With whom does responsibility for the Holocaust ultimately lie?
The Holocaust was a shameful display of the exploitation of power to cause great pain and suffering to many. An operation of that magnitude could not have been controlled and implemented by one individual. There are many parties which were involved with Germany and need to be considered when determining where ultimate responsibility lies. Hitler did as early as 1935 make his feelings about the Jewish race clear by making his anti-Semitism public policy in the Nuremburg Race laws.
But aside from in “Mein Kampf”, Hitler made little indication until the last minute that he had given approval for the extermination program, ( even Mein Kampf is not that reliable, because it was written by a young man imprisoned for his beliefs, and he was bound to exaggerate to get his message across and to raise sales profits ). He seems to have kept out of the actual planning and implementation of the killing process, leaving that in the more than capable hands of the Nazi officials, including Himmler, Frank and Heydrich.
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Many of the ideas such as Ghettos and mass transportation were left under their control, for them to act on their own innitiative. Although he was seen by the public as heavily involved with politics and decision making for Germany, it has since been revealed that Hitler spent a large part of his day relaxing at home, and was often happy to sign papers after only a brief glance.
After the virulence shown in “Operation Barbarossa” towards the Russian Jews, Hitler in speeches tried to convince the public that a good solution had been found to ‘the jewish problem’ and should be continued throughout the rest of Europe, hiding the intensity of the mass genocide going on in the country next door to them. He also reffered to the transits as ‘resettlements’ for “appropriate labour duties”, which made the program seem more civilised. Amongst the Nazi leaders, talk was rarely directly about the actual business of the “final solution” agenda, reffering as Hitler did to program as of “legalised removal” and “resettlement”.
But it was reported at the trial of Eichmann in 1960 that within private meetings the “talk was of killing, elimination and liquidation”. Obviously the top officials like Himmler and Heydrich didn’t want to give the public the impression that they were intently malicious, but it is clear that they did not have reservations about ordering the police, Wehrmacht and S. S. to carry out there instructions. Himmler was able to directly comit the 800 000 strong S. S. to the tasks of operating the death camps, and so needed no other authority.
Most of them believed that they were just doing their duty for Germany and could contently do their tasks without moral objections. Other leaders like Goebbels were passionately anti-semitic and outright about it, but Goebbels with all of his propaganda experience probably conveyed it tactfully. At the Nuremburg trials, many leaders tried to claim ignorance of the program however preposterous that may seem after looking at the evidence, but there is little actual proof of their actions, so there is not much firm indication to support the claims of their responsibility.
The earlier T-4 ( euthanasia program ) had been in effect a development program for the search for efficient means of large and refined killings. Some officials such as Bouhler and Brack had been largely involved with T-4 and were able to pass on their extensive knowledge, and implement it in death camps like Treblinka and Belzec. T-4 also demonstrated that mass killings could be carried out by ordinary individuals without hesitation.
Having said this, it would be eminently hard to prove that anyone involved with T-4 could have known that their methods would be used to wipeout a race, a process significantly larger and more important (to them) than what they were originally doing. The German army and police were undoubtedly involved to some extent in the program because of the logistics of the operation, but it would be unfair to try to blame them entirely for what they were doing. Some tried to keep a clear conscience by thinking of their victims as “not men but monkeys in human form”.
But on the whole they were just following their orders and doing their jobs. A lot of the German people had, before Hitler came to power in 1933, been Anti-Semitic in varying degrees. Hitler only had to play on their feelings, making his policies reflect what the people wanted to hear. High ranking people, in the civil service, Army and churches, were among the Anti-Semitic thinkers. Prostestants in Germany had for a long time been Anti-Semitic since the time of Martin Luther and the Reformation in Europe.
Some policies were frowned upon and met limited opposition, the Catholic church against euthanasia for example, but the actual ‘Holocaust’ was affected very little by public protest. The public were often made aware of what was happening to the Jews by allied radio broadcasts, leaflet drops and stories brought home by soldiers who had been on the Russian front. But to many these were just rumours and not taken seriously. Everyone involved with the holocaust was each partly to blame. Hitler was the driving force behind most Nazi policies, but not many were his own.
He was blamed by the German people, to forget their own responsibility. Himmler and Heydrich came up with and implemented many plans themselves, and were valuable to Hitler to keep his regime going. There was not enough opposition to earlier programs such as T-4 to stem the violence then, and it spiralled out of control. General public opinion, and even whole national organisations opinions, were too well established in their dislike of Jews to be changed even by mass violence. If it had been changed against Hitler’s regime, there would not have been sufficient power to do what the regime achieved.