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Answering AuschwitzPrimo Levi's Science and Humanism after the Fall$

Stanislao G. Pugliese

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780823233588

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823233588.001.0001

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(p.17) Chapter 1Warum?”
Answering Auschwitz

Joram Warmund

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

During his initiation into what one survivor labeled the “Holocaust Kingdom” and others would describe as the “Anus Mundi,” the young and naïve Auschwitz prisoner, Primo Levi reached outside a window for an icicle to quench his thirst. A guard patrolling outside rudely slapped it away, prompting Primo to ask, “Warum?” Why? The reply was, “Hier ist kein warum.” Here there is no why. This chapter provides useful insights into the studies of the Holocaust. Using primarily historiographic, not archival, material, it delineates the diverse roles of the perpetrators, and then narrows its focus to those who perceived themselves as victims of forces beyond their control, and to those who participated in acts of brutality and mass murder but still appeared and acted as ordinary people.

Keywords:   Holocaust Kingdom, Anus Mundi, Auschwitz prisoner, Warum, mass murder

During his initiation into what one survivor labeled the “Holocaust Kingdom”1 and others would describe as the “Anus Mundi,”2 the young and naïve Auschwitz prisoner Primo Levi reached outside a window for an icicle to quench his thirst. A guard patrolling outside rudely slapped it away, prompting Primo to ask, “Warum?” Why? The reply was, “Hier ist kein warum.” Here there is no why. In Levi's words: “The explanation is repugnant but simple: in this place everything is forbidden, not for hidden reasons, but because the camp has been created for that purpose.”3

Indeed, more than sixty years later, the “Warums” have not been answered but have only been multiplied: Why the killings? Why the brutality connected with the killings? Yes, we know the racial rationalizations, and, yes, we also know that the demolition of human beings—their humiliation and debasement—went part and parcel with the killings within and outside the Lagers. The “process,” particularly at the execution sites and in the extermination camps, was almost mechanical and impersonal, as in a factory conveyor belt system; yet we also know that the perpetrators were more than robotic executioners. Many of them made sport of their jobs, humiliating and debasing men, women and children, and performing incredible acts of cruelty. We also know that the hands-on killers came from all walks of life and were transformed into enthusiastic murderers. (p.18) They very often carried out their duties in sadistic ways that challenge human comprehension.

Two of the still unanswered whys remain: How was it possible to transform everyday people into rabid murderers? Why did apparently normal people become avid killers? These are some of the most essential questions driving the continuing explosion of Holocaust publications. Addressing these questions requires a synopsis of the current status of contemporary approaches to Holocaust studies.

The Holocaust is most often presented chronologically, in book form or in classroom curricula, in order to provide a developmental context and to facilitate explanatory analyses. The literature has varied widely, but can be reduced to two major approaches: top-down, from the perspective of the perpetrators, and bottom-up, from the point of view of the victims. Within these approaches, some studies explain the Holocaust as a primarily German historical event; others broaden the scope to include the non-German initiatives.

These four broad perceptual combinations provide useful insights into the studies of the Holocaust; they also create large gaps between them. This essay begins to bridge some of those gaps. Using primarily historiographic, not archival, material, it delineates the diverse roles of the perpetrators, then narrows its focus to those who perceived themselves as victims of forces beyond their control, and to those who participated in acts of brutality and mass murder but still appeared and acted as ordinary people. A larger work, now in progress, will eventually expand the scope to include the victims and bystanders.

What is needed is some functional framework that will weave together the various human components. One very useful construct that avoids the organizational pitfalls of most Holocaust literature is introduced in Raul Hilberg's Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933–1945.4 It provides a workable model that can be applied across nations while also greatly—but not entirely—resolving the top-down/bottom-up perceptual limitations of most other works. However, Hilberg's approach loses the sense of chronological development and, by placing individuals and groups in rigid categories, it tends to harden their distinctions at the expense of recognizing their commonalities. The dynamics and fluidity of human behavior within and across these categorizations is thereby submerged or lost.

It was the radically contradictory behavior demonstrated by people in the “Victims” category that led Primo Levi to describe a phenomenon he labeled the “Gray Zone.”5 Similarly, in explaining the behavior of a (p.19) subcategory of perpetrators, Robert Jay Lifton suggested that the Auschwitz doctors exhibited a psychological phenomenon of “doubling.”6 Neither the perpetrators nor the victims were monolithic groups. There were differences between and among them reflecting internal distinctions; but the existence of extreme paradoxical behavior within the categories of perpetrators and victims suggests that a behavioral dualism operated on both sides of the demarcation.

The combining of Lifton's “doubling” and Levi's “Gray Zone” into one concept of behavioral dualism provides us with a more continuous and broader behavioral spectrum that functioned on both sides of the enclosures (camps or ghettos), and, to varying extents, was also manifested in the wider social settings of war-torn Europe. The demarcation lines between (sub)categories were not set concretely. Individual actions varied with real and/or imagined pressures. What surfaced were contradictory, sometimes radically paradoxical, instances of human conduct within each category. There may even have been some symmetry of responses on both sides of the perpetrator-victim divide. In its most extreme form some individuals could simultaneously act and perceive themselves—and be perceived by others as well—as both abusers and victims.

In developing a new working paradigm it becomes necessary first to refine the broad categories of perpetrator, victim, and bystander. Raul Hilberg has already identified some useful distinctions among the perpetrators. He begins with Hitler as the “supreme architect of the operation”7 and then continues with the progression of “a vast establishment of familiar functionaries and ascending newcomers.”8 Within this “conglomeration,” Hilberg writes, “some men displayed eagerness, while others had doubts. … When the process was extended to the four corners of Europe, the machinery of destruction became international as Germans were joined” by non-Germans.9

Hilberg's diagram of the perpetrators proceeds as follows: “Adolf Hitler”; “The Establishment”; “Old Functionaries”; “Newcomers”; “Zealots, Vulgarians, and Bearers of Burdens”; “Physicians and Lawyers”; “Non-German Governments”; and “Non-German Volunteers.”10 This organization is primarily functional in its design and therefore is only partially adaptable to the creation of a behavioral spectrum. For this study, borrowing Hilberg's language, the progression might be better designed from “zealots” to “vulgarians” to “bearers of burdens.” Such a behavioral mode cuts across career and national identities and connects to situational conditions of proximity or opportunity. Thus, the closer the perpetrators came to the targeted victims, the more defined their roles became, and the (p.20) less room existed for them to exercise alternate courses of action. At that point the phenomenon of “doubling” became increasingly more evident. Under the pressure of fulfilling expected roles most did their “duty”; some (the zealots) enjoyed their roles more than others, while others proceeded with a sense of misgiving; a few opted out, requesting transfers to other duties and functions.11 Still others exhibited a duality of responses that vacillated from occasion to occasion or operated concurrently, as in the Lifton “doubling” examples.

Christopher Browning refines Hilberg's organization by referring to different levels of perpetrators. Within the “lower echelon” he introduces a spectrum from “sadists” to “killers without remorse” to “passive executors of orders” and to “abstainers” who nevertheless contributed in other ways to the killing activities.12 He concludes that a “significant minority” of the Order Police squads he studied were “eager killers.” Some were transformed into that role by the situation, while others—he now concedes, contrary to his earlier assessment in Ordinary Men—were already ideologically preconditioned for the task. He further concludes that still another ten to twenty percent of these squads evaded direct involvement. They chose to opt out of the hands-on killings for alternative assignments—such as assisting in the roundups and guarding the prisoners—which were still necessary for the successful administration of these “actions”; and these evasions were accepted. In Browning's words, “evasion was easily tolerated but protest and obstruction most emphatically were not.”13

Browning connects those engaged in the face-to-face executions with those who were involved in the other stages of the extermination process into a wider hierarchy of perpetrators. In this compartmentalized manner, each segment was connected with the others. In his words, “On the local level, they [the eager killers] formed a crucial nucleus for the killing process in the same way as eager and ambitious initiators at the middle echelons and Hitler, Himmler and Heydrich at the top. Their influence was far out of proportion to their numbers in German society.”14

The local-level perpetrator subcategories are seen on a continuum. At one end was a group of people who were thoroughly committed to the most extreme aspects of the Nazi agenda; in between were those who sought some form of evasion from the more brutal part of the operations but assisted in the various supportive activities needed to accomplish the “Aktion”; and at the other end were those (a very few) who approached the opposite extreme of protest and obstruction. Browning's top-down view is primarily focused on the perpetrators, as is this essay, and does not (p.21) satisfy the need to examine events from the perspective of the victims. He begins to provide such an approach in the case of the Starachowice Jewish workers, but primarily with the intent to explain better the varieties of perpetrators.15

Browning's interconnected grouping provides a useful model for analyzing each segment individually. By such an approach it may become possible to find points of commonality traversing the entire perpetrators hierarchy. One such attempt was undertaken by four prominent psychologists: Eric Zillmer, Molly Harrower, Barry Ritzler, and Robert Archer. They analyzed the Rorschach protocols of the Nazi leaders who were tried at Nuremberg in 1945–1946 and compared them to Rorschachs taken by 148 rank-and-file Danish Nazi collaborators who were also placed on trial right after the Second World War, with suggestive but inconclusive results.16 In comparing the two groups, the four psychologists noticed no distinctive set of characteristics that would define a Nazi personality. In fact, although some were diagnosed as pathological sadists, most of those tested exhibited characteristics considered within the range of regular members in society; they were basically ordinary men.

Perhaps the most vexing, and crucial, subgroup to understand is not the sadists but those who were indistinguishable from everyday people, that is, the “ordinary” persons who were transformed into the face-to-face killers. Two primary dilemmas emerge from studying this subgroup that are implicit within Primo Levi's “Warum?” First, why did apparently “ordinary” people—who before and after the war had belonged to what we might call “normal” society, who were good neighbors and law-abiding citizens—transform into brutal murderers of defenseless men, women and children? Second—and this dilemma is not confined to the rank and file—why did many of these perpetrators later, paradoxically, describe themselves as victims of circumstances?17

In response to the first dilemma, a wide variety of explanations has been proposed, relying on the perspectives of a broad spectrum of academic disciplines, each one plausible with specific subgroups or in specific instances. In summary, Holocaust analysts have consistently referred to a mixture of psychological, ideational, and situational conditions to explain the transition. They have differed on the degree of emphasis each ingredient played in the overall mix. So, some argue the impact of the environmental context: that the proximity of the target population, the opportunity to undertake an initiative without a negative repercussion, the prior preparation of the individual in group training sessions (both in functional/organizational as well as in opinion-forming preconditioning), (p.22) and the development of group pressure to be “hard” enough to do one's duty, all were situational conditioners that turned normal people into energetic executioners. Other scholars—while usually accepting situational factors—have nevertheless stressed the primacy of ideational conditioning, that a prior cultural-ideological immersion into the rationale for undertaking such activities had taken place that created the mentality that objectified the victims into a threat; still others would argue further that a degree of personal predisposition toward violence must have also existed that facilitated the conversion of a large minority of ordinary people into mass murderers.

Christopher Browning, in his Ordinary Men, originally belonged closer to the situational school. The members of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were mostly working-class, middle-aged police reservists from the city of Hamburg. In early 1940 they were assigned tours of duty that became incrementally more brutal and deadly. Browning provides the predominant explanations that have already been proposed in other similar situations to explain the battalion's behavior. In his words, “wartime brutalization, racism, segmentation and routinization of the task, special selection of the perpetrators, careerism, obedience to orders, deference to authority, ideological indoctrination, and conformity. These factors are applicable in varying degrees, but none without qualifications.”18

Browning proceeds to deal with each of these factors and finds them all partially valid, and therefore also partially invalid. Without clearly selecting one set of explanations over others, Browning nevertheless is far more categorical in limiting the influence of ideological—that is, racist and anti-Semitic—indoctrination. He prefers instead the argument of the irresistibility of group pressure and conformity. Again, in his words: “To break ranks and step out, to adopt overtly nonconformist behavior, was simply beyond most of the men. It was easier for them to shoot.”19

Sharply contradicting Browning's explanations for the transformation of ordinary Germans into enthusiastic killers, Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners ascribes primacy to ideational factors—that is, to a special form of German anti-Semitism that had created a broad consensus within German society to remove the Jews. It was therefore relatively easy to find the needed killers who would put into action what was already a commonly held set of beliefs. So, the perpetrators were a representative sample of German society; they were “willing executioners,” faithfully actualizing the wishes of their society.20 In short, the virulent, “eliminationist” anti-Semitism had been so deeply ingrained, had so thoroughly permeated German society that the actions of the perpetrators were not (p.23) really the result of a situationally induced transformation but, instead, were the logical result of prior years of intensive indoctrination.

Goldhagen's book became an instant best-seller, but it also attracted widespread criticism from Holocaust scholars. Browning felt compelled to add a special “afterword” in his 1998 edition to respond to Goldhagen's numerous direct challenges. Yehuda Bauer, the former director of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem and a pre-eminent Holocaust historian, devoted substantial space, two chapters out of eleven, in his Rethinking the Holocaust on the current state of Holocaust historiography.21 In his presentation, he does not provide the usual synopsis of the main schools of Holocaust literature. Instead, he analyzes some of the more prominent Holocaust interpretations of the last two decades. The works of Zygmunt Bauman, Jeffrey Herf, Goetz Aly, Daniel Goldhagen, John Weiss, and Saul Friedländer are carefully scrutinized.

In each case—other than with Friedländer, whose considerable contributions are not germane to this specific topic—Bauer assesses the strengths and weaknesses of their arguments and provides some salient conclusions of his own. Thus, Bauman's and Herf's stress on the rate and type of modernization experienced in Germany, and Aly's argument that the “Final Solution” was the result of the Nazi middle management's Malthusian obsessions with effecting a favorable population shift in accordance with the priorities of “Lebensraum,” are all carefully stated and then challenged with specifics that obviate the stated theses. The main deficiency of all three, Bauer contends, is that the ideological influences are undervalued. In his judgment, “all those who want to divorce the Holocaust from anti-Semitism arrive at a dead end.”22 And, again, “we have to see that the motivation was not bureaucratic but ideological.”23

So, having disposed of the more recent proponents of the various situational arguments in one chapter, Bauer spends the next one dealing with the internal variances within the ideational school. Although he prefers an ideational perspective and credits Goldhagen with a timely redressing of a previous imbalance that had favored the situational models, Bauer is no supporter of the Goldhagen thesis. In fact, aside from some kind words in support of Goldhagen, Bauer's analysis of Hitler's Willing Executioners amounts to a dissection. Goldhagen's central thesis, to Bauer, is a simplistic, monocausal, and erroneous treatment of a complex historical issue. Indeed, Bauer contends, the John Weiss book “provides a much more cogent answer to the problem of anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria.”24 Bauer juxtaposes the Weiss and Goldhagen treatments of anti-Semitism to illustrate the flaws in the Goldhagen position. Bauer also (p.24) rejects Goldhagen's assertion of a unique form of German anti-Semitism in light of the existence of similar outbreaks of murderous anti-Semitism in other European regions, including Romania, Ukraine, and the Baltic, where the mass murder of the Jews was frequently initiated and conducted by local, non-German, perpetrators.25 Still further, Bauer argues, even when he had a good opportunity to make his case, Goldhagen undermined his own argument by using the wrong examples. In Bauer's words: “did not Goldhagen promise to present us with proof that ordinary Germans, and not the Nazi S.S. elite, were willing executioners? He took the wrong examples and flunked his own test.”26 Yet, despite all of these criticisms, Bauer remains well entrenched in what might be described as a modified version of the ideational school; and Browning has meanwhile moved closer to a moderated situational viewpoint that recognizes a greater degree of ideological influence than he had originally accepted in his Ordinary Men.27

The third, and perhaps oldest, school of interpretation of perpetrator behavior relies on psychological perspectives and investigations conducted as early as the late 1940s, which continued through the 1960s and 1970s. It is within this category that we find the often cited works of Theodor Adorno, S. E. Asch, Philip Zimbardo, and Stanley Milgram, which Christopher Browning individually examines and finds of limited value to explain the behavior of his police reservists.28 Richard Rhodes, in his treatment of the killing squads that were especially selected for their extermination assignments—clearly, one would have to assume, not ordinary people—goes beyond the earlier psychological studies to rely on the more recent research of criminologist Lonnie Athens on the development of the violent criminal personality. Apparently, the “violent socialization” process of any individual passes through four distinct stages from “brutalization” to “belligerence,” “violent performance,” and, finally, “virulency.”29 Thus it can be inferred, as Rhodes seems to do, that even ordinary men could be conditioned—by a combination of ideational indoctrination and experiential, trauma-inducing training sessions—to pass through these stages of transformation. The process was not limited to individuals who already had predispositions toward violence; it applied as well to ordinary men who served in various organized German services, such as the police and military units studied by David Goldhagen and Omer Bartov respectively.30

Yet, addressing the atrocities from a primarily German historical perspective does not properly explain the actions of non-German, or non-Austrian, perpetrators. Hilberg, for example, describes the many thousands of non-German volunteers throughout Europe, and particularly in (p.25) the Baltic, Ukrainian, and Byelorussian regions alone, who actively joined the Nazi cause in military units and as concentration camp guards and as initiators of mass murder. They were usually organized into auxiliary police units assigned to support the activities of the notorious Einsatzgruppen. Some of them roamed far beyond the confines of their national boundaries, actively and enthusiastically fulfilling their objectives of killing Jews.31 These anti-Jewish actions were not limited to organized, native paramilitary or police units. Early in the invasion of the Baltic states, for example, they were also conducted by recently released Lithuanian convicts and by less formally organized groups of civilian volunteers, often in open squares where local women were seen holding up their children for a better view of the slaughter.32

In the Polish town of Jedwabne, on July 10, 1941, approximately 1,200 Jewish men, women and children were massacred by their neighbors. Many of them were first tortured and then clubbed or knifed to death; others were drowned. Most of the victims were eventually herded into a barn and burned alive. The perpetrators were men from that town.33 Clearly, the widespread active participation of non-German hands-on killers cannot be explained by an exclusive concentration on German history.

The emergence of the various psychological experiments dealing with the transformation of ordinary people into assorted types of abusers up to the level of murderers has certainly obligated historians to investigate their applicability for explaining perpetrator behavior. What complicates full reliance on these psychological studies is that they are themselves limited by the population samples studied. None of the experiments were conducted in a war environment, nor did they deal with ordinary Germans or ordinary Europeans. The Adorno investigation of an authoritarian personality, the Asch experiments on social conformity, the studies of Milgram on obedience to authority, the Zimbardo studies of prison life, and the more recent work of Athens on the development of the criminal mind have all been reviewed by historians of the Holocaust with varying degrees of acceptance; but underlying all of these studies, and what makes them problematic for convincingly explaining the behavior of the perpetrators, is the fact that the people investigated were ordinary Americans. Therefore, acceptance of any of the psychological findings must presuppose, on the part of the historian, a commonality of behavioral patterns that may include but must transcend any unique cultural characteristics. Any historian who stresses the existence of peculiar or special national or cultural historical paths is limited in his use of most of the psychological material so far produced. The same also applies to proposals of a unique process of (p.26) social acculturation—such as with the development of the concept of the existence of a life not worthy of life—that prepared German society for what ensued.34 The Holocaust cannot be fully explained from an exclusive study of any one national history. The existence of incontrovertible evidence of an active, widespread non-German participation in the killing process and the concomitant acceptance of postwar psychological studies conducted with American subjects therefore require the historian to relent on the issue of a uniquely German—or uniquely regional—explanation for the atrocities of the Holocaust and to broaden his scope of inquiry.

Of course, the alternative to a generic psychological interpretation of perpetrator behavior that would augment the unique ideational, situational, and cultural explanations would require psychological investigations of subjects who operated in the historical and cultural environment in which the atrocities took place. At the very least, the kind of tests originally conducted in the United States would have to be repeated with randomly selected ordinary Europeans. Examinations of the criminals themselves would have certainly been the best option. Unfortunately, that opportunity was lost at the time; very few of the captured perpetrators were ever psychologically tested.

One rare attempt to create a psychological profile of an actual and particularly vicious and cold-blooded murderer was published in Germany in 2003. It recounted the life, capture and execution of “SS-man” Josef Blösche. Blösche was a policeman who used to take human “hunting” and “target shooting” expeditions through the Warsaw ghetto, shooting pedestrians on the streets or unsuspecting people sitting by the windows of their apartments. He also entered various living quarters and shot babies in their beds. During the Warsaw ghetto uprising, he was active in its suppression and in the subsequent roundup of the residual population, a large number of whom were randomly selected out of lines of prisoners and shot by Blösche and his colleagues. Some of the more famous photographs of the period—one of a roundup, showing him in the background pointing a rifle at a young boy with raised hands, and another where he is accompanying General Jürgen Stroop during an inspection of the ghetto at the end of the uprising—have become world-famous. After the war, he settled in East Germany, married, had children, and led an uneventful life. He kept his prior life a secret from all those around him, including his wife and children. His neighbors considered him an especially good per-son who could always be relied upon to help out when extra hands were needed to push a car that was stuck or to accept extra duties when someone was sick at work. Eventually the Stasi, the German state police, discovered (p.27) him. He was arrested, interrogated, and then tried on some twenty-five separate counts, ranging from participation in actions that killed more than a thousand people (he admitted to “only” three hundred) to the murder of one or two children at a time on the open streets of the ghetto. Finally, twenty-four years after the end of the war, on July 29, 1969, Blösche was executed, and his remains were disposed of in an unmarked grave.

The story was revisited in 2003 by two German writers, Heribert Schwann and Helgard Heindrichs, who dedicated large sections of their book to creating a psychological profile of Blösche. What emerges from the findings of the various experts who examined the relevant available material is a man who had been influenced by the group mentality of his unit. He soon changed from a follower of the men in his group into an example for them. The psychological studies conducted some thirty years after his death analyzed his family history, the commentaries from his postwar co-workers and neighbors, the available testimony of wartime eyewitnesses, even his handwriting, and concluded that Blösche was a deeply disturbed personality. He was a sadist who, by the circumstances of his time, had gained a position of control over helpless and unprotected people. Yet, his upbringing in the Sudetenland was not radically different from that of millions of other ordinary Germans, and although he wound up in Einsatzgruppe B, by age and background he fits the profile of the reserve policemen described by Browning and Goldhagen, whom Edward Westermann has recently restudied.35 At one point, during his time in Russia, these inner tendencies were released by the unfettered opportunity to exercise unlimited power over defenseless people.36

Another psychological study of assorted Nazi war criminals came out in 1995 but has received relatively little publicity or recognition. Four psychologists—already mentioned earlier—revisited the previously poorly analyzed and difficult to obtain Rorschach tests of two distinct groups of Nazis: the leadership group that was tried at Nuremberg in 1945–1946, and a large group of rank-and-file Danish Nazi perpetrators who were tried in Copenhagen in 1946. Their book, The Quest for the Nazi Personality, engaged these four professional psychologists in a mighty effort but apparently resulted in proving very little. They concluded that they could not identify such a thing as a Nazi personality. Yet, this work may still prove to be more valuable than one may assume at first reading.

The subjects scrutinized were indigenous Europeans. They were either prominent members of the German regime or members of the rank and file. Soon after the end of the war, they all took Rorschach exams that (p.28) could be empirically—that is, nonsubjectively—evaluated. Their original responses were now recalibrated in accordance with the latest Rorschach assessment guidelines. In all of these ways, these samples differ fundamentally from the psychological experiments conducted with American subjects, some of them over two decades after the conclusion of the war. Thus, these Nazi protocols provide an important component that was previously missing from the psychological school of interpretation. These tests of actual participants in Holocaust violence—which involved individuals at different levels of participation—were assessed with special care to cultural and national characteristics. It was also recognized that the responses were being compared with a normative sample compiled in the United States four decades later. Thus, accommodations were made to restrict their findings to include only the most reliable “conclusions”; these were presented as “descriptive” and “tentative,” pending further test samples.37 Still, despite all of these evaluative restrictions and although limited in the total number of subjects tested, these protocols provide insights into what the perpetrators were really thinking at the time, rather than what others who were far removed in time, geography, and culture might do under simulated conditions. The Nazi Rorschach evaluations have taken into account both the cultural distinctiveness and the common human characteristics of those tested. Thus, the gap between the American simulations and the tests of some of the actual perpetrators is narrowed; and, consequently, the insights gained from both sides of the Atlantic may indeed be pertinent and make the psychological school of interpretation more valid. Then, the implicit separations of the situational, ideational, and psychological perspectives can also be reconciled.

The findings of the four psychologists may also suggest a possible new glimpse into one of the enigmas raised earlier: the curious fact that so many of the postwar defendants—even after their fates had been sealed and they had nothing to gain from obfuscations—still persisted in describing themselves as victims of circumstances. These perpetrators could exhibit behavioral dualism—what Lifton labeled as “doubling” and Primo Levi described as the contradictory behavior of some prisoners in the “Gray Zone”—which allowed them at the same time to exhibit the diametrically opposite behaviors of brutal killers and empathetic, even model, members of a community. One of the psychologists, Barry Ritzler, compared the Rorschach tests of the Nazi leaders with those of the Danish rank and file and noticed a higher than usual incidence of chameleon characteristics in both groups. The data were not sufficient to draw any firm conclusions. Chameleons are abundant in Europe, and they often figure in the responses to the inkblot cards used (p.29) in these tests. Still, to Ritzler, in his words: “The content of a chameleon presents a tempting speculation for the personality of a rank-and-file Nazi.”38 The finding is suggestive but inconclusive. Many more Rorschachs of ordinary Europeans are needed to establish whether or not the chameleon tendency of large numbers of the rank and file and of the leaders tested was representative of Europeans in general or was a distinguishing characteristic of the Nazis, and especially of the perpetrators.

The three schools of interpretation each offer plausible—but not exclusive, nor complete—responses to Primo Levi's “Why?” It seems that no one reason by itself would, or could, apply in all cases. Once the killings started, a desensitizing followed—usually reinforced with pep talks from unit leaders and with a concomitant increase in alcohol consumption—which facilitated and habituated the daily process. Still, the impetus for the first killings remains an enigma.

Certainly, Bauer is correct to assert that without anti-Semitism there can be no Holocaust; but anti-Semitism existed before and after the war and does not, by itself, explain the conversion of the rank and file, even of racists, into mass murderers at this specific point in time. Anti-Semitism was a historical constant throughout the regions involved—the equivalent of gravity or of air. To argue that it was the cause—in the case of Goldhagen, as the primary cause—is the equivalent to explaining someone's drowning to the existence of water. It is too generalized to be used as a cause. In many cases, it may have been a rationalization, or an after the fact explanation, but not the trigger that impelled individuals to act.

The situational argument offers the context and opportunity necessary for the commission of the crimes; but again, by itself, it does not explain why the Jews were especially targeted for destruction. Segments of other social, ethnic, and national groups were also mistreated, abused and killed; but the Jews were selected for total annihilation. This distinction requires the retention of the ideational school, at the very least, as an important component in a multicausal explanation. A refinement of the situational argument does in fact depend on incorporating some of the ideational and psychological perspectives. The inner dynamics—that is, the special culture—at work within the killing groups seem to have combined the situational, ideational, and psychological impulses into the potent potion necessary to fortify most of the individual members with the resolve to get on with the job at hand.39 In such an environment, the real exceptions were those who could not find the inner strength to participate in the killings. They were excused without risking more than a loss of face with their “buddies.”

(p.30) The psychological reasons, which should be the most persuasive, suffer from internal difficulties. Testing ordinary people from another time and place is a poor substitute for not having examined the actual perpetrators, especially since the opportunity to do so existed when they were first captured at the end of the war. Still, if we accept the obvious, that there is such a thing as a human commonality—that Europeans, despite their varied cultural and historical identities, are nevertheless members of the human community who share certain similar characteristics with other humans—we may then apply many of the psychological observations derived from samples in the United States, at least partially, to understand better the behavior and motivation of the German and non-German perpetrators.

One final observation still remains: In none of the main literature dealing with this dilemma of the conversion of ordinary people into sadistic killers is there any serious treatment of an incontrovertible fact: the existence of a radical imbalance in power between the perpetrators and the victims. The atrocities could be, and were, carried out with total impunity. No restraining force—be it an inner restraint or an external one—was present to inhibit the killing of defenseless human beings. In terms of real power, no one fought for the Jew. No fear of retaliation existed to stay the hand of the masters. Whether it was the physicians who sat at the crossroads of life and death, the common soldiers and policemen, or the non-German volunteers in the various regions of Nazi occupied Europe, none of them needed to fear the usual consequences to be expected from committing acts that clearly would not be accepted in normal society. In fact, the sadists who would be shunned in a civilized society now had free rein.

It would take extraordinary qualities to resist the temptation of acting like a god, possessing intoxicating power over life and death. In the East, “euphoria of empire,” or an “intoxication with the East,” an “Ostrauch,” seemed to prevail.40 The very fact that today Yad Vashem honors the “Righteous Among Nations” who protected—rather than turned over or persecuted—the victims is a recognition of their exceptional behavior, which, on further reflection, should have been the prevailing mentality.41

So, in response to Primo Levi's “Warum?”—even while accepting some, or any, combination of the explanations already considered—perhaps the answer may be far less complicated—and more disturbing—than previously considered. Like a childhood bully who responds to a victim's “Why?” with a “Because,” the most nakedly honest response that Primo's guard could, and should, have given was: “Because I can!”


(1.) Alexander Donat, The Holocaust Kingdom (Washington, D.C.: U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1999).

(2.) Abraham J. Edelheit and Herschel Edelheit, History of the Holocaust: A Handbook and Dictionary (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994), 188.

(3.) Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, trans. Stuart Woolf (New York: Collier Books, 1993), 29.

(4.) Raul Hilberg, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1993–1945 (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).

(5.) Levi, Survival in Auschwitz. See also, Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Vintage International, 1989).

(6.) Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 1986), 418–429.

(7.) Hilberg, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, ix.

(9.) ibid., x.

(10.) ibid., 3–102.

(11.) See Christopher R. Browning, Nazi Policy, Jewish Workers, German Killers (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), for his treatment of (p.250) the “spectrum of response” of members of the Order Police who participated in the incremental steps of the Holocaust, from deportations to ghetto clearings to hands-on killings; see as well his Ordinary Men, Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998).

(12.) Browning, Nazi Policy, 156.

(13.) ibid., 175.

(15.) ibid., 144.

(16.) See Eric A. Zillmer, Molly Harrower, Barry A. Ritzler, and Robert P. Archer, The Quest for the Nazi Personality: A Psychological Investigation of Nazi War Criminals (Mahwah, N. J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1995).

(17.) ibid. See Jochen von Lang with Claus Sibyll, Eichmann Interrogated: Transcripts from the Archives of the Israeli Police (New York: Da Capo Press, 1999), 107, 150–151; Gitta Sereny, Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience (New York: Vintage Books, 1983); Rudolf Höss, Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz (Buffalo, N. Y.: Prometheus Books, 1992); and the opening narration on Greise in film documentary The Nazis: A Warning From History (New York: Video Group, BBC Documentary).

(18.) Browning, Ordinary Men, 184.

(20.) Daniel J. Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Knopf, 1996), 417–455.

(21.) Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

(22.) ibid., 86.

(23.) ibid., 92.

(24.) ibid., 99.

(25.) ibid., 106–107.

(26.) ibid., 108.

(27.) Browning, Nazi Policy, 175.

(28.) Browning, Ordinary Men, 165–176, for the degrees of relevance of the Adorno, Asch, Zimbardo, and Milgram experiments for explaining perpetrator behavior; see also Zillmer et al., Quest, 5–6.

(29.) Richard Rhodes, Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), 22.

(30.) ibid., xii, 26–27, for the references to Omer Bartov; see also, Gold-hagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners, 206–207, where he profiles the members of Police Battalion 101 as virtually interchangeable with any random sample of ordinary Germans; see also Omer Bartov, Germany's War and the Holocaust: Disputed Histories (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003), where the (p.251) Wehrmacht shot thousands of commissars, conducted a “uniquely savage war,” and was thoroughly implicated in the Holocaust, 8, 13, 14–15.

(31.) Hilberg, Perpetrators, 93–102; see also Rhodes, Masters of Death, 119, where the Baltic volunteers were used by the Einsatzgruppen to do the “dirty work” of face-to-face killings.

(32.) See Rhodes, Masters of Death, 39–43, for early examples of brutal public murders by Lithuanian civilians.

(33.) See Jan T. Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (New York: Penguin Books, 2002); see also Martin Dean, Collaboration in the Holocaust: Crimes of the Local Police in Belorussia and Ukraine, 1941–44 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000), which concludes: “In Belorussia and Ukraine” it was not only Germans who became “willing executioners” (167).

(34.) See James M. Glass, “Life Unworthy of Life” (New York: Basic Books, 1997).

(35.) See Edward B. Westermann, Hitler's Police Battalions: Enforcing Racial War in the East (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005).

(36.) Heribert Schwann and Helgard Heindrichs, Der SS-Mann: Josef Blösche—Leben und Sterben eines Mörders (Munich: Droemersche Verlagsanstalt, 2003), especially 66–72, 349–359.

(37.) Zilmer et al., Quest, 104–107.

(38.) ibid., 116. Ritzler discovered that the Danish rank-and-file, especially the ones most involved with genocidal activities, exhibited a high incidence of low esteem; that contrary to the stereotypically aggressive Nazi image so often presented, these subjects possessed negative self-images, which is consistent with those who would perceive themselves as victims of circumstances. They would also be strongly attached to the Nazi ideology and organizational structure. ibid., 111.

(39.) See Westermann, Hitler's Police Battalions, 231–239, where he reviews the various interpretive schools and concludes with the existence of an “organizational culture” and ideology that facilitated the annihilation process; see also Christopher R. Browning with contributions by Jürgen Matthäus, The Origins of the Final Solution, The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939–March 1942 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), which recapitulates his earlier modified situational interpretation and includes instances where the killers express self-delusional rationalizations to explain their killing of babies as a protective measure for their own children, even though the brutal manner of executions clearly belies their testimony (294–300).

(40.) Wendy Lower, Nazi Empire Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), where she also argues that the anti-Jewish violence was applied incrementally from one stage to another, pushing the limits of what one “could get away with” (71).

(p.252) (41.) Martin Gilbert, The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust (New York: Henry Holt, 2003); see also Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner, The Altruistic Personality (New York: Free Press, 1992).