The true role of a perpetrator is hard to define. Often, in the midst of a crisis or catastrophe, a large number of individuals bare a certain amount of blame and fault. As in the case of the Holocaust, it can be difficult when an intricate and immense problem occurs to pinpoint specifically who is deserving of blame. In Maus, Art Spiegelman illustrates the complexity of the Holocaust and how different groups of individuals held blame in different ways. Such an atrocity had no single obvious perpetrator, but instead was the result of millions of individuals working with varying degrees of passion to survive to the best of their ability.
The Holocaust effected a large number of individuals in the 1940s including author Art Spiegelman’s father, Vladek. During the Second World War, Vladek encountered many individuals doing their best to cope with the difficult and dangerous situations posed both by the war in general and the Holocaust itself. While some people were willing to help others around them, including Jews like Vladek, others, for varying reasons were unwilling to do so. A great deal of Vladek’s success throughout the Holocaust was in fact due to luck, however the generosity and personal risk of others aided him significantly as well.
The Holocaust was organized by the Nazi party in Germany under the rule of Adolf Hitler. The Nazis therefore were at the forefront of the crisis and have been placed with the majority of the blame for the injustices and violence that occurred. Nazi officers were the individuals primarily responsible for the rounding up of Jewish people and for controlling them in sequestered areas including ghettos, train cars, and concentration camps. Many Nazis acted horribly in regards to the Jewish people they were ordered to massacre and control, but the true desire of many to butcher Jews and to make Germany a purely Arian nation, is unclear. Propaganda and scare tactics were extremely important throughout the Holocaust and were largely responsible for the spread of anti-Semitism across Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Initially, the Nazi party fell into favor not because it was largely followed and supported, but because Hitler and his Nazis were skillful with propaganda and brainwashing techniques. They held large, loud rallies to gain the public’s interest and to appear significant. The success of such acts eventually lead to the integration of Nazism into Germany’s political system and enabled Hitler and his supporters to gain political influence and control.
Because the Nazi regime was incredible powerful, many people were forced into accepting the actions and beliefs of the Reich, even if they did not truly believe them. Scare tactics were used to induct young German men into the military, as were manipulative youth groups such as the Hitler Youth. When forced to join the military, many soldiers were not in favor of all of Hitler’s policies, but were forced to comply with them to avoid death.
As shown in Maus, not all of the Nazi soldiers were hateful and hostile to the Jews with the fervor Hitler expected in his soldiers. Some, such as the men who accepted prisoner’s money in return for allowing their escape, but ultimately killed them any way and the man who held a gun to Abraham’s head and forced him to convince his family to escape to Hungary into German hands, exhibited truly evil intentions. Others however were more sympathetic to the plight of the Jews and aided them in small ways, especially if payment of some kind was involved. For example, when Vladek repaired the Gestapo’s boot he was rewarded with a whole sausage, which was difficult to come by in the camps.
In addition to the Nazis, a variety of prisoners worked alongside the Nazi’s under their command. The majority of these people were Polish, but many were not Jewish. In Vladek’s experience, these commanders were more sympathetic and willing to help prisoners for payment. When Vladek taught the Kapo English, he was rewarded for his service with improved clothes including leather shoes and greater food rations. This enabled him to better survive the harsh conditions of Auschwitz. The same happened for Anja when she befriended her Kapo and helped her to fix her boots. The Kapo, who was formerly cruel to Anja became much kinder and allowed her to take refuge instead of working carrying heavy soup pots, which often resulted in Anja’s being punished because they were too heavy for her to lift successfully. The Kapos and other prisoners under Nazi control were generally more inclined to help than the German soldiers, but they still could be dangerous to the Jeiwsh people. In Vladek’s own town, he witnessed Jewish aids to the Nazis helping to round up other Jews for their continued gain and safety.
Personal gain and safety played a large part in the efforts made by civilians, prisoners, and Nazis alike to help those in need. While the officials and Nazis needed payment before consenting to help prisoners, other civilians acted in the same way. Motonowa was a kind Polish woman who consented to hide Vladek and Anja in her home, but she only did so for payment. In fact, Anja constantly worried as to how her family would find refuge once their supply of valuables had run out. In the camps and even amongst prisoners, payment was needed for favors because helping one another put the prisoners in greater danger. Vladek infract had to pay his friends to help him leave the camp when he was sick with Typhus. Helping him struggle from the camp was dangerous for them because it drew attention to them and put them in increased danger of being targeted by Nazi soldiers on patrol.
The Holocaust was a complicated event and no specific group of perpetrators can be pin pointed. The actions of many, whether initiated out of greed, ignorance, or fear lead to the perpetuation of ghastly crimes against the Jewish people as well as other groups. Each group was responsible in its own way and the distinctions between each can become easily blurred. Because of this, one cannot truly place blame.
The Nazi party as illustrated above, has received a great deal of blame for the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, as they should. The Nazi leaders and officials who planned and supported the mass killings of Jews and other minorities made such crimes possible. If they had not carefully devised the mass killings and relocation of Jews, the events of the Holocaust would not have taken place. The Nazis are also responsible because they were the ones who created the ghettos and concentration camps used to confine and kill the Jewish people. While the Nazis as a whole are blamed as perpetrators of the Holocaust, the blame given to them should be given careful consideration. Certainly the top Nazi officials who directly created and sanctioned the events of the Holocaust, such as Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Rudolf Hoss can be considered perpetrators of genocide, however when the involvement of Nazi soldiers in general is considered, the subject can no longer be regarded as a black and white issue. Clearly, as explained above, some members of the Nazi party thoroughly supported the genocide and participated in it passionately. The actions of others however were not driven out of passion and a desire to eliminate the Jews, but rather out of fear for their own lives. Many young men in the German army were forced to take part in the horrors of the Holocaust. Often, if they disagreed with their officials or the actions of the Nazi party, they themselves were killed. These people, in the most basic sense, are in fact perpetrators because they were involved and enabled the genocide. However, the differences in motives that existed among them must be regarded. Too often, all Nazis are dehumanized for their harsh treatment of their prisoners and the fact that some were not bloodthirsty is overlooked.
The actions of civilians in regards to the perpetuation of genocide must also be considered. Some civilians were in fact ignorant of the goings on during the Holocaust. Others did their best to help those in need while some ignored the problem completely and kept their best interests at the forefronts of their lives.
The people unaware of the goings on during the Holocaust cannot be identified as perpetrators. If they were unaware of the problem, there was no way they could potentially act to remedy it. It is shocking however to believe that people, especially those in close proximity to the ghettos and concentration camps could be unaware of such goings on.
Civilians who resisted the efforts of the Nazis are not perpetrators, although as shown in Maus, their actions were not always favorable to the groups targeted by the Nazis. For example, consider Motonowa who graciously accepted Vladek and Anja into her home when her husband was not present. She did this at a great personal risk and therefore required payment for her services. While she truly cared about Vladek and Anja’s wellbeing, she put her own self-interest first, as illustrated when she forced them to flee from her home when there was a possibility of the Nazis coming to investigate her black market business. Overall however, Motonowa is a noble figure for she risks the wellbeing of her family to shelter Jews in need. People who acted in the manner of Motonowa cannot be considered perpetrators in the sense that Nazis can because despite acting in their own self-interest, they risked their safety to help those in need. The actions of civilians like Motonowa were noble because of the great personal risk taken to help people who were often strangers. Motonowa’s kindness was not alone throughout Vladek and Anja’s journey. They received similar aid from the woman who let them hide in her barn, the cousin who stamped their work cards and allowed them to stay in the ghetto, and the trainman who helped Vladek sneak back to Sosnowiec after he was freed as a prisoner of war. Through the generosity and kindness of others, many were safe from harm.
The individuals aware of the Holocaust, who did nothing to remedy the situation, are perpetrators, though to a lesser degree than the direct destruction of the Nazis. Many civilians were unwilling to help the Jews in need or to directly address and condemn the genocide. While it appears shameful that people could turn a blind eye to mass killings and violations of human rights, those who did not act to stop the Holocaust or to protect those being victimized did not necessarily do so out of cruelty and vengeance. Certainly, some approved of the anti-Semitic practices of the Nazis and endorsed their actions, but others did not. Those who did not act against the injustices they witnessed primarily did so out of fear. As shown through the actions of many including Motonowa and the Kapos, people were unwilling to help without payment because of the great personal risk involved. For some, the risk was too great even when payment was involved. In Maus, people like Richieu’s governess were unwilling to help the Jews because of the danger doing so would put them in. Richieu’s governess for example, was a close friend of Vladek and Anja. They got along very well and she had their upmost trust because they allowed her to care for their beloved son. Despite the fact that she lived as a member of their family for years, she was unwilling to offer them shelter when they called at her home. Being a non-Jewish Polish woman, she was safe from the Nazi’s campaign as long as she was not involved in illicit activity such as concealing Jews. Her actions were done for her own survival and while it would have been extremely selfless and compassionate to house Vladek and Anja, her actions are understandable. People like this are not extreme perpetrators because they did not purposely hand over Jews for extermination, however by acting in their own self-interest they did not help the Jews escape persecution in any way.
Those directly involved in the horrors of the Holocaust, including the Nazi officials who planned and authorized the persecution of the Jews, the soldiers who acted to destroy Jews in ghettos and concentration camps, and civilians who either supported and helped the Nazis or turned a blind eye to the tragic events can all be perceived as perpetrators. The degree to which each individual is responsible for the actions of genocide however, must be thoroughly analyzed and considered. Not all involved in the Holocaust were bloodthirsty and anti-Semitic. Some were taken in and manipulated by powerful propaganda, while others were governed by fear and the desire to safeguard themselves and their families. Atrocities such as the Holocaust cannot be considered in black and white for they exist in shades of grey. Every human being is different and is motivated to act in different ways and for this reason, we cannot generalize the actions committed throughout the Holocaust. It is truly unfortunate that such an event occurred, but appropriate blame will never be distributed in a completely unbiased and omniscient manner. There are simply too many variables. We all operate differently.
Zoe has integrated her background as social worker, event organizer, and scientist into the news and media lifestyle brand, Audio Kush, which she co-founded in 2018. An expat and travel enthusiast, she enjoys telling stories which explore society and delve into the mind. A major proponent of cannabis culture and the medicinal potential of marijuana, Zoe works to educate and normalize cannabis as a healing plant.