The Holocaust As a Moral Choice: Part XII: Conclusion

*Editor’s Note: Part XII in a new series on the Holocaust from Alex Grobman, PhD

We began this series of articles on approaching the Holocaust as A Moral Choice with a statement by Father John T. Pawlikowski, Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. The Holocaust, he said, has emerged “as the beginning of a significantly new era, one in which the extermination of human life in guiltless fashion became thinkable and technologically feasible. It opened the door to an age in which dispassionate torture and the murder of millions became not just an action of a crazed despot, not merely an irrational expression of xenophobic fear, not just a drive for national security, but a calculated effort to reshape humanity supported by intellectual argumentation from the best and the brightest minds in a society. The Holocaust was not the product of a crazed despot but the brainchild of some of the most sophisticated philosophers and scientists’ Western society had yet patented.” [1]

As Pawlikowski notes, the destruction of European Jews by the Germans could not have been possible without the involvement of significant segments of the population. Christopher Browning suggests there are four groups, who either directly or indirectly facilitated this process. Sometimes they overlapped. There is no simple answer as to why they became perpetrators, since there were a wide variety of accomplices, who participated in different ways.[2]

Nazi Germany “was not a monolithic state in which everything was decided at the top and carried out through a chain of absolute obedience running downward to the lowest echelons,” Browning explained. Instead, there were “factions centered around Nazi chieftains, who were in perpetual competition to outperform one another.” Hitler stood above the squabbling fray, allotting “fiefs” to create their own rival domains as they strove to complete projects most important to him. Thus the “Third Reich was in a state of permanent internal war,”[3] which was concealed by the “façade of totalitarian solidarity.” [4]

Between 1933 and 1939, the Jewish question (Judenfrage) was frequently at the center of this ongoing power struggle. Hitler did not have to propose an agenda or even a schedule for resolving the Judenfrage, and then demand that it be solved. He simply had to declare the problem existed. His subordinates would then compete among themselves to find a solution. Based on the nature of the Nazi political structure, the “final solutions” were the only ones suitable to bring to Hitler’s attention. It was “not surprising that the most final of all solutions, extermination, eventually prevailed,” Browning noted. Finding a solution took many twists and turns making it a “twisted road to Auschwitz.” [5]

Einsatzgruppen in Perspective

As has been noted, the Einsatzgruppen played a critical role in the destruction of the Jews in East. Their part has been “magnified in historical perspective” Browning asserts, because of the series of Reports of the Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police and the Security Service, 1941-1943 that documented their ruthless slaughter of European Jewry. [6] “One cannot grasp how such atrocities were performed on such a scale, day after day, let alone recounted with such cold precision” asserted Roland Headland.[7] Yet, their notoriety should not eclipse the fact that the Einsatzgruppen were the smallest contingent deployed. There were the 21 battalions of Order Police, which did not include Reserve Police Battalion 9, whose men were distributed among the Einsatgruppen, as well as Police Battalion 69 whose troops were spread out to protect the numerous Todt engineering units in occupied Soviet territory. This amounted to approximately 11,000 men compared to the 3,000 in the Einsatzgruppen. [8]

True Believers or Diehard Nazis

The “true believers,” ideologues or diehard Nazis, who pursued leadership positions, influenced policies and executed National Socialist’s vision. Frequently they sought to fulfil these goals by actively participating in mass executions. The most typical members in this group were young SS and SD (Sicherheitsdienst) Security Service officers, and particularly the “brain trust” closely involved with Reinhard Heydrich’s Reich Main Security Office (RSHA). [9]

In the main RSHA office in Berlin, there were 3,000 people, including secretaries and low-level officials. Leaders in the RSHA were recruited from Germany’s academic elite. “It was an institution for social climbers.” They were lawyers, and those who had studied German literature, history, theology, journalism or philology (the history of languages). The highest-level positions in the RSHA were occupied by lawyers, historians, philologists or journalists. Those with law degrees were mostly found in the security service (SD). [10]

Though those serving in the RSHA were not old enough to have fought in World War I. They lived through an era of uncertainty, of defeat, revolution, the hyperinflation of 1923, and viewed these events from the vantage point an ultra- nationalistic, and an antisemitic world view. [11] Under the circumstances, the possibility of living in a bourgeois society appeared to be nothing more than a mirage. Focusing on the future became the hallmark of this generation, which sought “the design of a new world,” a new political order and the disintegration of the old one. [12]

Historian Michael Wildt suggests the fact that they didn’t have the opportunity to prove themselves as brave warriors” resulted in “an enduring blow to their self-confidence, and “lacked the image of marital masculinity,” which might explain why “they became such merciless, cruel officers.” [13]

This new “political order was based on race and Volk [community],” so that no one could “define the limits or fix a system of regulation, because race and Volk are fluid terms defined politically, rather than by legal order.” The demise of the bourgeois state meant limits could be ignored and any political action was also no longer bound by restrictions. The RSHA became a “supervisory body,” responsible for creating “total racist order and to exterminate the regimes’ enemies.” [14]

War, which began in Poland, became a turning point, since it made killing easier and “made murder an everyday practice.” The legal structure and constraints of the bourgeois society—“insurance, property rights, financial agreements,” and “all the other rules and regulations” that could impede RSHA actions— disappeared throughout German occupied areas. The RSHA was free from all restrictions and political considerations. [15]

Historian Yaacov Lozowick observed “the bureaucrats’ acquiescence and their willingness to take initiative determines the operational capacity of the bureaucratic system. In analyzing the men of the SD, which was part of RSHA, he said that as a group, they were keenly cognizant of their actions, highly ideologically driven, whose contribution surpassed what was required. There isn’t the slightest question they understood their actions were “not positive except in the value system of the Third Reich.” They despised Jews and believed ridding the country of them would be in Germany’s best interest.[16]


[1] John T. Pawlikowski, John T. (1993) “The Holocaust: Its Implications for Contemporary Church-State Relations in Poland,” Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe: Volume 13 Issue. 2 , Article 2 (1993).

[2] Christopher R. Browning, “Revisiting the Holocaust Perpetrators. Why Did They Kill?” The Raul Hilberg Memorial Lecture University of Vermont (October 17,2011).

[3] Christopher Browning, The Final Solution & German Foreign Office (Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc.1978), 2.

[4] Heinz Höhne, The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS (London: Secker &Warburg, 1970), 428.

[5] Ibid; Hans Mommsen, From Weimar to Auschwitz (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991); Saul Friedländer, “From Anti-Semitism to Extermination: A Historiographical Study of Nazi Policies toward the Jews and an Essay in Interpretation,” Yad Vashem Studies Volume XVI (1984): 1-50; Uriel Tal, “On Structures of Political. Theology and Myth Prior to the Holocaust,” in Yehuda Bauer Nathan Rotenstreich, Eds. The Holocaust As Historical Experience: Essays and a Discussion (New York: ‎Holmes & Meier Publishers 1981):43-74.

[6] Christopher R. Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution. The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, Yad Vashem, 2004), 229.

[7] Ronald Headland, Messages of Murder: A Study of the Reports of the Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police and the Security Service, 1941-1943 (Teaneck, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992),12.

[8] Browning op.cit. 229; Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men, Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Perennial, 2017)’192; Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Random House, 1996); Raul Hilberg, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933-1945 (New York, NY: Aaron Asher Books, 1992); Edward B. Westermann, “’Ordinary Men’ or ‘Ideological Soldiers’? Police Battalion 310 in Russia, 1942,” German Studies Review (1998): 41-68; Waitman Beorn, “Negotiating Murder: A Panzer Signal Company and the Destruction of the Jews of Peregrueznoe, 1942,”Holocaust and Genocide Studies (2009): 185-213; Timothy Williams and Susanne Buckley-Zistel, Ed. Perpetrators and Perpetration of Mass Violence: Action, Motivations and Dynamics (New York: Routledge, 2018); see also Alex J. Kay and David Stahel, “Crimes of the Wehrmacht: A Re-evaluation,” Journal of Perpetrator Research (2020): 95-127, since as they point out “Of the up to 18 million men who served in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War, ten million were deployed at one time or another between 1941 and 1944 in the conflict against the Soviet Union.” Found on page 96.

[9] Browning, “Revisiting the Holocaust Perpetrators. Why Did They Kill?” op.cit; Yaacov Lozowick, “Rollbahn Mord: The Early Activities of Einsatzgruppe C,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 2, Issue 2, 1987: 221-241; Yaacov Lozowick, Hitler’s Bureaucrats: The Nazi Security Police and the Banality of Evil (New York: Continuum, 2002),21-25; David Bankier, “Jewish Society Through Nazi Eyes 1933-1936,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 6, Issue 2, (1991).

[10] Michael Wildt, “Search & Research, Lectures and Papers 3: Generation of the Unbound: The Leadership Corps of the Reich Security Main Office,” (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2002):13.

[11] Browning, “Revisiting the Holocaust Perpetrators,” op.cit.

[12] Wildt, op.cit.12; Michael H. Kater, Hitler Youth (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006).

[13] Wildt. op.cit. 12.

[14] Ibid.17.

[15] Ibid.21.

[16] Yaacov Lozowick, Hitler’s Bureaucrats, op.cit. 8, 27-28, 34.

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