The Dark Continent Hitler's European Holocaust Helpers

The Germans are responsible for the industrial-scale mass murder of 6 million Jews. But the collusion of other European countries in the Holocaust has received surprisingly little attention until recently. The trial of John Demjanjuk is set to throw a spotlight on Hitler's foreign helpers.


He's been here before, in this country of perpetrators. He saw this country collapse. He was 25 at the time and his Christian name was Ivan, not John; not yet.

Ivan Demjanjuk served as a guard in Flossenbürg concentration camp until shortly before the end of World War II. He had been transferred there from the SS death camp in Sobibor in present-day Poland. He was Ukrainian, and he was a Travniki, one of the 5,000 men who helped Germany's Nazi regime commit the crime of the millennium -- the murder of all the Jews in Europe, the "Final Solution."

He was part of it, if only a very minor cog in the vast machinery of murder. Ivan Demjanjuk stayed in post-war Germany for seven years before he emigrated to the US in 1952 with his wife and daughter on board the General Haan. Once he arrived, he changed his name to John. His time as a supposed DP or "displaced person," as the Anglo-American victors called people made homeless by the war, was over.

DP Demjanjuk had lived in the southern German towns of Landshut and Regensburg where he worked for the US Army. He moved to Ulm, Ellwangen, Bad Reichenhall, and finally to Feldafing on Lake Starnberg. Feldafing belongs to the area covered by the Munich district court, which is why Demjanjuk has been sitting in Munich's Stadelheim prison since he was deported from the US last week. His cell measures 24 square meters, which is extraordinarily spacious by usual prison standards.

Last Big Nazi Trial in Germany

He faces charges of aiding and abetting the murder of at least 29,000 Jews in Sobibor. The trial could start in late summer, provided Demjanjuk, now almost 90, is deemed fit to stand trial. Witnesses will be called to testify, but none of them will be able to identify him. The only evidence lies in the files, but that evidence is strong. Twice, in 1949 and 1979, former Travniki Ignat Danilchenko, who is now dead, stated that Demjanjuk had been an "experienced and efficient guard" who had driven Jews into the gas chambers -- "that was daily work."

Demjanjuk has denied this charge throughout. He says he was never in Flossenbürg or in Sobibor, never pushed people into the gas chambers. The ex-American has adopted the same tactic of denial as many other defendants who stood trial for war crimes after 1945.

The Holocaust in numbers.

The Holocaust in numbers.

But it's already clear that this last big Nazi trial in Germany will be a deeply extraordinary one because it will for the first time put the foreign perpetrators in the spotlight of world publicity. They are men who have until now received surprisingly little attention -- Ukrainian gendarmes and Latvian auxiliary police, Romanian soldiers or Hungarian railway workers. Polish farmers, Dutch land registry officials, French mayors, Norwegian ministers, Italian soldiers -- they all took part in Germany's Holocaust.

Experts such as Dieter Pohl of the German Institute for Contemporary History estimate that more than 200,000 non-Germans -- about as many as Germans and Austrians -- "prepared, carried out and assisted in acts of murder." And often they were every bit as cold-blooded as Hitler's henchmen.

Just for example, on June 27, 1941, a colonel in the staff of the Germany's Northern Army Group in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas passed a petrol station surrounded by a crowd of people. There were shouts of bravo and clapping, mothers raised their children to give them a better view. The officer stepped closer and later wrote down what he had seen. "On the concrete courtyard there was blonde man aged around 25, of medium height, who was taking a rest and supporting himself on a wooden club which was as thick as an arm and went up to his chest. At his feet lay 15, 20 people who were dead or dying. Water poured from a hose and washed the blood into a drain."

The soldier continued: "Just a few paces behind this man stood around 20 men who -- guarded by several armed civilians -- awaited their gruesome execution in silent submission. Beckoned with a curt wave, the next one stepped up silently and was (…) beaten to death with the wooden club, and every blow met with enthusiastic cheers from the audience."

Orgy of Murder Like a Lithuanian National Ceremony

When all lay dead on the ground, the blonde murderer climbed on the heap of corpses and played the accordion. His audience sang the Lithuanian anthem as if the orgy of murder had been a national ceremony.

How could something like that happen? For a long time now, this question hasn't just been directed at the Germans, whose central responsibility for the horror is undisputed -- but also at the perpetrators in all countries.

What led Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu and his generals, soldiers, civil servants and farmers to murder 200,000 Jews (and possibly twice that many) "of their own accord," as historian Armin Heinen puts it. Why did Baltic death squadrons commit murder on German orders in Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine? And why did German Einsatzgruppen -- paramilitary "intervention groups" operated by the SS -- have such an easy time encouraging the non-Jewish population to wage pogroms between Warsaw and Minsk?

It's completely undisputed that the Holocaust would never have happened without Hitler, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler and the many, many other Germans. But it's also certain "that the Germans on their own wouldn't have been able to carry out the murder of millions of European Jews," says Hamburg-based historian Michael Wild.

It's a perception that many survivors never doubted. When the Association of Surviving Lithuanian Jews convened in Munich in 1947, they passed a resolution that bore an unmistakable title: "On the guilt of a large part of the Lithuanian population for the murder of Lithuania's Jews."

In the Third Reich with its well-functioning bureaucracy, there were comprehensive registers of the Jewish population. But in the territories conquered by the German army, Hitler's henchmen needed information of the type supplied in the Netherlands by registry offices whose staff went to a lot of trouble to compile a precise "Register of Jews."

And how would the SS and police have been able to track down Jews in the cities of Eastern Europe with their broad mix of ethnic groups if they hadn't had the support of the local population? Not many Germans would have been able "to recognize a Jew in a crowd," recalls Thomas Blatt, a survivor of Sobibor who wants to testify as a witness at Demjanjuk's trial.

At the time, Blatt was a blonde-haired boy and tried to pass for a Christian child in his Polish home town of Izbica. He didn't wear a yellow star and tried to appear self-confident when he ran into uniformed people. But he was betrayed a number of times -- the Germans paid for information on the whereabouts of Jews -- and he always escaped with a lot of luck.

Denunciation Was Common

Denunciation was so common in Poland that there was a special term for paid informants "Szmalcowniki" (previously a term for a fence). In many cases, the denouncers knew their victims. And while the French, Dutch or Belgians could submit to the illusion that the Jews deported to the east from Paris, Rotterdam or Brussels would be all right in the end, the people in Eastern Europe learned through the grapevine what lay in store for the Jews in Auschwitz or Treblinka.

For sure, many counter-examples can easily be found. A senior officer in Einsatzgruppe C, responsible for the murder of more than 100,000 people, complained that the Ukrainians lacked "pronounced anti-Semitism based on racial or ideological reasons." The officer wrote that "there is a lack of leadership and of spiritual impetus for the pursuit of Jews."

Historian Feliks Tych estimates that some 125,000 Poles rescued Jews without being paid for their services. It's clear that the perpetrators always made up a small minority of their respective population. But the Germans relied on that minority. The SS, police and the army lacked the manpower to search the vast areas where the Nazi leadership planned to kill all people of Jewish origin. Across the 4,000 kilometers stretching from Brittany in western France to the Caucasus, the Nazis were bent on hunting down their victims, deporting them to extermination camps or to local murder sites, preventing escapes, digging mass graves and then carrying out their bloody handiwork.

Of course only Hitler and his entourage or the army could have stopped the Holocaust. But this doesn't invalidate the argument that without the foreign helpers, countless thousands or even millions of the approximately six million murdered Jews would have survived.

In the killing fields of Eastern Europe, there were up to 10 local helpers for every German policeman. The ratio is similar in the extermination camps. Not in Auschwitz, which was run almost entirely by Germans, but in Belzec (600,000 killed), Treblinka (900,000 deaths) or in Demjanjuk's Sobibor. There, a handful of SS members were assisted by some 120 Travniki men.

Without them, the Germans would never have managed to kill 250,000 Jews in Sobibor, says former prisoner Blatt. It was the Travniki who guarded the camp, drove all the Jews from the railway wagons and trucks after their arrival in the camp, and who beat them into the gas chambers.

Was the Holocaust a European Project?

Such a stupefying number of victims raises disturbing questions, and Berlin historian Götz Aly already started asking them a few years ago: was the so-called Final Solution in fact a "European project that cannot be explained solely by the special circumstances of German history"?


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