Auschwitz

January 26, 2005 | 50 comments
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Sixty years ago the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated. Behind the barbed wires, many of the survivors could not stand on their feet to greet the liberators. The average weight of an adult was 77 pounds. Emaciated, with hollow eyes, those breathing skeletons, covered with a thin layer of tensed skin, only experienced a shift in their nightmare, for the nightmare of their memories would last for the rest of their lives. More than one million people had been murdered in Auschwitz alone.

I visited Auschwitz in 1979, while Poland was still under Communist regime. Attending a conference on language learning in Wrocslaw, I had not realized Auschwitz was relatively close by, and besides, to me it was only a dreadful name once encountered in history lessons. A colleague mentioned he found a driver who would take him to the camp, and asked if I would join him.

After walking for two hours between and in the barracks, after gazing at pictures, at the massive heaps of colorless hair and shabby shoes, after reading testimonies of survivors, after standing in a gas chamber and observing the incineration machinery and the ovens, I sat down in a silent corner and cried uncontrollably. My colleague, who had lost family at Auschwitz, held my hand, himself in tears while biting on his handkerchief. That place epitomized the ultimate collapse of civilization.

On this day we must talk about Auschwitz. We have to remember and our children have to know. We must answer a scary question: Could I have been a Nazi? What could make me a potential Nazi even in this time?

***

Hitler’s anti-Semitism was already openly professed in Mein Kampf (1925). For him “Jew” was related to “international” and “cosmopolitan”, and thus betrayal of own race and country. In his blocked vision of the world there was no place for marginals. And marginals included foreign looking individuals, homosexuals, the mentally disturbed, the social outcasts. Purity was Arian.

When Hitler’s Nazi’s – national-socialists – gained power in 1933, steps were quickly taken to “purify” the country. The media became a powerful instrument to poison the minds. Glorification of the homeland, its leader, its flag, its accomplishments, its history. Jews were the source of all evil, rats, vermin. Anti-Semitic directives laid the one restriction after the other. Jews were excluded from various professions. No entry to theatres, museums, restaurants, public transportation. Shops were boycotted, then closed. Assault groups of the Sturmabteilung could freely terrorize, torture and next kill.

The government concentrated disturbing elements in camps, in theory to reeducate the prisoners to civility. Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Theresienstadt, and others. Those Konzentrationslager were filled, not only with Jews, but with all who were suspect of disloyalty or marginal behavior – communists, gypsies, beggars, homosexuals, transients, Jehovah witnesses. Maltreated, undernourished, debased, if not subjected to horrendous “medical” experiments, hundreds of thousands died.

With the invasion of Poland in 1939, the persecution moved to a larger scale. The two million Polish Jews were rounded up in overpopulated ghettos to let them slowly die of disease and deprivation. But the ghettos were hard to manage and the extinction of its population would take too long. Moreover the broadening of the front to the West and later to Russia expanded Hitler’s grip to millions of more Jews. Setting up more ghettos was a grimy and lengthy perspective.

A clean and fast solution was required. The ultimate solution to the Jewish question. The Endlosung. The industrial annihilation of a whole population. Through a strict bureaucratic system. No bloodstained executioners, but clean-cut military officials, helped by local policemen. Administrative identification of the Jews in all occupied countries. Rounding up of the weekly ratio’s. Trains with stock cars, crowded to the maximum, riding day and night from all corners of Europe to the annihilation camps. Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka. Upon arrival, separation of men, women and children. Undress completely. Hair shaved. Golden teeth torn out. Selection: those strong and healthy enough marched off to barracks. The others, the majority, nearly all women and children, ordered to enter the “shower rooms”, group after group. Standing naked, tightly packed. Doors closed. Cyanide gas Zyklon-B. Out of the heap the corpses were drawn by assigned camp prisoners, fellow Jews. Cadavers put on metal conveyors sliding into the burning ovens. Thousands and thousands of times again and again. More than one million in Auschwitz alone.

Elie Wiesel was 16 years old when he arrived there in 1944. He would become a survivor and devote his life to the memory of the Holocaust. His book Night contains this renowned passage:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

***

Could I have been a Nazi?

When one looks at the pictures of emerging Nazism in the 1930s, and views the documentary films of that period, it strikes how easily hundreds of thousands were caught up by the momentum that restored Germany’s national pride. Marches, flags, parades, patriotism. None of these cheering people could imagine how it would end a decade later.

In an Auschwitz commemoration in Berlin yesterday, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder reminded his audience that the Holocaust could not be reduced to Hitler: ”The evil of Nazi ideology did not come from a void. The brutalization of thought and the demise of moral inhibitions had a history. People wanted the Nazi ideology. It was man-made.”

Had I been born thirty years earlier, and in Germany, would I have cheered with the crowd as Hitler drove by? No doubt. Would I have believed the skilful propaganda? As a young, inexperienced lad, most probably. I would have been a member of the Hitlerjugend. Remembering how I was as a boy, I would have been an idealistic believer, desirous to please, desirous to be rewarded, desirous to command others.

But to what point would coincidence and circumstances have led me further? Because most of us, if not all, carry the Beast in us, somewhere. Thousands of years of civilization have not been able to eradicate the gene that can make people turn vicious. Remember the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia… The civil wars in Angola, Congo, Chechenia… The bloody purgings in Chili, Irak, Afghanistan… The atrocities related to thousands of child soldiers. Remember, large or small in scope, but each as terrifying, Mogadishu, Columbine, Sarajevo, Freetown, Beslan…

Look at today. Physical and emotional abuse by partners or parents, violence in classrooms, terrorists killing the innocent, gangs murdering in Darfur, soldiers debasing naked prisoners. Read Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International.

Or the Beast in embryo: the driver whirling in a fit of rage, the fuming sports fan yelling obscenities at the referee, the exasperated mother shaking her baby, the one child relentlessly bullying another. Or simply dare to assess the responsive pleasure of so many who watch beatings, killings and destruction in movies or act them out in computer games.

In his play Bash, Neil LaBute shows, with masterful and frightening accuracy, how good boys, our own, can be led to beat up a gay man in a filthy men’s room in Central Park, in spite of his pleading for mercy. Nothing is shown on the stage, only told in gripping details by one of the perpetrators himself – “kicking him long after he’s blacked out… we feasted om him like carrion and left nothing but bones”. This is how Nazi’s acted – most of whom had also grown up in normal and caring families. Are we able to appreciate those mirrors and warnings for our time and age?

Are these contemporary examples far from the industrial annihilation of the Holocaust? Not so. They continue to show what the individual is capable of when the Beast is unleashed. And that is why we must talk about it.

50 Responses to Auschwitz

  1. Ben S. on January 26, 2005 at 7:50 am

    “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Attributed to Alexander Solzenitzen (sp?).

  2. danithew on January 26, 2005 at 8:06 am

    I’m hoping someday to visit Auschwitz myself. After seeing the Shoah documentary videos (testimonials from survivors as well as interviews with former Nazis) I have felt that it is crucial to remember and appreciate what the Holocaust meant and to understand something about how violent and vicious human beings can be. I think having this understanding might help prevent this sort of thing from happening again, at least on this kind of scale.

    The scriptures say that “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” (D&C 121:39)

    I think this is a sad but true commentary on human nature and I don’t think it takes that much to turn us into terrible creatures if we aren’t careful and aware of this inherent human flaw. One of the saddest aspects of any war is that inevitably it turns the evil in some human beings loose, so that they can oppress, torture, humiliate and abuse others with the belief that they won’t be subject to the norms of normal peaceful society. In confronting the Holocaust, the thing that is most daunting to conceive is that an entire society could turn its viciousness on others in such an organized and efficient way. It wasn’t merely the work of some individuals but an organized effort by so many thousands of people and observed quietly (and without protest) by millions of people.

    I read an article recently about how today’s generation of Germans are tired of being reminded of the Holocaust. They don’t want to be held responsible for the actions of their predecessors. That’s understandable to a certain extent but I think they have a responsibility to bear this burden to a certain extent as well — to remember what happened and to be determined that it won’t happen again.

  3. Julien on January 26, 2005 at 9:26 am

    Excellent post, Wilfried! I myself am Belgian, my mom is German, and I go to college in Germany, so I feel very touched to have this topic discussed here, and am aware of the utter need to do so. Thanks for your touching remarks and your food for thought! Especially in Germany it’s easy to get drowned in literature and TV documentaries on the subject, but your comments really touch the core of the problem and make me aware once again of what I have so long known. Thanks!

  4. Ann Helps on January 26, 2005 at 9:32 am

    A movingly written piece, though about the basest of human nature. Thank you for the reminder never to unleash the ‘natural man which is an enemy to God’. A further reminder to live as the Saviour lived and taught.

    It often worries me when I hear otherwise worthy LDS speak disrespectfully of others whose lifestyles differ from theirs. In their effort to ‘hate the sin’ they often stray into ‘hating the sinner’. It keeps me mindful when I am tempted to do likewise.

    Ann.

  5. Will on January 26, 2005 at 10:01 am

    Or the Beast in embryo: the driver whirling in a fit of rage, the fuming sports fan yelling obscenities at the referee, the exasperated mother shaking her baby, the one child relentlessly bullying another.

    Or the polemicist broadcasting contempt over the internet. I’m feeling extremely repentant right now.

  6. Jed on January 26, 2005 at 10:21 am

    Wilfried writes: “Had I been born thirty years earlier, and in Germany, would I have cheered with the crowd as Hitler drove by? No doubt. Would I have believed the skilful propaganda? As a young, inexperienced lad, most probably.”

    A frank admission. I too wonder where I would have been had I lived at that time. The Bonhoffers and Schindlers of the world were few and far between. So often in present-day discussions of National Socialism I sense the quick reach to condemn with very little attempt at recovering either the desperation of the times or the mystical allure of racial purity doctrines for people of that generation (and indeed generations before and since). Our moral outrage makes empathy for very difficult.

    But the moral outrage has to be preserved for the reasons you mentioned. Have you ever been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., Wilfried? I’ve been twice, and both times I noticed large packs of school kids absorbing the horrors of these camps in quiet meditation. The kids are everywhere, and this is the one place where they don’t annoy adults. The museum has to be one of the most powerfully transformative educational venues I have ever been a part of.

    We can only hope the lessons are transferable.

  7. Nate Oman on January 26, 2005 at 10:32 am

    My wife tells the story of visiting Auchwitz in college with a friend. Her friend looked at the memorials etc. and fiercely proclaimed that he would not have cooperated with the Nazis. He would have hidden the Jews or gone to camps himself.

    There are two ways of reading this story. One is to see the young man as internalizing the message of the place and resolving to be watchful of his problems. The second way of reading the story is that he completely missed the point. Placing himself counter-factually in time he indulged in cheap moral posturing without recognizing the real danger — that human decency is fragile and its disappearance is not confined to monsters. Ultimately, we are all ordinary people and that is what is scary.

  8. annebg on January 26, 2005 at 10:46 am

    I am writing this before reading the other posts except the first one, so I may be out of context, it seems the subject changes sometimes here.

    I have Elie Weisel’s book, have read it, and others. The Sunflower is also painful and thought provoking.

    Another book to read that adds perspective is The Reader, can’t remember the name of the author. Puts it in perspective of the other side. Not supporting, just telling another story.

    I know I have the capacity for evil and cowardice within me. Both were at work, both ARE at work. I’ve asked myself is I would have the courage to vote in Iraq were I a citizen. It’s easy safe here in my office to say I would, but I literally break out in a sweat pondering the monumental act of courage it will take to go to the voting booth in Bagdad Sunday.

    For myself, I think somewhere along the line, my primary character defect, anger, would take over, and I’d fight back, probably get shot, hopefully not tortured to death.

    I think, moreover, that there is a national character in Germany and Iraq (and other countries) which lends itself to these horrendous acts by evil people. The idea of Aryan superiority did not start with Hitler.

    We in America will rip the face off a salesclerk who shorts them a buck, I believe most Americans would fight tyranny. That’s what makes us appear pushy to other countries. I guess “appear” is debatable.

  9. Kevin Barney on January 26, 2005 at 11:15 am

    I second the recommendation of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. It is the next best thing for those of us who are unlikely ever to visit the actual camps. If you are ever in the Washington area for business or pleasure, make arrangements to go. (Be sure to order your tickets in advance; it is a very popular destination.)

  10. Jim F. on January 26, 2005 at 11:47 am

    Annabg’s comment worries me because I think it is as mistaken to speak of a national German or Iraqui character as it was to speak of a Jewish identity. Both ways of speaking presume something like racial identity and racial superiority. See here for a good piece about contemporary Germany.

  11. Heather on January 26, 2005 at 12:22 pm

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
    George Santayana, The Life of Reason
    posted on a memorial at Dachau
    Thank you for a thoughtful reminder of what happened and what kind of introspection we need to do.
    The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website has a page on the liberation of Auschwitz.

  12. Shannon Keeley on January 26, 2005 at 12:40 pm

    Great post Wilfried.
    Brian and I visited Auschwitz in 2001 when we were backpacking through Europe. Brian had written a screenplay the year earlier about an Auschwitz survivor, and we felt strongly about making sure our two month trek passed through there. We had taken an overnight train from Prague to Krakow, arriving so early in the morning that it was still pitch dark. We managed to get on a tour leaving for Auschwitz that same morning. It was late November, just a couple of months after September 11, and there was only one other American on our tour. In fact, he was pretty much the only American we saw our entire time in Poland—overseas travel was at an all time low at the time. As snow started falling on the long drive to Auschwitz, we suddenly realized that in America, it was Thanksgiving Day.
    It was a sobering day, and I was struck by the contrast of my day compared to everyone back home who was feasting on turkey and mashed potatoes. We were dressed in layers of thermals and gortex coats from REI, and the wind still whipped through the barracks at Birkenau with an almost unbearable sting. I could hardly imagine the people who lived there surviving a winter dressed in threadbare rags.
    Needless to say, our experience visiting the camp painfully reminded us of all that we had to be thankful for . . .
    Our time in Poland was toward the beginning of our trip, and it colored not only the rest of our travels, but also the way in which we followed the news from home, which was still focused heavily on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and all things 9-11. Watching the news each night as it was reported from a European perspective provided a very different outlook on American actions and attitudes. Our propensity for Anti-Arab sentiments in this country are escalating at a disturbing rate (has anyone watched the show 24 recently?) Could Americans treat Arabs like the Germans did the Jews? It’s not as though we haven’t acted this way before—look at the Japanese Internment camps during WW2.
    There is a really great museum here in Los Angeles called “The Museum of Tolerance” that explores all forms of prejudice and hateful persecution. They have a huge portion of the museum dedicated to genocide and a large Holocaust section led by tour guides who are camp survivors. Our tour guide showed us the tattoo on her wrist. When you enter the holocaust section of the museum you’re given a card with the name of a person who was sent to a concentration camp. At the end, you place your card into a machine and it tells you what happened to that person—if they were liberated, how they were killed, etc. The young girl on my card was used for scientific / medical experiments.

  13. Hootie on January 26, 2005 at 12:45 pm

    One of the most powerful images I have ever seen in film is Lee Marvin in “The Big Red One” carrying a child rescued from a concentration camp on his shoulders while the child dies. Also in that movie is the character played by Mark Hamill finding a German soldier in the same camp, and shooting him, over and over, long after the soldier was dead.

    We respond to the Holocaust in odd ways. Some deny that such an atrocity could have happened. Some want to perpetuate the same atrocity on those that caused it. Two extremes, both uncosciously showing how such things happen. Sometimes evil happens because good men do nothing. Sometimes it happens because good men think that they are doing a good that justifies their evil.

  14. J. Stapley on January 26, 2005 at 12:48 pm

    Reading this post Wilfried, it is easy to see why God weeps.

  15. Heather on January 26, 2005 at 12:50 pm

    I hadn’t followed Jim F.’s link before I posted a comment, but now I have. I agree that it is a good, thought-provoking piece. The author finds that for Germans today, “neither memory nor amnesia can provide consolation.” There is a sense of “deep emptiness.” How to reconcile with such a past? To accept what has happened, to feel okay about identity and heritage, and yet at the same time decide “never again” will such atrocities happen?

  16. Greg on January 26, 2005 at 12:57 pm

    Thanks Wilfried.

    The book mentioned by Anne, The Reader, is by a German judge named Bernard Schlink, and I second her recommendation.

  17. Mark B. on January 26, 2005 at 2:04 pm

    Regarding Shannon’s comment which appears to equate the US treatment of the Japanese during WW2 to the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews: Surely you’re not serious.

    Though sparked by hysteria (arising from the sneak attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor) and fueled by anti-Japanese racism, and, inexcusable according to our nation’s ideals, the internment of Japanese during WW2 was not anywhere near the same as the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews.

    The Japanese lost property, were forcibly taken from their communities, lived in drafty barracks in desolate places that nobody would have chosen to live in, but they were not systematically murdered. They were not starved to death. They were not worked to death. They were not forced to work as slave laborers. They were not subjected to sadistic “medical” experiments. Many were released from the internment camps prior to the end of the war, particularly those who entered the armed forces.

    Furthermore, to the extent that the interned Japanese were citizens of the Empire of Japan, their internment is consistent with international law. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949), the internment of enemy aliens is permitted “if the security of the Detaining Power makes it absolutely necessary.” Although that Convention was not in effect during WW2, one can argue that the internment of Japanese citizens was “absolutely necessary” from a military point of view. (I know–there are a whole pile of counter-arguments to be made: z.B., if necessary, why did the internments begin in late 1942, after the battle of Midway etc. etc., or, why weren’t Japanese in Hawaii interned.)

    This does not apply, of course, to the internment of US citizens of Japanese descent, which looks inexcusable today, and can only be explained as the outgrowth of wartime fears mingled with racism.

    Still, the Nazi’s Endloesung der Judenfrage was an evil of an entirely different order.

  18. Wilfried on January 26, 2005 at 2:14 pm

    I understand Mark B’s reaction, but I would encourage to not turn this thread into evaluations and comparisons of that nature, which may run out of hand. The topic is one of introspection and respect.

  19. Chris Williams on January 26, 2005 at 2:28 pm

    Thanks for this post, Wilfried.

    Last week I saw the movie “Hotel Rwanda” and have been carrying it with me for the past few days. I found myself choking back tears throughout. Thinking of the heroism of Paul Rosesagabina, the story’s protagonist, I asked myself as the film ended, “Could I have done what Paul did?” I answered yes. Then I asked myself, “Would I have done that?” I still haven’t answered that question, and I don’t think I want to. The unleashed Beast that Wilfried writes of so eloquently can lead us not just to unspeakable evil. It can also lead us to evil indifference.

  20. Geoff B on January 26, 2005 at 2:32 pm

    Wilfried, I share your concern about how I would have acted had I been a German living in Berlin in the 1930s. It’s impossible to know, but I look to my response to modern events as a guide. We learn from the scriptures that there will most likely soon be an anti-Christ who will come to the Earth and will be adored by millions, perhaps billions, before he scorches the earth with massive warfare. I see Hitler as a type for this anti-Christ. There are other types: Stalin, Mao, Castro, etc. One of the key choices people will have to make will be either to be for or against these dictatorial leaders who promise easy solutions to difficult problems. The anti-Christ will use propaganda, lies, manipulation and other tools to win the naive to his side (just as Hitler did). I think God looks kindly on the Germans who were not fanatical supporters of Hitler and learned to just get by in a sad society filled with hate and looking for scapegoats. Perhaps the majority of the members of Hitler’s army were just doing a job and protecting their country with good intentions. I don’t even pretend to know how the Lord will judge the people who ran the death camps, but I tend to think they will suffer incredible guilt and a hell of their own making.

    How do we make sure we are on the right side when the anti-Christ comes? Follow the prophet and the apostles and do what they say. It seems the only sure remedy.

  21. Brian G on January 26, 2005 at 3:51 pm

    I think Jim F. is wise in cautioning us not to speak in generalities about any nation’s character . There are obvious inherent dangers in blanket characterizations of any nation or its people. However, examining a nation’s history can reveal propensities that may lead us to prevent horrors from being repeated. For example, it would be in the introspective spirit of Wilfried’s post to examine the national character of the United States as we remember the holocaust.

    Any frank and honest approach to American history reveals genocidal tendencies are a part of our national character as well. According to some estimates there were about 12 million Native-Americans prior to the arrival of Europeans. After four hundred years of systematic extermination that population was reduced by about 97%. This genocide along with continuing the practice slavery long past other nations had abolished it suggest s an American tendency to fuel an unfettered capitalism with the destruction and enslavement of other people. In addition, there is no question that during times of war American forces have bombed civilian populations without mercy and in a cold, mechanized, and systematic fashion. The bombing of Japanese and German cities would frequently result in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths overnight. Love of country prompts many to justify these actions as necessary in a time of war, but it’s revealing that General Curtis LeMay, whose orders resulted in the deaths of a 100,000 of Tokyo’s citizens from bombing, is frequently quoted as admitting that he would have been persecuted as a war criminal in the event the U.S. lost. General LeMay’s perspective was, “All war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you’re not a good soldier.”

    It’s this kind of thinking and this kind of history that only supports Wilfried’s point that we’re not at all immune to being participants in, or giving complicit approval to, atrocities of our own, both as a nation and as individuals.

  22. annebg on January 26, 2005 at 5:12 pm

    I find it very difficult to stay on topic, my mind gets side tracked. I will have to copy and study the reference from Jim. I found it very profound and I believe the Germans who acknowledge their country’s fault in the holocaust are one up on those who deny responsibility. The only way to deal with such horrendeous acts is with honesty. That does not negate the magnitude of what happened, but it gives them the tools to overcome what happened. Denial is not a river in Egypt.

    I believe there is a national identity, in countries, I would not call it racial identity or superiority or inferiority, maybe a tendency? To generalize is not to condemn. In each society or country, there exists evil and good. We see that in those who risked their lives to help the Jews in WWII. However, I believe there was a tendency among the German peoples as a whole, with exceptions, to celebrate their superiority, which lent itself to further the Holocaust.

    I know I am capable of cruelty, my husband is not. We can bring it down to an individual level. But I think the main topic was “could this happen in America?” The terrible things that happened in the racist south are an example of this type of thing. The gay bashing is also. But, on the whole, Americans are caring and courageous people, so, I think, perhaps, Pollyanna-ish, no, it couldn’t happen in America. I think the tenor of the German people made the Holocaust possible. Same with the fanatacism in Iraq. Or the violent tendencies of African nations.

    Everybody is not the same. These terrible things exist in societies. Specific societies. It is not about racial identity or inferiority, it is about reality.

    On a side note: I’ve got some Jewish friends, they are great people, but I find they have common traits. Jews are onery! And ambitious. But they did not deserve what happened to them in WWII.

    My daughter visitied the Holocaust Museum, and she’s never been the same since.

  23. Shannon Keeley on January 26, 2005 at 5:20 pm

    Mark B.,
    Whoaaaaa. . .I definitely wasn’t expecting to get a mini-lecture about Japanese internment camps. I don’t think my comment “equated” Japanese internment camps with German concentration camps. As you rightly point out, the purpose of the Japanese camps was not to annihilate an entire race, but to control a group of people who shared the name nationality as a country we were at war with. As you also point out, this undertaking led to a number of injustices and abuses.

    It seems to me that any honest effort at respecting the events of the Holocaust needs to involve an honest examination of our attitudes toward and treatment of ethnic groups in our own country. I think clearly there are instances where, fueled by fear and in the name of self-preservation, we’ve crossed the line. I only mentioned the Japanese camps as an example of how, given a set of charged political and social conditions, we too are guilty of tolerating “inexcusable” (as you worded it) treatment towards an ethnic group. Perhaps it is a poor example, but it was the one that came to mind at the time.

    Clearly, the atrocities of the Holocaust are in a different league than what happened in the Japanese camps. But I think there is value in recognizing the mistreatment of ethnic groups that we tolerate in our own communities, and that is the reason why I drew the connection.

  24. Wilfried on January 26, 2005 at 5:33 pm

    Anne, thank you for your input. Just some thoughts.

    It is important to remember that our views of nations and people are often and mostly made by the media. TV can show us a demonstration of a few hundred or even a few thousands “fanatics” in a country, but those people would only represent a tiny fraction of the population. The media will focus on the spectacular and the threatening and manipulate our perception. Therefore it is not fair to speak of “violent tendencies of African nations”, when the overwhelming overwhelming majority there wants peace and tranquillity. The point remains that if the Beast finds a structure to involve more people, the bad part in an individual can be attracted to or be forced into the movement. As when innocent boys have to become children soldiers.

    Next, a feeling of superiority of a nation is not innate to the individual member. It is cultivated by exterior factors, usually by traditions fed by a government that affirms its power and wants allegiance to that power.

  25. MDS on January 26, 2005 at 6:11 pm

    I share in Jim’s concern at No. 10. This was what made Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” so intellectually dishonest.

  26. Melissa on January 26, 2005 at 6:16 pm

    “Or the Beast in embryo: the driver whirling in a fit of rage, the fuming sports fan yelling obscenities at the referee, the exasperated mother shaking her baby, the one child relentlessly bullying another. Or simply dare to assess the responsive pleasure of so many who watch beatings, killings and destruction in movies or act them out in computer games.”

    I had a discussion today with some students about Hitler. The man was a genius. It is easy to see how the German people could have been swept away. As we discussed this, I couldn’t help but think about the ‘hitlers’ of our day. The above quote from your post sums up my conclusions. Thankyou for so eloquently expressing what I could not put into words.

  27. annebg on January 26, 2005 at 7:00 pm

    There’s another book I forgot to recommend, it’s The Fragility of Goodness, by okay, this is not his name, but it’s something like this: Tvetzan Tvdorov. He explores the facets that went into Bulgaria’s low Jewish death rate. The least deaths occurred in that country. A lot of it was luck, but there was also a–what do I call it–personality trait? of rebellion among the Bulgarian people.

    They handed over the Jews of their territories in Thrace and Macedonia on a silver platter, but refused to turn over the Bulgarian Jews. Long story. Had to do with national identity.

    I will have to look up that other book.

  28. Justin on January 27, 2005 at 12:35 am

    Thank you Wilfried, and others, for this thread. I’ve often worried at the equation (in US American society at least) of absolute evil with the figure of Hitler–not because I think he wasn’t evil (he was, most certainly), but because I wonder if the figure doesn’t too easily allow us to gloss over our personal and societal tendencies to evil by providing us someone far enough from our own self conceptions as to be radically different.

    That is, because Hitler was a “German” sixty some years ago–ie, from a long, long time ago, in a place far, far away–he’s not really like me and mine. Those people are fundamentally different from me–we’d never do that.

    Yikes.

    Wilfried and others remind us that we are all susceptible–nationally and individually–to evil.

  29. Lisa on January 27, 2005 at 1:39 am

    I visited Auschwitz about ten years ago and had much the same reaction as you. I used to agonize over the question of what I would have chosen had I been a German then. I wanted to believe that I could never have made those same choices most Germans made, but how can you know. As a youth I probably would have been caught up in it too.

    Eventually I decided that instead of wondering what would I have become, I had to make myself into a person, now, today, who would not justify or ignore evil.

    It really is a question/struggle that has formed me.

  30. Eric James Stone on January 27, 2005 at 1:48 pm

    Brian G,

    > After four hundred years of systematic extermination that population was reduced by about 97%.

    Not all of that decline is due to systematic extermination. I believe a majority of that can be attributed to the unintentional spread of diseases (particularly smallpox) for which indigenous Americans had no resistance. For example, smallpox reached the Incan empire before the Europeans did, eventually killing between 60-90% of the population.

    I’m not arguing that there weren’t systematic campaigns of extermination; I’m just saying that they were not the main cause of the dramatic population decline.

  31. Dan W. on January 27, 2005 at 1:58 pm

    I think we’d all like to think that we wouldn’t have been pro-nazi or taken part in the atrocities. However, the famous Milgram studies on obedience showed that it’s not only psychopaths who can kill people. When given clear orders by authority, few people don’t conform to the orders, even if it means hurting or possibly killing somebody.

  32. Brian G on January 27, 2005 at 3:28 pm

    Eric,
    I understand and respect your position. There are allegations that small pox was at times intentionally spread among native populations and that providng vacinations against it was either purposefully delayed or withheld altogether. I’ll leave it to the historians to settle those arguments.
    I’d rather not threadjack this fine post to discuss the complexities of the decline in Native-American populations, but I do maintain that it is an example of genocide and proof that genocide can and does take place at the hand of Americans.

  33. hillary on January 28, 2005 at 12:37 am

    Prof Decoo,
    I just wanted to say thank you for your comments. I have wondered all too often what I would have done, had I lived then and been faced with such a situation. I don’t know what I would have done and that scares me but in turn, it makes me grateful for the opportunity to live at this time and know that it was wrong. I know what I will teach my children and what examples I will set because, unfortunatly, there are reaccuring characteristics. The worst thing is that they who posess these characteristics are unaware of it. I fear what it could cause but more I fear who will be involved.

  34. annegb on January 28, 2005 at 12:07 pm

    I got out my copy of Night, glanced through it and realized something. Isn’t Auschwitz in Poland?– where half the Jews who died in the Holocaust were killed, almost their entire population. The Bulgarians saved almost their entire population (granted, only 50,000), the Danes saved many, as well. How can we deny the existence of a national–are we quibbling terms?–identity, that furthered anti-Semitism?

    The fact that many Germans sorrow over the Holocaust or feel guilt, even the innocent ones, does not negate the fact that many Germans got right behind Hitler. As did the Romanians.

    Collective guilt is a difficult issue and cannot be explained in a few words, but sometimes guilt is earned. I know I earned mine. I believe those Germans who claim not to have known add shame to their past, and those who desire to make things right, somehow redeem it.

    But, then, again, Christ did that. If only I could accept that for myself, perhaps, I could grant it to others. I know, I know, it’s not mine to grant. But it feels like it is.

  35. Jack on January 28, 2005 at 12:23 pm

    I’ve looked at a few WWII casualty reports. The general consensus is that there were about 6 million civilian casualties in Poland out of which about 2.7 million were Jews. My guess is that, regardless of it’s “national character” Poland was powerless in protecting any of it’s population from the Nazis – Jew or Gentile.

  36. annegb on January 28, 2005 at 12:51 pm

    Good point. Perhaps another aspect of this discussion is the oppressed can become pretty serious oppressors. I do not want to speculate in this because I’ve seen seriously abused individuals who are incapable of cruelty, but I know others who pass it on.

    In this case, I’m thinking of the oppressed as the Poles. They take it on the chin again and again.

  37. Wilfried on January 28, 2005 at 3:33 pm

    Anne, thank you for your input, but it is not wise to tie national identities to ratio’s of casualties.

    First, it is a complex historical phenomenon, tied to circumstantial structures of power. In France, the minority Vichy government, put in place by the Nazi’s after the collapse of the French army, collaborated with the Nazi’s and greatly facilitated the deportation of Jews. That does not make the French more prone to anti-Semitism than other countries where the ratio’s of deportation were lower. Every European country under Nazi occupation had different levels of occupation, also region by region, and different power structures which led to other consequences. Some countries were better situated than others to help Jews escape and were lucky to have still leaders in place who to a certain extent could fool the Nazi system. Other countries had more collaborators in positions of power. A lot had to do with fortuitous circumstances. But all this is food for historians.

    Second, more important, the whole point of this post is to learn to share responsibility and guilt because we are all part of the same humankind. Auschwitz should be our collective burden. Let us never think that a particular “nation” is more prone to atrocities than another. The concept of “national identity” is precisely what Nazism used in order to segregate and to discriminate. So many wars have been fed if not instigated by the abuse of national identity.

  38. annegb on January 28, 2005 at 5:27 pm

    That’s why I recommend the book, Fragility of Goodness. He explores the issues of moral courage, luck, timing, geography–they all play a part,

    But I remain unconvinced of your thesis. I just respectfully, knowing the extent of my ignorance, disagaree.

  39. Heather on January 28, 2005 at 7:33 pm

    First I want to make a comment about Poland. I am certainly not an expert on the country, but I developed a love for the people and their history because I served a mission there. Afterwards I took a Polish history course. I don’t have any references to post right now, but this is what I remember. In the Middle Ages, when Jews were persecuted (Prague, for example, had a ghetto for hundreds of years – I’ve visited the oldest synagogue still standing in Europe and the beautiful and terribly sad Jewish cemetary, where body was buried on top of body, because it was their only spot of land for burial, until it stands quite a few feet above street level), Poland opened its borders and hearts to Jews. The population of Jews in Poland has always been higher than in other nations in Europe, from what I remember. Poland as a country has a tradition of not endorsing anti-Semitism. They know what it feels like to be oppressed, because their country has been overrun many times. For about a century and a half, there was no Poland on the map after it was divided, but the people clung to a sense of national identity and maintained their language (even though it was illegal) and traditions. Under Communism they retained their Roman Catholic beliefs and practices. So you’re right, Anne, Poland has “take[n] it on the chin again and again.” But I agree Jack that here they were for the most part powerless. Poland is a small country and it shares a large part of its border with Germany. And at the time, it was even smaller. All of Silesia and a good part of western Poland, as well as a lot of the area around the north coast (including major ports) belonged to Germany. Bulgaria is much farther removed geographically. Also look at the time frame. Germany invaded Poland in 1939. I don’t know for sure about when the Nazis took on Bulgaria or Denmark, but I imagine it was much later in the war. Sorry to jump on the soapbox, but I just wanted to write a few words here in defense of a country I love. Anne, I don’t agree with you that Poles “furthered” anti-Semitism.” I don’t know for sure what I think about national characteristics, about making generalizations about a population. I do believe that many people feel a sense of “national identity.” I’m going to think some more on it. Of course you’re right that in every country there were people who welcomed and collaborated with the Nazis, and I think Wilfried wants to remind us that normal people participated in horrendous things and we need to look within ourselves. Also thanks for recommending the book The Fragility of Goodness. I’ll check it out. It sounds like a fascinating story.
    The reason I returned to this post was I wanted to put up some links for anyone who might be interested. Elie Wiesel offered some remarks at the U.N. Commemoration of the Victims of the Holocaust on Monday. The U.N. Webcast is available here (24 January 05, General Assembly, am session, starts about 32 minutes in and lasts about 16 minutes). Beliefnet has posted some excerpts here.

  40. Wilfried on January 28, 2005 at 10:37 pm

    Thank you for your comments, Hillary, Anne, Heather, and others.

    In connection with the last comments, it is helpful to read carefully what is being said on these touchy topics. No one denies that people can have an obvious sense of “national identity”. The point was only made that problems arise when abuse is made of those feelings, in order to foster aggressive pride and to affirm superiority.

  41. annegb on January 28, 2005 at 11:59 pm

    This is a one-sided discussion. I wonder what a Jew who survived Auschwitz would think? Would he rather live in America or Poland in 1943? What about the Shoah Foundation, or the Simon Weisenthal Center? What do they think? Granted, they are not very grateful to Bulgaria, but they might have a different perspective.

    Why don’t we ask the victims, those who experienced the Holocaust what they think? Do they have a right to an opinion and who decides? This is an individual decision, at its heart. To grant the people of Auschwitz compassion for guilt they feel is not to absolve what happened. To recognize that the Poles were between a rock and a hard place, and there are–and were– very good people in Poland cannot minimize the enormity of the deaths of Jews in Poland. How many came back? How many live there now? Is that not an opinion? An informed opinion, based upon personal experience? It’s easy to intellectualize this issue, but at its heart is the issue of the murders of millions of people. That tree did not fall in the forest without making a sound.

  42. Bill on January 29, 2005 at 2:52 am

    Because Auschwitz was in Poland is not a reason to blame Poles for what went on there. In the concentration camps, the Nazis systematized and bureaucratized their hatred, although they were happy to incite rage-driven pogroms on the outskirts of the areas they controlled.

    Poles can, however, take the blame for the pogrom of Kielce, in which 42 Jews were killed, in 1946, long after the war was over. And for maintaining an environment in which the 380,000 Jews who survived (of 3.3 million before the war) dwindled to about 8,000 (due to so much emigration, thanks to continual anti-semitism).

    I would not attribute this shameful record primarily to national identity, however. There are plenty of other instances of vicious pogroms (for instance, hundreds of thousands of Jews were slaughtered in Russia in 1881 and in the Ukraine in 1919). The Soviets massacred thousands of Polish reserve troops in 1940 at Katyn, many of whom were Jewish. It was a very complicated time with brutality everywhere.

    For an interesting exchange on the issue of Jedwabne, where in 1941, it is alleged, Poles asked Germans if they could “settle accounts with the Jews” and then went on a killing spree, see here:

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/14800

  43. Wilfried on January 29, 2005 at 8:44 am

    Thank you, Bill, for that information. Although on this thread I would rather avoid looking back at the precise ratio’s of responsibility for each country, as it contains the risk of sparking an endless debate with ill feelings, it is good to be reminded that in every country there have been major cases of collaboration with the Nazi’s. Moreover, anti-Semitism, as you pointed out, is not something Hitler invented. It has affected the Western world for many centuries. Its roots have been studied over and over again. Inquisitions, autodafes, pogroms existed long before the Nazi’s.

    But Auschwitz stands as a symbol of the ultimate point where it all led too, and as the most visual reminder and warning for our times. For anti-Semitism is not dead yet, even in the United States. It is necessary that we are reminded of the evil consequences of anti-Semitism and therefore of racism as such, even today. The bottom line is to be able to recognize the potential evil in ourselves, the natural man as enemy of God, and our tendencies to distrust, despise, reject, and ultimately persecute those who appear different than we are.

  44. Blake on January 29, 2005 at 11:33 am

    Brother Decoo: Thank you. I have not visited Auschwitz except in my own heart. The possiblity for unthinking prejudice, the willingness to blame and inflict injury, the blackness of the human soul lurks somewhere in all of us I suspect and we shall never know what would unleash it. I remember crying all night when I read Man’s Search for Happiness as a Sr. in High School. The haunting question — “could I do this?” — remains with me as a spectre that has never been exorcised.

    However, there was another question that has haunted me (and many, many others) since. How could God watch this and allow it? I have never found an answer that brings peace to the disquietude of my heart in response to that question. However, as strange as it may seem, I realized that it served me to forgive God for allowing it to occur when he could have stopped it. I know … the sheer arrogance at thinking that I could forgive God is breath-taking (and it took my breath away when I realized that it served me to forgive). I never saw God as needing my forgiveness, but only my need to forgive him. I experience forgiveness as a gift given to serve the one who forgives and not to fulfill a need of the one forgiven. Imagine my astonishment when I knew that God accepted my forgiveness. Yet I cannot forgive him as if I were one who had been wronged, one to whom God owed something, but only as one who blamed God for not stepping in when he could have stopped it. Should I ask God for his forgiveness for my holding him accountable for allowing the atrocities of Auschwitz, Pol Pot, Stalin, Serbo-Crotains, Mountain Meadows etc. etc. etc.?

    The endless demand of the other upon me is also pregnant in this forgiveness. There is so much that I allow that I could stop … and always more than I can do for and with “the other” that the demand can never be silenced, never assuaged and never fully answered. Is that how God feels?

  45. annegb on January 30, 2005 at 10:24 am

    I’ve asked the same questions, Blake. I’ve read, also, that many Jews who survived the Holocaust, ask those questions, as well. I’ve heard the same explanations about free agency, etc.

    There is a book by a guy named Leslie Weatherhead, called The Will of God, I think, which gives a good explanation on the nature of the will of God.

    If I were God, I would be striking people off the face of the earth left and right. I must say, knowing myself in this life, I can hardly believe I voted for the plan.

  46. annegb on February 3, 2005 at 7:49 pm

    Brother Decoo, I sent you an apology, but Kaimi said he didn’t get his e-mail, so maybe you didn’t get yours. I didn’t mean to offend you with my posts, I feel strongly, but I would have been more sensitive had I realized that real people are reading what we put up. Not so harsh.

    Dr. Falcouner is right, it’s so easy to forget that there are living breathing human beings in this cool box on my desk that does all the neat (and sometimes not so neat, Jackie has a will of her own, she insists on having her way)stuff, and dash off my oh-so-profound opinions. I love the sound of my own voice. I am my own favorite subject. What narcississm. Did I spell that right?

    I am concerned that my sometimes humorous look at life will be misconstrued as trivializing very important and even sacred subjects. For instance, child abuse is a hideous thing. I don’t want to offend anyone who’s gay, either, one of my dearest friends is gay, and while I have trouble accepting her lifestyle, I love her very much (“not in the homosexual way, dat’s for sure” Rudy, Survivor). Please forgive me if I’ve hurt or offended anyone and forgive me in advance if I do it again. You know, why don’t we just post this every few days, in case I forget my serious moment.

    I’ll try harder. Honest.

  47. Wilfried on February 3, 2005 at 9:04 pm

    No need to apologize, Anne. I cannot read in your comments anything that needs apologies. In these threads we share ideas, insights, reactions. Others will respond with nuances and additional insights. Information is added upon information. That way we all grow towards more understanding. Like many others I appreciate your honest and heartfelt participation.

  48. Mark B. on February 3, 2005 at 11:39 pm

    Blake,

    I think you meant Man’s Search for Meaning–Victor Frankl’s little masterpiece.

  49. Jack on February 3, 2005 at 11:55 pm

    Mark B.,

    I was wondering if Blake had the right title. And now that you mention the word “masterpiece” I’m certain that he didn’t.

  50. annegb on February 10, 2005 at 11:30 am

    Boy, did I have to search for this.

    Brother Deecco, I’ve been waiting for a response from one of my gurus, who teaches Holocaust literature at a California university. She is a second generation on her father’s side, he being a Russian Jewish immigrant, and with relatives who survived the Holocaust.

    I’d never heard your premise about national identity, I knew there were Germans who felt terrible about what happened (and I still think, rightly so), but I’d always believed that it was easy for HItler to do what he did because the Germans were so anti-semitic, and convinced of their superiority. I still think that makes sense.

    But she says you are right. She says that it is true, that idea of superiority did not begin with Hitler, but she also believes that it could happen anywhere. She compares the resentment Germans felt for the Jews to the resentment we feel for illegal immigrants, I know in my community, I often feel we are being invaded by Mexicans and I try to remind myself that most of them are not drug pushers or rapists that they want a better life, as I did once. She says no one is immune, and she is not as judgemental of the Germans or the Poles or the Romanians as I am, although of course she feels the real pain of being a member of a race that has suffered over the millenia.

    Hmmm….I will have to ponder. Probably for the rest of my life.

    Thought you might appreciate that perspective. It still seems to me that each place has a feel, their own prejudices and idiocyncrasies. Well, of course, that is true. But I believe that certain characteristics lend themselves to terrible acts more than others. Very complicated.

    I think I was the guardian angel of a Jewish person in Auschwitz, from the Ukraine, maybe Lvov, before I was born.

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