Bystanders To History: A Lesson From The Holocaust

The Migrant Crisis, which has unfolded over the past few weeks and months and about which I wrote three weeks ago, has reminded me of what I once learned whilst participating in the Lessons From Auschwitz Project: the role of the bystander. Recent events warn us that we may again become guilty of merely standing by and watching another humanitarian catastrophe unfold. History, in a way, could repeat itself.


During my time on the Lessons From Auschwitz Project I learned about distinguishing between different types of people regarding their positions within the Holocaust. There were the perpetrators, who meaningfully and consciously participated in the mass murder of 11 million people; there were the victims themselves; and there were the bystanders, who witnessed but did not intervene in the myriad atrocities committed by the Nazis and their associates around Europe.

According to the Collins English Dictionary & Thesaurus of 1996, a bystander is “a person present but not involved; onlooker; spectator”. Interestingly, the entry directly underneath – the bystander effect – concerns “the phenomenon that when many people observe a crime or someone in trouble, each of them is less likely to intervene than when only one person is present”. It is arguable that this was manifest to a certain degree during the Holocaust. Perhaps it also pertains to the present day.

Many people, for a variety of reasons, were bystanders during the Holocaust. They did not intervene and protect the lives of the persecuted, whether the latter were Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, Political prisoners or others. But it is worth noting that this was due to a number of reasons, most prominent among which are: prejudices such as antisemitism, fear of Nazi reprisals, and the lack of wherewithal to help. It was without doubt highly dangerous to help anyone targeted by the Third Reich. The whole issue surrounding bystanders is still one of great debate among Historians of the Holocaust.


But we are not restricted by such barriers, at least not to the same extent. Prejudice does still exist, unfortunately. Although antisemitism isn’t as widespread as it used to be, a fear of foreigners, immigrants and other such people will always perpetuate. There are, on the other hand, no authoritarian regimes to be concerned about, and today it is much easier for one to help through, for example, a simple donation to a charity.


I am not aiming to compare the current Migrant Crisis with the Holocaust. But it is worth remembering that we must be aware of repeating, if not mirroring, the events of the past. The humanitarian disaster unfolding in the Middle East is not on the same scale as that of the events that took place over 70 years ago; it has not cost the lives of 11 million people. But many millions have fled their homes, including up to 7.6 million Syrians; another 4 million have left that country altogether. Furthermore,roughly 240,000 Syrians have died since 2011 alone. It is clearly a major disaster. Thus the sheer scale of this crisis indicates that if Europe, America and, well, much of the rest of the world does not intervene to a significant extent, then we are effectively bystanders to one of the worst crises in modern times. We have the capability to act decisively, yet may remain as spectators. Such behaviour was indeed manifest to a great extent during the Holocaust.

Thus we don’t have much of an excuse to not intervene. If we don’t, we are hypocrites. That sounds harsh, but I bet that many us were ready and willing to condemn those who stood idly by whilst the Nazis murdered people in their millions. Our descendants will do the same to us, for many years hereafter.

The Holocaust can teach us a lot about human behaviour, but as a period of the past it also reminds us of the dangers of inaction. The current Migrant Crisis is, although certainly not a genocide, a major humanitarian issue about which we should all be concerned.

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