When a citizen has freedom, they also have a responsibility to ensure those freedoms for others. But what happens when their country allows them freedom, but restricts it for others? What is their responsibility to their fellow citizens? And how does fear play a role in their actions? World War II had many lessons about freedom and responsibility in relation to citizens and their governments. One of the most intense lessons can be learned from the Holocaust, which showed that citizens, through inaction, are still responsible for their government’s actions.
By 1945, the Nazi Party had grown from 6,000 members in 1922 to 8.5 million (Shoah Resource Center). Yet, they were not the majority of the population which was 73 million as of 1939 (WorldWar2.net). Even when they were a member of the party, they were not punished for refusing to participate in atrocities, but they did risk peer, social, and sometimes professional exclusion if they didn’t participate (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum). This peer pressure is a major factor in why they didn’t stop the Holocaust. They figured that if it wasn’t happening to them, then they shouldn’t interfere. They felt like they weren’t responsible for what was happening.
However, when the Americans began to liberate the concentration camps, they forced the German civilians to confront their complicity. General Walton Walker forced the mayor of the town of Ohrdruf and his wife to visit the camp on April 4, 1945 (“German Civilians”). Afterward, they went home and killed themselves (“German Civilians”). Other generals, such as Dwight Eisenhower continued this policy at other camps, where notable citizens of Dachau were made to tour the camps, and were shocked, as they had regularly sent food packages to the camp (“German Civilians”). At other camps, townspeople were forced to bury the bodies. This was
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done to shock the Germans, who, in the official report by the U.S. Seventh Army, claimed that, although they knew the camps existed and saw prisoners being marched, didn’t know about the deaths (German Civilians”) . They also claimed that there was very little they could do, out of fear (“German Civilians”).
But by doing these actions, the Americans were showing the German citizens that, by not speaking out or at least making an attempt to stop anything, that they at least shared the fault for the deaths.
Contrast that inaction with the bravery of Karl Plagge. Thanks to the movie “Schindler’s List” many are familiar with the story of Oskar Schindler, the Nazi businessman who saved Jewish lives. Not as many are familiar with Plagge’s bravery. He was the commanding officer of a vehicle workshop, and gave work certificates out to Jewish men regardless of their professional background (Yad Vashem). He also insisted on their wives and children not be deported, told the German guards to treat all of his Jewish workers humanely, and gave the Jews a warning that their camp was about to be liquidated, allowing them to flee and saved between 150-200 lives (Yad Vashem). Plagge did this in spite of risks to himself, according to Daniel Fraenkel, a member of the Yad Vashem committee.. “The SS were no fools. The risk for Plagge was that he would be accused of favouring Jews, and this was really a very serious offence,” Fraenkel said (McGreal 2005). Plagge himself was modest about his accomplishment, telling a friend in 1958 “I never felt that this needed special courage. It required only the conviction and strength that anyone can draw from the depth of moral feelings that exists in all humans.” (McGreal 2005)
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Plagge’s rationale shows that, while fear can be a factor, the feeling of responsibility for others should overcome that fear when they have the opportunity to help others. He took the risk of being exposed as being helpful to Jews, which could have hurt him both professionally and personally. While he may have had an advantage of being in the party, as opposed to being an ordinary German citizen, in terms of the ability to help others, he also could have been a convenient target for the party because of his position. Yet, he managed to save the lives of hundreds as just one person, while the many citizens of Dachau refused to help. Today, Karl Plagge is seen as a hero, while the Dachau citizens are seen as cowards, because one took advantage of his position to help those less fortunate, while the other decided to not get involved.
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, (n.d.), “Common Questions About the Holocaust”, retrieved from http://www.ushmm.org/educators/teaching-about-the-holocaust/common-questions
- WorldWar2.net (n.d.), “Casualties”, Retrieved from http://www.worldwar-2.net/casualties/world-war-2-casualties-index.htm
- Dachau Concentration Camp, (2009) “German Civilians Brought to See the Camps”, Retrieved from http://www.scrapbookpages.com/DachauScrapbook/DachauLiberation/aftermath03.html
- Yad Vashem, The Righeous Among Nations, (n.d.) “Karl Plagge”, Retrieved from http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/righteous/stories/plagge.asp
- McGreal Christopher, (11 April 2005), “Honour For German Major Who Saved 250 Jews”, The Guardian, Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/apr/11/secondworldwar.germany