Humans and Nazis: Reevaluating the Conversation of Us and Them 

A street somewhere in Germany during the 1930s.
From Wikimedia Commons

Kadence D. Jackson is a freshman majoring in Political Science and Religious Studies, along with a minor in Judaic Studies.

“Evil, animals…,” “Devils, monsters, equivalent to Satan himself…”—these are expressions commonly used when we reference those who belonged to the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party during the Second World War. This language is usually voiced casually, perhaps as a means of rationalization; but ironically, I believe it’s actually disassociating Nazis from mankind.

People tend to avoid criticizing those on the ‘right side’ of history, the ‘right side’ regarding those who condemn Nazism. Let’s think about it, though. Is the objective to denounce Nazism, or are we simply attempting to distinguish ourselves from history’s most infamous war criminals?

Having recently passed Holocaust Remembrance Day, the time is now to start a conversation: Nazis were entirely human, and referring to them with subhuman terminology only hinders our ability to comprehend the horrors of the Holocaust. Conversations with the Department of Religious Studies’ very own, Dr. Steven L. Jacobs and Dr. Richard W. Newton, inspired me to explore this topic. Prior to these discussions, my viewpoint was straightforward: If I am to speak of people who committed the worst crimes against humanity the world has ever known, why should I refrain from labeling them as beasts, brutes, etc.? At face value, this would appear to be the morally correct stance. How could humans commit such inhuman acts? Is the designation of human applicable to Nazis? Simply put, the answer is irrevocable: yes.  

When we hear the phrase, “Over six million people were murdered in the Holocaust,” what comes to mind? Naturally, some may picture innocent men, women, and children savagely murdered in gas chambers and mass shootings. Others might imagine starving, emaciated bodies on the brink of death, known by concentration camp prisoners as Muselmann. Maybe some visualize the harrowing phrase, “Arbeit Mach Frei,” hanging over the entrance of the Polish extermination camp, Auschwitz I. How often, I wonder, do we picture the perpetrators, though? What do we imagine when we think of the executors of the crime?  

Of course, plenty of adjectives come to mind: vicious, murderous, wicked. Yet do we ever imagine average men and women? Have you ever imagined these ‘monsters’ as blue-collar laborers or farmers? What about fathers and mothers? One must understand that the Holocaust did not murder over six million individuals deemed as ‘undesirables’ (Jews, Sinti and Roma people, homosexuals, the mentally and physically handicapped, political opponents of the Nazi agenda, and more), humans did. We must recognize the perpetrators as human in order to grasp the harsh realities of genocide. Nazis were not born bloodthirsty fiends, hungry to slaughter the marginalized. Prior to WWII, most Nazis were unremarkable people. Strip away the daunting uniform, and you simply have another ordinary person, not unlike us.  

All things considered, I think relatability is the key to understanding, so look inwardly. Is it possible that we find it easier to dehumanize Nazis because we did not live to watch their crimes unfold? Regardless, the fact is that we are no more or less human than the Nazis. When the world returns to war, and we are present to experience the horrors, what will we call the perpetrators then? Will they still be the hellish demons like the ones we speak of from the past? The answer is no, because truthfully, maybe the only differences between us and them are time, place, context, and history.