Perpetrator Studies Network


Perpetrators: The World of the Holocaust Killers

By Guenter Lewy.

The Nazis’ attempt to annihilate the Jewish people, the Holocaust, continues to raise a disturbing question. About six million defenseless men, women, and children were murdered for no reason but their ancestry. Close to two million Jews were killed in mass shootings, while the remainder were asphyxiated or worked and starved to death. How could such terrible deeds happen in the heart of Christian Europe and among a nation known for its poets and thinkers, a people that had produced Schiller, Goethe, Bach, and Beethoven? What had converted so many seemingly ordinary people into killers, willing participants in what is probably the worst crime in modern history? That is the question Guenter Lewy seeks to answer in this book.

Lewy provides a critical synthesis of recent literature on the perpetrators, broadening the discussion and developing a more complete and systematic answer to the question of why so many ordinary German people became mass murderers, drawing on previously untapped valuable sources, including officers’ and soldiers’ diaries; some 35,000 letters written by soldiers serving in the East, many of which describe the murder of Jews; the recollections of Jewish survivors, and most importantly, the record of the trials of hundreds of Nazi perpetrators by German courts. The result is a wealth of information about the Holocaust in all its horrible particulars and about those who carried out those hideous deeds. The book systematically examines the role of individual pathology, of specifically German factors such as obedience to authority, and the impact of ideology on group behavior. The actual perpetrators, Lewy concludes, acted out of a variety of motives. Some were convinced haters of Jews, while others killed out of a sense of duty, to advance their career, because they followed orders, or because they wanted to conform to the group. There was no uniform Nazi perpetrator type.

Guenter Lewy grew up in Germany and lived some six years under Nazi rule. During the November 1938 pogrom known as Kristallnacht, he was on the receiving end of storm-trooper brutality, and his father was taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp, barely surviving his three-month ordeal there. The question of “why they did it,” therefore, is of far more than theoretical interest for the author-it is a passionate attempt to illuminate a dismal chapter of history that cannot be forgotten.

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