SJ Quinney College of Law, University of Utah


The role of “bystanders” has been a central theme in discussions about the ethical legacy of the Holocaust. In early Holocaust historiography, “bystander” was often used as a generalized catchall term designating passivity toward Nazi crimes. “Bystander behavior” became synonymous with passivity to the plight of others, including the failure to speak out against injustice and/or assist its victims. More recent scholarship has documented the extent to which local populations and institutions were actively complicit in Nazi crimes, participating in and benefitting from the persecution of Jewish citizens, not only in Germany but across Europe. This newer research has sparked a debate about the very use of the term “bystander” and the concomitant assumptions about passivity. The historiographical shift has also altered ethical interpretations about the role of “bystanders” in a way that has broader implications for contemporary discussions about analogous situations. Traditionally, ethical behavior has been understood and addressed as an individual phenomenon, yet the Holocaust and other cases of genocide represent collective forms of violence and victimization, raising complex questions about the links between individual responsibility and collective behavior. The political and ethical implications of the role of “bystanders” remain as complex as they were in the immediate wake of the Holocaust.