“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” Primo Levi
Today was the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was on January 27th 1945 that the Nazi death camp called Auschwitz, in Poland was liberated by the Red Army.
Auschwitz began as a work camp, notoriously harsh in its treatment of its prisoners but a work camp, picked because of its proximity to rail lines and isolation. By the summer of 1941 it was the largest camp in the Concentration Camp system. Within months the process of turning Auschwitz into a factory of mass murder began, quite accidentally when members of the camp staff discovered that a chemical used for the delousing of barracks known as Zyklon-B also worked on large animals, and therefore people. It was tested on Russian and Polish POWs in September 1941.
As the Nazi desire for efficient extermination grew and early death factories showed their limitations and the “experiments” at Auschwitz resulted in it being selected as a death camp. The camp was expanded and its first gas chamber, the former camp morgue began its operations in February 1942. Other more massive chambers were built, chambers that could hold up to 2000 victims per cycle. By the time the operation was shut down in the weeks leading up to the camp’s liberation Rudolf Höss the Commandant of Auschwitz estimated that 2.5 million people, mostly Jews were exterminated in it. Höss boasted d that his camp could exterminate 10,000 people in a 24 hour period. Other estimates are lower, but still in the millions.
Höss, and other functionaries such Adolf Eichmann, who coordinated the massive effort to exterminate the Jews of Europe following the Wansee Conference of January 20th 1942 approached their jobs dispassionately. This was a common attitude among the civil service, military and police officials that oversaw the Holocaust. They simply did their jobs and followed the law.
Hannah Arendt wrote of Eichmann:
“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”
This was what made the Holocaust committed against the Jews of Europe by Nazi Germany a phenomenon different than other genocides. Many of the perpetrators were not driven by centuries old hate as in the Balkans, tribal blood lust as occurred in Rwanda, or the products of Soviet Communism or Communist Chines Maoist regimes.
It was the racial ideology of the Nazis which deemed the Jews and other non-Aryans to be sub-human. That ideology undergirded the German treatment of the Jews, and the conduct of the war, especially in the East. But the execution of the plan required the bureaucratic, administrative, technical and legal skills brought to the table by ordinary men. Men who sought promotion, advancement and economic security for their families. Individually many would have never killed, but in their positions they ran the rail network, the factories, the banking and finance industries and supported the war effort, most not thinking much about the evil that they abetted or if they did finding a way, be it social, scientific, religious, patriotic, legal or simply in the name of efficiency.
That is what makes the evil committed by them so terrifying. It is the product of “normal” people in an advanced Western nation. Make no bones about it, their actions were evil. They aided and abetted the genocide of the Jews, the disabled, other “sub-human” races, particularly Slavs, as well as those that they deemed less than suitable.
This evening I watched the movie Conspiracy which is about the two hour long Wansee Conference headed by Reinhard Heydrich and organized by Eichmann. That conference put the representatives of competing agencies, and in the case of the SS, agencies within agencies together and brought about their cooperation in the execution of the Final Solution.
The film is chilling in the ordinariness of the men involved. civil servants, party officials, they were the men that did the day to day administration of the necessary functions of the Reich. Some were horrified at the potentiality of the effects of what Heydrich referred as “evacuations” entailed. They understood that it meant the extermination of the Jews. Some were concerned about the military and logistical aspects, others in how such actions squared with the German law, especially the Nuremberg Laws, while still others were concerned with diplomatic relations with Germany’s allies or occupied countries and some unnerved by the fact that it would be murder. But when the conference was done, all agreed and worked together and it only took two hours.
It is important that we do not forget the Holocaust. It is also important to recognize that the instruments of that horror were on the whole “ordinary” men who as they saw it were simply doing their job. It is something that everyone needs to remember.