Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society, a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and on the advisory board of The National Christian Leadership Conference of Israel (NCLCI).

The question of how and why the Holocaust occurred in the Western civilization remains an issue of concern, because it reveals something about the nature of our society and humanity. Among the myriad of moral dilemmas the Holocaust raises is how members of the SS, especially those in the Einsatzgruppen (the mobile SS killing units), the Wehrmacht (German military) and the German police, were able to torture, brutalize and engage in the mass murder of Jews and other fellow human beings?

G. M. Gilbert, who served as a prison psychologist at the Nuremberg war crime trials in 1945‐1946, said the most challenging question ever posed to him on this subject was raised by Israeli Attorney-General Gideon Hausner at the Adolph Eichmann Trial, which began on April 11, 1961, in Jerusalem. During direct examination as a witness for the prosecution, Hausner asked “What kind of mentality did the mass murderers of Hitler’s SS possess to be able to do the horrible things they did?”

Although the Israeli court disallowed the question, since it wanted to focus on the judicial question of Eichmann’s guilt, Gilbert said the question about human nature still persists: “What kind of animal species is it that organizes and executes senseless, coldblooded, systematic slaughter of its own members, and how do some of its members become qualified to perform this inhuman destruction of their fellow human beings?”

Just Following Orders

In practically, all Nazi trials in the Federal Republic of Germany defendants claimed they “could not disobey, despite their mental dissociation from their orders, for fear of being shot themselves,” declared Helge Grabitz, Senior Public Prosecutor in Hamburg. Accused individuals, who did not have criminal records before or after the Third Reich, appear in court as honorable citizens who unintentionally “got mixed up in all of this,” due to the circumstances at the time.

When defending themselves, Grabitz observed, they exhibited impeccable memories, except for the crimes under consideration. They claim to have joined the SS completely naïve of its criminal character in order to secure employment during a period of economic crisis. They present themselves as working on behalf of the community’s needy or as elderly ill men with loads of medical records. There were of course Nazi leaders who murdered Jews, Gypsies and other “subhuman creatures,” not only without suffering any consequences, but “were even decorated for their crimes.”

Were these people ordinary and average individuals or a “new inhuman personality type” that Gilbert designated as “the murderous robots of the SS”? Did they ever experience a conflict between the law and their conscience, since only an individual is capable of assuming moral responsibility for one's actions," asked Hebrew University philosopher Samuel Hugo Bergmann.

“The Beginning of a Significantly New Era”

The Holocaust has emerged “as the beginning of a significantly new era, one in which the extermination of human life in guiltless fashion became thinkable and technologically feasible” declared Father John T. Pawlikowski, Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. “It opened the door to an age in which dispassionate torture and the murder of millions became not just an action of a crazed despot, not merely an irrational expression of xenophobic fear, not just a drive for national security, but a calculated effort to reshape humanity supported by intellectual argumentation from the best and the brightest minds in a society.

"The Holocaust was not the product of a crazed despot but the brainchild of some of the most sophisticated philosophers and scientists’ Western society had yet patented.”

The challenge and “thus the basic moral question that emerges from a study of the Holocaust is how we today grapple with a new sense of freedom and power within humankind in a context of a highly sophisticated technological capability with the capacity for massive destruction.”

Father Pawlikowski is correct that the Holocaust has ushered in a new age, which is why the Holocaust is not a Jewish issue alone. It speaks to the nature of the Western civilization because the subject begins with the Jews. “No other group was persecuted with the same relentlessness and the same disastrous consequences as the Jews of Europe,” observed German historian Peter Longerich. The Jews were the primary victims of the “European experience of race” asserted historian George Mosse “and they were to be exterminated root and branch.” This was not the case “with any other victims of European racism….”

The notion that the Jewish people should be completely annihilated “was not a tactically motivated threat,” Longerich said, “but the logical consequence” of the belief which “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 peril. In other words, one of the primary goals of this racist war of extermination, was the permanent “removal” (Beseitigung) of the Jews of Europe.

Jews were considered a satanic force and the cause of virtually every evil in the world. Jews were allegedly involved in an eternal plot to control the world using any nefarious methods necessary. Communism and capitalism were said to have been created as a means to manipulate the world and dominate its people. Jews were accused of infiltrating modern society and using their skills to direct the government, the stock exchange, the press, the theater, and literature.

An Ideological War of Annihilation

Historian Yehuda Bauer notes that the Nazis initiated an ideological war in order for the German-Aryan race to gain superiority over Europe by extending their rule to the East (Lebensraum) and to acquire the material resources that would preserve their control. In addition, the conquest of Lebensraum was designed to become the foundation to “further biological expansion of the ‘Aryan race,’” and thus provide “the ‘human resources’ for future wars of conquest.”

Hitler believed the reign of the maritime empires such Portugal, Holland and Britain ceased to exist according to historian Trevor-Roper. There was a period in which the sea had provided the most efficient and economical means to reach faraway lands. With the advent of railroads, cars, planes, and extensive roads, the mode of travel had drastically changed. The era of “land power” had ushered in the opportunity to establish the new empire, which would conquer, and supersede Western society and be “bound together not by ships and trade, but by giant roads and massive armies, the real nexus of the new age.”

The war would enable the Germans to destroy the power of “international Jewry,” which controlled the enemies of Germany (France, Britain and the US) and facilitate their removal as Hitler stated goal articulated already in 1919. Thus, the obvious conclusion Bauer said, is that antisemitism was one of the two primary ideological motives influencing the Nazi leaders to start a war in which tens of millions of people lost their lives and which produced endless misery.

The Jews were not merely victims, as Bauer points out. They are a people, a community and a nation, “which was in some significant ways, central to the self-understanding of European and not just German society.” This is why the Jews became the focus of an unprecedented assault that has transformed the western, and progressively also the non-western word’s “perception” of itself.

"The essence of National Socialism is not its bureaucratic culture or “modernistic structures”—which clearly contributed—but an ideological commitment to abolish not just a government or a political system, “but the basic order of the world.”

The Goal of the War Against the Jews

The goal was to construct “a utopian society organized in accordance with the principles of race.” A fundamental concern was the “purification of the body of the nation from ‘alien,’ hereditary ill,’ or ‘asocial’ ‘elements.’” Racial purification was an essential part of comprehensive “social” policies designed to produce a “healthy” focused on achievement, ‘Aryan’ ‘national community.’”

Race would replace class as the foremost unifying principle of the German nation This would reduce prevailing social classifications and increase the divisions between the ‘healthy,’ ‘Aryan’ national comrades’ and those ‘elements’ that were described as being racially inferior, ‘unfit’ or ‘alien.’ They would therefore be “destined for exclusion and eventual extermination.” The millions of Jews who were annihilated prove the length to which the Germans were driven to establish a “functioning racial state” assert historians Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann.

The Holocaust is the first example where murdering “was not an end in itself, but a means to an end, even though the perpetrators, victims, and bystanders differed on whether those ends were good or evil,” opined historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz. With the annihilation of European Jewry, the ends and the means were the same.

The Germans presumed the right to determine who should live and who should die. As a result, the “parameters of the Holocaust have been defined the universe of evil and of good, have marked the limits of human bestiality and human arrogance, set the measure of human endurance and courage.”