How the Holocaust Began, review: a chilling reminder that the Nazis did not act alone

Historian James Bulgin at the Majdanek concentration camp, near Lublin, Poland - Benjamin Holgate/BBC
Historian James Bulgin at the Majdanek concentration camp, near Lublin, Poland - Benjamin Holgate/BBC

What springs to mind when you hear the word “Holocaust”? This was the question that opened James Bulgin’s film, How the Holocaust Began (BBC Two). Most likely you will think of somewhere like Auschwitz, and the Nazis presiding over processed mass murder. But Bulgin, a historian from the Imperial War Museum, wanted to show us something different.

Large-scale executions of Jews began taking place in 1941, as the Germans made their way across Eastern Europe. Hitler’s Einsatzgruppen death squads carried out many of these murders. But the chilling truth presented here was that they did not – in fact, could not – act alone. They needed not just the tacit support of the civilian population, but their active participation. Ordinary people facilitated, and sometimes carried out, the mass killings of men, women and children.

The documentary contained horrific footage – a “home movie” shot by a German soldier – of people being marched into trenches and shot in the head. Spectators gather round, smoking and talking, to watch. It was a terrible thing to see. But equally unforgettable were the words of Faina Kukliansky, whose grandmother had been rounded up in Alytus, Lithuania, and taken to a forest along with 2,500 others to be murdered. Kukliansky had discovered that this was done by local townsfolk and even school children: “That confirms what my uncle used to tell me… That probably his classmates killed his mother.”

The scale of local participation was clear when Bulgin told us that the Einsatzgruppen unit here consisted of just six men. The figures kept coming: at one site in Ukraine, with the SS now involved, Jews were shot at the rate of 1,600 an hour over two days. According to Bulgin, it was then that the Nazis began to realise that mass shootings were unsustainable, and began developing alternatives that would be both more efficient and more discreet. Apparently, the Germans were concerned that the executions were having a detrimental effect on soldiers’ mental health.

Some countries are reluctant to admit to this shameful past. A Lithuanian author said she had been branded a traitor for writing about it, and spat at in the street. But it is crucial that we understand how the Holocaust was able to develop; blaming it all on the Nazis is to turn a blind eye to the darker side of human nature.