From “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” by Timothy Snyder
When we think of the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews, we imagine Auschwitz and mechanized impersonal death. This was a convenient way for Germans to remember the Holocaust, since they could claim that few of them had known exactly what had happened behind those gates. In fact, the Holocaust began not in the death facilities, but over shooting pits in eastern Europe. And indeed some of the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen, the German task forces that perpetuated some of the murders, were tried at Nuremberg and later in West German courts. But even these trials were a kind of minimization of the scale of the crime. Not the SS commanders alone, but essentially all of the thousands of men who served under their command were murderers.
And this was just the beginning. Every large-scale shooting action of the Holocaust (more than thirty-three thousand Jews murdered outside Kyiv, more than twenty-eight thousand outside Riga, and on and on) involved the regular German police. All in all, regular policemen murdered more Jews than the Einsatzgruppen. Many of them had no special preparation for this task. They found themselves in an unknown land, they had their orders, and they did not want to look weak. In the rare cases when they refused these orders to murder Jews, policemen were not punished.
Some killed from murderous conviction. But many others who killed were just afraid to stand out. Other forces were at work besides conformism. But without the conformists, the great atrocities would have been impossible.