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Review June 2024

Bystanders in Nazi Germany

Review by Jan Burzlaff
Mary Fulbrook, 2023
ISBN 9780197691717
488 Pages
Published by: Oxford University Press
Jewish deportees march through Würzburg. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park/Public domain.

The assault happened on the way to a coffee shop. On the New York subway, a young man approached another and suddenly began beating him up. Like me, the other passengers were at first startled by this sudden outburst of violence, then began to try to stop the attacker. At that moment, two off-duty police officers, who happened to be on that train, intervened. For a brief moment, we had all become shocked observers and co-participants in the event — in other words, we became bystanders, this vague label that seeks to describe all those who neither perpetrate violence nor become its victims. Mary Fulbrook’s Bystander Society is the first book to examine the making of such a large group, the vast majority of non-Jewish Germans between 1933 and 1945, and the social production of their indifference, impotence, and complicity in the Holocaust. Unlike the brief attack on the subway, as Fulbrook makes clear, Jews in Nazi Germany could count less and less on empathy and any form of help, particularly when attacks were witnessed by others nearby. After 1935, and certainly after 1938, two such police officers in Nazi Germany would have either interrogated or taken away those expressing overt sympathy for the persecuted. Standing by acts of discrimination and violence towards Jews — not acting, not protesting, not speaking up — became socially required, and participating in such acts was widely tolerated, if not openly encouraged. Bystander Society is an important book not only for the novel insights into German society during the 1930s and the social conditions that, often unwillingly but always inexorably, paved the way for the Holocaust after 1939. The story Fulbrook tells is an urgent one, revealing how an oppressive and authoritarian state dissolves existing ties and destroys the very possibility of social interactions from the bottom up.

By the time the war broke out in 1939, and the victims had disappeared from one’s circle (or view altogether), remaining passive and uninvolved in Nazism, whatever one’s private feelings about the regime or Jews, had become impossible.

The collection of some 250 personal accounts, “My life in Germany before and after January 30, 1933,” which originated in an essay competition run by three Harvard professors in 1939-1940 to understand life in Nazi Germany, is an apt choice to chronicle the racialization of social identities in daily life. From the outset, Fulbrook convincingly argues that the much-discussed concept of bystander neither captures the changes in behaviors at hand nor the range of personal implications in Nazism by what she calls the “muddled middle.” Twelve chapters, rich in fascinating, thick life stories, retell a threefold process, from fearful consent and early passivity to constrained conformity and willing facilitation, to, lastly, what she dubs functional conformity, all behaviors that furthered Nazi policies. Up to 1935, the speed of this process depended on prior bonds, social class, and status. Not only in this regard did the 1935 Nuremberg Laws represent a milestone, enshrining the racial distinction upon which “Aryans” were expected to act and perform. Seemingly small shifts in private — such as not inviting a friend to a wedding because of their Jewish spouse — evolved alongside, and often followed, public performances of conformity, however empathetic or humane in intention they may have been. “Compliance with creating a hostile environment for outcasts”, Fulbrook notes, “in effect sustained Nazi policies of persecution and exclusion.” Like venom, the racial difference proclaimed from above slowly penetrated the local fabric and reshaped the private sphere, a depth rarely acknowledged after 1945 under the umbrellas of fear, ignorance, or inner resistance. By the time the war broke out in 1939, and the victims had disappeared from one’s circle (or view altogether), remaining passive and uninvolved in Nazism, whatever one’s private feelings about the regime or Jews, had become impossible. As the journalist Sebastian Haffner, one of the most astute contemporary observers of Nazism based in Britain, once put it, most non-Jewish Germans managed “to live in a way alongside it.”

Considering bystanding as a social process allows Fulbrook to dismiss any remaining temptation to explain conduct in Nazi Germany through the lens of motivations, beliefs, and knowledge. In many ways, her book implements a situational and communal approach to behaviors for which two decades of scholarship have pleaded. Whereas traditional studies argued that attitudes and innate personality traits preceded behaviors, the reverse appears in personal accounts. One acted upon a public script, then talked oneself into and, more often than not, made a truce with the performance not simply because of the fear of repression and standing out, but because there were considerable benefits, materially and socially, to molding oneself on the public script. The latter conveniently helped solve any arising or remaining moral conflicts. Thus, most did not so much “learn to hate” than “to comply, to conform, to demonstrate in daily behaviours identification with the dominant, ‘racially’ defined national community.” Thus put, the question of lack of knowledge, a classic line of defense after the war, becomes moot. Pretending not to piece together various elements about the fate of Jews made one’s own perceived powerlessness much easier. A fruitful line of inquiry, Fulbrook suggests, therefore tracks what ordinary people made of such knowledge in specific contexts. Future studies can extend this important method to social histories of state-sponsored discrimination and persecution.

the book’s thick descriptions will be a treasure trove for political scientists, sociologists, and psychologists alike, promising many fresh avenues for research on Nazi Europe and other cases of state-sponsored violence.

The book’s three key strengths—the exploration of social patterns, the consistent contextualization of interactions, and the inclusion of the 1930s without foreshadowing the war years—call for future studies. For example, shifts towards public conformity seem to have depended on the local context, clearly visible in the southern village of Gailingen. Future comparisons will yield insights into the process of racialization of local, regional, and national identities. Likewise, the notions of performance, roleplay, and public script all deserve more attention in considering this segregation process. This also means systematically including the vast collections of video testimonies recorded since the late 1970s, amounting to some 20 years of uninterrupted listening. Since 99.9 percent of Germans did not rescue Jews, in the sense of a long-term commitment, scholars interested in small gestures of help, food, and sympathy that mattered so much in the cracks of a bystander society will find many avenues for exploration. Arguably, inaction, looking away, and silence could also mean fleeting or ever-growing opposition to Nazism—keeping silent about Jews hidden in a cellar or renting out an apartment to strangers, thus offering protection without intending it, at least initially. Here, the book’s thick descriptions will be a treasure trove for political scientists, sociologists, and psychologists alike, promising many fresh avenues for research on Nazi Europe and other cases of state-sponsored violence.

Closing Bystander Society, one inevitably comes back to our own times. Aware of the importance of this racialization and segregation process at hand, Fulbrooks does not shy away from contemporary references, from Derek Chauvin’s trial to American election denialism and disparaging remarks by Donald Trump. In the end, one asks oneself, do we too not live in a bystander society, perhaps different in kind, but certainly similarly affected by social norms and the gaze of others? Bystander Society tells a story of falling in line with state-sponsored discrimination, new norms on race violently enforced but also quickly adopted, whatever the personal beliefs and motivations. The pace with which this muddled middle did so after 1933 remains stunning, as Fulbrook notes. “The ‘lessons’ of Nazi Germany are perhaps most acute, most relevant, when we explore how very small changes in everyday life that seem anodyne or justifiable at the time can have catastrophic consequences within a matter of just a few years.” This warning makes this book all the more urgent.

Jan Burzlaff is the William A. Ackman Fellow at Harvard University and a forthcoming Postdoctoral Associate at Cornell University. A historian of first-hand experiences of violence and genocide in general, and Jewish experience during the Holocaust in particular, Burzlaff has published on pogroms, the social and cultural history of Western and Eastern Europe during the Second World War and global and comparative aspects of mass violence in The Historical Journal, the Journal of Genocide Research, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and other scholarly venues. His current project is a transnational, comparative history of social interactions during the Second World War.