The majority of those who murdered Jews were regular German policemen, such as those shown in the photograph. After the war, many claimed that they would have been shot if they had refused to take part. However, this was not true. As the following post-war testimony from Werner Schwenker, a low-ranking detective who took part in the shooting of Jews in Kołomyja in Poland, makes clear, other factors influenced their decision to become murderers.
The reason I did not say to Leideritz [his senior officer] that I could not take part in these things was that I was afraid that Leideritz and others would think I was a coward. I was worried that I would be affected adversely in some way in the future if I allowed myself to be seen as too weak. I did not want Leideritz or other people to get the impression that I was not as hard as an SS man ought to have been...
I carried out orders not because I was afraid I would be punished by death if I didn’t. I knew of no case and still know of no case today where one of us was sentenced to death because he did not want to take part in the execution of Jews... I thought that I ought not to say anything to Leideritz because I did not want to be seen in a bad light, and I thought that if I asked him to release me from having to take part in the executions it would be over for me as far as he was concerned and my chances of promotion would be spoilt or I would not be promoted at all.
Schwenker’s testimony is one of many which reminds us that the perpetrators had choices and illustrates how eminently human motives, such as ambition and peer pressure, could lead someone to become a murderer.
Photo: German policemen in Poland, 1941; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Michael O’Hara/Bernhardt Colberg
Testimony: Ernst Klee et al. (eds.), “The Good Old Days”: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders (Konecky & Konecky, 1991)