The Holocaust could not have been carried out by the executioners alone. Such large-scale murder, over vast distances, required a massive apparatus staffed by hundreds of thousands of state administrative and security personnel.
How could so many seemingly “ordinary” people knowingly take part in such crimes? In this episode we take a glimpse at this troubling phenomenon, starting with a single German police officer, Paul Salitter, tasked with escorting a train of 1,007 Jews from Germany to a ghetto in occupied Latvia.
Featured guest - Dr. Christopher Browning, Frank Porter Graham Professor of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Hi, and welcome to ‘On the Holocaust,’ a podcast from Yad Vashem: the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. I’m your host, Nate Nelson.
There’s a certain way police talk and write while doing their jobs. You know it from crime serials: white male, mid-20s, medium build, seen speaking into a microphone. Very terse, to the point, no color. It’s like this for a reason: cops aren’t supposed to be inserting their opinions, or any other information not specifically necessary to enforcing the law while on duty.
German officers under the Third Reich were, as you’d expect, quite adept with this cold kind of language, even when what they were describing were gruesome crimes against humanity. Internal reports from the time describe ethnic cleansing with all the excitement of a grocery list. Take the following passage, regarding a deportation of Jews from Dusseldorf destined for the Riga ghetto in Latvia. Quote:
Departure of the transport was planned for 9:30. The Jews were therefore brought to the loading ramp ready to board at 4:00 a.m. However, the Reichsbahn could not have the train ready so early, allegedly due to lack of personnel. Subsequently the loading of the Jews did not begin until 9:00 a.m.
End quote. As you can see it’s dry, and businesslike. Contrast that with the testimony of Hilda Sherman, one of the Jews at the scene that day. Quote:
It was bitterly cold. We stood there and stood there from 4 a.m. until 9 a.m.
[. . .]
Everything had been taken from us. One of the people asked one of the guards, an SS man, when the train was coming. They took out a club and beat him for so long that he remained there on the ground. He didn’t get on the transport. That was our first dead.
End quote. The difference, as you can tell, is stark. The Nazi officer who authored that first quote--a man named Paul Salitter--could have just as easily been describing a shipment of livestock, or office supplies. Only through Sherman’s testimony can we see that these were human beings--prisoners for whom only torture and death was ahead.
Salitter--also the commander of that deportation train--commonly writes in his cold, police-like manner when describing gruesome, tragic events. A part that stands out, from that same report, is when he references a deportee’s attempted escape. Quote:
An elderly Jewish woman walked away from the platform without anyone noticing—it was raining and it was very dark—entered a neighboring house, took off her clothes and sat on a toilet. However a cleaning woman noticed her and she was led back to the transport.
End quote. Could you imagine the sheer terror that woman felt? Trying to disguise herself behind the claustrophobic four walls of a small bathroom, half undressed, waiting for the wrong person to lock eyes and drag her back to where she will once again face certain death? In Salitter’s telling, of course, it is an utterly mundane affair--a minor nuisance, a footnote to the mission.
The distance between description and what’s being described can make reading such a document quite jarring. But Salitter’s Riga report isn’t entirely dry and colorless. At certain points in his prose, he strays from the purely descriptive and we see elements of him as a person underneath. Like when he describes an incident that occurred on the way to the rail yard. Quote:
On the way from the slaughterhouse yard to the platform, a male Jew attempted to commit suicide by throwing himself in front of the streetcar. But he was caught by the streetcar’s bumper and only slightly injured. He recovered during the trip, and realized that he could not avoid sharing the fate of the evacuees.
Did you catch that? The last part? He describes the man “realizing” his fate, as if stepping into his shoes for the briefest moment. He understands that man’s overwhelming fear and despair, but instead of meeting it with empathy, it brushes right off. In the sentence that follows, Salitter moves on to his next subject.
What we end up with, in all this, is an image of just how thoroughly apathetic a Nazi officer felt towards the human beings he was leading to death. As Salitter led a train from Dusseldorf to Riga, with 1,007 prisoners onboard, he failed to give a single thought or care for the ramifications of his actions, the suffering he was causing.
And it’s not like he could’ve missed it--there was suffering in abundance. From Hilda Sherman’s testimony, quote:
[. . .] we were suffering from terrible thirst. We had taken bread with us, but the thirst was terrible. Everyone in the car was running a fever because of the terrible heat. We arrived at Insterburg, right at the border, in what had been Poland. There the train stopped. The doors were opened and we were allowed to get off and gather the snow for drinking. We could drink it when it melted…. I had not taken off my boots because I knew that I would not be able to get them back on my swollen feet.
All this raises an important question: how does a man, faced with such abject horror, fail to respond with anything resembling human emotion? What kind of monster could watch a terrified old woman, a depressed man desperately attempting to take his own life, and feel nothing but apathy?
The answer here may be less satisfying than you’d hope.
My name is Christopher Browning.
[. . .]
I taught for 25 years at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma Washington, and then 15 years at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where I was the Frank Porter Graham professor of history.
Professor Browning, whom you’ll be hearing from in this episode, has been seminal in changing the way we think about Nazi perpetrators, challenging conventional notions about how extraordinarily evil behavior can be exhibited by otherwise ordinary men. Like Paul Salitter.
Salitter wasn’t always a cold, calculating Nazi policeman. He was born on December 15th, 1898 in the village of Lakellen [lah-KEL-n], now northern Poland but part of Eastern Prussia at the time. In his early years, after school, he worked as an office assistant. During the first world war he was a sergeant major and, after the war, he married and had two children. He leveraged his combat experience into a career as a police officer, eventually climbing his way up to become captain of the Dusseldorf police department.
But in 1936, Heinrich Himmler takes over all of the various state police forces in Germany, creates a single so-called Order Police. And it becomes not only Reichsfuhrer of the SS, but Reichsfuhrer of the SS and chief of German police. So the police are centralized and partially merged with the SS.
As the S.S. merged with state police, the “Nazification” of officers like Salitter began.
Party doctrine passed down to these men in the form of training and social engineering. Acceptance of a fascist government order, unquestioning loyalty to and adoration of the Fuhrer, and a belief in the inferiority--and danger--of the Jewish race became prerequisites for participating in the state apparatus, and society in general. No matter your place--as a politician, a policeman, an accountant or a secretary--strict adherence to the party line was now part of your job (and pervaded every aspect of your life outside of it). And over time, it helped normalize mass murder.
from the very beginning, of course, the Nazis discovered that an organization that was least resistant to establishing a police state in Nazi Germany was the police. The police of course could now operate with many fewer safeguards, or restraints, or restrictions empowered to basically do more than they could do before with impunity, without having anybody look over their shoulder in effect.
Himmler’s police reforms were largely welcomed, and it’s not a huge surprise. The job of police isn’t to make the rules but enforce whatever the rules are. That the Nazi party, as Browning says, loosened the restrictions on their power only made them more receptive to these new rules.
But all this doesn’t suffice as an explanation for why individual officers, like Salitter, responded so well to such radically new orders. Before the Nazi rise to power Salitter was duty-bound to protect and serve all Germans, including Jews. Then he was participating in their mass murder. This is no small jump.
there is a concerted effort as one historian at West Germany said to Nazify the police and to militarize the police, and this takes place quite consciously.
So for officers like Salitter, who are professional policemen, they would have been subjected
[. . .]
to considerable indoctrination, considerable training, considerable reconditioning to a Nazified political culture of the Order Police.
Himmler and the high command had a knack for molding good soldiers and good officers into good Nazis, tapping into basic human psychology in a way that made that transition feel not so dramatic. For example, our natural propensity for social conformity made diverging from the state ideology very difficult.
that people in a group are shaped by the norms and the behavior of the people around them and have a strong tendency, not inevitable, everybody still has choice, but nonetheless, a powerful influential factor are the norms of those around and the desire to conform to those norms, to not stick out, to not be the pariah, but to be accepted in the group.
It’s incredibly difficult to diverge from the norms and attitudes of your social circles. Thus a perpetuating cycle occurs, where the behavior of your neighbor or colleague makes you more likely to behave that same way, which reinforces their belief that such behavior is normal and accepted.
Another strong influence, in the indoctrination of men like Salitter, was authority.
When you have an authority figure who is saying this is the policy of the battalion and the policy at the government that you in a sense unburden yourself of your individual conscience and your conscience is then geared not towards what am I doing right or am I doing wrong, but am I obeying and deferring to legitimate authority or not? And the wrong thing is to not defer to authority, not to see this in terms of is it right to kill these people or not, but is it right to accept the instructions of the commanding officer or not?
[. . .]
And so you remove in a sense of the victim from the equation, and the whole moral issue was between you and legitimate authority.
It’s worth noting that Salitter would’ve only been a teenager when the Great War started. Unlike the second World War, the first had few clear moral or ideological tenets, meaning soldiers needed to be motivated to fight for other reasons. Perhaps a young man of this generation internalized that right and wrong didn’t come from the wider context of whether he should shoot at the English or not, but whether he followed the orders of his commanding officer.
Part of relating to authority is understanding your particular role in a system. Salitter was quite adept with this--of adjusting depending on who was in power and what that meant for him.
people who are placed into a particular role
[. . .]
the issue again becomes, am I doing what is expected of a good soldier? Not am I doing what I think I should do as an individual? Because again, you kind of lose agency and you shift your moral responsibility onto expectations surrounding the role you have taken on, not what you would have done if you had been entirely on your own.
So those were the three key factors shaping group behavior. And I think it expands more broadly, of course, to people who are in the Order Police who are trying to adapt to the new culture of the Order Police, it's being militarized, it's being Nazified. If you want to be a good policeman you go along and you internalize that ethos, you internalize those new values. And your job as an officer like Salitter is to make sure the people underneath you internalize those.
It makes sense, intuitively, that a soldier or a police officer could be molded like this. Authority and conformity are important in these professions, Nazi or otherwise. But to say that men of Salitter’s ilk are completely amoral, and merely follow whoever leads them, is reductionist. In the late 1930s, every corner of German society was being similarly Nazified.
the Nazis were able to harness and without difficulty virtually every type of organization in Germany to participate in whatever way their particular specialization could contribute to the goals of the Nazi regime.
[. . .]
organizations like the German Railways, seemingly totally technocratic a political organization. But one of the authorities that they gradually Nazified in the way they did many organization's society, which was to gradually weed out any Jews from working there, anybody who've leftist political opinions from being employed there, giving preferential hiring to hardcore Nazis so that you changed the center of gravity in a sense of the institutional culture over time.
[. . .]
A third organization was municipal government who was going to know where Jews lived in each town in Germany
[. . .]
so to unplug somebody from German society, to turn them into an unperson that in effect could simply be put on a train and disappear with all of their paperwork in a sense taken care of, that was done by the municipal authorities. So when you had a deportation say from the city of Dusseldorf, people would be brought there and over a course of a day or two, they would be "processed." Their workbooks will be collected, their ration books would be collected, the keys to their apartments would be collected, their pension records would be collected. Everything that gave them any claim on anything and these would be surrendered and they would in a sense lose all rights to anything before they were put on the train, and this was all processed by local authorities of the work office, of the ration office, of the labor office, the housing office who are rather very low-level technocrats, but in this case made deportation run smoothly.
So in these ways you didn't need Nazi's party fanatics, you needed people that would take pride in doing their job well and doing it thoroughly, doing it punctually, and that was in great supply in Nazi Germany.
From the bureaucrat to the train station attendant to the businessman, a great many people who never entered the death camps, never picked up a gun in their lives, nonetheless participated in the mass murder of six million Jews. They evicted or rounded up Jews, collected and repurposed their belongings, arranged for their deportation and signed their death warrants.
These were not murderers, but perpetrators. Cogs in the machinery of destruction. Largely unextraordinary individuals who went on doing what they did because their actions were socially accepted, and sanctioned by higher authorities. Because the simple act of pushing papers is relatively mundane, its consequences at a distance.
The guy who was sitting at the desk, collecting the keys to the apartments of the Jews feels he isn't killing Jews, he's just making sure other Germans whose house has been bombed out are going to get an apartment to live in. That the guy on the train he's just making sure that nobody escapes, he is not killing anyone, his people are delivered to the ghetto in Riga. So that they have one small piece of action in a long chain of actions, each of which is indispensable, but none of which makes the individual person feel that they are responsible for the final outcome.
[. . .]
those who are engaged in the roundups and the processing bureaucratically, they're putting people on trains, they're shipping them, they never see the end result. And if they're successful and don't want to know, they can ignore all the rumors and all the hints and keep themselves in ignorance. When people don't want to know something, they can usually keep themselves from knowing something. So when German say after the war we didn't know, what it really means is the power of denial, the power to not face reality and to hide from themselves through willful negligence what they could have known, should have known, and we know easily could have known because many people who didn't deny it were able to find out very easily, but most people didn't want to know, and they succeeded in not knowing what they didn't want to know.
This is how many Nazi perpetrators, faced with the horrors wrought by their actions, could go to sleep at night. Because a lot of it was relatively menial work, separated from the actual killing. There was a physical distance that allowed for psychological distancing.
Paul Salitter wasn’t so far from the scene of the crime. He witnessed Jewish suffering; his prisoners starving, sick and weary. But, in the end, he was just doing his job, like a good officer. How Salitter could watch a terrified old woman trying to escape kidnapping, a depressed man desperately attempting to take his own life, and demonstrate nothing but apathy. Because he was just doing his job, like a good officer. He had his orders and he carried them out, just as he had throughout his entire career. The other officers, the train attendants along his way, and the civilians who passed by didn’t seem to have a problem with it. It was relatively mundane work, in spite of the occasional escape or suicide attempt. The actual murders? Out of sight, out of mind.
It all comes through in the report. At the end of his journey from Dusseldorf to Riga, Salitter wraps up with some final notes. Quote:
We arrived in Riga at 21:50. The train was kept at the station for one and a half hours…. The train stood there without heat. The temperature outside was minus 12 centigrade…. At 1:45 a.m., we relinquished responsibility for the train over and six Latvian guards were charged with watching it.
[. . .]
The Jews were closed in a ghetto surrounded by barbed wire. At this time, there are only 2,500 male Jews who are being used for labor. The remaining Jews were used elsewhere or shot by the Latvians…. The Latvians, as far as I can tell, are friendly to Germany and many of them speak German….
Hundreds of deaths. All business.
Following this passage, to conclude the report, Salitter adds some bullet points regarding the provisions provided to guards, their morale, and ways to improve the train scheduling for future deportations. The Jews, now offloaded cargo, are no longer relevant.
In the years that followed his trip to Riga, Salitter would serve as a supervisory officer for the Nazi collaborationist police force in Ukraine, aiding in building the police cordon in at least one mass execution in 1942. He was later promoted to the title of Major.
After the war, Salitter was classified as a “lesser offender,” which disqualified him from continuing his career as a policeman. But that’s really the extent of it--he faced no more serious penalties, and was allowed back into civilian life in post-fascist Germany.
It sounds like a pretty sweet deal. But Salitter appealed. In his application for reemployment, he stated that during the Holocaust he’d only been doing his job, just as he had before the Holocaust. He promised to, quote, “put my whole personality at the service of the cause even in the new democracy, just as I did under the government of Wilhelm II, Ebert, Hindenburg and in the Third Reich.”
What it says to me is that we have a psychological capacity to unburden ourselves of things for which we are truly responsible, a power of rationalization, a power of distancing. And that's the word that you just used that even when something is happening before our eyes we can still pretend that we are not associated with it if we find any smallest kind of sliver of rationalization to separate ourselves from the most direct commissioner of the crime.
The appeal was received fairly well. Salitter was not readmitted to the German police, but was granted full pension benefits until his death in 1972.
That’s 30 more years than most of his passengers got to see.
For 1,007 Jews, in December 1941, Paul Salitter was Hades manifest--their captor, unfeeling, shepherding them to their imminent deaths. But Salitter was no monster, nor any less human than they. He was a husband and a father. He was not unique in any particular way--in fact, he’s worth talking about precisely because he was so average.
In some sense, this feels like a letdown. I wish I could tell you that the Nazis were an evil, gelatinous mass of ravenous sociopaths who gained life from spilling blood. If only they were inhuman, if only the water supply were poisoned with some chemical that somehow disabled the anterior insular cortex, and that all the evil they wrought was some historical fluke.
But none of that is so. The Germans were motivated by many of the same insecurities, feelings and desires that we all face in life. They may have been influenced by different propaganda than we are, and they participated in acts worse than anything you’ll ever come close to in your life. But they’re not, fundamentally, different than you.
in the end it is I think the fact that human beings in general are relatively malleable. Most of us do not have the moral autonomy to stand up against state-sanctioned and state-organized commission of crime, and that most of us will go along. It takes a very strong person to preserve their moral autonomy to realize that this is beyond the pale and refuse to go along. In terms of governments that want to commit genocide, they may fail for various reasons, but they never fail for lack of execution. So it's never because they can't find enough people to pull the trigger or to kill on their behalf, that is not the bottleneck.
Life is much more comfortable in black and white. It’s much more challenging to engage with the reality that we’re all humans, imperfect and malleable, and that some of the very same forces that motivated evil in the past--social conformity, deference to authority, psychological distance as an excuse for ignoring suffering--remain with us today.
That’s it for this episode! If you’d like to learn more about what we discussed, visit yadvashem.org.
This has been On the Holocaust, from Yad Vashem: the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. Our program is produced by Itamar Swissa, Dani Timor and Ran Levi. Research and content management by Jonathan Clapsaddle, Irit Dagan and Dafna Dolinko. The story you heard was written by me, Nate Nelson. Thanks for listening; hit ‘Subscribe’ for more episodes just like this one.