By Alexis Herr, PhD
One of the most surprising moments for students in Holocaust courses comes when the class learns that perpetrators were not deranged monsters. The best Holocaust educators guide their students through the pre-conditions that preempted Hitler’s rise to power and in so doing help elucidate why ordinary men and women perpetrated genocide. One statistic in particular helps to drive this point home: of the leading members of the Reich Security Office, 22% had doctorate degrees in the humanities. Far from uneducated, brainwashed, and robotic murderers, the future leaders of the Nazi Regime moralized and meditated on their actions.
The whirlwind of genocidal antisemitism during the Third Reich was conducted and directed by a myriad of individuals. The Reich Security Office, or Reichssicherheitshauptampt (RSHA), was established in 1939 and grew into the central office through which the Nazi regime coordinated their political, ideological, and terror campaigns. Furthermore, the RSHA supplied the Einsatzgruppen units that were responsible for mass murder of Jews in the Soviet Union.
Among the leaders of the RSHA, nearly a quarter held doctorate degrees in subjects such as philosophy, German studies, theology, classics, journalism, and history. The fact that such a large percentage of the directors of mass murder, propaganda, and espionage had advanced degrees in these fields illuminates the malleability of ethics and morality. While in hindsight, the Nazi Regime’s racial policies are a clear violation of human rights, at the time those issuing such directives viewed their actions as guided by higher reasoning. Those familiar with the history of the Holocaust know that the Nazi Regime depicted Jews, among others, as a “racial enemy,” however, the fact that racial “science” was infused with a philosophy of history that stratified humanity is not as well known.
One can easily argue, for example, that eugenics (“good health”) would have never developed into euthanasia (“mercy killing”) without the reasoning and moralizing of nationhood put forth by academics in Nazi Germany. In short, the highly educated concluded that sterilizing and then murdering children and adults with physical and mental disabilities was an ethical course of action because it ensured a stronger and purer Aryan race. By eliminating those deemed inferior from the gene pool, scholars and scientists reasoned that the future offspring of Germans would be stronger, smarter, and healthier. The highly educated believed that such a course of action was ethical because it was for the greater good.
The fact that such a significant percentage of the planners and implementers of the RSHA held advanced degrees in the humanities drives home the important point that ethics and morality are not constant denominators across space and time. In order to better understand how genocide occurs, we must begin by scrutinizing the factors that inspired perpetrators to view mass murder and genocide as moral.
 Michael Wildt, An Uncompromsing Generation: The Nazi Leadership of the Reich Security Main Office, trans. Tom Lampert (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), p. 429.