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Uncovering guilt

April 10, 2011

Under the Nazi regime, the police were not obligated to commit murder. But many did. A new exhibition in Berlin reveals the extent to which the police were involved in Nazi atrocities.

Police hat from between 1935 and 1945, from the exhibition "Order and Annihilation - The Police and the Nazi Regime" at Berlin's German Historical Museum
What made them do it?Image: DHM

For decades, it was said that German policemen during the Third Reich were simply doing their duty - whether that was coordinating traffic or committing mass murder. But a new exhibition in Berlin reveals that these men may have played a crucial role in the Holocaust, despite being under no compulsion to take part in the genocide which claimed the lives of six million Jews.

The police officers working under Hitler's regime came from middle-class backgrounds. Largely tradesmen, blue- and white-collar workers, civil servants or merchants, they were family men who enjoyed partying with their friends, went on holiday and had hobbies. They were ordinary people - who became henchmen.

Julius Wohlauf was one of them. Born in Dresden in 1913, he completed a commercial apprenticeship after taking his school leaving examinations and then became a member of the Nazi Party. He progressed from constable to commander of a reserve police battalion in Poland, which was responsible for deporting Jews and killing them in mass shootings.

Poster from the exhibition "Order and Annihilation - The Police and the Nazi Regime" at Berlin's German Historical Museum
The exhibition runs through July 31

Once the war was over, Wohlauf took up a job as representative of an electrical company and was then taken back into the ranks of Hamburg's police with no questions asked. He was even promoted to head of his department, but his career came to an abrupt end in 1963 when investigations were opened against him for murder.

In 1968, he was sentenced to eight years in prison for assisting in the murder of some 9,200 people.

Uncomfortable truths

Wohlauf is one of many police officers documented in the exhibition "Order and Annihilation - The Police and the Nazi Regime" at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. It is the first time a German museum has addressed this dark chapter of German history.

"We are consciously confronting our own past through this exhibition," said Klaus Neidhart, president of the German Police University in Münster. The institution is a partner and co-sponsor of the exhibition.

Filing cabinets full of index cards, police reports, identification equipment, photos, letters, newspaper cuttings, pamphlets, employee identity cards, uniforms and everyday objects are all on display. Collected from museums, archives and authorities, they show that the police propped up the Nazi dictatorship and remained loyal to the state right up until the Third Reich collapsed in 1945.

As World War II raged, Germany's policemen were responsible for aerial defense, supervising slave laborers and sniffing out political opponents. The police force was heavily involved in the surveillance, persecution and mass murder now synonymous with National Socialism.

When Nazi soldiers attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, German policemen took part in the genocide of the East European Jews. They persecuted those said to be partisans, broke up ghettos, supervised transports and brutally murdered innocent civilians. In many of the photos on display at the exhibition, policemen smile and look contented as they carry out the atrocious deeds - which could not always be considered an order "from above."

"In 1941 in Bialystok, for example, policemen chased Jews, including women and children into the synagogue and set the building alight. Those who attempted to flee were shot," said exhibition curator and historian Martin Hölzl.

Police officers in a ghetto in Lodz from between 1940 and 1944, photo from the exhibition "Order and Annihilation - The Police and the Nazi Regime" at Berlin's German Historical Museum
These police officers were assigned to a ghetto in Lodz during the warImage: Warschau Zydowski Instytut Historyczny

The motivation for evil

What was it that turned respectable family men into henchmen involved in mass murder? Hölzl said there were many reasons, including the stable income, social acceptance and respect which the role of policeman guaranteed. Police were also spared frontline duty and so had a greater chance of survival than Wehrmacht soldiers.

The exhibition also points to obedience, peer pressure, esprit de corps, as well as ideological convictions, brutalization and reutilization as important factors. Some policemen got rich at the expense of victims and others pursued perverse career ambitions, Hölzl explained.

"There was certainly no such thing as an obligation to obey orders," said police historian and project manager Detlef Graf von Schwerin. No evidence has been found that suggests refusal to take part in a mass execution would have had negative consequences for policemen, but very few dared to defy orders, he said.

Concerned with the wellbeing of their henchmen, the police command provided them with plenty of alcohol for a social evening once they had done their deeds.

After the war

The policemen who had played a crucial role in the Holocaust changed the color of their uniforms after the war, they removed swastikas from stamps, wove legends and networked with old comrades. They were allowed to continue working as policemen or follow different paths.

It wasn't until the end of the 1950s that legal proceedings against Nazi criminals sluggishly began, but very few sentences were actually handed out - supposedly because that wasn't possible without police expertise.

But Detlef Graf von Schwerin believes this theory is too simplistic. "Nobody was forced to hire murderers," he said, adding that although there was not enough reliable information, "there was no will for a new start."

More than six decades later, the police, together with German society, is addressing the topic which has long been a taboo. Still, some say it's far too late.

Author: Cornelia Rabitz / mm

Editor: Kate Bowen