2005-01-26—Goldhagen—Nazis and exculpation
Daniel Goldhagen, author
of Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust,
told a recent San Diego conference on Shoah law and literature that
people who were perpetrators of atrocities against the Jews, or who were
bystanders during nazi times, have much in common with people today who resist
making restitution to families of Jewish victims: “They lie a lot.”
The Harvard University
political scientist said that this lying is so ordinary that skilled
interrogators even can predict what lies they will hear first, and when those
are disproved, what lies they will hear next.
For perpetrators, the very
first lie—the premier line of defense—is “I wasn’t there,” Goldhagen
said. But if it can be shown that
they were in fact present during the time of atrocities, then they say: “I
didn’t do it.” If then it can
be shown that they did indeed participate, then they say, ‘I did it as little
Or alternatively, they
might say “even though I did it, I was opposed to it—but I had no choice.”
Or, “I did it, but it was only because I didn’t comprehend”—as,
for example: “Yes, I participated in the deportations but I didn’t
understand what was going to happen to the people.”
In other words, according
to Goldhagen, the perpetrators will try to transform themselves into
“bystanders”—people who knew what was going on, but did nothing—and
thereby take themselves one notch below on the ladder of shame.
Similarly, people who
actually were bystanders will lie to make it appear that they didn’t
keep silent out of malice toward the Jews or other victimized people.
Their first line of defense is “I didn’t know.”
If it can be shown that they did know, then they will say, “yes, I
knew, but I could not do anything.” Many
of them will often add: “I did what I could and I wanted to do more” to help
people, to act well.
Lies, lies and more lies,
according to Goldhagen.
Sometimes these latter-day
abettors will attempt to divest themselves of their responsibility by arguing
that the wrong was done during wartime, and that there are post-war treaties to
be concerned about. Or, they say ‘let’s move on; why bring this up now; it
will do more harm than good, and so forth,” Goldhagen said.
To prove a case against a
Holocaust miscreant requires prosecutors to show that the person had knowledge
of what was going on, that he had opportunity to act in the right way, and that
he instead acted malevolently.
Goldhagen said all too
often people who hear the lies of perpetrators, bystanders and non-repairers
unfortunately are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
They are willing to accept the idea that people did evil only because
they were coerced—not because the perpetrators actually wanted to act evilly.
Even more underserved
credence is given the defense of the bystanders, according to Goldhagen.
Typical of these defenses are such statements as “the Allies couldn’t
do anything because of the war effort, but they wanted to act well,” Goldhagen
said. “The church couldn’t do
more… but it wanted to act well. …”
Sometimes perpetrators try
to justify their actions in terms of a higher cause. “I was doing my duty; I had an obligation to obey orders”
was one defense trotted out, and rejected, at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial.
Bystanders offered similar justifications, according to Goldhagen.
“The Allies said we had to focus our resources on the war.” Individuals--sometimes justifiably, Goldhagen allowed--said
“there was danger for my family.”
stated that “no one admits freely to having been criminal, evil or
venal.” Even members of death
squads who murdered people by the thousands tried to find ways of exculpating
themselves. Uniformed guards would
say they had been somewhere else at the time.
The political scientist
posited that when people really have the will to act well, “there are usually
indications that they can point to….People who do act well take advantage of
small opportunities when they can.”