A particularly illuminating study which makes the point that we could all do it is Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. The unit Browning studied was composed of reservists from Hamburg who were too old or too unfit to be drafted into the army, and who up to early 1942 when they were ordered into Poland had all been occupied with perfectly ordinary jobs – plumbers, teachers, dentists and so on. Early on the morning of July 13th 1942 in the village of Juzenow the battalion was assembled by it commander, Major Wilhelm Trapp, and informed that they were to exterminate all of the village’s 1800 Jews. Visibly upset, Trapp offered to excuse from duty anyone who didn’t wish to take part in the killing. Only a dozen mainly older men availed themselves of this opportunity. The manner of the killings was peculiarly distressing. Each policeman was assigned a victim, often a woman or child, and told to lead the person in single file into a glade in the forest where they were forced to lie down and shot at close range through the head. Often the blood and brains spattered out over the executor. This accomplished, the policeman was sent back to bring the next waiting victim. At lunch this first day the exterminators were silent and withdrawn, appalled by what they were doing. The participants who survived the war testified to Browning, however, how rapidly they became used to their work. They went on to massacre many thousands more Jews, eating heartily after their strenuous efforts and joking light-heartedly about the Jews they were killing. If Trapp was unusually sensitive and compassionate, one of his subordinates, Lieutenant Gnade, was just as remarkably not. This first day he made elderly male Jews not only dig the trench in which they were to be shot and buried, but then made them undress and crawl naked to the trench on their bellies. ‘Come on’ shouted Trapp to the ordinary soldiers, ‘make clubs and beat them’. The soldiers chopped down branches from the trees and obeyed Gnade’s orders without demur.
Another fascinating study seeking to explain how not just ordinary people but doctors professionally dedicated to saving life could have become major perpetrators of the Holocaust, is Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors. Again, the emphasis is on how ordinary a part of life the process became, Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. ‘They (the SS doctors) did their work’ wrote an Auschwitz inmate ‘ just as someone who goes to an office goes about his work. They were gentlemen who came and went, who supervised and were relaxed, sometimes smiling, sometimes joking, but never unhappy. They were witty if they felt like it. Personally I did not get the impression that they were much affected by what was going on – or shocked. It went on for years. It was not just one day’. It was the doctors who actually performed the selections at Auschwitz and to begin with doctors newly come to the camp were usually distressed by what they had to do. Indeed, making selections from the incoming trains on the ramp was regarded as a form of initiation, and once a doctor had performed one or two he rapidly became used to it. Taking part in selections in fact, precisely because they aroused feelings of pity and revulsion which a dedicated Nazi had to overcome, was regarded not as a crime but as a praiseworthy moral duty. Dr Eduard Wirtz, the chief physician at the camp, regarded it as a point of honour never to be absent from the ramp when a new transport came in. The doctors coped, Lifton came to believe, by adopting an ‘Auschwitz self’ which was out of contact with their normal selves. The two were kept apart by heavy drinking, ubiquitous use of euphemisms and absence from the actual killings which were supervised by camp inmates. In an extraordinary inversion of logic the killings were regarded as a form of healing. A distinguished physician who was a camp inmate and survived, Dr Ella Lingens-Reiner, asked a Nazi doctor how he reconciled what he was doing with his Hippocratic oath. ‘Of course I am a doctor and I want to preserve life’ was his reply ‘And out of respect for human life , I would remove a gangrenous appendix from a diseased body. The Jew is the gangrenous appendix in the body of mankind’. How did it come about that even doctors were so easily able to delude themselves?
One answer is that given by Daniel Goldhagen in Hitler’s Willing Executioners. According to Goldhagen the anti-semitism whih culminated in the Holocaust was a specifically German problem. It had originated in the Middle Ages but in a form that was essentially moral. Jews were hated because they had crucified Christ, an ancestral crime which could always be expiated by conversion to Christianity. But then in the nineteenth century the granting of full civil rights in Germany to Jews, which included the right to marry non-Jews, co-incided with the growth of racial doctrines. Germans became fearful that their blood line was being polluted through inter-marriage with Jews, a fear which could not unfortunately be allayed by any form of moral conversion. It was at this point that the doctrine of eliminationist anti-semitism began to flourish in Germany. A hundred years of propaganda and indoctrination had made even ordinary Germans hospitable to eliminationist ideas in a way that would have been impossible anywhere else in Europe. There must be something in this and it does explain many uniquely German characteristics of the Holocaust. But it does not convince as a fundamental explanation. It neither explains the elimination of gypsies who were in no sense a threat to the German bloodline, nor that of non-German Jews, nor that of homosexuals and other perceived deviants. Nor does it explain the astonishing frequency of other modern genocides. In the period since the United Nations Genocide Convention came into being in the late nineteen forties there have been at least 25 major genocides in the world, including those of Kampuchea and Rwanda in which the many millions killed begins to match the extremity of the Holocaust.