Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
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Was there such a thing as a “Nazi Conscience” in the Holocaust?
By Hannah O'Dell
The word “conscience” is defined as the internal sense of right and wrong which governs an individual’s thoughts and actions. As strange as it may seem, there was such a thing as a Nazi conscience in the Holocaust. Although it was warped and twisted to suit the Nazi way of thinking, it was nevertheless a type of conscience. A so-called “Nazi conscience” could be described as the internal sense of right and wrong as defined by the Nazi Party and its ideals. There are many ways in which Nazis justified themselves and their actions, ranging from Darwin-esqué social hygiene ideals to the social changes and demands of Germany to old fashioned anti-Semitism. It is important to stress that no matter what the reason, from the Nazi point of view, the vast majority thought they were doing the right thing at the time they were doing it.
One of the simplest justifications for the “Nazi conscience” was how Germany was working at the time of Third Reich. From 1935, the Nuremburg Laws had been in place, in which Jews were no longer legally classed as citizens. The Nazis had at least seven years (perhaps even since their rise to power in 1933) to spread their ideology through propaganda and laws and firmly embed it within the nation. By the time of the Second World War and the Final Solution, it was difficult to remember the Jews and other entire categories of people as citizens of the same country and on the Germans’ “moral map”.
Instead the German people were encouraged to believe in the Volk as an organism. And, in the Nazi context, Volk was almost always translated as “race”, most likely because of Nazi policy of racial purity.
Most of the Nazi system and policy (aside from other side projects such as suppressing women’s emancipation and passing stringent animal protection laws) was devoted to blood and racial purity. This idea of the “race” as a kind of organism came from the ethics of Gobineau, which was similar to Social Darwinism as it hypothesised that tribes would ultimately evolve into a superior sociological organism. This idea of a superior sociological organism was very much the idea the Nazis could use to justify their racist regime.
Other distorted beliefs also fuelled the so-called “Nazi conscience”, like Spencer’s Theory of Evolution (both in terms of human development and socially). The Nazis took the most suitable parts for their regime from other sociological, pseudo-scientific or evolutionary ideas (which, at the time, were rather well-received and taken as serious, revolutionary work) and wove them into their own political system. These ideas often preceded the Nazis and had been used before by other countries (for example, the mass sterilisations in the USA from the early 1900s).
The only difference with the theories of Social Darwinism and evolution was that the former related directly to society and who was fit to be in the Aryan elite and who was not. The Nazis used this idea effectively for their own designs. In Nazi thinking, Aryans are naturally the strongest, fittest, most intelligent race on the planet, thus giving those with Aryan blood the natural right to survive and dominate others. On the other hand, Jews are the complete opposite, the natural enemy of such a perfect pure race, and a strain on the Aryan’s own survival. Jews were seen as pollution to the prospect of a pure Aryan society and needed to be eradicated.
Eugenics is about selective breeding for human improvement by encouraging only those with desirable genetic characteristics to reproduce. It is the so-called science of human breeding. The Nazis used the principles of eugenics in a similar way as they used the principles of Social Darwinism. Only Germans with German lineage going back generations were considered fit Aryan stock (a practise important in recruiting the notorious SS). According to one of the tests the Nazis introduced to determine how “Aryan” an individual was, the person had to have had two sets of grandparents who were ethnic Germans. Other tests included testing the colour of the eyes and hair and even the shape of the nose for Nordic Aryan qualities, or “other” qualities such as “ethnically Jewish” characteristics. The disabled (mentally and physically) were a separate strain that also needed to be weeded out of society. While it has been argued that this idea is not inherently racist (as even ethnic Germans with disabilities were still considered unfit) the Nazis interpreted so. If an individual could not be productive to the all-important Reich, then the Reich saw no reason to support them. And the Nazis did not want those with defects to reproduce; the Reich was supposed to be for those who were strong and fit. This is one of the main reasons the Nazis used to justify their actions as a kind of Nazi morality.
André Mineau’s work on “Social Hygiene and the Holocaust” stresses that the 20th century must be seen as the era of political efficiency of biology – politics as bio-politics – the practise of biologism through the power of politics. The point being that social hygiene provided legitimacy to the Holocaust, “insofar as it constituted an ethical framework that made sense, in some way, to a significant part of the ruling elites of Germany”. Biologism is closely linked to the cultural impact of Social Darwinism. This perspective quickly gained the strength of an ideology, especially in Germany as it mixed with various currents of thought (e.g. Chamberlain, Spensler et al) which promoted Aryan supremacy, anti-Semitism and German imperialism.
Some scholars have considered the concept of Nazism in relation to National Socialism being treated as a political religion. After all, the political symbols and rituals of Nazism and religious liturgy and worship are comparable to “traditional” religions. Many German people worshipped Hitler in a way that was zealous and believed he was there to save them (in a secular sense). Indeed, this was the message that Hitler and the Nazis put across. Also, Hitler’s subordinates were willing to put into action whatever plan Hitler allowed to pass because the whole point of the Nazi regime was to “work towards the Führer”, because he knows what is best. Nationalism as a whole became popular as an element of secular religion as it was able to fuse multiple views, institutions and regimes by making the idea of the nation as a sacred supreme being. The Nazi movement devised its own political religiosity on the deification of the Aryan race, the cult of blood, anti-Semitic hatred and idolisation of Hitler. It was because of this “new religion” of Nazism that the people of Germany worshipped Hitler as their saviour and were willing to do what he asked. “Working towards the Führer” was a common excuse and moral justification for the actions of many convicted Nazis, many of whom used the excuse of just following orders.
From the Nazi point of view, for whatever reason, the vast majority thought that they were doing the right thing. This thinking was fuelled, if not directly caused, by those at the top of the Nazi hierarchy. The most notorious of these was Heinrich Himmler. Himmler, who was head of the Gestapo (secret police) and the Kripo (criminal police) which totalled about 240,000 men, was one of the highest functionaries in the Nazi hierarchy. He also organised and administered the regime of concentration and extermination camps via the SS. He had been raised a Catholic, but was fanatical about blood purity and the need to breed a Nordic master race, even outlining a new pagan religion based on laws of blood (‘die ewigen Gesetze des Blutes’). He used his fanatical belief in Nazi ideology and racialism to justify his actions. For example, in a speech to SS-Gruppenführer in Posen on October 4, 1943, he repeated themes that justify an idea of a Nazi Conscience. He stressed that SS men are honourable (as in they are working for the interests of the German people, as defined by the Nazis), everything they have done so far is correct, they will win the war, and advocating complete disdain for all other peoples. When on the subject of Jews, he made out that they were the mortal enemy of Germans. “We had the moral right, we had the duty to our people, to kill this people, who wanted to kill us.” Himmler was making it sound like the Nazis are killing Jews out of self-defence, and thus wholly justifiable. It is not impossible to believe that many Germans – especially perpetrators – believed this propaganda when the Nazis used such scare-tactics and when such propaganda was coming from one of the most important men in the Nazi system. The way Himmler ultimately justified his actions and theories was because of the statement made by a Red Cross inspector of the concentration camps that the Jews were the “Anus of Europe”. Unsurprisingly, the “Anus of Europe” provided Nazis with the excuse that they were clearing up the mess of the world (i.e. the “undesirables”). However, as fanatical as Himmler was, it easy to believe that he truly believed his own racist propaganda and thought he was doing a grand and wonderful thing.
There are examples to the contrary, however. One shining example that the “Nazi conscience” was not universal was that of Police Battalion 101. Their commander, Major Trapp made an extraordinary offer: if anyone did not feel up to the task could step out. In this regiment of five hundred or so men, a few took up the offer. It is argued that many more would have stood down if it were not for peer pressure or loyalty to their country and cause, but some did still did not participate in the massacre. They were given permission and the opportunity to carry out their “duty” but they still refused. On the other hand, this could be argued as those who did not step forward to conforming to the majority rather than morality, however. That is to say, that the conscience was being influenced by the majority and is false, rather than an individual sense of conscience.
This belief also does not account for those Germans who hid Jews from Nazis and smuggled them out of the country. These could not be rabid Nazis out for the blood of the Jews. These Germans were knowingly defying the Nazi state, and were fully aware of the harsh punishments in store for them if they were found out. There were even special “agencies” set up before the Holocaust and during the initial persecution where work was found for young Jewish people abroad, mainly in England and America. The work was usually as household servants or nannies, and work visas were granted as often as possible.
In conclusion, the morality of the Holocaust and the way Nazism justified itself takes many forms. The state of Germany at the time provided the Nazis the opportunity to make the Jews the scapegoat and with the help of the 1935 Nuremburg Laws and racist propaganda (especially Volk propaganda), it was easier to influence the German people. Beliefs such as Social Darwinism, and racial hygiene, and eugenics played a part in the propaganda scale to help mould peoples’ beliefs that what the Nazis were doing was for the benefit of the German people and to make it appear rational and scientific. Also, fanatically passionate men such as Heinrich Himmler in high positions of power could not be easily ignored and their influence was great.
However, propaganda and – effectively – brain-washing techniques of the Nazis was not a complete success, for there are numerous examples of ethnic Germans deliberately disobeying the Nuremburg Laws to save the lives of Jews at great risk to themselves – that is to say, resistance to the Nazis. Even so, the vast majority of Nazis, and to some extent even normal average Germans, genuinely believed that the actions that were being carried out – either by themselves, or “on their behalf” – was the best for Germany and the German people.
Browning, Christopher R. “Ordinary Men”, Penguin Books, London, 2001
Gentile, Emilio. “Politics as Religion”, Princeton University Press, Princeton Oxford, 2006
Hochstadt, Steve. ed. “Sources of the Holocaust”, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2004
Koonz, Claudia. “The Nazi Conscience”, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2003
McElligott, Anthony, and Kirk, Tim. ed. “Working Towards the Führer”, Manchester University Press, Manchester, New York, 2003
Mineau, André. “Social Hygiene and the Holocaust”, The European Legacy v.12, no.7, 2007, pgs. 795 - 804
Morgan, Michael L. “A Holocaust Reader”, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001
Turda, Marius, and Weindling, Paul J. ed. “Blood and Homeland – Eugenics and Racial Nationalism in Central and Southeast Europe 1900-1040”, Central European University Press, Budapest New York, 2007
Wildt, Michael. “The Spirit of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA)”, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, vol. 6, no. 3, pgs 333-349, December 2005
http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200402u/int2004-02-11 accessed 10/3/08, entitled “An Insidious Evil” Interview of Christopher Browning on “Origins of the Holocaust” from February 11th 2004 on theatlantic.com
 Koonz, Claudia. The Nazi Conscience, pg. 6.
 Koonz, Claudia. “The Nazi Conscience”, pg. 9
 Mineau, André. “Social Hygiene and the Holocaust”, pg. 795.
 Mineau, André. “Social Hygiene and the Holocaust”, pg. 795.
 http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200402u/int2004-02-11, “An Insidious Evil”.
 Gentile, Emilio. Politics as Religion, pg. 30.
 Gentile, Emilio. Politics as Religion, pg. 37.
 Wildt, Michael. “The Spirit of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA)”, pg. 333.
 Hochstadt, Steve, ed. Sources of the Holocaust, pg. 164.
 Browning, Christopher R. Ordinary Men, pg 2.
Copyright: 2009 Hannah O'Dell & H.E.A.R.T