Among them was Viktor Arajs (1910-1988), a learned lawyer from a Latvian farming family who commanded a unit of more than 1,000 men that murdered its way around Eastern Europe on behalf of the Nazis. Or the Romanian Generaru, son of a general and commander of the ghetto in Bersad in Ukraine, who had one of his victims tied to a motorbike and dragged to death.
And anti-Semitism? In the 1930s, anti-Semitism grew across Europe because the upheaval after World War I and the global economic crisis had unsettled people. In Eastern Europe, the tendency to regard Jews as scapegoats and to try and exclude them from the job market was especially strong. In Hungary, Jews were banned from public office at the end of the 1930s and were forbidden to work in a large number of professions. Romania voluntarily adopted Nazi Germany's racist and anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws. In Poland, many universities restricted access for Jewish students.
The extent of the hatred of Jews is also reflected in the fact that after the end of the war in 1945, mobs in Poland killed at least 600, and possibly even thousands of Holocaust survivors. However, excessive nationalism appears to have been the more important factor, at least in Eastern Europe. Many there dreamed of a nation state devoid of minorities. In this sense, the Jews were simply one of several groups that people wanted to rid themselves of. As World War II raged, the Croats didn't just murder Jews but also killed a far larger number of Serbs. Poles and Lithuanians killed each other. Romania liquidated Roma and Ukrainians.
It's hard to determine what motivated people to kill. Often nationalism or anti-Semitism were just excuses. During the war, no one had to go hungry in Germany, but living conditions in Eastern Europe were squalid. "For the Germans, 300 Jews meant 300 enemies of humanity. For the Lithuanians they meant 300 pairs of trousers and 300 pairs of boots," says one eyewitness. That was greed on a personal level. But it also featured on a collective level. In France, 96 percent of aryanized companies remained in French hands. The Hungarian government used the assets seized from Jews to extend its pension system and reduce inflation.
Imaginary revenge also played a part. Pogroms in Poland by local people against Jews in 1941 were based on the assumption that the Jews formed some sort of base for Soviet rule, because communists of Jewish descent had for a time been over-represented in some areas of the Soviet bureaucracy. As a result, many people blamed Jews for the crimes committed during the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland between 1939 and 1941. Stalin's secret police the NKWD had actual and presumed opponents of the regime in the Baltic States, eastern Poland and Ukraine shot or deported to Gulags. As the German troops advanced, the Soviets left behind a deeply traumatized society between the Baltic and the Carpathians -- and many fresh mass graves.