Is it possible to explain the motivations of Holocaust perpetrators? (by Valentin Boulan)

Is it possible to explain the motivations of Holocaust perpetrators? (by Valentin Boulan)

Many Holocaust studies have focused not only on the victims, but also on perpetrators. This interest towards the Nazi killing machine is in many ways understandable. Firstly, because perpetrators can be seen as an opportunistic topic of study, for which countless primary sources, such as official documents from the Reich’s bureaucracy and perpetrator testimonies, became available at the end of the war. This, in turn facilitated the work of historians, most notoriously that of Raul Hilberg . Furthermore, the atrocities of the Nazi regime naturally provoked a particular curiosity and need to understand among Western writers, who sought to explain how a modern, seemingly civilised society could decline into such a destructive force. Whatever the reason, the motivations of Holocaust perpetrators have become the subject of a heated debate, in which distinctive sides have emerged. On the one hand, the most controversial school of thought, supported in Daniel Goldhagen’s book, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”, argues that the Holocaust was made possible by the majority of German people’s fanatical enthusiasm in murdering Europe’s Jewish population,. Contrastingly, the opposing view, labelled intentionalist theory, suggests that it is impossible to claim all Germans were anti-Semitic, and instead emphasises the circumstances, both in Germany and on the Eastern front, which turned “ordinary men” into mass murderers.

The aim of this article is not to explain how millions of German civilians let so many people get slaughtered, nor is it to speculate on how much (or indeed how little) was known about the extermination process at the time. Rather, it aims to assess the usefulness of perpetrator studies and establish how far it is possible to explain the motivations of Holocaust actors. In treating such questions, it will focus on the most direct perpetrators of the Holocaust, those who literally pressed the triggers, organised deportations to extermination camps, started the engines or signed the letters. Accordingly, indirect responsibility such as that of passive bystanders, or the motivations of Nazi ideologists, whose propaganda would eventually contribute to the extermination of Jews, will not be assessed.

As arguably the most complete and influential work on Holocaust studies ever published, perhaps an analysis of Holocaust perpetrators’ motivations ought to commence with an assessment of Hilberg’s argument. Looking at the importance of the German bureaucracy in carrying out the massacre of Jews, Hilberg portrays a very robotic image of Holocaust perpetrators, describing the extermination process as simply “an additional task to the German bureaucratic machine”. Hence, he suggests that personal motivations had little to do with involvement, except perhaps when careerist motives created competition and rivalry among different government agencies . However, whilst this appears to support the argument many perpatrators put forward in their defence in post-war trials, namely that they were simply following orders and/or ignored the nature of the task in which they were involved, Hilberg argues otherwise. Indeed, he claims that most were aware of the nature of their task, but that such psychological burden was neutralised through different forms of rationalization, particularly the use of propaganda to convince Germans of the evil nature of the Jewish people in order to justify their destruction . Interestingly, Hilberg also points towards the many excuses made by perpetrators on trial and suggests that rationalization was sometimes a personal cognitive process, whereby perpetrators convinced themselves of their own innocence through various excuses (e.g. only following orders, that the next fellow’s action rather than their own was the criminal action or by claiming that they had helped Jews they knew so could not be anti-Semite themselves, hiding behind the “simply doing their duty” pretext) . In addition, Michael Marrus points toward the important dependence on technology in convincing many perpetrators that they were simply “technicians”, choosing not to acknowledge the destructive dimension of their duty . Hence, according to this argument, whilst some perpetrators were undoubtedly driven by their personal ambition, the majority were not actually “motivated” to kill Jews as such.

Many historians now accept that the 1942 Wannsee conference was not a decisive moment in deciding the fate of the European Jews, and rather aimed to plan its execution with the different agencies needed for its success. Nonetheless, it may be worth looking at the motivations of the present dignitaries, who represented both the top of the Nazi hierarchy and the leading figures of Holocaust perpetration. It seems evident given their status that, unlike the rather insignificant civil servant, the men of Wannsee cannot be portrayed as neutral, obedient bureaucrats. As pointed out by Mark Roseman, the majority were “true believers, for whom racist-nationalism was at the heart of their philosophy” , and the apparent relaxed atmosphere at the conference, after which all stayed for a casual drink and to converse, offers a shocking contrast with the nature of the highlighted project, showing the ease with which the Holocaust was accepted . Needless to say, personal ambition again played a part for many, most blatantly in the cases of men like Heinrich Muller, who had been a loyal servant of the Weimar Republic, or Martin Luther, who was “an entrepreneur and an opportunist” rather than an convinced anti-Semite .Interestingly, Roseman notes that for several of the Wannsee participants, a radical ideological change had occurred by 1941. For example, both Heydrich and Eichmann, who had previously championed emigration as the “solution to the Jewish question”, now supported the extermination process. The timing of this radicalisation, which appears to coincide with that of beginning of war against the Soviet Union, is another factor which will be further tackled later on in this essay. The motivations of the Wannsee dignitaries, therefore, can be summed up by three main factors: ideology, ambition and war.

Although assessing “desk murderers” is an essential part of perpetrator studies which must not be overlooked, such research of course fails to explain the behaviour of all perpetrators. Indeed, if one compares the role of the bureaucracy to that of Einsatzgruppen troops, whose role was to carry out the ethnic cleansing in the East through mass shootings, it is problematic to explain the motivations of shooters in terms of their psychological denial or their own personal involvement, since they were at the very heart of the extermination process. Moreover, just like the German bureaucrats, the composition of mobile perpetrator demography was one of ordinary men rather than convinced, hardcore Nazi followers like the SS. For instance, Christopher Browning’s study of Police Battalion 101’s involvement in mass shootings in Poland in 1942 shows that although his sample only consisted of 25% of Party members, whose large proportion (63%) came from working class background, “a social class that had been anti-Nazi in its political culture” and all originated from Hamburg, traditionally one of the least fervent Nazi supporter, their involvement was total .How, then, were German soldiers capable of methodically shooting thousands of men, women and children at close range over several months during the Eastern massacres by execution squads?

In “Ordinary Men”, Christopher Browning, largely inspired by the work of Hilberg to whom he dedicates his book, draws comparisons between the rationale of desk murderers and that of soldiers. For example, he suggests that the effect of physical distancing between bureaucrats and their victims had similar psychological effects to the process of “dehumanization of the Other” in the East, and enabled the murderers to feel less sympathy towards their victims . Surprisingly, he also argues that the division of labour of the task also enabled the killers on the ground to feel less involved, as not all of them received the order to actually directly murder Jews . Other recurrent motives, like the personal ambitions of young upcoming officers, also occurred in both settings and undoubtedly also had an impact. Additionally, Browning identifies motivational factors very particular to the on ground killers. Firstly, he suggests that the constant repetition of the killing process made it gradually easier for the men of Police Battalion 101 to execute their victims, which explains why the earliest massacre, at Jozefow in July 1942, appears to have been the most traumatic of all for many (see chapter 7).

Another factor affecting the participants’ behaviour, whose importance Browning particularly stresses is the role of peer pressure. Indeed, he claims that the fear of remoteness from the rest of the group, as well as the guilt feeling to not “be a coward” and leave the dirty work to one’s comrades was central to troop motivations . Thirdly, with reference to Milgram’s social Psychology experiment on obedience, he proposes that respect to an apparently legitimate form of authority was also a great behavioural influence, stressing the role of socialisation through the family, education and the army in shaping the men’s reaction to the latter.

To finish, Browning suggests that the impact of Nazi propaganda before and during WWII, coupled with the “war mentality” that the conflict was not an ordinary one, but rather an ideological war from which only one side would survive, had a polarizing effect which contributed to the dehumanization of victims. This, he suggests, made the killing process altogether more bearable. This idea has also been defended by Edward Westermann, who argued that propaganda and the Eastern war contributed to turning ordinary Germans into “ideological soldiers” .According to this argument, then, the majority of on ground perpetrators were not motivated by their personal anti-Semitism, but rather mainly driven by the context in which they found themselves.

On the contrary, other historians have taken a different approach to explaining perpetrator motivations, claiming that the image of the shocked German man, revolted by the killing orders but trapped by the social context of war represents a misleading portrayal of the Holocaust. In “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”, Goldhagen attributes more blame on the perpetrator’s own choices and approval of the killing, claiming that the German’s abnormal anti-Semitism was obviously the main motivation of Holocaust perpetrators. To illustrate the point that the majority consented to mass killings, he points towards the willingness of soldiers to be seen in action by their loved ones, by bringing wives to the massacres or by sending pictures of their victims’ humiliations, which in themselves too suggest a sense of pride in taking part . Furthermore, he also notes the relatively ease with which Battalion members could have excused themselves without repercussions, or even obtained a transfer elsewhere, which stand as evidence that the majority of troops must have therefore approved on principle. And as far as explaining soldiers’ obvious discomfort in actually killing Jews, Goldhagen argues that such feeling is understandable and comparable to that of “medical students who might get initially shaken by their exposure to blood and guts, yet who view their work as ethically laudable” . Consequently, Goldhagen concludes that the main motivation of Holocaust perpetrators was the unusually strong anti-Semitism which characterised not only the members of execution squads, but more broadly German culture as a whole.

Golhagen’s work has raised controversy among Holocaust historians, who accuse him of oversimplification by ignoring situational factors, and dismiss his claim that Germany as a whole was generally more anti-Semitic than any other country. For instance, both the extreme violence of Eastern Europeans towards local Jews and the Nazi regime’s careful intention not to let news of genocide leak into the public sphere suggests seem to go against Goldhagen’s argument . Interestingly, though Browning and Goldhagen used the same set of sources, namely the post-war investigations of Reserve Police Battalion 101’s involvement in the mass killings in Poland, they reach very dissimilar conclusions from them.

And there, perhaps, lies the biggest problem in explaining any Holocaust perpetrator’s motivations. Indeed, survivor testimony is of limited use when trying to explain the motivation of their attackers, which forces historians to principally rely on perpetrators’ testimony, many of which were recorded for the purpose of their own trials, raising serious issues in terms of their potential bias in exculpating themselves. For example, in chapter 17 of “Ordinary Men”, Browning highlights how much emphasis perpetrators put on the role of local Polish populations in persecuting and murdering Jews, whilst downplaying the frequency and violence of their own actions . Some other forms of behaviour, such as Battalion 101’s men tendency towards heavy drinking after and sometimes even during the executions also appears to depend on historians’ personal interpretations. Whilst Browning suggests that this was cause by the men’s unbearable need to diminish their distress, Goldhagen seems to consider it as evidence of the celebratory atmosphere surrounding the killings. Therefore, it is problematic to explain the motivation of any perpetrator, let alone that of whole “categories” of them. Having said that, difficulty does not necessarily mean impossibility: explaining his methodology, Browning argues that an intense cross-referencing work upon perpetrator testimony, comparing the accounts of all witnesses can help alienate invalid statements . As a result, he argues, Goldhagen’s discrimination technique, systematically rejecting the testimonies which portrayed their author as innocent on the basis that they were most probably attempts to clear themselves, creates a biased sample, far from representative of all Holocaust perpetrators .

Studies of Holocaust perpetrators’ motivations have often focused on the very moment, place and time of the killing action, and have frequently underestimated the very particular context of early 20th century Germany. Ervin Staud argues that the difficult economic context of post-WWI Germany created a need to scapegoat a particular social group, the Jews, producing “Cultural Devaluation” and the first step towards genocide. In addition, a culturally rooted tendency to respect authority which he explains with reference to socialisation within the family and education, as well as the fact that early 20th century Germany was a very monolithic society, characterised by rigidity and uniformity of ideas meant that the social context of Germany, even before the Nazis, was one to facilitate genocide . However, Staud does not exclusively focus on the social structure of German, and also provides a useful cognitive analysis of the perpetrators with the Personal Goal theory. According to this principle, “when a conflict exists between moral values and other motives, people can reduce the conflict by replacing the moral value with another value” which does not contradict one’s goal. In the case of Nazi Germany, he argues, perpetrators replaced the idea of respect for life by values of anti-Semitism and total loyalty to leadership .

To conclude, there are issues to consider when trying to explain the motivations of Holocaust executioners, such as the limitation of perpetrator testimony as valid sources. However, as demonstrated by Browning, the task is not impossible. In itself, motivation may be a misleading term, which implies that perpetrators were always determined to get on with their assignment, and it is clear from many Holocaust studies that those were not actually “motivated”, but rather had motives to go ahead with the atrocious directives. Although those motives would have varied, particularly between the different “types” of perpetrators, it is fair to say that not all Germans were driven by anti-Semitism, as Goldhagen suggests. Rather, the social contexts of the post war era, and that of the Nazi regime, worsened by the “war mentality” which caused a radicalisation of views towards Jews, appear to be the main factors in shaping the motivations of perpetrators. This essay has focused exclusively on the German actors of the Holocaust, looking at the leaders of the Final Solution, the bureaucracy and the military to focus on all the hierarchical levels of the process. However, the collaboration of occupied territories’ authorities, in France, the Netherland and in the East to facilitate the deportation of Jews, as well as the frequent spontaneous killings of Eastern European Jewish populations by locals also played an important part in the extermination process which must not be forgotten. Hence, a more detailed study of perpetrator motivation ought to include non-Germans, whose motivations, or motives, are likely to have been rather different.


Browning, Christopher, Ordinary Men (London, 1998)
Cesarani, David, The Final Solution: Origins and implementations (New York, 1994)
Dreyfus, Jean-Marc & Langton, Daniel, Writing the Holocaust (London, 2011)
Goldhagen, Daniel, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York, 1996)
Hilberg, Raul, The Destruction of the European Jews (Chicago, 1961)
Kle, Ernst, Dressen, Willi and Riess, Volker, “Those were the Days”: The Holocaust through the Eyes of the Perpetrators and Bystanders (London, 1991)
Newman, Leonard & Erber Ralph, Understanding Genocide: The Social Psychology of the Holocaust (Oxford, 2002)
Marrus, Michael, The Holocaust in History (Hanover, 1987)
Roseman, Mark, The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting, Wannsee and the Final Solution (London, 2001)
Supple, Carrie, From Prejudice to Genocide: Learning about the Holocaust (Chester, 1993)
Westermann, Edward B., “Ordinary Men” or “Ideological Soldiers”? Police Battalion 301 in Russia, 1942 (Berlin, 1998)


3 thoughts on “Is it possible to explain the motivations of Holocaust perpetrators? (by Valentin Boulan)

  1. Pingback: Introduction to Online Diary of Stef Vandevelde, Anvers : FALKOR-ONE (Writings bout This Silent Holocaust) | ‡ FACHISM│TERRORISM│THE PROGRAM│STAY-BEHIND NETWORK│BELGIUM CINEY│GANG STALKING ‡

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