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I've always wondered how is it possible that an entire nation and beyond (Germany) wasn't aware of the Jewish persecution during the WW2 years or, if they were, that they did nothing to stop it.

Were they comfortable with that as long as Germany could prosper or what else?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Drux, Kobunite, Pieter Geerkens, Tea Drinker, American Luke Mar 12 at 21:02

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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What research have you done so far? –  Mark C. Wallace Mar 9 at 19:17
    
Googled, mostly. I'm not an historian and I wouldn't know where to start. –  Marco A. Mar 9 at 19:33
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Possible starting point: ask yourself how you might have behaved under the circumstances. You don't have to tell us, but be honest to yourself. –  Drux Mar 9 at 19:38
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I suggest you read Klemperer's Language of the Third Reich for a Jewish Philologist's ear- and eye-witness account of this very problem - bookfinder.com/search/…*&destination=gb&currency=GBP&mode=basic&st=sr&ac=qr –  Leon Conrad Mar 10 at 11:17
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Your supposition that Germany wasn't aware of the Jewish persecution is not right. They knew, even if Germans, after the war, dispute that they knew. Otherwise why would Jewish people hide at all? Or why would German citizens be afraid of their government. They knew how brutal the government was. What they didn't know was the exact number, but there was no way of denying that something horrible was going on. –  Quora Feans Mar 10 at 19:08

10 Answers 10

up vote 13 down vote accepted

My parents, uncles and aunts grew up in Nazi Germany. The following is purely anecdotal based on their personal accounts. It's not researched and I can't vouch for all statements being factually true (although I believe them to mostly accurate).

  1. The Nazis were extremely good at controlling information. Joseph Goebbels, the minister of "propaganda" was one of the most powerful and important leaders of the Nazis.
  2. The Nazis got to the kids really early. In terms of age 6-10 was "Pimpfe", 10-14 was "Jungvolk" and 14-18 "Hitlerjugend". Participation was almost always mandatory, and so the Nazis controlled a lot of the time that the kids weren't in school or working
  3. For boys the center of these youth activities was indoctrination and pre-military training. It was fairly effective: My uncle was 14 at the end of the war and actually wanted to volunteer for the army. My grandfather smacked him over the head and locked him in the basement.
  4. There was no free press, no way to assess "objective" information and it was extremely dangerous to discuss anything outside the party line. Most Germans clearly knew that the party memos were all non-sense but they didn't know what to do about it. Keeping your mouth shut greatly increased your chances of survival.
  5. Most Germans were actually fairly busy with basic survival. As a girl my mother spend a lot of time foraging through the woods for acorns and beechnuts as food. Try 'em to find out what that means.

So in general it seems to me that many Germans knew that bad things were happening (on more than one front) but were foggy on the details and at a loss on how to act on these suspicions. In this regard most dictatorships function the same way: tight information control and extreme violence against anyone who jeopardizes that control.

When studying this, it's important to understand the every-day life in Germany at the time. Things look considerably different when sitting in a warm and safe easy chair. I grew up very comfortably in post war West Germany. My father was indoctrinated by the Nazis starting at age 10. At 17 he started 4 years in WWII and then spend another 3 post-war years as a prisoner of war in a French coal mine where he lost most of his teeth through malnutrition, scurvy, and unfriendly guards. When I got into a fight with him as a teenager he would say "What the heck is your problem: You are not starving, you are not freezing to death and no one is shooting at you". I think he was genuinely puzzled, simply because his frame reference was so different from mine.

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Re Point 2: I take it you mean participation was "mandatory" if not mandatory; if you catch my drift. An important distinction that tends to get lost in these analyses is the very important distinction between the concentration camps, of which every educated German was knowledgeable because their existence (or at least that of the model ones) and purpose was widely advertised by the Nazis, and the death camps that came later and which the Nazis carefully guarded the purpose of. Too often they all get lumped together under one name or the other, to analytical detriment. –  Pieter Geerkens Mar 9 at 21:55
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In the initial stages, the German concentration camps were advertised by the Nazis as being just like those the British used during the Boer War, except much safer, cleaner and better run because efficient methodical Germans were running them instead of incompetent bumbling British. Documentaries were produced and widely distributed showing how well treated the Jewish inhabitants were. –  Pieter Geerkens Mar 9 at 21:58
    
@PieterGeerkens and indeed they were much cleaner, better run, and had lower death rates than the British camps set up during the Boer War. Dachau, the original, was created as an extension of the Bavarian prison system to hold prisoners on short term sentences, mostly people convicted for minor crimes and political dissidents. It was a model camp with good facilities. The main problems in the early camps like that started only because of later overcrowding (coinciding with the reduction in medicine and food allocations stemming from a general lack of such in Germany at large). –  jwenting Mar 10 at 8:20
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Germans knew that bad things were happening (on more than one front) but were foggy on the details A quote I like is a remembrance of a teenage German saying that he figured out Germany was losing the war because "German victories were getting closer to Berlin." –  Olivier Mar 10 at 10:21

There was an awareness, and consequent protests (that were in some ways effective, e.g., from clergy and veterans' organizations), about the T-4 euthanasia program. The extent of it was such that many people assumed that casualties from the Eastern front would be given the T4 treatment. How much additional thinking was needed to perceive that if German soldiers and veterans had been, and were thought to still be, at risk of state-organized murder, that official enemies the Jews were a likely target for things that were worse?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Action_T4#Opposition

T4 was on an infinitesimal scale compared to the deportation and extermination campaign extended throughout the European theatre and beyond. Tens of thousands of Germans were involved in logistics and support roles for that campaign, apart from the official perpetrators such as SS, Gestapo, soldiers and administrators of the occupation governments. Neither the official nor the unofficial personnel were by any means sealed off from the rest of the population and when they were, it was rarely for the duration of the war. Some had adverse psychological reactions or declined to participate in the more gruesome murders (there was no significant punishment for that) and were reassigned or sent home. Some undoubtedly discussed what was going on with religious confessors, psychiatrists, trusted friends and family, or even the odd Jewish friend that for some reason they might have wanted to warn or save.

The number of Germans who took large risks, such as domestic resistance activity or assisting Jews, or in whatever way undertaking activities that would have been severely punished by the state, must surely be much smaller than the number who took the small risk of progressively sharing information with others. A substantial fraction of the German electorate was against the Nazis before their accession to power, and these people did not all disappear afterward or suddenly become co-opted by anti-Jewish propaganda.

That the "climate" in Greater Germany forbade open discussion and opposition means that communication of facts and rumors was slowed, but it is inconceivable that a necessarily extremely shocking and controversial program such as the far larger and more brutal version of T-4, could have been kept quiet for so many years on such a scale. It is statistically absurd considering the number of people who knew many things, and the amount of opportunity to propagate at least some of the juicy information.


Incidentally, here is what Himmler thought about the state of information of the Nazi party members, as expressed in one of his speeches to the SS and party apparatchiks in the Generalgouvernement (occupied Poland). He seems to have been speaking, at a minimum, of the upper tier 'civilian' party members back home, since a few words later he refers to his audience's familiarity with giant piles of corpses.

I am talking about the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish people[1]. It is one of those things that is easily said. [quickly] "The Jewish people is being exterminated[2]," every Party member will tell you, "perfectly clear, it's part of our plans, we're eliminating the Jews, exterminating[2] them, a small matter". [less quickly] And then along they all come, all the 80 million upright Germans, and each one has his decent Jew. [mockingly] They say: all the others are swine, but here is a first-class Jew.

http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/people/h/himmler-heinrich/posen/oct-04-43/ausrottung-transl-nizkor.html

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Before Hitler came to power, Germany was the Western European nation where Jews were most integrated. Recall that Hitler was born an Austrian not a German and that anti-Semitism was most virulent in Austria. Hitler and his goons, of course, undid all that and added his own bloody chapter to world history.

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Not sure how this answers the question. –  Mark C. Wallace Mar 11 at 18:17
    
Neither do I, I don't like to downvote but... I can't upvote either :\ –  Marco A. Mar 11 at 19:41
    
not only doesn't it answer the question, it's wrong too. –  jwenting Mar 13 at 10:29

This is an often discussed topic in German history lessons. Often in company with the novel The Wave. I can tell you that there is no single answer to the question, and it definitely was not the German nation focusing just on profit.

Media control

Look at today's media and try to figure out what is really currently happening in the Ukraine. You only see what your country's media is telling you. Watch the Russian media and you will for sure get a completely different image of what is "really" happening.

The regime was no exception here. Many people in Germany actually did not know about the mass-murdering of Jews, because what the media told them what happened to them was something entirely different. There was even a special concentration camp just for the media, where everyone was happily living their happy life (while they actually weren't). Guess which one almost exclusively appeared in the media. And almost all Germans did never travel to any such camps, because why would they?

Revenge

There was a huge dispute between "the Jews" and most other religions (not only in Germany). I.E. greed is considered a sin, which allowed only the Jewish members of the country to operate a bank. People often felt like they were being cheated, which created a general antipathy for Jewish banks and stores.

If people realized later on that Jews were "punished", some of them considered this a well deserved revenge, and media build part of their propaganda on this.

Also after loosing the first world war Germany was forced to admit - against historical facts - that it was the only aggressor in this war and therefore had to pay reparations and endure other humiliating penalties. Many war veterans were still angry about this and welcomed any form of punishment against the "old enemy".

Control

If someone tells you to kill a Jew, you would probably refuse it, and thats a good thing. Now if they threaten you to either kill him/her or your life will end, you might start to have concerns, but probably go the heroic martyr way. Now lets say they won't kill you, but your wife/children/parents if you do not comply, also your friends and friends of your family. At some point you might consider a single life to be much less worse than the lives of your entire family and friends. And if you called them a liar, you found those people dead or mutilated the next day.

This control was further established by having the so called Blockwart. Basically any random neighbor could have been working for the state (and receive benefits for everyone they report). Mention that you don't like the Führer, and next day you loose your job. Question what they do to the Jews in those camps, and your wife is in a camp next day. There was almost no limit in cruelty and creativity when trying to maintain control over the people.

Propaganda

Once can say many things about the regime, but they definitely were brilliant when it came to propaganda. Everything official was planned as well as any political campaign nowadays, just for the entire nation. People were told what they need to hear, they saw what they had to see and they felt - through expert engineering of events - what they had to feel. An entire nation was blinded to what actually happened by a massive machinery called the ministry of propaganda lead by Joseph Goebbels.

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Disclaimer:
As I was made aware of this by Drux' comments: my answer may lead some people to believe that I am in some way justifying people not intervening, or even actively participating in the Holocaust.
If read the comments below, I hope it is self-evident that this is not the case.
Just to be clear: I absolutely and unequivocally condemn any action that discriminates on the basis of religion and or race, be it in the past, present or future.

My main interest, as far as history is concerned, is 20th century geo-politics. The question of how could this happen is one that we all ask about every genocide. What I tend to do (and attempted to do in my answer) is to shift that question to could this happen (again) today or is it happening again.
Of course, when attempting to apply this very sensitive subject (WWII genocide) to modern-day politics, I recognize the fact that bad choice of words or phrasing can lead to misunderstandings. It also stands to reason that a 1-on-1 "projection" of past events onto the present is, by definition false/flawed. But the cliché of history repeating itself is, IMHO, not all together absurd.

Anyway, it is not my intention to hurt people, I am not trying to negate or minimize any of the atrocities that were committed. My only goal is to communicate what I believe are genuine similarities between the rise of Nazi Germany and today's political tendencies/evolutions.

And to avoid any further misunderstandings, let's not beat around the bush: I have no sympathies towards anything even remotely resembling fascism or (neo-)Nazism whatsoever.
So if you are a neo-Nazi looking to recruit: try your luck at the local asylum, or try reading a book, instead of using it as a hammer.

If the contents of my answer below offends anyone for any reason, do not hesitate to leave a comment, and I'll be happy to clarify whatever needs clarification, or edit my answer in accordingly.


From the off: The phrase "Wir haben es nicht gewusst" is a lie. Many Germans have later admitted that the deportation and mass killing of Jews, Gipsies and political prisoners was a public secret.
At first, it could well be that not everybody was equally aware, and yes, the German economy was headed in the right direction, and yes the Nazi regime did manage to create jobs, and instill on the people a lost sense of pride. So it's not unlikely that, at first, people were willing to subject themselves and others to the nasty sides of the regime.

By the time the ghastly things that were going on had become this public secret, the Nazi apparatus had managed to infiltrate every aspect of daily life, though. There are recorded accounts of children that got sent home from school, and were expressly prohibited to attend classes until they joined the Hitler Jugend.
Though this does not serve as justification, with the rise of fascism, there grew a sense of terror among the population, too: if they didn't contribute, that was seen as a sign of rebellion, and thus they, too, could fall victim. But that's just one of many reasons why the Nazi's could keep on doing what they did, and does not answer your question.
For that, we need to go back to the end of WWI.

Germany had capitulated, and was heavily punished (Treaty of Versailles). WWI was in part caused by the Germans wanting a part of the colonial pie that the rest of Europe were having (among other things of course) as you may know.
While the Treaty of Versailles was said to be about making amends and repaying war damage to those countries involved, it also prohibited Germany to expand its borders (ie: no colonies).
Do not underestimate the social trauma a nation can sustain when, already having had to admit defeat, being forced to forego the perks (colonies back then were seen as a nations right) other countries so happily grant themselves.
A nation is a mass of people, and a mass behaves irrational and emotional (like a toddler). Tell a 3 year old it's done wrong, punish it and then tell it, it has to watch while other toddlers are eating its sweets, it'll cry, kick and scream.

So there was a genuine feeling of betrayal and disgruntlement in Germany. There had also been a long tradition of antisemitism in Europe. Couple that to the rise of Communism (Russian revolution happened during WWI) and you have: Anger, Fear (of Communism) and a not-well-liked minority. That's an explosive mix, no matter how you look at it.
All you need is a spark: a charismatic leader, preferable one that also manages to restore some of the national pride that the country in question seems to have lost.

An interesting read in this respect is "The Nuremberg Diary". Gustave Gilber, an American psychologist interviewed Hermann Göring and wrote their conversation down:

Why, of course, the people don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood.

When you speak of WWII and the Holocaust in particular, it stands to reason that the same "rule" applies: the people aren't actively asking for pogroms. But Göring continues:

But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.

Leaders are indeed the ones that make out the policies, both domestic and foreign. It is they who stand to gain from conflict. Economic and geopolitical factors come into play, and quickly overtake humanitarian considerations. As far as the leaders of a country are concerned, human casualties become statistics, and are seen as part of the cost vs benefits analysis.
Basically, it's as Joseph Stalin (allegedly) stated:

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

All things asside, but in the interest of correctness, this may not be Stalin's quote
How about this one, by Jean Rostand:

Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god.

Back to Göring, though, Gilbert points out a possible flaw in Göring's logic: the fact that a democratic society couldn't possibly elect a gouvernament that institutionalizes the prosecution of certain groups of people:

Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.

Göring, however, does not see things like this, and actually summarizes the plot of Orwell's yet to be written novell 1984:

Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

In Germany, the people were brought to the leaders' bidding by first: creating jobs, improving the economy, breaking the Treaty of Versailles and reinstating the sense of National pride.
Targetting Jews and Gipsies was, in a way, self-evident: they could be the scape-goat and play the role of the enemy that has already infiltrated the country. They were seen as the ones that stole the wealth of the German people.

People are worryingly gullible when it comes to things like this as American schoolteacher Jane Elliott's infamous experiment has demonstrated time and time again. Here's a clip

There have been many experiments like this, and all of them seem to come to the same conclusion: When people are put in a situation where they feel they have the right to exercise power over another group, violence ensues, and is even seen as justifiable.
Ironically, a more recent example of this can be seen in Israel, and the way people treat muslim refugees. They aren't even referred to as refugees, but "Infiltrators", in the same way the Jews were seen as the enemy that lived within back in WWII Germany...


Even more worrying, though: this phenomenon is so inherent to human nature, we don't even notice it's going on all around us:
After 9/11, Bill Mahr caught some slack for saying the suicide attackers were not cowards. At the same time, Howard Stern stated that America should choose "any Arab country, they're all harbouring terrorists, and just nuke 'em". Bill Mahr was fired, Howerd Stern wasn't.
Look at the people who have used the quote: "You're either with us, or against us" in various forms here: Lenin (Communist), Mussolini (Fascist), George W Bush (US president), Hillary Clinton (US Foreign Secretary) and Vic Toews (Canadian public safety minister).

Since the Communist and Fascist dictators, the phrase has always been used in a context of threads to national security, mainly terrorism.
This threat is also used to justify mass surveillance, invasive searches in airport security, The patriot act (Christ, patriotism and (extreme) nationalism is in the name), active prosecution of whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden, and racial profiling.

Now think about these things, and read the quote by Göring a second time:

Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

How could something like the Holocaust happen, and could it happen again? I'm afraid to say that I believe it can happen anywhere, and if it were to happen again in our life-time, we wouldn't realize it before it's too late, and even so: few of us would actually have the courage to step up and do something about it.

A couple of books that are loosely related, in the sense that they touch on, or identify similarities between nazi- or communist dictatorships and current western foreign policies:

Gore Vidal: Permanent war for Permanent Peace
William Blum: Rogue State

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typo: it's "Edward Snowden" (i.e. with "e" instead of "a" as in "rant" :) –  Drux Mar 10 at 11:03
    
@Drux: Right you are, fixed that... not that I'm one to hold a grudge, but in case it was you: would you mind awfully explaining the down-vote. In case it wasn't you: you wouldn't happen to know what the reason for the DV would be> –  Elias Van Ootegem Mar 10 at 11:38
    
I downvoted a couple of responses (you can check my stats: it's not normally my habit), because IMHO this discussion is running wild with lots of contradictory anecdotes and snapshots. I've also voted to close the question, it just seems so poisonous. (No, I don't have an agenda but yes, I could be biased -- just one vote, after all.) Hope you can understand. –  Drux Mar 10 at 11:43
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@Drux: Oh Lord no, I don't think you have an agenda, no I'm not angry over a -1... I'm not some petty bald conspiracy theorist or something ;). It's just that I'm mainly interested in 20th century geo-politics, and I've heard this question so many times. I felt compelled to write this (admittedly biased) answer, because I can't help but see that god-awful cliché of history repeating itself. When people ask how X could've happened, I tend to shift the focus to is it happening again. To me, the answer is yes. Applied to this topic and I can see how that comes across as er... wrong –  Elias Van Ootegem Mar 10 at 11:53
    
Alright, that sounds quite sane :) I'll reread your answer a bit later and will perhaps recast my vote. And welcome to the site too ... –  Drux Mar 10 at 11:55

I recommend the historian Robert Gellately's work "Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany". The essence is that the Germans did know or could have known about persecution and deportation of Jews.

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How long until somebody quotes Daniel Goldhagen ... ? (How long until we can expect a book by him explaining what forces history have prevented him from getting tenure at Harvard ... ) It's as sad subject and very poisonous. –  Drux Mar 10 at 10:50
    
Comparison to Goldhagen does not invalidate any of Gellately's findings. –  AlexE Mar 10 at 12:17

I've always wondered how is it possible that an entire nation and beyond (Germany) wasn't aware of the Jewish persecution during the WW2 years or, if they were, that they did nothing to stop

At least when it comes to that beyond, it isn't true. The relatives of my friends were fighting in Polish guerilla (AK). At least the partizants were all aware, that people caught in roundups were sent to death camps. How many people were taken away by military conwoys, (and how many of them were Jews) were seen by everyone, so the fact that the extermination is taking place was commonly known.

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you'd be wrong, at least initially. Later, news spread far and wide, but early on in the occupation many in the occupied areas believed the "relocation" story. And arrested partisans of course were executed, usually they wouldn't even have been sent to the camps but shot on the spot or after a short trial. As is proper under international military law in fact, though that little detail is irrelevant. –  jwenting Mar 10 at 8:24
    
@jwenting partisants generally were aware of death camp, at least in Poland –  РСТȢѸФХѾЦЧШЩЪЫЬѢѤЮѦѪѨѬѠѺѮѰѲѴ Mar 10 at 8:27
    
remember that by the time these camps became death camps they'd been in existence for several years. It wasn't until late 1942, early 1943 that camps were specifically tasked with extermination. Prior to that the main effort had been concentration and forced labour, with extermination efforts being mostly mobile groups with either firing squads and/or truck mounted gas chambers using CO redirected from the engine exhaust. The establishment of fixed camps was an attempt to both reduce cost and do something about the growing overcrowding of the labour camps. –  jwenting Mar 10 at 8:34
    
@jwenting: Not all concentration caps were extermination-camps. Theresienstadt, for example, was a transit camp. Deported people were brought in, to be sent out to various termination camps (like Auschwitz). If you visit the camp, you can see the terrifyingly accurate book-keeping: the arrivals, dead and alive, were tallied, their final destination logged, along with names, ages, country of origin. Theresienstadt's purpouse was to make the extermination camps more efficient, and serve as a grotesque central hub –  Elias Van Ootegem Mar 10 at 13:05
    
@EliasVanOotegem I know that, you know that, Lukasz seems to not know that. And indeed many people think that every German operated camp in WW2 was an extermination camp and planned that way from the outset. Which is simply not true. And no, Auschwitz was not an extermination camp, or didn't start as such. It was a forced labour facility, to which a smaller extermination camp was later added, mainly to "take care of" the growing number of inmates who were incapable of working because of their physical weakness. –  jwenting Mar 10 at 13:11

Germany isn't alone in having committed a genocide. Sadly, this is normal human behavior. However, the Shoah is probably is the best documented case, having occurred smack dab in the middle of the most literate society on earth. So what you are asking isn't really a Germany question, but a human behavior question (with Germany as the best of sadly too many good examples).

I have read a book that tries to delve into this phenomenon: James Waller's Becomming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing (at the moment, wikipedia claims this is the standard college textbook on the subject). His basic thesis is that under the right circumstances most (not all, but most) ordinary people will quite willingly participate in mass evil of this kind. Passively sure, but even actively, if called upon to do so.

The balance of the book explores what exactly those circumstances are. He developed a model that tries to describe such situations. Its pretty detailed, but I think the important takeaway for the novice is a situation where a group of people are viewed by others as separate, lesser, threatening beings. It "helps" a lot if people are raised from an early age to believe this, but active media propaganda helps a lot too. If I don't view an "Elbonian" as an equal person (or really even a human at all), then suddenly killing them as a solution to a perceived problem with them isn't entirely off the table. If I can convince myself the Elbonians are somehow attacking me, then it would logically follow that attacking them back is not only reasonable, but in fact the proper thing to do.

In Germany's case, you have a country steeped in centuries of anti-semitic culture, along with several years of pervasive state media propaganda telling citizens they and everything they held dear were under direct attack from these sub-human creatures. They responded little differently than people responded in East Timor in 1975, or in Cambodia in 1975, or in Guatemala in 1982, or Rwanda in 1990, or Srebernica in 1995. (First-hand accounts from all of these appear in Waller's book)

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related: Milgram experiment –  Drux Mar 9 at 18:54
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Ironically, a lot of folks like to "otherise" 20th Century Germans to convince themselves that it couldn't possibly happen where I live. I'm writing this from a very nice normal (boring) mid-American city where one fine spring day in 1921 one half of the city rose up and burned the other half to the ground in an orgy of violence, killing hundreds or thousands depending on who you ask. Don't fool yourself. –  T.E.D. Mar 9 at 18:57
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I'd just like to add that Germany wasn't particularly antisemitical. The whole of Europe had a "tradition" of antisemitism. The south of France (Vichy France) wasn't occupied, and though not on paper, they were practically allies. In college, we studied some of Vichy France's propaganda films, depicting elderly Jews while the voice-over said that France could do better... –  Elias Van Ootegem Mar 10 at 13:29
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@T.E.D. I remember a quote in a history book that the germans in 1900 where aghast because there where widespread progroms in Russia. I have written my master's thesis ubout ethnic conflict and the worrying thing about is, that the shift between "oh, this group has a distinct hat / language etc. " to "that group is our mortal enemy" can happen disturbingly fast - and once that happens, civilized human behaviour ist out of the window. –  Christian Sauer Mar 10 at 13:39
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"..under the right circumstances most ordinary people will quite willingly participate in mass evil of this kind.." Truer words have rarely been spoken. IMHO the greatest failing of modern journalism, common sense, and popular understanding of ourselves in light of 20th/21st psychology and sociology, is the unshakable certainty that great Evil is committed by people fundamentally different from our friends family and most importantly, ourselves. All objective evidence and analysis says otherwise, and this continued denial insures that great evil will always be with us. –  RBarryYoung Mar 10 at 22:23

After a decade of preparing the population for it, I seriously doubt enough Germans were going to protest the wholesale slaughter of Jews.
And even then, the official line always was "relocation" and putting them to work for the greater benefit of Germany. And most Jews indeed were relocated to forced labour camps. Camps in which the conditions were such of course that most didn't survive for long, but especially near the end of the war that wasn't too different from the conditions in which the average German was living.
Which is in fact part of the reason the charges against German administrators of prisoner of war camps didn't include the starving and denial of medical care of their prisoners, those prisoners were not treated significantly worse than the general population, who also suffered a severe lack of medical care and food towards the end.

And yes, I know that view is in some circles deemed "controversial" as it doesn't match with the propaganda induced view that every German in WW2 was a monster who lived in splendor while treating everyone else like rats to be exterminated.

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I find it weird that an entire population would, in the beginning, agree to deport and treat like slaves another population for the greater good of their country, perhaps there weren't humanitarian associations but.. heck.. –  Marco A. Mar 9 at 19:37
    
Claiming that the multiple camps "weren't too different from the conditions in which the average German was living" is controversial all right. And without even a single reference... –  wberry Mar 10 at 5:30
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@DavidKernin really? It's a common thing all through history and all over the world. Humans aren't nice to each other, they're vicious pack animals. –  jwenting Mar 10 at 8:21
    
The problem about protests is, that protests where dangerous as hell. Very few people hat the moral fortitude to protest when their life was at risk. Some people did protest - like the "Weiße Rose", but they where sentenced to death for it. When your life and your family are at great risk, you will probably behave like a sheep - even when other people are suffering hell on earth. –  Christian Sauer Mar 10 at 11:26
    
@ChristianSauer of course. But the excuse that Germans have used for decades that "we were all against it but just afraid to speak up" doesn't hold water. A large percentage had to be in support for the system of Blockleiters, Gauleiters, and other people reporting on peoples' behaviour to be effective. In a system where the vast majority is opposed to the government, such systems don't work for the simple reason that the snitches are either afraid to report or actively on the side of the opponents. –  jwenting Mar 10 at 13:07

This is a large topic where you cannot expect a single accepted answer or point of view: I don't know if by now historians even agree on when reliable information about mass killings reached the German public for the first time.

However, one quote from Heike B. Gortemaker's Eva Braun: Life with Hitler (referring to some time in 1940) staid firmly in my mind, perhaps because it points so strongly towards the banality of evil (if that's even the right term):

[The assassination of Jews] was never discussed openly in the innermost private circle; the topic was never allowed to be mentioned in Hitler’s presence.

Perhaps it is symptomatic for what also went on in larger society. The entire book is also a telling account of layers of deceptions (perhaps including self-deception) around Hitler and his innermost circle at the Berghof, where even Eva Braun's status as his girlfriend was deliberately kept vague.

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