Chaim Rumkowski, Jewish leader of the Lodz ghetto, during his Sept. 4, 1942
"Give me your children" speech.

UCSB Hist 33d, L10:
Victims and Perpetrators:
Individual Choice?

lectures on Oct. 25 & 27, 2005

by Professor Harold Marcuse (homepage)
uploaded Oct. 28, 2005, updated 10/30/05, 5/6/13

Rosa Parks
1. Wannsee Conference
2. Rumkowski & Perechodnik
3. Milgram
4. Battalion

Introduction (back to top)

  • This week's lectures focused on the reasons why people choose to commit (or participate in) mass murder. We applied some psychological and sociological theories to several historical cases in order to come up with some answers. The cases (in chronological order) were:
    1. The Wannsee Conference, convened in Berlin on Jan. 20, 1942 by SS secret service leader Reinhard Heydrich: bureaucrats discussing how best to organize and commit genocide (jump down to Wannsee section)
    2. The July 13, 1942 massacre of 1500 Jews in the Polish town of Jozefow by the 450 men in German Reserve Police Battalion 101 commanded by Major Trapp, as described by historian Christopher Browning (jump down to Battalion 101 section)
    3. Jewish ghetto policeman Calel Perechodnik's tortured afterthoughts about his behavior during the August 19, 1942 roundup of the Jews in Otwock, near Warsaw. (jump down to Perechodnik section)
    4. The reactions to the Jewish Lodz ghetto leader Chaim Rumkowski's Sept. 4, 1942 "Give me your children" speech asking the people to turn their aged, infirm and children aged 9 and under over to the Germans. (jump down to Rumkowski section)
  • Psychology and Sociology. The main social science theories we attempted to apply were the obedience experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in 1962, as described and applied by Gerald Markle in his chapter on "Ordinary Men" and "Bureaucracy" in Meditations of a Holocaust Traveler. (jump down to Milgram section)
  • In Memoriam Rosa Parks (1913-2005). Since Rosa Parks, 1913-2005she had died the night before, I began the lecture with a short tribute to Rosa Parks, the woman credited with having begun the civil rights movement in December 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on a public bus in Alabama to a white man.
    • at that time she was a 42-year-old seamstress in a department store, returning home after work
    • in early 1955 that same bus driver, James Blake, had forced her to leave the bus when she did not leave after paying to reenter at the back door. She had vowed never to ride his bus again, but that night hadn't noticed he was the driver
    • that year other Black women had already refused to yield their seats and been forced to leave the bus, but civil rights advocates thought that their less-than-perfect biographies made them unsuitable for a test case
    • Rosa was trained in civil disobedience, and was to lead a workshop that coming weekend for teenagers
    • when a lone white man boarded, the driver demanded that 4 black women give up their row of seats. Rosa refused, and was arrested. Civil rights lawyers took up Rosa's case, Jo Ann Robinson activated her plan for a one-day bus boycott the next Monday, and a young black minister, Martin Luther King, jr., took charge of a boycott of the Montgomery public bus system that was to last for 381 days in spite of extreme countermeasures by the white community (blacks made up more than 75 percent of the bus system's riders). The rest is history.
    • The discriminatory rules segregating black riders are eerily similar to some Nazi laws (I think of the Nov. 12, 1938 discussion between Göring and Goebbels about how Jewish Germans were to be allowed to use passenger trains):
      On Montgomery buses, the first four rows were reserved for whites. The rear was for blacks. Blacks could sit in the middle rows until those seats were needed by whites. Then the blacks had to move to seats in the rear, stand, or, if there was no standing room, leave the bus. Even getting on the bus presented hurdles: If whites were already sitting in the front, blacks could board to pay the fare but then they had to disembark and re-enter through the rear door.
    • But the parallels don't end with the discriminatory German laws against Jews in Nazi Germany. This 1994 editorial cartoon about California Proposition 187, which (if it hadn't been ruled unconstitutional in court) would have barred non-citizen children from attending California public schools. The cartoon takes the exact wording from the 1935 Nuremberg laws, and the Nov. 12, 1938 decrees after Kristallnacht, and shows how similar they are to the mindset behind prop. 187.

1. The "Wannsee Conference," January 20, 1942 (and Babi Yar, Sept. 29, 1942)
(back to top)

  • Called Wannsee Conference because it was held in a villa near the Berlin lake Wannsee that had confiscated from a Jewish owner--it was actually known as the "assistant secretaries of state meeting, since the attendees held the rank of Staatssekretär--, this gathering was long considered to mark the point at which the total genocide of all Jews was decided upon. However, we now know that that decision had been made earlier, and the meeting served primarily to inform the civilian bureaucracy and the Nazi party administration that SD-chief Reinhard Heydrich was in charge of the 'operation.'
    • In fact, the meeting was originally called for Dec. 9, 1941, but was postponed so that Heydrich could attend Germany's declaration of war on the US after Pearl Harbor. See the original invitation, textbook p. 97, with Göring's July 31 commission memo to Heydrich, p. 96.
  • Historians are divided over whether the decision to murder all Jews was made before or after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, called Operation Barbarossa, on June 22, 1941.
  • Genocide on a grand scale was already being practiced, for instance at the Babi Yar canyon on the outskirts of Kiev in the Ukraine (today known for the nuclear reactors in nearby Chernobyl, one of which blew up in 1987). In 2 days, on Sept. 29-30, 1941, Heydrich's SD task forces massacred 33,771 people (the SD report gives this figure) in about 72 hours. Babi Yar monument Mathematically that works out to about 8 people per minute, nonstop, a huge and horrifying achievement.
    •'s Babi Yar page
    • In the following years another 60-70,000 people were murdered there, not all of them Jews, including a Ukranian soccer team that had beat the German army team.
    • In 6 weeks in Aug.-Sept. 1943 prisoners were forced to excavate and burn the remains, destroying most of the evidence (recall the corpse-burning scene in Schindler's List; description on
    • However, when a dam burst in the 1960s, human bones were washed up. This event was memorialized in a poem by the Ukranian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (text of Babi Yar poem), and set to music by Dmitri Shostakovich in his symphony no. 13.
  • Back to Berlin. (text of "minutes" of meeting) If nothing else, this event showed that mass shootings, although possible, were also problematic in certain regards. Gas vans--trucks whose exhaust was routed into the cargo compartment, which was filled with people--we tried as well, and even other, more horrifying means, such as hosing groups of victims with acid [Laurence Langer reference].
    • Three groups met on Jan. 20, 1942: the SS around Heydrich (in the film: snappy dark uniforms with insignia); Nazi party adminstrators from the East (greenish uniforms); and German state bureaucrats (civilian clothes mostly).
    • Their behavior illustrates principles of functionalism and structuralism. We will see this later in the psychological schools of thought emphasizing character traits vs. situation as primary motivating factors for human behavior.
    • "Preemptive obedience" (vorauseilender Gehorsam, a historians' term) and "working towards the Führer" (used by a contemporary, references: Pridham/Noakes, Kershaw)
  • We then discussed the 1984 German TV film (imdb Wannsee film page; 2001 US reenactment "Conspiracy" is not nearly as good). The professor added three points to the ones students brought up:
    • Heydrich: "Complicity creates responsiblity" (Mitwissen schafft Mitverantwortung): Once the bureaucrats had been officially informed, they would be less likely to blow the whistle.
    • Shooters fainting at mass graves proves that Germans are decent, not subhumans
    • Once Jewish emigration from Germany is forbidden, genocide is the plan.

2. Collaboration: Rumkowski and Perechodnik (back to top)

  • These are both cases of collaboration, which has different moral implications depending on how much "free choice" the individual had, which in turn is a question of power. From most to least:
    • Germans ("Aryan," non-Jewish)
    • citizens of occupied countries (Norway's Vidkun Quisling vs. Denmark's King Christian)
    • Jews (Jewish councils=Rumkowski; Jewish policemen=Perechodnik)
  • Moral question: Is there a "higher" justification? Saving lives (at least over the short term)?
    • In non-collaborating Holland and German-occupied France: ca. 40% of Jews survived
    • In Italy and collaborating Vichy France: about 78% of Jews survived.
  • The crucial question is: when to draw the line, where collaboration harms more than it  helps.
  • Rumkowski, Chaim Rumkowskihead of the Lodz ghetto, liked the power, had his own "court" historian.
    • See's Lodz ghetto history
    • His strategy: save as many as possible by doing essential production for the German army.
    • Lodz ghetto known colloquially as the Wehrmacht's "9th division."
    • "Sealed" in May 1940. No deportation for 2 years after Sept. 1942, until June 1944, but then completely "liquidated" (all murdered, including Rumkowski).
    • Economic rationale: better to give up those who were not productive (children, aged, sick), in order to save those most able to survive.
    • After the speech (see David Sierakowiak diary entries, in reader) Jewish policemen have great trouble getting residents to give up their children (3 children in one house in 1.5 hours), and corruption and chaos are rampant; finally Germans accompany the Jewish selection teams.
    • My opinion: Apparently here a moral line was crossed. If you must harm those who give meaning to your life, your life becomes meaningless. Even if the Germans had not lied to Rumkowski that this would be the final round-up, this "sacrifice" was not worth it.
    • See also Primo Levi's reflection on Rumkowski in his 9-page "Story of a Coin" in Moments of Reprieve.
  • Calel Perechodnik, Calel Perechodnik book coverJewish policeman in the Otwock (near Warsaw) ghetto.
    • In the discussion, the professor emphasized the role of information (trust in the Germans' promises): based on certain assumptions, the choices Perechodnik made were a reasonable strategy for family survival.
    • Here, too, once he was unable to save those he loved--indeed, he had brought them to their deaths--, his life became meaningless.
    • Wherever the line of "beneficial collaboration" was, it was definitely crossed on that day. Abram Willendorf, a fellow policeman who threw away his armband and joined his family among the 8000 on Otwock's central square on August 19, 1942, saw that more clearly.
    • The German strategy of giving assurances of exemption and protection, and then taking them away, made the moral line harder for some, like Perechodnik, to see.

3. Milgram Experiments (back to top)Milgram experiment schematic

  • Read the summary by Markle, Meditations, pp. 45-55, 68 (course reader pp. 109-114; 68)
    • by the way, according to westegg's inflation calculator, $4 in 1961 is $24.95 in 2005. But the subjects were given the money before the experiment began, and told they could keep it, no matter what.
    • Wikipedia Milgram experiment entry is good & concise. Note especially the discussion of "variations," which we talked about in class
    • offers an excellent short summary of Milgram's book publication.
    • Milgram's main biographer Thomas Blass, maintains a comprehensive website at It has excellent bibliographical references, but no description of the actual experiment.
  • The experiment was conducted in many other countries. I reported on the results of the trial in Munich, Germany, in 1970, with 101 subjects (only males, including 7 "beatniks"=hippies).
    • published in David Mantell, "The Potential for Violence in Germany," Journal of Social Issues 27:4(1971), 101-112.
    • Three variations were tested: a) the "baseline" standard version [n=46]; b) modeling delegitimization [subject watch a previous actor-subject challenge the authority of the "experimenter;" n=25], and c) self-decision [subject told that s/he could decide if and how much to punish the learner; n=30].
    • In group a) 85% went "all the way," b) 52%, and c) only 7%
    • Although the author says that the 20% more Germans who shocked at the highest level (85%-65%) is statistically insignificant (x2=3.53; .05<p<.10), I argued that even small variations might make a difference in a situation where a whole group is faced with complying with authority (such as Battalion 101).
      • I will discuss this with my "see-saw model" in greater depth next week.
    • We also discussed gender differences: in all of the standard trials around the world, the same percentage of women as men went to the highest shock levels (although they did report experiencing more stress).
  • We discussed various questions and some other experiments:
    • Gender differences: Would there be a difference if the subjects were asked to shock a family member?
    • What does the Stanford prison experiment, conducted by Phillip Zimbardo in 1971 tell us about situational factors?
    • Example of a (USC?) law professor who told his students to give unethical advice to a client (who was actually his "confederate"): 23 of 24 did it (on his authority).

4. Reserve Police Battalion 101 in Jozefow, July 13, 1942 Browning, Ordinary Men(back to top)

  • event based on article by Christopher Browning, "One Day in Jozefow" (1991), included in various anthologies and his book Ordinary Men (1992).
    • summarized by Markle, Meditations, 42-45 (reader 108f).
    • Jewish Virtual Library's summary of the Battalion's activities
    • Facing History's summary
    • based on testimonies given to West German prosecutors in the late 1950s and early 1960s
    • Jozefow is very near Belzec extermination center
    • this case was special because many of the men admitted that prior to beginning their first massacre, their commander, Major Trapp, allowed them to do other duties than shooting if they did not feel up to it. About a dozen men took him up on the offer (after he told a lieutenant he was serious); ultimately 15-25% of the men opted out in one way or another.
    • These Joxefow area map450 men participated in a number of other massacres after Jozefow: Lomazy (August 1942), Miedzyrzec (August 1942), Serokomla (September 1942), Kock (September 1942), Parczew (October 1942), Konskowola (October 1942), Miedzyrzec (a second action in October 1942) and Lukow (November 1942), as well as the so-called "Harvest Festival" massacre in Maidanek camp (November 3-4, 1943).
    • Police Battalion 101 was alone responsible for the shooting deaths of more than 38,000 Jews and the deportation of 45,000 others.
    • In 1947 Polish authorities tried and sentenced four members of the unit for killing 78 non-Jewish Poles; two were executed.
    • In 1967 (!) 14 men were put on trial in West Germany; only 5 received prison terms (5-8 years, subsequently reduced).
  • We discussed potential distortions deriving from the fact that these men were being interrogated by the police prior to a trial. The charge would be murder (instead of manslaughter) if they were found to have had "base motives," such as antisemitism (or economic gain). Thus they would have avoided mentioning such feelings (if they had them). Scholar Daniel Goldhagen argues that antisemitism was indeed their main motivation.
  • Note the statistic at the beginning of the Browning article (reader p. 100):
    • In the 11 months from March 1942 to February 1943 50% of all Holocaust victims were murdered. Thus 25% from 1933/41-1942, and 25% in the 27 months March 1943-May 1945.
    • This was basically from Wannsee conference to defeat at Stalingrad (after which the Germans mobilized for "total war," switching to "extermination through work" for murdering Jews.
Lomazy: people in square Lukow: Germans humiliating Jews
Lomazy: guarding people in square
Lukow: Germans humiliating Jews
Germans enjoying humiliating?

Conclusions (back to top)

I don't know to what extent these emerged in the discussion, but my prepared slides covered these points:

  • List of individual motivations
    • antisemitism (racism, race-based hatred)
    • ideological indoctrination (Aryan supremacy, need for Lebensraum/living space)
    • obedience to authority (what was the role of the situation, cf. Milgram)
    • deference to authority (in German culture; see also the Abraham story in Markle, p. 57f=Reader p. 115)
    • careerism (economic motive, preemptive obedience, "working towards the Führer)
    • special selection of perpetrators (sadists?--not in Battalion 101's case)
    • wartime brutalization (important situational factor)
    • segmentation of task (loading on trains easier than shooting)
    • routinization of task (first time is hardest)
    • empathy with victims (harder to shoot people you know--victims from Hamburg)
  • Categories of perpetrators
    • Bureaucratic organizers ("desk murderers"--Schreibtischtäter)
      • ideologues (intellectuals
      • administrators
      • businessmen, CEOs
    • Organizers in the field
      • military commanders (Major Trapp) & extermination center leaders (Sobibor)
    • Participants in "assembly line" murder
      • 1) distanced: Zyklon B was in pumice pelletsengineers, architects, doctor-evaluators (Nazi Designers of Death)
      • 2) immediate: loading trains, doctor selectors, emptying canisters of Cyclon B
        [response to a question: "crystals" or gas?]
        • Zyklon B was actually pumice pellets saturated with liquid prussic acid (cyanide), cool-dried and sealed in a vacuum; sublimates (solid directly to gaseous state) at regular pressure in a warm place (need for some warming or heating in the gas chambers in cold months
    • Hands-on murderers
      • one-on-one shooters
      • guards in Markle, Meditations, book covercamps with whips, clubs and weapons
      • doctors and medical personnel who inject
  • Discussion of concepts introduced by Markle
    • p. 45: "crusing conformism and careerism"
    • p. 56: "radical situationalism"
    • p. 68: "paradox of sequential action" (Baumann)
      Sequencing: "functional division of labor"
      Where to draw the line?
    • p. 75: "Habit, routine, tradition" (Hilberg)
    • 87: "cumulative radicalization" (Mommsen)
    • 95: race as a social construction

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse, Oct. 28, 2005, updated: see header
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