Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £29.99 £19.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

The Story of a German Officer

In dealing with the Holocaust, we sometimes see a tendency to portray the Nazis and their collaborators as monsters, as evil doers, almost not from this world. But when we depict the perpetrators as monsters, we might contribute to a kind of polarization “They were Nazis, but I am not”. And from here it is only a small step, to concluding, that there is very little to learn from this phenomenon. It is fundamentally important to recall that the Holocaust is a historical event, carried out by humans and suffered by humans.
Instead of labeling these people who carried out these incredible atrocities as monsters who were not any longer human, it is very important to acknowledge that yes, they were human beings.
In this video, we will explore the phenomenon of perpetrators and we will deal with the disturbing insight that no one is immune to acting in an inhuman way. We will focus on a specific case study, an ordinary German policeman who decided to take an active role in what the Nazis called “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question”. The materials that will be used in the following discussion are available both on the Yad Vashem website as well as in print.
To approach our case study, it is important to keep some historical background information [in mind]. In 1933, some 566,000 Jews lived in Germany. For many years, they had been loyal citizens to Germany and felt deeply connected to German culture. The Nazi regime legislated numerous anti-Jewish laws in order to encourage Jewish emigration.
In October of 1941, Nazi Germany closed its borders so Jews could no longer emigrate. At the same time, the Germans started to deport the German Jews, mostly to the East, to killing sites and ghettos. On December 11th, 1941, a train with 1,007 German Jews left Dusseldorf train station destined for Riga. Usually transports like these were escorted by one police officer and a crew of 15 guards. In our case study, the name of the police officer was Paul Salitter. Salitter was born in 1898, and he joined the Nazi party at the age of 39. He was married and had two children. In October ‘41, he was given the mission to accompany a transport of Jews from Dusseldorf to Riga.
The Jewish deportees were assembled in the slaughterhouse yard, and then walked to the railway station in Dusseldorf, where they boarded the train to Riga.
Salitter clearly took his mission seriously; he really prepared for this transport. It seems that he assumed that this would help advance his career. A meticulous tally sheet, stored in the Yad Vashem archives, has Salitter dividing these 1,007 Jews into categories by gender, age, and profession. Upon his arrival in Riga, Salitter handed the Jews over to the ghetto administration. He then took a day off, since December 15th was his birthday, and then he travelled back to Dusseldorf, where he sat down and prepared a very detailed report about the entire trip, including recommendations for his superiors.
“The transport was compiled of Jews of both sexes, of various ages – from babies to 65-year-olds… On the way from the slaughterhouse yard to the platform, a male Jew attempted to commit suicide by throwing himself in front of a streetcar. But he was caught by the streetcar’s bumper and only slightly injured. He recovered during the trip, and realized that he could not avoid sharing the fate of the evacuees.”
One of the striking effects of reading this report today is the implicitness, the matter-of-fact style of this report, describing incomprehensible human suffering as a chain of seemingly technical affairs. “…We arrived in Riga at 21:50. The train was kept at the station for one and a half hours… The train stood there without heat. The temperature outside was minus 12 centigrade… Because it was past midnight, dark, and the platform was covered with a thick layer of ice it was decided to transfer the Jews to the Sarnel ghetto only on Sunday morning (…) After the entry of the German Army (…) the Jews were closed in a Ghetto surrounded by barbed wire.
At this time, there were only 2,500 male Jews who are being used for labor. The remaining Jews were used elsewhere or shot by Latvians…”
We see here a major drift of moral standards. Clearly, Salitter’s actions are morally wrong. But the main educational questions to ask here are, how could that happen? and what can we learn from it?
Salitter’s detailed report suggests that bureaucracy and Nazi ideology form an important context for the way Salitter made decisions and perceived the Jews. We have to consider human behavior within its context of action, and put it in relation with other comparable cases of Nazi perpetrators. But beyond the assumptions that we can draw from our source, we have to know the historical context Given that Salitter was not living in a free democracy, did he face any alternatives? Could he have acted differently? On the one hand, the Nazi dictatorship was clearly an abusive regime that didn’t have to legitimize any of its actions to its citizens. Social sanctions, like the loss of work or social position, were feasible at any stage.
But on the other hand, escorting transports like this was clearly an attractive mission. We know today from scholarly research that officers like Salitter may well have been able to stay out of this mission without any punishment. The worst consequence might have been some disadvantages concerning their career.
After the war ended, he was classified in category 3: lesser offenders. However, Salitter decided to appeal, and wrote a letter asking for a better classification that would allow him to stay in his job as a policeman.
“I promise that also in the new democracy, I shall put into service my whole personality, as I did under the governments of Wilhelm II, Ebert, Hindenburg, as well as in the Third Reich.” This sentence is written by a person who is shifting without any problems from system to system. He switches through the norms and values of five different forms of government, but he totally fails to install his own, unerring set of values that would have allowed him to challenge the inhuman grounds of Nazi ideology.
The letter was answered positively and although Salitter did not resume his job as a policeman again, he was granted full rights of pension, until his death in 1972.
So, in the classroom, studying human actions and decisions within their contexts reminds us that there are always options of action and also to strengthen the principle of personal responsibility, because in the end it is always the individual person who makes decisions and is responsible for them.

Having viewed the video above on Salitter, consider and discuss any application of the Szymborska’s categories from her poem vis-a-vis the German officer’s chosen behaviour.

This article is from the free online

Poetry and the Holocaust

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now