German Nazism and the Complicity of Ordinary People

Ron Berger —

Donald Trump’s remarks in the aftermath of the recent turmoil in Charlottesville, Virginia and the murder of Heather Heyer brought forth widespread condemnation from people across the political spectrum. As a student of the Holocaust, I was particularly struck by his comment about the “fine people” who choose to align themselves with white supremacists, Ku Klux Klansman, and neo-Nazis. I have studied and written about the role of ordinary people in the rise of German Nazism and the implementation of anti-Jewish policies, and I was motivated by Trump’s remarks to post this article. As we contemplate how we might respond to the greater visibility of hate groups in our time, and a president who enables them, let the experience of Nazi Germany be a lesson for us all about the potential for ostensibly “good” people to be complicit with “evil.”

The Rise of Nazism

In some respects, the Nazi movement in its early years may be understood as a social movement that, like other social movements, was attempting to mobilize adherents, raise financial resources, and seek popular legitimacy for its policies—in this case, unburdening Germany from the yoke of the post-World War I Versailles Treaty whereby the Allies forced Germany to relinquish considerable territory, pay $33 billion in reparations, and dramatically limit the size of its armed forces. The Nazis promised to reestablish Germany as a European economic and military powerhouse as well as resist the threat of Communism and take action to solve the so-called “Jewish problem.”

302b65f413537ffe84d13f6a7fa280fdIn regard to the “Jewish problem,” Adolf Hitler realized that anti-Semitism could be a vehicle for attracting public support, because there was much sentiment in German culture that was congruent with Nazi claims about Jews. I addressed this cultural background in an earlier Wise Guys article on “Bernie Sanders and the Jewish Question” and will not revisit it here. But I will note Hitler’s observation, made in 1922, when he said, “I scanned the revolutionary events of history and … [asked] myself: against which racial element in Germany can I unleash my propaganda of hate with the greatest prospects of success? … I came to the conclusion that a campaign against the Jews would be as popular as it would be successful.”

It was not always (or even usually) anti-Semitism, however, that was the Nazi’s most effective theme in garnering popular support. At various times and with different audiences appeals to German nationalism, opposition to Communism, and proposed solutions to economic problems were more attractive issues. Nevertheless, the Nazi’s vehement anti-Semitism was well known, and supporters were at best not bothered by this stance.

Sociologist Richard Hamilton suggests that the Nazis’ rise to power was not inevitable, not structurally determined, for “widely varying developments may occur within the same structural frameworks.” Other political parties did not offer attractive alternatives to deal with Germany’s problems, and the Nazis seized upon political opportunities that created an opening or historical contingency for change. They were able to “generate a plausible program and … mobilize cadres to sell it.”

The Nazi Party.  The German Workers’ Party (GWP), later named the National Socialist Workers Party (NSWP), or Nazi Party, was founded in 1918. It was but one of many right-wing nationalist parties that existed in Germany in the post-World War I period. The Party’s initial financial sponsor was the Thule Society, a secret organization that took its name from an ancient legend of a mythological land of the north that was believed to be the original home of the Germanic race. Among the group’s members were wealthy businessmen, aristocrats, lawyers, judges, university professors, scientists, and police officials.

Hitler was an early Party member and provided the leadership and inspiration that transformed it from a rather inchoate group of beer brawlers to a potent political force. He gained notoriety as an exceptional orator who could mesmerize audiences.

Adolf Hitler

A social movement’s success is in large part dependent on the development of a movement culture that links members’ personal identities to broader political objectives. Indeed, Hitler had a keen appreciation for the role of symbols and a celebratory atmosphere in creating a sense of belonging among adherents. He adopted the swastika, an ancient occult symbol that invoked the power of the sun, as the Party’s official insignia; and this emblem was displayed on flags and members’ uniforms during rallies and parades. Hitler also introduced the heil salute. The word heil in German had a religious-medical connotation that meant “healed” or “saved” and was historically reserved for dignitaries like princes.

In 1920 Hitler changed the name of the GWP to the NSWP, a change that was calculated to evoke positive feelings among seemingly incompatible constituencies: nationalists and socialists. According to historian Klaus Fischer, Hitler saw “national socialism” as a symbolic slogan that could unify diverse ideological orientations under one banner. Socialism, for Hitler, did not refer “to a specific economic system but to an instinct for national self-preservation” and the promotion of “a homogenous and prosperous whole” over private interests. German nationals living outside German territorial borders (primarily in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland) were to be included in this vision, while immigrants and Jews who lived in Germany were not. However, it was nationalism, not anti-Semitism per se, that was the issue that attracted most new members. Anti-Semitism was such a pervasive and taken-for-granted part of German culture and political discourse that Party leaders viewed it as a weak recruiting device for distinguishing themselves from other political groups.

Storm Troops

In the early 1920s Hitler thought that the Weimar Republic, the democratic-constitutional government that had been established after World War I, could be overthrown through armed resurrection rather than through the electoral process. Thus the Nazi Sturmabteilung, or Storm Troops, also known as the SA, became central to his strategy. First established under the auspices of a gymnastic and sport division of the Party, the SA became the armed force of the movement. Hitler sensed that the SA could be used not only to intimidate opponents but to draw new members. According to Fischer, his “immediate aim was to attract recruits with military backgrounds.” Indeed, the early Nazi rank-and-file was composed largely of “bands of World War I veterans who were unable to give up fighting and adjust to civilian life … [and] young people … attracted to a group that offered adventure in secret meetings, parades, the painting of slogans on buildings, and fighting with opponents.”

Nonetheless, by 1923 the Nazi Party (with a membership of about 55,000) attracted Germans from all social strata. Thirty-six percent were working class, 52 percent were lower-middle class, and 12 percent were upper class. By the latter half of the 1920s, the Party had more socioeconomic breadth than any other party of the far political right or left.

Raising Money from the Elite.  The Nazi Party, like other social movements, required financial resources to sustain its activities. In addition to the Thule Society and right-wing military organizations, early contributors were anti-Communist Russian oil producers living in Germany in exile who hoped to overthrow Joseph Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union with German help. Two key German industrialists, Ernst von Borsig and Fritz Thyssen, also contributed money. Borsig, who made his fortune manufacturing locomotives, boilers, and heavy industrial equipment, was the chairman of the Alliance of German Employers’ Association. Thyssen was at that time the “heir-in-waiting” to the fortune built by his industrialist father, which included the largest shareholdings of United Steel Works. In many cases the contributions secured from the elite were not in the form of cash but of valuable art objects and jewelry, which Hitler used as collateral to obtain loans.

HenryQuotesTemplate-600In addition, the Party solicited money from beyond German borders. Hitler himself went on several fund-raising tours in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Switzerland. Wealthy British oilman Sir Henri Deterding also contributed money, and there is evidence that the U.S. automobile magnate Henry Ford made contributions as well. Ford shared Hitler’s anti-Semitic and anti-Communist views. In the United States he financed anti-Semitic propaganda, including the Independent newspaper, which had a circulation of a half million by the mid-1920s. In the early 1920s reprints of anti-Semitic articles that appeared in the Independent were published in a four-volume compilation called The International Jew, which was translated into 16 languages and published throughout the world. In his book Mein Kampf  (My Struggle), Hitler specifically praised Ford for his views and appears to have taken passages from it.

Appealing to Voters and Acquiring Power.  In November 1923 Hitler led a failed putsch (coup) against the Weimar government in the city of Munich. The idea of a coup at that time was not novel. The Communists in Russia and Mussolini’s fascists in Italy had risen to power this way in November 1917 and October 1922, respectively. And in Germany there had been other attempted takeovers, albeit unsuccessful ones.

Hitler was convicted of treason and sentenced to five years in prison, although he served little more than a year, and it was while he was incarcerated that he wrote Mein Kampf. Upon his release, Hitler became more interested in an electoral strategy for gaining power, but the Party was still a membership organization without an electorate.

Following the Nazis’ electoral failure in May 1928, in which the Party received only 2.6 percent of the Reichstag (German parliament) vote, Hitler decided to reorganize the party into regions that corresponded to national election precincts. He gave the regional leaders greater flexibility to plan their operations and shift strategies if necessary to respond to local conditions. In turn, the regions were subdivided into districts, local groups, cells, and blocks.

41ce48adc4a106ab80ee6508c9ef81e5The Party also established the Reich Propaganda Office, under the direction of Joseph Goebbels, and a public speakers’ program, the National Socialist Speakers School, to train members in rhetorical and propaganda techniques. Rallies with featured speakers were held, with an emphasis on making the gatherings entertaining. Appeals were made to the need to restore traditional communal values shared by a common German Volk, and Jews were blamed for the country’s problems. In some venues, however, appeals to anti-Semitism were deemed less effective with particular audiences and were replaced by references to other issues.

At the same time, other political parties did little to effectively repel the Nazi challenge. On the left, for example, the Communists tried to transform workers’ discontents into more radical actions against the state. But workers did not respond favorably when the Communists tried to turn wage strikes intended as short-term events with specific, immediate goals into protracted struggles that would keep them off the job for a longer period of time. Workers also were turned off when the Communists attacked both fascism and democracy as if both were both forms of government that did not have the workers’ interests at heart. Political parties on the right, on the other hand, became more extreme in their attacks on the Weimar Republic, making the Nazis appear more mainstream.

As a consequence of all this, the Nazis’ public standing improved, and in September 1930 the Party received 18.3 percent of the Reichstag vote, an eightfold increase from the 1928 election. Moreover, total party membership rose to 389,000. Only the leftist Social Democrats now had more members than the Nazis in parliament. The Weimar Republic was in increasing disarray, and it became difficult to maintain stable political coalitions to run the government. Repeated elections were held, and in July 1932 the Nazis received 37.3 percent of the vote and Party membership rose to 450,000. Although the Nazi vote declined to 33.1 percent in November 1932, Hitler had emerged as one of the leading political leaders in Germany.

Paul von Hindenburg and Hitler

At that time, the only politician of Hitler’s public stature was the aging General Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg. Hindenburg had been president of Germany since 1925, and as president he was the chief dignitary of the country and the military commander-in-chief. He also retained the power to appoint the Reichstag chancellor to run the government. After the November 1932 election, Hindenburg selected General Kurt von Schleicher to replace Franz von Papen as chancellor. Previously, von Schleicher had supported von Papen, but now he wanted his job. In January 1933, however, von Papen persuaded Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as chancellor with von Papen as vice chancellor. Von Papen managed to convince Hindenburg that Hitler could be co-opted and his radical impulses controlled. Von Papen, of course, was wrong.

The Weimar Constitution provided for the suspension of parliament and civil liberties in cases of national emergencies. Indeed, von Papen had invoked this power before, and Hitler got Hindenburg to agree to disband parliament for seven weeks and hold new elections in March 1933. In that period Hitler also convinced Hindenburg to issue an emergency decree directed at the Communists, which curtailed freedom of the press and outlawed public meetings of oppositional groups. In March 1933 the Nazi Party received 43.9 percent of the Reichstag vote.

Hitler immediately pressed for the passage of the Enabling Act, also called the Law for the Relief of the Distress of the Nation and State, which would give him the power to issue laws without the Reichstag’s approval for a period of four yours. The Enabling Act was passed on March 24 with 83 percent of the Reichstag vote. Hitler then proceeded to suppress all other opposition, eliminate trade unions and other political parties, and turn Germany into a one-party state. When Hindenburg died the next year on August 2, 1934, Hitler merged the offices of the chancellor and president and became the singular ruler, the Führer of the German Reich.

 Implementation of Anti-Jewish Policies

After the war, a German architect shared his thoughts about what had transpired in Nazi Germany vis-à-vis the Jews with sociologist Everett Hughes:

Jews, were a problem. They came from the east. You should [have seen] them in Poland; the lowest class of people, full of lice, dirty and poor, running about in their Ghettos in filthy caftans. They came here, and got rich by unbelievable methods after the first war. They occupied all the good places … in medicine and law and government posts! … [What the Nazis did] of course … was no way to settle the problem. But there was a problem and it had to be settled some way.

To be sure, a policy of extermination was not what this architect and other Germans had in mind as a solution to the “Jewish problem.” But the legal disenfranchisement and eventual compulsory deportation of German Jews was an entirely different matter. In an earlier Wise Guys article on “Christianity and Nazi Germany” I wrote about the acquiescence, and in some cases collaboration, of the Christian churches. I will not repeat that discussion here, but rather review other ways in which the German population was complicit with Nazism.

jewish-refugees-feature-heroAfter acquiring political power and taking control of the German state, the Nazis were in a position to develop and implement specific policies against the Jews. The solutions they adopted evolved through progressively radical (though overlapping) stages before culminating in the Final Solution of extermination, which began in the latter half of 1941. But only with the Final Solution were the Nazis truly inventive, for at first they employed policies that were quite consistent with historical precedents—for instance, the laws requiring Jews to wear badges or specially marked clothing and live in compulsory ghettos, as well as the laws prohibiting Jews from holding public office, practicing law and medicine, attending institutions of higher education, and marrying or having sexual relations with Christians.

Although Hitler and other Nazi officials sometimes encouraged hooliganism and random violence against Jews, they preferred a more systematic, legal approach in order to acquire and maintain public support for their policies. All told, they issued more than 2,000 legal decrees against the Jews that restricted their rights of citizenship and eventually their right to live.

Among the most influential new agencies created by the Nazis were the Schutzstaffel, or SS, and the Geheimes Staatspolizei, or Gestapo. The SS was initially created for the purpose of protecting Hitler and other Nazis leaders but evolved into an organization whose functions included surveillance and intelligence gathering, mobile military units that killed civilians, and operation of the concentration camps. The Gestapo was the national policing agency that handled political offenses, including Jewish matters.

The Nazis placed anti-Semitic ideologues and specialists in Jewish affairs into key positions in the SS, Gestapo, and other organizations such as the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. In large part, however, they relied upon the pre-Nazi bureaucratic apparatus, whose occupants tended to favor the “racial dissimilation” of Jews and who often acted as if they were engaged in the most ordinary operations, following orders and performing routine tasks. Indeed, many of the bureaucrats of the Nazi regime were bright, ambitious university (especially law) graduates who sought successful administrative careers and understood that power and influence would come to those who cooperated with anti-Jewish policies. They played an indispensable role in drafting legal decrees, maintaining files on Jews, investigating disputes about individuals’ Jewish status, prosecuting and convicting Jews in stacked courts of law, expropriating Jewish property, segregating the Jewish population, deporting Jews to concentration (including extermination) camps, and even killing innocent people. They helped direct unsystematic Nazi violence into legal channels, hence sanitizing and legitimating anti-Jewish policies.

These bureaucrats competed with each other to expand their organizational domains and sought their superiors’ favor by pursuing and attempting to anticipate their wishes. Initially working without a blueprint for the Final Solution, they often improvised policies to operationalize rather vague Nazi goals. Practically speaking, as political scientist Raul Hilberg observes, the Final Solution could not have been accomplished “if everyone … had to wait for instructions,” and it was this bureaucratic initiative that “eventually brought about the existence of experts accustomed to dealing with Jewish matters.”

The Role of the German Citizenry.  One of the ways in which ordinary German citizens played a role in the persecution of Jews was by identifying Jews who were trying to hide or disguise themselves to Nazi authorities. For example, under the so-called Nuremberg Laws that were passed in 1935, Jews were required to register with the authorities and otherwise identify themselves with special cards and insignias on their clothing. They also were prohibited from “racial mixing,” and especially sexual contact, with Germans. But it was the general population, rather than Nazi officials, who posed the most danger of detection. As Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich told Hermann Göring, Hitler’s second-in-command, in 1938, “The control of the Jew through the watchful eye of the whole population is better than having … a control of his daily life through uniformed agents.”

In many respects, anti-Jewish law enforcement operated much like contemporary, conventional law enforcement, where the majority of police interventions occur in response to citizen reports. During the Nazi period, the Gestapo was the policing agency that had primary jurisdiction over violations of anti-Jewish laws. Although the Gestapo was undoubtedly a brutal, repressive organization, it lacked the personnel resources to exercise effective surveillance over the population. Historian Eric Johnson estimates that in the cities there averaged only about one Gestapo officer for every 10,000 to 15,000 citizens; and in the countryside there were next to none. Thus “the perceived omnipresence of the Gestapo was not due to large numbers of Gestapo officials” but to the omnipresence eyes of the citizenry.

Nazi-Boycott-1933-2The Expropriation of Jewish Assets.  The Nazi campaign against the Jews, though driven by racial ideology, was marked by myriad opportunities for self-enrichment through the plundering of Jewish assets in Germany and throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Arisierung, or Aryanization, was the term the Nazis used to denote policies aimed at transferring Jewish-owned businesses to “Aryan” (i.e., German) ownership. In the early years, from 1933-1938, Aryanization took the form of unsystematic “voluntary” sales of Jewish property. The Nazis organized boycotts of Jewish businesses and harassed and intimated merchants, sometimes violently. They tried to make conditions so bad for Jews that they would simply choose to sell their property and emigrate. For Jews who decided to leave, however, the prices they received were far below market value, and many Germans prospered from the bargains.

Although few of the approximately 100,000 Jewish businesses in Germany were of sufficient size or importance to attract the interest of major companies, some were. Historian Peter Hayes notes that at first the larger German firms tended to offer Jews a better price than the smaller ones, but this was not always the case, and by 1938 many of the largest German companies “plunged into the scramble for the spoils.”

The banking industry was at the forefront of the feeding frenzy, with Dresdner Bank setting what Hayes calls “the standard for rapacity.” Some German bankers contended that failure to take advantage of Aryanization would make them uncompetitive and leave them open to charges of failing to protect their stockholders’ and depositors’ interests. In early 1938 Deutsche Bank headquarters urged its regional offices that “it is very important that the new business possibilities arising in connection with the changeover of non-Aryan firms be exploited.” To be sure, there were risks involved in taking over Jewish enterprises that were unprofitable or laden with debt. Nevertheless, according to historian Harold James, the banking industry (especially Dresdner Bank) played “an active role in brokering deals, finding buyers and sellers, and [providing] the financing for purchases and acquisitions.” In addition, the banks began trading Aryanized securities around the world—in New York, London, Zurich, and other financial centers.

As early as 1935, German Minister of Economics Hjalmar Schacht realized that the government was losing out on the profits of Aryanization, so he initiated a variety of taxes and transfer charges to ensure that more of the capital gain would go directly to the state. And after the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938, Aryanization moved into its second stage.

While most of the Nazi leadership was pleased with the destruction of Jewish property that took place during Kristallnacht, Göring was concerned that too much property the Nazis could have otherwise seized was destroyed. To make the pogrom more profitable, he ordered an “atonement tax” to be paid by every Jew who owned assets of more than 5,000 marks, an amount that yielded 1.25 billion marks. In addition, 250 million marks of insurance payments that were due to the Jews who lost their property during the pogrom were confiscated. Göring also ordered the compulsory Aryanization of the economy, requiring the closure of all Jewish businesses and the “sale” of Jewish property and valuable possessions (through government-appointed fiduciaries) at a fraction of their market value.

The Role of Corporations.  Hitler was well aware that he needed the support of big business for reviving the economy and for building and maintaining his war machinery. Initially, corporate leaders were not enthusiastic about the Nazis rise to power, and they were concerned about the state’s interference with the market economy. Nevertheless, they understood that their profits depended upon their willingness to cooperate with the regime.

Hermann Göring

Hitler permitted Göring to assume virtual dictatorial control over the economy and, according to Fischer, Göring “alternately cajoled and bullied big business into expanding factories … [that produced] synthetic rubber, textiles, fuel, and other scarce products.” He placed restrictions on imports and exports, initiated wage and price controls, and demanded that profits be limited and used for a firm’s expansion and for buying government bonds to help finance the military build-up. In 1937, after industrialists found it unprofitable to invest in the conversion of low-grade iron ore to steel, Göring established the Reichswerke Hermann Göring, or Göring Reichs Works (GRW). GRW was primarily a state-owned enterprise, with the government financing 70 percent of its operations (with help from Dresdner Bank loans) and the private sector financing the rest. It soon became a huge industrial complex, employing some 700,000 workers, nearly 60 percent of whom were slave laborers. In the process Göring acquired a large personal fortune.

In addition, the SS-owned Wirtschafts-Verwaltunghauptamt (WVHA), or Economic-Administrative Main Office, operated a vast array of business enterprises that exploited slave labor. The WVHA also profited from generous low interest loans from Dresdner Bank and the Reichsbank (German state bank) and from the expropriation of valuables taken from concentration camp victims. SS leader Heinrich Himmler and Oswald Pohl, who headed the WVHA, were the principal shareholders of most of the SS companies. It was Himmler’s intention to make the SS profitable enough to become a financially independent empire, and both he and Pohl had extensive access to the funds and used them as they saw fit.

Himmler also personally profited from the leasing of concentration-camp laborers to private corporations. He had been trying to attract corporate interest in this idea since 1935, when a contingent of industrialists visited Dachau. Although corporate officials were at first reluctant to do this, the war depleted the available labor pool and thus made Himmler’s offer more attractive. As Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss recalled:

Prisoners were sent to enterprises only after the enterprises had made a request. … In their letters of request the enterprises had to state in detail which measures had been taken by them, even before the arrival of the prisoners, to guard them, to quarter them, etc. I visited officially many such establishments to verify such statements. … The enterprises did not have to submit reports on causes of death. … I was constantly told by executives … that they want more prisoners.

As more and more firms pursued this labor policy, the competition for camp workers intensified. By mid-1942 the SS had become a major provider of slave labor for virtually every important sector of the economy. As time went on, the treatment of these workers became more ruthless, and many were either worked to death or sent to concentration camps to be gassed.


Arguably the most notable collaboration between the SS and private industry involved IG Farben, a huge chemical conglomerate whose subsidiaries included Bayer and Degesch. IG Farben, the largest corporation in Europe and the biggest chemical firm in the world, produced products such as synthetic oil and gasoline, synthetic rubber, explosives, plasticizers, dyestuffs, and even the Zyklon B gas that was used in gas chambers. Carl Krauch, a senior IG Farben executive, also served as Göring’s Plenipotentiary General for Chemical Production. In this latter capacity Krauch was charged with procuring Germany’s chemical needs, a sphere that included fuel, explosives, and light metals. Eventually IG Farben became the government’s main supplier of these materials, especially during the war years, and operated more than 330 plants and mines across Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. Nearly 40 percent of its workforce consisted of slaves.

IG Farben’s most infamous operation was the synthetic oil and rubber plant that the SS contracted to run at the Monowitz subsidiary of the Auschwitz concentration camp. IG Farben officials had been attracted to this location because of its ample coal and water supply and convenient access to highway and rail facilities. There was of course a ready-made supply of concentration-camp laborers. Hayes notes that the company had decided on this location before the Final Solution and its interest in the site “contributed mightily to [Auschwitz’s] expansion and … eventual evolution into a manufacturer of death.”

IG Farben was not the only German corporation to provide Zyklon B or aid in the extermination program in other ways. For example, J.A. Topf und Söhne, a manufacturer of ovens and incinerators, was contracted by the SS to help design and construct larger gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Topf provided the special multiple-muffle ovens that could accommodate more bodies. And AEG, a major electrical equipment company, helped design and install the electrical system that was used in the new buildings.

Finally, it is worth noting the complicity of foreign corporations, including U.S. corporations, which had major investments in Nazi Germany. Anaconda, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Goodrich, International Business Machines, International Harvester, International Telephone and Telegraph, Standard Oil of New Jersey, Texaco, and the United Fruit Company were among them. Some of these companies invested heavily in German military vehicle and weapons production, operated German subsidiaries during the war years, and even had joint investments with German corporations that exploited concentration-camp labor and profited from the plunder of Jewish property.

The Role of the Railways.  Another way in which ordinary Germans were complicit in the Final Solution was through the operation of the railways that sent Jews to the death camps. The Reichsbahn, or German State Railways, was a large administrative unit housed in the Ministry of Transportation that employed about 1.4 million personnel who serviced both civilian and military transportation needs. All told, the Reichsbahn used about 2,000 trains to transport Jews to death camps and other locations where they were killed.

03Bureaucrats in the Reichsbahn performed important functions that facilitated the movement of trains. They constructed and published timetables, collected fares, and allocated cars and locomotives. In sending Jews to their death, they did not deviate much from the routine procedures they used to process ordinary train traffic. As Hilberg explains, the Reichsbahn was willing to ship Jews as if they were like any other cargo as long as it was paid for its services by the track kilometer, with “children under ten going half-fare and children under four going free.” While the guards on the train required a round-trip fare, the Jews only had to be paid for one way. The party responsible for payment was the Gestapo, which had no separate budget for its transportation needs. However, the proceeds from the Jews’ confiscated property were usually enough to cover the costs if the Gestapo received group rates. According to Hilberg:

The Jews were … shipped in much the same way [as] any excursion group … granted a special fare if there were enough people traveling. The minimum was four hundred. … So even if there were fewer … it would pay to say there were four hundred … [to] get the half-fare. … If there [was] exceptional filth in the cars … [or] damage to the equipment, which might be the case because the transports took so long and because five to ten percent of the prisoners died en route, there might be an additional bill for that damage.

Walter Stier, a bureaucrat who booked Jews on transports to the Treblinka extermination camp, told filmmaker Claude Lanzmann that his job was “barely different” from any other work. Although he denied that he knew Treblinka was a death camp, Stier admitted that “without me these trains couldn’t reach their destination.” For him, Treblinka was nothing but a destination, a place where people were “put up.” As he said, “I never went to Treblinka. I stayed in Krakow, in Warsaw, glued to my desk. … I was strictly a bureaucrat!”

The Wehrmacht and Order Police.  Although the SS Einsatsgruppen, or Special Action Squads, were the first German troops that were deployed for the mass murder of civilians, they were substantially assisted by the Wehrmacht, the regular German army. The Wehrmacht not only permitted the Einsatsgruppen to operate in the eastern territories under its control, but it also turned Jews over to them and even engaged in mass killings themselves. In fact, historian Omer Bartov notes that Wehrmacht troops were directly “involved in widespread crimes against enemy soldiers and the civilian population, acting both on orders by their superiors and in many instances … on their own initiative.”

The Ordungspolizei, or Order Police (OP), was also involved in the mass killing of Jews. The OP was established in 1936 when the entire policing system (including the Gestapo) was reorganized on a national basis under Himmler’s control as Chief of the German Police. Under the command of Kurt Daluege, who had risen through the ranks of the SS, the OP consisted of both stationary and mobile formations that were initially intended to carry out ordinary civilian police functions. They were organized into battalions and reserve units, much like the U.S. National Guard, and those who enlisted in it were exempt from military conscription. The OP grew from about 131,000 troops on the eve of World War II to about 310,000 by 1943.

Whereas the Einsatsgruppen was a select group of Nazis who received special training for deployment in the killing of civilians, what is noteworthy about the OP is that they consisted of men who, in political scientist Daniel Goldhagen’s words, “were not particularly Nazified” in any significant way except that “they were, loosely speaking, representative of the Nazified German society.” While Daluege was a dedicated SS man, only a fifth of the OP officers were SS, and a third were not even Nazi Party members. Among the rank-and-file, only a fourth were Nazi Party members and none were SS. The rank-and-file were older than the average military recruit (especially the reserves, who constituted about 42 percent of the troops), and many were thus socialized in the pre-Nazi era. According to historian Christopher Browning, they “were men who had known political standards and moral norms other than those of the Nazis … [and] would not seem to have been a very promising group from which to recruit mass murderers on behalf of the Nazi vision of a racial utopia free of Jews.”

Some OP had participated in the civilian killings that began with the invasion of Poland in 1939, but they were used to a greater extent during the invasion of Soviet territory in 1941. Himmler in particular was aware that the execution of civilians would be difficult for these men. Thus at first the men were told that they were eliminating anti-German resisters, saboteurs, and looters; and the victims were limited to male Jews between the ages of 17 and 45. However, according to historian Richard Breitman, Himmler reasoned that “once they carried out mass murder in response to an alleged crime or provocation, it would be easier to get them to follow broader killing orders” and later kill men, women, and children of all ages.

Himmler was right, for few men refused to participate. There is no evidence of significant dissent among the troops or of significant punishment for those few who were unwilling or unable to kill. Nevertheless, as Himmler had expected, many of the men had difficulty coping with their task. They were instructed to position their rifles on the victim’s backbone just above the shoulder blade in order to make a “clean” shot. But they did not always shoot their victims properly; and blood, bone, and tissue were splattered all over the ground and on the men’s faces and clothes. Killing people one to one, face to face, can indeed be a messy business. Alcohol was passed out to dull the men’s anxiety. Most of the men who quit shooting appear to have done so more because they were physically repulsed and less because they thought what they were doing was wrong. After the war, one OP participant described the range of reactions this way: “When I am asked about the mood of [my] comrades, … I must say that I … observed nothing special, that is the mood was not especially bad. Many said that they never again wanted to experience something like that in their entire lives, while … others were content with saying an order is an order. With that the matter was settled for them.”

1_1_1Other OP shooters were notably enthusiastic about their work. One man observed that “with few exceptions, [they were] quite happy to take part in shootings of Jews.” Some even improvised special humiliations, for instance, making the Jews run a gauntlet and beating them before they were killed, or making the Jews strip naked and crawl to the mass graves that awaited them. Some took souvenir photos that they sent home to their wives and girlfriends. At night the men would celebrate and make jokes about their actions or keep scores on the number of kill. When “Jew hunts,” or Judenjagd as they were called, were organized to track down Jews who had fled into the forest, more men volunteered than was necessary for the job. According to Goldhagen, in German the term Judenjagd has a positive valence insofar as jagd suggests “a pleasurable pursuit, rich in adventure, involving no danger to the hunter, … its reward … a record of animals slain.”

To relieve the OP of its more gruesome duties, the Nazis increasingly relied on SS-trained, Ukrainian, Latvian, and Lithuanian prisoners of war to do the actual killing. Browning notes that these men, who were screened for their anti-Communist and anti-Semitic sentiments, were “offered an escape from probable starvation, and promised … they would not be used in combat against the Soviet army.” This enabled the OP to be deployed mostly as “ghetto clearers” who rounded up Jews for deportation or delivered Jews to others who did the killing. After their earlier experiences, this type of work seem relatively innocuous to the men.


In this article I have illustrated ways in which ordinary people were complicit in the scourge of German Nazism. It is not, unfortunately, an exhaustive account, because more could be said about this complicity. School teachers, for example, taught Nazi racial “science” to children; and medical doctors were an integral part of the extermination program. To be sure, the Nazis exercised considerable control over the social institutions that they used for propaganda and indoctrination purposes and that helped build broad popular support for their policies. And of course the regime dealt ruthlessly with those who opposed it in any meaningful way. Nevertheless, outside of Germany’s defeat in the war, many Germans subjectively experienced the Nazi period as an empowering era. As one citizen recalled, “To be honest … I wasn’t really against the Nazis at that particular time. I often found their methods appalling … [but the] truth is, all that business about the ‘unity of the German people’ and the ‘national rebirth,’ really impressed me.” Another person remembered the 1930s this way: “Of course later on we found out that mistakes had been made, that certain things happened that shouldn’t have. But [Hitler] … really did accomplish the impossible! Millions of desperate people found new happiness, got decent jobs, and could face the future once more without fear.”

Thus after the war many Germans interpreted the Final Solution not as an abomination for which they should be held responsible, but as a “mistake” made by a few bad Nazis. In his study of German public opinion during the Nazi era, historian David Bankier concluded that “on the whole the population consented to attacks on Jews as long as these neither damaged non-Jews nor harmed the interests of the country, particularly its reputation abroad.” It is arguably true that the average German citizen never expected things to go as far as they did, but after all, as the architect told Everett Hughes, “the Jews … were a problem … [that] had to be settled some way.”


David Bankier, The Germans and the Final Solution: Public Opinion Under Nazism (Oxford University Press, 1992).

Omer Bartov, Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich (Oxford University Press, 1992).

Ronald J. Berger, The Holocaust, Religion, and the Politics of Collective Memory: Beyond Sociology (Transaction, 2011).

Richard Breitman, Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew (Hill and Wang, 1998).

Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (HarperPerrenial, 1992).

Klaus Fischer, Nazi Germany: A New History (Continuum, 1995).

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (Knopf, 1996).

Richard F. Hamilton, Who Voted for Hitler? (Princeton University Press, 1982).

Peter Hayes, Industry and Ideology: IG Farben in the Nazi Era (Cambridge University Press, 1987).

Raul Hilberg, “The Bureaucracy of Annihilation,” in Unanswered Questions: Nazi Germany and the Genocide of the Jews, ed. Francois Furet (Schocken, 1989).

Everett C. Hughes, “Good People and Dirty Work,” Social Problems, vol. 10, no. 1 (1962).

Harold James, The Deutsche Bank and the Nazi Economic War Against the Jews (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Eric A. Johnson, Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews, and Ordinary Germans (Basic Books, 1999).

Claude Lanzmann, Shoah: An Oral History of the Holocaust (Pantheon, 1985).

4 thoughts on “German Nazism and the Complicity of Ordinary People

  1. Very interesting. There are not many questions more important than what makes evil take hold among otherwise normal human beings.

    Among my thoughts as I read this: I watched an “American Experience” episode the other day that dealt with the Oklahoma City bombing (
    It followed the American white supremacist movement as it morphed from disorganized angry guys to the extreme violence we saw in Oklahoma City.

    There are certain elements in human nature that are always operational, in everyone, like the tunnel vision we get at work when given our assignment in a larger project, such as sitting in Berlin arranging one-way group train tickets for Jews in Poland, or sitting in Kansas targeting drones in Afghanistan. But the real extremists—the kind of guys who participate in things like Oklahoma City or Kristallnacht—are a special breed.

    As I listened to the interviews on American Experience, I was struck with the intense fear these guys seemed to live with, every minute of every day, and that the fear seems to have existed before they chose their targets.

    For example, Randy Weaver of Ruby Ridge fame, seems to have started out as a regular Iowa family guy, except for an intense fear of crime, drugs, and sinful influences on his kids. This fear drove him to move his family to Idaho—before he’d been introduced to the white nationalist movement. It was only after he met his new neighbors that really started to identify as a white nationalist.

    I have a sense that trying to get these people to admit the ‘sinfulness’ of hating other groups is dealing a bit with the symptom rather than the cause. If we could figure out what makes authoritarian followers so damned scared all the time, we might be able to immunize them more against the siren song of people like Hitler and Trump who know how to use that fear to control them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. For over a year, from 1945 into ’46 prior to & during the opening weeks of the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, American psychiatrist Douglas Kelley attended to the mental & emotional status of the major 22 Nazi officers & officials being held for trial. During this extended period, Kelley established a rapport with nearly every one of them, eventually engaging in extended conversations which revealed much about them as individuals & as to their roles in serving the Third Reich. He was also able to conduct batteries of varied psychological testing, reaching conclusions which he (& other psychiatrists reviewing the results) considered valid & consistent with accumulated interview & observational information.

    The author of “The Nazi & the Psychiatrist” (2013), Jack El-Hai, writes that Kelley initially “arrived eager to probe the prisoners for signs of a flaw common to Nazi leaders: the willingness to commit evil acts. Did they share a mental disorder or a psychiatric cause for their behavior? Was there a ‘Nazi personality’ that accounted for their heinous misdeeds?”

    Kelley himself stressed, “The devastation of Europe, the deaths of millions, the near-destruction of modern culture will have gone for naught if we do not draw the right conclusions about the forces which produced such chaos. We must learn the why of the Nazi success so we can take steps to prevent the recurrence of such evil.”

    In a nutshell, the central conclusions Kelley’s experience evidenced were that when one has arrived at deeply held beliefs concerning one’s nation, and one commits to serving its values & causes, one is capable of virtually any act that nation asks be done. This reality is not rationalized; it becomes internalized & a “normal” and acceptable mode of thinking and acting. (See the Lawrence LeShan portions in my previous WiseGuys posting.)

    On the May 7, 2017 edition of “60 Minutes,” Lesley Stahl asked Ben Ferencz (at age 97, the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor), who compiled documentation of hundreds of thousands of murders, slaughterings, & other atrocities in Eastern European countries, if he thought these Nazis were a breed of “monsters.” He adamently said NO, that they were basically average, common men who came to accept their role in carrying out a nationalistic policy. In essence, his reflections on & conclusions about who finds it acceptable to commit evil acts concurs with Kelley & LeShan — & probably many who study human behavior. Ron’s thorough accounting overwhelmingly reiterates & reinforces the sad reality that, given the enabling circumstances, in particular the modern tribalism called nationalism, humans are very much capable of unspeakable acts.

    So, where does all this leave us . . . ?

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  3. I thought I’d add Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” into the mix. Arendt advanced the idea of the “banality of evil” in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), a report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann held in Israel in 1961. Eichmann, a former traveling salesman, was the leading Nazi expert on Jewish affairs and a key engineer of the Final Solution. Psychiatrists at the trial remarked that he seemed clinically well-adjusted and had positive relationships with family and friends. Eichmann denied that he held any ill-feeling toward Jews and claimed that he joined the Nazi Party to further his career, not to pursue an anti-Semitic ideological objective, representing himself as a man who, as Hans Askenasy remarked, “would have done the same job if he had been ordered to kill all men whose name began with P or B, or all who had red hair.” However, this characterization misrepresents Eichmann’s ideological fanaticism, in Inga Clendinnen’s words, “his obsessive determination to hunt down and destroy every last Jew he could get his hands on, even when, as the tide of war turned, both the time and power to do so were deserting him.” In my work I have appropriated the “banality of evil” concept less as a psychological construct that describes the state of mind of the perpetrators and more as a sociological construct that highlights the role of ordinary people and the organizational and institutional mechanisms of annihilation, as suggested in my “German Nazism and the Complicity of Ordinary People” article, which is more fully explicated in my book that is cited in the reference section of the article..


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