Complicity. Partnership in a crime or wrongdoing.
Coercion. Persuade or restrain (an unwilling person) by force or threat of punishment.
Introduction. Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party gained power in 1933 and would govern Germany until the end of World War Two (1945). By 1934, his Nazi government had become a dictatorship, with Hitler as the Fuhrer. With bolstered state powers, they persecuted “enemies of Germany,” such as Communist Party members, Social Democrats, and labour groups. Hitler also targeted those deemed unfit according to the Nazi racial hygiene agenda – people of colour, gypsies, criminals, the mentally and physically challenged and above all, Jews. The Nazis dismissed people from their jobs, confiscated property, locked people in prisons and concentration camps, sterilized the “unfit,” and executed millions.
A Debate. How was it possible for the Nazis to persecute various groups – especially- Jews without significant resistance from German citizens? Many historians have addressed this question. Some scholars argue that German citizens complied with and supported and even initiated the persecution and slaughter of Jews and other groups. Others insist that most Germans disapproved of Nazi domestic persecution and terror but did not speak out for fear of Nazi retribution, including loss of property or career, imprisonment, and execution.
Nazi Terror and Retribution. When Hitler and the National Socialist Party took power in 1933, they began centralizing control of Germany. According to Richard Evans, the main instrument of coercion was the law. The Nazis passed laws and decrees that broadened what constituted treason and people’s options for freedom of expression. For instance, it became legal to ridicule Hitler, to make derogatory remarks against the Nazi party, or to “discuss alternatives to the political status quo.” (Evans,101)
Speaking out against Nazi policies or assisting the persecuted could result in severe retribution. In Why? Explaining the Holocaust (2017), Peter Hayes points out that “overt assistance to Jews constituted sabotage punishable by death” and cites the example of Nazi Anton Schmidt, who facilitated the escape of at least 100 Jews after witnessing the execution of Jewish infants. After being exposed, he was court-martialed and executed. (145-146).
Surveillance and intimidation proved effective deterrents to dissent. The Nazi secret police (Gestapo) did not have many men at their disposal but still “infiltrated people’s lives – directly, indirectly and psychologically.” (Childress, 319). Gestapo agents performed late-night arrests and interrogations. Germans were encouraged to report transgressions of Nazi law by their peers, neighbours and even family. Those charged faced a dubious legal process through what Richard Evans describes as a “whole system of regional Special Courts, crowned by the National People’s Court, the Volkgerichlen, was created to implement these and similar laws. (Evans, 101)
These historians argue that the Nazis organized an effective program of intimidation and coercion that effectively discouraged Germans from resisting the Nazi racial hygiene program.
Citizen Complicity. Other scholars believe such interpretations overstate the extent of Nazi control while neglecting the willingness of German citizens to facilitate and even initiate the persecutions. In Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1997), Daniel Goldhagen acknowledges Nazi government coercion but argues that the main driving force behind the Holocaust was deep-seated, specifically German antisemitism.
Goldhagen relates a story about Captain Wolfgang Hoffman, “a zealous executioner of Jews” who led “ordinary men” to slaughter tens of thousands of Jews in Poland. (3). Hoffman, he points out, refused to sign a declaration that his group would not plunder and steal from the persecuted Jews. Why did he refuse? Hoffman took offence that he and the men under his charge would steal. Besides the irony that Hoffman enthusiastically killed people, Goldhagen points out that Hoffman was not punished for refusing a direct order. In order words, Hoffman had a choice. By extension, his persecution of Jews came not from fear of retribution but from personal conviction—a willing executioner.
Goldhagen goes on to argue that historians have focused on the leaders of the Nazi regime while neglecting people like Hoffman who facilitated the execution not from fear of Nazi retribution but out of a conviction that stemmed from “a particular type of antisemitism that led them to conclude that the Jews ought to die.”
Goldhagen’s thesis hinges on pervasive German-specific antisemitism – a point of controversy among historians. In Hitler and the Holocaust (2001), Robert S. Wistrich argues that Goldhagen overstates the role of German eliminationist antisemitism in the Holocaust. Germans certainly facilitated the killings, but this didn’t stem from a longstanding eliminationist mindset in the mid 19th century. Before Hitler, Wistrich argues, “racist antisemitism had not made great inroads in Germany” and was “still a state based on the rule of law, where Jews achieved remarkable economic success, were well integrated into society, and enjoyed equal rights.” (4)
Selective Nazi Terror. In Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews and Ordinary Germans (1999), Eric Johnson agrees with Goldhagen that many ordinary Germans willingly facilitated terror campaigns, persecutions and genocide. He also acknowledges the role of Nazi coercion but disagrees with Evans on the extent of Nazi coercion. He argues that Hitler’s government did not terrorize most Germans but instead focused the terror against “enemies of the state” – especially Jews. Most German citizens were not directly impacted by Nazi terror and “enjoyed considerable space to vent their everyday frustration with Nazi policies and leaders without inordinate fear of arrest or prosecution. (19)
Richard Evans disagrees with Johnson’s presentation of selective Nazi coercion and persecution. Nazi violence focused more on particular groups but “operated across the board.”(199). In 1933-4, for instance, the Nazis targeted the political leaders of the Social Democratic and Communist parties, such as Social Democrat Johann Steller, who “was tortured to death. (93). Together, Evans notes, “the Social Democrats and Communists had won 131 million votes in the Reichstag election of 1932.” (94). “Hardly,” he points out, “members of a despised minority of social outcasts.”(94)
Self Interest and Opportunism Another historian who does not see antisemitism as the main factor in Holocaust is Joseph D. Bendersky. In A Concise History of Nazi Germany (2014), Bendersky argues that “the Jewish question had not been important to most German” who were more concerned with “moral degeneracy, crime, political subversion, and public order.” (139). Accordingly, the persecution of Communists, sexual deviants, and violent criminals received public support. He places more weight on other factors, including economic self-interest and the “terror of the police state.” (141) Regarding self-interest, Bendersky notes how although a “Large segment” of German were shocked by Nazi violence, many opportunistically filled the Jewish vacancies in various professions, civil service positions, and businesses as Nazis pushed Jews out of their jobs. “Profit at the expense of the Jews was a temptation too many could not resist.” (139). Like Evans and Hayes, he adds that the Nazi use of terror deterred resistance and many who persisted paid the price. “Countless individuals,” Bendersky writes, paid with their lives for speaking out or for attempting to save others from Nazi tyranny. (141)
Conclusion. The role of German citizens in Nazi persecution, and particularly the Holocaust, remains a contentious topic and one that scholars will grapple with for many years to come. Hitler’s Nazi regime indeed used terror and reward to encourage German complicity. Some Germans, of course, engaged in the persecutions of “German enemies” with horrific enthusiasm. The longstanding question remains. Which factored more, coercion or complicity?
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