“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
… EDMUND BURKE, 18th Century British statesman

I’ll try to explain the terrible time of the Nazis but you should remember that we are dealing with people; many, many people. Very few people are all good or all bad and most people are not heroes either. Most people must trust in their leaders. But that is exactly why we condemn so many people of that time. Those respected people in position of authority who should have opposed the Nazis didn’t.

Before I write anything else I want you to understand that World War II (WW II) should be considered separately from the holocaust (The murder of six million Jews as well as between one and three million Gypsies and various other people that the Nazi’s didn’t like including some Lutheran and Catholic priests who dared to preach against Hitler’s policies even when their own bishops didn’t. )

Understand also that the killing of the Jews and Gypsies would have been only the beginning if the Nazis had won WW II. They were also killing or making slaves of Russians of Asian blood and would have killed or enslaved all Negroes had they gained political power in America or subjugated sub-Sahara Africa. Obviously that would have been beyond the ability of the German nation alone but there were plenty of other people who agreed with the Nazis (and there still are some.)

Now let me give you some background on the political and economic situation in Germany after World War I (WW I) and on European (but also to a lesser degree American) antisemitism in those days.

What were those days like in Germany after WW I ? There were cars but mostly horses. Small airplanes were used by armies but there were no airlines. Most people lived on farms. People in cities traveled by trolley cars, often these were horse drawn. There were few tractors, horses pulled plows. Radio had been invented but it was rare to own one. There was, of course, no TV, no supermarkets, and only a few telephones. Those cars that did exist were very expensive and the roads outside of cities were so bad that the cars could be damaged by them. Most people in Europe got around by bicycle and the modern bicycle had only been invented a few decades before WW I. Most people died much younger than people do today. Few homes had any electricity.

Antisemitism and other racism

Antisemitism means anti Jews. There is a long history of antisemitism going back to before Jesus and it still continuing today. Why?

Even before the time of Jesus the Jews were generally disliked by the other people in the Roman empire. This was because they refused to act like good Roman citizens (worship the emperor and pagan idols), and also because many of the merchants in the empire were Jews from Palestine, the area where Jerusalem is. Small traders are often unwelcome because they move from place to place and therefore have little chance to make friends.

Antisemitism after the time of Jesus was religious and comes from Jesus being killed by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. The Gospels were written mostly by non-Jews for non-Jewish readers and often speak badly of “the Jews”. This was unfair. Many of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem wanted Jesus dead but many other Jews did not. Remember it was a leader of the Jerusalem people who gave his own tomb for Jesus to be buried in. Also remember that Jesus was greeted by a crowd of admirers the week before he died.

Besides these things, the Jews had other things that kept them from making friends with non Jews. Especially know that there are certain foods that they are forbidden to eat at all (pork, shrimp) or cannot eat together (meat with milk or cheese). The Old Testament does forbid eating pork and shrimp but the rule against eating meat and dairy products is an interpretation of scripture by the Jewish rabbis intended to keep Jews from socializing too much with non Jews. Why? Because they quite correctly realized that the teachings of Judaism are directly from God and much better than the religious beliefs and the morality of the pagans. They feared that if Jews mixed socially with non Jews (Originally pagans but later Christians) they would marry non Jews and their children would not be raised Jewish.

In the Christian middle ages Jews were sometimes tolerated but usually not trusted. Many lies about them were believed and from time to time mobs would blame “The Jews” for some disaster or other bad thing and kill them. This is why they usually lived together in what are known as ghettos. Ghettos are a part of a city set aside for Jews only. (The word has now been borrowed to refer to poor African-American parts of cities.) In their ghettos the Jews were safer but even less likely to have Christian friends. Now human nature doesn’t like people who are different. Christians saw Jews only in business, usually in small business or as money lenders (Christians at that time were forbidden by the church to earn money by loaning money.). Christians had land but little cash. The Jews were seen as having all the money which did not make them popular. As money lenders (we’d say bankers) some of them did have quite a bit of money. They understood that money could save them from Christians who would otherwise kill them. This is why having money is still very important among Jews and is one of the reasons why they like to see their children become doctors and lawyers who make money. (By the way, Jews are much more charitable than Christians and not only to other Jews but to anyone who is being harmed or is poor; so do not think of them as selfish with their money.) The problem is that while it is understandable that the Jews wanted to not socialize with their Christian countrymen it is also understandable that the Christians didn’t feel very friendly toward people who only talked to them when doing business. This, however. cannot justify killing or otherwise mistreating them and sometimes the popes and bishops had to protect them against Christians. At other times they didn’t bother to.

Anyway, all this medieval discrimination was for religious reasons. If a Jew became a Christian he was treated the same as everyone else. The later Nazi antisemitism was purely racial.

Twentieth century racism wasn’t limited to Jews and Germany. Antisemitism was common throughout Europe and even in America. America was very racist in the early and mid twentieth century, and not just antisemitic. As you probably know, even as late as when Grandpa was a young man, African Americans were kept from voting in the southern states; they could not eat in the same restaurants as whites, drink from the same water fountains, sit together in the movies, attend the same schools (Black schools were terrible), or marry whites. In fact if a Negro was thought to have disrespected a white person or even looked at a white woman in the South he could be killed by a lynch mob and the killers were never punished,.

Most Americans today do not know that Negroes weren’t the only people discriminated against in the USA. By a law passed by our congress in 1924 immigration from everywhere but Northern Europe (and South America from which there were few immigrants in those days) was severely limited. Only 4,000 Italians a year were allowed but 57,000 Germans were permitted into the USA. No Asians (Japanese, Chinese, Indians, etc) were allowed. Those Chinese already in the USA were only safe if they lived in little Chinese Ghettos (Chinatowns). During WW II German-American immigrants were not bothered but Japanese Americans were forced to live together in camps in the California desert until the war was over. The excuse was that some of them might be working for our enemies but the main reason was so that California landowners could then basically steal their farms by buying them at a much cheaper price then they were worth.

Much of the violence against Negroes in America was done by an organization called the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). They killed Negroes that they thought were trying to get their rights or were otherwise not behaving as little better than slaves. Few priests and ministers opposed the Klan and it was not until the 1950s that Blacks – with the help of many, many white people from the North – were able to openly oppose the Klan and demand their rights as US citizens. Some were martyred. In the 1920s the KKK also opposed Jews and Catholics (usually Irish and Italian immigrants). They held scary demonstrations of their anti Jewish, anti Catholic program in cities and towns not only in the South but also in the northern USA. In 1925 over 50,000 Klan members paraded through Washington, DC.

There were similar problems in other countries. Hitler did not start hating Jews in Germany but as a young man while living in Austria where he was born. There is a famous case of the French army condemning a Jewish army captain to a terrible prison island even though they knew that he was not guilty of the crime charged. Throughout WW II the German Nazis used Polish sympathizers as guards in the death camps. Before the war, the United States turned away a ship full of German Jewish refugees and most of them later died in German death camps.

You should not think that WW II was fought to help the Jews. It was not until almost the end of the war that the allies recognized just how bad it had been for the Jews in Europe. No, It was fought by England and the USA because Hitler was invading friendly countries (France, Belgium, The Netherlands) and Russia. It was only towards the end of the war that the massacre of the Jews and Gypsies of Western Europe and the Jews and Slavs to the East in Poland and Russia began to bother other people. In fairness to the allies, they did not fully understand how bad it was but on the other hand they didn’t very much want to know. They were fighting a war with Germany not liberating Jews. Remember that while the allied countries did not kill Jews they didn’t very much care if they were mistreated. It was only when Hitler’s death camps were photographed by allied troops near the end of the war and the full extend of the atrocities became known that the conscience of America and Western Europe became outraged.

Why do I point up all this racism? For two reasons: First so you know that it wasn’t just the Germans who killed people they didn’t like. Yes they organized the holocaust and killed many millions of people – far, far more than the murders of Negroes in the USA for example. But the Nazis couldn’t have done it alone. They could only do it because everyone else, Germans and others, didn’t try to stop them. (Norway and Denmark were occupied by the Germans but because the Norse and Danes generally refused to cooperate with the Nazis most of their Jews survived.) The second reason is so you understand that while nothing like the holocaust happened in the USA and probably wouldn’t have, it could have. White Americans would not have killed Negroes en masse but would they have tried not to notice that it was happening if their government did something that just made racial problems disappear? Or would they have just trusted their leaders? They ignored the murders done by the Klan.

The problem is that no-one announced a program to kill the Jews and Gypsies, and Slavs, and most likely, in time, the Negroes in America and the Indians of Mexico and South America. Germans would not have supported such a terrible thing but it was a little-by-little thing. It started before the Nazis were even in power in Germany. It started when the German people were suffering a terrible depression after WW I, even worse than the worldwide depression of the nineteen thirties a few years later. In fact, Germany was a mess. Even before the end of WW I communists were organizing soldiers into communes and trying to overthrow the old German government just as they had done in Russia. When the war ended German soldiers came home to a country where there was little to eat. Those people who had jobs were paid in almost worthless money. They were paid in money that was so worthless that they had to carry it in wheelbarrows to have enough to buy a loaf of bread. Their wives would meet them as soon as they got paid so they could buy groceries because if they waited until after their husbands finished work for the day their pay might buy only half as much as at noon.

This made it easy for ambitious rabble rousers like Hitler to excite crowds and start anti Jewish riots even before he came to power. Hitler could say correctly that Germany had not been invaded. That was true, the war was fought in France and Belgium. He just ignored the fact that the allies were ready to attack with a million fresh United States soldiers and that the German army was no longer willing or able to fight. (The USA only entered WW I in its last year.) Hitler lied and blamed politicians for surrendering and ignored that Germany had lost. He blamed “the Jews” because Jews were already unpopular and suspected of supporting communism. It was easy to blame an international Jewish conspiracy despite the fact that Jews had fought and died for Germany in WW I just like every other German. This kind of talk became known as the big lie. If you tell a very big lie and tell it often, people will begin to believe you. After all, they reason, if it isn’t true why do we hear it so much. This is still done today. There are Moslems, for example, who believe that Jews destroyed the World Trade Center despite the fact that we know for a fact that fanatical Moslems flew airliners into the buildings. Why? Because they keep hearing it from irresponsible propagandists on Arab radio stations, just as Joseph Goebbels kept repeating equally absurd antisemitic lies on German radio.

But there was a new angle to antisemitism in Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It was no longer religious but racial. Since the late nineteenth century some Germans had started to teach that the Aryan race composed of Germans, Scandinavians, English, and to a lesser extent the other peoples of Western Europe (French, Spanish, Italian) were racially superior to the Jews, the Gypsies, and the Slavs of Eastern Europe (Poland, Russia, Bulgaria, etc.) They taught that Aryans were supermen and the others were subhuman and fit to live only as slaves if allowed to live at all. Despite considering them subhuman such people actually feared the Jews and believed that there was a great Jewish conspiracy though they never really made clear what the conspiracy was all about. Why would they fear the Jews? Probably because Jews were often well educated and held important positions out of proportion to their numbers. Many were bankers, scientists, and doctors, as well as artists, composers, and musicians. Why? Probably because these were occupations that Jews were allowed into and where they practiced as individuals not as part of a group as one does in a company. Throughout history Jews have been doctors, and bankers. As artists and musicians they did not threaten anyone else’s job. The world of universities was more interested in a person’s intellect than his race (although it was very hard to get a very high post in a university if one was a Jew.) Still, except for doctors, these were not the Jews that the ordinary German often saw. They saw pawn brokers who bought their family possessions for a few dollars during the bad times. They saw butchers and bakers and other small shopkeepers who did not mix well socially with other Germans and often looked different because many were very Orthodox Jews who still wear distinctive black beards, their hair in curly sideburns, and black hats and coats.

Even just a few decades ago when grandpa was working in New York, there were antisemitic riots in New York for the same reason. Negroes in the Black area of New York became angry at Jewish shop owners who seemed to only take their money without being part of the community. A few years ago there were similar riots for the same reason but this time against Asian immigrants who owned (or looked like they owned) grocery stores in Black neighborhoods but did not live there or seem to care about their customers. One of the problems with Asians was that – just as many Jews dressed differently – the Asians didn’t smile at their customers as other Americans did. It just wasn’t the custom in the countries that they came from. After the riots they learned to smile and things have gotten better..

My point is that it is easy when times are bad and people are suffering, for a person like Hitler and his propaganda minister, Goebbels, to blame the nearest group who are a bit different, to lie and exaggerate. In Hitler’s case, to say the German army had not been defeated and the loss of WW I was the fault of Jews and politicians (no-one likes politicians.) It’s a nice overly simple answer to a complicated problem. Always beware of people with simple answers.

The Rise of the Nazis

But other countries made it worse. The peace treaty after WW I made Germany pay for the war even though no-one country was really responsible for it. There had been an incident in Austria and the countries of Europe reacted by declaring war on each other according to agreements they had made before the war. Because each country had to get all its soldiers together, arrange for their food and transportation, and many other things that once started could not be stopped without giving their enemies an advantage, Europe just slipped into a war that no-one wanted. None the less, Germany was ordered to pay reparations for the war. The United States did not pressure Germany for immediate repayment but France did even though in the conditions after WW I Germany simply could not pay. Than France did something really stupid. It took over a part of Germany on the excuse that Germany had not paid reparations.

Even before Hitler, the great German arms industry which felt humiliated by the defeat in WW I began to secretly prepare for a new war of revenge against France. Even though these leaders of German arms companies did not like Hitler and thought he was a madman or evil they thought that they could control him. They wanted to rebuild Germany by using him and the other Nazis, and then get rid of them. Now Hitler had the support of both the poor and the rich.

So understand that Hitler and the Nazis rode to power on two positions: They played on the hatred of a hungry and defeated people, telling them that their problems were the fault of politicians and Jews. And they rode on a program supported by the wealthy to rearm and get revenge against France. But who were these Nazis? First, it is important to realize that they were not crazy. The first Nazis were basically street gangs, teenagers and young veterans of WW I who only cared to get “stuff”, blame their misfortunes on someone else, and find some sort of leadership. A street bully could think of himself as much more than that if he could put on a uniform of some sort and do his violence, not alone, but with others of his kind. (The SA – Not to be confused with the later SS.)

Street criminals like these have no ethical values. They just want to take what they want without concern for Christian values or the rights of others. Soon, however, they were joined by others who thought they could “use” Hitler. Many of these later people were well educated. They adopted and distorted the philosophy of a late nineteenth century German philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche. His philosophy of the superman eased any reservations that some might have had. In this philosophy there is no such thing as rights. A superman should just take what he wants. They said that laws and morals were created by weak people to protect themselves from the strong. It was not necessary for Aryan “supermen” to justify anything that they wanted to do.

Germany was starving and many people had no jobs. According to the superman philosophy Aryans should just take the farms of the subhuman people of Poland because they needed more land. At the same time they could invade France, and Belgium, and Holland not because French and Belgians and the Dutch were inferior as they said the Poles and Jews were. but because the French had humiliated them in WW I. The Dutch and Belgians were just in the way. If one doesn’t believe in ethics why not just take what you want?

In 1935 when Hitler had become chancellor of Germany a series of laws were passed that declared that Jews were not even German citizens although their families had lived in Germany for centuries. This deprived them of their rights under German law.

Besides the millions of Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs killed by the Nazis, hundreds of thousands of others – most of them Germans themselves – were slaughtered because they were not considered worthy of life. Children and adults with disabilities were killed in mental institutions before WW II. Anyone was subject to execution if he was blind, deaf, senile, retarded, or had any significant mental condition. This is what happens when all Christian ethics are ignored and only power matters. Of course the Nazis tried to hide this from their German countrymen and much – but not all – of the killing stopped when Catholic bishops openly opposed it. This was before the war but those who did it moved on to killing Jews and Slavs from The Netherlands, France, Poland, and Russia after the war started. But there is an important lesson to learn: You cannot sin just because your country has made that sin legal. You cannot ignore the natural law of God which values all life just because your country has a law saying it is OK to kill someone who is handicapped … or take his property as we did in the USA with the Native Americans and later with the Japanese-Americans here.

The Nazis even turned against themselves. When Hitler became chancellor of Germany he realized that he needed the support of the regular army and the industrial leaders more than a bunch of street thugs. He had his old friends who were leaders of the street toughs (known as the SA) killed and then disbanded the SA. By now he had given high positions in government to other old friends who were as bad as him. They were evil but do not think that these men were any more monstrous than many other people can be. They had no ethics but they had the opportunity to turn Germany into a state where people had no rights, where people they didn’t like could be tortured and killed for no good reason, where Jews and other undesirables were at first sent to concentration camps and later killed. Most of these evil people believed in what they were doing. They knew that they were doing awful things to bring about the kind of world that they wanted but they thought it was necessary and OK to starve, work to death, or gas millions of people who had done nothing wrong. These slaves weren’t Aryans so they didn’t matter. Can this happen in other countries. It has. In the nineteen eighties hundreds of thousands (Perhaps even two million) were killed in Cambodia just because they were in the way of the government’s program to change that country into one man’s idea of what it should be. The leader in Russia when Hitler was in power in Germany, killed millions of farm owners who got in the way of his turning Russia into a modern industrial country. The only difference between Stalin and Hitler was that while Stalin was killing many people too he was at least teaching the children of Russia that all working people are brothers. Hitler was teaching German children that they were superior to other people and could do anything they wanted to them. He was also teaching that Germans would rule the world for the next thousand years.

Where were the good people?

Where were the good people? Partly they were lied to and fooled. Partly they would risk their jobs and even their lives if they opposed the Nazis for the Nazis had a secret police force (the gestapo) which had the right to arrest and torture and kill anyone they didn’t trust. Eventually Germans became afraid to say anything to even their closest friends and neighbors that might be understood as criticizing Hitler and the Nazis because their friends might tell the gestapo. Partly too, they knew that bad things were being done but they felt it was necessary to rebuild Germany as a strong country. They thought that eventually Hitler and the Nazis would die or go away. Mostly they just preferred not to look too closely – to believe that their Jewish neighbors were simply being forced to new homes and villages in the east (Poland) even when they must have suspected that many of them would be killed. They probably did not know or want to believe that the Jews were all being gassed to death or worked to death. Would you believe that of our government if it were doing such a thing, or would you turn away from considering the possibility, play soccer or, as in the case of the Germans,work harder to win the war that their country had just gotten into?

War is why so many Germans who knew better or should have known better did nothing. Especially army officers who had the ability to change things. Their country was at war. They felt that they could get rid of Hitler and the Nazis after victory. Meantime they must fight for Germany against its old enemies even if they heard stories of terrible things being done, even if they were ordered to help round up Jews. After all, they may have thought: it was the Nazi SS troopers who were in charge of exterminating the Jews and Slavs and Gypsies and other enemies of the country, not the army. But they helped make it possible by collecting the victims.
So too did the local authorities in many towns in France, Poland, and other countries that Germany conquered. Most people didn’t like Jews and if the Jews could be sent away to “resettle “ in the east, then they could get the Jews’ homes and property. If this sounds like the treatment of Japanese Americans it was, of course, not the same; but the difference is one of degree not intent. White Americans would not have killed the Japanese Americans during WW II, but we don’t know whether they might have if the USA had been very poor and had just lost millions of men in a brutal war against Japan and been made to pay Japan for the cost of it? We like to think we would not have. We hope we wouldn’t have. But when things get worse little by little most people who at first think they wouldn’t do something awful can come to think it is OK to do it when their own jobs and homes and comfort are at risk and it seems that everyone else is doing it. Besides, this was the 1930s and 40s; most Americans thought of Japanese as just inferior bucktoothed yellow monkeys who worshiped idols, ate fish raw, and made their homes out of paper and sticks instead of cement block foundations and shingle siding like proper houses. How can that be? Communications, or rather lack of communication. Radio was a relatively new invention and there was no TV at all. Most Americans could remember when there weren’t even movies. Few people (even reporters) had college educations or had traveled very much. It took days to cross our continent by train and weeks to reach Asia by ship. All Americans knew about Japan was what they read in newspapers and magazines usually written by reporters who didn’t know much more than the readers. It is better today, of course; we know much more; but even today peasants in Afghanistan just look like dirty ignorant “ragheads” to some Americans.

Remember too that an infant at the end of WW I would be a man of 20 at the time of WW II and the holocaust. He would have been hungry as a child and all his life he would have been hearing how all Germany’s troubles were the fault of foreign enemies and depraved Jews. He would also have been told that Jews were less intelligent than other people, that they were “out to get” other people, that they were dirty and unfit to live; whereas Aryans like him were a super race who should and would repopulate the world and bring a new and glorious age if Germany could just get rid of its enemies at home and abroad. He would have been drafted into the German army and learned to think the way the government wanted him to. Most would be proud to be a Nazi who would bring about a better Aryan dominated world.

Did the Nazis believe this rubbish. Yes, it seems that many of them like Goebbels, the propaganda minister, really did. Others just went along. If you wanted a job and to stay out of trouble than you had to join the Nazi party; so you did so without much caring about the big picture.

Most Nazis had so lost any moral compass that they did believe this junk though. Very few of them were well educated men. They were mostly ordinary people who had gotten angry at Germany’s loss of WW I. They had come to believe that they could do anything they wanted to because they were doing so well as the Nazi party leadership that what Hitler and Goebbels and Himmler were saying must be true. Very few very successful people regret what they did to become successful. Things that we would call bad they simply see as necessary.

Of course there were some brave and good people both in Germany and in the occupied countries who did risk and often lose their own lives to hide Jews. Otto Schindler saved many people. Some priests and ministers were sent to death camps for speaking out against the Nazis. Others were simply shot. The memory of these people has been given a special place of honor in Israel today. Other people just left Europe (Such as the Trapp family singers and the actress and singer Marlene Dietrich.)


What of the guilt of the German people and nation. Despite everything I’ve written to explain the situation you must remember: Germany and Germans did start WW II and did murder over ten million people not counting twice as many killed in the war.

True, other peoples of Europe were antisemitic and some helped the Germans and most just tried not to look. But Germany did it, not the USA or France, or anyone else. Those pictures of Nazi stormtroopers are all of Germans.

Today Germans and Germany refuse to make excuses. (As they should not.) They rightly accept the blame. What I’ve written I’ve wrote to explain the circumstances not to excuse the Germans. But it is also true that few people alive today were adults or even teens during WW II and the holocaust. Germans today have worked very hard to return to being an honorable people. They have done much good in the world of which we hear very little. They have made a warm peace with their old enemies: France, England, Belgium, and the Netherlands. They are generally against war of any kind but have sent troops as peacekeepers into places where other people have been killing each other. Their scholars have returned to research in science and medicine and religion. What was done can never be undone but neither should any German today feel guilty. He didn’t kill Jews any more than I beat up Negroes or slaughtered Native Americans. These are a part of our history of which we are justly ashamed; but they are history. We go on with life and try to learn from the past so that such things do not happen again. Germany of the mid twentieth century was guilty but that was one period of about twenty years. The Germans before and after that time were not Nazis and are not Nazis.

The Nazis could be very stupid. Because they hated Jewish shopkeepers they drove the most educated of their people out of the country in the 1930s. The brilliant physicist Albert Einstein, himself a Jewish pacifist from Germany, suggested building the Atomic bomb to our president because he feared that Nazi Germany might get it first. In the years after WW I and before they were driven out of Germany or killed, the greatest music and art in Europe was being made by German Jews. In the centuries before the war many of Europe’s greatest composers were German Jews and its scientists German Jews. Many of these no longer practiced the Jewish religion but were still racially Jewish so Hitler got rid of them. Most, like Einstein, had thought of themselves as German Jews who had to put up with discrimination as Jews had always had to almost everywhere in Europe. Until Hitler came to power they thought that little by little things were getting better for them. It was only after other Jews were persecuted that men like Einstein began to think of themselves mainly as Jewish, not German.

But nothing I’ve written above explains how the Nazis could do what they did. How can humans send other humans to their deaths in gas chambers. The truth is that people can get used to doing terrible things. During the Vietnam war there was an incident at a village called Mi Lai. (Probably not the only one but the one that people found out about.) American soldiers lined up Vietnamese civilians including children and machine gunned them They did this because they believed that everyone in the village was helping the enemy who, of course, were trying to kill American soldiers. It was terrible and when it was revealed in the newspapers almost all Americans condemned it. They demanded that the officers in charge be brought to trial. Only one was. Still, though also a terrible thing and wrong, this was different from the kind of thing the Nazis did. Unfortunately, very bad things do happen in war but the holocaust began before WWII and had nothing to do with war.

How could they do it? First, the people most responsible – with a few exceptions – did not look at what they were doing. To them the Jewish people were just numbers on pieces of paper. Hitler never saw a death camp. Transporting Jews to death camps was just a matter of railway time tables. Building the camps with their death machines was just a mechanical problem. The exception was Heinrich Himmler who was probably more heartless and evil than Hitler. He was the head of the SS, an army of highly trained and fanatical Nazi troops. The SS fought fanatically well on the battlefield but are best remembered for their killing of the Jews and anyone else that Himmler considered worthless.

The actual killing was done by lower ranked German Nazis SS troops and some Polish guards who were just as antisemitic as the Nazis. Of course it was difficult for them at first; no sane man is a natural mass murderer. An SS soldier didn’t join the SS to kill Jews. He joined because he really believed in the Nazi propaganda about how Germans were a master race and he should help bring about a better world run by Germany. He became a monster only little by little. In the war he’d probably been ordered to do things that he did not want to do, like putting civilians onto trains going east. Like the Americans at Mi Lai he may have machine gunned innocent people because he was following orders and had been told that they were enemies. The first time he looked a Jew in the eye at a death camp and killed him he probably became sick. But with practice it got easier. Strangely, the ordinary SS guard was usually just like other people when he wasn’t killing people. In his mind he separated the rest of his life from the job he was doing for his country. None of this excuses his actions. No-one forced these soldiers to become SS mass murderers and push people into gas chambers. Even if they had been forced, it would have been wrong to kill thousands of innocent people even to save their own lives.

Certainly anyone who actively participated in the holocaust was guilty. One cannot just say he has no choice about murdering people. This the German nation accepts today and this is why it accepts the full blame for WW II and the holocaust without making any excuses or talking about the reasons I’ve noted that its people sank so low, or even noting that some people in other countries helped the Nazis too.

Weren’t some of the Nazis real monsters though? Yes. I am not going into detail about some of the things that some camp guards and camp commanders and their so-called “doctors” did. There were terrible cruel people who tortured prisoners for no reason at all – just for fun. Such people are called sadists. Civilized countries try to keep sadists away from running their prison systems but even those Nazis who weren’t sadists themselves didn’t care if others were; especially antisemitic Poles and Czechs who did much of the actual dirty work. Still, most ordinary guards weren’t sadists. they just felt they had a dirty job to do and did it just as the ordinary American soldiers at Mi Lai did. Most of those soldiers who rounded up Jews and Gypsies throughout Europe and sent them “East” probably felt the same. They did their dirty job and then went home to eat dinner. Such men were not monsters like the sadists but they could still have been punished for what they did do. They should have been, but for political reasons after the war most weren’t. Like the soldiers at Mi Lai, each of them has had to live with his own conscience.

Is Germany responsible for WW II and the deaths of over thirty million people? Yes. Unlike WW I which just sort of happened, Germany planned WW II. Whatever its humiliation by France after WW I nothing excuses starting a cruel war to take territory by killing innocent people, certainly not just thinking that you are a master race of supermen. It is estimated that Russia lost twenty-seven million people in WW II, either killed in combat, or in prison camps, or starved to death because of the brutality of the war. Other countries lost fewer but still large numbers of men and women and children. No country can do that to another and claim the right to do it just because it wanted more land or had been treated badly by its neighbors. For reasons that I won’t go into here the victorious allies did not punish the German people as they might have. In fact the USA helped to rebuild all the countries which had lost so much in WW II including Germany. This time France and Germany made a warm peace which has lasted for 65 years and will continue to last. Even so, Germans paid a terrible price. This time their country had been bombed and invaded. Their factories, railroads, and many of their homes were destroyed. They lost perhaps twenty million people killed. For many years the eastern part of Germany was occupied by its Russian enemies.

After the war some of the top Nazis were condemned and hanged. Some, including Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, and Himmler killed themselves. Some important ones not directly involved in crimes (mostly army officers or less important officials) spent some years in prison. Others with a lot of money escaped to countries with pro fascist leaders that hid them. The police forces of the world and the Israeli government and Jewish organizations are still looking for them. Some have been found and punished but most have died. They would be over 90 or 100 years old by now.

The army officer corps

In a way the regular army officers were more responsible than other people though. They were intelligent men, not brutes, and the only ones who could have stopped the Nazis. They thought it was against their duty to do so. A few, like field Marshal Rommel, refused to participate in rounding up Jews but it was only near the end of the war that they actually tried to kill Hitler and then it was because he was losing the war not because he was evil. Most concentrated on fighting the war and just pretended that they had nothing to do with the murders. A general who actually risked his life by disobeying Hitler’s order to burn Paris did so because it is such a beautiful city and he did not want to be remembered as the person who destroyed it. But he admitted after the war that he had sent Jews to “the East” because that was his orders. He said that it was the hardest thing he had ever done, but he did it. Without this mentality among otherwise decent people, there would have been no holocaust. Maybe the ordinary people could not do much without losing their own lives and endangering their families’ welfare but the German generals could have and didn’t. They didn’t think it was their job and that was a terrible sin. Soldiers shouldn’t be involved in “politics”, they claimed. They just “followed orders.”

Could it happen here?

Could it have happened in the USA? Probably not but we can’t take much credit. Our Jews were often disliked and the KKK yelled all sorts of bad stuff about them but the USA is an immigrant nation and few Americans would accept extreme measures against a single race. The African-Americans were already a beaten down race and very much servants to the whites of that time, so they could not be blamed for the country’s misfortunes. They were also needed by the whites to do much of the hard work in the southern states.

Even during the Great depression in the years just before WW II most Americans either hated Hitler and his kind of government or just wanted nothing to do with Europe and its ways. Could it ever happen here if things got as bad as they had in Germany? I don’t know. Some important Americans as well as some important people in other countries like England admired Hitler.

(Others wanted a Communist government like Stalin’s in Russia though they didn’t know the bad things that Stalin did, only how he had built up that country and was talking about the power of ordinary people to run every country).

After all, Hitler’s supporters in other countries reasoned, Hitler had made the trains run on time in Germany. He had built the great German highway system. He had given jobs to millions of people. He had made the victors of WW I afraid of the German air force and the tanks of its army. Some people here and in England thought these things were more important than his antisemitic ranting. But in the end, Americans and English resisted the extremes of both the Nazis and the Communists. During our depression the USA elected Franklin Roosevelt as president and he changed the way things were done in this country just enough to keep our way of life without turning either fascist (Nazi) or communist. We never became very near to a fascist government in this country or a communist one either but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t people in this country who didn’t endanger our freedom, just that as an immigrant nation they didn’t get very far. Let me get off the subject of Germany for a moment to warn you. After the destruction of the World Trade Center eight years ago a few Americans would have thrown all Arabs who weren’t US citizens out of the country. There were a few scares and anyone who looked Arab was suspected. It was hard for them to succeed in business here. Some of this still exists among those Americans who believe that everything the USA does or wants to do it should do regardless of other peoples. But we are immigrants or the children and grandchildren of immigrants, once the immediate scare was over most of us considered that that kind of behavior does more to hurt our country than help. The worst scare in grandpa’s lifetime was the McCarthy era not long after WW II. As I’ve noted above, in the 1930s there was some legitimate worry that this country might turn communist. There were a lot of Americans – some of them in our government and some in the moving picture industry – who thought that Stalin was doing a great job in Russia. They accepted the communist philosophy that all the workers of the world should unite against their governments and the rich people. This sounded like a good formula for prosperity and fairness and even the elimination of war since all workers would be brothers. Some of these people became communists and obeyed orders from Russia, many more were socialists who agreed with much of this philosophy but loved America too much to take orders from Stalin.

By the years immediately after WW II the depression was over, everyone had jobs, the government had started helping former soldiers pay for college educations which very few Americans had ever had before. People could buy homes and cars cheaply. Communism started to not look so good. Worse for the communists, Stalin’s murder of millions of peasants became known. It became known that millions more people were held in Russian prison camps just for criticizing him. He was betraying agreements for elections in the countries of middle Europe that the Germany army had been driven out of. Instead Russia was taking them over. There was worry that it would also take over all of Germany and other countries that were friendly to the USA. It was supporting rebels in Greece and China. War had broken out in Korea between the North supported by Russia and the south supported by America. Clearly, Stalin looked more and more like just another dictator like Hitler and less and less like a great leader for the working class. So most of our American communists left the communist party if they had belonged to it during the prewar years and instead worked for social equality through more “American” institutions like labor unions and the civil rights movement. However some serious damage had been done. In fact there were still some Stalinist communists in the government and some of them worked as spies for Russia. They stole many secrets of making atomic bombs and gave the secrets to Russia thus making it much easier for Russia to get that terrible weapon long before it would have without their help. When Stalin got the bomb any idea which some Americans had of putting the bomb under international United Nations control instead of American control had to end because Stalin wouldn’t do the same. This is one of the great tragedies of twentieth century and perhaps all world history. When Stalin tested Russia’s bomb Americans freaked out. We had not expected anyone else to have it. An American senator, Joseph McCarthy, began to harass all sorts of people who dared to criticize him or the government, or just had liberal or socialist ideas. Many people in government and in the film industry had their careers ruined because they had at one time belonged to a communist organization though most such people had innocently joined in hopes of world peace and a better world and had since left the organization when it became known that it was just a front for Stalin. Most Americans said that they agreed with McCarthy’s intention to root out pro Russian spies but hated his methods. Eventually they realized, however, that one could not save America by destroying our people’s right to say what they want and associate with whoever they want without fear of the government coming after them (a right secured by the US constitution). At last McCarthy destroyed himself. He held televised congressional hearings thinking he would look good and patriotic. He didn’t. Americans saw a nasty little man who only wanted to promote himself by destroying other people, not save America. He just yelled at and embarrassed people who were testifying instead of listening to them. At last some people from the army and from Hollywood fought back at the hearings and our citizens preferred what they said to McCarthy’s ranting. A famous and very respected news reporter, Edward R. Murrow, attacked McCarthy on television; others followed. At last Congress itself condemned him. That was probably as close as America has come to losing its freedoms. Why do I write this? As a warning of what can happen if a really bad man can get a lot of power at a time when the country is scared. It was not as bad as in Germany. I doubt there would have been a holocaust but there might have been war with Russia. We were very fortunate, but it was not luck. Our institutions and our history of freedoms saved the USA. Germany before Hitler did not have a history of such freedoms, neither had Russia before Stalin.

I hope this essay is understood not as excuses for Germany’s behavior but as a warning that we cannot be overly confident that something like it could not happen some day in the USA, just as Germans before WW I could not have believed that their advanced civilization of great artists and educators and scientists would ever sink so low. Most Germans of the nineteen twenties and thirties were no more monsters than other people are but we’re all capable of ignoring monstrous behavior when that is in our interest. No, I can’t imagine a holocaust here, but other terrible things could happen. After all, no citizen of republican Rome would have believed it possible that his country would one day be ruled by someone as evil as Nero or Caligula, but it happened. The Cambodian people have for many centuries been a calm, peaceful, and gentle people, but under the Pol Pot regime in the 1980’s hundreds of thousands were murdered. In Germany there was Hitler, in Russia there was Stalin. None of these were backward countries. They were all very civilized. President Thomas Jefferson wrote that “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

If you’ve read this far, you may be interested in in other essays
Essay on Nazis

Essay on Japan and Western Relations

Essay on Slavery

Essay on Obedience

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