They did, that’s the problem. Let me go into some detail. By The Way: I am German and also a historian. I don’t specialize in this period but I do know my general stuff.
First of all, there were plenty of people who lived close by concentration camps. The people who were deported to work camps like Dachau (in contrast to killing camps such as Auschwitz or Sobibor) didn’t just stay in the camp all day long. They were rented out and forced to work for all kinds of businesses. So people who lived in the area of the camp SAW starving and dying people walking past. They knew.
However, the Nazi propaganda machine worked incredibly well on several levels. On the one hand, some of the work camps had slogans, such as “Work will free you”, so it was easy for people who didn’t WANT to think and didn’t WANT to know, to treat them as any other work camp. Not designed to kill people by not feeding them and working them too hard but designed to punish and reform people.
The actual death camps were in areas in Poland or Belarus. The difference between work camps and death camp was that at work camps, the prisoners were made to work so hard, they eventually died, at death camps, the were transported there to be killed as soon as possible. The location of the death camps was intentional – the government did not want people in Germany to know too much about them because only the most hardened Nazis would have condoned what was happening there. BUT enough information got out and was leaked so that a considerable amount of the population knew SOMETHING was happening there. And this knowledge made them complicit in the horrible crimes of the Nazi government. And this in turn meant that hiding the facts became important because if you know you’re guilty, you don’t want to be found out.
Then there were people who were wilfully blind and stupid. My grandma was one of them. Unfortunately she passed away before I was old enough to ask questions but my mum told me about the conversations they had about this topic. My grandma basically said that yes, she was surprised when several of the nice shops closed down but she was told that the owners had moved away. She claims she never linked the closing down of shops to the Jewish faith of their owners. Sure, she was part of a generation and society in which young girls weren’t exactly encouraged to think about politics but she definitely didn’t make an effort either. These people may not have known but they could have known if they’d wanted to.
Then there were the people who knew and simply profited from the Holocaust. There are too many Jews who were forced to sell their businesses for dumping prices before they were allowed to flee or were deported. There were so many collectors whose collections ended up in the hands of Nazis. These people were happy enough with the Holocaust.
But why, oh why didn’t people do something. I have asked this question so many times. And each years my pupils ask that very same question. I think there are three main factors here: first of all, some people agreed with what the Nazis were doing (my grandparents on my father’s side, for example). Then there were those who were so young they had been brainwashed so much, they didn’t know what to think and to believe. And then there was fear. And I can honestly understand that. If you tried to fight the regime, you became a victim of it yourself. If you hid Jews or dissenters, you knew you’d be the one being taken to a concentration camp next. If you spoke out, the same thing happened. There were the righteous few who fought back and many of them paid for their incredible bravery with their lives. But who can truly be sure they would have been one of those few? I can’t, much as I wish I could. Especially, because if one person was caught, the lives of their family and friends were on the line, too.
So yeah. Those are my thoughts. What I take away from this is that humanity must not forget what a group of people did and to which lows a whole society sank. It’s our job to be wary and to call out injustice before those who purvey it come into power. Because once those people can take control of the military, the police, the legislative, the executive and the judiciary, it’s too damn late.