Bystander Effect & The Holocaust

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will examine the bystander effect during the holocaust. We will learn what this phenomena is and find out how so many people could have allowed the atrocities of the holocaust to occur.

Background and Definitions

Think about a time that you witnessed a person hurting another person either psychologically or physically. What did you do? Most of us like to think that in times of crisis, we would step in and heroically save another person in need, but history shows that this is not always the case. The bystander effect is the tendency of individuals to avoid getting involved in situations when there are other people around to help. During the holocaust, which was the genocide of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and political opponents during Nazi Germany in the 1940s, bystanders saw what was happening, but avoided getting involved. It took decades before social psychologists began to research the bystander effect and could explain what happened. Let's examine the bystander effect during the holocaust.

The Rise of Anti-Semitism

Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party did not begin their assault on the Jewish people with concentration camps, but slowly managed to isolate and dehumanize Jewish people through propaganda and policy changes. Germany was going through a particularly difficult economic time as the treaty that concluded World War I found Germany at fault and required them to pay reparations to other countries. Hitler rose to power with the promise that he would return Germany to greatness. He unified the German citizens by creating a common enemy, the Jews, who he blamed for leading the revolt against the German monarchy. In Hitler's opinion, this is what caused Germany to lose World War I.

Angry citizens looking for a scapegoat turned the other way when laws that excluded Jewish people from certain jobs, schools, and organizations were passed. Intermarriage between Jews and Aryans became illegal. Jewish businesses were taken over and Jewish people were not allowed in most public places. They were no longer considered citizens of Germany. By the time deportation and extermination began, most German citizens had very little interaction with their Jewish neighbors and had accepted the state's position of Aryan supremacy.

The Bystander Continuum

Some German citizens were perpetrators, victims, or rescuers, rather than bystanders. The bystanders are those who did not actively participate in the persecution of Jews, but they passively allowed it to happen without speaking out or offering to help the victims. Some may not have known what to do or feared for their own safety or the safety of their children. Others didn't pay attention, didn't care, or agreed with the anti-Semitic rhetoric. Afterwards, when interviewed, bystanders bore no responsibility for the crimes they claimed not to have contributed to. In reality, the bystanders existed on a continuum with some bearing more responsibility than others. From the train engineers to the interpreters, the Nazi regime relied on the help of many of these 'bystanders' to fulfill their mission.

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