Holocaust Responsibility and the Power of Language

Think of the first word that comes to mind for the following question: Who is responsible for perpetrating the Holocaust, the heinous murder of approximately 6 million Jews, including more than 1.5 million children?

For many, the answer is “the Nazis.” Media and historians routinely refer to the perpetrators as the “Nazis,” rather than the “Germans” or “Germany.” This is an unusual use of language considering historians normally designate nation states as responsible for their actions. For example, historians assign Japan as responsible for the Pearl Harbor attack, as opposed to the Japanese monarchy. Likewise, the United States is deemed responsible for dropping the atom bomb versus Truman’s Democratic Party.

Writers often ascribe “Germany” to military events (“The German blitzkrieg overwhelmed the Polish Army”), and “Nazi” to describe Germany’s genocide of the Jews (“In June, 1944, the Nazis began deporting Hungarian Jews”).

A New York Times article dated Jan. 24, 2019, detailing the then upcoming Holocaust exhibit at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, is a case in point. The article made multiple references to the word “Nazi,” including the following:

  1. “A boxcar of the kind the Nazis used to transport people like cattle”
  2. “ … exhibition designed to provide a vivid sense of the Nazi death camp where … ”
  3. “ … the sign the Nazis posted reads “Arbeit Macht … ”
  4. “ … artifacts from the former Nazi death camp … ”
  5. “The Nazi ingenuity for mass murder is immediately apparent”
  6. “ … the market town of Oswiecim before the Nazis renamed it Auschwitz”
  7. “it will open on May 8, the date of the Nazi surrender in 1945”

I ask the reader to replace “Nazi(s)” with “German(s)” in each case and conclude if it is a more accurate statement. Consider #7. The surrender document makes no mention of the word “Nazi” or any reference to the Nationalist Socialist Party.

The article does make one German reference: “Other camps like Treblinka … were leveled by the retreating Germans to obliterate evidence … . ” By using “Germans” in this reference but not the above 7, is The New York Times suggesting that there is a difference between “retreating Germans” and “retreating Nazis”? If so, what is the difference?

This essay does not explore the culpability and participation of the German citizenry. While that, too, is a worthy exercise, this essay simply argues that the country of Germany, in all references, is the perpetrator of the Holocaust.

Points to consider:



The usage of the word Nazi itself obscures an important fact of history: Neither Adolf Hitler nor any of his subordinates ever used the word “Nazi” in any speech or government document. Hitler’s political party was the “National Socialist German Workers Party” (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei), abbreviated “NSDAP.”Party members referred to each other as “National Socialists.” So where did the term come from?

Hitler and his early cohorts emerged from Bavaria. In Bavaria, the word Ignatius (shortened to Ignatz, shortened to Nazi) described a backward, hillbilly-like character. Opponents of Hitler used this term to mock the party. When Hitler came to power the usage of the word “Nazi” ended (for fear of consequence) but was carried forward by exiles.

Case in point: The following is a letter from Germany’s then-Chief Foreign Diplomat, Joachim von Ribbentrop, to Mufti Amin al-Husseini giving assurance of Germany’s allegiance to the aim of the destruction of the Jewish National Home in Palestine. In the letter, Ribbentrop makes four references to the German Government and none to “Nazis,” “Nazi Party,” “Nazi Regime,” “National Socialists” or “NSDAP.”

Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Berlin, April 28, 1942
Your Eminence:

In response to your letter and to the accompanying communication of His Excellency, Prime Minister Raschid Ali El Gailani, and confirming the terms of our conversation, I have the honour to inform you:

The German Government appreciates fully the confidence of the Arab peoples in the Axis Powers in their aims and in their determination to conduct the fight against the common enemy until victory is achieved. The German Government has the greatest understanding for the national aspirations of the Arab countries as have been expressed by you both and the greatest sympathy for the sufferings of your peoples under British oppression.

I have therefore the honour to assure you, in complete agreement with the Italian Government, that the independence and freedom of the suffering Arab countries presently subjected to British oppression, is also one of the aims of the German Government.

Germany is consequently ready to give all her support to the oppressed Arab countries in their fight against British domination, for the fulfillment of their national aim to independence and sovereignty and for the destruction of the Jewish National Home in Palestine.

As previously agreed, the content of this letter should be maintained absolutely secret until we decide otherwise.

I beg your Eminence to be assured of my highest esteem and consideration.
To His Eminence (Signed) Ribbentrop


Ribbentrop wrote in the name of the German Government, as you would expect of a government official.



One of the greatest voices of the Holocaust was the late Primo Levi. Here are a few quotes from Levi’s quintessential book Survival in Auschwitz:

  • “The door opened with a crash, and the dark echoed with outlandish orders in the curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger.” (p. 19)
  • “All those able to find a way out, try to take it; but they are the minority because it is very difficult to escape from a selection. The Germans apply themselves to these things with great skill and diligence.” (p. 125)
  • “It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German Government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labour, to lengthening the average lifespan of the prisoners destined for elimination … .” (p. 9)
  • “To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to create one: It has not been easy, nor quick, but you Germans have succeeded.” (p. 150)

Levi never references “the Nazis” in these passages or anywhere else in the book. I believe this is the example we should follow and preserve.


Crucially, today’s Germany does take responsibility for its historical actions. Consider the following statements from two speeches by Germany’s chancellor (in 2019) and its president (in 2020):

(A) German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech at the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (12/6/2019).

“Auschwitz was a German extermination camp, operated by Germans. It is important to me to emphasize that fact. It is important to identify the perpetrators clearly. We Germans owe that to the victims and to ourselves.”

“Remembering the crimes, naming the perpetrators and commemorating the victims in dignity is an unending responsibility. It is non-negotiable, and it belongs inseparably to our country. Being aware of this responsibility is an integral part of our national identity.”

(B) German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier speech at the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem (1/23/2020)

“Germans deported them. Germans burned numbers on their forearms. Germans tried to dehumanize them, to reduce them to numbers, to erase all memory of them in the extermination camps.”

“And this also must be said here: The perpetrators were human beings. They were Germans. Those who murdered those who planned and helped in the murdering, the many who silently toed the line: They were Germans.”

“The industrial mass murder of six million Jews, the worst crime in the history of humanity, it was committed by my countrymen.”

“The Eternal Flame at Yad Vashem does not go out. Germany’s responsibility does not expire. We want to live up to our responsibility. By this, you should measure us.”

Today’s German leadership’s acceptance of responsibility (with no mention of Nazism), reinforces the thesis of this essay, and we should emulate and echo their word choices in all aspects of Holocaust responsibility dialogue.

Auschwitz was a German extermination camp, operated by Germans. It is important to me to emphasize that fact. It is important to identify the perpetrators clearly. We Germans owe that to the victims and to ourselves. (Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel)


The barbaric side of history makes us uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable (actually horrific) to state the truth: Germany marked for death every Jewish man, woman and child it could capture, and achieved its goal on an unfathomable scale. It is more comfortable to blame these deaths on a vanquished political party as it removes modern-day relevance. This word shift has, over time, fostered a watered-down version of responsibility.

So I state it clearly: Germany, in all aspects, was responsible for the Holocaust. While there were collaborators, the Holocaust was a uniquely German enterprise, administered and managed with brutal zeal and ingenuity.

While there were collaborators, the Holocaust was a uniquely German enterprise, administered and managed with brutal zeal and ingenuity.

Words matter. Let’s get it right. We owe it to the victims.


Link to New York Times Article:


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