Everyday Murder: Nazi Atrocities, Committed by Ordinary People

By Georg Bönisch and Klaus Wiegrefe

From doctors to opera singers, teachers to truant schoolchildren, the extermination of European Jews was the work of roughly 200,000 ordinary Germans and their helpers. Years of research -- not yet complete -- reveal how sane members of a modern society committed murder for an evil regime.

Walter Mattner, a police secretary from Vienna, was there in October 1941 when 2,273 Jews were shot to death in Mogilyov in Belarus. He later wrote to his wife: "My hand was shaking a bit with the first cars. By the tenth car, I was aiming calmly and shooting dependably at the many women, children and babies. Bearing in mind that I have two babies at home, I knew that they would suffer exactly the same treatment, if not ten times as bad, at the hands of these hordes." After World War II, it was obvious to most observers that such acts could only have been committed by sadists and psychopaths, under orders from a handful of principal war criminals surrounding Adolf Hitler. It was a comforting way of looking at things, because it meant that ordinary people were not the real perpetrators.

But the horrifying results of an opinion poll that the Americans conducted in their occupation zone in October 1945 could have raised doubts even then about the version of the story that blames everything on a few pathological criminals. Twenty percent of the respondents "agreed with Hitler's treatment of the Jews." Another 19 percent said that although they felt that his policies toward Jews were exaggerated, they were fundamentally correct.

It took until the 1990s before historians and other experts embarked on a large-scale search for those men (and women) who carried out the Holocaust. The research isn't complete yet, but the results available to date are shocking.

The researchers found that the perpetrators included both committed Nazis and people who had nothing to do with the Nazis. The murderers and their assistants included Catholics and Protestants, the old and the young, people with double doctorates and poorly educated members of the working class. And the percentage of psychopaths was not higher than the average in society as a whole.

The number of perpetrators is now estimated at 200,000 Germans (and Austrians). They were police officers like Walter Mattner, concentration-camp personnel, members of the SS, or administrators. Another 200,000 Estonians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and other foreigners also helped kill Jews, some because they were forced to do so and others voluntarily.

Crimes of Conviction, Crimes of Excess

Like Satan in the Old Testament, evil had many faces. There were those who committed crimes out of conviction, the dedicated Nazis in the police force -- members of the SS and the military who, like Hitler, were convinced that the Jews were the root of all evil. Some committed their first murders in the 1920s and 1930s. There were also those who committed crimes of excess, taking advantage of the Jews' lack of rights in Eastern Europe to rape and steal. In Western Galicia, for example, members of the occupation police force would spend their free time shooting Jews in the ghetto or blackmailing them for their jewelry.

There were those who just carried out orders from above, like Major Trapp of Reserve Police Battalion 101. According to witness testimony, Major Trapp was in tears when he ordered the shooting of 1,500 women, children and elderly Jews near Warsaw, all the while saying: "An order is an order!" In July 1942, his men drove the victims out of their houses, loaded them into trucks and took them to a remote clearing to be executed. They shot them in the head or in the back of the neck, and in the evenings the soldiers' uniforms were covered with bone fragments, brain matter and bloodstains.

Just as there is usually more than one perpetrator, there is a host of reasons why perfectly normal men turn to murder: years of indoctrination, blind faith in leaders, a sense of duty and obedience, peer pressure, the downplaying of violence as a result of wartime experiences, not to mention the lust for Jewish property.

One man who seemed to have no trouble switching from his desk to the massacres in the East was Dortmund native Walter Blume, born in 1906, the son of a teacher and a lawyer who completed the German equivalent of the bar examination with a poor grade of "adequate." Nevertheless, in 1932 Blume got a job as an assistant judge on the district court in his hometown.

Blume's career in the Hitler regime started on March 1, 1933, shortly after the Nazis came to power. His first position was as head of the political division at the police headquarters in Dortmund. After joining the Nazi Party and the Storm Troopers (SA), he became head of the Nazi secret police, or Gestapo, in the eastern city of Halle, in Hannover and later in the capital Berlin. The main purpose of rapid rotation in high-ranking positions, typical of the Gestapo, was to provide opportunities to gather repressive experience.

Starting on March 1, 1941, Blume headed the personnel department in Division I of the so-called Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Security Main Office, or RSHA). His first assignment was to assemble suitable personnel for one of the murder commandos of the so-called Einsatzgruppen (Special Action Groups), a force consisting of roughly 3,000 men, known as the "Gestapo on Wheels." This group followed Hitler's army as it marched eastward and was charged with the immediate liquidation of "Jewish Bolshevism" and the "excision of radical elements."

Blume himself led a unit known as Special Commando 7a, which was part of Einsatzgruppe B. According to Blume's own records, his unit killed roughly 24,000 people in Belarus and Russia between June and September 1941. A short time later, Blume returned to the RSHA, where he was promoted to the position of division head and SS banner leader. In August 1943, he went to Athens, where he and two associates of Adolf Eichmann organized the deportation of Greek Jews to the Auschwitz extermination camp.

Blume was placed on trial in Nuremberg in September 1947, together with 22 other men, whose regular occupations qualified them as members of upper-class civil society. They included a dentist, a professor, an opera singer, a Protestant pastor, a teacher -- and a few journalists. Fourteen were sentenced to death, but only in four cases was the sentence carried out. US High Commissioner John McCloy pardoned the rest, including Blume, and they were gradually released from prison over the years. Blume went on to become a businessman.

Most of the perpetrators were never punished. There have been 6,500 convictions to date, and only 1,200 of them were for murder or manslaughter.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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