The holocaust is largely remembered simply as Germany’s attempt to systemically eliminate the Jews, but this summary view does great injustice to the truly awful situation. The convenient, abbreviated version of history pits the malevolent Germans against the helpless Jews while casting everyone else in the European theatre as saviors. Thought the Germans were indeed the main antagonists, they were certainly not alone; even the allied powers were in some regards accessories to the crimes against humanity. Though these crimes targeted primarily Jews, they only accounted for approximately half of the over 11 million people systematically murdered by the Nazis and their supporters. Of the Second World War’s 30 to 50 million civilian casualties, the Jews represented 10 to 20 percent. This is not an attempt to marginalize the plight of the Jews, rather it is an attempt to show that narrow views of World War II history marginalize the deaths of over 25 million civilians and insulate the victors from responsibility. The holocaust should more accurately be summarized as the period when the world allowed fanatics to systematically eliminate tens of millions of defenseless people.
Placing the blame for the holocaust solely on Germany is convenient for the victors, but this masks the culpability of all the nations who were unwilling to evacuate Jews prior to the industrialization of civilian murder. As early as 1938 western powers were meeting to discuss the problem of refugees from Europe, and none of them took any major steps to help. Hitler took notice of the 1938 Evian Conference on refugees and remarked, “The whole democratic world is oozing sympathy for the poor tormented Jewish people, but remains hard-hearted and obdurate when it comes to helping them.” Not only did these democratic nations refuse to adjust their immigration laws, but they also refused to even condemn the actions of National Socialists. It wasn’t until December of 1942 that the allies decried Germany’s massacres, a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor in the US territory of Hawaii. Furthermore, these acts cannot be pegged upon politicians acting against the common will, opinion polls from the time show that between 75 and 85 percent of Americans opposed relaxing the US Immigration Act of 1924 in order to help the Jews.
In addition to nations that avoided the issue there were also nations who eagerly participated in implementing the final solution. In eastern European nations such as Lithuania, Croatia, and Romania the local populations murdered Jews with more fervor than the Germans, “even the SS were taken aback, and occasionally frightened by the horrors of old-fashioned, spontaneous pogroms on a gigantic scale.” The Vichy government in France even actively participated in purging “undesirable elements” from its country. France did not murder the Jews themselves however, they just shipped their non-French Jews off to Poland where others would handle the dirty work. The official story was that the people were being sent to work camps, but the deportation of children, sick, and elderly should have indicated that they were not being sent for work.
It might seem plausible to think that the nations so close to Germany had no other choice but to go along with what the powerful German State, but this was not the case in Finland or Denmark. In Denmark the citizens altruistically sought to protect their Jewish neighbors. Prior to 1940 even Mussolini protected the Jews, and Italian soldiers would help Jews escape from the Nazis. As Joseph Goebbels wrote, “the Italians are extremely lax in the treatment of Jews.”
It seems clear that anti-Semitism was a theme of the period for many nations and not just in Nazi Germany. Germany provided a spark and made acceptable the wholesale elimination of undesirable elements. There is no doubt that Nazis perceived the Jews as the quintessential undesirable element, but Gypsies/Romani, Pols, and many other groups were also persecuted. It is true that the Nuremberg laws codified discrimination against people with Jewish grandparents, but this hatred spilled over into other areas.
In Croatia the Jasenovac concentration camp was used by the Ustasha regime, much to the displeasure of the Germans, to murder ethnic Serbs. The guards at this camp murdered ethnic Serbs with as much zeal as any anti-Semitic German. The guards made wagers on who could kill the most prisoners and would slit their throats with knives called “Serb-cutters.” Yet these people are largely left out of the history of the holocaust.
Many people were persecuted during this terrible time The second world war was one of the most deadly periods of human history and though some evil people targeted certain defenseless groups of people, all of humanity suffered. Though Germany should rightfully accept most of the blame for the holocaust, every other world power at the time shares the blame for doing nothing to prevent it. This is why the holocaust should be remembered as the period when the world, including the United States, allowed fanatics to systematically eliminate tens of millions of defenseless people.
Originally written October 7, 2010