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The Holocaust serves as an extreme example of what can happen when human rights violations go unchallenged. Hitler and other Nazi leaders may have been the masterminds behind the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” but it could not have happened without the cooperation – or lack of intervention – of others. There are countless examples of collaborators and bystanders, from individuals to government bodies, that stood by or facilitated as prejudice turned to persecution and finally to murder.
Many people and governments like to claim ignorance to the horrors of the Holocaust as it was happening, or to point fingers in other directions. Despite this, reports of discrimination and violent persecution by Nazis had appeared in newspapers across the Western world starting in the 1930s, and articles about genocide from at least 1942. Besides ignorance, real or purported, there are various reasons why people become bystanders – from fear of prosecution or persecution themselves to apathy towards the victims; likewise, the reasons for collaboration are similarly nuanced, from material gain to ideology.
In the decades following the events of the Holocaust, antisemitism and Holocaust denial continue to rise. The Anti-Defamation League reports over 2,000 antisemitic incidents in 2019 in the United States alone, including five deaths. This is the highest recorded number of incidents since 1979, and a 12% increase from 2018. As hatred for Jews and other minority groups continue, the world must look back and educate about the darkest points in history, such as the Holocaust, to ensure that individuals, groups, and nations do not repeat the tragic mistakes of the past.
Political RolesRelated Lessons
America and the HolocaustRelated Lessons
The economic devastation of the Great Depression in the United States, combined with a commitment to neutrality and deeply held prejudices against immigrants, limited Americans’ willingness to welcome refugees.
Neither President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration nor the US Congress adjusted America’s complicated and bureaucratic immigration process, which included quotas- numerical limits on the number of immigrants- to aid the hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to flee Europe. Instead, the US State Department implemented new restrictive measures during this period that made it more difficult for immigrants’ to to enter the United States. Although the United States issued far fewer immigration visas than it could have during this period, it did admit more refugees fleeing Nazism than any other nation in the world.
When World War II began in September 1939, most Americans hoped the United States would remain neutral. Over the next two years, amid ongoing debates between those who wanted the United States to stay out of war and focus on the defense of the Western Hemisphere (isolationists) and those who favored proactivity assisting Great Britain, even if it meant entering the war (interventionalists), the United States slowly began to support the Allied powers. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, ended this debate. The United States quickly declared war on Japan, and Germany soon responded by declaring war on the United States.
The United States joined the Allies’ fight against the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) in World War II to defend democracy, not to rescue Jewish victims of the Nazi regime. In January 1944, the US government created the War Refugee Board, charged with trying to rescue and provide relief for Jews and other minorities who were targeted by the Nazis. During the final year of the war, US rescue efforts saved tens of thousands of lives. In the spring of 1945, Allied forces, including millions of American soldiers defeated Nazi Germany and its Axis collaborators, ending the Holocaust.
Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum
International ComplicityRelated Lessons
Although there was some level of resistance to Nazi Germany in many countries, it was rarely directed at helping Jews. And although some individuals risked their lives to save Jews, they constituted a very small minority. The Germans were relentless in pursuing their goal, but without widespread collaboration and the murder of six million Jews and millions of others in just four years would not have been possible.
As German forces implemented the killing, they drew upon some Polish agencies, such as Polish police forces and railroad personnel, in the guarding of ghettos and the deportation of Jews to the killing centers. Individual Poles often helped the identification, denunciation, and hunting down of Jews in hiding, often profiting from the associated blackmail, and actively participated in the plunder of Jewish property.
There were residents, particularly in the small towns of eastern Poland, where local Polish residents- acutely aware of the Germans’ presence and their antisemitic policies- carried out or participated in pogroms and murdered their Jewish neighbors. The pogrom in the town of Jedwabne in 1941 is one of the best-documented cases.
Unlike Poland, which was under German rule, Hungary was a willing ally of Nazi Germany. Hungary adopted antisemitic legislation emulating Germany’s Nuremberg Laws beginning in 1938. With its entry into the war in 1941, Hungary sent 100,000 Jewish men to forced labor, where 40,000 died. That same year, the Hungarian government deported at least 15,000 Jews to German-occupied Ukraine, where they were murdered.
Although Hungary was initially resistant to mass deportations of its Jews, in early 1944 it agreed to do so. After the Germans occupied the country in March 1944 it agreed to do so. After the Germans occupied the country in March 1944, they sent a small SS detachment led by Adolf Eichmann to Budapest to work with a newly appointed prime minister and a more cooperative government. With the approval of Miklos Horthy, the Hungarian head of state, he Hungarian Ministry of the Interior, police gendarmerie, and local civilian administrators carried out the deportations. In a matter of weeks, from May to early July, they forced 440,000 Jews into ghettos, stripped them of their possessions, and loaded them into trains. Some 425,000 were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. More than three-quarters of them were gassed on arrival, and additional tens of thousands died from disease, starvation, and harsh treatment.
Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Religious Community ResponsesRelated Lessons
Throughout the Christian world, there was little condemnation of the most striking and ominous element of Nazi ideology: its virulent antisemitism and its threat to remove Jews from all aspects of German society. Indeed, many Christian leaders before and throughout the Nazi era cited Christian teachings as justification for anti-Jewish rhetoric and policies.
Some church leaders, however, did protest against the Nazi treatment of the Jews and attempted to help refugees fleeing Nazism. In the United States, many of these leaders had been involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue and interfaith work before 1933.
By the beginning of April 1933, when 3,000 Jewish refugees had arrived in Switzerland, Swiss Protestant church president Henry Henriod sent a message to the German churches asking for a clear position of protest against Nazi measures. That same month, French Protestant leader Wilfred Monod published an open letter welcoming Jews coming from Germany to France. In May 1933, British Bishop George Bell wrote Hermann Kapler, president of the German Church Federation, of his concern about actions against the Jews. At the ecumenical World Alliance in Sofia, Bulgaria, in September 1933, the delegates passed a resolution condemning the Nazi actions against the Jews. These Christian leaders eventually became part of a network, coordinated primarily from the Protestant ecumenical offices in Geneva, that aided Jews throughout Europe.
Thus, there were significant but isolated voices of protest. Many of these statements drew on church teachings about compassion and social justice, as well as church commitments to civil liberties. Yet, they appear to have found little resonance within the broader community of lay Christians at the time. And, although they did lay a foundation for Christians after 1945 to wrestle theologically with the reality of what had happened during the Holocaust, most of them did not yet confront the theological reality revealed in the Holocaust: that centuries of anti-Jewish teachings by the Christian churches had helped to create a culture in which the genocide of millions of Jewish men, women, and children was possible. Only after 1945 would the Christian churches throughout the world begin to confront the deeper theological challenges of the Holocaust for Christian faith and teaching.
Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Individual RolesRelated Lessons
Dictionaries define “bystander” as “a witness to events,” “one who is present but not taking part in what is occurring.”
The term “bystander” is used in the context of the Holocaust in two ways. The first refers to external or international “bystanders” -witnesses in a nonliteral sense because of their distance from the actual events. These “bystanders” range widely from the Allied governments and neutral countries to religious institutions and Jewish organizations. The second refers to “bystanders” within societies close to and often physically present at the events.
“Bystanders” as used to refer to German and European populations close to the actual events are often defined by what they were not. They were not the “perpetrators” or the “victims.” Nor were they among the tiny minority of “rescuers” of the “victims.” “Bystanders” as a group have often been characterized as “passive” or “indifferent.” They included those, for example, who did not speak out then they witnessed the persecution of individuals targeted simply because they were Jewish, or during the phase of mass murder, did not offer shelter to Jews seeking hiding places.
After the war many ordinary Germans and Europeans claimed that they were “not involved” -in essence, that they were “bystanders.” Refusal to take any responsibility for what happened, however, obscures the reality of the involvement of people at all levels of German society and beyond. Many onlookers to events who approved or tolerated what they witnessed were also involved.
Within Nazi Germany many individuals became active or semi-active participants in Nazi racial and antisemtic policies. These included civil servants who became involved as part of their normal work: finance officials processing property seized by the state, including homes and belongings left behind following the “resettlement” of Jews during the war into occupied territories; clerks who kept files of identification documents that included one’s “race” or “religion”; school teachers who followed curricula incorporating racist and antisemitic content.
Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Hundreds of thousands of people were involved, either directly or indirectly, in implementing the “Final Solution,” the policy of systematically mass murdering Jews. Some actually engaged in murdering Jews. Others played a role in the bureaucratic process of ordering Jews from their homes to the sites of murder and arranging murder operations. Others became guards or transported Jews to the places where they would be killed. A great many people benefited from the worldly possessions left behind by the murdered Jews, and in this way they too became complicit in the murder process.
The core organizers and planners of the annihilation of European Jewry came from the ranks of the Nazi party and the SS, who in general fervently believed in Nazi idrology. The driving force of the murders was the SS, among whom were commanders of killing units and Nazi camps; however, it is important to emphasize that the SS members were not the only ones who were actively involved in carrying out the “Final Solution.” There were many groups involved from Germany, their allies in the war, and from the lands they occupied. In addition to the SS men, soldiers from the Wehrmacht, and the German police forces took part in these activities. Officials from the civil apparatus that the Germans maintained in the occupied lands also participated in implementing the “Final Solution.”
For a wide range of reasons, people from the nations that fell under Nazi domination or were allied with the Nazis also took part in the “Final Solution,” either directly or indirectly. Some were motivated primarily by their acceptance of Nazi ideology; others were of German heritage and willingly took up the offer by the Nazi authorities to become their partners; others joined the Nazis in order to ameliorate their own or their family’s suffering under the brutal occupation; and still others joined the Nazis in order to escape almost certain death as prisoners of war on the Eastern Front. Regardless of how the door to collaboration swung open, many non-Germans became full and frequently enthusiastic participants in the mass systematic murder of European Jews.
Because of the broad spectrum of people involved in the murder of the Jews in one way or another, responsibility for the murder rests on society as a whole during this period.
Source: Echoes & Reflections
The term “upstanders” can be defined as a person who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied. When referencing the Holocaust, it is somewhat interchangable with the title “rescuer.”
Rescue of Jews under the Nazis was, in psychological parlance, a “rare behavior.” From a population of 700 million in Germany and the allied occupied countries, the thousands who risked their lives to save Jews and others from Nazi persecution constituted an aberration from the norm. The majority remained passive bystanders; many actively collaborated in the Final Solution.
Most rescuers acknowledge that the initial act of such behavior was not premeditated and planned. Whether gradual or sudden, there was little mulling over the moral dilemmas, conflicts, and life and death consequences involved in the decision to help.
Source: Yad Vashem
The Nazi regime persecuted different groups on ideological grounds. Jews were the primary targets for systematic persecution and mass murder by Nazis and their collaborators. The Nazis considered Jews a “mortal threat” to the German “race.” Two-thirds, or six million, of Europe’s Jews were killed by Nazi Germany and its collaborators.
Jews were not only viewed in Nazi ideology as alien and biologically “subhuman.” The Nazis believed that Jews were harmful to the strength and purity of the German race. In the Nazis’ view, Jews needed to be destroyed to ensure the long-term survival of “German-blooded” people.
Anti-Jewish policy evolved into mass murder, then sysematic genocide. Not only German Jews, but all Jewish men, women, and children who came within Nazi Germany’s reach were systematically targeted for murder. This measure was referred to as the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe.”
The Roma and Sinti were viewed as the “Gypsy nuisance,” a racially “inferior” people with criminal habitats. Up to 250,000 from across Europe were killed.
Germans with mental and physical disabilities were considered “useless eaters” and “racially defective.” 250,000 were killed.
Poles were viewed as “subhuman” Slavs. They suffered a brutal German occupation. Tens of thousands of members of the Polish elites were killed or imprisoned as potential leaders of the Polish resistance.
Captured Soviet soldiers were viewed as “subhuman” Slavs. The Nazis believed they were linked to the “Judeo-Bolshevik threat.” 3.3 million Soviet soldiers died in executions or through intentional starvation and mistreatment.
Several other groups were targeted. These included real and suspected political opponents, Jehova’s Witnesses, men accused of engaging in homosexual acts, and persons considered to be “asocial.” They were among the hundreds of thousands of victims who were imprisoned and killed in concentration camps. They died from starvation, disease, overwork, mistreatment, or outright murder.
Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Antisemitism TodayRelated Lessons
While antisemitism has sometimes escalated to violent or genocidal levels, it more often appears in subtler ways, such as insensitive remarks that are brushed off, or negative stereotypes that go unchallenged. We must never normalize even seemingly harmless forms of hate-based prejudice; this is what strengthens dangerous social attitudes, which can erode the values of even the most just society. Silence and complacency in the face of biased remarks or actions permit others to internalize harmful messages, making such messages commonplace. Antisemitism is unique in many ways, but, like other forms of hate, it grows in silence and blossoms in acquiescence.
And yet it is not always easy to recognize and combat antisemitism. For example, while knowledge of the the Holocaust helped banish overt antisemitism in many contexts in the postwar decades, surprising numbers of young people today are unaware of the most basic facts about what happened to Europe’s Jews during World War II. According to a nationally representative March 2018 survey, commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, only 36 percent of millennials (ages 18-34) in the United States knew that six million Jews perished during the Holocaust.
Antisemitism has commonalities with racism, anti-Muslim bias, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and other forms of hate and discrimination. It also has certain unique characteristics as a specific set of ideologies about Jews that has migrated across discourses. In almost every part of society, this hatred has been conjured and adjusted to suit the values, beliefs and fears of specific demographics and contexts.
Source: Anti-Defamation League
The U.S. Congress established the Days of Remembrance as the nation’s annual commemoration of the Holocayst. Each year across the United States, state and local government organizations, workplaces, schools, and religious and community centers host remembrance activities to reaffirm our nation’s commitment to keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive. The Days of Remembrance run from the Sunday before Holocaust Remembrance Day (also known as Yom HaShoah) through the following Sunday.
Source: U.S. Department of State
There are those who simply deny the Holocaus ever happened and those who, in a variety of ways, diminish the Holocaust. Holocaust deniers operate on a spectrum, from triviliazing the genocide to alleging its falsification.
Implicitly and explicitly, Holocaust deniers argue that this entire chapter of history is an elaborate hoax by Jewish propagandists who simply wanted reparation from Germany, the creation of a Jewish state and a distraction from their own double-dealing.
In the decades after the Holocaust, a number of pseudo-historians calling themselves “revisionists” set out to refute the Holocaust. Willis Carto, an American far-right political activist, career white supremacist and antisemite, founded the Institutr for Historical Review (IHR) in 1978. Still operating out of California, the so-called “Institute” convened conferences and published journals which disregarded the most basic standards of historiography in order to paint a picture of the past that minimized or completely denied Jewish experiences of victimhood.
In its most developed form, Holocaust denial is an antisemitic conspiracy theory that claims Jews around the world knowingly fabricated evidence of their own genocide in order to extract reparations from Germany, gain world sympathy and facilitate the alleged theft of Palestinian land for the creation of Israel. It is founded on the belief that Jews somehow are able to force major institutions- governments, Hollywood, the media, academia- to promote a lie at the expense of non-Jews.
Since the 1980s, Holocaust denial has migrated from pseudo-academic journals and conferences to the post-truth world of the Internet. Today, a younger generation of Holocaust deniers is active on social media forums like Facebook and Twitter, alt right websites like the Daily Stormer and the anonymous forums 4Chan and 8kun (the successor to the notorious online forum 8chan after it was forced off the Internet). Moreover, with the passage of time, historical distance from the Holocaust contributes, for some, to disbelief that it occurred. According to a 2019 poll, one in 20 people in Britain do not believe the Holocaust ever happened.
Source: Anti-Defamation League
The term “genocide” did not exist before 1944. It is a very specific term, referring to violent crimes against groups with the intent to destroy the existence of the group.
In 1944, Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” in a book documenting Nazi policies of systematically destroying national and ethnic groups, including the mass murder of European Jews.
On December 9, 1948, in the shadow of the Holocaust, the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The convention establishes “genocide” as an international crime, which signatory nations “undertake to prevent and punish.”
While many cases of group-targeted violence have occurred throughout history and even since the Convention came into effect, the legal and international development of the term is concentrated into two distinct historical periods: the time from the coining of the term until its acceptance as international law (1944-1948) and the time of its activation with the establishment of international criminal tribunals to prosecute the crime of genocide (1991-1998). Preventing genocide, the other major obligation of the convention, remains a challenge that nations and individuals continue to face.
During World War II, the Allies and representatives of the exiled governments of occupied Europe met several times to discuss post-war treatment of Nazi leadership. In February 1945 Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met at Yalta, and agreed to prosecute the Axis leaders after the conclusion of World War II. In August the Allies signed the London Agreement that enabled an International Military Tribunal to prosecute war criminals.
The tribunal of American, Soviet, British and French judges and prosecutors met in Nuremberg and put on trial senior Nazis accused of three charges: crimes against peace, war crimes (including murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave labor of civilian populations, killing of hostages, plunder of property) and war crimes against humanity, namely, murder, extermination, enslavement and deportation of civilian populations.
On October 19, 1945, the accused individuals were indicted and a year later on October 1, 1946 the verdicts against them were given. Twelve of the twenty-two defendants were sentenced to death.
Eleven subsequent trials were held in Nuremberg between 1946 and 1949. In these the Allies tried Nazi physicians, commanders of the Einsatzgruppen, officials of the Reich Ministry of Justice, judges of the Special Nazi Courts and other senior members of the Nazi party.
Source: Yad Vashem