An enduring question about the Holocaust is why so many people became willing executioners for Hitler. Not just Nazis, but also professional soldiers and career officers who otherwise shared no ideological affinities with the Nazis, civilian police, even ordinary civilians all had a hand in the Holocaust. On 10 July 1941, in the small village of Jedwabne, under the full eyes of their German conquerors, ordinary Poles turned on their Jewish neighbors and killed 340 of them. They drove a group of men, women and children into a barn that they then set ablaze, burning alive those inside and bludgeoning and shooting those attempting to escape. What accounts for such unspeakable savagery?
Once a rabbi, speaking on how we might prevent another Holocaust from happening, said, “Beware of small beginning.” The “small beginning” that made the Holocaust possible, as my visit to the Topography of Terrors in Berlin makes abundantly clear, is the way in which people passively accept the way things are. The willingness to accept a loss of personal liberty in exchange for economic gains led to the election of Hitler, which led to an acceptance of the racist view that fellow-citizens were subhuman. From there it was but an inexorable slide to granting the state the right to kill and maim its “undesirable” citizens and to taking a personal part in killing and maiming. The memorial at Treblinka proclaims in six different languages, “Never again.” That message seems more urgent than ever today.