The Ethical Spectacle September 1995

The Holocaust

Generations since the war have asked the question why the Jews cooperated and went to their deaths rather than fighting back. The answer may be inferred from analyzing their situation as a prisoner's dilemma.

Throughout history, the Jews had lived under the shadow of an immense future, a marginal people relying on the tolerance of neighbors with a long memory. These frequently hostile neighbors held tightly to certain myths and fantasies pertaining to the Jews. Any perceived defection on the part of the Jews was aggressively punished. Due to the small numbers of the Jewish community, a game of "All Defect" or even of "Tit for Tat" on both sides would inevitably lead to the complete elimination of the Jewish community.

Under the circumstances, the best the Jews could do, wherever they lived in the world, was an "All Cooperate" strategy. This would decrease (though not eliminate) the amount of defection they faced from the people among whom they resided. Even though they frequently incurred a sucker's payoff when their enemies instituted pogroms or expropriations, they still survived in larger numbers than if they had followed another strategy.

This approach preserved them for two thousand years, until they met the Nazis. The Jews had no experience with a people who officially and almost uniformly wanted to kill them. The hatred they had faced before had been less deeply rooted, or more inconsistent, or less violent. The all cooperate strategy had always succeeded before in building bridges to some of the powerful people around them. It would have been practically instinctive to try the same approach with the Nazis; any other strategy would have resulted in complete and instant immolation.

The Nazis disguised their own defection as cooperation, herding the Jews onto trains for "resettlement", not overtly for death. Eichmann, with his smile of a friendly salesman, travelled around Europe, establishing relationships with elders in the Jewish communities, lulling their suspicions, then shipping them all away to their deaths.

Had the Jews believed that death was imminent, all shadow of the future--any reason not to practice violent defection themselves--would have been removed. As Tadeusz Borowski remarked, hope was the thing that killed them--the unreasonable hope that the Nazis were indeed cooperative, that by cooperating with the Nazis they would survive another month, another day, another minute.

Even within Auschwitz, the prisoner's dilemma continued. In An Auschwitz Alphabet, I recounted how a relatively benign Nazi doctor, Ernst B., protected inmate doctors, while they assisted his research. He even gave some of them a gun to escape with when Germany collapsed and the future had no shadow for him. In the shadow of the crematorium, there must have been many of these cooperative relationships. Many German doctors in particular relied on inmates for research they could publish to advance their own careers.

Despite people such as Ernst B., the Nazis were the ultimate scorpion players that I describe elsewhere in this issue. It was more important to them, in the end, to kill the Jews than to survive themselves. Trains that could have been used to transport troops or supplies were still being used to take Jews to death camps when Germany could no longer afford it. Fleeing Nazis killed Jews in the face of the invading Allies, when no German government existed any longer to recognize or reward it. The human dilemma is that we are always pulled down, sooner or later, by such players of the game.