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Hell Reconsidered

Few books possess the power to leave the reader with that feeling of awareness which we call a sense of revelation. Richard L. Rubenstein’s The Cunning of History seems to me to be one of these. It is a very brief work—a long essay—but it is so rich in perception and it contains so many startling—indeed, prophetic—insights that one can only remain baffled at the almost complete absence of attention it suffered when it was first published in 1975.* When I first read Rubenstein’s book about Auschwitz I felt very much the same effect of keen illumination that I did when, in the early stages of writing The Confessions of Nat Turner, I happened to read Stanley Elkins’s Slavery—a work which shed fresh light on American Negro slavery in such a bold and arresting way that, despite the controversy it provoked and the reassessments it produced, it has become a classic study. It is perhaps a fitting coincidence that Rubenstein discusses Elkins at some length in this book; certainly both writers share a preoccupation with what to my mind is perhaps the most compelling theme in history, including the history of our own time—that of the catastrophic propensity on the part of human beings to attempt to dominate one another.

If slavery was the great historical nightmare of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the Western world, slavery’s continuation in the horror we have come to call Auschwitz is the nightmare of our own century. Auschwitz, like the core of hell, is the symbolic center of The Cunning of History, and while the theological and political ramifications radiating from this center provide many of the book’s most illuminating insights, it is Auschwitz—simply Auschwitz—which remains Rubenstein’s primary concern. We are still very close to Auschwitz in time; its unspeakable monstrousness—one is tempted to say its unbelievability—continues to leave us weak with trauma, haunting us as with the knowledge of some lacerating bereavement. Even as it recedes slowly into the past it taxes our belief, making us wonder if it really happened. As a concept, as an image, we shrink from it as from damnation itself. “Christmas and Easter can be subjects for poetry,” wrote W.H. Auden, “but Good Friday, like Auschwitz, cannot. The reality is so horrible….”

To this he might have added the near-impossibility not just of poetry but of prose, even of an expository sort. That the subject is almost totally beyond the capacities of the mass media may be seen in the failure of the recent television series “Holocaust” to convey any sense of the complex nature of Auschwitz—a matter which I shall revert to later. The critic George Steiner has suggested the ultimate response: silence. But of course writers cannot be silent, least of all a searching writer like Rubenstein, who has set himself the admirable but painful task of anatomizing the reality within the nightmare while the dream is still fresh.

As near in time as Auschwitz is to us, it is nonetheless a historical event, and one of the excellences of Rubenstein’s book is the audacious and original way in which the author has confronted the event, wringing from its seeming incomprehensibility the most subtle and resonant meanings. This is an unusual achievement when one considers how frequently analyses of the historical process become little more than tendentious exercises reflecting the writer’s bias, which in turn corresponds to the pieties of the era in which he writes. So often the product is less history than wish-fulfillment, reinforcing the prejudices of his contemporaries and their hearts’ desire.

A brief word about the dramatic shift in attitudes in the writing of the history of American Negro slavery may serve to illustrate this. During the roughly three-quarters of a century between the Emancipation Proclamation and the Second World War the historiography of slavery generally reflected the mood of a society which remained profoundly racist, committed to the notion of racial inferiority and to the unshakable virtues of segregation. Towering above all other historians of slavery in the decades before the war was the Georgia-born scholar Ulrich B. Phillips, whose work, despite certain undoubted merits of scholarship, was heavily weighted in favor of the portrayal of slave times as an almost Elysian period, in which contented slave and indulgent master were united in an atmosphere of unexacting, productive labor and domestic tranquillity.

By the 1940s, however, the social upheavals of the preceding decade had drastically affected the national consciousness, bringing with them a perception of the outrages and injustices still being perpetrated on the Negro. Also, a certain sophistication had evolved regarding the psychology of suffering. It would thus seem inevitable, in this new atmosphere of nagging guilt and self-searching, that the writing of the history of slavery would undergo drastic revisionism, and it was just as likely that the new portrait of antebellum times would be the very antithesis of Ulrich B. Phillips’s softly tinted idyll; most of the new scholarship (epitomized by Kenneth M. Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution) represented slavery as unremittingly harsh, cruel, and degrading, with few if any redeeming aspects. It was one of the great virtues of Elkins’s Slavery, coming a few years later, that it struck violently through the obfuscations and preconceptions which had dictated, often self-righteously, the views of the apologists for slavery on the one hand and its adversaries on the other, and, in effect, demanded that the institution be examined from any number of new and different angles objectively, in all of its difficult complexity.

Unlike slavery—which, after all, has had its quixotic defenders—Auschwitz can have no proponents whatever. Therefore I am not suggesting that in The Cunning of History Rubenstein is acting as an intermediary in a debate or is synthesizing opposing points of view. I am saying that, like Elkins, Rubenstein is forcing us to reinterpret Auschwitz—especially, although not exclusively, from the standpoint of its existence as part of a continuum of slavery which has been engrafted for centuries onto the very body of Western civilization. Therefore, in the process of destroying the myth and the preconception, he is making us see that that encampment of death and suffering may have been more horrible than we had ever imagined. It was slavery in its ultimate embodiment. He is making us understand that the etiology of Auschwitz—to some, a diabolical, perhaps freakish excrescence which vanished from the face of the earth with the destruction of the crematoriums in 1945—is actually embedded deeply in a cultural tradition which stretches back to the Middle Passage from the coast of Africa, and beyond, to the enforced servitude in ancient Greece and Rome. Rubenstein is saying that we ignore this linkage, and the existence of the sleeping virus in the bloodstream of civilization, at risk of our future.

If it took a hundred years for American slavery to become demythified, we can only wonder when we can create a clear understanding of Auschwitz, despite its proximity to us in time. For several years now I have been writing a work—part fiction, part factual—which deals to a great extent with Auschwitz, and I have been constantly surprised at the misconceptions I have encountered with enlightened people whenever the subject has come up in conversation. The most common view is that the camp was a place where Jews were exterminated by the millions in gas chambers—simply this and nothing more. Now it is true that in their genocidal fury the Nazis had consecrated their energies to the slaughter of Jews en masse, not only at Auschwitz, where two and a half million Jews died in the gas chambers, but at such other Polish extermination centers as Belzec, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Chelmno. And of course countless victims died at camps in Germany. A directive from the Reichsführer SS, Heinrich Himmler, in 1943 plainly stated that all European Jews would be murdered without exception, and we know how close to success the carrying out of that order came.

But at Auschwitz—the supreme example of that world of “total domination” which Rubenstein sees as the archcreation of the Nazi genius—there was ultimately systematized not only mass murder on a scale never known before but mass slavery on a level of bestial cruelty. This was a form of bondage in which the victim was forced to work for a carefully calculated period (usually no more than three months) and then, through methods of deprivation calculated with equal care, allowed to die. Slaving at the nearby factory of I.G. Farben or at the Farben coal mines (or at whatever camp maintenance work the SS were able to contrive), the thousands of inmates initially spared the gas chambers were doomed to a sick and starving death-in-life perhaps more terrible than quick extinction, and luck was more often than not the chief factor involved in their survival.

As Rubenstein points out, only in a situation where human bodies were endlessly replaceable could such a form of slavery attempt to be efficient—but the Nazis, who aspired to be among this century’s leading efficiency experts, had no cause for concern on this count, supplied as they were with all the Jews of Europe, besides thousands of Poles, Russian prisoners of war, and others. And although the concept was not entirely unique in the long chronicle of bondage (for a period in the West Indies the British, with a glut of manpower, had no qualms about working slaves to death), certainly no slaveholders had on such a scale and with such absolute ruthlessness made use of human life according to its simple expendability. It is this factor of expendability, Rubenstein explains in his persuasive first chapter—an expendability which in turn derives from modern attitudes toward the stateless, the uprooted and rootless, the disadvantaged and dispossessed—which provides still another essential key to unlocking the incomprehensible dungeon of Auschwitz. The matter of populations declared to be surplus (whether by Nazi Germany or other superstates, past and future) which Rubenstein touches upon again and again haunts this book like the shadow of a thundercloud.

But slave labor is pointless without an end product, and what did slave labor produce at Auschwitz? Of course on one level, slaves—Jews and non-Jews—slaved to kill Jews. On April 4, 1943, it was decreed that the Auschwitz gas chambers—previously employed to exterminate Jews and Gentiles without differentiation—would be used to kill only Jews. Therefore much of the energies of those able-bodied prisoners selected to live for a while was either directly or peripherally expended in the business of getting on with the Nazis’ main obsession: the murder of all the Jews in Europe.

But this was not all. One of the gaps in the knowledge of many people I have talked to is their ignorance of the fact that one of the chief functions of Auschwitz was to support a vast corporate enterprise involved in the manufacture of synthetic rubber. Anyone who has studied the Nazi period, especially that aspect of it having to do with the concentration camps, is usually both impressed and baffled by seemingly unresolvable contradictions, by the sheer caprice and irrationality of certain mandates and commands, by unexplainable cancellations of directives, by Ordnung in one area of operation and wild disorder in another. The SS, so celebrated for their discipline and methodicalness, seemed more often than not to have their collective heads in total disarray. Witness Himmler’s order early in 1943 concerning the annihilation of the Jews; nothing would seem more unequivocal or more final. Yet this imperious command—surely one of the most awesome and terrible in history—was completely countermanded soon after it was conceived and handed down, replaced by a directive which ordered all able-bodied Jewish adult arrivals at Auschwitz not to the crematoriums but to work.

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    A new edition will be published in September by Harper & Row.

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