I was going to spend my evening nursing a toddy while watching Galaxy Quest and crocheting, and I'll probably end up going back to that plan. But I've been neglecting this blog recently and Dan has inspired me to finally write about something that I had thought of, but dismissed. Also, if an explanandum is required for my recent inactivity, it's quite simply this: the Blogger app hasn't been working on my phone, and I'm apparently too lazy to drag out my computer to write things. So now you know the truth and we can all move on, me with my hipster Bluetooth typewriter, you with your.... whatever. Hopefully a toddy, or something lovely like that.
I've recently been reading a great deal about Germans during World War II, and on related subjects like the psychology of killing on battlefields, that sort of thing. There are a few things that obviously stand out, even before you've spent any time looking deeply into the subject. If I could be an average American and you were to ask me about the German national psyche in 1943, the two things I would have to bring up would be 1) the support for National Socialism with its central cult figure of Hitler, and 2) the near universal turning away from the plight of Jews and other undesirables.
There's this burning question, or questions really, behind any study of the Holocaust: how could they have participated in this horror? And for those who did not directly participate: how could they look away? Undergirding these questions is another, almost subconscious one: how could this happen here? Where, by "here," I mean the global West, supposedly so civilized and advanced, as assessed within our Western-originating paradigms of progression.
From the outset, it may be worth our while to distinguish between passive participants and active participants. That distinction is set up by the first two questions, which imply two kinds of responsibility: that of commitment and that of deliberate disengagement. Later, I will challenge this dichotomy, but for now, it will suffice.
So, to begin: how could they look away? Some people have argued that many Germans just didn't know. To lend credence to their argument, German Jews were, overall, more likely to survive the war than those in occupied territories. The death camps, the Einsatzgruppen, entire cities in Poland, Ukraine, and Russia starved through the long winters... These happened out of sight of those many German citizens who remained at home through the course of the war.
But this argument leaves out several factors. First of all, there were an enormous number of soldiers and administrative personnel transferred to posts in the East. And all of them, in spite of severe encouragement to voluntarily censor themselves, were sending home letters full of the deeds of the Eastern front. While some could not bring themselves to detail everything that they saw or did, many were proud of their own accomplishments or, if not proud, then at least compelled to thrill their readers with all of the most gruesome and gory details.
And second, it ignores the immediate presence of the death and internment camps. The most notorious of these were in occupied Poland: Auschwitz-Birkenau, of course, and also Sobibór, Treblinka, and Majdanek, and the list goes on. There were, however, quite a few in Germany itself. Ravensbrück and Dachau are two names that come to mind. And I can personally attest, having visited there, that Dachau is not at all far from the populous city of Munich. Even if there were no camps nearby, many towns had rail stations, through which the trains carrying the condemned would pass—and there was no doubt about who the condemned were.
Third, and finally, it fails to account for those few protests that did occur and suggest some degree of awareness. For example, the T4 program, through which many institutionalized, disabled individuals were starved or poisoned, did generate critical commentary from public figures once it was uncovered, and I believe among them were several priests of considerable regional influence. However, these protests, such as they were, were ultimately silenced by a greater commitment to the nationalist program.
Here I must apologize for a slight discrepancy. I began with a question which I don’t yet intend to address, namely how one could choose not to confront the atrocities. Instead, I have said a few words to justify the question in the first place and hopefully establish that the more brutal elements of Nazi ideology were not out of the public awareness, even if they were not a part of the official Party propaganda.
And with regard to those who did directly participate in the camps and in the treatment of the occupied territories, well, they were clearly aware, so what was it that motivated them?
To be fair here, there was a great deal of nuance to the ideologies and opinions of the many people who participated in the war, both at home and on the Eastern and Western fronts. There were many who were not ardent Nazis, for example, and yet their dissatisfaction with the Versailles Treaty and its humiliating terms left them desirous of a reckoning and a reestablishment of their place in the world--better still, the conquering of that world.
Thus many, in those aforementioned letters home, expressed qualms about the activities of the occupying forces, but were not necessarily opposed to the overarching plan. For example, Wilm Hosenfeld, made famous through The Pianist for saving the Polish musician Wladyslaw Spilman, worked to hide and protect numerous Jews, all while continuing to support nationalism and apparently experiencing no dissonance over the execution of his military duties in Warsaw alongside his personal protective efforts--this, from his letters to his wife.
Other soldiers initially held back from more wanton violence, such as needlessly burning villages in their path. But as time wore on and they endured hardships both mentally and physically exhausting, many became hardened or paranoid. The slightest movement might trigger a man to shoot, thinking he was the target of a Russian sniper, only to find that he had downed an unarmed peasant.
And, unfortunately, there were also those who simply enjoyed killing or whose blatantly racist ideologies were, for them, sufficient justification. Of these individuals, what more needs to be said?
I’ve probably given this more time and space than it really requires, but I feel like it’s easy to take a simplistic view of the situation. Easy, not only because we don’t even know where to begin unpacking the full implications of the Holocaust and the surrounding atrocities, but also because we don’t want to acknowledge the possibilities that a more complicated picture entails.
In 2015, 60 Minutes did a segment entitled “The Hidden Holocaust,” which talks about the recent, ongoing work of a French priest, Father Patrick Desbois. Father Desbois tends to no church of his own. Instead, he travels from town to town in Poland, Ukraine, Moldova, and other territories that were once behind the Iron Curtain, seeking their oldest living citizens who can tell him where the mass grave is.
While the death camps posed one solution for the mass extermination program, they involved a great deal of administration and transport. It was quite common and simpler for the Jewry of a particular town to be rounded up, led out of town to a semi-secluded place, and executed right there. These mass graves are generally unmarked and, save for the memories of those who were children at the time, they would be wholly forgotten.
One of the most interesting things about the 60 Minutes segment, however, were the taped interviews where Father Desbois questions these people about the circumstances surrounding the executions. At one point, he pulls out a photograph of one such occasion. In it, there are of course the soldiers and the Jews. But there are also onlookers. What comes out of these interviews is that these were not secretive, hidden slaughters in the dead of night. Rather, they were carried out with the full awareness of the townspeople, and many times with a crowd of said people standing by, there for the spectacle.
Earlier I said that I wanted to challenge the dichotomy I had set up, between passive and active participants. Because I really do think we have distinct ideas regarding the responsibility that people bear, based on those questions I asked—those who simply turn away and refuse to acknowledge what is taking place around them may be complicit in what occurs, but they leave open room for doubt. They did not hold the gun, therefore: what was the punishable nature of their crime?
And yet these spectators are precisely, by definition, not looking away. They are both present at the scene of the crime, and they are gazing upon it. They are, in essence, a jury. And this is a special category. For a jury cannot wash its hands of the consequences, as Pontius Pilate does.
The words of a jury are “performative.” Throughout the course of the trial, the defendant is simply that—a defendant. It is only upon the deliberation of the jury that he becomes innocent or guilty, although the jury will not ultimately be responsible for carrying out his punishment.
Likewise, the spectators at the scene: their participation is consecration beneath the unchallenging gaze. For some, this is mere entertainment. For others, it is justice for another collective guilt—that of Hitler’s much-abused “European Jewry.” Regardless, they are actors every bit as much as the one whose finger rests on the trigger.
I want to go back to what I said earlier about easy answers. The easy answer is to point the finger. To say, “See what they have done. They are guilty.” And they are. But when you begin to break down the question of what, exactly, it is that they are guilty of, when you begin to add nuance to your understanding of what took place, there comes a point at which an honest person cannot fail to realize: “But see what we have done.”
It’s the spectacle that got me in the end. Because I realized that there are probably people alive today in the South who were part of a lynch mob.
How could they do it?
It’s harder to ask when “they” are virtually indistinguishable from “I” and from “we,” and suddenly the safe distance we’ve been maintaining as judge, standing over and above, is completely collapsing in on itself and we find ourselves sitting opposite the bench.
How could we do it?