In several videos and photos you see people getting round up. In the photo below they're at the site of a mass grave and can clearly see they're going to die.

Why does nobody try to run away?

Same goes with firing squads. You pretty much know you're dead, why not try to escape? I understand that if you're there with your family, you're afraid they will hurt them on purpose, but in other situations..

I can't seem to grasp that idea, but maybe I'm too influenced by Hollywood and want to be a hero.

Jewish man about to be shot

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    (1) Because obeying instructions means being shot later rather than right now; and (2) maybe, just maybe, they don't really intend to shoot the very last person, who was the most compliant and obedient to their instructions. When it is your only hope such despair and desperation can become very appealing. Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 21:15
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    Supplementing @PieterGeerkens absolutely correct comment, many survivors do indeed point out that they survived because they were exceptionally obedient to orders.
    – Olivier
    Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 10:06
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    Where do you run in a country occupied and totally by an enemy, and there is no friendly country in 1000kms distance. Most people couldn't really figure it out.
    – Greg
    Commented Dec 24, 2015 at 19:25
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    This isn't really a history question - perhaps psychology, perhaps politics, but I don't think it can be answered by historical sources & methods.
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 11:25

7 Answers 7


Because the choice there is not between dying and escaping, or between dying or being a "hero." The choice is between a quick and hopefully painless death from a bullet to the brain, versus a long and painful death from being shot while running and possibly tortured afterwards for trying to run. The odds of those people escaping death, no matter what they do, is basically zero. The odds of experiencing a painful death from trying to escape are fairly high. It's horrible that anyone would have to make that choice, but in their place I'd probably weigh the odds and do the same. Make no mistake, real life is not Hollywood, and while I can't say for sure (having never been in that situation) I am fairly confident that no one but the people in that situation can understand the mindset or what it feels like.

Human behavior in extreme situations isn't about choices, you don't get choices, you get primal reactions. The biggest misconception spread by TV and movies is the idea that when your life is in danger you'll be able to control your actions logically and rationally. In reality your decision making ability degrades significantly and you revert to a very primal survival state. If you're interested more in the realities of the human mind and body under that kind of intense pressure I would suggest reading "On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace" by Dave Grossman and Loren Chrstensen. It's a very eye opening book.

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    An example in this regard would be the videotaped executions by terrorists of ISIS and Al-Qaeda and other such organizations. I saw a gruesome video from Nigeria where Boko Haram had hostages lined up on a mass grave and there they were slitting throats of those people. None of them made an attempt to dash or escape even though being shot while running would be presumably less painful than being butchered like an animal. They had simply given up and accepted their fate. I suppose it's the human psychology, not the rational choice in choosing the less painful way to die. U r done if u give up
    – NSNoob
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 12:21

"In several videos and photos you see people getting round[ed] up... Why does nobody try to run away?"

It's not that nobody ran away, it's that nobody ever took a video of people running away.

People ran away all the time. They ran, they hid, they begged and they fought. The individuals who survived were for the most part of an age and background that were capable of running and of hiding. But when people got caught, turned in or trapped, a very human response at the end of all things is to do pretty much nothing.

Friedrich Jeckeln was an Obergruppenführer in the SS, who was highly decorated for his role in standardising the procedure of pit shootings. One of the things that he noted (although it was not put into practice in the picture above) is that there were fewer attempts at flight if you made people undress before approaching the pit. His implementation of this idea also speaks to the fact that, fully dressed, many people did attempt to flee at the last minute.

Such flights were all the more common in circumstances in which the shootings were conducted in an erratic manner. Where they were organised and streamlined, resistance was minimal. Again, this is a very human (lack of) response.

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    +1 for showing that executions being managed "professionally" helps to prevent people running away and other problems. In a lot of executions, organisers were experienced but victims are always being executed for the first time.
    – Pere
    Commented May 12, 2019 at 16:34

I don't know how easy this would be if just you jumped out of the execution queue and took of running. Generally these executions had a squad of soldiers performing the execution, plus often machine gunners in the back of the transport trucks over looking the site. I agree photos of these executions are tragic and the poor souls look pathetic waiting to die, but I don't think they'd get far running across the field given they would have been very weak with hunger and lack of sleep. If they all took off at once and tried to over power a few guards then some could possibly escape. How long they would last living in the wild and the cold and if they would find people willing to help them instead of turning them in. Not sure if there would be retributions for those who were left though. There are worse ways to die than getting a bullet in the head.


many did try to run, at least one Polish Officer ran from the Soviet Executioners at Katyn. Much easier to run and hide in a forest than in an open featureless place like the Dunes of Latvia. the most consistently succesful tactic was to pretend to be dead and just hope you didn't suffocate in a mass grave before it was safe to dig yourself out. the father of my Friend ran from a UPA execution squad in 1943 in Wolyn and is still with us.


There were several reasons:

  • They had nowhere to run. The Germans warned all the population that helping the escaped victims is punishable by death. There were no safe zones around. The Jews would be quickly identified as Jews. Yet, even for Jews there were places of different danger. In some cases an escapee from a shooting squad or a train would ask a German soldier to escort them to a nearby ghetto, arriving to a ghetto would buy some time. In other cases moving to Romanian or Italian occupation zones would make sense.

  • They were not sure what would happen until the last moment. They often were told that they would be resettled or evacuated. In many cases the "shower" indeed meant just "shower".

  • Some people were praying in hope God would intervene and do a miracle. For instance, the guards suddenly received an order to cancel, or an air raid, or they run out of bullets, or somebody of the guards would say he knows one of the victims and saved them. Such cases indeed happened.

  • Why Romanian occupation zone? Italian army's protection of Jews I know about.
    – Jeff
    Commented Apr 8, 2017 at 22:53
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    @Jeff in Romanian area the situation was better than in German area. Especially towards the end of war. Jews were settled in ghettos and even some international Jewish organizations were allowed to provide food and support. Sometimes Germans would take Jews from a Romanian ghetto "for work" and not return them after work done. There were a lot of atrocities in Romanian areas, but in general the situation was preferable to German areas. Also, if a Jew was baptized, this could benefit him in Romanian areas (Romanians preferred to elevate baptized Jews over others).
    – Anixx
    Commented Apr 8, 2017 at 23:16
  • Do you have link? Wikipedia makes it sound pretty bad for Jews in Romania. Now, Bulgaria was quite different in its treatment of Jews.So was Japan, not just the one guy Chiune Suigihara but national policy protected Jews.
    – Jeff
    Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 3:21
  • @Jeff I have read about it, but I do not have link now. The policy changed after 1942. Overall about 50% Jews in Romanian zone survived, about 60% in Romania's pre-war borders. This is owful but better than in German zone (about 10% survived)
    – Anixx
    Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 8:56

In addition to great answers above, I'm currently reading "Yank", by Ted Ellsworth, who was captured by the Germans in France. (The options were to surrender his company or have the parts of it hunted down and killed.) After the surrender, on two occasions a German lay down on the ground behind a machine gun pointing at the dozens of prisoners, but (obviously) didn't fire. He said that they were expecting to be shot, but were so exhausted, cold, and humiliated that they really didn't care much.


It has been mentioned that any escapee from a camp faced an often hostile local population, maybe one with which they shared no common language. In some countries, local collaborators were police -- imagine running away from police in current times: How far would you get?

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