What Brings People to Choose Evil — Lessons from Nazi Germany

World War 2 ended more than seventy years ago and seems to have been studied by historians in every detail. However, one key question about Nazism remains unanswered. How could young, cultured men of sound mind go out and kill hundreds of thousands of defenceless children and civilians?

“War is war,” one might respond. However, before World War 2, there had been no precedents of a warring party forming military units specifically to kill civilian populations in mass. It was not until the first half of the 20th century that a cultured and industrialised Germany begins to organise battalions of willing executioners, which is called the SS death squads, or Einsatzgruppen. They did not fight at the battlefront but followed Germany’s regular troops to exterminate the Jews, Communists, partisans and other ‘undesirables. Initially, each death squad consisted of 3000 people, but later volunteers from the local populations joined their ranks.

In Soviet territory alone, they were responsible for the killing of 750 thousand people. Some two million people died at their hands altogether. Because the men in the invaded territories were in the regular army, the victims were mostly women, children and the elderly.

Willing killers

One of the leading prosecutors of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, Benjamin Ferencz, was instrumental in investigating the crimes of the Einsatzgruppen and bringing those responsible to justice. After coming across the secret files of the German Gestapo documenting these crimes, he initiated a court investigation of some of the most notorious cases. Many of the court hearings raised the same question: how could these people with a good education, and good manners have voluntarily become members of these extermination teams, despite being raised in the traditions of the Christian faith? Had any one of them ever attempted to examine the orders to kill peaceful civilians and children from a moral perspective. Yet all of the accused gave the same answer. They insisted that they had no right to question the legitimacy of their orders.

Prosecutor Ferencz researched the matter thoroughly. He investigated whether the wartime law that mandated capital punishment for disobeying an order applied to members of the Einsatzgruppen. He found out that no officer would face death or even imprisonment for not fulfilling an order. The worst outcome for him would be reassignment to a different detachment. He also found no documented request for reassignment from a single officer of a killing team. 

Who were the members of the Einsatzgruppen?

One might assume that members of these units were recruited among people with criminal records. Contrary to these assumptions, the Einsatzgruppen were considered the elite of the SS, and recruitment of its members was the responsibility of Reinhardt Heydrich, chief of the Reich Main Security Office. He was notorious for his plan for ‘the final solution to the Jewish question’, of which the Einsatzgruppen were the instruments. Nor was there any shortage of candidates. The commanders were generals of the army, including veterans of World War 1. Nearly all of the accused were highly educated, the majority held diplomas from several universities, and some had doctoral degrees. Paradoxically, the commanders were not some crime lords or serial killers, they were the cream of the German society. Of them, at least one had a degree in theology and was a pastor.

What were their motives? Why did they engage in mass murder and perform it as their routine job?

Normal or insane?

Many years after the trial, Prosecutor Ferencz admitted, “What struck me most during the trial was that the defendants could not show the slightest trace of repentance or compassion for the millions that they had killed or tortured. That is something I will never forget.”

In every hearing, the defendants denied their responsibility and insisted that they were only obeying orders. At times, one had the impression that they were insane, living by their own set of distorted principles. But could it be a mass psychosis or some unknown reaction of the psyche?

Two American psychiatrists examined this question, Doctor D. Kelly and Doctor М. Gilbert. They spent more than a year interviewing their subjects.

At first, Doctor Kelly was confident that he was working with psychopaths. Like psychopaths, they lacked conscience and seemed incapable of feeling guilt. He conducted multiple tests and discovered to his great surprise that his subjects had exceptional intelligence, but lacked creative potential and imagination. Not one of his subjects showed a tendency for pathological violence. One thing that made the Nazi criminals distinct from most other people was their complete absence of empathy, or the ability to feel for others.

The fact that the defendants turned out to be normal, brought the scientists to a terrible conclusion: anyone could be in their place.  

Kelly and Gilbert agreed that the behaviour of the Nazi killers had no explanation in psychiatry and should be viewed through the prism of evil. “Evil is the complete absence of empathy, or in other words the inability to feel the pain of others,” wrote Gilbert. In sum, evil originates from the inability to give love. 

The nature of evil

Philosopher and political scientist Hannah Arendt is noted for her insights into the nature of evil and the personality of a Nazi. In 1961 – 63, she attended the trial in Jerusalem of the Nazi criminal Adolph Eichmann, a key architect of the Holocaust.
“How could one reconcile the mediocrity of this person with the horrendous crimes that he had masterminded?” remarked Arendt. According to Arendt, the person we saw in court was a mediocre bureaucrat with a conscience turned upside down by the ideology of the Nazi regime. 

Adolph Eichmann in court

From this, Arendt concluded, “The most horrendous and evil acts are perpetrated by ordinary people with no personal convictions.” Passively, they accept as the norm the order of things in their society and perform conscientiously the obligations prescribed to them by the existing law. Where the law instructs them to kill, they will kill, without the slightest moral qualms. In doing so, they were silencing the voice of their consciousness and refusing to face reality. Hannah Arendt termed this phenomenon the banality of evil.

Like the other Nazi war criminals, Eichmann recognised no guilt and was found by forensic experts to be fully competent.

So where does the root of such horrendous evil lie?

The choice is ours

We can gain valuable insights into the causes of the inability to love and feel compassion by examining the question from a spiritual perspective.

The Church teaches that we exist not only in the physical world but also in the spiritual one, which has angels and demons. Demons are incapable of loving or having compassion. No matter how much some people may try to dismiss this teaching as fiction, many facts confirm its veracity.

As the church fathers admonish us, every day we come under the action of evil thoughts which we falsely believe to be our own. The Venerable Saint Barsanuphius of Optina wrote: “Thoughts do not just come and go. Some may lead to the demise of our spirit and lead us away from the right path of life into a completely different direction. Our acceptance of evil thoughts will eventually make us no different from the ones from whom they originate. From a mental health perspective, evil people remain entirely normal, but their conscience and will are paralysed, making them incapable of telling right from wrong.

The history of World War 2 enabled us to delve into the depths of the human spirit and discover the magnitude of the abyss into which some of us may fall. One gruesome lesson that few would dare to say aloud is that all of us are vulnerable.

Yet from a Christian perspective, this observation is nothing new. We know from the Scripture that our human nature is afflicted by sin. By forgetting about our ultimate purpose of being servants of God, we risk becoming evil before we even notice, due to our circumstances or weakness.

As the Church fathers write, heaven and hell are within us, and the choice is ours. It is up to us whether to heed to the Lord saying to us softly, “I have set before you life and death. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

Sourced from: https://spzh.news/ru/istorija-i-kulytrua/79617-nacistskije-ajnzacgruppy-mogli-li-normalynyje-lyudi-massovo-ubivaty-detej 

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  1. Yet despite this interesting piece of writing, it gives no real answer to the utter breakdown of Christian morality in the German people. And they are not alone. Look at the slave owners of North America who even used the Bible to justify their position, ignoring the commandment about kidnapping (which is what slavery always is) and instead pointing to the instances in which voluntary slavery for repayment of debt was allowed. The KKK is yet another example of “fine Christian gentlemen” holding to abhorent beliefs and behaviors in the Deep South. It is unthinkable.

    I find myself wondering why this happens. In the case of Protestants, who do not have the Sacraments, it may be understandable, but for a sacramental Church in which there should be the grace of God in those Sacraments, this is completely mystifying. Yet even today, we see Catholics who support abortion and other horrendous sins contrary to the teaching of their Church.

    So the question for me is this: why is there such a lack of grace in the hearts of professing Christians? Could it be that their Sacraments truly are lacking in grace, as some of my Orthodox friends have insisted? The natural state of man is darkness and brokenness, complimens of our father, Adam, and the damage he handed down to the human race. People in darkness cannot see what is true nor where they are going. But Christ is our Light? How did the Germans miss Him? How have American Christians missed Him?

    One wonders if true Christianity will ever be seen again as it was in the first couple of centuries. Orthodoxy is the closest thing, and even in it, there have been problems.

  2. A very thought-provoking article. I’ve noticed in what I’ve read about SS and others reflects the lack of repentance for their crimes. I still cannot fathom how these people could do this to those who had never harmed them or from what I can tell, anyone else. In some cases, the murdered were vulnerable persons–the elderly, those with developmental or physical disabilities or who were mentally-ill. I never considered embracing Neo-nazism myself but I did study it in an attempt to try to understand it and it really is a very dark, evil belief system. It’s not even strictly a German thing–I was raised by German Americans who would never think of harming anybody and my late uncle in Germany was as anti-Hitler as they come. And yet we have other groups which had battalions within the SS–they actually had a Muslim battalion and I wouldn’t be surprised if other groups like the Croats and others had a presence as well.

    They weren’t insane strictly speaking, but I think some of them had to be sociopaths. They feel no remorse for their acts against others, but they seem as sane as you or I. That, of course, does not excuse their crimes. I watched a drama called “Holocaust” and the role of an SS officer was played with chilling accuracy by Michael Moriratry and chronicled the process as he took step after step down a path which led him to eventually to genocide, and in the end, suicide.

    May God protect us all from falling into such dark places as these individuals chose to live!

    I really do think that evil had a lot to do with the crimes of then SS and the Einzatsgruppen

  3. This article and any others like it are very much needed today. The empathy of people over-all is zero these days. But how do we teach empathy to those around us? I know for me that constant reading and practice of scripture, the reading of the lives of the Saints etc. helps me to remember my humanity. Its so easy to take the evil path, to easy without the Holy Ghost guiding us. Thanks for this thought provoking post Anastasia.

  4. I don’t think this article is telling the real truth about atrocities of war committeded by the Germans during War II. Most of this article follows the same propaganda that is corrent even today that says: the “Jews” are the victims and the Palestinians are the terrorists.
    As it say goes: “The history has always been written by thje victors.”

  5. This article is a disgrace. Complete Soviet Zionist propaganda. Here is what the glorious Red Army was about;
    (from an eyewitness’s account)
    -the mournful date, June 1st, 1945: the anniversary of delivery of Orthodox Cossacks-
    Within the years of civil war, in times of Communist terror with Stalin’s bloody collectivization, artificial famine and the reprisal’s from the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (KGB), more than two million Cossacks were eliminated. Because of this political criminal genocide, Cossacks were provoked to flee in enormous masses and transition themselves to the side of Germany with her allies during the years of World War II. Others ran from the atrocities of Soviet authority and receded together with the German army.
    Escaping Soviet authority, in 1945, within the territories of Italy, Yugoslavia, Germany and France, the Cossacks totaled more than 70,000. Within Austria alone, there were more than 40,000 Cossacks. In May, of that same year, 30,000 representatives of the Cossack encampment, along with their wives, mothers, fathers and children, traveled from Italy, through the Alps to southern Austria, to the city of Lientz, which was in the occupational zone of the English. One of the conditions of acceptance, or in receiving such a large group of people “on their land” was for the Anglo-American command to ask that all weapons be voluntarily surrendered. With this, the Ataman Cossacks were reassured that no one would be violently handed back to Stalin. In fact, as history has verified, eyewitnesses have witnessed and documents of that time testify, Churchill and Aldington promised the KGB and Russia’s death squads, to destroy all of the Cossacks: all 70,000 of them! Aldington, with his Mephistopheles smile told Churchill: “History gives us a chance to destroy one part of Russia’s savages, with the hands of other Russian savages.”
    The shameful, dark and bloody page of Lientz’s history began on May 28, 1945, when the English command invited all of the officers and generals of the Cossack encampment to a “a conference” where all of them were placed in lorries and taken to the city of Shpital. There, 2176 officers were handed over to the organizations of the KGB and the death squads. Several hundred officers were shot on the spot and again the following day and their corpses burned. The rest were sent back to the USSR, placed in concentration camps from where they would not return.
    On the evening of May 28, when the officers had not yet returned, their mothers and wives went to the English commander, Major Davis, to find out, what had happened to the officers. Major Davis very politely answered: “It is unnecessary to worry; all of the officers will return shortly.” He apologized to them that he could not disclose their location, as it was “a military secret”. He assured them that “they do not require anything”, and if anyone of them wanted to leave a note or a letter, he promised to deliver it personally as addressed.
    In the evening word had spread in Lientz that the officers were handed over to the Red army, but Major Davis continued with his denials. Not until a motor vehicle appeared with a loud speaker, the Cossacks, in the valley of river Drava, were notified that all of them would be repatriated to the USSR, based upon the Yalta Treaty of Churchill, Roosevelt and the red dragon Stalin. The load speakers also threatened that any resistance would be met with fire. In protest, the prisoners of Camp Peggets declared a hunger strike! The camp’s priest, Father Protopriest Vasily Grigoriev, a Don Cossack, wrote a request of protest signed by thousands of names, to Major Davis, who was also asked to deliver copies of the same to: the King of England, George VI, a close relative to Czar Nicholas II; to the King of Yugoslavia, Peter; to the Pope of Rome; to the Archbishop of Canterbury and to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Army in Europe, Dwight D. Eisenhower. The black flags of death decorated the roof tops of houses, telephone poles and the entrance gate of the camp.
    Not only did the Cossacks protest against the brutal repatriation, but also a Catholic priest, from the town of Dolesash, located approximately two kilometers from the camp, protested and hung a huge black flag from the bell tower of his church with the appeal for prayer against the awful inhumane fate which awaited the Cossacks. This very same flag was removed on the very next day by the “allies”.
    No one had an inkling and it never entered anyone’s mind that the British would raise their weapons on the disarmed Cossacks, their wives and their children.
    The Ataman of Camp Peggets, Cosma Tolunin, declared to Major Davis that no one will volunteer to return to the USSR, as death would only await them; therefore, they would be better off to die in Austria than in the frozen tundra of the North Pole.
    By this time, the Cossacks understood that they had been deceived and decided to resist to the end. They refused to be loaded voluntarily unto the transport vehicles, and instead, hung throughout the camp posters declaring: “Better death than returning to the USSR for tortures”. Resistance to the forced repatriation was lead by 22 military clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. The tanks and the lorries continued to tighten and tighten their grip around the camp’s inhabitants.
    On May 30th, 1945, suddenly, without any shame and condolences, Major Davis declared that the repatriation would commence the next day, but because that day was a Roman Catholic feast day, all plans of delivery would commence on June 1st.
    Under the cover of night, many managed to escape into the woods, while others spent the early hours of the day in morning prayer. At the same time, the Red army crept closer with their wagons, unto which from their lorries the English intended to unload their prey.
    At five o’clock in the morning, the Cossack priesthood asked for permission to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in an open field, before the storming waters of the river Drava, permission was granted.
    From all ends of the encampment, crowds of worshipers with Icons and banners, led in front by the priests, pulled themselves to the open field, where by this time a make-shift church was built. By six o’clock, the field was filled with people, cadets, and although unarmed, they encircled the praying people. Everyone on this morning partook of the Sacrament of Confession and when Holy Communion commenced, the prayerful Cossacks were surrounded on three sides by tanks and motor vehicles. The soldiers began in teams to disengage from their vehicles and tanks, brandishing their automatic weapons, rifles with bayonets, awaiting their orders. Expecting their awful fate, the Cossacks began to sing the prayer: “Our Father…”.
    In the middle of the prayer, shots were heard. The Englishmen began to squeeze on the crowd from two sides. After several minutes, more shots were heard in rapid succession, which were volleyed into the crowd. The crowd, even more so now, began to tighten into a one monolithic wall. The British witnessed the resistance and let their bullets fly along with their bayonets and rifle butts. Blood began flow like a river.
    At this time, the cadets, forgetting their youth, within moments grew into heroes. Applying their weaponless powerful hands, they crumbled the British, took hold of some of the lorries loaded with human cadavers, decapitated corpses or with people with head wounds. Seeing this, the blood hungry British directed at this youth their tanks and ran them over, killing all of them! In this brutal and inhumane fight, the British killed either with bayonet or by the butt of their rifles. Soul tearing cries were carried through the valley. In this cataclysm, many were run over to their deaths, mainly the small children.
    Wailing screams and outcries of the mothers smothered the valley of Lientz, and in truth, within the history of Christianity, the words of Prophet Jeremiah came to life again: “weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they were no more”; the Cossack mothers cry for their children and do not want to be comforted, for they are no more.
    My entire family was in the center of this tragic whirlpool. My father, uncle Vasya, my brother, the future Hieromonk Ignaty, my two sisters and my mother, who always held me by the hand as I was only four years and two months old.
    And here, for the first time, I saw blood. Blood of a baby raised by a British bayonet and thrown into the river!!! A soul chilling picture. Further at the river, a mother with her children in her arms, damning the murderer Stalin, throws herself and disappears into the waves of the storming river. At this time, my father saw a small girl, wandering in tears. Father took her into his hands and with all his might shouted: “to whom does this little one belong to?” A female shout responded, with a sobbing voice from across the other side of the river, waving her arms to attract attention. “She is my own. Dearest one, save her for God’s sake and rescue her”. Father threw himself and the little girl into the river, crossed it and gave her back to her mother and with the same path, returned.
    The crowd waved like lava, under the pressure of the British bayonets. Yes, the Sea Power deserved this indelible eternal shame. People were thrown into lorries, some of them with torn off hands, contused broken heads, with bloody faces, without feet…. Many of the Cossack women and men committed suicide, wishing death over repatriation to a barbaric country, which not long ago was Russia, our Fatherland!
    My mother, seeing all around the events that were taking place, said to me: “let us run, as the bridge is still open!” We ran over the bridge and disappeared into the woods. After having caught our breath, we went down into the valley and here, without any notice, a British soldier appeared and without any thought, raised his automatic weapon upon us. Mother pressed me against her trembling chest, dropped unto the grass, shielding me with her body, we rolled and landed in a ditch, from which we saw standing over us the same soldier who aimed his automatic rifle on us. He stood and stood and then fired five shots on top of the trees and then left. We quickly ran to our encampment.
    My father who could not find us, with great effort found my brother. He saw that the bridge was occupied by the Englishman, who killed anyone trying to attempt to run across the river by way of the bridge. Father took my brother’s hand and ran as far away as he could from the bridge to that place where the river Drava raged. With no guards present, he threw himself and his son (who was holding on with a tight grip) into the river and crossed it. Only by night fall, did they arrive at the wagon train.
    And where were my sisters, uncle Vasya? My sisters returned the next day, having to seek refuge in the mountains. As soon as the murderers removed their machine guns from the bridge, at night, they crept back over the bridge and came running back to the encampment. And uncle Vasya? With great power he tried to fend off the British, but they overtook him, beat him and threw him into a lorry. Uncle Vasya would spend 10 years in Siberia.
    Up to their final tragic end at the Stalin’s Gulag and the torture chambers of Lybyanka, Cossack Atamans and ranked Cossacks remained faithful and steadfast and did not falter from their Christian Faith and Sacred Orthodoxy. Their names, You, my God, only know! Preserve their eternal memory.
    With love in Christ,
    Protopriest Anatoly Trepatschko
    Church of the Assumption
    Stafford, VA
    The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR)

    1. MPT, I was wondering if you could explain why you think this article is a disgrace and a piece of propaganda. I must confess that I know very little about Russian history, but what I do not understand is that you say that the article is Zionist propaganda. As I understand it, the article does not say that other atrocities did not take place, but focuses on the behaviour of the Einsatzgruppen and tries to look into the reasons that drive such behaviour in a general sense. I would be interested to hear your further remarks.

      1. It seems, Father, that you have missed the entire thrust of the article. The question still remains, whether it is the Nazis, the British, or any group that does such evil – how does this happen? How do people turn their conscience off and do the horrific things that have been done, not only in WWII, but throughout the entire course of human history.

        More importantly, how do certain peoples, (I asked this question earlier) who identify themselves as Christ-followers do such things? There is no answer, either in this article or in my own mind, but only the realization that some day, these evils will be repaid in full to those who committed them.

    2. In 1969, a movie entitled, “Before Winter Comes” was based on Russians in British hands after Work War II. It was sanitized, but showed the violation of the Geneva Convention, by returning those to the Soviet Union. In the film a Priest would was a French Citizen, appeared and tried to reverse the decision. He even begged for their lives. It turned out this Priest was the future Metropolitan Vitaly Ustinov. It turned out that one of those whose live’s he had saved, physically attacked him ( about 55 years later )The lesson learned: Two Wrongs will not make one Right..

  6. We read this, and assure ourselves that we would never be so evil as the Nazi murderers. But what about the quieter, less direct, “routine” sort of evil – unconcerned about policies that worsen conditions for the poor, for example, or not wishing to be “bothered” with the elderly (even one’s own grandparents!)? There are times that we know that we could help someone, but are just “too busy” (when what we really mean is that we don’t wish to be bothered).

  7. Such lack of empathy is almost always found in those connected with the pseudo-medical field of “psychiatry.” Of all the medical fields, “psychiatry” is the only one that cannot coin a title for themselves that accurately describes what they treat. The reason for this is that they are attempting treat illnesses rooted not in the psychical realm (i.e., the soma), but in the spiritual realm (i.e., the psyche, or in English, the soul), which their very theoretical basis denies exists.

    It is quite revealing that the actual meaning of the word psychiatrist is “physician of souls,” the very thing that all true spiritual fathers must aspire to. In fact, this title is bestowed upon saints who have truly fulfilled their vocation as physicians of souls. There is no other field of medicine that is so completely illegitimate that they cannot accurately describe their field with a title, but instead misappropriate a religious title that has been used for centuries.

    While various aspects of medicine have been criticized as “playing God,” the field of “psychiatry” actually uses a title of God: “Physician of our souls.” This is even more obvious in the Greek, which is found in the Troparion of the Prophecy sung during the Sixth Hour on the Monday in the Third Week of Great Lent: “O Physician of our souls, who knowest the mind of man, in Thy compassion heal our infirmities, for we are weak and broken by sin.”

    The technology that facilitated the Holocaust was developed by the pseudo-medical field of “psychiatry.”


  8. I find it curious that no one has mentioned the Church’s role in this tragedy. Since the late first century preaching against Jews has continued to this very day. This teaching of hatred has reached many terrible high points such as John Chrysostom’s 8 sermons against the Jews and the tsarist Russian collection of lies, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

    The Lord said plainly that his followers are to love everyone as he has loved them. I find no exceptions to this in Scripture. Yet, the great institutions created in the Lord’s name actively break His commandment without repentance. When one is raised to hate others, it is no surprise that they are willing to help exterminate an entire people.

  9. When one lives in lust habitually, he is not far from becoming a murderer, according to the Fathers. When the conscience becomes dulled and there is lack of repentance nor any accountability we are all capable of becoming demonic agents. There but for the Grace of God go I.

  10. A lot of the time, government makes it very prohibited or illegal to help others. They force you to a 1st world standard. They literally force people into homelessness. You cant even repair a house until you get sometimes over a thousand dollars for just permission from the local government. They arrest you for feeding the homeless. You let a stranger live in your house and you need to spend thousands on lawsuits to get them to leave. The enemy is your government.

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