The Dark Continent Hitler's European Holocaust Helpers


Part 2: Many Foreign Perpetrators Acted Voluntarily

There is no final verdict yet on the European dimension of the Holocaust. The French and Italians started late -- when most of the perpetrators were already dead -- to deal comprehensively with this part of their history. Others, such as the Ukrainians and Lithuanians, are still dragging their feet; or they have only just begun, like Romania, Hungary and Poland.

Since 1945 the countries invaded and ravaged by Hitler's armies have seen themselves as victims -- which they doubtless were, with their vast numbers of dead. That makes it all the more painful to concede that many compatriots aided the German perpetrators.

In Latvia, local assistance was greater than anywhere else. According to the American historian Raul Hilberg, the Latvians had the highest proportion of Nazi helpers. The Danes are at the other end of the scale. When the deportation of Denmark's Jews was about to begin in 1943, large parts of the population helped Jews to escape to Sweden or hid them. Some 98 percent of Denmark's 7,500 Jews survived World War II. By contrast, only nine percent of the Dutch Jews survived.

Does the Holocaust represent the low point not only of German history, but of European history as well, as historian Aly argues?

There is evidence challenging the widely-held notion that foreign perpetrators were forced to help the Germans commit murder. It's true that local helpers risked their lives by refusing to assist the German occupiers. That applied to the police units and civil servants in occupied Western Europe as much as it did to newly-formed auxiliary police in the east. But it's also true that in many places people volunteered to serve the Germans or participated in crimes without being forced to.

The Holocaust in numbers.

The Holocaust in numbers.

There is also the often-repeated claim that the governments of countries allied with Hitler had no choice but to hand over Jewish citizens to the Germans. That's not true either. The Balkan countries in particular quickly understood how important the "solution to the Jewish Question" was to Hitler and his diplomats -- and they tried to extract the highest possible price for their complicity.

There's also reason to doubt the assumption that the helpers were pathological sadists. If that were true, they should be easy to identify, for example within the group of 50 Lithuanians who served under the command of SS Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) Joachim Hamann. The men would drive around the villages up to five times a week to murder Jews, and ended up killing 60,000 people. It only took a few crates of Vodka to get them in the mood. In the evenings the troop would return to Kaunas and boast of their crimes in the mess hall.

None of the Lithuanians had been criminals before. They were "totally and utterly normal," believes historian Knut Stang. Almost everywhere after the war, the murderers returned to their ordinary lives as if nothing had happened. Demjanjuk too was a law-abiding citizen. In Cleveland, Ohio, where he lived, he was regarded as good colleague and a friendly neighbor.

It's the same as with the German perpetrators. There's no identifiable type of killer -- that's a particularly disturbing conclusion reached by historians. The murderers included Catholics and Protestants, hot-blooded southern Europeans and cool Balts, obsessive right-wing extremists or unfeeling bureaucrats, refined academics or violent rednecks.

Among them was Viktor Arajs (1910-1988), a learned lawyer from a Latvian farming family who commanded a unit of more than 1,000 men that murdered its way around Eastern Europe on behalf of the Nazis. Or the Romanian Generaru, son of a general and commander of the ghetto in Bersad in Ukraine, who had one of his victims tied to a motorbike and dragged to death.

Anti-Semitism Was Rife Across Europe

And anti-Semitism? In the 1930s, anti-Semitism grew across Europe because the upheaval after World War I and the global economic crisis had unsettled people. In Eastern Europe, the tendency to regard Jews as scapegoats and to try and exclude them from the job market was especially strong. In Hungary, Jews were banned from public office at the end of the 1930s and were forbidden to work in a large number of professions. Romania voluntarily adopted Nazi Germany's racist and anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws. In Poland, many universities restricted access for Jewish students.

The extent of the hatred of Jews is also reflected in the fact that after the end of the war in 1945, mobs in Poland killed at least 600, and possibly even thousands of Holocaust survivors. However, excessive nationalism appears to have been the more important factor, at least in Eastern Europe. Many there dreamed of a nation state devoid of minorities. In this sense, the Jews were simply one of several groups that people wanted to rid themselves of. As World War II raged, the Croats didn't just murder Jews but also killed a far larger number of Serbs. Poles and Lithuanians killed each other. Romania liquidated Roma and Ukrainians.

It's hard to determine what motivated people to kill. Often nationalism or anti-Semitism were just excuses. During the war, no one had to go hungry in Germany, but living conditions in Eastern Europe were squalid. "For the Germans, 300 Jews meant 300 enemies of humanity. For the Lithuanians they meant 300 pairs of trousers and 300 pairs of boots," says one eyewitness. That was greed on a personal level. But it also featured on a collective level. In France, 96 percent of aryanized companies remained in French hands. The Hungarian government used the assets seized from Jews to extend its pension system and reduce inflation.

Jews Were Scapegoats for Soviet Crimes

Imaginary revenge also played a part. Pogroms in Poland by local people against Jews in 1941 were based on the assumption that the Jews formed some sort of base for Soviet rule, because communists of Jewish descent had for a time been over-represented in some areas of the Soviet bureaucracy. As a result, many people blamed Jews for the crimes committed during the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland between 1939 and 1941. Stalin's secret police the NKWD had actual and presumed opponents of the regime in the Baltic States, eastern Poland and Ukraine shot or deported to Gulags. As the German troops advanced, the Soviets left behind a deeply traumatized society between the Baltic and the Carpathians -- and many fresh mass graves.

Hitler hadn't worked out all the details of the Holocaust from the start, instead assuming he would be able to drive out all Jews from his sphere of influence after a quick victory over the Soviet Union. But the German advance into the Soviet Union started faltering in autumn 1941, which raised the problem of what to do with the people crammed into ghettos, especially in Poland. Many Gauleiter, SS officers and top administrators called for their territory to be made "judenfrei" ("free of Jews" -- which meant liquidating them. The construction of extermination camps began, first in Belzec, then Sobibor, then Treblinka.

Brief Holocaust Training Course

It was a gigantic killing program in which most of Poland's Jews, 1.75 million, were murdered. The SS preferred to recruit its helpers among Ukrainians or ethnic Germans in prisoner-of-war camps where Red Army soldiers like Demjanjuk faced the choice of killing for the Germans or starving to death. Later, increasing numbers of volunteers from western Ukraine and Galicia joined the unit. The men had to sign a declaration that they had never belonged to a communist group and had no Jewish ancestry. Then they were taken to Travniki in the district of Lublin in south-eastern Poland where they were trained for their deadly profession on the site of a former sugar factory. In mid-1943 some 3,700 men were stationed in Travniki. Training for the Holocaust took several weeks. The SS men showed the new recruits how to carry out raids and how to guard prisoners, often using live subjects. Then the unit would drive to a nearby town and beat Jewish residents out of their homes. Executions were carried out in a nearby forest, probably to make sure that the recruits were loyal.

At first the Travniki were used to guard property and to prevent supply depots from being plundered. Then their German masters sent them to clear ghettos in Lviv and Lublin, where they were remorseless in rounding up their Jewish victims. Finally they were put to work in eight-hour shifts in the extermination camp. "Everyone jumped in where he was needed," recalled one SS officer. Everything worked "like clockwork."

Historians estimate that a third of the Travniki absconded despite the punishment that entailed if they were caught. Some were executed for disobedience. And the others? Why didn't they try to get out of the killing machine? Why didn't Demjanjuk? Die he allow himself to be corrupted by the feeling of "having attained total power over others," as historian Pohl argues. Was it the prospect of loot? In Belzec and Sobibor the Travniki engaged in brisk bartering with the inhabitants of surrounding villages and paid with items they had seized from the prisoners.

Perhaps there was something else, something even more disturbing that many people have deep in their psyche: following orders from authorities even if they ran counter to their conscience. Total and utter obedience.


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