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Responsibility for the Holocaust
Although there are arguments to suggest Hitler’s involvement was limited…
Irving – Hitler didn’t know about the Holocaust, it was all carried out by his bureaucrats
There are examples of Hitler rejected the most rabidly anti-semitic measures:


When the Nuremberg Laws were announced at the 1935 Party rally – Hitler chose the 2 most moderate of the 4 laws drafted by ‘experts’ in Jewish policy, and spoke of them as a solution which perhaps would lay the foundations for peaceful co-existence (although he did say a ‘FS’ would be sought if couldn’t co-exist).
Following Kristallnacht, laws escalated over winter 1938-39. Hitler rejected the most radical proposals – yellow badge [farmer ch3].
Moderation in these early days probably out of pragmatic reasons: concern for opinion of German people and international community.

By 1939 Hitler’s intentions clear: e.g speech to Reichstag Jan 1939 where he explicitly predicts “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe” will accompany world war.


Hitler’s will replaced law – therefore whatever happened, including the Holocaust, is directly attributable to Hitler’s will. Although it was carried out by functionaries all of these people were ‘working towards the Fuhrer’.

This argument is echoed by


“Hitler was the inspiration behind the ‘Final Solution’, even where the direct initiatives came from others”

Gutman various cooperative moves between occupiers and ghetto Jews saw conditions improve in months immediately before FS – so it could not have been the crisis in ghettos which prompted murder as a result of local initiative, but a command from Hitler and highest-ranking members of the Party and the SS (p.154)
19 December 1941 Wilhelm Stuckert, Secretary of State at the Interior Ministry, told one of his officials: "The proceedings against the evacuated Jews are based on a decision from the highest authority. You must come to terms with it." (Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution)
No written record of H’s order for FS but this was not surprising given Hitler’s style of government which relied on verbal orders. Einsatzgruppen reports suggest that they fully understood that their remit was to kill the Jews.
Hitler appointed officials like Himmler and Heydrich and, had they acted outside of his desires he would have removed them, as he did with Rohm in 1934. The fact that Himmler remained part of the inner circle until 1945 confirms that what he did was what Hitler wanted.
Michael Marrus – ‘No Hitler, no Holocaust’
Hitler COULDN’T have carried out the holocaust without his bureaucrats and functionaries, but they WOULDN’T have done it without Hitler.
High Ranking Nazis: Goebbels, Goering, Frank, Eichmann
Goebbels convinced ordinary people of the Hitler myth and also conditioned them to accept genocide. Bartov claims that many soldiers in the Barbarossa campaign had grown up in Third Reich. By time conscripted had internalised vision of life as struggle for survival, where enemies had to be destroyed to ensure survival. This would help to explain why the Wehrmacht cooperated with the Einsatzgruppen in Russia when they had objected during the Polish campaign.
On 31 July 1941, Goering signed an order to Heydrich, drafted by Heydrich himself, requesting a ‘complete solution’ to the Jewish problem. For Hilberg this order, born of Hitler’s elation at initial victory against the USSR, is the turning point, marking the start of the FS (Farmer ch5).
In October 1939 Eichmann, acting on his own initiative, began transporting Jews from Vienna, Upper Silesia, Bohemia and Moravia to Lublin. This was despite the fact that although the Lublin settlement was the declared aim of the Nazis, the plans were on hold whilst Hitler waited for the outcome of his negotiations with Britain. Eichmann’s pre-emptive deportations arguably increased the pressure on the Polish ghettos to such an extent that the murder became inevitable.
Frank’s representative at the Wannsee Conference, Buhler, requested that the General Government be prioritized in the FS, which provided the opportunity for Heydrich to use this area to establish the death camps.

Functionaries – SA, Wehrmacht, Einsatzgruppen and SS
SA responsible for pre-war persecution – e.g Kristallnacht, supervision of boycotts of Jewish businesses.


Less significant as Holocaust develops – replaced by the SS-Gestapo within Germany.

Einsatzgruppen responsible for carrying out mass murder in Russia, e.g Babi-Yar September 1941. Their reports suggest that even in the absence of a verbal order, all the Einsatzgruppen show an awareness that their mandate includes the murder of the Jews. In this sense they could be argued to just be following orders.


Jaegar report refers to only 1 person who didn’t participate and he was excused on grounds of sickness and didn’t suffer any repercussions – suggests willingness to participate.

Moreover, Einsatzgruppen were mainly ordinary policemen, seconded to duty in the Einsatzgruppen. They weren’t necessarily fanatical Nazis in the sense that the SS would be expected to be. This might lend weight to Goldhagen’s argument that even ordinary Germans were murderously anti-Semitic. However, the officers were carefully selected and committed Nazis, e.g Otto Ohlendorf, D group – 34yr old lawyer.
Einsatzgruppen raised the bar – without their example the Wehrmacht wouldn’t have committed the atrocities they did.
However, Wehrmacht still responsible:
Kershaw (ch7)

Hitler made a speech on 26 May 1944 that his prophecy of 1939 (to make Europe Jew Free) was being fulfilled. This was met with rapturous applause from Hitler’s Generals. This suggests an affinity between Wehrmacht and Nazi leadership on racial policy

It is certainly the case that a Wehrmacht revolt would have brought the war to an end but this didn’t happen.
Forster argues that there was a consensus between Hitler and Wehrmacht over the ideological component of the Barbarossa campaign. The Wehrmacht were convinced of the link between Judaism and Bolshevism, a link that dated to the Stab-in-the-back myth, and so were convinced of the need to destroy the Jews as part of the campaign against the Bolsheviks.

Wehrmacht culpable:

  • Made killing possible by occupying land and protecting the actual killers from attack by partisans

  • Participated in killing of ‘partisans’ themselves

  • Killed ½ million Soviet POWs

  • Participated in economic exploitation which lead to death and starvation

  • Committed unauthorised acts of robbery, plunder, rape and pillage – termed by officers as verwilderung – troops running wild. This continued until the Wehrmacht was pushed back into German territory. Although you could argue that illegal acts were punishable by court martial, this could be out of a concern for discipline, rather than a concern for the immorality of the soldiers’ behaviour.

Streit has suggested that the unexpected assistance of the Wehrmacht for the work of the Einsatzgruppen was the key factor that made an escalation of policy possible sometime in July.

However, maybe the Wehrmacht wouldn’t have behaved in this fashion had Hitler not issued a pre-emptive amnesty for ‘initiative’ on 6 June 1941.

Remember also that Wehrmacht had sworn an oath of allegiance, not to Germany but to Hitler personally. Therefore, if mass murder can be seen as Hitler’s will, the Wehrmacht were just carrying out the orders they had sworn to carry out.

In addition, the Blomberg-Fritsch affair 1938 removed any possibility of organisational resistance within the Army and gave Hitler absolute power over the armed forces. (Kershaw ch6)
Ordinary people couldn’t have carried out these mass murders – the brutalizing effect of war had made soldiers numb to horror and murder. Himmler witnessed an Einsatzgruppen massacre on 1 August 1941 and nearly fainted at the horror.
SS ran the death camps and presided over the machinery of destruction. Can’t claim that these people were acting out of a sense of military necessity –these Jews were defenceless.
Also unparalled cruelty of some of the SS guards suggests they didn’t regard the Jews as human – e.g Kurt Franz, 2nd in command at Treblinka, trained his dog to attack the genitals of victims
However, couldn’t have acted without the collaboration of the guards: Treblinka had only 20 SS and 80 Ukranian guards.


Himmler’s training of the SS ensured total ideological commitment – quasi religious structures to the SS was meant to condition the SS not to question but just to pursue Nazi ideology to the end.

Turned the SS into an ideologically fanatical quasi-religious group which was committed to anti-semitism and to the Nazi vision.
By 1937 SS increasingly asserting its claim to a major role in the formation of Jewish policy –not interested in SA-style bullying – wanted clear criteria and systems
Autumn 1936 SD established separate section for Jewish affairs – deputy head = Eichmann [farmer ch3]
SS responsible for managing the death camps. Himmler turned Auschwitz into the main extermination camp, in his order to Hoess of July 1941 (before Wannsee!). Breitman called Himmler the ‘architect of genocide’. Himmler, not Heydrich, who in Dec 1939 plotted scheme for crematorium-delousing units in concentration camps
Himmler manipulated orders from Berlin to suit his own ends. For example, the order to prioritise murder over labour was largely ignored, as Himmler turned Auschwitz into an industrial combine which made him very rich! This illustrates that Himmler’s control over policy in the east was complete, and that therefore the way in which policy evolved on the ground was in accordance with his wishes, even to the exclusion of the wishes from Berlin.
Heydrich was the architect of Operation Reinhard – the murder of the Polish Jews in the 6 death camps – but, as Breitman points out, Heydrich was appointed and trained by Himmler and controlled his power a la Hitler, by giving similar responsibilities to rivals; Eicke, Daluege and Pohl
Himmler’s ideas were not original – he copied existing technologies, using the gas vans that had originally been used in the T4 programme at Chelmno.
In May 1940 Himmler advocated sending Jews to Madagascar, claiming “However cruel and tragic each individual case may be, this method is still the mildest and best, if one rejects the Bolshevik method of physical extermination of a people out of inner conviction as un-German and impossible.” This suggests his primary aim was emigration rather than genocide. On the other hand, could argue that the only reason Himmler asserted control over the FS was political, rather than ideological, and was an attempt to maintain his power base in the competing spheres of power of the Nazi State. For example, Himmler frustrated at being thwarted by Goering, Frank and military in dumping Jews in GG. Madagascar was a way of wresting control rather than a viable plan.

Ordinary people
Goldhagen – German people were ‘eliminationist’ anti-semites: they actively wanted to get rid of the Jews. Therefore both the perpetrators and the bystanders were active in seeking the destruction of the Jews.
Hilberg – decisions of Hitler and Himmler and Nazi leaders had to be accepted and implemented in order to be a success – civil servants, railwaymen etc
Farmer – German anti-semitism evident in the limited outcry at Kristallnacht. In fact, it was ordinary people who ordered the burning of synagogues in Nov 1938!
Barkai [Cesarani ch1] argues that most Germans didn’t object to Nazi policy pre-war, only debate with is whether reaction was indifference, passivity, acquiescence or complicity.
Police Battalion 101 – Goldhagen and browning used this (farmer) as perfect cross-section of society. Not forced to kill. Those who were squeamish could be transferred to other duties. Shows willingness.
Many Germans claimed that they were unaware of the Holocaust. Certainly, it was shrouded in secrecy. Officially Jews deported for resettlement and/or labour. Secrecy evident in Hitler’s directive of July 11 1943 that public reference to the ‘solution’ to the Jewish problem should not be discussed. In addition, Jews made up a very small % of the German population and some areas could legitimately claim that they had noticed no persecution/absence of Jews, or of anyone else who was targeted by the Nazi regime.
Farmer claims that even once suspicions grew about nature of T4, not many relatives challenged the programme; it was left only to Bishop Galen to publicly denounce it.
Barkai claims most German people knew of atrocities against the Jews. E.G diary of Karl Durkfelden, engineer in Sazony, who recorded the following in his diary:

  • Dec 41 – received letter from Kiev where there are ‘absolutely no Jews left’ – ref to Babi-Yar

  • Feb 42 – recorded rumours of gassings

  • Jan 43 – recorded colleague’s comments about total extermination of jewish communities in Vilna, and of Jews sent to Poland from France who were ‘partly shot, partly gassed’

Could argue
Lack of outcry could be attributable to

  • ‘retreat into private sphere’ (Peukert) in the face of terror state

  • focus on the hardships of war

  • constant indoctrination of anti-semitism and volkisch ideology

  • terror – disproportionate reprisals

This doesn’t explain the active participation in the destruction of the Jews:

Many people in Germany and occupied territories denounced Jews in hiding to the Nazi authorities – they could have said nothing

80% of staff at Belzec were local.
Lithuanian and Ukranian soldiers who participated in Einsatzgruppen killings and supported the SS in the death camps.
The German people wouldn’t/couldn’t have committed the Holocaust by themselves – needed a leadership which was capable of conceiving and orchestrating it
Historiographical problem – although there are not many cases recorded of Germans helping Jews, this doesn’t mean cases were as isolated as figures suggest - success stories wouldn’t have been recorded!
Further away from the centre of the Nazi state there are cases of ordinary people helping the Jews, e.g France and Denmark (see resistance notes for more details)

Hannah Arendt – had Jewish people been unorganised and leaderless there would have chaos and misery but not the same number of deaths as there were. Jewish leaders’ collaboration increased the death toll.
Hilberg – Jews helped with the process of destruction by supplying lists for deportation
Did perform labour in the camps – cooperation. They did outnumber the SS guards but there were very few armed revolts and uprisings

Resistance was essentially futile and there were still 22 ghetto revolts and 3 revolts in concentration camps.
Many Jewish leaders genuinely believed that cooperation would save lives; that the Jews wouldn’t be killed whilst they were working towards the Nazi war effort.
Cooperation was anyway the lesser of two evils: Meed (Warsaw ghetto survivor) claims it was wiser to sacrifice 70000 Jews for deportation as the Germans demanded than to endanger the whole ghetto which numbered half a million souls
Jews were not a homogenous group – divided by political allegiance, religion, language, age etc
People are naturally conformist, especially when afraid

Farmer (ch4) claims that many of the asylums for handicapped people were run by the Cath/Prot church but there was little protest at patients being transferred out, to the special clinics where euthanasia took place. In Dec 1940 the Vatican condemned euthanasia but not T4 specifically
Aug 1941 ONE pastor Galen of Munster publicly denounced T4. H didn’t want to create a martyr and so stopped killings (at least officially), which demonstrated what churches could have achieved had they collectively spoken out.
John Cornwell called Pius XII ‘Hitler’s Pope’.
In 1933 the Pope signed a concordat with Hitler, assuring freedom for Catholics in Germany in return for silence on political matters. (The German government signed similar treaties with Protestant churches in Germany).
Farmer claims that the Papacy was well aware of the Nazi treatment of the Jews but that Pius XII feared communism more than fascism. So there was no statement until it was obvious that the allies would win. Silence = complicity. Protestant church in Germany no better.
It does seem clear that by the winter of 1942-1943 Vatican diplomats in Eastern Europe had informed the Pope that Nazi ‘resettlement in the East’ was a linguistic facade for extermination.
Goldhagen, Zucotti and Cornwell condemn all condemn the Pope’s silent, comparing Pius unfavourably with the condemnation of Nazi Jewish policy by the Archbishop of Utrecht (Dutch) on 26th July 1942. They all claim that if the Pope had threatened to excommunicate any Catholic involved, the Jews would have been warned and given a chance to hide. Also it might have created a public outcry against the Nazis and succeeded in reversing the policy. Thus the Papacy bore great responsibility as huge moral influence where military or political influence couldn’t challenge what was happening.
Stapleton points out that, in June 1942, the Pope condemned the mass deportation of Jews from France. And on 24th December 1942 in his Christmas address, Pius directed concern towards ‘those hundreds of thousands, who without any fault of their own, sometimes by only reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or progressive extinction’. Contemporary Jews and Nazis alike believed that this explicitly condemned the Holocaust policy. Both Ribbentrop and Mussolini decided that the Pope had breached his neutrality. The Pope didn’t say more because he knew that, after Cardinal Willibrands of the Netherlands stated his Jewish sympathies explicitly, another 100,000 Jews were exported from Holland to the death camps. The Chief Rabbi of Copenhagen, Marcus Melchior, judged that ‘If the Pope had spoken out, Hitler would probably have massacred more than six million Jews.’
Papacy not a political office. Responsibility to remain neutral and not interfere in political conflicts to provide a refuge from conflict for both sides.
Experts and Industrialists
Kershaw (ch7)

Not a single leading industrialist or top-ranking manager was part of the disparate circles which conspired against Hitler in July 1944

Farmer (ch4)

Courts unsure how to deal with euthanasia cases brought by families because euthanasia was not legalised until April 1941 when the judiciary was finally given copies of H’s written authorisation. No judiciary raised objections!!

Benno Muller-Hull

Experts played huge role.


  • 39 medical doctors and 9 professors of psychiatry made the life and death decisions in the euthanasia programme of 1939-41

  • Only MDs had right to select for gas chambers at Auschwitz

  • 7 of the 14 at Wannsee (excluding Heydrich) held doctoral degrees in law

Their responsibility extends beyond these actual acts because:

  • When those leading troops who shoot innocent children, women and old people have law degrees, their academic record is bound to impress subordinates.

  • When medical doctor / psychiatrist orders shootings it can’t be wrong

  • When medical or legal profession directs mass murder it is worse than when ordinary men do it because they should know better

IG Farben supplied the Zyklon B for use in the Gas Chambers, and exploited the slave labour provided at Auschwitz. In some ways this could be considered more heinous than murder, as it was done not out of ideological motives but simply for economic gain.

Industrialists have great responsibility because although they were only a small cog in the machine, they are the only group whose responsibility cannot be mitigated – no oaths of loyalty as the Wehrmacht, no ideological conviction like the SS, not terrorised like ordinary people, just involved for purely economic gain.

Allies and neutrals
Traditional historians have claimed that GB government only knew of Auschwitz in June 1944 when Vrba-Wetzler report (Birkenau escapees) was presented to London, Washington & Vatican.
However, Rogers, suggests that the British government knew at the latest by December 1942:

1941-2 Polish Underground fed info to Polish government in exile in London. Their report of July 1 1942 identified the existence of crematoria at Birkenau and use of poison gas. In July 1942, a report in Polish Fortnightly Review declared 700,000 Jews had been murdered in Poland which was the start of wholesale extermination. The Polish Fortnightly Review was vetted (double checked before publication) by the GB government. Further proof exists in the fact that in December 1942 Foreign Secretary Eden told Parliament that the Nazis were systematically destroying the Jews.

Then, on 23 August 1944 the allies conducted aerial reconnaissance of IG Farben at Monowitz – allies feared production of synthetic oil. The photos also recorded Auschwitz-Birkenau. During summer 1944 camp at full capacity – murdering Hungarian Jews. So many bodies that burnt in pits not just in crematoria – these pyres were visible in photos

You could argue that intelligence officers not looking for this, so photos filed until rediscovered in 1979 by CIA photoanalysts. However, an area so potential vital to the war would surely have been scrutinized carefully. More likely that wasn’t a priority.
If allies knew of the Holocaust, and if camp could be photographed, why wasn’t it bombed?
Could argue that allies knowledge didn’t translate into an appreciation of the totalitarian aim of the Nazis. After all, many Jews didn’t realize the full extent of Nazi plans.
Could also argue

  1. allies lacked military capacity to bomb Auschwitz before 1944, when they captured Italian airbases. Even then, most Jewish groups opposed – bombing not precision = would kill more than saved

  2. targeting Auschwitz would divert resources – longer war = more casualties

  3. German ransom demands probably fake. Even if genuine, would mean giving war materials in exchange for Jews – see point 2!


Arthur Morse and David WymanBritain & USA didn’t help because feared flood of immigrants.

Could have:

  • pressured Germany,

  • threatened post-war retribution,

  • encouraged neutral countries to accept Jews,

  • publicised Holocaust to encourage Jews to resist. In fact, GB government wouldn’t publish anything that would injure foreign relations, shake confidence in the government to conclude the war, or divert the war effort

  • bombed Auschwitz

So what did Britain actually do?

on the other hand

In response to the events of November 9 and 10 1938 (Kristallnacht), the British Jewish Refugee Committee appealed to members of Parliament and a debate was held in the House of Commons. It was agreed to admit to England an unspecified number of children up to age 17. The first transport left barely one month after Kristallnacht; the last left on September 1, 1939—just two days before Great Britain's entry into the war, which marked the end of the program. By that time, approximately 10,000 children had made the trip.


A 50 Pound Sterling bond had to be posted for each child “to assure their ultimate resettlement.” This is exploitation of the situation rather than assistance

Farmer argues that Britain did all she could:

Britain & Empire:

  • accepted 160,000 Jews 1938-9. Rubinstein – ‘one of the greatest rescues of any beleaguered group in history’

  • allowed Jews free access to Palestine up to 1936. Limited from 1939 out of fears of unrest from Palestinians. After 1939 very few Jews who could emigrate to Palestine anyway

But all of this activity early. Acting against persecution of the Jews not against the Holocaust itself, which intentionalist/structuralists both agree began in 1941 alongside the invasion of Russia. It’s commendable activity, given the way the Holocaust developed, but the moral imperative to act surely increased after 1941.

Farmer further claims that America:

  • understandably reluctant to accept news of the Holocaust given experience of British anti-German propaganda during WWI

but Dec 8 1942 British foreign office received a copy of a 20 page memo sent originally to Roosevelt. Memo stated that Hitler’s annihilation programme had begun, that 2 million Jews were dead already and 5million more at risk. Confirmed existence of death camp at Auschwitz. So America didn’t have to rely on British information. But didn’t trust Russian info either! Convenient way of claiming ignorance!
The Holocaust is on the British curriculum but the role of Britain within it is never mentioned. Historians struggle with access to British files suggesting that British knowledge and lack of priority for Jewish rescue greater than suspected

(must remember that all History is to some extent re-written or at least edited to serve the political needs of the day)

Neutral governments
Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, Turkey.

Could have received refugees or instigated diplomatic action. Nothing.

Ignorance of the Holocaust? Difficult to accept for Switzerland at least– received Jewish wealth pre-war and Nazi stolen wealth during the war. In addition, Sweden’s belated acceptance of Danish Jews suggested they knew what the alternative fate was.
Fear of Hitler? Could argue that involvement even by accepting Jews would have compromised their neutrality because for Germany the war against the Jews was part of the political war.
However, once it became obvious that the allies would win, in 1944, there was a policy shift. 1944 diplomats from these 4 neutral nations, led by Swedish Raoul Wallenberg, issued thousands letters of protection to Hungarian Jews. Did save 100,000, but how many more could they have saved by acting earlier.

Occupied territories
Farmer claims there was a difference between occupied and collaborationist satellites – Poland and USSR didn’t initiate own policies, although it is true that Germans relied on cooperation of local police and bureaucrats. Operation Tempest (sometimes called operation Storm) – uprising of Polish army against the Nazis, BUT they did wait until the Soviet army was pushing the Nazis back to begin revolt, and this was a political uprising to overthrow the occupying force, not a statement about the Holocaust.
Collaborationist regimes were proactive in destroying the Jews.

Slovakian government. Leader: Tiso (Catholic priest). Deported most Slovakia’s Jews. Only stopped 1942 when most dead anyway.

Croatia – 30,000 killed either in Croatian camps or deported to Nazi camps
Romania – 100,000 killed by forces, on marches to caps and ghettos. Refused to deport to Nazi camps once clear Nazis would lose. Allowed post-war claim of resistance – huh!
Hungary – refused cooperated until occupied by Germany in 1944 – then no choice
Vichy France - isolated Jews economically and politically, but refused deport French-born Jews.
Denmark – resisted until August 1943 when Germans insisted on deportation. Ordinary Danes helped most 8000 Danish Jews escape by boat to Sweden in autumn of 1943.
Finland was the only satellite which protected Jews fully.
Interestingly, in Italy, which was also a fascist state and allied with Germany there was no persecution. Italian occupied southern France was a haven. After Italy surrendered to Allies in September 1943 the Germans occupied Northern Italy and deported Jews. German operation no cooperation.

Responsibility Prioritisation:
The blank spaces are for you to amend/add categories as you see fit

Key argument


(all % must add up to 100)



High Ranking Nazis:









Ordinary people (Germans and occupied territories)

Allied Governments


Industry & Experts




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