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Bystanders: Conscience and Complicity During the Holocaust

Written by Rae Wineland Newstad on . Posted in Antisemitism

Victoria J. Barnett

‘Contributions to the Study of Religion’ series, Number 59: Christianity and the Holocaust—Core Issues
Greenwood Press, 1999 / 185 pages

Victoria J. Barnett is a consultant for the Department of Church Relations, U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. She is also author of For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Under Hitler (1992).


The editors of the series of which this volume is a part introduce Bystanders by telling the readers some of the author’s purposes for writing.  In their words, Victoria Barnett has raised "questions about how moral people should behave under systematically evil regimes" (p. x).  Such questions seem particularly appropriate for Believers today, not only as we study history but as we appraise our world in 2001. [International Christian Concern, one example of many websites devoted to tracking religious and/or political persecution, cites 78 nations where such persecution is currently occurring.]  What has historically been the role of "ordinary" people?  Why do some remain indifferent; why do some take positive action on behalf of the suffering; and, more hauntingly, why do some join the persecutors?

This volume tackles these difficult questions as they pertain to the Shoah.  Barnett argues that within the ever-growing field of post-Holocaust research, too little has been written about the so-called bystanders who are, in her opinion, "central to what happened in the Shoah" (p. xiv).  In her first chapters, she identifies her subject--the bystander—and analyses both the individual behavior and the collective actions of "ordinary" German citizens under National Socialism.

Next she looks at German history, which provides two general sources of the anti-Jewish prejudice necessary for the success of Nazism and its draconian policies.  One facet of German anti-Semitism is labeled racial or ethnic.  The Jews were eternally "the other"—perceived as non-German, and by extension, even anti-German. No amount of patriotism, emancipation, or assimilation could eradicate the fact of racial "difference". As outsiders, the Jews were first identified, then isolated, and finally eliminated.  To achieve the goal of German racial purity, the nation must be Judenfrei—free of Jews.  The Nazi regime acted, and the German citizens too often acquiesced.

However, the second broad facet of anti-Semitism, to the disgrace of the church, is "Christian anti-Semitism", or, as Barnett prefers to call it, "Christian anti-Judaism".  At base, "supersessionist" theology is the culprit.   According to this deadly view, the church replaces the Jews; Christianity is superior to Judaism; and, the Jews themselves are condemned because they failed to acknowledge Jesus as the [universal] Messiah (pp. 101 ff).  The words of renowned German historian Heinrich von Treitschke illustrate the logical conclusions of these views: "Without any doubt, we Germans are a Christian nation," he wrote, and "Christianity is entwined with every fiber of the German character."  By contrast, Judaism, he declared, is the "national religion of a tribe alien to us" (cited in Barnett, pp. 105-106).

While most "ordinary" people living under Nazism were not Party activists but merely "bystanders", how different were they in attitude?  Did "indifference" indicate an inherent capacity to assist the perpetrators? Was it only "chance" that made some persons killers and others onlookers?  Given the appalling scope and nature of the genocide carried on for years inside Germany and adjoining territories, how could so many remain indifferent?  As Elie Wiesel asked in his The Town Beyond the Wall, "How can anyone remain a spectator indefinitely?" (quoted in Barnett, p. 128).

The answer may never be fully known, but Bystanders asks the tough questions and offers the results of the latest research to help the reader at least come to grips with the enormity of the issue.  It is a volume well worth reading.

Reviewed by Rae Wineland Newstad, Ph.D.
Associate Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA