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The Holocaust as a Moral Choice
Part IX

By Alex Grobman


Remaining Decent

In his now famous speech to SS officers in Posen on October 4, 1943, Heinrich HimmlerReichsführer-SS, assured those involved in the annihilation of the Jewish people they had remained decent. “Most of you know what it means to see one hundred corpses piled up, or five hundred, or one thousand,” he said. “To have gone through this and – except for instances of human weakness – to have remained decent, that has made us tough. This is an unwritten, never-to-be-written, glorious page of our history.”[1]  

“It is basically wrong,” he said, “to allow our attitude towards foreign peoples to be swayed by our disinclination to hurt, by our natural friendliness, our good nature or our idealism…. For the SS man, there is one absolute principle; he must be honest, decent, loyal, and friendly to persons of our own blood — and to no one else. I am totally indifferent to what happens to the Russians or the Czechs.” According to German historian Hans Buchheim this meant National Socialism called for “insensibility, mercilessness, and savagery toward all of its opponents.”[2]  

Himmler gave the speech “clearly, deliberately, and emphatically, but for the most part dispassionately, much like a schoolmaster reviewing a long and somewhat complicated lesson for his pupils.” He observed sarcastically how Germans favored persecution of the Jews, yet “then they all come along, the 80 million worthy Germans, and each one has his one decent Jew. Of course, the others are swine, but this one, he is a first-rate Jew.” [3] 

Himmler added “If the Jews were still lodged in the body of the German nation, we would probably by now have reached the stage of 1916-17,” where we would have Jews “in every city as secret saboteurs, agitators, and inciters.” There is no question “We had the moral right, we had the duty towards our people, to destroy this people that wanted to destroy us.”[4]  

Concerning Jewish wealth, Himmler said: “The wealth they possessed we took from them. I gave a strict order, which has been carried out by SS Obergruppenführer [Oswald] Pohl [5], this wealth will of course be turned over to the Reich in its entirety. We have taken none of it for ourselves. Individuals who have erred will be punished in accordance with the order given by me at the start, threatening that anyone who takes as much as a single Mark of this money is a dead man. A number of SS men – they are not very many – committed this offense, and they shall die. There will be no mercy. We had the moral right, we had the duty towards our people, to destroy this people that wanted to destroy us. But we do not have the right to enrich ourselves by so much as a fur, as a watch, by one Mark or a cigarette, or anything else. We do not want, in the end, to be destroyed by this bacillus and to die. I will never stand by and watch while even a small rotten spot develops or takes hold. Wherever it may form we will together burn it away. All in all, however, we can say that we have carried out this most difficult of tasks in a spirit of love for our people. And we have suffered no harm, to our inner being, our soul, our character….”[6] 

While he was “praising and threatening” his men, SS Judge Konrad Morgen, who headed an inquiry commission, exposed extensive corruption and unsanctioned murdering of political prisoners, especially Poles and Russians, at Auschwitz. For Himmler, this became a relentless concern: how to curtail reckless murder in an extermination camp established for mass murder; and how to stop pervasive corruption in a structure designed to plunder all of the prisoner’s assets.[7] Richard Breitman concluded, “it was the most strident and most emotional moment in the whole speech.” Himmler, “the architect of mass murder remained in his own eyes a moralist to the end.”[8]  

The speech was delivered when the Germans were under intense military pressure: The Russians were forcing them to retreat, the Anglo-American bombings were crippling the German war effort, and the Allies had assumed air and land supremacy. Himmler’s intention to boost the spirits of his SS officers, occurred after the Germans had already murdered five million Jews.[9] 

Justification for Murdering Every Jewish Man, Woman, and Child 

In a speech on October 6, 1943, to the Reichsleiter (the second highest political rank of the Nazi Party (NSDAP), next only to Hitler’s office) and Gauleiter, regional Nazi party leaders, he responded to the question of the necessity of murdering every Jewish woman and child. “I  did not consider that I had the right to eliminate them—that is to kill them or have them killed–and to let their children grow up to become avengers against our own sons and grandsons. The difficult decision had to be taken to have this people disappear from the face of the earth.”[10]  

The theme of remaining decent above all else, was reiterated by Himmler to a group of commanders during the war, observed German historian Hans Buchheim. “It is hideous and frightful for a German to see such things,” Himmler acknowledged. “It is so, and if we had not felt it to be hideous and frightful, we should not have been Germans. However hideous it may be, it has been necessary for us to do it, and it will be necessary in many other cases. If we lose our nerve now, we shall pass weak nerves on to our sons and grandsons.”[11] 

Himmler had no doubt that only a very select group of committed individuals were capable of executing this sacred mission. “These measures in the Reich,” he said, “cannot be carried by a police force made up of solely of bureaucrats. A corps that had merely sworn an oath of allegiance would not have the necessary strength. These measures could be borne and executed only by an extreme organization of fanatic and deeply convinced National Socialists. The SS regards itself as such and declares itself as such, and therefore has taken the task upon itself.”[12]  

Until around mid-1942, no individual was required to join any part of the SS. Enlistment was completely voluntary. Furthermore, contrary to popular myth, “the object of every patriotic and military inclined young German was [not] to enter the armed SS formations.” Those who joined the SS, the “régime’s praetorian guard,” were publicly committing themselves to the Reich and placing themselves explicitly at their service. They generally knew “the connection between the SS and the Gestapo and between the SS and the concentration camps,” although possibly not in complete detail.[13]   

Buchheim claims no one who joined the SS could have known that one day he would be ordered to participate in systematic mass murder; nonetheless, he must have been cognizant he was joining “an organization where he would have to carry out illegal orders.” In other words, “entry into the SS…implied this risk eyes wide open.”[14]  

Until the beginning of the war, a person could resign from the SS. In 1937 and 1938, there were many resignations. In 1937, 7,900 were released. Although one could not be punished or suffer physical harm for resigning, it did entail a degree of nerve. As Buchheim points out, “considerable courage is required to make oneself ‘unacceptable’ to one’s social environment and sever one’s link to it.” [15]  

During the war, it was not possible to be released from the Waffen-SS (the combat branch), because it counted as military service, and all concentration camp staff were Waffen-SS. Resignation from the SS was also forbidden. Their only option was to ask for a transfer to another branch, detachment, or to the front, which was clearly realistic. During the war, the police, which suffered from a serious shortage of personnel, were not permitted to resign. Rarely, would they be granted permission to transfer to the Waffen-SS.[16] 

Winning the War

Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda, attended this day-long Gauleiters’ conference on October 6 and noted, “As far as the Jewish question is concerned, he [Himmler] gives a very unvarnished and frank presentation. He is convinced that we can solve the Jewish question throughout Europe by the end of this year. He proposes the harshest and most radical solution: to exterminate the Jews root and branch [Kind und Kegel]. It is certainly a logical solution, even if it is a brutal one. We have to take responsibility of completely solving this issue in our time. Later generations will certainly not handle this problem with the courage and the ardor that are ours.”[17]  

 On June 15, 1941, a week before the Germans began their offensive against the Soviet Union, Hitler summoned Goebbels to the Reich Chancellery, ostensibly to secure the support of his most fervent subordinate. “We stand on the eve of an unparalleled victory,” Goebbels proclaimed. Unexpectedly and uncharacteristically, Hitler commented “Whether we are right or wrong, we must win. This is the only way. And it is right, moral, and necessary. And once we have won, who will ask us about the methods? In any case, we have so much to account for we must win; otherwise our whole people—and we in the first place, and all that we love—would be erased.” In other words, at that point, there was no way back.[18]   

Guidelines for Behavior 

Buchheim pointed out that to ensure the destruction of the Jews remained under control and discipline maintained, Himmler issued an order on August 16, 1935, prohibiting any person from acting independently against the Jews. The “solution of the Jewish question,” Himmler declared, “is the business of the Führer and not of individuals… Even the most minor, contravention of the order” would be “punished by immediate dismissal from the SS.”[19]  

On May 13, 1941, Hitler signed the “Directive on the Exercise of Jurisdiction and Particular Measures by the Troops,” stating that criminal transgressions against the civilian population by members of the Wehrmacht in occupied Soviet areas would stop routinely being disciplined by Wehrmacht courts, but should be adjudicated by the courts only in well-defined situations. Furthermore, military courts would cease being responsible for “criminal offenses committed by enemy civilians.” Troops were to punish them promptly as soon as they happened.[20]  

Buchheim added that when a SS Untersturmführer (Lieutenant) viciously murdered hundreds of Jews by himself, the judgment against him read, in part: “The accused should not be punished for his actions against the Jews as such. The Jews must be annihilated, and no tears need to be shed over any of the Jews whom the accused killed.” Nevertheless, as essential as it was to destroy the German “people’s worst enemy,” it is “not the German manner to use Bolshevist methods to do so.” The murderers had to remain decent while a “criminal act” was being carried out even in their fanatical pursuit of wiping the Jews off the face of the earth.[21]  


[1] Helmut Krausnick, Hans Buchheim, Martin Broszat and  Hans-Adolf Jacobsen, Anatomy of the SS State (London: St James’s Place: William Collins and Sons and Company Limited,1968); Leni Yahil,” The Double Consciousness of the Nazi Mind and Practice,” in David Bankier, Ed. Probing the Depths of German Antisemitism: German Society and the Persecution of the Jews, 1933-1941 (Jerusalem, Yad Vashem; Jerusalem Leo Baeck Institute and in association with Berghahn Books in New York, 2001), 48. 

[2] Buchheim, Anatomy of the SS State op. cit. 334-336. 

[3] Richard, Breitman, The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 242-243; Heinz Höhne, The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS (London: Secker &Warburg, 1970), 365. 

[4] Breitman, op. cit. 242. 

[5] Oswald Pohl was the head administrator of the Nazi concentration camps. 

[6] “From a Speech by Himmler Before Senior SS Officers in Poznan, October 4, 1943,” in Yitzhak Arad, Yisrael Gutman and Abraham Margaliot, Eds, Documents on the Holocaust (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1981), 345. 

[7] Saul Friedländer, The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945 (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), 544. 

[8] Breitman, op. cit. 243; Herlinde Pauer-Studer and J. David Velleman, Konrad Morgen: The Conscience of a Nazi Judge (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); David Fraser, “Criminal Law in Auschwitz: Positivism, Natural Law and the Career of SS Lawyer Konrad Morgen,” in Stephen Skinner, Ed. Ideology and Criminal Law Fascist, National Socialist and Authoritarian Regimes  (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019); Nikolaus Wachsmann, KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015); Herlinde Pauer-Studer, “Complicity and Conditions of Agency,” Journal of Applied Philosophy, Volume 35, Number 4, (November 2018): 643-660. 

[9] Lucy Dawidowicz, “The Holocaust As Historical Record,” in Dimensions of the Holocaust: Lectures at Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press,1977): 21. 

[10] Friedländer, op. cit. 543.  

[11] Buchheim, op. cit. 338. 

[12] Quoted in Yaacov Lozowick, Hitler’s Bureaucrats: The Nazi Security Police and the Banality of Evil (New York: Continuum, 2002), 271. 

[13] Buchheim, op .cit. 387, 389-390. 

[14] Ibid. 390-391. 

[15] Ibid. 386, 392-395. 

[16] Ibid. 395-396. 

[17] Friedländer, op. cit. 543. 

[18] Ibid. 129. 

[19] Buchheim, 351. 

[20] Peter Longerich, The Unwritten Order: Hitler’s Role in the Final Solution (Stroud: Tempus, Publishing Limited, 2003), 108-109. 

[21] Buchheim, op. cit. 351-352.

Source: Courtesy of Alex Grobman.

Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and Ph.D. in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.