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Why Were the Nazis So Successful at Killing Six Million Jews?

Marvin Zuckerman
April 18, 2013

by Marvin Zuckerman

warsaw-ghetto-uprising-001RECENTLY, A FRIEND ASKED me the following question: Why were the Nazis so successful in exterminating six million European Jews?

I was dismayed by the attitude displayed with this question, but I gave him a simple, quick answer: A heavily armed superior force can do what it will with an unarmed civilian population surrounded by people, who, at one end of the spectrum are indifferent to their fate, and at the other end are hostile, happy to be rid of them, and even willing to participate in their murder — with many in between who may be somewhat sympathetic but are afraid for their own lives.

But there are corollaries to this question.

First, why is it even asked? My friend is certainly not the only one asking this question.

European Jews were not the first people to experience (successfully, from the perpetrator’s point of view) mass genocide or severe oppression, including enslavement. Let me list just a few that come quickly to mind:

  • The Turkish slaughter of 1 million Armenians
  • The enslavement of tens of thousands of African Negroes by the Americans and others
  • The destruction of the native Indian population and their culture here in the U.S.
  • The murder of a half million or more Tutsis not too long ago in Africa
  • The death of about 3-4 million Russian POWs in German captivity in WWII
  • The death of about 1-2 million German POWs in Russian captivity in WWII
  • The starvation and neglect of thousands of Union soldiers captured by the Confederacy and imprisoned in an inhuman way in Andersonville during the Civil War
  • The “rape of Nanking” by Japan in pre-WWII China (about 1 million victims)
  • The murder of 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in the Katyn Forest by the Soviets
  • The working to death of about 10 million people in the Soviet Gulag
  • The imprisonment, torture and execution of who knows how many Soviet citizens by the Stalinist regime
  • The killing that was going on most recently in Darfur, Sudan, of peaceful villages and their inhabitants by Muslim soldiers or self-appointed militia sanctioned or even sponsored by the regime
  • The “killing fields” in Cambodia where there were more than a million victims
  • The murder of hundreds of thousands of Gypsies by the Germans in WWII

These are just modern instances. A historian could come up with many, many more from the bloody pages of human history, I am sure.

Does one hear people ask, “Why were the Turks so successful in slaughtering 1 million Armenians?” or “Why were the Japanese so successful in killing so many Chinese?” or “Why did the Union soldiers allow Andersonville to happen to them?”

One wonders why not.

IN EACH OF THESE CASES, a superior, well-armed force, as I said at the outset, did what it wanted with an unarmed civilian (or even in some instances, armed) population. Everyone seems to understand this. But when it comes to the Jews, this understanding seems often not to be there.

I could just stop there. Here, however, are the usual reasons given for the Nazi success as against the Jews’ presumed “passivity,” or even cooperation, in their own destruction. These explanations are all familiar to anyone who has read or thought about the Holocaust.

  • Like the dozens of slaves in America working on plantations controlled by only a few whites, the Jews were surrounded by an indifferent, hostile, or terrorized population. There was no place to run or hide (although, as we know, some few did), and resistance was futile (although there was resistance among both Jews and African-American slaves). Everyone understands why the slaves were helpless; somehow this understanding does not often extend to the Jews.
  • The Germans used deception (they were being “resettled” for work in the East; the death camp stops on the railroads were disguised with signs that showed they were regular train stations; the gas chambers were disguised as “showers,” etc.) But even if many Jews saw through these ruses, what could they do about it?
  • The unimaginable nature of what the Germans were doing: How could it possibly be that the Germans were intending to gas to death millions of innocent, blameless people, including women and children. Who could believe that?

Issues have been raised by Hannah Arendt and Raul Hilberg about Jewish passivity, about Judenrat complicity, about the Jewish police, etc. It is too far beyond the scope of this little article to debate these matters here, but I will simply say, as a general thing to remember about these two scholar-intellectuals, that they little understood about modern Jewish East European life and entertained typical German-Jewish stereotypes and prejudices about the Ostjuden (East-European Jews). That is not an answer to the issues they raise, but I believe it shapes and contributes to their view and understanding of Jewish behavior during the Holocaust.

THE CONCEPT OF “BLAMING THE VICTIM” became very widespread in recent decades, and is resurfacing, regarding rape. Especially in “traditional” countries or settings, people will still say, “She acted or dressed in a provocative way” or “She didn’t resist,” etc.

Perhaps Westerners hate to think that people at their own level of civilization, like the Germans, could do what was done. How is it possible? So they invent ideas such as, The Jews weren’t blameless — after all they must have done something to incur such wrath from our German friends. And why did they go like sheep to the slaughter? Why didn’t they fight back? To the extent that we can blame the victims, we can exculpate, to some degree, the perpetrators.

But it is a myth that the Jews did not resist.

The places and times they fought back would make a very long list. Just to mention a few: the uprisings in the Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor death camps; the uprisings in the Warsaw, Czestochowa, Bialystok, Vilna, Tuczyn, and Minsk Ghettos; the various partisan groups in the forests. One could fill many pages with instances of Jewish resistance.

As Elie Wiesel has said, “the question is not why the Jews did not fight but how so many did! Tortured, starved, forced into hard labor... how did they find the strength to resist?”

Marvin Zuckerman is a retired professor of English and Yiddish at Los Angeles Valley College, and has written seven books, including two college textbooks. He is the founder of a literary agency and is active in the Southern California Workmen’s Circle.