Perpetrators: Born or Made?

by Christine Ege

An elderly man who served as a guard in the Stutthof concentration camp during the final two years of World War II was convicted on July 23, 2020, for his crimes.  As he was only seventeen when the offenses were committed, a juvenile court served as the venue for his trial this past week.  Specifically, he was accused and convicted as an accessory to the murder of over five thousand people.

When his involvement initially was questioned, the defendant had freely admitted to having served as an SS guard at this camp near his hometown.  In testimony, he claimed that he had been compelled to these heinous actions and had had no other recourse.

Aside from the brutality of the murders (starvation, denial of medical attention, gassing, shooting), the most troubling aspect of this case is the capacity of a young person to become a perpetrator of such heinous acts.  While it might be an instinctive reflex on our part to dismiss such a criminal as part of a despicably wicked group of people, the disturbing question remains:  what circumstances and attitudes prevailed upon this young man to cause him to play this murderous role? 

This Nazi SS guard at one time was a small boy in a town near the Polish-German border.  He probably went to school like others his age and engaged in harmless pranks with his friends; he may even have been a church-going, well-mannered teenager.  Somehow, he acceded to Nazi ideology and found himself assisting with the cruel murder of thousands of camp prisoners.  Given the prevailing pressures and attendant fears of the times, did he have a choice?

More specifically, do I have a choice?  Irrespective of my upbringing, education, or the cultural context in which I was raised, am I a free agent in terms of my decisions?  Do I have the right to absolve myself of guilt by blaming something or someone else and thereby claim I had no choice in the matter? 

When complicated by extenuating circumstances, choices can be anything but easy.  However, a claim that I have no choice is an abdication of responsibility.   A refusal to participate could have cost that young man his life, but he certainly had that choice.  I cannot help but ask myself what I would have done in a similar situation?  Would I have allowed myself to be swallowed up by darkness, assuming I was a bystander, only to end up a perpetrator and an accessory to murder? Is the answer to that question really as clear as I would prefer to think?

Arguably, some perpetrators may be born, but others are made.  I pray I will always summon the courage to stand up for what is right and recognize that I always have a choice.  The choice to do what is right may be expensive, but I hope I always recognize that it is there for me to make.

“The heart is more deceitful than anything else and mortally sick. Who can fathom it?”  Jeremiah 17:9 (The Complete Jewish Bible)