“For the dead and the living we must bear witness.” Ellie Wiesel
April 27 and 28th was the annual Holocaust Remembrance day, or Yom HaShoah.In the United States it is a week of remembrance that ended Sunday May 4th this year. The beginning marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. Due to other academic, personal and travel conflicts I was unable to produce anything during the actual remembrance week but it the event is so seminal from the perspective of how a civilized people can turn their eyes away as their countrymen systematically work to exterminate a race it cannot be ignored.
Genocide is certainly not new, pogroms were a staple of Europe, the extermination of Native Americans throughout American history, the slaughter of Armenians by the Ottomans in 1915 and the Rwandan genocide and other such acts are all too real and none can be condoned. But what happened to the Jews in Germany and Nazi occupied Europe was unique. It was a state organized systematic and industrial slaughter of a people because of their race and religion. Yes the Nazis did persecute and kill others, Gypsies, Homosexuals, Communists, Socialists and some Christian clergy and other external and internal enemies of that evil regime. But what they did to the Jews was unique and must never be forgotten.
I love the movie Judgment at Nuremberg. It is a fictionalized version of the Judges Trials that took place late in the Nuremberg trial process as the Cold War was beginning to heat up. During the sentencing scene toward the end of the movie the character Judge Dan Heywood played by Spencer Tracy delivers this chilling commentary.
“Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and the death of millions by the Government of which he was a part. Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe.
But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”
I have posted the link here if you want to watch it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3BwK51YFgQ
It is important to have some understanding of the cold blooded and ruthless planning that the Nazis did and their thought process and ideology so we never have to repeat such a tragedy again.
Berlin, July 31st 1941
To: Gruppenfuhrer Heydrich
Supplementing the task assigned to you by the decree of January 24th 1939, to solver the Jewish problem by means of evacuation and emigration in the best possible way by according to present conditions, I hereby charge you to carry out preparations as regards organizational, financial, and material matters for a total solution (Gesamtlosung) of the Jewish question in all the territories of Europe under German occupation.
Where the competency of other organizations touches on this matter, the organizations are to collaborate.
I charge you further to submit to me as soon as possible a general plan of the administrative material and financial measures necessary for the carrying out the desired final solution (Endlosung) of the Jewish question.”
It is hard to believe that 70 years ago the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz and many other extermination factories were in high gear. Specially formed units of the SS, Police and their Foreign auxiliaries, the Einsatzgruppen were exterminating Jews and others, people the Nazis termed Untermenchen (subhumans) across Europe.
When Herman Goering wrote Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Reichssiecherhiethauptampt (RSHA) in July 1941 it seemed that Nazi victory in Europe was all but assured. Goering’s words were businesslike. Early measures to rid Germany and the annexed Austria ha been reasonably successful of their Jews through emigration and evacuation. However with the occupation of most of Europe following the Nazi military success and the looming occupation and subjugation of the Soviet Union the process of giving the Jews a chance to emigrate to lands outside Nazi control had come to an end. In fact the Nazis occupied the countries that may Jews had found refuge. The Nazi leadership decided that its race war against the Jews needed to forge ahead.
Within weeks SS commanders at various concentration camps were devising means to exterminate Jews more efficiently. It was a matter of pride and efficiency for them. As Rudolph Hoess the Commandant of Auschwitz said at Nuremberg “the camp commandant at Treblinka told me that he had liquidated 80,000 in the course of one half year. He was principally concerned with liquidating all the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. He used monoxide gas, and I did not think that his methods were very efficient. So when I set up the extermination building at Auschwitz, I used Zyclon B….” Hoess estimated that some 2.5 million people were exterminated at Auschwitz at rates as high as 10,000 a day. That testimony and the attitudes of Nazi leaders is depicted in the movie Nuremberg. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0hJqNuRH1A
Hoess and his Staff at Auschwitz
In the Soviet Union four Einsatzgruppen followed each of the German Army Groups and systematically began to massacre the Jews of every city and village which German soldiers captured. Over a million and a half Soviet Jews were killed by the Einsatzgruppen, Ordungspolizei battalions, Army Security Divisions and locally recruited units.
Less than six months after he received the directive from Goering, on January 20th 1942 Heydrich summoned representatives from various Reich agencies were called for what turned out to be a brief, two hour meeting which decided the fate of the Jews. The meeting was held at an estate located in the suburbs of Berlin, called Wansee. Organized by Heydrich’s deputy Adolph Eichmann, involved Heydrich, Eichmann and 13 mid-level representatives from various economic, governmental, justice and police entities.
At the conference Heydrich established his authority through Goering’s directive to overcome the bureaucratic and personal attempts of various attendees to take control of the Final Solution process. Despite objections from some attendees who favored sterilization and the use of Jews in the war armaments industries, Heydrich made it clear that the Final Solution would be a campaign of extermination. Heydrich was quite clear:
“Approximately 11 million Jews will be involved…in large single sex labor columns, Jews fit to work will work their way eastward constructing roads. Doubtless the large majority will be eliminated through natural causes. Any final remnant that survives will doubtlessly consist of the most resistant elements. They will have to be dealt with appropriately, because otherwise by natural selection, they would form the germ cell of a new Jewish revival.”
Himmler with Staff on a Visit
Himmler in a speech given to senior SS leaders at Posen on October 4th 1943:
I want to also mention a very difficult subject … before you, with complete candor. It should be discussed amongst us, yet nevertheless, we will never speak about it in public. Just as we did not hesitate on June 30 to carry out our duty as ordered, and stand comrades who had failed against the wall and shoot them — about which we have never spoken, and never will speak. That was, thank God, a kind of tact natural to us, a foregone conclusion of that tact, that we have never conversed about it amongst ourselves, never spoken about it, everyone … shuddered, and everyone was clear that the next time, he would do the same thing again, if it were commanded and necessary.
I am talking about the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish people. It is one of those things that is easily said. [quickly] “The Jewish people is being exterminated,” every Party member will tell you, “perfectly clear, it’s part of our plans, we’re eliminating the Jews, exterminating them, a small matter”. [less quickly] And then along they all come, all the 80 million upright Germans, and each one has his decent Jew. [mockingly] They say: all the others are swine, but here is a first-class Jew. [a few people laugh] And … [audience cough] [carefully] … none of them has seen it, has endured it. Most of you will know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, when 500 are there or when there are 1000. And … to have seen this through and — with the exception of human weakness — to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned. Because we know how difficult things would be, if today in every city during the bomb attacks, the burdens of war and the privations, we still had Jews as secret saboteurs, agitators and instigators. We would probably be at the same stage as 16/17, if the Jews still resided in the body of the German people.
We have taken away the riches that they had, and … I have given a strict order, which Obergruppenführer Pohl has carried out, we have delivered these riches [carefully] to the Reich, to the State. We have taken nothing from them for ourselves. A few, who have offended against this, will be judged in accordance with an order, [loudly] that I gave at the beginning: he who takes even one Mark of this is a dead man. [less loudly] A number of SS men have offended against this order. They are very few, and they will be dead men [yells] WITHOUT MERCY! We have the moral right, we had the duty to our people to do it, to kill this people who would kill us. We however do not have the right to enrich ourselves with even one fur, with one Mark, with one cigarette, with one watch, with anything. That we do not have. Because we don’t want, at the end of all this, to get sick and die from the same bacillus that we have exterminated. I will never see it happen that even one … bit of putrefaction comes in contact with us, or takes root in us. On the contrary, where it might try to take root, we will burn it out together. But altogether we can say: [slowly, carefully] We have carried out this most difficult task for the love of our people. And we have suffered no defect within us, in our soul, or in our character.”
Whether the words are those of Goering, Heydrich, Hoess or Himmler, there is a certain businesslike banality to them. But these men, and many others like them orchestrated a campaign of genocide and race hatred unmatched in history. Yes, there have been other genocides, the Turks killing the Armenians during the First World War and the Hutu and Tutsi slaughter in Rwanda but neither they or the politically motivated campaigns of mass slaughter conducted by the Soviets, the Chinese Communists and the Khamer Rouge killing fields can match the systematized extermination campaign waged by the Nazis against the Jews.
The truly terrifying thing about the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust to me is that most of the men at Wansee, men that commanded the Concentration camps and the Einsatzgruppen were very ordinary men who simply believed that they were doing their jobs. Very few could be described as psychopathic killers by nature. They were lawyers, doctors, career police officials, businessmen, and bureaucrats who carried out an extermination campaign that killed by their own numbers between 5.5 and 6 million Jews, not to mention others deemed to be subhuman including the handicapped, the mentally ill, homosexuals, and other non-Jewish minorities like the Gypsies not to mention the wide variety of those considered political enemies. But it was the Jews that bore the most tragic fate.
Arrival at Auschwitz
SS Camp Guards and Female Auxiliaries burying bodies at Bergen-Belsen in 1945 und British Supervision
Primo Levi said it well:
“Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are…the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.”
Mass Graves and Markers at Bergen-Belsen
This is something that we must always watch, especially during times of turmoil, real or imagined threats to security and economic displacement. It is in these times where formerly privileged groups look for scapegoats to blame their misfortune. It is during such times that functionaries, bureaucrats, judges and police officials, military men, industrialists and bankers and even the clergy all too easily turn a blind eye to evil or wholeheartedly carry it out.
This condition is not unique to Nazi Germany but lurks deep in every society and must be guarded against by all of us.