Duration: 1-2 hours
Suggested Pedagogical Guidelines for Teaching about Perpetrators
The following guidelines relate to the accompanying PDF presentation and provide didactical and/or methodological comments for each slide.
SLIDE 1: INTRODUCTION
Placing Individual Actions in Their Historical Context
Neither the perpetrators nor the victims of National Socialism were born as such. People became perpetrators through a set of processes where political, social and personal factors interacted.
Now, more than 70 years after the collapse of the Nazi regime, in most cases the personal reasons that led people to become perpetrators can no longer be reconstructed. Data on the crimes can be derived from historical documentation. In contrast, the underlying personal motives that drove the perpetrators to act can often only be the focus of speculation, especially since many of the statements people made about themselves in this context are clearly bound up with an intention to deny one’s own guilt or make it appear minimal.
When teaching about perpetrators, we should concentrate on those factors that can actually be deduced from the available documentation. The focus of pedagogical work should therefore highlight reconstructing and comprehending people’s decisions, actions and omissions, based on the source materials available.
Furthermore, the context in which an individual chose to act is critical.
- Nazi ideology and its inherent eliminatory antisemitism
- Nazi Germany as an authoritarian state
- Potential profit or benefit in carrying out an order
- Potential risk associated with insubordination
- Extent of knowledge about the fate of the persecuted people
These factors are not by any means intended to be an object of vague speculation and conjecture. Learners need a reliable and precise description of the historical reality in which people took action, while accepting the fact that not every question always has a clear and unambiguous answer.
Compare What Can be Compared
Only after having reflected on individuals' choices in the context of the time, students can evaluate critically human action. By comparing the actions, omissions and decisions of different people from a comparable context, learners understand that the overwhelming majority of actors during the Nazi period sought to comply with the expectations of the National Socialist system and did so in order to achieve relative security and prosperity in their own lives. However, there was also a small number of people who did not make their decisions based on the norms of National Socialist ideology. These relatively few – many of them later honored by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations” – made their decisions contrary to a fundamental shift in norms that, in the course of Nazi rule, paved the way for the genocide of European Jews.
That shift involved the norm of inequality, i.e. the ideological, social and political common understanding that traditional moral principles remained valid for the community of those who belonged to the Volksgemeinschaft, but that certain specific groups (especially the Jews) had to be excluded.
The legal validation of the norm of inequality cleared the path that ultimately led to genocide – a mass murder that people tolerated, tacitly supported or actively furthered. A society that was seemingly grounded on conservative values violated basic norms.
SLIDE 2-3: INTRODUCTION TO HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS
The lesson unit commences by looking together at a historical photograph of a group of Jews immediately before deportation. The photo was taken by the Gestapo, and its actual purpose remains unclear.
Ask pupils to describe details in the photo and to link them to their prior knowledge.
Pupils should learn the following points:
- Visible marking of German Jews by the wearing of a yellow star became obligatory in September 1941.
- That same month, Hitler ordered the beginning of the systematic mass deportation of the Jewish Germans.
- Deportations were an integral part of the Nazi plan for the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question," meaning the genocide of European Jews.
- Unlike in many European countries under Nazi occupation, the German Jews were not concentrated in ghettos, but rather in so-called Judenhäuser ("Jews’ houses") and at other collection points before they were deported. The photo shows Jews from Coesfeld, who were taken by the Gestapo from the Judenhaus on Kupfer Street early in the morning on December 10, 1941, and brought to the Castle Garden. Together with Jews from neighboring communities, they were then deported in a truck to the assembly point of Gertrudenhof in the city of Münster. From there, the deportation continued toward the Riga ghetto.
- Before their deportation, the victims were informed in writing about the place and time of their transport. In addition, they were instructed to take along luggage (max. 50 kg) and food for the journey. They were not allowed to take any cash, stock, bonds or valuables. Instead, the German authorities confiscated these before departure.
See also Historical Background or visit Yad Vashem's database "Transports to Extinction", especially the short historical introduction The Transports and Their Historical Significance.
To conclude, pupils look at the tally sheet, which evidently was prepared either by Salitter or subordinates under his command. It lists the victims according to various categories. The purpose of this statistical data is unclear. However, it does illustrate that Salitter viewed the deportees as mere statistical elements, an attitude with no sense of empathy for the fate of these people.
SLIDE 4-5: INTRODUCTION TO BIOGRAPHICAL DATA AND HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Making use of the PDF presentation, the instructor should familiarize pupils with the biographies of Hilde Sherman (née Zander) and Paul Salitter. In the slides, personal data appears under the time bar, information on the historical context above the time bar. This way it becomes clear that the lives of individuals never happen in an isolated bubble, but are always interwoven with the surrounding context.
Salitter’s biography is initially described only up to the war’s end.
SLIDE 6: WORKING WITH SOURCES
The pupils work their way into the sources. They can do this by self-study, working in groups or by reading aloud together. They can begin Assignments 1 and 2 while they read the source materials. This will serve as a basis for the following discussion.
Initially, the decisions, actions and omissions of Paul Salitter and other persons or groups (the cleaning woman, stationmaster, local population, Red Cross, Salitter’s guard unit, etc.) mentioned in the reports are enumerated and embedded in their respective historical context of action (see Slide 5). The class can then discuss the question: how should the actions of the individuals mentioned, particular Salitter's, be evaluated and judged today? Various assessments of Salitter can be discussed, such as that he was a minor official whose main goal was to ensure that the train was on time – or alternatively, that he was a fanatical Nazi, who did not regard his victims as equal human beings, but rather as mere cargo. Frequently, at the end of this round of discussion, there are doubts about what knowledge can be derived with certainty from the available sources.
SLIDE 7: ADDING POSTWAR SOURCES
The Postwar Perspective
With the help of the PDF presentation, the instructor should describe the circumstances of Paul Salitter’s short imprisonment by the Allies after the war’s end, his written complaint dated January 16, 1947, and the main aspects of the postwar justice system as they related to him.
This lesson unit also includes an additional document: a letter that Paul Salitter wrote to the police administration in 1947. This letter documents a time of upheaval. Salitter had grasped that the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft, of which he was a member and to which he felt he belonged, had collapsed and that now he had to secure his position “in the new democracy.” What is startling in Salitter’s stance is the manner in which he implements this radical change: he evidently never reflects critically at any point in his life about the massive violation of norms in the Third Reich, namely the exclusion of specific groups from the concept of a society of equal members. He avoided subjecting the norms and ethical concepts – a value system superordinate to and shaping his decisions, actions and omissions – to any examination involving his own personal responsibility. His letter shows that his philosophy of life consisted in adopting superordinate norms without further questioning. Thus, he was able to readily place himself at the service of a series of different social orders as a loyal official, without any further consideration of the destructive effects that his actions within the Nazi state had on the excluded and persecuted groups in the society. As he wrote:
“I promise that I will also serve the cause with my whole being in the new democracy, just as I did under the governments of Wilhelm II, Ebert, Hindenburg and the Third Reich. I ask that you please employ me again in the police, albeit at the rank of chief inspector."
Salitter’s letter of complaint can be distributed as additional source. The decisive extract is reproduced in the PDF presentation. It should serve as the point of departure for the following discussion.
SLIDE 8: EVALUATING HUMAN BEHAVIOR
Now the question regarding a possible assessment of Salitter as an individual can be raised anew. The additional source allows us to establish that his central motivation evidently was to conform, in as optimal a way as possible, to the social and legal system of his environment. In his letter, he shifts responsibility to the respective system and offers to “serve the cause with my whole being,” and indeed beyond this system to equalize matters, employing his own concepts of value over time (“I have only done my duty”).
SLIDE 9: CONTRASTING PERPETRATORS' AND VICTIMS' PERSPECTIVES
This workshop contrasts Paul Salitter's report with another source: the testimony given by the witness Hilde Sherman (née Zander), who was deported from her home on the train that Salitter oversaw, and who was the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust. This context relativizes the perpetrator’s perspective as one of several perspectives, and counters its seemingly inherent objective truth. The actual experience of the deportees, namely the life-threatening and intolerable situation of forcing people inside an overcrowded railroad car, becomes visible in this way.
Students should understand that documents written from the perspective of the perpetrators can in each case only provide the perpetrators' perspective, which was generally shaped by National Socialist ideology. This perspective must be supplemented in order to make the experience of the victims comprehensible.
SLIDE 10: SIGNIFICANCE FOR THE PRESENT
History constitutes an unfinished process that can be illuminating for our understanding of the present. From an historical study of the Holocaust, particularly in critical confrontation with the perpetrators, we can gain specific insights that are directly relevant for contemporary society:
- Historical events are influenced by human decisions, actions and omissions. We can assume that the history of the Holocaust would have taken a different course if more individuals had made their decisions based on the norm of the fundamental equality of all human beings.
- Reflection on the options for action can often open people’s eyes to the fact that the behavior of the majority society is not always the only option, and it is not always the best one. This also means that individuals have a high degree of responsibility for their own actions, decisions and omissions.
- Shifts in norms are often a matter of public debate in democratic societies. Learners should be encouraged to follow such debates attentively and, where possible, to participate in them.
- In this connection, see the concept of ‘frame of reference‘ as developed by Welzer and Neitzel, in: Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer: Soldiers. German POWs on Fighting, Killing, and Dying, New York: Random House, 2013.
- Source: Historical Site Villa ten Hompel (Münster) / Düsseldorf Police HQ, Supplementary Documentation, ED 0011, File: Paul Salitter.
- See Jan T. Gross' introductory remark to his book Neighbors, where he is exploring the July 1941 massacre committed against Polish Jews by their non-Jewish neighbors in the village of Jedwabne in Nazi-occupied Poland:
“[…] Each episode of mass killing had its own situational dynamics. This is not a trivial point, for it means […] that in each episode many specific individual decisions were made by different actors present on the scene, who decisively influenced outcomes. And, thus, it is at least conceivable that a number of those actors could have made different choices, with the result that many more European Jews could have survived the war.”
(Gross, Jan Tomasz: Neighbors. The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, Princeton 2001, S. 12).
This lesson plan contrasts the report of the German police officer Paul Salitter with the testimony of Hilde Sherman (née Zander), a young Jewish woman who was deported with her husband and his family in the same transport that Salitter oversaw.
Paul Salitter’s Report in the Context of Other Deportation Reports
Few of the deportation reports and war diaries have been preserved. Toward the end of the war, the archive of the Ordnungspolizei (regular police) in Prague, where most of these documents were stored, was intentionally destroyed. In addition, the headquarters of the Ordnungspolizei in Berlin was destroyed in an Allied air raid. Presumably, most transports were mentioned in the corresponding war diaries solely in the form of short reports. Detailed accounts, like that of Paul Salitter, were most likely written when the transport leaders wanted to file a complaint to their superiors, had suggestions for improvements or wished to call attention to themselves.
The Ordnungspolizei in Nazi Germany consisted of some 2.8 million men. To date, the historian Christoph Spieker has been able to document 47 cases in which police officers engaged in resistance or in rescue attempts for Jews. The percentage of those who resisted and helped Jews is thus but a tiny fraction.
Paul Salitter wrote the following report after he returned from Riga.
Hilde Sherman’s Memoirs
Hilde Sherman was a young Jewish woman who was deported with her husband and his family in the same transport that Salitter oversaw. Her husband and many other members of her family were among the Jews who died in Riga. She registered 26 names at Yad Vashem's Hall of Names, where the names of Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust are gathered. The following text is an excerpt from Holocaust survivor Hilde Sherman's testimony at Yad Vashem in 1994.
For downloading the sources, click here.
Paul Salitter‘s application to be reinstated in the German police force, submitted on January 16, 1947, Düsseldorf
Paul Salitter was classified by the Allies as a "Lesser Offender" (Level III in the denazification categories). As a result, he was discharged from the police and given a monthly pension of 150 Reichsmarks. In the following letter written in 1947, Salitter appealed his categorization to the Düsseldorf Police Administration and applied to be reinstated in the police.
For downloading the document, click here.
Antisemitism was a major component of Nazi ideology. The eliminatory, anti-Jewish policy that the Nazis conducted was gradual and developed over time. It began as soon as the Nazis came to power in Germany. The policy escalated gradually and was implemented later in every territory that Germany occupied .
In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The war was perceived as a battle against Bolshevism, which was supposedly disseminated by Jews. This was probably one of the reasons why the attack on the Soviet Union was also the beginning of the new and most extreme phase of the anti-Jewish policy - the systematic extermination of Jews. In the beginning, the murder was committed by four Einsatzgruppen (Mobile Killing Squads) - units of the security police that were ordered to follow the advancing army. Assisted by reserve battalions of the German police, units of the German army and members of the local population, the Einsatzgruppen gathered Jews and Communists, led them out of the towns and villages, and shot them. Some 90% of the victims in these shootings were Jewish civilians. Entire communities, including women and children, were destroyed.
Over time, policies and practices of murder were developed, and the murder spread to Poland and to the rest of Europe. Nevertheless, Germany conducted the killing process in the eastern parts of Europe. Jews had to be deported from all over Europe to extermination sites in the east, where most were killed within hours after they arrived. A vast system of transportation was necessary in order to implement these deportations.
The railway played a crucial role in the implementation of the “Final Solution.” Organizing and coordinating transports was complicated, especially during wartime. With the growing shortage of supplies and the priority given to military transports, it was not always easy to find trains for the deportation of the Jews. It took the close co-operation of all agencies- the SS, the civilian officials of the German Railway, the Ministry of Transportation and in some cases the Foreign Office - to overcome the difficulties and allow the transports to run efficiently enough to deport millions of Jews to their deaths.
Deportations from Germany
Jews from Germany were among the first to be deported from central and western Europe to the east. In smaller numbers, German Jews were deported as early as February 1940, before the mass killings began. The systematic mass deportations began in October 1941 and eventually led to the elimination of German Jews, who were deported mainly to the ghettos of Lodz and Warsaw in Poland, and to Riga, Kaunas and Minsk in the former Soviet territories. In those Soviet areas, mass murder was already taking place. Many of the German Jews who were deported to these places were murdered upon arrival. In the ghettos, many died from hunger and disease. The others were murdered in nearby killing sites or later in extermination camps in Poland. In 1942 and 1943, tens of thousands of German Jews were deported directly to extermination camps.
Groups of guards, who were usually recruited from the police, accompanied every transport of Jews. In the deportations from Germany, the guard detail routinely included one officer and 15 men. Their task began when they boarded the train and ended when they handed over the transport to the person in charge at the destination. Paul Salitter was one of these officers. He was in charge of escorting a transport of 1,007 Jews that left Düsseldorf for Riga on 11 December 1941. The Germans assembled the Jews at the slaughterhouse yard in Düsseldorf and took them to the railway station, where they boarded the train that took them to Riga.