There Are No Bystanders

Onlookers who watched or even jeered at the Jews’ humiliation in Nazi Germany may not have fired a gun or released Zyklon B. But they inevitably facilitated the Jews' genocide through their tacit implication of and silence during the Holocaust.

In O What is that Sound, W.H. Auden presents a couple watching the army marching into their valley:

O what is that sound which so thrills the ear
Down in the valley drumming, drumming?
Only the scarlet soldiers, dear,
The soldiers coming.

As the army passes through, the woman asks the husband whether the soldiers are coming for the doctor or the parson or the farmer (each person-directed query occupies one stanza). The man says ‘no’ each time, and the army moves past each of their houses. When the poem ends, we discover, along with the woman, who the army actually comes for:

O where are you going? Stay with me here!
Were the vows you swore deceiving, deceiving?
No, I promised to love you, dear,
But I must be leaving.

O it’s broken the lock and splintered the door,
O it’s the gate where they’re turning, turning;
Their boots are heavy on the floor
And their eyes are burning.

Auden’s poem is an echo of the famous post-World War II confessional poem by Martin Niemöller, now adorning the New England Holocaust Memorial Museum. It begins with the lines:

They first came for the Communists,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist

The lines run through the types of people ‘they’ came for: Jews, trade unionists, Catholics, and the speaker has the same response: ‘And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew/trade unionist/Catholic. The poem ends with:

Then they came for me
And by that time no one was left to speak up.

In Auden’s poem, the man who we discover is the husband of the woman asking the questions, runs away despite his vows to be with her till death parts them, because he does not want to be involved in any way when the soldiers with ‘burning’ eyes – which could mean lust or hatred – came for his wife. It is literally, every man for himself.

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In Niemöller, it is this same attitude that enabled the perpetrators to get away with, literally again, murder: because no one objected. Auden’s, like Niemöller’s, is a poem about bystanders, and how their passivity creates conditions conducive to violence and atrocity.

A potted history of bystanding

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the ‘bystander’ as a “person who is present at an event or incident but does not take part”. But then, the bystander happened to be present and could, later, shed light on what actually occurred as a witness.

Raul Hilberg in his The Destruction of the European Jews (1961) first posited the category of the bystander. Hilberg noted that across Poland, Germany and Austria, the non-Jewish “witnesses distanced themselves from the [Jewish] victims, so that physical proximity no longer signified personal closeness” even if the two had been neighbours and friends for several years.

He writes: “All the prewar divisions between Jews and non-Jews were deepened as the non-Jewish neighbours turned their concerns inward for the sake of material and mental stability”. He argues that in such contexts the “local bystanders formed a human wall around the Jews entrapped in laws and ghettos”.

In his later work, Perpetrators Bystanders Victims: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933-1945 (1992), Hilberg expanded the category of ‘bystander’ to include ‘Nations in Adolf Hitler’s Europe’, ‘Helpers, Gainers and Onlookers’, ‘Messengers’, ‘Jewish Rescuers’, ‘The Allies’, ‘Neutral Countries’ and ‘The Churches’ for their indifference to the events occurring before their very eyes.

Michael Marrus in The Holocaust in History (1987) listed the Allies, the neutral nations, the Vatican, and the Jews of the ‘free world’ as ‘bystanders’ because they refused to intervene. One adds the International Red Cross to the Hilberg-Marrus list. The Red Cross supplied food packages to the Jews on the trains headed for Auschwitz-Birkenau, and did know of the gas chambers.

By its own admission today:

The ICRC opted for a strategy of no longer addressing the question of Jews directly – it did so only in general approaches concerning the victims of mass arrests or deportation, and then it made no reference to their religious affiliation or racial origins, although it was clear that the people in question were, for the most part, Jews.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum defined bystanders as

A catch-all term that has often been applied to people who were passive and indifferent to the escalating persecution that culminated in the Holocaust.

Admittedly, Hilberg and Marrus are pointing to the moral lacunae in the bystanders, noting that they could have intervened, but did not. Likewise, the Red Cross statement shows willing evasion of the issue. Just like the indifferent individuals who ignore the persecutions they saw everyday, the neutral states pretended, argue Hilberg and Marrus, that the Jews were alright under National Socialism.

Documentary evidence of such bystanders now reveal how this indifference and occasionally active participation by bystanders occurred.

Zygmunt Klukowski, a doctor at Zamosc County hospital, Szczebrzeszyn, Poland, records in his Diary from the Years of Occupation 1939–44  (1993) that non-Jews reported the Jews to the Germans, some even laughing when the Jews were being massacred.

Jewish deportees marching down a street in Germany. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland. Public domain.

Photographic evidence of the function of bystanders has also been unearthed. Josef Friedrich Coeppicus’s photograph taken in Baden-Baden on November 10, 1938 shows a group of well-dressed Jewish men walking, surrounded by SS men and five police officers.

Striking in this photograph is a group of onlookers standing so as to form a corridor. There is even a group of schoolchildren. People perch on the window ledges of adjacent buildings for a better view. Some boys have clambered up a lamppost, a wall and the roof of a nearby house.

Christoph Kreutzmüller in his analysis of these photographs has suggested that

All photos depict people who are keeping a distance to the scene of the humiliation march … If there really is a whole school class in the first photo, the teacher… must have organised the visit to the scene of humiliation as an “outing” or at least granted a special leave … It is remarkable that some onlookers made a real effort to look, clutching to lampposts, craning their necks, or running toward the scene.

They behave as if they are watching a spectacle … It is difficult to ascertain what they think as we see some excited and some smiling faces … There is one man carrying a child on his arm. He obviously wanted the child to see; apparently, the man did not at all mind what he saw.

Kreutzmüller makes a crucial point when he writes:

The onlookers were in turn watched by the Gestapo mixing with the crowd reminds us that the audience was under scrutiny, too … A citizen may or may have not entered the scene of humiliation, but those who came and stopped to watch knew they had to behave, at least act inconspicuously.

Any open act of resistance or ostentatious gesture of discontent might have had consequences that were difficult to predict and assess.

Kreutzmüller is pointing to the presumed passive observer acting under the threat of being observed. ‘To observe’, as we know, is both, to see and ‘to follow’. The onlookers at the scene of Jewish humiliation were then ‘observers’ in both senses.

Those who had worked for the Nazi regime and wrote their memoirs in the post-war years – and this dating is important, because they were trying to justify their behaviour in the past – have declared that they underwent a ‘systematic training in hatred and hardness’.

Melita Maschmann, a Hitler Youth leader during the war, has written in her Account Rendered: A Dossier on My Former Self:

In the state of blind frenzy to which they had been incited, how could they have recognized the contradiction between those human values (patriotism, loyalty, courage, obedience) to which they believed they were sacrificing themselves, and the inhumanity of the ‘Fuhrer’ they worshipped?

Hitler youth during an exercise. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2004-0028 / Marmulla, L. / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Maschmann repeatedly refers to her own naivete, and the ‘senseless sacrifice’ of German youth. Traudl Junge, secretary to Hitler, concludes her memoir with this:

Today I mourn two things: for the fate of those millions of people who were murdered by the National Socialists. And for the girl Traudl Humps who lacked the self-confidence and good sense to speak out against them at the right moment.

The various secretarial and administrative staff in the Chancellery claim they did not see the actual confidential orders on the ‘final solution’. Junge claims to be a victim of what Diana Taylor calls ‘percepticide’, a condition where the people intentionally turned away from sights of atrocities and humiliation of Others, because they were ‘in the state of blind frenzy incited’ by Nazi ideology, as Maschmann puts it.

“In the presence of women, Hitler avoided all political talk regarding ongoing or planned operations”, writes Christa Schroeder, another Hitler secretary. She is a bystander who looks but does not see, and who lacks agency due to indoctrination.

In the cultural scripts, technologies and conditions of viewing in which the Nazi youth were embedded, there was only one way of seeing, or so we are told by Junge and others. Others like Schroeder and Junge herself in other sections of her memoir, disavow knowledge. Even some officers in the SS claimed they lacked all agency because they were merely following orders and were small cogs in the Nazi machinery.

Thus, these administrative officers and assistants were also ‘observers’, who saw and followed and thus enabled the genocide.

But these bystanders also did have a role to play, and could have chosen other roles as well, although in a genocidal state, the latter could have serious repercussions.

The complications of bystanding

How does one explain the following:

1. The benign, passive presence of ‘I-did-not-see’ bystanders watching the Jews being humiliated,
2. The men, women and boys climbing poles and walls to see Jews being humiliated,
3. The Poles enroute who showed the throat-cutting gestures at the Jews in the cattle cars for Auschwitz,
4. The bystanders jeering at the Jews walking in humiliation through the crowds at Baden Baden or when Jews were massacred,
5. The large numbers of administrative staff who organised the deportations, wrote up memos and compiled lists of Jews to be exterminated?

One acknowledges that none of the above actually fired a gun or released Zyklon B. That is, none of the above are active perpetrators of genocidal violence.

However, the debate rages as to whether these factotums of the genocidal state – for the Nazi state itself was geared, since the early 1930s, towards, first, dispossession of the Jews in economic, social and cultural realms and second, their actual extermination – are innocent bystanders.

Mary Fulbrook in her careful study, A Small Town Near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust, argues that there were ‘facilitators, functionaries and beneficiaries of Nazi rule’ across Germany and in adjoining Poland. Researchers have shown how the shutting down of Jewish businesses, the dispossession of Jewish property and the disenfranchisement of Jews enabled the non-Jewish Poles to flourish.

Other commentators focus on what Timothy Williams describes as the “individual impact on the genocide”: “the consequences that an individual’s actions have on the actually realized mass murder”. “What”, asks Williams, “would have been different had the individual not acted the way they did?” Williams’ reworking of the bystander category is salutary, for it shows us how to understand types of people such as those inventoried above.

There were of course officers and the members of vigilante organisations who prepared detailed lists of those who needed to be exterminated, those who generated propaganda documents against the Jews, and those like Eichmann or Goebbels who were ‘active facilitators’ in the atrocity-event because their actions drove the system and oiled the machinery that was the gas chamber even when they did not throw the switch that released Zyklon B.

Canisters of Zyklon B, a pesticide that was used by the Nazis in gas chambers to kill millions of victims. Photo: Flickr/Jason M. Ramos. CC BY-SA 2.0.

In a genocidal state, the Hitler Youth who reported on Jews, the census takers, the propagandists of Der Strummer and the creators of curricula-of-hate were such active facilitators. But there are other forms of encouraging and facilitating bystanding.

Individuals and groups who take photographs or cheer the atrocity-event are ‘actively encouraging bystanders’, in Williams’ taxonomy. We know, for example, that photographers were present when the Ku Klux Klan lynched African Americans (the photographs were later sold or circulated as souvenirs, and today we have video posts on social media).

Such individuals and groups are active participants in the atrocity: their “actions do not actually prepare the killing but rather create an environment in which it becomes (much) easier to kill and to push the people enforcing orders forward”.

Those individuals and groups at a distance from the atrocity-event – which would include much of the state’s population – are “passively facilitating”, “manifesting itself in people’s silence about discrimination and genocide when they witness it and thus allowing these acts to become more normal”.

This category, writes Williams, “tacitly legitimis[es] the killing and creat[es] a more conducive atmosphere”. This category should give more cause for worry because this “passive facilitating” bystander is one who finally turns the state genocidal.

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It is not, to put it differently, the engineers who built the gas chambers, the soldiers who shot the Jews or Eichmann and Co. who took the policy decision on extermination, that are the kind of bystanders in question.

Instead, it is the vast majority of civilians who tacitly legitimized, first, the persecution of the Jews in schools, offices, streets and stores and second, did not find or pronounce it criminally and morally wrong that Jews were being massacred: these are the bystanders that facilitated Nazi Germany’s march towards its genocidal climax.

Williams argues that ‘witnesses’ and ‘outsiders’ are distant from the events and have no impact. The corollary is that had the state – by the late 1930s, its monitoring mechanisms were astounding – noticed that an individual had not endorsed the humiliation of the Jews, that individual could be prosecuted or at least harassed by the state.

But Williams also suggests that “an action that leads to the avoidance of an individual victim’s death can be called rescuing or supporting, depending on whether it is close to or more distant from the killing”.

The antithesis of the supportive, ‘agitating’, is defined by Williams as “occur[ing] when the political or legal framework or the ideological underpinnings of the genocide are created and propagated”.

Timothy Williams’ typology of action in genocide. Photo: Williams, Timothy. “‘I Am Not, What I Am’: A Typological Approach to Individual (In)Action in the Holocaust.” In Probing the Limits of Categorization: The Bystander in Holocaust History, edited by Christina Morina and Krijn Thijs, 1st ed., 27:72–89. Berghahn Books, 2019.

Agitating to stop such an atrocity is a crucial aspect of the distant but ethical and political bystander’s actions. The ‘agitation’ can of course take many forms, from campaigns and legal redress to academic activism, literature and pedagogy. These bystanders ‘inhibit’ (if they are distant) and ‘discourage’ (if they are proximate) to the event.

Thus, over and above the immediate and proximate bystander who may act to either encourage or discourage the atrocity, the distant bystander also has a role to play. Embedded in contexts that could, naturally, be detrimental to their safety if they inhibit the state’s wrong-doing, the work of the bystander/outsider is cut out.

What this taxonomy reveals is that there are no bystanders. Even silent bystanders at a distance have created the environment conducive to atrocities, just as those who campaign, teach, write or actively rescue victims – Williams acknowledges the work of Oskar Schindler – are attempting, in their small ways, to inhibit the atrocity with their ‘agitation’.

In order to highlight the role of the passive bystander – the ordinary people who enabled the genocidal state – the US Holocaust Memorial Museum finally created an exhibition, Some were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust (2013-2017). This was not the study of the elite who issued orders or the soldiers who killed, but a social history of ordinary people.

It asked crucial questions, tagged to specific visual evidence from the time: ‘True Believers?’, ‘Does Presence Make One Complicit?’, ‘Benefiting from the Plight of Neighbours?’ and finally, ‘who Betrayed Anne Frank?’

Taken together, it made it clear that the vast majority of ordinary people who witnessed passively the initial persecution of the Jews are culpable bystanders, as much as those who cheered and reported on their Jewish neighbours. These were the ordinary people who benefitted when Jews abandoned their homes, who left behind their shops, by taking possession of the properties.

Susan Bachrach, analysing this exhibition, concludes with the crucial question which may not be about the Holocaust alone:

Who are our neighbours today?


Since we began with poetry and W.H. Auden – who of course wrote the incredible poem on the German invasion of Poland, September 1, 1939 – speaking of bystanders who abdicate their role, it is fitting to conclude poetry too.

In Auden’s O Where Are You Going?, various categories of people ask this question of the rider about to embark on a journey. The rider is cautioned against the ‘fatal valley where furnaces burn’, the delays likely, the various shadows/monsters/diseases that may afflict and attack the ‘farer’. It concludes with:

“Out of this house” – said rider to reader,
“Yours never will” – said farer to fearer
“They’re looking for you” – said hearer to horror,
As he left them there, as he left them there.

British-American poet W.H. Auden. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/George Cserna. Public domain.

Auden suggests that inaction and indecisiveness will cost us. The rider knows that he probably heads towards death. But those who stay indoors are perhaps not safe either: “they’re looking for you”.

The repetition in the last line suggests that he both abandoned them to their fate, and that those who believed they were secure in their houses and identities will also have someone ‘come for them’, as Martin Niemöller put it. There are no bystanders. If there are, they occupy a temporally limited space: one day, the very regime they endorsed with their bystanding will come for them.

The extinction of a species means other species dependent on them go extinct as well. This mutually assured destruction is anticipated in John Donne’s ominous poem:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

John Milton’s famous line, “they also serve who only stand and wait”, is matched in our time by lines from the symbol of the Holocaust, Anne Frank: “The Jews and Christians wait, the whole world waits, and there are many who wait for death”.

The author would like to thank Anna Kurian for drawing his attention to the Auden poems cited here.

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad.