How The Nazis Turned 250,000 Ordinary People Into Murderers

Whether killing with their own hands, orchestrating or quietly aiding and abetting, a disturbingly high number of people in voluntarily fell in line with the Nazi killing machine.

Himmler (center left) visiting the Mauthausen concentration camp in April 1941
Himmler (center left) visiting the Mauthausen concentration camp in April 1941
Sven Felix Kellerhoff

BERLIN â€" Who’s the culprit? At first sight, the question seems simple enough to answer. Obviously, the guilty party is the one who commits a crime, "with his own hands," we might add. But this definition is of course not always enough, especially when it comes to complex criminal networks. Heinrich Himmler for instance, probably never killed anybody "with his own hands," and yet he was one of the Holocaust’s main criminals. Just like Adolf Eichmann, the man who organized the mass deportations of Jews to concentration camps.

And what about for lower-ranking accomplices? The conductors who drove the trains to the concentration camps? The guards who prevented people from escaping when they were on their way to the gas chambers? The ordinary people who did nothing to stop the mass killings?

Current penal law in Germany calls it "aiding and abetting" of murder. Recently prosecutors opened new homicide cases against former concentration camp staff. None of the eight suspects, all now between 88 and 98 years old, are accused of carrying out a single murder, but rather of contributing to systematic killing.

Since there is no statute of limitations on murder, criminal proceedings can begin even 70 years later. Since 2011, 58 cases have been opened against people accused of being part of the staff of such extermination camps as Auschwitz-Birkenau or Majdanek. Fifty-two of the proceedings have been closed, while two have led to convictions and four cases still underway.

If there are still that many potential culprits alive after seven decades, the question arises: How many culprits were there in total? It is a question that goes well beyond the workings of a criminal justice system.

Frank Bajohr of Munich's institute for contemporary history, has delved back into the issue, which was first a topic for study in the 1990s. Today, we think that there have been 200,000 to 250,000 German, Austrian and "ethnic German" Holocaust culprits. To this must be added a not easily quantifiable number of collaborators from Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine who committed pogroms against Jews or acted in some other way as "volunteers" to aid the carrying out of the killings.

If you take a closer look at the German culprits, one notices that as a matter of fact, a disturbing number of them can be qualified either as sadists, or otherwise mentally ill. But the majority was quite sane. Another theory that Bajohr refutes is the assumption that the cruelties experienced during World War I could be held responsible for the crazy killing during World War II.

Individual motives like greed, jealousy, sexual motives and other typical triggers â€" something criminologists instinctively always look for first â€" could not be found with the majority of culprits either.

Something that has clearly been disproved is the common allegation that Nazi culprits acted under superior orders, fearing for their own life if they didn’t obey. It’s actually quite the opposite: Often it was the free choice to sign up to participate in the mass killing.

So what was it that made ordinary people, Germans and Austrians, kill thousands of defenseless people, sometimes in acts of direct violence, often in less direct ways?

The murder factories of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka where a few offenders killed enormous numbers of humans with the help of technical support, were responsible for "only" half of the six million victims of the Holocaust. The rest were hunted down, shot or starved to death before the eyes of many. What explains the ease of this immense outbreak of violence?

Comradeship plays a major role, without a doubt. Bajohr describes it with the help of a 1933 quote from the publicist Sebastian Haffner that relates to a training camp for lawyers-to-be: "Comradeship entirely eliminates the feeling of individual responsibility. The person simply behaves like everybody else, does what everyone does."

That’s how many but not all of the Holocaust crimes can be explained. With its open anti-Semitic politics, the Nazi regime outlawed the very existence of Jews. Most people’s individual conscience had been turned off. They knew that they were part of the machinery of destruction, even those who were typing letters in the concentration camps’ offices. But, a perverse reinterpretation of the word "comradeship" made them consider it their duty to continue, to "function."

Most culprits have, more or less, gotten away with their crimes. In total, only about 7,000 have been convicted in German courts, 172 with life imprisonment. It is a frustrating result, considering the 170,000 accused by authorities. Some 30,000 to 80,000 of the missing ones, did not live past the year 1945, but the majority simply went underground, managing to avoid public prosecution. And thus we are with the lessons of history, which include this dictum: Without an accused, there is no trial.

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.



• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.


"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.



For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.


Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

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We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.


Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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