Who made the Nazis?

It is not an easy thing for one human being to kill another. One of the closest held secrets of modern warfare with its conscripted armies is that soldiers on the battlefield, when faced with a kill-or-be-killed situation, will frequently choose not to defend themselves against the enemy rather than kill another human being. Those who do choose to defend themselves sometimes bemoan their decision for the rest of their lives. There seems to an innate sense of human life being sacred that cuts across all racial, cultural and religious beliefs. That is why the Holocaust remains one of history’s most inexplicable events. In Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes sheds some much-needed light on the motivation behind the 20th-century’s greatest human catastrophe.

Rhodes won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award for The Making of the Atomic Bomb, but with Masters of Death, he draws upon another work, 1999’s Why They Kill, the story of maverick American criminologist Lonnie Athens. After a decade of interviewing some of our most violent incarcerated criminals, Athens developed the theory of “violentization,” a four-stage process that can render anyone capable of violence, even murder, if he or she passes through all four stages into full violentization.

Violentization is a learning process: examine the life of virtually any career violent criminal and its stages are readily apparent, from brutalization during childhood to violent coaching from adults and peers during adolescence, eventually culminating in the criminal’s own acts of violence and the formation of a violent identity. Rhodes uses Athens’ theory as a lens to scrutinize the leaders of the Third Reich most responsible for the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, as well as the underlings who helped carry out their bizarre and horrific plans.

These underlings, members of the Nazi SS, were known as Einsatzgruppen, German for “task force.” The grizzly task with which they were charged was nothing short of the extermination of not just the Jews, but the 30 million people inhabiting Central Europe, to make way for German colonization of the region. Hitler and Himmler modeled the colonization project on the extermination of the aboriginal peoples in the Americas, and thanks to the Führer’s psychopathic anti-Semitism, the Jews had the extreme misfortune of being the first group chosen for elimination.

The extremity of this misfortune goes far beyond gas chambers and concentration camps. In fact, those measures were enacted only after it became clear that shooting innocent men, women and children in the head at point-blank range and shoving them into so-called killing pits was beyond the scope of the average Einsatzgruppen member. It seems that even Nazis, at least those who had not been properly violentized, had some scruples, and Himmler was forced to recruit convicted murderers and other violent criminals from Polish, Lithuanian and Ukrainian prisons to fill out his firing squads. Between 1941 and 1943, these firing squads killed 1.5 million people in Central Europe, most of them Jews.

Rhodes’ book mildly refutes a recent controversial work on the Holocaust in Central Europe, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which asserts that anti-Semitic ideology was the primary motivation for the Holocaust, an enterprise that even “good Germans” endorsed. Rhodes persuasively argues that anti-Semitism alone is not enough to explain the mass murder of 13 million people—Jews, Gypsies, Catholics, Christians, homosexuals, the disabled, et al—and that humans, no matter what their beliefs, cannot commit such atrocities unless they’ve received ample training, i.e. violentization.

It is a bittersweet argument. On the one hand, it is reassuring that humans might have some innate respect for life. On the other, considering the violence in the world around us today, perpetrated by the ongoing process of violentization, it’s hard not to think that the Holocaust wasn’t an obscene aberration, but an exercise we are doomed to repeat, sooner rather than later.