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Into the grey zone: Wehrmacht bystanders, German labor market policy and the Holocaust

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In 1941, German troops occupied the city of Vilnius. Mass killings started immediately, reducing the Jewish population by 70% by the end of the year. In the following two years, genocidal action ceased nearly altogether due to the effects of increasing labor shortages. Since neither Soviet POWs nor Lithuanian gentiles were available in sufficient numbers, German offices had to resort to the remaining Jewish workforce. This article explores the cases of three German officers who used economic rationale extensively in order to save their workers from mass murder. Their efforts testify to the scope of action that was open to minor Wehrmacht officers in the occupied territories. By highlighting the institutional background against which these men were able to provide help to Jews some tentative conclusions about how passive bystanders turned into active rescuers shall be drawn. Since the historian's insight into individual motivations is often frustrated by the limited availability and reliability of sources, this article stresses the impact of situational factors. By drawing on sociopsychological research the essay argues that the risks the Wehrmacht rescuers had to take not only remained fairly limited but were also marked by ambiguity. Rather than opting for outright resistance, at least two of the three men remained within a “grey zone” of moral compromise which, however, was vital to the success of their rescue efforts.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: September 1, 2008

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