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What does it mean to be complicit?


Complicity (n): the fact or condition of being involved with others in an activity that is unlawful or morally wrong.

Complice (n): one who is united with others in an ill design. (Samuel Johnson, Dictionary of the English Language, 1810 edition)


What worlds lie and live within the word complicit? A universe, perhaps, matter and anti-matter, of accusations and denials, of guilt pulling in people and societies stronger than the strongest gravity towards black holes, inescapable, forevermore. In this universe a roaring silence fills the sky, knocks trees to the ground, makes eyes sting. 

Complicit is the child of conflict, the shadow in the night time of the soul. For surely, the word is never seen or heard in bright sunshine, in times of serenity and peace. Thus we arrive at 2024. And the question that lives within the word complicity: which side are you on?

A simple internet search of the word complicit, for just one week brings up waves upon waves of responses. Most are related to the war in Gaza, either for or anti-Israel, for or anti-Palestine (very few for Hamas), and the tributaries from there such as the supplying of arms, thus being complicit in civilian death or terrorism, or merely support. It has washed up in Canberra, too, in the political argybargy over the moral culpability of supporting one or the other. But much like everything in Canberra, it melted into pointscoring. And onto the street and university campuses. The internet search also found the word is involved in such matters as stabbing murder (‘complicit parents’ of accused children) and, out of left field, traffic laws and engineers.

The side you are on is often seen in only black and white. Either you are complicit and therefore guilty like the perpetrator, or you are not, and like any innocent bystander, are uninvolved in any way with whatever the act is.

But a question arises: to be complicit, must you share the same intent? If one says nothing, does nothing, does this signify complicity? Is there then such a thing as an innocent bystander? Does being deaf, dumb and blind, immobile to action grant someone absolution?

Consider arms manufacturers — are they complicit in the deaths resulting from their products? They might argue it’s merely supply and demand, a matter of market forces. Yet, does this economic rationale absolve them of moral responsibility? 

Wislawa Szymborska, The Polish Nobel Laureate for Literature, wrote a poem called The End and the Beginning, which rose from the ashes of WWII. Part of it reads:

Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.
In the grass that has overgrown

causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.


Poland was the site of Auschwitz, one of many for the industrial-scale slaughter of Jews and other minorities repellent to the Nazi regime. The cold barbarism of those killing times brings to the surface a disturbing realisation: people are not of all one common humanity in all contexts. In a perfect world, killing is wrong and a universal river of kindness and tolerance runs through every vein. But that world is utopia; history has shown humankind to be otherwise.

The rise of Nazism and its murderous consequences have given birth to a large field of research, both academic and historical, into the psychology of a society that was fertile ground for Hitler and fascism following Germany’s defeat in World War I, and which then was moulded, first insidiously and then stridently through fanaticism and ultra violence and discrimination into the society of the Third Reich.

At a distance, the question remains: how could a people allow it? British academic Mary Fulbrook dives deep to seek an answer. Her latest book is Bystander Society: Conformity and Complicity in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. She says that the foundation of her writing it was in the idea of ‘how in the face of escalating violence, so many could become complicit in systemic fascism, some even actively facilitating mass murder, and yet later claim they had been merely innocent bystanders’. Why did so many people stand ‘passively by, either unable or unwilling to intervene on the side of victims’.

Germany ‘was not intrinsically a “perpetrator society”, but over time it became a society in which widespread conformity produced growing complicity in establishing the preconditions for genocide’.

Fulbrook also writes: ‘The meaning of bystanding depends on context and this context can almost by definition be only temporary. Passivity therefore raises the question of whether “bystanders” also bear some responsibility for the outcomes of violence and whether there can be such a thing as the proverbial “innocent bystander”’. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum, which Fulbrook acknowledges in her book, says this:


‘Unlike present-day crime scenes, accidents, or emergency situations witnessed by ‘bystanders’, much was different about the Holocaust. Leaders of Nazi Germany driven by ideological goals formed the policies. Civil servants, police, and military forces — servants of the state — and their collaborators in other countries implemented the escalating racial measures, including anti-Jewish measures, which culminated in mass murder and genocide.

‘The Holocaust was a series of events that happened over a long period of time. Jews were dehumanised, deprived of many legal rights, became the victims of both random and organised violence, and were socially if not physically isolated from the rest of the population. Many people became ‘bystanders’ to this ever-radicalising program long before the mass roundups and killings began.’


And after the war? The museum writes: ‘After the war many ordinary Germans and Europeans claimed that they were “not involved”—in essence, that they were “bystanders.” Refusal to take any responsibility for what happened, however, obscures the reality of the involvement of people at all levels of German society and beyond. Many onlookers to events who approved or tolerated what they witnessed were also involved.’

After the war, the Allies had a Herculean task. How to denazify an entire country, and what was the line in the sand between punishment and rehabilitation?

Historian Frederick Taylor examines this dilemma in his book Exorcising Hitler. Apart from the Nuremberg Trials, and the continued hunt and latter trials of war criminals, on a holistic level, it was impossible to put an entire citizenry on trial.

Denazification programs in Germany stopped three years after the war, and thus began the time of the big sleep. This was despite, as Taylor writes, there were 8 million Nazi Party members at war’s end. Of course, party membership had many reasons, from true believers, to obedience, to greed, to hatred of others, to terror, to survival.

While later there was a calling to account, individual responsibility melted away in the transformation of Germany to a democracy. In the grander geopolitical scheme of things (that is the Soviet Union’s global ambitions), it was easier to forget and move on. But the moving on carried within it a dichotomy: lessons and strains from the past, including the creed of far-right groups, in particular, neo-Nazis. 

And complicity? It too moves on, inhabits the world, bumps up against the voice of conscience and swims the widening silence. Take me in context, it might laugh at misery. A bystander society finds strength in its numbers. This is the conformity of the numbed soul. Finding its complicity in atrocities, however, is a thorny, and in wartime potentially deadly, path to light and resolution.

The Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn in his song Broken Wheel, sang in part:

The word mercy’s gonna have a new meaning
When we are judged by the children of our slaves
No adult of sound mind
Can be an innocent bystander
Trial comes before truth’s revealed
Out here on the rim of the broken wheel.


It's axiomatic that you can’t restart history from scratch. As TS Eliot, in Burnt Norton, wrote:


Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.


If we are the broken wheel, then where does the future lie? Perhaps with this straw in the wind: Killing people is wrong.

Imagine if we were all complicit in that.




Warwick McFadyen is an award-winning journalist. He has won two Walkley Awards and four Quill Awards. He has published several books of poetry. The latest is 21+4 Poems. His prose and poems have also appeared in Quadrant, Overland and Dissent.

Main image: A work in gouache by Charlotte Salomon, from her principal work, ‘Life? or Theatre?.’ It depicts Kristallnacht, a series of coordinated attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and parts of Austria, November 9-10, 1938.(Charlotte Salomon, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Topic tags: Warwick McFadyen, Complicit, Violence, Bystander



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Existing comments

This is probably the best article you’ve written, Warwick. It is stark and hard-hitting. I thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer when reading of the Holocaust section of the article. Bonhoeffer was invited to America, to safety and then decided to return to Germany in the summer of 1939. He decided to not be complicit in an atrocity. In one of his meditations he wrote about the text of 2 Tim. 4:21 “Do your best to come before winter.” He wrote about the text: “That follows me around all day.” On the sea voyage back to Germany his inward disharmony about the future ceased. How many people could act as Bonhoeffer did? He suffered in a way that many do not.

Pam | 30 June 2024  

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