Monster, by no other name: Understanding the Holocaust (Victims, Survivors, & Perpetrators)
Are monsters real? Or are monsters simple myths, the unfortunate result when groups separate into differing cultural and communal groupings? But why monsters? Imagined monsters crawl from the closet when one group begins to see the “other” group, those on the outside, as subhuman, when one group begins to believe they are biologically dominate, the better; while the others, subservient. Consider the story of Moishe the Beadle, a Jewish mystic from the flourishing town of Sighet, Transylvania, who one day was rounded up and deported, along with other foreign Jews, into crowded cattle cars destined for an unknown location across the Hungarian border. As the trained pulled away, an unknown bystander sighed, “What do you expect? That’s war.” Moishe survived his deportation and told the story of the ones who didn’t make it back, how they were rushed off the train and into waiting trucks and brought into a dark forest, forced to dig impossibly deep trenches and then systematically shot, their bodies falling into the labored graves (Wiesel, Night pg. 6). Why did this happen? Was Moishe really an enemy or was he the victim of an irrational biological belief of speciation? Pseudospeciation, as we’ll call it, can develop into acts of dehumanization, discrimination, and eventually genocide, for those who do not fit into a ascribed notion of racial identity. Those on the fringe become monsters to those on the inside looking out. Monsters quickly become the enemy. Here, we’ll look at the stories and histories of victims, survivors, and their perpetrators, who lived by the noose of pseudospeciation in the hopes of better understanding why an otherwise civilized German society could produce acts of dispassionate cold brutality.
Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald death camp survivor, when giving his acceptance speech, said regarding the Holocaust, it “defies literature…we think we are describing an event, we transmit only its reflection… Still, the story [has] to be told;” (Landau, pg.3) insomuch, as we honor the memory of the dead. The Nazi Holocaust is without a doubt, a convoluted subject, wrought with oodles of information and perspectives; however, no one yet has ever discovered a definitive answer as to why it happened. And no one ever should. There are no definitive causalities for genocide. Besides, who could really answer the “big question,” as to why an otherwise civilized German society that could produce beautiful minds, such as: Beethoven, Bach, Wagner, and Schumann, on the one hand, and merciless brutality on the other? Could one voice unequivocally speak for so much death? The very notion of claiming an answer for causalities seems malignant to the mutilated memory of the people who suffered and died by the hands of Nazi perpetrators. Perhaps the most honest objective we could approach the subject with, is not through definitive answers, but discovering inferred lessons instead of looking for an all-encompassing cause (Landau, pg.4).
Looking back on the history of the Holocaust, it would be fair to say that in 1933, when Hitler came to power, there was no reason to believe, or for that matter, anticipate, the final outcome in the annihilation of six-million Jews. Only, as author Ronnie Landau has stated, through the “luxurious logic of hindsight” could we have seen, as the saying goes, the writing on the wall (Landau, pg. 116). For this reason, something becomes explicit: The Holocaust wasn’t predictable. No one saw it coming. The Holocaust began slowly, through Nazi policies directed at depersonalizing European Jewry. These polices were built around pre-established anti-Semitism and an inferred belief in separation, especially among German Christians (the Jew and Gentile relationship). Hitler and his Nazi Party policies tediously laced their Volksgemeinschaft cake with deliberate poison through subtle conditioning and indoctrination, masterminded by the infamous Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Propaganda played a significant role in bringing millions of Germans together through popular fascist motifs, in such films as: S.A. Mann Brand (1933), Triumph of the Will (1935), Jew Süss (1940), Münchhausen (1943), and Kolberg (1945). In accordance with Nazi ideology, the function of Nazi education also included particular racial components, namely what to do regarding “The Jewish Question,” in a way that emphasized a path towards resolution that would strengthen and regenerate Germany in a post-Treaty of Versailles country. Hitler was able to use his natural pseud-charismatic character to place blame for Germany’s inequality on a common enemy. What began as a war against undesirables (mentally handicap, Gypsies, Polish, and all other none-German) , soon found its way to Hitler’s central target, the Jews (Berenbaum, pg.102); his veritable monster in the closet, his scapegoat for every pseudo-ascribed sin commented against Germany.
On March 23, 1933, Hitler succeeded in gaining legislative control through the passing of the Enabling Act. By sheer domination and intimidation of opposing parties within the Reichstag, Hitler could now “pass laws and decrees without the consent of parliament” (Landau, The Nazi Holocaust, pg. 121). It is interesting to note how despite having democracy and parliamentary authority thrown to the curb, the majority of German citizens applauded Hitler. It would seem, for the German citizen during the Weimar Republic, the preference in having a charismatic and steadfast leader was much greater than the constant debate and indecisiveness typical during this period in German history. In a way, Hitler was able to twist the general public’s natural disdain for bureaucracy, into an avenue for creating a totalitarian state. There are, of course, other factors one must consider, but one thing is for certain: without the Enabling Act, Hitler would not have been able to carry Germany down the path leading to The Final Solution.
The greatest tragedy ever told could only really be appreciated through the mussing of a young teenaged girl. Anne Frank belonged to a middle class household, liberal in their Jewish faith, typical for most European Jewry living in Germany at the time. In 1933, during the fallout of the Enabling Act, Otto Frank, Anne’s father, moved his family to Amsterdam, Netherlands, far away from the dangers in the heartland of Nazi anti-Semitism, or so he thought. On May 10, 1940, the Netherlands surrendered to an invading German Army and soon after, several anti-Jewish laws were passed and carried out. By 1942, the Franks could see the proverbial writing on the wall, and went into hiding. Anne notes in her famous diary the particular day her family went into the “Secret Annex,” how on July 8, 1942, beginning with Sunday afternoon and leading to their eventual hiding, “Father…[had] received a call-up notice from the SS… I was stunned. A call-up: everyone knows what that means. Visions of concentration camps and lonely cells raced through my head… Silence. We couldn’t speak” (Frank, pg. 19).
When reading through Anne Frank’s work, it’s hard not becoming emotionally attached. For a thirteen year old girl, she was very aware of the realities around her, considering one of her more popular quotes from her diary: “Sympathy, love, fortune…we all have these qualities but still tend to not use them.” Her constant optimism and willingness for hard honesty in everything she wrote instills a since of longing for humanity; however, her notions optimism also begs the question: was this teenaged girl really a monster? Was she the enemy? Was she something worth fearing? On the morning of August 4, 1944, a little over two years since the Franks first went into hiding, the SS and Dutch Security Police “discovered” the Secret Annex and arrested Anne and the rest who called the back of 263 Prinsengracht road home. By early September, they were shipped away to Auschwitz. There, Anne Frank succumbed to symptoms of typhus in the overcrowded barracks of the concentration camp and died in March 1945; another story among countless victims of pseudospeciation, and the horrible process of dehumanization, discrimination, and genocide. Yet the question we must face remains: was Anne Frank a monster? Giving a definitive answer for how the völk of the Third Reich came to this realization, seeing innocents, such as Anne Frank or Moishe the Beadle, or even Elie Wiesel as the monsters might seem too ambiguous; however, perhaps we could come to some understanding through Europe’s precondition for anti-Semitism. According to Raul Hilberg, as sited by historian Ronnie Landau in his work, The Nazi Holocaust, “Since the fourth century after Christ, there have been three anti-Jewish polices: conversion, expulsion, and annihilation” (pg. 118). For the Nazis, conversion was no longer on the table, as they had already established how their ideology was based on a biological belief that Germanic blood was separate from European Jewry. If we are to follow Nazi ideology down the rabbit hole, as described by Hilberg, we are faced with a very complex and troubling question: why didn’t the Nazis simply deport the Jews and other non-desirable’s instead of inching toward the next precarious step, The Final Solution?
In July 1938, at the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, representatives of thirty-two governments, including: twenty Latin American republics, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States, and most of the western European states, England, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, and Denmark came together at Evian, France, for a conference regarding the issue of Jewish refugees fleeing the intensification of anti-Jewish measures during Nazi occupied Germany (Landau, The Nazi Holocaust, pg. 137). Hitler himself responded to news of the Evian conference during his speech at Königsberg, stating: “…on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships” (pg. 137). However, despite the “liberal” intentions of the Western democracies, the Evian Conference failed when both the United States and England washed their hands and refused to take on any substantial number of Jewish refugees, thus ushering an “unmistakable message to the other nations assembled at Evian” (pg. 138). Shortly thereafter, a memorandum was drafted by the Evian Committee and sent to the German Foreign Office, basically stating that the German government had the right to introduce measures affecting its own subjects. One month later, during a cold night in November, anti-Semitic thugs throughout Germany roamed and pillaged in an “orgy of violence” (pg. 141), destroying and setting ablaze synagogues and Jewish establishments belonging to those they used to call neighbors and friends. History would eventually call this event, The Night of Kristallnacht, the night of Shattered Glass. The failure with the Evian Conference not only helped to restrict persecuted Jews who wished to flee this mayhem, but also helped “trigger a change in Nazi policy” (Landau, pg. 139), escalating the Third Reich down the path toward annihilation of the Jews.
The shattered glass emphasized from the night of Kristallnacht is an excellent, albeit tragic, metaphor for through a glass, darkly, the mirror reflection Elie Wiesel witnessed after being liberated from the Buchenwald concentration camp, when “from the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me. The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me” (Wiesel, Night, pg. 115). When the Western democracies slammed their doors, this was not in itself an excuse or the root cause of the eventual annihilation of the Jews; however, even Joseph Goebbels noted how, “Nobody wants the scum!” We must consider the implications the Evian Conference had concerning not only Germany, but also the world. If we can say that this Western Democratic failure did in fact contribute to the final outcome of the Holocaust, then we should be able to understand that as it became increasingly apparent that the Third Reich could no longer “remove” Jews from Germanic life, considering their pseudospeciation fervent belief, the extermination and construction of industrialized killing camps was inevitable.
Following the memories of the victims and survivors of the holocaust, an insidious and unfathomable path from the Enabling Act to the 1933 boycott of Jewish shops and businesses, picket lines and shouts of “don’t buy from the Jews,” to the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service Act, the dismissal of non-Aryan civil servants, scientists, doctors, to further forms of cultural segregation and burning of “un-German” literature, fully separating non-Aryans from artistic, literary, and cultural public life, and also, the Defense Law, excluding Jews from military service, and the more idiosyncratic Nuremberg Laws, ending Jewish emancipation, marriage and sexual relations between Jews and those of Germanic blood, fully institutionalizing Nazi racism, leading to the selection and deportation of Jews to Ghettos, and finally ushering to the greatest crime committed against humanity, The Final Solution, the mass extermination of the Jews, we’re left with many deeply-seated questions (Landau, The Nazi Holocaust, pgs. 122-133). Understandable, one naturally reverts to the big questions of why. However, that is not our goal. We need to focus on the hows, the historical accounts of villainy and somehow find inferred lessons amidst such brutality. We shouldn’t ask why the German people made such a leap from civility to cold calculated brutality, but how. Was it the simple “basic idea [that in] practically every war mythology…the enemy is a monster and that in killing him one is protecting the only truly valuable order of human life on earth, which is…of one’s own people” (Erikson, pg.56)? If we are to understand how the Nazis saw European Jewry as the monster, we’ll need to, in some small way, understand the perpetrators, who in themselves were not likewise mythical creatures, but men and women, mostly blue and pink collar, middle class citizens, with, at least, the basic belief in the tenets of morality, such as: Thou Shalt Not Kill.
One of the best examples of understanding the perpetrator is from looking at the history of Reserve Battalion 101, which was, consequently, made up of simple ordinary men who ended up committing horrible acts of violence. Most of these “average guys” signed up for the Reserve Battalion in the hopes of avoiding active duty in the regular army, yet, still found themselves on the eastern front, operating from the rear of the forward line, becoming Einsatzgruppen, Nazi mobile killing squads tasked with “liquidating” potential partisan fighters, communist politicians, and “all Russian Jews” (Landau, The Nazi Holocaust, pgs. 165-166). Historian Christopher Browning notes one possible explanation for the cold brutality of the Einsatzgruppen, despite having typical moral understandings and being separated from the hub of Nazi and SS indoctrination, these men were not:
“…immune to ‘the influence of the times,’ to the incessant proclamation of German superiority and incitement of contempt and hatred for the Jewish enemy… In wartime, when it was all too usual to exclude the enemy from the community of human obligation, it was also all too easy to subsume the Jews into the image of the enemy…” (Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, pg.186).
The wartime mentality could give us some insight into some of the behaviorisms of the killing squads, perhaps even something much deeper, and something much more intuitive than moral obligation. Psychologist Stanley Milgram noted how obedience is one of the most basic structures of social life and is a huge determinant on behavior, particularly between, as history has shown us, 1933-45, considering how on command, millions of innocent persons were murdered, gas chambers constructed, concentration camps were organized and guarded, all with sinister efficiency (Milgram, pg.1). Milgram further studied the phenomenon of obedience through a controlled, albeit controversial, laboratory experiment during the 1960’s dubbed, the Milgram Experiment. During the experiment subjects were tested on their willingness to obey the authority of instruction by performing acts that conflicted with their own personal conscience, basically giving differing levels of shock to an unknown party for answering any series of question incorrectly. The result yielded that 26 out of 40 subjects would abandon moral tenets in favor of following the authority of instruction (pg. 32).
As it seems, even against “choking tears” (Browning, pg.200), perpetrators were still willing to perform the “unpleasant” task of the annihilation of their victims; just as major Trapp had commented to his men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, “’orders were orders,’ and had to be carried out” (pg. 201). Orders and obedience were not just a familiarity for the soldiers and police battalions. Josef Mengle, the Auschwitz angel of death, an SS doctor, also “believed orders had to be executed” (Lifton, pg.375) without hesitation or question. Yet, there was a strangeness about Mengle different from the others. Mengle, according to some of his colleagues, was affectionate and nurturing towards the children he experimented on and was also often pleasant and knowledgeable, which seems to contradict our caricature of mythic murderers and cold brutes. However, as Dr. Alexander O points out, Mengle “had all the sentimental motions, all the human feelings, pity, and so on. But there was in his psyche a…impenetrable, indestructible cell, which is obedience to the received order” (Lifton pg.375). Dr. O goes on to describe how Mengle would save the life of a drowning gypsy and then, just as quick, send them off to the crematoria. Mengle was not only followed orders, being obedient, but he also fervently believed in the biocractic ideology of Nazi pseudospeciation. Perpetrators such as Mengle, Eichmann, and even Rudolph Höss, the SS Kommandant of Auschwitz, were true believers in the Final Solution, insomuch, as to even consider the gas chambers a “humane” end for the Jews (Arendt, pg.234).
There could be no possible or true way to explain, with any absolute certainty as to why or how the perpetrators of the Third Reich reached the cataclysmic and tragic conclusion with the end of so many lives during The Final Solution. Some form of how can be understood from the historical accounts, especially with the political environment, laws and separation of the Jews from Germanic life, and anti-Semitism left over from Weimar era; which was to say, rampant during the time. We could also see how Nazi pseudospeciation turned European Jewry into something hideous, monsters by no other name, for those on the inside looking out into a dreadful world of inequality, with few truths and plenty of subjective answers. But we’ll never find definitive legitimacy for why the Holocaust happened, why the Nazis did what they did, because it simply cannot exist. We can only find inferred lessons to bring with us into the modern world. Historian Neil Kressel notes in his work, Mass Hate, how “people everywhere tend to think in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and to prefer their own group…even the most tolerant people sometimes rely on simplistic stereotypes” (Kressel, pg.213). And, it is troubling how, just as Dr. Milgram proved with his experiments during the 1960’s, a majority of everyday people seem ready to obey authorities, conforming to the ideologies of their peer groups. What is even more alarming is how in “climates where decency prevails, haters often suppress their hatred; similarly, in hateful climates, relatively decent people sometimes participate in brutal and destructive acts of mass hatred” (Kressel, pg.183). Being aware of our social climate and being objective in what we hear around us could help keep the tide of pseudospeciation from suffocating our cultural identity, insomuch, as we remember, that even when we separate into natural social groupings, one group is no better than the other. Even more important, for future generations, is to keep memory alive and relevant, especially the mutilated memory of the Holocaust.