There were two types of Nazi collaborators in occupied Europe, the acquiescent and the opportunist. To the former belongs if not our sympathy, at the very least our understanding. To the latter belongs our scorn and disgust, as they not only betrayed fundamental human morality in willingly cooperating with the Nazis, but they also betrayed their own compatriots. The latter category include the most nefarious of collaborators, Philippe Petain of France and Vidkun Quisling of Norway. Petain’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and he was eventually released due to ill health; Quisling was executed by firing squad shortly after the war. Opportunist collaborators used Nazi occupation as a means to further their selfish ambitions, and there isn’t much doubt over the immorality of their wartime actions. But how should we judge those millions of average men and women, inside and outside the Third Reich who were seemingly coerced into cooperating with the Nazis?
Despite the infamy such collaborators as Petain and Quisling have garnered, there were many lesser known individuals who collaborated in the worst sense of the word. In “One Day in Jozefow,” Christopher Browning investigates the rationale and mentalities behind those German policemen who participated in the mass execution of Jews in a small town in occupied Poland. That these men murdered hundreds of innocent civilians at point-blank range may, without further investigation, have led us to believe that they were ideologically motivated, perhaps rabidly anti-semitic SS hard-liners. However, as Browning explains, the police officers:
“were not from a generation that had been reared and educated solely under the Nazi regime… They were older; many were married family men; and many came from a social and political background that would have exposed them to anti-Nazi sentiments before 1933.” (Crew 312)
Browning observes that these men participated in such horrendous acts of brutality for a host of other reasons; hardly any were ardent Nazis. Influenced by their peers or hoping for career advancement, these men were able to commit brutal acts in an environment which made such deeds acceptable. The “banality of evil” which brought a number of Hitler’s subordinates, even in the absence of the Fuhrer or his inner circle to plan the systematic extermination of European Jewry occupies a special place in the nightmare of the Holocaust and the Second World War. In their willingness to participate in Nazi crimes, they were at the same time acquiescent and opportunistic. They acquiesced to peer pressure or presiding authorities, but at the same time saw in their actions a means through which to advance their own statuses. In this sense, they occupy a theoretical middle ground, but in the perversity of their actions, they were as evil as the most fervent Nazi.
The wide range of actions which constituted “collaboration” make it even more difficult to navigate through the narrative of the Holocaust and the Second World War, as the moral compass has essentially become incomprehensible with ever-expanding historical analysis. It is no longer simply a matter of “putting one’s self in another’s shoes” to make a moral judgement. What is perhaps the most frightening theoretical consequence of the “banality of evil” is that perhaps any individual is capable of committing the most heinous crimes.
We must therefore treat the concept of collaboration sensitively, as to place a career civil servant in Vichy France into the same category as a a Norwegian volunteer in the Nordic-SS would be a miscarriage of moral justice. Some are more guilty than others. The purpose of investigating and examining the role of Nazi collaborators in the Second World War and the Holocaust is to not only catalogue and categorize their actions, but to understand their reasons for having committed them.
In this disambiguation of collaboration, Petain and Quisling stand out, as they did not have to cooperate had they chose not to. Quisling, a Nazi-sympathizer and leader of the fascist National Gathering party, staged a coup against the fleeing Norwegian government as the Nazis advanced into his country. Petain voluntarily assumed a leadership position during and after the Nazi invasion and occupation, and even went so far as to nurture a personality cult around himself. These two collaborators enabled the perpetuation of Nazi occupation by independently repressing local resistance movements.
Within the category of opportunist collaboration, the most difficult conclusion, one which may be impossible to make, is whether the greatest guilt belongs to those whose actions were most consequential, or those whose actions were the most nefarious. Adolf Eichmann never killed a man himself, but his actions enabled so many nameless, untried individuals to murder innocent people in cold blood. Collaboration is thus further muddled by the attempted application of a basic moral litmus test.
Ultimate moral judgements must therefore be made on a case-by-case basis. Who in our collective memory must share a greater “burden of guilt,” national leaders such as Quisling or Petain, whose actions indirectly led to the murder of thousands of civilians, or the anonymous tip who informed local Nazi authorities in Amsterdam of the location of Anne Frank and her family?Both are guilty of collaboration, thus it would be futile, and perhaps inappropriate to even attempt to compare their actions. But when it comes to the distribution of guilt, which thereby must be distinguished from blame, we must appreciate how immense and ubiquitous was collaboration with the Nazis.
For those millions of average, largely nameless collaborators, there will never be punishment. More importantly than this fact is the question it connotes: should they have been punished? Collaboration can be the most far-reaching and innocuous action as much as it can be the most nefarious and microcosmic one. Collaboration occupies such a prominent place in our popular and academic depiction of the Holocaust and the Second World War because it is such an ambiguous, case-by-case subject that the evaluation and examination of the entire spectrum of collaborationist activity has not, nor can it ever, be fully exhausted.
We must learn to accept a world and a history wherein millions, perhaps the majority of people in any given situation, are complicit in the evil which occurs in their midst. We will undoubtedly never be able to fully understand the actions or inaction of every individual who experienced the scourge of Nazi occupation and brutality. While there exists thousands of cases wherein moral transgression is undoubtable, perhaps more haunting is the revelation that millions of men and women, although they may not be guilty, must carry the “burden of blame” for their acquiescent collaboration.