Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Auschwitz We Never Knew

One of the reasons for the Nazis formulating their "final solution" in the form of mass death camps was that asking their soldiers on the front lines of Eastern Europe to kill thousands of harmless Jews, including women and children, proved demoralizing. It "de-heroized" the scenes of war. It turned warriors into the ugliest kind of sanitation engineers. There were also pragmatic reasons, to do with disposal of bodies, etc.

So, instead of killing the Jews where they found them, they shipped them off to isolated camps that could enslave, or gas and burn thousands in a day. But why were these camps generally in isolated rural areas? Why wasn't there at least a demonstration camp in downtown Berlin? The Nazi leadership, it seems, didn't want the Holocaust to be remembered. And indeed there survives very little photographic or filmic evidence of the camps that was created by Nazis. Theirs was a desperate Utopian quest to free themselves of their resentments, for which they scapegoated the Jews. Not only did they want the supposed cause of their miseries to disappear, they wanted the memory and ongoing renewal of their resentment to disappear along with its passing object. The fact that such a desire is impossible to fulfill in any circumstances did not stop the Nazis from trying and destroying their own nation in the process.

The staff of the death camps were fed propaganda leading them to believe they were doing a great work for the Fatherland, and asking them to steel themselves in the difficult work so that they would not be left with difficult memories. Once the job was done, it was to be forgotten as if the Jews had never existed, other than as some problem that was dealt with efficiently, so that later no one would remember exactly what it was all about; every Aryan German would become happy and free of resentment. Modern market society, for which the Jews were scapegoated, would be brought under control by National Socialism, and peace and harmony would reign in the Fatherland.

Now today comes to light a photo album, discovered by, and formerly in the possession of, an American army intelligence officer, an album created by the second-in-command at Auschwitz. It portrays SS officers and camp staff socializing, relaxing, attending official ceremonies, playing with dogs, taking target practice, hunting, etc. There are no photos of camp prisoners, the murdered, or the killing apparatus. It is an album that lives up to the Nazi desire to perform mass murder and not have it become an object of historical memory, a source of guilt or tragic sensibility for future Germans. While of course the opposite has in fact happened, the photo album deserves some study of the evil idea, evidently lived by ordinary human beings, that memories of Auschwitz could be reduced to the banal scenes the album captures.

Mark Gordon to whom we owe a hat tip, writes:
What is most monstrous about these photographs is that they depict no monsters. No spaced-out, khat-chewing raiders ripping around in technical trucks. No rampaging, machete-wielding mobs caught up in the vortex of spontaneous violence. One is struck here by the sheer ordinariness of the happy people smiling back at the camera, people who at those very moments were willing, even enthusiastic accessories to the most horrific crime in human history. They were functionaries, bureaucrats, administering the machinery of genocide with professional detachment and absolute moral disinterest. Clock in and kill the Jews. Clock out and catch a movie with the wife. And, unlike the rest of the German nation, the people in these photographs lacked even the false excuse, “We never really knew.” To the contrary, these were the accountants who worked the numbers, the stockmen who inventoried the gold teeth and shoes, the musclemen who slammed and locked shut the doors to the showers and the crematoria. These people knew full well, and still they drank wine and poked at volleyballs, kissed their kids goodnight and made love to their wives.
I think the lesson is that unless we are relentless about modelling ourselves on Christ and Christ alone, any of us - or all of us, under the right conditions - could become monsters. The people in these photos were steeped in 1,300 years of Christianity, and yet they were able to indulge in mass murder on an unimaginable scale. How was that possible? Shouldn’t their depravity be seen as a repudiation of Christianity itself if this is the fruit of a millenia of Christian culture?

I think Gil Bailie answers that when he writes that “increasingly we can only lustily vent our violence against victims whom we can confidently regard as victimizers.” This is the way that sin takes advantage of the Gospel, by transforming our Christian identification with the victim into the sinful desire to inflict violence upon those whom we believe to have victimized us or others.

Hitler and his propagandists had played on this theme since long before they assumed power in 1933. In the Nazi “gospel,” the German people had been double victims: betrayed by perfidous Jews during World War I, then raped by foreign powers at Versailles. Rebuilding the German nation became a kind of Resurrection, the war a kind of Second Coming, and the destruction of the Jews a kind of Final Judgment. Hitler combined these themes with a vast array of cthonic rituals that saturated his program with the magnetic power of intense religious experience.

What we see in those photos are people enjoying themselves not in spite of the bad things they are doing, but because they believe themselves to be engaged in the Lord’s work. They are happy because they have no guilt. To the contrary, they believe that in slaughtering those who had victimized the German people, they were restoring justice and righteousness to a world gone awry. This is a temptation we all confront, and it grows precisely out of a deep Christian consciousness. That is what is so frightening about those photos: we are looking at ourselves in some very real way.
So, the next time you hear someone unfairly portraying Americans, or Israelis, or maybe you, as the new Nazis, remember that what they are really doing is setting a scene where it may again become alright to victimize those who have come to symbolize the resentment that our freedom creates in others. Maybe one day such people will come to kill again, showing no more guilt than these people in the photos. I mean such people just invited a guy, ahmadinejad - the president of a country that professes a desire to wipe Israel off the map, and who feeds deadly weapons to Hezbollah terrorists and to terrorists in Iraq - to come and speak his anti-Americanisms in the leading university in a city, New York, that is one of the world's major centres of Jewish life (imagine professors inviting some guy to speak to a university with a lot of black students, some guy who merely professed White Supremacy - what an outrage, it could never happen...). Since I'm not worried about my readers building death camps to victimize victimizers (some of us really know the difference between Nazis and Jews, and between Nazis and Americans), here, again, in spirit, are some of the Columbia faculty, circa 1944, the kind of people who deserve war crimes trials:


dag said...

There is no final victory over Evil. It's a day-by-day struggle always. It will always be so. That's the nature of Nature.

I find that many people, intelligent, educated, experienced, erudite people think that the Nazis were defeated and disappeared from history. What are they thinking? How can anyone be so foolish? How can they then turn around and also tell me that things will be great if only we change social conditions that will bring all to the New Jerusalem? It's not even worth refuting these people. They will always be with us, it being the nature of Nature.

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