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The Holocaust as a Moral Choice

By Alex Grobman


Ordinary Bureaucrats and Functionaries

In this group, there were ordinary bureaucrats and functionaries in the middle and lower levels of government. They included German experts on the Jewish people and the civil servants in the German Foreign Office, who served as the apologists, defenders, and propagandists for the “anti-Semitic movement in Germany.” The decision by key personnel to advance anti-Semitic policy “was calculated, not fanatical.” This was not the primary reason for their conduct “but rather a symptom.” They were not forced by any “external threat” to act as they did. Whatever personal reservations they might have harbored about handling the Jewish question, they unvaryingly performed their responsibilities with “meticulous efficiency.” 

 They were compelled to complete their tasks in order to ensure their records remained untarnished. “They blotted out any sense of individual responsibility.” They viewed their work solely from the vantage point of how it might affect themselves, not what it would do to others. In essence, they became “dehumanized.”[1] 

After the war, civil servant Franz Rademacher, head of D III, the Jewish desk (Judenreferat) of the German Foreign Office, from May 1940 until April 1943, explained what Browning called the “deal of dehumanized bureaucratic subservience.” Rademacher said: “My will was exclusively directed toward doing my duty as an official to the best of my knowledge and conscience…. My entire education from childhood aimed at serving the state, irrespective of the political opinion of the state leadership at the moment.”[2]  

He accurately assessed the German courts would be far more “lenient” to someone who committed these illegal acts out of a sense of duty, instead of being motivated by racial hatred. Browning concludes that in every bureaucratic state there is never a lack of aspiring professionals eager to fulfill the wishes of the leadership of the moment as the surest way to advance their career goals. Their extreme desire to permit themselves to be exploited becomes hazardous or “criminal” if used by “politicians” who have even “greater  ambition and less moral scruple than themselves.” Such was the case in the Foreign Office. [3] 

Deutsche Reichsbahn 

Among this group were also the bureaucrats and technocrats who labored tirelessly to expand the capacity of the Deutsche Reichsbahn, the German railroads. “European Jews could not be destroyed without the participation of the Reichsbahn” asserted political scientist Raul Hilberg. The German railroads “were indispensable at the core” of the operation by working in concert with the military, Police, industry, and the SS to carry out deportations and transport of millions of Jews to the east to slave labor and extermination camps. In the East, the Jews could be murdered “quietly, out of the range of peering bystanders and prying cameras.” Jews were “booked as people and shipped as cattle.”[4]  

As the armed forces expanded the military fronts farther from Germany, there were not enough railroad cars and locomotives to meet their needs, causing lines to be congested. Allied bombing and attacks by partisans further interfered with railroad traffic, leading to shortages. Yet, in spite of these setbacks, the Reichsbahn continued relentlessly to send Jews to their deaths.[5]  

Deportations began right after the German seizure of Poland in 1939. The price of shipping depended on the number of people being transported and their final destination. The basic rate was third class. The German Transport Ministry decided that if at least 400 people were in each transport, they would be charged half the third-class fare. Children under four traveled for free, while those under 10 years old were charged half price. On July 14, 1942, the SS was given a reduced rate for the Jewish Sonderzug (special trains) in transit from Holland, Belgium, and France to Auschwitz.[6]  

The Police and SS were the requisitioning agency, specifically the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA). Adolf Eichmann, who headed the “resettlements” section of the  RSHA, assumed responsibility for reimbursing the expenses in Nazi-occupied Poland on February 20, 1941. Whenever possible, Jews were forced to pay for their own transportation.[7] 

The Reichsbahn was one of the largest organizations in the Third Reich. In 1942, there were approximately 1.4 million German personnel, almost half a million civil servants, and more than 900,000 workers directly or indirectly employed by the railroad. In Nazi-occupied Poland and Russia, close to 400,000 “ indigenous helpers” were employed. The headquarters were located in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Warsaw, Minsk, and Dnepropetrovsk (Ukraine).[8]  

Although the staff of the Reichsbahn, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and mechanical specialists, might have appeared to be “politically innocuous as they were ideologically inert,” they were actively involved in the process of destruction. Those responsible for arranging passenger schedules knew they were shipping Jews in freight cars “like cattle to slaughter.” The railroad transported Jewish possessions from the camps to Germany, where they were donated to various relief organizations and other beneficiaries. Debris from the revolt of the Warsaw Ghetto was taken away by the Ostbahn.[9] 

A special staff was needed to collect the considerable amount of appropriated Jewish furniture in western Europe required 735 trains to haul it to the Reich. The Reichsbahn benefited from forced Jewish labor, and by accepting some of the spoils, including 1,576 carloads of furniture, given to their personnel, who had suffered losses from Allied bombers.[10] 

Between October 1941 and October 1944, the Reichsbahn transported more than half of the Jews that were murdered. Despite all the setbacks and interruptions, not one Jew survived for want of transportation. Hilberg noted that no member of the organization resigned or objected, and barely anyone requested to be transferred. “There was no hesitancy in the ranks and no pause in the effort.” No special procedures, rules, channels, or forms were instituted to adjust to the unique nature of Jewish transports. The size of participants was not deliberately limited, and “strict secrecy” was not maintained. Undoubtedly, they “were part of Nazi Germany, ruthless, relentless, and Draconian practitioners in every respect.”[11]  

The location of the extermination camps on well-traveled trunk lines was visible to passengers and railroad workers. At Auschwitz, which was “astride a main traffic artery,” one could clearly see the chimneys as the trains passed by. At night, they could be seen from 12 miles away, which meant, according to one railroad man “that the bodies were being burned publicly.”[12]  


[1] Christopher R Browning, The Final Solution and the German Foreign Office (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1978), 12, 178-181. 

[2] Ibid. 180.  

[3] Ibid.181. 

[4] Raul Hilberg, “German Railroads/Jewish Souls,” Society (November/December 1976), 60-61, 63,72. 

[5] Ibid.65. 

[6] Ibid. 63-64. 

[7] Ibid. 63-64. 

[8] Ibid. 62. 

[9] Ibid .60, 66. 

[10] Ibid. 70. 

[11] Ibid. 70,72. 

[12] Ibid. 70. 

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.