People make choices, choices make history. It is a cycle that exists within human behavior, defining the future, past, and present. A choice made by an individual influences another person’s decisions. So long as humankind remains alive, this cycle never ends. Choices made during times of trouble and despair especially resound throughout history, as they hold the potential to dramatically alter the course of war or even human thinking. Thousands upon thousands of decisions were made that, in the end, collectively shaped the events that transpired during World War II. The war was not caused by a single decision, but rather the combined, small, seemingly insignificant decisions made by groups of people at the time. Choices made by bystanders, rescuers, and heroes ultimately determined the course of the Holocaust.
The Holocaust typically brings to mind the image of victims and perpetrators and a few upstanders, but rarely bystanders. A bystander is defined as a person who witnesses an event or crime, but does not participate in it—in essence, a neutral party. At the time of the war, just as Hitler’s Final Solution went into effect, the large majority of the world simply watched as Nazis rounded up innocent Jews for deportation. They did nothing to help the victims whose lives were at stake, but rather turned a blind eye to the heinous crimes and feigned ignorance. Nonetheless, bystanders appear faultless in any event or crime, as they are mere witnesses or passerby with no personal inclinations to the victims and perpetrators.
From one standpoint, however, their lack of action and indifference to the Jews’ suffering unwittingly aided Nazi Germany’s goals: “Perhaps not taking action is also a decision and therefore a form of action in itself. After all, non-action has ramifications and affects the outcome. Notwithstanding the extremely significant differences, the decisions with which bystanders were confronted and the justifications they gave for their behavior often greatly resemble the decisions and justifications of the perpetrators.” (The Bystanders 2) Despite being quite aware of how the Jewish people were being treated, the bystanders of the Holocaust more often than not pretended it had nothing to do with them. Although many bystanders did not intentionally aim to cause harm, some realized the gravity of their actions and choices too late. The National Defense Law, a law that required workers to take an oath of fidelity to Hitler and the Nazi Regime, no doubt forced a number of bystanders to question the impact their actions would have on the war. One German soldier in particular at first opposed such a condition, then gave in to the worries of the consequences, to which he regretted later on, “The fact that I was not prepared to resist, in 1935, meant that all the thousands, hundreds, of thousands, like me in Germany, were also unprepared, and each one of these hundreds of thousands was, like me, a man of great influence or of great potential influence. Thus the world was lost.” (Do You Take the Oath? 199) Had he and thousands of other bystanders decided to resist the perpetrators, to fight back against the pressing evil, many more innocent lives could have been saved. Yet, so many people submitted to the orders of Hitler, and while not fully advocating the Nazi cause, inherently gave their support by failing to resist the movement. The entire course of the war may have depended on the actions of bystanders.
In some cases, bystanders could even voluntarily become perpetrators, as a large number of them assisted Nazis at Mauthausen concentration camp: “When Russian prisoners of war broke out of the camp in February 1945, a time when it was clear that the war was lost, the people in the area joined the camp guards in catching and killing the escapees.” (The Bystanders 1) One may ask, how can a person, a neutral party as well, commit such crimes against strangers they had never met? Bystanders have the capability to sway to different sides; to take action and become either a perpetrator or an upstander. However, the flexibility of being a bystander is what makes their choices so crucial to the course of history. Professor Ervin Staub states, “‘Bystanders… help shape society by their reactions… Bystanders can exert powerful influences. They can define the meaning of events and move others toward empathy of indifference. They can promote values and norms of caring, or by their passivity of participation in the system, they can affirm the perpetrators.’” (The Courage to Care 256) Therefore, not only can bystanders transition into perpetrators, but they can become upstanders.
Because they are the onlookers of an event, bystanders often witness upstanders in action. Thus, they are exposed to acts of good will and heroic deeds. Witnessing acts of kindness can potentially move a bystander to the point where they decide to take action and become an upstander, shedding away their status as a neutral party. So while it is easy for a bystander to slip into the hands of the perpetrators, it is equally as easy for a bystander to become an upstander. In fact, many of these people rose up and faced their fears during the Holocaust, vowing to save as many Jewish lives as possible. As published by Yad Vashem, “Bystanders were the rule, rescuers were the exception. However difficult and frightening, the fact that some found the courage to become rescuers demonstrates that some freedom of choice existed, and that saving Jews was not beyond the capacity of ordinary people throughout occupied Europe.” (The Righteous Among the Nations) Despite societal norms and the oppression of the Nazi Regime, these bystanders made the choice to rise from their inactive state. They were able to find the courage to care about the situation at hand, and decided to take a stand against what was wrong. As they worked to counter the Nazis, their accomplishments and the extents they went to in order to save lives grew. Little by little, these people who considered themselves as nothing more than ordinary rose to the challenge and became rescuers.
Although many bystanders ended up as upstanders, a large amount of people remained upstanders from the beginning of the Holocaust to the end. These people displayed bravery and dedication in their act of rescuing Jews and resisting the Nazi power. In Le Chambon, France, quite literally the whole village worked courageously to save as many Jews as possible. Magda Trocme, the wife of the local minister there, explains, “We had no time to think. When a problem came, we had to solve it immediately. Sometimes people ask me, ‘How did you make a decision?’ There was no decision to make. The issue was: Do you think we are all brothers or not? Do you think it is unjust to turn in the Jews or not? Then let us try to help!” (The Courage of Le Chambon 1) regarding the decisions the residents of Le Chambon and she made. For many upstanders, such was the case when it came to helping the Jews. In dangerous times such as war and especially the Holocaust, there truly was no time to spend pondering an important decision. One could not barter for time when a Gestapo officer was barking questions at them; hesitation would only worsen the situation. The split-second decisions and choices that so many upstanders made saved thousands of Jewish lives, and without them, the war would have turned a different tide.
Upstanders were incredibly important during World War II not only because the Nazis would not have faced opposition if they did not resist, but also because upstanders are the symbol of hope in bleak times such as the Holocaust or war. War is synonymous with darkness, evil, death, bloodshed, and fear, and oftentimes even a shred of hope is difficult to find within oneself. Sometimes, the overbearing grief and darkness war brings to mankind manages to block out the light of hope. The only people who can restore it are upstanders, for they prove that humans are not only capable of evil but rather they are fundamentally good at heart. The choices upstanders take hold the power of motivating and inspiring others to take a stand against the perpetrators. So while the upstanders at the time of the Holocaust provided hope for victims, bystanders, and upstanders, their actions also served as proof that dark times cannot crush out the good deeds of a select few. The actions of upstanders teach people of the future that war is not only full of hate and cruelty; they remind us, as people, that among the sins and cruelty of humanity, there is and will always be hope.