The stark facts of the Holocaust can be summarized. When Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party came to power in Germany in 1933, they initiated measures against Germany’s Jews. Before their rise to power the Nazis, under Hitler, had openly and vehemently blamed Jews for all of Germany’s ills in the years following the country’s loss of World War I (1914-18). After they gained power, the Nazi anti Jewish measures included use of the existing legal machinery of the German state to devise and implement increasingly restrictive measures against Germany’s Jewish population. These measures incrementally but inexorably deprived Jews of more and more rights of citizenship and capacity of living their daily lives. The legal measures were augmented by sporadic brutal attacks by organized thugs who molested and terrorized individuals and communities of Jews. The most extreme of these occurred on the night of November 9, 1938, the Kristallnacht, where a nationwide attack on Jews took place. Yet all of these eventually turned out to be preliminaries to an active and focused program to actually exterminate all Jews who came within Germany’s reach during World War II – the war of 1939 to 1945. During the early years of that war Germany had overrun and conquered most of continental Europe, a land mass that included millions of Jews who had been living in the various countries now under German control. The actual extermination of Jews relied, at first, on the direct execution of individuals by individual German soldiers and paramilitary functionaries of the state – most notably the SS. Although this took place on a huge scale, the extermination plan was so grandiose that more elaborate systems of mass murder were devised, most notably a system of concentration camps that served as extermination factories, using lethal gas and the burning of bodies on a mass scale never before seen. The Auschwitz concentration camp, located in Poland, was the most notorious but not the only camp of this kind. Murdered at Auschwitz were some 2 million innocent persons, most of them Jews, but also others whom the Nazi ideologues regarded as unworthy of living in their utopian vision of the superstate dominated by pure Nordics. It is estimated that the Nazis managed to murder some 6 million Jews before their rampage was stopped by the victory of the Allies that ended the war. This genocide, this deliberate and systematic murder of 6 million humans beings, is doubtless the largest effort of its kind in all of human history.

Following a period of stunned silence, there has been a flood of responses. Within the academic community these have come from historians (e.g., Hilberg 1967; Bauer 1978), political scientists (e.g., Shirer 1960; Goldhagen 1996), and psychologists (e.g., Adorno et al. 1950; Milgram 1974) and social philosophers (e.g., Arendt 1964, 1968).

Apart from one conspicuous exception (Fein 1979), sociologists have been exceedingly silent in response to the Holocaust. In 1979, a Jewish sociologist said that ”there is in essence no sociological literature on the Holocaust” (Dank), and in 1989 another sociologist said that the Holocaust work of sociologists ”looks more like a collective exercise in forgetting and eye closing” (Bauman). Bauman’s assessment still seems to hold today.

Despite this silence, it seems that sociology can contribute insights about the Holocaust that no other discipline can. And that, in turn, the Holocaust can help us sharpen some of the most venerable sociological insights derived from Max Weber and Emile Durkheim (Katz 1993, 2003, 2004). The first begins from what is perhaps sociology’s underlying premise: the need to explain ordinary people’s ordinary social lives.

Applied to the Holocaust, a great many ordinary people – not crazy people, not marginal people, not zealous Nazis, but ordinary folks – became active participants in mass horrors. When it comes to monstrous behavior, it is not monsters we need to worry about, but ordinary people; they were active participants and contributors to the terrors we know as the ultimate genocide. It is ordinary people’s ordinariness that must provide us with the clues of how genocide is practiced. The Nazis recruited many into becoming mass murderers who did not start out with murderous intentions.

Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, was the ultimate bureaucrat. From Weber, we learned how the bureaucrat is the functionary who tries to bring rational processes to whatever tasks come his way. Hoess did just that, except that his task was mass murder. He also shows how the distinctive mindset of the bureaucrat enabled him to segregate an ongoing, fairly warm, nurturing home life from deep immersion in a grisly work setting. Weber was resurrected, but applied to a setting of which he could not have dreamed.

Emile Durkheim found an ally in Helen Fein (1979) in her study showing that the degree of Jews’ integration into a country influenced the likelihood of becoming victims of the murderous assault. Durkheim’s focus on social cohesion – based on what we would now call a group or society’s shared culture – is also the focus of the ”local moral universe” (Katz 2003, 2004). We humans get our sense of identity and purpose from a moral context, to which we try to contribute. Under such a moral umbrella, we may totally exclude those whom we regard as being on the outside. The result is that, as the Nazis displayed, these people can be treated not only with contempt but also with actual annihilation, and this can be done under the myth of operating on the basis of a high moral purpose and justification. This, Durkheim did not envisage. But his perspective applies and clarifies such a phenomenon.

The distinctive contribution of sociology to clarifying how a genocide operates – using the Nazi Holocaust as a source of insight – is that it can show how ordinary people can be recruited to do the most horrific acts, and do so using our existing social psychological proclivities and habits. It can show how bureaucratic administrative techniques, so central to modern life, can be hijacked in the service of evil. Furthermore, it can show how the moral umbrellas under which we are accustomed to living, and which serve as instruments for our most humane actions, can also become the instruments for our most inhumane actions. Sociologists can clarify just how these ordinary features of our social makeup actually work. From this knowledge we can not only demystify, but also actually find ways to counter, the evil we have come to call genocide.


  1. Adorno, T. et al. (1950) The Authoritarian Personality. Harper & Row, New York.
  2. Arendt, H. (1964) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Penguin, New York. Arendt, H. (1968) The Origins of Totalitarianism.
  3. Harcourt, Brace, & World, New York. Bauer, Y. (1978) The Holocaust in Historical Perspective. University of Washington Press, Seattle.
  4. Bauman, Z. (1989) Modernity and the Holocaust. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.
  5. Dank, B. M. (1979) Review of ”On the Edge of Destruction” by Celia S. Heller. Contemporary Sociology 8(1): 129 30.
  6. Fein, H. (1979) Accounting for Genocide: National Responses and Jewish Victimization During the Holocaust. Free Press, New York.
  7. Goldhagen, D. (1996) Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Knopf, New York.
  8. Hilberg, R. (1967) The Destruction of European Jews. Quadrangle Books, Chicago.
  9. Katz, F. E. (1993) Ordinary People and Extraordinary Evil: A Report on the Beguilings of Evil. SUNY
  10. Press, Albany, NY. Katz, F. E. (2003) Immediacy: How Our World Confronts Us and How We Confront Our World.
  11. Discern Books, Baltimore. Katz, F. E. (2004) Confronting Evil: Two Journeys. SUNY Press, Albany, NY.
  12. Milgram, S. (1974) Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. Harper & Row, New York.
  13. Shirer, W. L. (1960) The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Simon & Schuster, New York.

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