The best books about perpetrator motivation in the Holocaust

Edward B. Westermann Author Of Drunk on Genocide: Alcohol and Mass Murder in Nazi Germany
By Edward B. Westermann

Who am I?

Since I first began to study the events of the Holocaust in 1991, I became deeply engaged and committed to trying to understand why individuals engaged in the abuse and murder of their neighbors, fellow countrymen, and those deemed racially or politically inferior. In exploring this question, I drew in part on my own military experience to think about how a warped organizational culture and corrupted leadership emerged in Nazi Germany in which state-sponsored propaganda and ideological socialization combined to pervert existing moral and ethical norms and led many within the SS, police, and the German military to engage in genocide.

I wrote...

Drunk on Genocide: Alcohol and Mass Murder in Nazi Germany

By Edward B. Westermann,

Book cover of Drunk on Genocide: Alcohol and Mass Murder in Nazi Germany

What is my book about?

Drunk on Genocide explores how alcohol consumption served as a literal and metaphorical lubricant for mass murder. It facilitated "performative masculinity," expressly linked to physical or sexual violence. Such inebriated exhibitions extended from meetings of top Nazi officials to the rank and file, celebrating at the grave sites of their victims. Westermann argues that, contrary to the common misconception of the SS and police as stone-cold killers, they were, intoxicated with murder itself.

Drunk on Genocide highlights the intersections of masculinity, drinking ritual, sexual violence, and mass murder to expose the role of alcohol and celebratory ritual in the Nazi genocide of European Jews. It's surprising and disturbing findings offer a new perspective on the mindset, motivation, and mentality of killers as they prepared for, and participated in, mass extermination.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

Why did I love this book?

Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men launched perpetrator studies in the field of Holocaust Studies with its publication in 1992 and became the foundation for subsequent scholarship on the topic.

Focusing on a group of middle-aged German men mobilized for occupation duty in Poland, Browning argued that peer group pressure, obedience to authority, and individual ambition rather than ideological belief provided the motivation for these men to engage in acts of atrocity and mass murder against Polish Jews.

Based on postwar interrogation and trial transcripts for the unit, Browning expanded historical studies to incorporate social science theory such as works by Stanley Milgram, Philip Zimbardo, and Ervin Staub to explain how these “ordinary” Germans became involved in mass murder during World War II.

By Christopher Browning,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Ordinary Men as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Christopher R. Browning's shocking account of how a unit of average middle-aged Germans became the cold-blooded murderers of tens of thousands of Jews-now with a new afterword and additional photographs. Ordinary Men is the true story of Reserve Police Battalion 101 of the German Order Police, which was responsible for mass shootings as well as round-ups of Jewish people for deportation to Nazi death camps in Poland in 1942. Browning argues that most of the men of RPB 101 were not fanatical Nazis but, rather, ordinary middle-aged, working-class men who committed these atrocities out of a mixture of motives, including…

Book cover of Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields

Why did I love this book?

Wendy Lower’s powerful examination of the role of German women as witnesses, accomplices, and perpetrators in the Holocaust exposed the participation of women in the genocide of the European Jews during World War II.

Focusing on individual histories, Lower reveals the backgrounds, actions, and motivations of a cohort of mostly young women who became complicit in mass murder.

Full of haunting descriptions, the image of the wife of a German SS officer leading a group of naked Jewish boys to a woods near her home and shooting them as they wept because she wanted to prove her toughness to the men is only one unforgettable example of women’s participation in the Holocaust.

By Wendy Lower,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hitler's Furies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'Hitler's Furies will be experienced and remembered as a turning point in both women's studies and Holocaust studies' Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands

History has it that the role of women in Nazi Germany was to be the perfect Hausfrau, produce the next Aryan generation and be a loyal cheerleader for the Fuhrer. Then they became the Trummerfrauen, or Rubble Women, as they cleared and tidied their ruined country to get it back on its feet. They were Germany's heroines. The few women tried and convicted after the war were simply the…

Book cover of An Uncompromising Generation: The Nazi Leadership of the Reich Security Main Office

Why did I love this book?

Originally published in German, Wildt studies the role of the mid-level leadership of the Nazi SS who worked on the implementation of the “Final Solution” and the mass murder of the alleged racial and political enemies of the Third Reich.

Using a collective biographical approach and examining the individual backgrounds of these SS perpetrators, Wildt found that, contrary to popular belief, these men were not the so-called dregs of German society, but rather a cohort of ambitious, intelligent “men of action” many with advanced university degrees who came from borderlands areas throughout Germany. 

Whether with a pen or a pistol in their hands, these men proved adept at moving from desk duties to the field and were key actors in the implementation of mass murder.  

By Michael Wildt, Tom Lampert (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked An Uncompromising Generation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In ""An Uncompromising Generation"", Michael Wildt follows the journey of a strikingly homogenous group of young academics - who came from the educated, bourgeois stratum of society - as they started to identify with the Nazi concept of Volksgemeinschaft, which labeled Jews as enemies of the people and justified their murder. Wildt's study traces the intellectual evolution of key members of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) from their days as students until the end of World War II. Established in 1939, this office fused together the Gestapo, the Criminal Police, and the Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service) of the SS. Far…

Trap with a Green Fence: Survival in Treblinka

By Richard Glazar, Roslyn Theobald (translator),

Book cover of Trap with a Green Fence: Survival in Treblinka

Why did I love this book?

The Holocaust survivor, Richard Glazar, authored a compelling memoir of his imprisonment and escape from the Nazi killing center at Treblinka in occupied Poland, a site at which an estimated one million Jewish men, women, and children perished at the hands of the SS and their Ukrainian auxiliaries.

Glazar provides a first-hand and extended look not only at the process of mass murder at the camp, but he also provides extensive descriptions and analysis of the SS men he encountered in the camp including their daily habits, personalities, and actions.

The memoir exposes the full range of the emotional, psychological, and physical hardship experienced by Glazar in the “death factory” of Treblinka and places perpetrator actions within the context of prisoner experience. 

By Richard Glazar, Roslyn Theobald (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Trap with a Green Fence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Trap with a Green Fence is Richard Glazar's memoir of deportation, escape, and survival. In economical prose, Glazar weaves a description of Treblinka and its operations into his evocation of himself and his fellow prisoners as denizens of an underworld. Glazar gives us compelling images of these horrors in a tone that remains thoughtful but sober, affecting but simple.

A Stranger to Myself: The Inhumanity of War: Russia, 1941-1944

By Willy Peter Reese, Stefan Schmitz (editor), Michael Hofmann (translator)

Book cover of A Stranger to Myself: The Inhumanity of War: Russia, 1941-1944

Why did I love this book?

Before being drafted into the German Army in 1941, Willy Peter Reese was a bank clerk who spent his time engaged in reading German literature and attempting to become a writer in his own right.

The memoir is a compilation of his journal entries as he reflected on his transition from civilian to soldier. Originally published in German, Reese’s journal demonstrates the way in which a relatively naïve and carefree intellectual became involved in the Nazi war of annihilation in the Soviet Union.

The transformation from a bookish, sensitive, and brooding teenager into a soldier who lost empathy for the people suffering under German occupation demonstrates how some German youth became actors and accomplices in the Nazi regime’s crimes.

By Willy Peter Reese, Stefan Schmitz (editor), Michael Hofmann (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Stranger to Myself as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A Stranger to Myself: The Inhumanity of War: Russia, 1941-44" is the haunting memoir of a young German soldier on the Russian front during World War II. Willy Peter Reese was only twenty years old when he found himself marching through Russia with orders to take no prisoners. Three years later he was dead. Bearing witness to-and participating in-the atrocities of war, Reese recorded his reflections in his diary, leaving behind an intelligent, touching, and illuminating perspective on life on the eastern front. He documented the carnage perpetrated by both sides; the destruction that was exacerbated by the young soldiers'…

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