Part I: Addressing the Holocaust as a Moral Choice | The Jewish Press – | Alex Grobman PhD. | 12 Tammuz 5782 – 10 July 2022

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*Editor’s Note: A new series on the Holocaust from Alex Grobman, PhD

The question of how and why the Holocaust occurred in Western civilization remains a matter of concern because it reveals something about the nature of our society and of humanity. Among the myriad moral dilemmas raised by the Holocaust is how members of the SS, especially those of the Einsatzgruppen (the mobile SS killing units), the Wehrmacht (the German army) and the German police were able to torture, brutalize and engage in the mass murder of Jews and other human beings? This series of essays will explore whether they were able to decide whether to become willing executioners, reluctant accomplices, or finding ways to escape involvement in mass murder. [1]

  1. Mr Gilbert, who served as a prison psychologist during the Nuremberg war crimes trials in 1945-1946, said the toughest question he had ever been asked about it came from the Israeli attorney general Gideon Hausner during the Adolph Eichmann trial, which has begun. April 11, 1961 in Jerusalem. Under direct examination as a prosecution witness, Hausner asked “What kind of mentality did Hitler’s SS mass murderers possess that they could do the horrible things they did?” Although the Israeli court dismissed the question, since it wanted to focus on the judicial question of Eichmann’s guilt, Gilbert said the question about human nature persists: its own limbs, and how some of its limbs become qualified to accomplish this inhuman destruction of their fellow man? [2]

In virtually all Nazi trials in the Federal Republic of Germany, the defendants claimed that they “could not disobey, despite their mental dissociation from their orders, for fear of being shot themselves”, said Helge Grabitz, public prosecutor in Hamburg. The accused persons, who had no criminal record before or after the Third Reich, are defending themselves in court as honorable citizens who unwittingly “got into all this”, due to the circumstances of the time.

In defending themselves, Grabitz observed, they showed impeccable memories except for the crimes at issue. They claim to have joined the SS completely naive of his criminal character in order to secure employment in times of economic crisis. They portray themselves as working on behalf of the needy in the community or as sick elderly men with loads of medical records. There were, of course, Nazi leaders who murdered Jews, Gypsies and other “sub-human creatures” not only without facing consequences, but “even were decorated for their crimes”. [3]

Were these people ordinary, average individuals or a “new type of inhuman personality” that Gilbert referred to as “the murderous robots of the SS”? [4] Have they ever experienced a conflict between the law and their conscience, since only an individual is capable of assuming moral responsibility for his actions? [5]

“The beginning of a significantly new era”

The Holocaust emerged “as the beginning of a significantly new era, an era in which innocently exterminating human life became thinkable and technologically feasible,” said Father John T. Pawlikowski, professor emeritus of social ethics at the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago. “It has opened the door to a time when the impartial torture and murder of millions has no longer just become the act of a crazed despot, not just an irrational expression of xenophobic fear, not just a will national security, but a calculated effort to reshape humanity backed by the intellectual argumentation of society’s best and brightest minds. The Holocaust was not the product of a crazed despot but the brainchild of some of the most sophisticated philosophers and scientists Western society has yet patented.

The challenge and “thus the fundamental moral question that emerges from a study of the Holocaust is how we today grapple with a new sense of freedom and power within humanity in a context of technological capability highly sophisticated with the capability of mass destruction”. [6]

Father Pawlikowski is right that the Holocaust ushered in a new era, which is why the Holocaust is not just a Jewish problem. He talks about the nature of Western civilization because the subject begins with the Jews. “No other group was persecuted with the same relentlessness and disastrous consequences as the Jews of Europe,” observed German historian Peter Longerich. The Jews were the first victims of “the European race experiment”, asserted historian George Mosse “and they were to be exterminated root and branch”. This was not the case with “any other victim of European racism…”. [7]

The idea that the Jewish people should be completely wiped out “was not a tactically motivated threat,” Longerich said, “but the logical consequence” of the belief that “dominated” the entire National Socialist agenda, that the German people were locked in a life and death struggle with their mortal enemy – international Jewry – in which their very existence as a nation was in jeopardy. [8] In other words, one of the main objectives of this racist war of extermination was the permanent “elimination” (Beseitigung) of European Jews. [9]

The Jews were considered a satanic force and the cause of virtually all evil in the world. The Jews would have been involved in an eternal plot to control the world using whatever nefarious methods necessary. Communism and capitalism were supposedly created as a way to manipulate the world and dominate its people. Jews were accused of infiltrating modern society and using their skills to run government, the stock market, the press, theater and literature. [10]


[1] Hans Buchheim, “Command and Compliance”, in Helmut Krausnick, Hans Buchheim, Martin Broszat and Hans-Adolf Jacobsen, Anatomy of the SS State (London: St James’s Place: William Collins and Sons and Company Limited, 1968), 305-306); Michael Wildt, Research and Research, Lectures and Papers 3: “Generation of the Unbound: The Leadership Corps of the Reich Main Security Office” (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2002). Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 375-406; Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the Jews of Europe Third Edition Volume III (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2003) 1059, 1080-1104; David Bankier/Jacob Golomb (eds.), “Karl Jaspers, The Question of Guilt” (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press and Yad Vashem, 2006); Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2013); Gunter Lewy, The World of Holocaust Killers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017); Ian Rich, Perpetrators of the Holocaust from the German Police Battalions: The Mass Murder of Jewish Civilians, 1940-1942 (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018); Peter Merkel, The Making of a Stormtrooper (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1980); Peter Merkel, Political violence under the swastika (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1975).

[2] GM Gilbert, “The SS Murdering Robot Mentality”, Yad Vashem Studies Volume V (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem Studies, 1963):35; Edward B. Westermann, “Stone Cold Killers or Murder Drunk? Alcohol and Atrocities in the Holocaust, Holocaust and Genocide Studiesvolume 30, number 1, spring 2016, pages 1 to 19.

[3] Helge Grabitz, “Problems of Nazi Trials in the Federal Republic of Germany”, Holocaust and Genocide Studies Volume 3 Number 2, 1988):216, 219; Donald M. McKale, Nazis After Hitler: How Holocaust Perpetrators Deceived Justice and Truth (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011).

[4] Gilbert, op.cit.36.

[5] Shmuel Hugo Bergman, Yad Vashem Studies V (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1963): 12.

[6] John T. Pawlikowski, (1993) “The Holocaust: Its Implications for Contemporary Church-State Relations in Poland”, Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe Volume. 13: Number. 2, section 2; John T. Pawlikowski, “The Holocaust: Its Challenges to Understanding Human Responsibility,” in Judith H. Banki and John T. Pawlikowski eds. Ethics in the Shadow of the Holocaust: Christian and Jewish Perspectives (Franklin Wisconsin: Sheed & Ward, 2001), 261-289; Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2001), 262); x-xi, xiii-xiv; Yardena Schwartz, “Just outside Hiroshima, a Holocaust education center flourishes”, Tablet (June 14, 2018); Elwyn Smith, “The Christian Meaning of the Holocaust”, Journal of Ecumenical Studies Volume 6 (1969) 419-422.

[7] George L. Mosse, Towards the Final Solution: A History of European Racism (New York: Howard Fertig, 1978), xii-xiii.

[8] Pierre Longerich, Holocaust: Nazi Persecution and Murder of Jews (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 422-43); Yehuda Bauer, “Against mystification”, in The Holocaust in historical perspective (Seattle: Washington University Press, 1978), 41-42.

[9] Pierre Longerich, The Unwritten Order: Hitler’s Role in the Final Solution (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus Publishing Limited, 2003.),196-197; Lucy S. Dawidowicz, ed. A reader of the Holocaust (New York: Behrman House, Inc., 1976), 32.

[10] Bernard Lewis, Semites and anti-Semites (New York: WW Norton 1986)23; Robert S.Wistrich, Anti-Semitism: the longest hatred (New York: Schocken Books, 1991), 33; Jacob Katz, From prejudice to destruction: anti-Semitism, 1700-1933 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980),142; Robert S. Wistrich, “Once Again, Anti-Semitism Without the Jews,” Comment (August 1992), 45-49; Barbara Miller Lane and Leila J. Rupp, Nazi ideology before 1933: documentation (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1978): 47-59; David Berger, Ed., “Antisemitism: An Overview,” in History and hatred: the dimension of anti-Semitism (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Jewish Publication Society, 1986):4; Peter Schaffer, Judeophobia: Attitudes towards Jews in the ancient world (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998):180-195; Jacob L. Talmon, “Mission and Witness: The Universal Significance of Modern Antisemitism,” in Israel Gutman and Livia Rothkirchen, Eds., The catastrophe of European Jewry (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1976), 127–174.); Jacob Katz, From prejudice to destruction: anti-Semitism 1700-1933 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997); Christian Streit, “Wehrmacht, Einsatgruppen, Soviet prisoners of war and anti-Bolshevism in the emergence of the final solution”, in The final solution: origins and implementation, David Cesarani, Ed. (London: Routledge, 1994), 111.

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