What converted ordinary people into murderous Nazis, and why did so few opt out when they could, without penalty?
Lewy (Emeritus, History/Univ. of Massachusetts; Harmful and Undesirable: Book Censorship in Nazi Germany, 2016, etc.), the son of a concentration camp survivor, cites clinical studies disproving any pathological explanation and stating that the percentage of sadists involved was no larger than in any other population group. He lists the types who made up the various Nazi groups: the true sadists, those who murdered out of ideological conviction and obsession with the Nazi philosophy, and those who joined just to get ahead. The Nazis’ totalitarian ethic contained everything: simple formulas, a Manichaean viewpoint, a hierarchy of standards oriented to military categories, and a Utopian ideal. Since Lewy had access only to German trial records, no Austrian perpetrators are included, but the author points out that it was not only Germans who volunteered, but also citizens of the Baltic States, Ukraine, and Romania. Though brief, the book makes for difficult reading, as Lewy includes long lists of names and the horrors inflicted and suffered as well as some horrific photos. The accounts of those who served in the death camps are especially disturbing. The outlooks of Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, the men who implemented Hitler’s will—there was never a specific written order for the Final Solution—are bone-chilling. Himmler was concerned with the methods of shooting victims and the effect it had on the executioners, as his men were having nightmares and nervous breakdowns. The widespread use of the gas chambers came about because the first mobile units, trucks outfitted to kill, were unwieldy, and the herding and removal of victims was upsetting. The author also examines the postwar trials in Germany, especially the less-than-impressive record of convictions and many light sentences.
Lewy condemns the poor justice in this difficult book, which is decidedly and understandably one-sided; it will be of most use to scholars and serious students of the Holocaust.