
Lecture 4: Why did WE Kill?

A principal offered the following message to his teaching staff on the first day of the new school year.

"Dear Teacher:

I am a survivor of a concentration camp.  My eyes saw what no man should witness: Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates. So I am suspicious of education.

My request is: Help your students become human.  Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.  Reading, writing and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more humane." (Quoted in FACING HISTORY AND OURSELVES, p. 166.)

In this lecture we raise some of the most basic and disturbing question about ourselves as educated and cultured human beings living in the modern world.  Who are WE?   Why did WE KILL?  Why did WE KILL in the Holocaust? What is the nature of man?  What is the nature of our civilization that has made the 20th century into the single most bloody and destructive 100 years ever to be recorded in human history?


Weimar Germany was a functioning democracy that succeeded, for a time, in the face of tremendous problems.  It overcame terror and violence from both the Left (the Bavarian Soviet and the Spartacus Revolt) and the Right (the Kapp Revolution and the Hitler Putsch).  It survived the economic chaos of the post-First World War period, stabilized the crippling inflation of 1923 and progressed admirably towards working out its other domestic and foreign problems.  In the mid-1920s democracy was being solidified in Germany. 

But the Depression of 1929 was more than the Weimar Republic could shoulder and the parties of the Weimar Coalition were totally discredited after the collapse on Wall Street.  By 1930 the choice before German citizens was between a dictatorship of the Right and a dictatorship of the Left.  Too conservative, traditional, capitalistic and Church-influenced to go Bolshevik, Germans searched for a strong Nationalist leader.  They tried several disappointing candidates until they thought that they found what they hoped they needed in the unique combination of Nationalism and Socialism under the banner of Adolf Hitler and within a broad coalition of conservative, aristocrats, technocrats and generals. Hitler was granted power; he did NOT seize it.  His appointment as Chancellor was in accordance to the constitution (which by the way was never revoked in the Third Reich but only suspended "temporarily").  What he did was legal, if it was neither moral nor ethical.

Millions of people voted for the Nazis.  Millions more voted for other parties and in the last free elections before Hitler's rise to power (6 November 1932) the Nazis received 33.1% of the popular vote.  Even after the assumption of power on 30 January 1933, weeks of physical intimidation and, following the burning of the Reichstag (28 February), and a hysterical campaign to exploit the fears of an imminent communist revolt, the Nazis FAILED to gain a majority of the votes cast on March 5.  They got 44%; 56% went to other parties.  Other choices could have been made. Hitler's coming to power COULD have been prevented.  It resulted from choices people made at the time.


Charlie Chaplin was not the only one to see Hitler and National Socialism as a product of modern times.  I wish to highlight 3 links between Nazism and Modernity.

1. There is a totalitarian potential inherent in the French and American Revolutions.  The Universal Rights of Man were a tremendous victory for freedom and liberty.  The power of intermediary institutions that had controlled and repressed individuals (for example Churches, class structures, and the guilds) were destroyed. Separate privileges, special group rights and particular group restrictions were wiped away. The principle was established that all men were born equal and that each one of us stands ALONE in full rights, as a citizen of the state.

The downside is that standing alone in the confusion and incomprehensibility of the modern bureaucratic state can be cold, lonely and dangerous.  Just ask Joseph K. in Franz Kafka's novel "The Trial" or feel the isolation and pain of the anonymous narrator in Jerzy Kozinski's "The Painted Bird".  Kurt Vonnegut shows the dangers of the principle of equality in his short story "Harrison Bergeron".  It starts:

"The year was 2081, and everyone was finally equal.  They weren't only equal before God and the law.  They were equal every which way.  Nobody was smarter than anybody else.  Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anyone else."  

All this equality was due to amendments to the Constitution and the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General who would add weights to the strong, ugly masks to the pretty and electronic interference to the brains of  the bright to prevent anyone from having an unfair advantage over anyone else.

2. Hitler was very much a modern politician.  He used the radio, film, cars and airplanes to appeal directly to the people.  He stage-managed mass rallies and packaged slogans to win over the hearts of the masses.   And it worked.

If by modernization we mean "the displacement of traditional societies by an unprecedentedly thorough and rapid process of change, basically similar everywhere, involving industrialization, urbanization, secularization and rationalization" (Henry Turner, p. 118) then Germany was modernized by the Third Reich.

3. A crucial aspect of modernity in the realization that people are in control of their own fate: that we are NOT pawns of nature nor are we puppets whose strings are pulled by an omnipotent super-being.  In modernity people are seen to be subjects of their own destiny; people can (and should) control and subjugate nature; unlock every mystery and solve any problem. Human Beings are sovereign on earth.

The task of defining and controlling the parameters between good and evil, acceptable and unacceptable behaviour traditionally fell to the Church and the priesthood.  But in a secular age the role has shifted to science and doctors to determine what was "normal" and "abnormal".  It was they who led the National Socialist bid to biologically reshape mankind in the ideological image of scientific racism.  Separated from a sense of limitations (theological, moral, ethical, or whatever) the commandment "Thou Shalt Not Kill" disappeared as a brake against the commission of large-scale genocide.  Murder in the Third Reich became the new moral imperative; aiding Jews was recast as a sin.  And transgressions were rare.


Disturbed by the unemotional, gray, bureaucratic personality of Adolf Eichmann, social psychologist Stanley Milgram designed a series of experiments to test the degree to which people were obedient to authority. Unsuspecting subjects were placed in a situation in which they thought that they were administering increasingly powerful electric shocks to ordinary people at the encouragement of a man in a white lab coat.  Experts predicted that only a few marginal individuals in any random population would remain fully obedient to the end of the board (marked "extremely dangerous").  In fact on average barely 1/3 of each sample broke off the experiment and refused to continue to inflict punishment and pain on innocents whereas about 2/3 of each sample remained fully obedient to authority.

A high school history teacher in California felt his explanations as to why so many willingly followed Hitler to be inadequate so he started a quasi-fascist movement in school and soon everyone was being swept along in "The Wave" and began acting in ways that exceeded normal boundaries - especially in regards to being violent to each other (see the ABC dramatization).

Holocaust survivors such as Jean Amery testified that torture appeared to bring a type of euphoric trance to the faces of their oppressors who were "concentrated in murderous self-realization" (p. 36). Franz Stangl who served as commandant of the Death Camp in Treblinka, where an estimated 870,000 were murdered, joined the Police Force out of a combination of boredom and opportunism and before being absorbed into the Gestapo used his professional skills to chase and to arrest Nazis.  Repeatedly he told Gitta Sereny, the journalist who interviewed him, that he had nothing against Jews and, after the end of the Third Reich and the termination of his role as a major organizer of the mass murders, he integrated easily into post-war German society. Private investigators and "Nazi hunters" have expose quiet family men as having once been ruthless executioners.

One did not have to be an antisemite to join the Nazi Party.  One did not have to hate Jews to persecute them. One did not have to be a crazed, blood-thirsty killer to murder innocent people.  And one did not have to be a sick, maladjusted sociopath to get used to routinely participating in mass murder.

Are WE so different?  Could it have been US behind the guns and whips?


Who were the killers?

The Holocaust was NOT perpetrated by drunk, unemployed Storm Troopers.  A thug could kill hundreds, even thousands of people, but the murder of millions required the careful planning and systematic organization of the administrative elite.  These were educated men.  Of the 14 men invited to a luncheon meeting on 20 January 1942 in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, 8 held PhD's from Europe's finest Universities.  On the agenda was the coordination of the murder of 11 million Jews.  No one flinched.  No one protested.  No one even tried to raise a hesitant objection disguised as a problem.  The only request recorded in the minutes was from Dr. Buehler, the representative of the Nazi administration in occupied Poland, who asked that the Jewish problem in his region be solved as quickly as possible.

Dr. Joseph Goebbels' held a PhD was in literature and philosophy, from Heidelberg University, one of the finest, oldest and most respected in Europe.

Doctor Josef Mengele, "the Angel of Death in Auschwitz" received a medical degree from the University of Frankfurt and his PhD from the University of Munich.  And one wants to know what exactly he studied?  How is it possible to earn 2 higher degrees without learning that killing innocent people is wrong? 

Otto Ohlendorf  served as the commander of  a mobile killing squad that shot at least 90,000 people in the Crimea and Northern Caucasian region.  Before he joined the SS in 1936 he had studied and taught law.  Did he ever learn what it means to be human?  

And perhaps even more disturbing that the question of what went wrong with the education of the Mengeles and the Ohlendorfs is the question: How different are WE?  Are the graduating classes of our medical schools learning anything substantially different than was taught to Josef Mengele. And are the young lawyers accepted this year into the bar any better prepared to make the really difficult choices and dilemmas that they may face then were the young lawyers who made sure that the Nuremberg Laws were drafted legally?

Decades ago, a university professor warned in a newspaper article against a trend in teaching about Nazism and the Holocaust.  He compared it to the new trend in car insurance known as "No Fault Insurance".  No Fault insurance stems from the assumption that few, if any, drivers are actually looking to have an accident.  But, given the number of cars on the road, the weather, road conditions, and unavoidable human error - "Accidents Happen".  It's no one's fault.  Attempts to apportion blame accomplish nothing, needlessly occupy lawyers, judges and courts, and on the bottom line, only serve to escalate the costs of car insurance. 

"No Fault" may be an appropriate answer for the insurance industry but it cannot be extrapolated into history.  Events in the past don't "just happen" and people are NOT completely manipulated by anonymous external forces..  To quote the most recent proponent of this line of argumentation:  "Simply put, the perpetrators, having consulted their own convictions and morality and having judged the mass annihilation of Jews to be right, did not want to say 'no'" (p. 14).   So writes Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, who calls his book HITLER'S WILLING EXECUTIONERS.

The personal implications of the Holocaust that emerge from looking at the Nazis and their accomplices is that people are responsible for their behaviour and for the choices that they make.


Amery, Jean,  AT THE MIND'S LIMITS, Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1980.

FACING HISTORY AND OURSELVES: HOLOCAUST AND HUMAN BEHAVIOR, Margot Stern Strom and William Parsons, eds.,  Watertown, MA: International Educations, Inc, 1982.

Goldhagen, Daniel J., HITLER'S WILLING EXECUTIONERS, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

Kafka, Franz, THE TRIAL, copyright 1937, New York: Vintage Books, 1969.

Kosinski, Jerzy, THE PAINTED BIRD, London: W.H. Allen, 1966.


Sereny, Gitta, INTO THAT DARKNESS, New York: Vintage Books, 1983.

Turner, Henry, "Fascism and Modernization", in REAPPRAISALS OF FASCISM, Henry Turner, ed., New York: New Viewpoints, 1975.





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07 Jul 2008 / 4 Tamuz 5768 0