Skip to content
Lessons in Complicity
Go to my account

Lessons in Complicity

Tyrants and terrorists deserve the blame for their atrocities, but we cannot ignore those who acknowledge injustice and do nothing, either.

The Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany. (via Getty Images)

“Many lines have been written since the close of World War II about Hitler and his immediate subordinates. … The impression most commonly left by commentators is that the responsibility for Germany’s tragic years could be laid solely at the feet of these leaders and their immediate associates. This is a misconception.” This is how the preeminent lawyer and power broker Leon Jaworski began his account of the prosecution of German war crimes in his book, After Fifteen Years (1961). As the name suggests, the book was Jaworski’s attempt to reach back to the horrors of the Nazi regime, which had already begun to fade in the collective memory, and memorialize vital lessons learned. In the book’s preface, he explained that his motivation for the retrospective was to ensure that his son “always remembers the truths I have undertaken here to record.”

The late Leon Jaworski led a uniquely impactful life. Born in 1905 to a Polish father and an Austrian mother in rural Waco, Texas, by age 15 he enrolled at Baylor University and quickly joined the school’s law school. At age 19, he became the youngest lawyer in the history of Texas. Shortly after joining the Army at age 36, he was entrusted with prosecuting German war criminals. Jaworski would later become a household name through his close ties to President Lyndon B. Johnson and his role as special prosecutor in the Watergate investigation. But long before he fought against unchecked presidential power, he warned Americans that the evils that manifested in the German people didn’t represent a uniquely German condition—they could fester and grow in others. Given the horrible events of the past 10 days, it is important that we reflect on Jaworski’s warnings once more. 

When we imagine the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, we typically jump to the Nuremberg Trials of top Nazi officials. Jaworski didn’t prosecute those trials, but the defendants he did try were alleged to have committed plenty of inhumane crimes of their own. As documented in his book, they included German prisoners of war who arranged the callous murder of fellow Germans who were insufficiently Nazi; German medical professionals who euthanized German, Russian, and Polish prisoners at the Hadamar sanitorium; German townsfolk who beat to death captured American pilots; and those responsible for the horrors of the Dachau concentration camp. 

Over the course of his work, Jaworski personally interviewed and became familiar with many Nazi diehards at all levels of German society. Much like Hannah Arendt’s subsequent observation of the “banality of evil” exhibited by Adolf Eichmann, Jaworski was shocked by the everyday nature of Nazism’s corrupting influence. Time and again, Jaworski documented the fall of ordinary, God-fearing men and women into the moral pit of Nazism, where the most heinous crimes could be justified and inaction in the face of injustice rationalized.

In the summer of 1945, Jaworski led the prosecution of several residents of Rüsselsheim, Germany, who launched a frenzied attack on eight American pilots being led to a prisoner-of-war camp. The townsfolk, which included two local women, urged each other on, beating the men until six of the pilots lay dead with skull fractures. The two survivors, having been piled with their fallen brothers in a wagon, managed to slip away and lived to tell the tale. 

One of the witnesses in the Rüsselsheim case was the minister of the town, who was called by the defense as a character witness and testified that he had never “heard anything bad against” the several defendants. Each of the defendants had, at one time, been an active member in his congregation, seemingly pillars of the community. On cross-examination, he reported that the attack had taken place outside of his church, and that he was aware of its escalation and violence. When asked why he and his congregation had not intervened, he explained, “It was not my task. It was the task of the persons who were leading these prisoners-of-war to step in for the safety of these prisoners-of-war. It was the task of the local police to look out for the order in the town. It was not my task.” (Emphasis in Jaworski’s original.) 

In the case of German-on-German murders within prison camps, Jaworski recounts the case of one “Ludwig” who was outwardly a mild-mannered, non-disruptive prisoner of war. Before his commitment to the Nazi party, he was even an ordained minister. But under the veneer of humanity was a man who had grown to take pleasure in the murder and torment of his own countrymen. Initially, Ludwig denied any knowledge of the murders, telling his interrogator that he was shocked and saddened by the violence. That was, until Jaworski revealed Ludwig’s own secret journal that recalled in “gleeful” detail the suffering inflicted on those deemed traitors to Nazism. When confronted with his own words, after several minutes of silence, he said simply, “You just do not understand.” 

Toward the end of his book, Jaworski recounts an interview with Dr. Hans Borchers, a high official in the Nazi government, albeit a seemingly reluctant party member. Jaworski asked Borchers the simple question, “Why did you join the Nazi Party?” His answer typified for Jaworski the passive acceptance that enabled Nazi atrocities: 

“Perhaps if I had foreseen things, I would not have done so. Naturally, in 1935, we still hoped that this very extreme attitude of the Party would gradually die down, that better elements would come into the Party, and that eventually out of this revolution we would be able to get an evolution, and I thought I could be a helpful part in that machinery. Most reluctantly I decided to join the Party, although I did not like it and although I particularly objected to the Jewish situation.”

When pressed what he meant by the “Jewish situation,” he explained: “That the Jews were to be eliminated practically from the German life under the Nazi doctrine, which I thought was injustice.” 

If one could read the secret history of the world, in between the chapter headers punctuated by dictators and tyrants, monsters and mad men, one would find an infinite number of footnotes dedicated to those who acknowledged injustice but did nothing.  

“There were those who readily and openly joined the Nazi movement because the ideals and methods actually appealed to them,” explained Jaworski. “On the other hand, there were others, cognizant of the wrong inherent in this course, who were content to say nothing and do nothing.” 

Since the barbaric attacks launched against Israel, there have been numerous attempts to justify or qualify the actions of the terrorists, to rationalize their behavior. Across the world—including in many Western liberal democracies—rallies have broadcast solidarity with the attackers, blaming the policies of the Israeli government for the necessity of the attack. Some academics have even scoffed at the outrage, revealing their approval for unabashed bloodlust in pursuit of “decolonization.”

Still others have stressed the innocence of the Palestinian people, placing the blame squarely on Hamas and its leaders. Blaming Hamas is fair, but it also obscures a powerful malignancy. 

While culpability and responsibility always rest with the perpetrators of crime, we cannot ignore the enablers. There are those in the West who dehumanize Israelis, treat them as a scourge to be “justifiably” removed for the perceived sins of the Israeli government. These enablers fuel the perception that evil done against Israel is no real evil at all. They have their share of blame, but we must also recognize the complicity of everyday Palestinians. 

Following the 2021 conflict in Gaza, an opinion poll revealed 53 percent of Palestinians believed that Hamas was “most deserving of representing and leading the Palestinian people.” The pollsters at the time noted this number tends to go up during times of confrontation and recede only when Hamas fails to achieve their stated goals

A March 2023 poll found that 71 percent of Palestinians supported the armed attack against two Israelis in Huwara, which led to violent reprisals by Israelis. The same poll shockingly found 58 percent in favor of armed confrontations and a return to intifada. 

These data are not meant as an indictment of all Palestinians—and Israel should of course take every precaution to avoid killing civilians—but they are an illustration of the larger problem. There is a deeper rot at the heart of this tragedy that requires more than simply eliminating Hamas. It is the same rot that Leon Jaworski identified back in 1961. 

Jaworski recognized that there were numerous motivations for the actions and inactions of millions of Germans under the Third Reich, many of them based in grievances leveled at the rest of Europe and at the Jewish people. They were motivated by their insistence on “Lebensraum,” or “room for living,” which they perceived had been curtailed by the other powers, and they welcomed policies that resulted in more money in their pocket and relief from crushing economic conditions. In other words, they had their “reasons.” To Jaworski, it was all noise: “They were ready to accept the fruits of an evil goal instead of repudiating it. Accordingly, all guilty of such action or inaction must bear their share of the guilt.” 

“Could this happen elsewhere?” Jaworski asked. Absolutely. There are always facile justifications for evil—perceived or real injustices that form a permission structure for ungodly terror. 

At the conclusion of his analysis, Jaworski charged the German people themselves to be “aware constantly of this lurking danger,” and to starve out the “monsters of prejudice and hate and bigotry,” which led to “mass brutalities.” And he warned the peoples of other nations to do the same. 

As an illustration of the nearness of the threat, he pointed to the experience of America in the 1920s, when the rise of the Klan threatened the security of millions of Americans. “Why did men join the Klan?” he wondered. “For economic gain? For excitement? Because it was the popular thing to do? Doubtless some were deceived; some misunderstood the true nature of this secret order and others were hasty. Yet, the organization advertised rather clearly. … One shudders at the thought of what this movement would have done … had it not been checked. Let it be said to the everlasting credit of good Americans that, unlike the German faintheartedness … churchmen and teachers, editors and statesmen, businessmen and laborers, unmasked this secret order and exposed it for what it was.” 

Unfortunately, not before many deadly horrors were unleashed in the American South. 

The trouble today, as we reflect on the summary executions, mutilations, kidnappings, and rapes that have occurred, is that we find ourselves at a frightening crossroads. We are watching in real time, as the enablers, the justifiers, the sympathizers, explain to us, “You just do not understand.” They say it is not for us to criticize the actions of the “oppressed,” that “it is not our task.” 

No. This is our task. Like the Americans who shed light on the Klan, and the Germans who died in obscurity resisting the rising tide of public opinion toward hate and rationalized violence, we must embrace the task. For those of us in America, it is not a burdensome one. In fact, relative to those risking their lives to defend their families and friends in Israel, it is trivial. But it’s a task that’s not without significance. It was a relative handful of Nazi administrators who committed mass murder via euthanasia at Hadamar, but there were countless others who knew what was happening, and did nothing, said nothing, thereby giving their tacit approval. We must not follow their example. We must not only call out the murderers themselves, but those who give them cover, both in Gaza and around the world.

Click here for more coverage of the war in Israel.

Jacob Becker currently serves as assistant general counsel for the Texas A&M University System. He holds a J.D. from Southern Methodist University, where he previously served as assistant general counsel.