Mark Mazower
Dark Continent

When foreign governments were approached for support, their reactions depended upon the prospects for German victory the nature of local attitudes towards the Jews and the opportunity costs of resistance. They tended to be particularly cooperative in handing over Jewish refugees and other non-nationals, but they were usually more reluctant to allow their own fellow-citizens to be deported. Some governments, notably the French, the Slovak and the Croat, were at least as enthusiastic in their anti-Semitism as the Germans and responded warmly to the chance of removing their Jewish population 'to the east.' In Romania and later Hungary where extreme anti-Semitic movements briefly held power, the bloody consequences shocked the Germans themselves. Even where the locals dragged their heels, as in Greece or the Netherlands, cooperation among the various German authorities often ensured that a high proportion of the local Jewish population was deported. Virtually none emulated the Danes in helping most Jews to escape, though the Italians—for their own reasons—did all they could to obstruct the Final Solution in the areas under their control. And as for neutral Sweden and Switzerland, recent revelations indicate their willingness to turn Nazi racial policy to their own advantage.

The British and American governments, for their part, suffered from no lack of information. Churchill was receiving Ultra decrypts of the Einsatzgruppen reports from the East, which summarized the killing totals. Several individuals, including Jan Karski, an astonishingly brave Polish emissary emerged from occupied Europe to brief London and Washington with eyewitness accounts of the ghettos and even the death camps themselves. But apart from some vague public warnings to the Germans, little was done, and the chance to bomb the camps was passed over. Whether this inaction stemmed from anti-Semitism, from inability to imagine was what taking place, or from the fact simply that the Final Solution was never a central concern of the Allied war effort remains a matter of controversy.

Popular opinion inside occupied Europe is also difficult to gauge. Anti-Semitism was a continent-wide phenomenon with a long history of course, and in some areas explains an attitude of detachment and even enthusiasm for the Jews' plight. Nor should it be forgotten that genocide always offers spectacular opportunities for enrichment—abandoned factories, shops and properties, furniture and clothes—with which popular satisfaction may be purchased by the occupying power. After 1940, Eichmann extended the 'Vienna model' of 'Aryanization' of Jewish property to Amsterdam, Paris, Salonika and Europe's other major cities, while Rosenberg's agents alone plundered the equivalent of 674 trainloads of household goods in western Europe. Seventy-two trainloads of gold from the teeth of Auschwitz victims were sent to Berlin. If most of this went into German homes or Swiss bank vaults, a considerable sum lined the pockets of unscrupulous collaborators, informers and agents of every nationality. Yet it must be said that approval of the Final Solution was not a common phenomenon. In response to the horrors of occupation, most people living under Nazi control had retreated into a private world and tried to ignore everything that did not directly concern them. With traditional moral norms apparently thrown to the wind, the unusual cruelty of the Germans towards the Jews created a more general alarm among non-Jews.

What cannot escape our attention are German reactions—or the lack of them. There was no public protest inside the Reich to match the furore over the euthanasia campaign. Most Germans appear to have accepted that the Jews were no longer part of their community. Ordinary middle-aged policemen took part in mass executions; university professors, lawyers and doctors commanded the Einsatzgruppen. They did not do so out of fear: there is no recorded instance of a refusal to shoot innocent civilians being punished by death. Rather, the letters of concentration camp guards and death-squad killers reveal what ordinary individuals living in Europe in the middle of the twentieth century were capable of doing under the influence of a murderous ideology. Even in the midst of killing, private concerns about girlfriends, wives or children continued to worry them.

When SS-Untersturmfuhrer Max Taubner was tried by the SS and Police Supreme Court in Munich in May 1943 for the unauthorized shooting of Jews in the Ukraine, the court offered a revealing insight into the moral values of the Third Reich. Its judgment stressed that killing Jews was not in itself a crime: 'The Jews have to be exterminated and none of the Jews that were killed is any great loss.' In the court's eyes, Taubner's offence lay rather in killing them cruelly and allowing 'his men to act with such vicious brutality that they conducted themselves under his command like a savage horde.' Even though he had acted out of 'a true hatred for the Jews' rather than 'sadism,' he had revealed an 'inferior' character and a 'high degree of mental brutalization.' 'The conduct of the accused,' ran the verdict, 'is unworthy of an honourable and decent German man.'

A similar acceptance of racially motivated killing was evident inside the Reich. The segregation of forced labourers and POW workers, enforced by the Gestapo, became accepted as a normal state of affairs. Denunciations of foreign workers were commonplace. The public hanging or flogging of workers who formed sexual relationships with German citizens seem to have occasioned little protest, as did the restrictions imposed by the police on their movements and activities: Polish workers were, for example, forbidden to use bicycles or to attend church. Nazi views on the inferiority of 'East workers' seem to have been commonly accepted. The inhabitants of Mauthausen grew used to seeing camp inmates shuffling through their streets and the casual brutality of their SS guards. When several hundred Russian POWs managed to escape from the camp, on 2 February 1945, only two local families are recorded as having offered a hiding-place and shelter. Most of the escapees were quickly rounded up or shot like 'rabbits' by local farmers, excited Hider Youth teenagers and towns-people eager to participate in a terrifying bloodletting.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.