Conscience and Complicity During the Holocaust

by Victoria J. Barnett


The first systematic study of bystanders during the Holocaust analyzing why individuals, institutions, and the international community remained passive while millions died.

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June 1999


Pages 208
Volumes 1
Size 6 1/8x9 1/4
Topics Religion/General
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The Holocaust did not introduce the phenomenon of the bystander, but it did illustrate the terrible consequences of indifference and passivity towards the persecution of others. Although the term was initially applied only to the good Germans—the apathetic citizens who made genocide possible through unquestioning obedience to evil leaders—recent Holocaust scholarship has shown that it applies to most of the world, including parts of the population in Nazi-occupied countries, some sectors within the international Christian and Jewish communities, and the Allied governments themselves. This work analyzes why this happened, drawing on the insights of historians, Holocaust survivors, and Christian and Jewish ethicists. The author argues that bystander behavior cannot be attributed to a single cause, such as anti-Semitism, but can only be understood within a complex framework of factors that shape human behavior individually, socially, and politically.

Topic Centers

Who Is a Bystander?
Individual Behavior
Collective Behavior
Interpreting the Holocaust
The Role of Totalitarianism
Attitudes Toward "The Other": Prejudice and Indifference
The Dynamics of Indifference
A Broken World: Religious Interpretations of the Holocaust
Acts of Disruptive Empathy: One Village
The Individual as Ethical Being


Reviews excellent model of a psychohistorical study that has been informed by the conclusions derived from experimental psychology. Her study of the psychosocial dynamics behind moral decision making can also help historians look for the patterns of primary data that can prove fruitful in understanding the behaviors of bystanders as they confront such assaults on humanity as those set in motion by the Nazis. She helps historians to answer the questions of why and how normal people watch political murder from the sidelines.—American Historical Review

^IBystanders^R is a powerful argument....The theoretical conclusions of Barnett's final pages are so pertinent, so powerful, that I would gladly have seen them all printed in italics. Indeed, were I now teaching an introductory course on Christian ethics in either a church or a seminary I would include this book as mandatory reading.—Christian Century

This is an important book on the dynamics of indifference and on the ethical implications of the Holocaust on the eve of a new millenium. Highly recommended for all libraries and Judaica collections.—Jewish Book World

A good, broad-based introduction to an important but often-overlooked aspect of the Holocaust, this book should find a place on the shelves of undergraduates and social scientists, humanists, and humanitarians of every stripe.—Religious Studies Review


Without flinching, and with sharp distaste for any apologetics, Barnett scrutinizes the behavior of the bystanders, those who saw and did nothing and then claimed they bore no responsibility. This book is a great achievement and will disturb the complacency of all those who thought they already knew the history of the Holocaust.—Susannah Heschel^Lauthor of ^IAbraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus^R

The ethical questions [Barnett] raises are as relevant and searing for the bystanders of today as they are for those of the past. Extremely well written, interesting and clear, the book should appeal to students in college-level Holocaust studies courses as well as the general public. It provides a great deal of information about Holocaust history while simultaneously provoking the reader toward moral self-scrutiny.—Pearl Oliner^LProfessor of Education^LResearch Director^LAltruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute

Victoria Barnett's book charts new ground in considering the bystander phenomenon during the Holocaust. Drawing from a wide variety of sources Barnett examines the historical and ethical implications of bystander behavior on three levels: the individual, institutional and international. Scholars and educators will benefit from Barnett's innovative and provocative study.—Mary Johnson^LNational Senior Program Associate^LFacing History and Ourselves

Victoria Barnett's new book is a welcome and necessary addition to the scholarship on the holocaust, in particular on its implications for Christians and Christianity....Barnett's lucidly written, accessible book will find a receptive audience in undergraduate and graduate classes as well as among the broader interested public.—Doris L. Bergen^LProfessor^LUniversity of Notre Dame

Other Titles of Interest

Holocaust Scholars Write to the Vatican cover imageHolocaust Education and the Church-Related College cover imageFrom the Unthinkable to the Unavoidable cover image
Christianity, Tragedy, and Holocaust Literature cover imageThe Stones Will Cry Out cover imageReturn cover image

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