Rape, Murder and Genocide Nazi War Crimes as Described by German Soldiers
Part 6: A Terrifying Social Experiment
War is the most comprehensive social experiment people are capable of engaging in, when the circumstances to which they must conform change. It doesn't even take an order or the special command structure of an army for people to be able to shoot at anything that moves. All it takes is for the benchmarks of what is considered appropriate and correct to change.
Not everything can be blamed on the circumstances. Even under conditions of extreme violence, there are always individuals who defy the prevailing morality of the group. In most cases, and for good reason, it is outsiders who display the kind of behavior one would expect from people with a normal upbringing.
In one of the best-documented cases of a war crime, the massacre in the Vietnamese village of My Lai by American GIs in March 1968, it was a helicopter pilot who kept his fellow soldiers from committing even more murders. It was only when Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson threatened to have his men shoot at their fellow GIs that they stopped their killing spree.
The proportion of people in the Wehrmacht with a nature proclivity for violence or sadism was presumably about 5 percent, just as it is in all social groups. According to researchers, this is the percentage of the population whose sociopathic tendencies are kept in check during peacetime by the threat of punishment. From 1939 onwards, at the latest, the composition of the Wehrmacht reflected the average male population, that is, ordinary Germany.
Not Perceived as Barbaric
It is altogether astonishing, and depressing, to realize how quickly the Nazis' concept of racial superiority could replace the ideas and norms of the democratic prewar period. Only six years passed between the 1935 Nuremberg Race Laws, which deprived all Jews of their rights of citizenship, and the subsequent deportation and extermination.
The fact that the systematic persecution of a group that made up less than 1 percent of the German population was possible without any recognizable resistance is not evidence of the sudden immorality of mainstream society. On the contrary, this exclusion was only possible because the majority of the population did not perceive it as an act of barbarism. The persecuted group had long been perceived as no longer being a part of German society, so that their oppression was no longer seen as an issue that affected the morality of the national community, as Neitzel and Welzer argue in their book.
"From 1941 onward, the same people who had reacted with skepticism to the Nazi takeover in 1933 watched the deportation trains departing from the Grunewald train station (in Berlin)," the authors write. "Quite a few of them had already bought 'Aryanized' (ed's note: seized from Jews) kitchen fittings, living room furniture and artworks. Some ran businesses or lived in buildings that had been taken away from their Jewish owners. And they felt that this was completely normal."
Of course, what appears to us today as a colossal shift in social norms also applied to the Wehrmacht and its way of conducting the war. At any rate, there is much more evidence to support the assumption that most German soldiers felt they were fighting for a just cause than there is for the opposing assumption that they secretly questioned their actions.
Even some members of the firing squads at the mass graves must have perceived their work there as the fulfillment of a "sacred obligation," as it was dubbed in the emotionally charged language of the Nazis. The same sentiments were behind Heinrich Himmler's famous words that the SS, which he commanded, could be proud, despite all criticism, of having "remained decent." What seems like the height of cynicism to postwar generations is in fact an expression of the conviction of serving a higher morality. In this case, it was one that saw itself scientifically legitimized in its murderous biological determinism.
This is, as it were, the disturbing insight one reaches after reading the transcripts about killing and dying: The morality that shapes the actions of people is not rooted in the people themselves, but in the structures that surround them. If they change, everything is basically possible -- even absolute evil.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan