Cogs in a machine of unimaginable cruelty. Mundane characters in a ghastly story of the premeditated murder of millions. The vast Nazi apparatus of genocide required the lowly guard to enforce the compound, the unassuming secretary to answer the phones, and the bespectacled bookkeeper to maintain the ledger of expenses. These workers and bureaucrats are the epitomai of “the banality of evil” but lest we forget, evil nonetheless.
This summer, I am studying the Holocaust in Professor Sarah Stein’s course at UCLA and examining the question of culpability among many other important issues. So, the news of the conviction of a 101-year-old German ex-concentration camp guard, identified only as Josef S., crystallized my emotions and thoughts about this painful chapter in our recent history.
Based on the evidence presented, the Neuruppin Regional Court sentenced him to five years in prison for more than 3500 counts of acting as an accessory to murder at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany during the Second World War.
The genocide of European Jewry, Slavs, Roma, Sinti, homosexuals and the disabled is intimately associated with Hitler and his Nazi Party. However, the horrors of the Holocaust cannot be fully explained by the malevolence of one man or one Party alone.
The “Final Solution” required a society of enablers and accomplices- ordinary Germans and “desk murderers,” their nefarious roles psychologically insulated by their pedestrian jobs.
For example, bureaucrats who made the schedules for the trains that transported prisoners to the death camps or compiled lists of the Jews in various cities for eventual arrest and deportation were detached from the final killing, psychologically and emotionally absolving themselves of murder. Hence, though their degrees of guilt obviously differ, the Josefs, Grönings and Demjanjuks, by aiding and abetting murder, are just as culpable as the Hitlers, Himmlers and Heydrichs in crimes against humanity.