The current war in Israel has reignited historical debate about the Nazi regime and the use of brutal violence to achieve political and military goals. In this context, a troubling idea has emerged, bubbling up from journalists, religious leaders, and scholars alike: that, in the words of Israeli Government minister Nir Barkat, “what Hamas is committing is worse than what the Nazis did."
At the heart of this argument is the idea that the brutal mass atrocities committed by Hamas on Oct. 7, which killed 1,200 people in Israel, were done gleefully, whereas the Nazi atrocities that killed 6 million Jews were not. But as the world marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day this Saturday, it's important to note that the idea that Nazi killers were generally reluctant, morally conflicted, or somehow internally ashamed of their actions is ahistorical and dangerous.
And that matters. The implication that Hamas are barbarians, animals, or inhumane killers could be used to argue that Israel is somehow released from its obligations under the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) or International Humanitarian Law (IHL) regarding its military actions in Gaza. And beyond their use as a rhetorical weapon in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such apologetic and inaccurate representations of Nazi perpetrators have the very dangerous effect of releasing a toxic version of the past into our public history ecosystem by distorting a fundamental truth of the Holocaust: the Nazis were quite happy with their murder of the Jews.
Hamas and the Nazis are both antisemitic groups who murdered Jews in awful and gratuitous ways. However, the Nazis carried out their killings of part of a national genocidal project which mobilized all the elements of a modern, massive nation-state, a state whose population, generally speaking, knew that Jews were being removed from society. Unlike Hamas which is attempting to cause a reaction, the Nazi state had no need to publicize its killing of Jews; it had the support of both government and people. Indeed, making its crimes public would have had the undesired effect of warning the victims.
The depiction of the Nazis being deployed in recent weeks has several false elements. The first is the suggestion that physical reactions among Nazi killers is proof of moral disagreement. Nazi killers were not sociopaths incapable of human empathy, and so yes, many found personal, close-range killing to be traumatic. These men often left killing sites covered in the blood and brain matter of their victims. Revulsion at the experience of murder, however, did not mean they disagreed with the policy of killing.
For example, when witnessing a mass shooting in Aug. 1941, Heinrich Himmler, chief of the SS, became visibly ill. And yet, at the same time, he was literally directing the murder of all of Europe’s Jews.
Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, another die-hard Nazi who presided over the murder of Jews in Belarus as the Higher SS and Police Leader there had a similar reaction. His physician noted that he suffered from flashbacks to his experiences at killing sites. And yet, he also was overseeing the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews.
In short, these men were not morally conflicted, though they may have had difficulty confronting the physicality of genocide. Some did experience what we would label PTSD. But, most of the Nazi killers continued despite any misgivings. They found ways to cope with their distress.
Some not only made peace with their crimes but came to take pride in them as well.
Consider, for example, the convoy of German policemen from Reserve Police Battalion 101, who arrived in the Polish town of Międzyzec in Aug. 1942 to round up the 12,000 Jews imprisoned in the ghetto there and deport them to the Treblinka killing center. The commanding officer brought his wife along to watch. According to historian Christopher Browning, the German officer “may have been trying to impress his new bride by showing her he was master over the life and death of Polish Jewry.” While his men thought it wholly inappropriate to bring a woman to witness the shooting and beating of Jews, Frau Wohlauf watched the event closely. And she wasn’t the only one. The wife of another German officer in Police Battalion 101 recalled that a policeman interrupted her breakfast with her husband saying “I have not yet had breakfast. I have not yet killed any Jews.”
Another example comes from the Janowska concentration camp in Lviv, Ukraine which operated from 1941-1944. The camp’s SS men amused themselves by using prisoners for target practice. One guard tied a prisoner to a pole and shot him in the arms and legs, aiming for as many non-lethal shots as possible. The commandant and his wife enjoyed shooting prisoners from their balcony overlooking the camp.
On another occasion, guards forced a Jewish man and woman to have sex while they watched; they then hung the couple. One commandant murdered several prisoners by forcing them to sit in tubs of water in the middle of winter until they froze to death. Similar kinds of gratuitous violence took place across the Nazi empire throughout the Holocaust.
Contrary to some claims being made in 2023, many Nazi perpetrators took delight in torturing their victims. The killers themselves in any case did not shy away from crowing about their crimes in official documents. Mobile killing squad commander Franz Stahlecker sent a report to Berlin in Jan. 1942 proudly proclaiming that his unit had killed 118,000 Jews; he included a map of the Baltic states with coffins drawn in each one and the annotation that Estonia was “Jew-free.” Other Nazis such as Jürgen Stroop in Warsaw and Friedrich Katzmann in Lviv wrote glowing reports bragging about the numbers of Jews killed. Official SS photographers at Auschwitz created a professional album documenting the murder of Hungarian Jews there in step-by-step detail.
In the aftermath of the war, the Nazis covered up their crimes, not because they had remorse for them as some say today, but for the same reason that any criminal seeks to erase evidence of wrongdoing: to avoid punishment.
False depictions of the Nazis today constitute a form of Holocaust distortion that threatens to introduce an apologetic depiction of Nazis to the popular understanding of the Holocaust, one which, ironically, the Nazis themselves used to claim that they, not the Jews, were the real victims, as they had to endure the difficult task of carrying out a genocide. They also have the potential to play into the hands of the alt-right and neo-Nazis seeking to downplay the crimes of the Third Reich. One can and should condemn the horrific actions of Hamas without needing to rehabilitate Nazi mass murderers and warping the history of the Holocaust.
Waitman Wade Beorn is a Holocaust scholar and assistant professor of history at Northumbria University in Newcastle, U.K. His next book Between the Wires: The Janowska Camp and the Holocaust in Lviv will be published next year from the University of Nebraska Press.
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