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My Brother’s Keeper: Understanding the Holocaust Series part 2 (Perpetrators, Bystanders, and Deniers)

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Knowing when or if to act is a convoluted and complicated matter. There is a interesting proverb that steams from the biblical account of Cain and Abel when God had asked Cain the whereabouts of his younger brother. Cain, in his jealousy, had secretly murdered his brother and when confronted he gives a cruel retort with, “am I my brother’s keeper?” Today, this turn-a-phrase is more commonly associated with the notion of individual responsibility for another person’s actions. Basically, are we responsible for the actions of our brothers and sisters. In the broader sense, are we responsible for the actions in our home, our village, our town, our state, or even our country? The Holocaust is a peculiar moment in history in which when looking into the actions of perpetrators, bystanders, and deniers, said question begs an answer. Hitherto, in part one in this series, we’ve sought a deeper understanding of the Holocaust by understanding Hitler and Nazi ideology, and though the two play a significant part, we must now also consider how the people reacted or didn’t if we are to discover some underlying answers to the most problematic questions we have regarding the Holocaust. The hardest answer we can attempt to infer is in understanding who these villains were. Were the perpetrators, the “ordinary Germans” living in the Third Reich, banal, that is, ordinary? And likewise, were the abysmally silent bystanders also banal? And, even more provocative, were their actions, or in most instances, indifference, toward mass persecution and ultimately mass annihilation of European Jewry just as ordinary?

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In part one of “Understanding the Holocaust,” we looked at how pseudospeciation can turn “outsiders” into monsters and the disastrous effects of such a worldview, now we’ll look even deeper at the perpetrators, bystanders, and deniers and discuss, to some extent, why it is just as dangerous to view them with the same monstrous perspective.

But, before we can understand the minds of perpetrators, bystanders, and deniers, we, as Christopher Browning, author and historian, has often mentioned, must be aware that when we look into “the behavior of any human being, [which] is, of course, a very complex phenomenon, the historian who attempts to ‘explain’ it [indulges] in a certain arrogance.” Nonetheless, we will attempt this “arrogant” feat regardless. Why? If we do not talk about these issues and histories, even the more dark and mutilated moments of the human experience, general explanations and over-encompassing assumptions will end up blurring the context of memory. Instead our goal should be what is most important, the things we can walk away with, the lessons we can infer, while avoiding presentism at all costs.

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With that said, the two contentions regarding the banality of evil is best understood between the two more prominent historians who have done considerable work in this fieldHannah Arendt and Jay Lifton. Arendt shows us how these killers are not otherworldly monsters or caricatures, but “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Her conclusion to this sense of banal evil developed during her coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial during the spring months between April 1961 and May 1962. Eichmann had been captured in Argentina for his part in the mass annihilation of European Jewry as Judenreferat, head of the Gestapo office for Jewish Affairs. Eichmann, from the comfort of his desk, had organized the transport systems which facilitated the mass deportations of millions of European Jews to extermination camps and for drafting Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich’s letter ushering the final steps toward making Nazi occupied Europe utterly judenfrei.

Eichmann was seemingly indifferent throughout his trial. He often claimed that “of Jews I had nothing to do. I never killed a Jew, or a non-Jew, for that matter. I never killed any human being.” However, according to Arendt, “the degree of responsibility increases as we draw further away from the man who uses the fatal instrument with his own hands.” Basically, Eichmann cannot claim noninvolvement in aiding and abetting the mass annihilation of European Jewry just because he sat behind a desk and didn’t physically “with his own hands” kill anyone. In Eichmann s case, the pen was more deadly than the sword. With a single signature or memorandum, millions went to their deaths. Nevertheless, Eichmann continually pressed that he was “not the monster I am made out to be,” and when he seemed to be contemplating the historiography of the Holocaust, Eichmann, near the end of his trial, declared it to have been “one of the greatest crimes in the history of Humanity.” Adolf Eichmann was sentenced to death for crimes against the Jewish people on a total of four counts: causality of murder, creating conditions in which Jews would be destroyed, indirectly promoting physical and mental anguish, and creating a memorandum to abort the pregnancies of Jewish women against their will in Theresienstadt (a transit/labor camp). In light of the charges, Eichmann proposed to his judges “to hang me in public as a warning example for all anti-Semites.” Though, this was in no way a sincere statement of regret or remorse for his actions, because according to Eichmann, “repentance [was] for little children.” Adolf Eichmann was hanged on May 31, 1962, just before midnight. During his trial, Arendt was continually surprised by this seemingly frail and banal man. Given Eichmann’s reputation amongst survivors and former SS staff who knew him, she had expected a monster, a beast shouting from his lock box some defiant Nazi eulogy. But he did either of those things. He was quite. He was an aging man with no real remorse. He could have been anyone’s neighbor in a quite little suburb. Invisible.


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Psychologist Jay Lifton, on the other hand, offers a differing interpretation regarding Hannah Arendt’s view on the banality of evil. From his research on mostly Nazi doctors, Lifton has concluded that the phrase “banality of evil” has been overly used as a pseudo-characterization for the entire regime of Nazi perpetrators, bystanders, and deniers. Lifton accepts that “Nazi doctors were banal, but what they did was not.” Basically, Lifton is insinuating that when these ordinary men carried out demonic acts, they, in the process of those actions, changed. Lifton uses physicians in his study because of our shared qualia in seeing inherently trusted practitioners who are supposed to be healers take part in something as grotesque as the sanction and participation of mass extermination.  In his article, “This World is Not This World,” Lifton mentions several conversations he had with survivors of the Holocaust, especially focusing on survivors of Auschwitz. During one such discussion, the survivor had asked “Were they [Nazis] beasts when they did what they did? Or were they human beings?” Lifton responds to the survivor agreeing that most Nazi doctors were “neither brilliant nor stupid, neither inherently evil nor particularly ethically sensitive, they were by no means the demonic figures – sadistic, fanatic, lusting to kill – people have often thought them to be.” Lifton moves away from the mad dog interpretation in which most people would associate with Nazi perpetrators, a direction most historians would agree, including Hannah Arendt; however, while Lifton shows us that these Nazi doctors were not “faceless bureaucratic cogs or automatons,” but actual human beings, he is also moving us toward a notion that is dangerously unrealistic. According to Lifton, the”doctors” participation with the euthanasia programs, the extermination of the mentality handicapped and the development of the Nazi medical ideological theory (based on the current worldwide phenomena regarding eugenics or racial purity), these perpetrators transformed entirely by “conditions conductive to evil.” Essentially, Lifton wants you to believe that ordinary people through extraordinary means can become something unordinary and unbanal. Evil that is “not of this world” is something we intuitively want to believe.

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Jay Lifton’s work is both massive and impressive in dealing with the psychology of Nazi doctors and perpetrators, but in his contention with Ardent’s view on the “terribly and terrifyingly” ordinariness of evil, he seems to be ignoring our natural inclination that evil is something which resides out there, in the beyond, in the forest amongst the number of faceless Einsatzgruppen waiting and willing to aim the final killing shot aided with the cold steel of the bayonet. He refuses to look up into the faces of men and women we call perpetrators and bystanders, the faces someone else in the world might call brother or sister, father or mother. Lifton does make some rather extraordinary deductions regarding the humanistic qualities these perpetrators of die endlösung (the physical extermination of European Jewry) share, but he is also dangerously teetering the natural human tug toward dismissiveness, that their actions were somehow not their own. But, as Yehuda Bauer, professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Jerusalem has stated:

“[We] must remember that the Nazis were no inhuman beasts, but were perfectly human. That indeed is the problem. If they were inhuman, not like the rest of us [or as Lifton has stated, ‘not of this world’], we could just dismiss the whole issue – we are essentially different from them. But that is not true. There were unusual circumstances, to be sure, and an unusual coincidence of factors that led to Nazi atrocities. But the capability of all humans to behave like they did exists, at least potentially… the Holocaust must be seen as an extreme point on a line that may lead humanity to self-destruction unless…prevented.”

The issue with the dismissive qualia in Lifton’s view on Ardent’s banality of evil is in its denial of free will, free action. Lifton seems to paint with a broad brush that all seemingly ordinary perpetrators, in their actions, became inhuman and likewise through their inhumanity could no longer change or alter their destiny. While certainly our environment, culture, and other external factors can shape our perspective, we cannot so easily discount the abundance of historical evidence that continues to say otherwise. If Lifton is correct, then why, despite being immersed in racist and anti-Semitic propaganda, did only 80-90 percent of the men from Reserve Police Battalion 101 (Einsatzgruppen, or “killer troops,” who followed behind the regular German Army through Poland and cleared out Ghettos) instead of 100 percent actually take an active role in any killing? Or even among the ones that did, why were they issued alcohol after each Ghetto clearing. Why was, as noted by one of the policemen, “the shooting of infants and small children was avoided by almost all the men involved,” as they were clearly ordered to do so? Or why, when giving the order to clear out the Polish Ghetto in Józefów, did Major Trapp (also known as Papa Trapp) break down into tears when he gave the “frightfully unpleasant task to his men?” Did they simply not transform enough, as Lifton seems to suggest? Or were they just regular guys who could only go so far?

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In a way, it would be much easier to agree with Lifton and assume that these killers were “not of this world,” and were likewise not us. This gives us the opportunity to avoid responsibility in taking action against such unordinary men. However, to the contrary, these evil doers were in fact just as ordinary as us. But its easier to sidestep than it is to take responsibility. Yet with each sidestep, someone else seems to pay the price. Consider the testimony of one survivor as they are reported to have said some thirty-five years after the death camps, how “one of the most painful aspects of being in the camp was the sensation of being totally abandoned.” If we allow evil deeds to become unbanal, we are, as Bauer has concluded, simultaneously dismissing our own involvement, dismissing “our task…to fortify elements in us that will oppose…utter immorality.” This denial that we are indeed our brother’s keeper can be seen throughout the historical account of the bystanders of die endlösung. Historian Ronnie Landau, in his encompassing and ingenious work, The Nazi Holocaust, considers the role of bystanders as:

“passive accomplices to Nazi brutality…[and that] the savage destruction of European Jewry was aided and abetted by the inaction and indifference of [these] various peoples of Nazi-dominated Europe, [including] churches, neutral countries, the international Red Cross and even those countries fighting against the Nazis.”

Simon Sibelman, the Leon Levine Distinguished Professor of Judaic, Holocaust, and Peace Studies expresses even stronger discontent concerning bystanders, that in their “utter indifference to what they saw [are] somehow [appearing to be] less human…” and in the face of indignities suffered by the Jews, “to remain perfectly indifferent [and] adopt total passivity is a denial of human responsibility.”

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The way we skirt responsibility as keepers and simply stand idly by while others are being persecuted feeds into Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil. Were bystanders otherworldly evil or simply “terrible and terrifyingly” human? Consider the banal actions of Father Coughlin, an American Catholic priest who could fill stadiums with folks craning to hear his thoughts regarding the Jewish Question, fascism, and Communism. In a radio broadcast on the night of December 11, 1938, (one month after Kristallnacht, widespread vandalism and murders of Jews in Germany) Father Coughlin avidly dismissed the persecution of European Jewry whilst simultaneously endorsing Nazi ideology concerning the fight against Bolshevism and how it was a worldwide Jewish trait to support Bolshevism. Strange by today’s standards, but perhaps not as much in Father Coughlin’s day. Yet even in its context, stereotypes abound and are just as damaging. Consider also the story of a young polish woman, who in a rare instance hid a group of armed Jewish refugees in her farmhouse in the small town of Kock, Poland. After being discovered by a company of men from Reserve Police Battalion 101 during the month of Judenjagd, or “Jew Hunt,” which lasted throughout October of 1942, the young polish rescuer was somehow miraculously able to escape the ensuing battle. However, the German police unit, after “interrogating” and then executing the survivors, was able to track the woman down to her father’s estate in a nearby village. There, “Lieutenant Brand presented the father with a stark choice – his life or his daughter’s. The man surrendered his daughter, who was shot on the spot.” Despite the cold reality this story represents, we must be careful not to make rash judgement’s or assumptions. However, we can say regarding the fathers actions was that it was indeed terrible and wrong. Why? Because it is our natural inclination to protect our children, both as a moral imperative and also a biological imperative. But can we call this seemingly uncaring father a monster? We most certainly want to. He did act monstrously, but in the end he is simply terrifyingly human. Some people listen to their moral intuition, no matter what. And some people are simply cowards, banal in every sense of the term.

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However, not every bystander became a perpetrator in their indifference, some made the stark choice to act. We must remember, though, that the rescuer was not absent of fear or rationality. They knew what was at stake. Rescuers did not simply ignore the topsy-turvy moral reality in which Germany had found herself during the 20th century; these indifferent banal bystanders choice freely to act, and thus became rescuers and likewise were going against several apposing external and internal factors, including: against the grain of social and political normalcy, against legislation of the Nazi government (Nuremberg Laws), and also the internal fear of being discovered. Not just from the government, the SS, or from prying neighbors loyal to the Führer, but also from within, those the rescuers were attempting to rescue in the first place. And how rescuers dealt with those fears are as diverse as the rescuers themselves. Some, mostly the adolescent teens or young twenty-somethings, were able to ignore their fears with the “naiveté of their youth.” And according to Eva Fogelman, Holocaust historian and author of Conscience and Courage, others were able to assume stage roles (play acting) as a way to cope with the constant fear of discovery. Some were involved with underground movements or part of some other network with other rescuers; albeit, the more who knew, the more dangerous the situation became. If one was to fall, the other risked being discovered through “interrogation.”

Forms of spiritual transcendence helped as well, and, also, there were those whose rescue actions in themselves became therapy for anger and resentment harbored against the tyranny and brutality of the Third Reich. The most interesting notion of being a rescuer is in its banality. The banality of good is an interesting testament to the reality that the role of rescuer doesn’t require feats or acts of superhumanism, or perhaps as Jay Lifton might say inhuman acts “not of this world.” The banality of good is the innate ability to see others, not in terms of “us” and “them,” but simply “us,” the shared human experience. This story of the banality of good can even been seen in the agonized and analyzed actions of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat, and member of the Axis powers mind you, who feverishly issued as many as 10,000 visas to a large clamoring desperate group of Lithuania Jews “pushing against the gate of the consulate,” in the city of Kaunas on the hot summer morning of July 1940, before being forced by Soviet troops to leave the country.

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Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil can even be understood within the phenomenon of modern day Holocaust deniers. According to Deborah Lipstadt, Holocaust historian and author of, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, the denial of the Holocaust has become one of the most disturbing notions of indifference and dismissiveness in history.  The rhetoric of Holocaust deniers that she describes, in detail, is sinisterly reminiscent of Germany’s modus operandi concerning anti-Semitism inherit in Nazi ideology. At base, the commonalities of deniers are linked with classic stereotypes regarding Jewry: that there is a worldwide Jewish conspiracy for economic and media control. The denial seems to be, for those in the Third Reich, similar to the reports Joseph Goebbels had given about the deportation of European Jewry to concentration camps, which as stated by the Minister of Propaganda, not about annihilation, but rehabilitation. For modern deniers, doubt has been cast over many different facets of the Holocaust itself, such as: rejecting that there were six million Jews in Europe, the gas chambers, purpose of creating the Holocaust “myth” (a so-called Zionist conspiracy), and perspective (Germany was taking state actions against enemies within the state) and so on. However, both for all deniers, the Third Reich and modern “revisionists,” the denial itself is simply, at root, anti-Semitism masked behind the clever guise of pseudohistorical interpretation. Both those living under the weight of the Third Reich and the “revisionists” blur the annihilation of six-million Jews simply because of an inherently human predisposition to deny our own capacity for horrendous acts, the same capacity to which Lifton bases his view regarding the banality of evil, that when ordinary people do sinister things, they become something entirely unordinary.

Instead of facing reality in the banality of evil we call the Holocaust, despite how difficult it is, deniers consciously reject any and all historical truth that the crematoria did in fact exist as witnessed by survivors such as Helen Lewis, who in an interview with Carol Rittner, an historian and Sisters of Mercy nun, upon arrival at Auschwitz from Theresienstadt was told to “look up at the smoke. Can you smell it? Do you know what it is? It’s a crematorium but not a normal crematorium. It burns the bodies of people who were gassed a short time ago.” Instead, deniers believe the entire project as some far-fetched Zionist-tall-tale, because, for whatever reason, conspiracies are easier to accept then anything resembling what really happened and what people are really capable of, which was: the destruction of six million Jews, who suffered and died at hands of terrible and terrifyingly banal people, either by being rounded up and shot by the Einsatzgruppen or selection, worked to death or initially being ushered into the gas chambers, or by starvation and disease in the camps, or even by medical experimentation or hunted down in the forests and towns of Nazi occupied Europe. According to Lipstadt, underneath, the deniers are “invective about Jewish power and influence and… [are convinced] that Jews have the most sinister intentions.” We could, of course, simply dismiss the claims deniers are making, because their claims are so obviously ridiculous; however, we need to consider something “terrible and terrifyingly” ordinary they represent. Consider that we are now, as of 2013, two generations removed from the events of the Holocaust. The memory of survivors and first person accounts and testimonies are quickly falling into the realm of ancient history. General knowledge regarding the Holocaust has already stared to decline. According to Lipstadt, a Gallup poll conducted during the 1990’s, to ascertain the public’s level of general knowledge regarding the events during the Holocaust, a whopping 38% adults and 24% high school students “incorrectly [explained] what is meant by ‘the Holocaust.’”

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The Gallup poll was taken during the 90’s, nearly twenty years ago; there is little doubt that the percentages of Holocaust ignorance will continue to increase. The real danger than becomes, as Lipstadt has implied, a growing assault on memory. Unfortunately, unless something changes in the way we educate, the natural inclination people have to deny the most heinous acts of humanity because of a general lack of historical knowledge, will allow Holocaust denial to grow more influential in the years to come. Our responsibility as our brother’s keeper is emphasized by Sir Ian Kershaw, a British historian on 20th century Germany, in his memorable phrase that “the road to Auschwitz was built by hatred, but paved with indifference.” Deborah Lipstadt brings us back to the issue of responsibility as keepers, both in our communities and in keeping historical memory relevant and accurate, in her statement that:

“Those of us who make scholarship our vocation and avocation dream of spending our time charting new paths, opening new vistas, and offering new perspectives on some aspect of the truth. We seek to discover, not to defend. We did not train in our respective fields in order to stand like watchmen and women on the Rhine. Yet this is what we must do. We do so in order to expose falsehood and hate. We will remain ever vigilant so that the most precious tools of our trade and our society – truth and reason – can prevail. The still, small voices of millions cry out to us from the ground demanding that we do no less.”

Unfortunately, according to historian Christopher Browning, “in a world in which war and racism are ubiquitous, [a world] in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratization…modern governments that wish to commit mass murder will seldom fail in their efforts to induce ‘ordinary men’ to become willing executioners,” and unless, as Anne Frank has stated in her famous diary, “unless humanity, without exception, undergoes a metamorphosis, wars will continue to be waged, and everything that has been carefully built up, cultivated and grown will be cut down and destroyed, only to start over again.”

Christopher Browning, “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland,” New York,      reissued 1998.
Carol Rittner, “Anne Frank in the World: Essays and Reflections,” New York, 1998.
Deborah Lipstadt, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” New York, 1994.
Eva Fogelman, “Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust,” New York, 1994.
Hannah Ardent, “Eichmann in Jerusalem,”  New York, 1963.
Jay Lifton, “The Nazi Doctors, Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide: This World is not This World,” Da Capo    Press, 1988.
Ronnie Landau, “The Nazi Holocaust,” Chicago, 2006.
Robert Abzug, “America Views the Holocaust (1933-45): a brief documentary history,” Bedford, 1999.
Thomas S. Flowers writes character-driven stories of dark fiction ranging from Shakespearean gore feasts to paranormal thrillers. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His veteran focused paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC.  In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served three tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews horror and sci fi movies and books and hosts a gambit of guest contributors who discuss a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can follow Thomas at a safe distance by joining his author newsletter at

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