The Crime of Complicity

  • Review
By – May 16, 2017

The the­sis of this con­tro­ver­sial book asks the fol­low­ing ques­tion: if you wit­ness a crime, are you legal­ly oblig­at­ed to intervene?”

Amos Guio­ra, a pro­fes­sor of law at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Utah as well as a retired lieu­tenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces, argues that laws must be passed to make bystanders respon­si­ble for tak­ing action to pre­vent poten­tial crimes. To sup­port his the­sis, Guio­ra, whose grand­par­ents per­ished in the Holo­caust, refers to the work of a num­ber of his­to­ri­ans who have demon­strat­ed that with­out bystanders, the Nazis would not have been able to imple­ment the Final Solu­tion. Bystander non­in­ter­ven­tion was com­plic­it in enabling the Nazis to com­mit crimes against humanity.

Giv­ing var­ied exam­ples of bystander respons­es — from rape on col­lege cam­pus­es to the depor­ta­tion of Jews in Hol­land and Hun­gary — Guio­ra does allow for cir­cum­stances that would pre­vent the aver­age bystander to refrain from tak­ing a stand. Nev­er­the­less, in describ­ing those watch­ing my grand­par­ents make their way to the train sta­tion in Nyir­e­gy­haza, Hun­gary,” he cites the fol­low­ing reac­tion of an observ­er in a Hun­gar­i­an ghetto:

tens of thou­sands vis­it­ed the board fence of the ghet­to to peer inside or voiced con­tent at see­ing crowds herd­ed towards the train sta­tion; at the same time tens of thou­sands most like­ly pitied the Jews plight. But mil­lions sim­ply lived their lives, went to work, and tried to get by under the dete­ri­o­rat­ing con­di­tions of war. They paid no atten­tion to the tragedy unfold­ing around them.”

In his sem­i­nal book, Ordi­nary Men, Christo­pher Brown­ing attempt­ed to explain how ordi­nary Ger­man sol­diers were able to ignore their respec­tive moral and reli­gious codes and kill Jews. He writes about a cir­cle of human oblig­a­tion,” where­by Jews were per­ceived to be the oth­er” — out­side gen­tile Ger­mans’ social and moral oblig­a­tions. True dur­ing the Holo­caust, it was also true in the Amer­i­can South where in the aver­age bystander wit­nessed lynch­ings and oth­er atroc­i­ties towards blacks.

One won­ders if Guiora’s argu­ment is real­is­tic, let alone enforce­able, when he writes, Cre­at­ing a mech­a­nism where­by a bystander, posi­tioned and capa­ble to inter­vene, is oblig­at­ed to act … that oblig­a­tion for it to be effec­tive and enforce­able must be root­ed in the law.” The author argues that one’s moral and reli­gious sen­si­bil­i­ty is insuf­fi­cient to make the bystander respon­si­ble for his fel­low human being. One won­ders whether a law pro­tect­ing a vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple like the Jews would have led bystanders to take force­ful action to defend them.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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