Hitler's European Holocaust Helpers

There is no final verdict yet on the European dimension of the Holocaust. The French and Italians started late -- when most of the perpetrators were already dead -- to deal comprehensively with this part of their history. Others, such as the Ukrainians and Lithuanians, are still dragging their feet; or they have only just begun, like Romania, Hungary and Poland.

Since 1945 the countries invaded and ravaged by Hitler's armies have seen themselves as victims -- which they doubtless were, with their vast numbers of dead. That makes it all the more painful to concede that many compatriots aided the German perpetrators.

In Latvia, local assistance was greater than anywhere else. According to the American historian Raul Hilberg, the Latvians had the highest proportion of Nazi helpers. The Danes are at the other end of the scale. When the deportation of Denmark's Jews was about to begin in 1943, large parts of the population helped Jews to escape to Sweden or hid them. Some 98 percent of Denmark's 7,500 Jews survived World War II. By contrast, only nine percent of the Dutch Jews survived.

Does the Holocaust represent the low point not only of German history, but of European history as well, as historian Aly argues?

There is evidence challenging the widely-held notion that foreign perpetrators were forced to help the Germans commit murder. It's true that local helpers risked their lives by refusing to assist the German occupiers. That applied to the police units and civil servants in occupied Western Europe as much as it did to newly-formed auxiliary police in the east. But it's also true that in many places people volunteered to serve the Germans or participated in crimes without being forced to.

There is also the often-repeated claim that the governments of countries allied with Hitler had no choice but to hand over Jewish citizens to the Germans. That's not true either. The Balkan countries in particular quickly understood how important the "solution to the Jewish Question" was to Hitler and his diplomats -- and they tried to extract the highest possible price for their complicity.

There's also reason to doubt the assumption that the helpers were pathological sadists. If that were true, they should be easy to identify, for example within the group of 50 Lithuanians who served under the command of SS Obersturmbannf├╝hrer (Lieutenant Colonel) Joachim Hamann. The men would drive around the villages up to five times a week to murder Jews, and ended up killing 60,000 people. It only took a few crates of Vodka to get them in the mood. In the evenings the troop would return to Kaunas and boast of their crimes in the mess hall.

None of the Lithuanians had been criminals before. They were "totally and utterly normal," believes historian Knut Stang. Almost everywhere after the war, the murderers returned to their ordinary lives as if nothing had happened. Demjanjuk too was a law-abiding citizen. In Cleveland, Ohio, where he lived, he was regarded as good colleague and a friendly neighbor.

It's the same as with the German perpetrators. There's no identifiable type of killer -- that's a particularly disturbing conclusion reached by historians. The murderers included Catholics and Protestants, hot-blooded southern Europeans and cool Balts, obsessive right-wing extremists or unfeeling bureaucrats, refined academics or violent rednecks.

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