Willing Executioners?”€”The Holocaust, Germans, and Collective Guilt

The Manichaean syndrome … the good guys vs. the bad guys … the easy generalizations … the business of guilt and blackmail … it goes on…

Patrick Buchanan is famous as a populist and staunch conservative, but he’s also a gadfly:  He raises the important issues others ignore; he smashes the sacred idols; he asks troubling questions and proposes the answers most would rather not hear. He makes us think and for that we should be grateful.

In Where the Right went Wrong, he exposed the lies of the neocons and their disastrously wrong predictions about Iraq. Now in Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War, he again challenges and provokes us to rethink what we take for granted. He reminds us of Lord Salisbury and the Boer War, of Churchill and the food blockade of Germany 1918-19, which led to the death by starvation or malnutrition of 750,000 German civilians, of the unwise guarantee to Poland in 1939, of the criminal carpet bombing of civilian targets in Germany 1941-45 and of the revelations of C.P. Snow in his 1960 Godkin Lectures at Harvard University.

My commentary here goes beyond Buchanan, as I will look closer at an issue that has been consciously avoided by generations of historians and political scientist”€”the degree to which the German people had knowledge of the Holocaust during 1939-45. Hitler’s and Himmler’s guilt is obvious and well documents, but what level of guilt do we attribute to the average German, what guilt do we continue to impose on the children and grand children of those unfortunate Germans who, in a very real sense, were the first victims of Hitler’s terror?

The potential for psychological blackmail remains strong even today. The simple syllogism of the past 60 years has been since “€œthe Germans”€ committed the Holocaust, they are forever damned. But who were “€œthe Germans”€?  Do we not mean, perhaps, the Nazis? Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his hate-filled book Hitler’s Willing Executioners wants us to believe that all Germans knew and all Germans were anti-Semites. But the real historical question”€”the crucial question”€”is that of knowledge and consent.

Most historians and political scientists ignore the issue by assuming both knowledge and consent. For them, the presumption of innocence is not operative when it comes to the Holocaust. There is, instead, a presumption of guilt. Let us now revisit the situation at the time of the Nuremberg trials in 1945-46, when the prosecutors posed the key questions: who knew what when? The accused gave answers that we cannot simply ignore.

We learn that the “€œFinal Solution of the Jewish Question”€ was not the purpose of the war but an aberration that emerged with the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 and the criminal activities of the Einsatzgruppen.  But who knew about the SD-commandos, who knew about the extermination camps? And those who knew about it, what could or did they do to oppose the horror? 

Germans knew that they lived in a virulently anti-Semitic society, but anti-Semitism was not a German monopoly, and pogroms had long been common in Tsarist Russia, in the Ukraine, in Poland, and elsewhere.

From the Nuremberg trials we learn that the Endlösung was classed in the category of geheime Reichssache“€”that is, the highest level of State secrecy. In other words, the Nazi government tried to keep it away from public scrutiny”€”the shootings took place far away in the Baltic States, in Poland, in the Soviet Union”€”and the extermination camps”€”Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Lublin-Majdaneck, Sobibor, Belzec and Chelmo”€”were all outside of the Reich. For good reason. True enough, Dachau was in Bavaria, but this camp was established primarily to hold German Communists, Social Democrats, and homosexuals.

The average German knew that the “€œJews”€ were supposed to be in labor camps in the East”€“not a good place to be but ostensibly safer than the cities of the Reich, which were exposed to frequent air bombing. Of course, Germans saw that Jews were convened to assemble at the market place or at the train station whence they were transported east.  But should every German have thought that transportation to the East meant death?  Why?  What precedents had they to believe such a thing? In America, some 120,000 Japanese-Americans and some 40,000 German-Americans were also picked up and transported to internment camps. Their neighbors saw it and did nothing to oppose it. But no one in the U.S. would have dreamt that these poor people were going to be exterminated. If we absolve ourselves of responsibility, why do we impose the ultimate guilt upon the Germans?

Of course, some German soldiers did witness massacres. But a shooting event in 6 years of war is but a stone in a larger mosaic. Who could possibly have known the full horror of what was going on? Several times in the Nuremberg transcripts we learn about Führerbefehl Number 1 on secrecy. Here Hitler stipulated: 

a) No one is to have any knowledge of secret matters which do not fall within his sphere.
b) No one is to obtain more information than he needs for the fulfillment of the task set him.
c) No one is to receive information earlier than is necessary for the duties assigned to him.
d) No one is to pass on to subordinates more secret orders or at an earlier date than is indispensable for the attainment of the purpose.
  (IMT, Nuremberg, Vol. VIII, p. 236)

This order was posted in every governmental office, and every soldier was made aware of it. Thus, even if an individual learned something about the Holocaust, it was almost impossible to investigate further.  There was one exception: military justice. Thus, for instance, Army judge Wilken von Ramdohr, whom I personally interviewed, was instructed to prosecute a young German soldier on charges of defamation of the SS, because during home leave the soldier had complained that the SS was killing Jews in the East. Judge Ramdohr tried to investigate through the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, which insisted on a conviction. Eventually Ramdohr dismissed the case, because the matter had not been clarified by the authorities in Berlin. Ramdohr was punished by being transferred out of his post, but he survived the war to tell (see Alfred de Zayas, The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau).

The most remarkable testimony in Nuremberg was perhaps that of SS-Judge Georg Konrad Morgen, who in the course of a routine investigation into corruption by SS officers in the running of the concentration camps learned about the killings in Lublin-Majdanek. From there he went on to investigate corruption in Auschwitz, learned about the killings there, arrested the Chief Political Officer there, Untersturmbannführer Grabner, and tried to get indictments against Christian Wirth and Adolf Eichmann among others.  On 7 August 1946, he stated under oath: “€œAt first Wirth’s description seemed completely fantastic to me, but in Lublin I saw one of his camps. It was a camp which collected the property of his victims. From the piles of things”€”there were an enormous number of watches”€”I had to realize that something frightful was going on…”€ (IMT, Vol. XX, p. 495). On 8 August, he explained that there was a whole system of disinformation and dissimulation: “€œCertain Jewish prisoners with connections abroad were selected and were made to write letters abroad telling how well-off they were in Auschwitz, so that the public got the impression that these well-known people were alive and could write and that they were doing well.”€ (ibid., p. 506).

To the question “€œunder normal circumstances, what would you have had to do after you had learned of all these terrible things?”€ Morgen answered “€œI was a judge of military penal justice. No court-martial in the world could bring the Supreme Commander, let alone the head of the State, to court… it was not possible for me as Obersturmbannführer to arrest Hitler … but in the meantime the front had advanced, Auschwitz was occupied and the judge who had been sent there had to stop…and in January 1945 complete disorganization set in which made further legal prosecution impossible. “€ (ibid., p. 510). To the question “€œDid you not consider it your duty to inform the public or to clear your conscience somehow by raising the cry “€˜murder”€™?”€ Morgen responded: “€œI was bound by Basic Order Number 1, concerning secrecy on State affairs, and could only approach the chiefs of the main offices personally. Any mistake I would have made in contacting other offices would have had serious results for me and would have given my enemies a pretext for protracting the investigation … [besides]  I would have needed access to … the press and the radio, which I did not have. If I had blurted that out at every street corner, no one would have believed me, because this system was beyond human imagination. I would have been locked up as insane”€ (ibid., p. 511).

The Nuremberg documents further show that Himmler had personally taken the oath from the SS-commandos charged with the murder of Jews and declared explicitly that anyone who should say anything about the action would be put to death. (IMT, Bd. XXI, p. 533). Himmler further underlined the importance of secrecy in his infamous speech to senior SS officers privy to the Endlösung, when on 4 October 1943 he spoke in Posen not about the “€œextermination”€ of the Jews but about their “€œevacuation”€:  “€œThis is an unwritten and never to be written page of glory in Germany’s history.”€ (Nuremberg Document 1919-PS, IMT, Vol. 29, p. 145).  And when some 200 SS-people who had been involved in the murders asked to be transferred to the front, Himmler denied them permission, because it was too risky to send these SS officers to mix with the regular soldiers.  (Institut für Zeitgeschichte, München, IFZ_Archiv, ZS 1931, Treblinka Prozess. Der Leitende Oberstaatsanwalt bei dem Landgericht Düsseldorf, Gesch. Nr. 8 I Ks 2/64. Niederschrift Francke-Griksch).

The testimony of Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz and General Alfred Jodl similarly indicate lack of any real knowledge about the Holocaust. Is this believable?  Probably. Indeed, if one is taken up 100% in fighting a “€œtotal war,”€ one tends to concentrate on one’s own overwhelmingly consuming military responsibilities. But what about the press people?  Hans Fritzche, one of the three persons to be acquitted at the Nuremberg Trials, was the head of Nazi Radio. On 18 June 1946 he testified: 

I, as a journalist who worked during that period, am firmly convinced that the German people were unaware of the mass murders of the Jews, and assertions to that effect were considered rumours; officially denied again and again … [W]hen the Russians, after they recaptured Kharkov, started legal proceedings during which killing by gas was mentioned for the first time. I ran to Dr. Goebbels with these reports and asked him about the facts. He stated he would have the matter investigated… The next day he sent me a notice of denial…  Dr Goebbels explicitly informed me that the gas vans mentioned in the Russian legal proceeding were pure invention and that there was no actual proof to support it.  It was not without reason that the people who operated these vans were put under the ban of strictest secrecy. If the German people had learned of these mass murders, they would certainly no longer have supported Hitler.”€ (IMT, Vol.XVII, p. 181).

The above testimony at the Nuremberg Trials has enormous implications for the question of guilt. But historians have apparently not done their homework”€”or they seem to want to ignore these statements, so as to maintain their pre-conceived idea of collective knowledge and collective guilt.


When I lived in Germany in the 1970-80s as a Fulbright Fellow and later as a fellow at the Max Planck Institute, I researched these matters in the archives and interviewed more than 150 former military judges. I also interviewed Admiral Dönitz and Albert Speer. I am persuaded that Führerbefehl Nr. 1 on secrecy was indeed successful in keeping the horror of the Holocaust secret until the last months and weeks of the war. Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (SPD), a Wehrmacht officer with whom I have frequently corresponded, has also repeatedly affirmed that he had never heard about it during the war and only learned of Auschwitz after the capitulation. Are all of these people liars?  I don”€™t think so. After all, some State secrets are kept secret”€”like, say, the Manhattan project!

It is crucial to understand that Hitler knew that the Germans would not approve of the Holocaust. Rumours were rejected as enemy propaganda. Only a few Germans really knew what was going on, and many of them committed suicide at the end of the war to escape prosecution. Others went into the Resistance against Hitler, specifically because of their knowledge of some aspects of the Endlösung, even if they had no way of establishing the whole picture. Count Helmuth James von Moltke, the head of the conspiratorial “€œKreisauer Kreis,”€ did have access to some information, since he worked in military intelligence.  In 1943 he wrote to his former Oxford professor Lionel Curtis the following lines: “€œin Germany people do not know what is happening.”€  Moltke himself, did not know the true dimensions of the crime, because he thought that only hundreds of thousands had been killed”€”not millions!  (see Peter Hoffmann, German Resistance to Hitler, p. 132).

The head of German Intelligence, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, and many others similarly went into the resistance because of what they had managed to learn about the Holocaust. They became involved in several failed assassination attempts, most notably on 20 July l944. This was the case with Graf Claus von Stauffenberg, Peter Count York von Wartenburg, Carl Goerdeler, and others. This, too, is an under-investigated chapter of the Second World War. There was much resistance to Hitler. But those who want to defame the whole German race as being “€œeliminationist”€ anti-Semites and congenital aggressors”€”these people do not even want the information available to all in the Nuremberg transcripts.

A thoroughgoing examination of collective knowledge and guilt has great relevance not only to historiography but policy-making and diplomacy in the 21st century. We should thank Pat Buchanan for being the gadfly who’s provoked us to take a second look. 

Alfred-Maurice de Zayas is professor of international law at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations and formerly served with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Secretary of the Human Rights Committee, and the Chief of Petitions. He is the author of several books including A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the East European Germans and Nemisis at Postdam: The Anglo-Americans and the Expulsion of the Germans. You can visit his website here.


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