The making of Hitler's willing executioners

20 December 2005

As Hitler’s armies swept through Russia during the Second World War, the killing of children was justified – and made easier for the German soldiers – by the designation of their helpless victims as nutzlose Esser or ‘useless eaters’.

The story is told by Konrad Kwiet,the University’s Adjunct Professor of Jewish Studies and Roth Lecturer for Holocaust Studies, who has researched the brutally efficient methods by which the Nazis turned ordinary Germans into genocidal murderers.

“All perpetrators were not born as genocidal killers but were geared to commit murder repeatedly and even to love it,” says Professor Kwiet.

“By transforming ordinary people into killing machines, in effect, they caused the dehumanisation not only of Jews but of the Germans themselves, making it easier for them to commit mass murder.”

Professor Kwiet will present the result of his research in a lecture, ‘Rehearsing for murder – Perpetrators and the Final Solution,’as part of a four day summer school at Mandelbaum House, the University’s Residential Jewish College.

He questions how the Nazis were able to recruit more than 500,000 ‘ordinary men’ to exterminate six million Jews and massacre 5.5 million members of other minorities including communists, homosexuals, Polish nationals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and gypsies.

Professor Kwiet says it was not only ideology and anti-Semitism that fuelled the desire to kill. “They deliberately and systematically implemented a number of brutal strategies to create a community of assenting genocidal killers,” he says.

Language was specifically employed to disguise what was really taking place. Jews were not killed under the name of ‘Jew’ but were shot under the guise of looters, saboteurs, insurgents and hostile elements, terms used to ease their consciencesand sanction the killings. They never used the terms ‘murder’, ‘extermination’ or ‘killings’; instead they spoke of ‘evacuations’ and ‘resettlements’.”

The rehearsal for murder was also evident in Russia, says Professor Kwiet: “They used a systematic killing process to target males of a draft age for immediate liquidation and then to kill the women, the elderly and finally, the children, referred to as ‘useless eaters’. It was easier to accept the killing of men – already labelled as looters and criminals – and then to gradually kill the rest.

“This basic killing pattern not only denied the innocent victims any chance of retaliation but also slowly and methodically familiarised the perpetrators with the process of killing,” he says.

Historians are still divided about the factors that led to the involvement of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust. Some argue it was purely the result of anti-Semitism, others point to situational factors such as wartime conditions, the requirement to follow orders, peer group pressure and material incentives.

An international authority in Holocaust studies with over 40 years’ experience, Professor Kwiet argues that neither interpretation is wholly correct. “Both elements were needed to convince them to commit mass murderer; they were not naturally raised to kill Jews but were compelled to do it,” he says.

Professor Kwiet was born in Holland and grew up in pre-war Germany. He lost members of his own family to the Holocaust, but says this is not the main motivation for his work.

“Although I have strong Jewish links to the Holocaust, I also have a professional and academic motive to question what historians have produced and to play a critical role in the representation of the Holocaust.”

In analysing the actions of Hitler’s willing executioners, he says: “If there is one lesson to be learnt it is how easy it was to convert an army of ordinary men – who were not naturally raised to kill – into genocidal killers, and how hard it was to convert an army of bystanders into righteous rescuers of Jews.”

The summer school at Mandelbaum House runs from 25 – 28 December. For further information see the Mandelbaum House website.