Chapter 3: Reluctance from other countries to put an end to the Holocaust explained by Piliavin’s theory of Diffusion of Responsibility

The original method used for intentional execution was shooting the prisoners in batches at a mass grave. However, this method wasn’t efficient enough for the Nazis as it required guards to carry out the execution, which also had a negative mental impact on them.  Mobile gas vans were introduced as a more impersonal method of execution. This involved a 10 mile journey to the burial trenches at 20 mph to allow the gassing to take place. The method was also ended as drivers found it too upsetting and drove faster to get it over with, but this meant that the Jews were not dead when they reached the trenches, forcing the driver to witness horrific scenes. This is ultimately how the gas chamber solution was decided as carbon monoxide and zyklon B pellets could kill 200 people in 30 minutes, without anyone in particular carrying out the killing[1]. The Nazis ideally wanted the extermination to be sustainable, therefore using little or no fuel. To achieve this, they wanted to use the body fat from corpses; however this was not possible as there was not enough due to starvation in the camps[2].

The question many people ask in hindsight is: “how did other countries claim they didn’t know what was happening until it was too late?” The most likely answer comes from the records the SS guards filled in within the camps. Very cleverly, they would use alternative words in documents to hide their true actions. For example, “special treatment” and “disinfection” would really mean the killing of prisoners. “Work detail” would mean pointless or dangerous jobs to work prisoners to their deaths. “Special actions” would mean gassings or mass shootings and “natural wastage” would mean those dying as a result of the terrible camp conditions[3].

On the other hand, if other countries were aware of the Holocaust at the time, their reluctance to interfere could be explained by Piliavin’s theory of the Diffusion of Responsibility which is when you chose not to help because you believe that someone else will. Piliavin, a social psychologist during the sixties, conducted an experiment to test the variables of helping behaviour: race, the responsibility of the victim, and the use of a model. Piliavin discovered that the longer it took for the model to step in, the longer people waited to intervene; 34 even left the scene of the incident. Pilavin concluded that whether people help someone in need depends on their own personal cost and reward system. This meant that if one was to perceive helping as a threat to themselves, they would be unlikely to do so; but if they knew a financial reward was waiting for them, it is likely that they would be more inclined to help. Whilst he concluded that there were no signs of Diffusion of Responsibility[4], I would argue that this is because the experiment was conducted on a train which made it hard for participants to leave the situation, although some did leave the carriage.

From this study I would conclude that whilst surrounding countries may have been aware of the Holocaust taking place, they did not want to intervene during a World War in case this further antagonised Germany, using the cost/reward method, likewise no one wanted to intervene as none before them had, allowing the diffusion of responsibility to take place; the inhuman objective is not prevented, making those countries almost as complicit for not acting sooner.


[1]Bresheeth H.,Hood S., Janz L. (1990) The Holocaust for Beginners, Icon Books Ltd  pp. 77-83

[2]Bresheeth H.,Hood S., Janz L. (1990) The Holocaust for Beginners, Icon Books Ltd p.113

[3]Shuter, Jane (2002), The Camp System, Heinemann library, Reed Educational & professional publishing LTP, p.23

  • [4]Lintern F., Bainbridge A., Bradshaw P. (2008) OCR AS Psychology Student Book, Heinemann

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