I’m a good way through the required reading for the Holocaust fellowship that’s coming up the week after next. I’ve managed to make it through some dry political theory as well as some heart-wrenching stories, and I’m hoping that my subconscious is up to the task of processing some of the images these stories leave me with; if not, I’ll be having some pretty terrible dreams in the near future.
As I read and think and learn about this period in history, I find myself coming back to the same question that nearly everyone who studies the Holocaust (this, or any other, I would imagine) comes to: how did people allow this to happen? What inspired such blind hatred for one group of people toward another?
I understand that that era wasn’t all black. Thousands and thousands of people risked their lives – and the lives of their families and neighbors – to rescue the persecuted. That part doesn’t surprise me, really; I have a very strong belief that people are innately good and, when faced with situations that require compassion and goodness, many will provide those things at great personal risk.
No, what I don’t understand is that, with one exception – that being Oskar Schindler – none of the literature I’ve EVER been exposed to has ever indicated that any of those people operated within the mechanisms of the Nazi party. Only one Nazi ever, to my (admittedly limited) knowledge, expressed remorse over his actions during the war and, right up until the war was over, Albert Speer seemed a model Nazi. Is it true that the party was so efficient and homogeneous that they had nearly 100% compliance and belief from the rank-and-file?
Why are there no accounts of Nazis defecting when they learned about what their party had in mind for millions of people (again, that I’m aware of – if you know of some, send me in that direction, please)? Why are there no accounts of SS men who went mad after being ordered to shoot a child in the street or of soldiers committing suicide rather than accepting a post at a death camp? Where were the former-soldiers-turned-activists who campaigned against this sort of thing ever happening again? I recognize that the political climate in Nazi Germany didn’t allow for that kind of freedom of speech, but the political climate was very different after the war and those voices could have been heard.
Were the Nazis so good at what they did that they managed to silence the very basic human instinct toward compassion in all their soldiers? What was it about the social, political, and humanitarian climate during the 20s, 30s, and 40s that turned off people’s humanity?