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Hell Reconsidered

We can only surmise the reason for this quick reversal, but it should not take too long to conclude that pressures from I.G. Farben-Auschwitz, operators of the rubber factory, were among the decisive factors in Himmler’s decision, and that at the behest of the directors of the company (which only a few years before had been helping to supply peaceful European households with tires and doormats and cushions and ashtrays) thousands of Jews each day would rejoice in their “reprieve” from the ovens at Birkenau, only to realize that they had joined the legions of the walking dead.

It is ironic that the immolation of these doomed souls (and there were among them, I think it necessary to emphasize, hundreds of thousands of non-Jews) came to naught; we know now that for various reasons the nearby factories produced very little synthetic rubber to aid the struggles of the Wehrmacht, yet it was through no lack of effort on the part of either I.G. Farben or the SS that the enterprise was fruitless. There was a constant conflict, within the SS, between the lust for murder and the need for labor, and thus the Farben works were often supplied with sick or incapacitated prisoners temporarily saved from the crematoriums. But chiefly the failure to produce materiel was less the result of insufficient or inadequate manpower than of a technological mismanagement which, as it so often did, belied the Nazis’ claims to being paragons of efficiency. What had really been demonstrated was the way in which the bureaucratization of power in the service of a new kind of soulless bondage could cause a total domination of human beings that makes the oppression of traditional, old-fashioned Western slavery—with its residue of Christian decency and compassion—seem benevolent by comparison.

As Rubenstein says in an important passage:

The death-camp system became a society of total domination only when healthy inmates were kept alive and forced to become slaves rather than killed outright…. As long as the camps served the single function of killing prisoners, one can speak of the camps as places of mass execution but not as a new type of human society. Most of the literature on the camps has tended to stress the role of the camps as places of execution. Regrettably, few ethical theorists or religious thinkers have paid attention to the highly significant political fact that the camps were in reality a new form of human society.

And in another passage Rubenstein concludes with stunning, if grim, perception: “The camps were thus far more of a permanent threat to the human future than they would have been had they functioned solely as an exercise in mass killing. An extermination center can only manufacture corpses; a society of total domination creates a world of the living dead.”

Some time ago I watched a late night discussion program on television, the moderator of which was the entertainer David Susskind. Assembled for the event that evening were perhaps half a dozen writers whose expertise was in the subject of the Nazis and their period, and also in the continued presence of a kind of lumpen underground Nazism in America. I believe most of these men were not Jewish. I remember little about the program save for the remarkably foolish question posed by Susskind near the end. He asked in effect: “Why should you Gentiles be interested in the Nazis? Why, not being Jewish, are you concerned about the Holocaust?”

There was a weak reply, sotto voce, from one of the participants to the effect that, well, there were others who suffered and died too, such as numerous Slavs; but the remark seemed to be ignored and I bit my tongue in embarrassment for all concerned, of course unable to utter what I was longing to say, namely, that if the question was unbelievably fatuous the reply was shamefully feeble and off the mark. Most emphatically (I wished to say) Mr. Susskind should be enlightened about the vast numbers of Gentiles who partook in the same perdition visited upon the Jews, those who were starved and tortured to death at Ravensbrück and Dachau, and the droves who perished as slaves at Auschwitz. Such ignorance seemed to me by now impermissible.

In this respect, the fatal date April 4, 1943, which I referred to before, is instructive. For if that day demonstrates the way in which the dynamo of death was cranked up to ensure the Final Solution, it also plainly shows how the policy of extermination had never been limited to the Jews. Nor did the new policy indicate any preservative concern on the part of the Nazis for the Poles and other undesirables—only that their deaths as slaves would come about less methodically than the deaths of the Jews, who had been suddenly tendered unquestioned priority in the process of annihilation by gas.

The statistics are meager, and so we have no way of knowing the number of non-Jews who were murdered in the gas chambers prior to this cut-off date; not many, compared to the Jews, but certainly they numbered in the tens of thousands. Yet to escape the crematoriums was, of course, to gain only the most feeble hold on the possibility of survival. Statistics regarding the non-Jews who perished during the four years of the existence of Auschwitz as a result of starvation and disease are likewise inexact but somewhat more reliable. It would appear that out of the four million who died perhaps three-quarters of a million—or approximately a fifth of the total—fell into that category which the Nazis termed Aryan. This was at Auschwitz alone. Multitudes of innocent civilians were murdered elsewhere.

These vast numbers would possibly seem less meaningful if the victims had been part of the mere detritus of war, accidental casualties, helpless byproducts of the Holocaust; but such was not the case, and there can no longer be any doubt about which other people were to fall within the scope of the Nazis’ master scheme for genocide. Rubenstein quotes from a letter written in the fall of 1942 by Otto Thierack, the German minister of justice, who stated his intention of granting to Himmler “criminal jurisdiction” over Poles, Russians, and Gypsies, as well as Jews, and whose use of the word “extermination” is blunt and unequivocal. There is, I think, something profoundly minatory and significant—telling much about the Nazis’ eventual plan for these “subhuman” peoples of the East—in the little-known fact that the first victims of Cyclon B gas at Auschwitz were not Jews but nearly one thousand Russian prisoners of war.

In the face of the destruction of the European Jews, so nearly completely successful and so awesomely the product of a singleminded evil beyond comprehension, one hesitates before bringing up the suffering of these other people. Nonetheless, the unutterable degradation, horror, and vile deaths which they so often shared with the Jews remain to trouble the mind—all the more so because of the continuing ignorance regarding their fate. Theirs is a history of anguish which still seems to dwell dimly if at all in the public consciousness. It also must be remembered that these human beings perished not randomly but often by systematic means and in prodigious numbers. A man who is possibly our most unimpeachable witness, Simon Wiesenthal, the head of the Jewish Center of Documentation in Vienna, expressed his feelings on the matter in a recent interview:

I always insist that the victims must not be divided into Jews and non-Jews. I brought over 1,100 Nazis before courts in different countries, Nazis who killed Jews and Gentiles and Gypsies and Serbs and so on, and I’ve never thought about the religion of the victims. I’ve battled for years with Jewish organizations, warning them that we shouldn’t always talk about the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust. I say let’s talk about eleven million civilians, among them six million Jews, who were killed. It’s our Jewish fault that in the eyes of the world this whole problem became reduced to the problem between the Nazis and the Jews; the problem obviously was much broader. The Jews need the help of others to prevent new holocausts.

But the point I struggled vainly to make, looking at David Susskind and murmuring to myself in the dark, was that even if all this were not true—even if the Jews had been without any exception the inheritors of Hitler’s hatred and destruction—his question would have been very close to indecent. I could not help thinking whether there was something paradigmatically American (or certainly non-European) in that question, with its absence of any sense of history and its vacuous unawareness of evil.

By contrast how pervasive is the sense of evil in Rubenstein’s essay, how urgent is the feeling that an apprehension of the devil’s handiwork and an understanding of the Holocaust are the concern of Jew and non-Jew alike. We are all still immersed in this deepest pit. In The Cunning of History, written by a Jewish theologian, the fact of the Holocaust as the cataclysmic tragedy of the Jewish people is assumed, a priori, as it should be, just as it is assumed that the annihilation of the Jews acquired a centrality in the Nazis’ monstrous order of things. Rubenstein’s analysis of the historical sources of anti-Semitism provides some of his most illuminating passages.

But among the qualities which I find so powerful about Rubenstein’s book, as opposed to a great deal which has been written about Auschwitz, is how, despite the foregoing, he has acquired a perspective—a philosophical and historical spaciousness—that has allowed him to anatomize Auschwitz with a knowledge of the titanic and sinister forces at work in history and in modern life which threaten all men, not only Jews. I intend no disrespect to Jewish sensibility, and at the same time am perhaps only at last replying to Mr. Susskind, when I say how bracing it is to greet a writer who views totalitarianism as a menace to the entire human family. As an analyst of evil Rubenstein, like Hannah Arendt, is serene and Olympian, which probably accounts for the unacceptability I have been told he has met with in some quarters.

Rubenstein’s apprehension of the larger menace of Nazism, and Simon Wiesenthal’s insistence that we must recognize the ecumenical nature of its evil—the “broader problem”—found little echo or corroboration in last April’s television series, “Holocaust.” It must be clear by now that even with good intentions the rendering of major historical events in their subtlety and complexity is quite beyond the power of American television. And “Holocaust” may have been, in its soft-headed vulgarity, one of television’s more creditable dramatic efforts. Like “Roots,” the earlier TV extravaganza about American Negro slavery, the program was obviously “carefully researched,” and its nine and a half hours of slick footage possessed, one felt, an underpinning of authenticity that seemed to permit little major violation of the basic historical record. In fact, as in the earlier sequences of “Roots,” which captured some of the aspects of the African slave trade with surprising verisimilitude, the initial parts of “Holocaust,” in episodes depicting the effects of the Nazi poison as it invaded the lives of Jews and incipient Fascists alike, had moments of striking and cautionary power. It became all the more oppressive, then, that aside from its totally objectionable features in matters of taste—mainly the strident commercials which intruded at intervals like chanted obscenities—the series slid into rhythmically spaced troughs of sentimentality and melodrama.

When drama erodes into melodrama one of the warning signals is the appearance of token figures. In “Roots,” which soon vitiated its early promise by turning the history of slavery into an equation in which all black was good and all white was evil, tokenism came in the form of a single decent white man; in “Holocaust,” the brief glimpses of an anti-Nazi Christian prelate and a “good” Nazi official (and also one or two Jewish capos and finks) served as a kind of bogus leavening to what had degenerated into skillfully rigged but hollow theatrics. Least of all did the program deal satisfactorily with that appalling edifice which provided the culminating scenes and, presumably, lent to the series its metaphorical meaning—Auschwitz.

The scenes of naked Jews being consigned to the gas chambers, though embarrassingly staged, were presented with graphic emphasis. But despite an offhand allusion to I.G. Farben, which seemed both strained and obvious, and a brief reference to the Poles, which, in the context in which it was made, gave the mistaken impression that theirs was an infinitely more pleasant lot than that of the Jews, there was conveyed no sense whatever of the magnitude and deadliness of the slave enterprise. There was no suggestion that in this inconceivably vast encampment of total domination (predominantly Gentile at any given time) there were thousands of Poles and Russians and Czechs and Slovenes dying their predetermined and wretched deaths, that in droves Catholic priests and nuns were being subjected to excruciating and fatal medical experiments, that members of Polish and other European resistance groups (whose struggle and great courage were never once hinted at in the program) were being tortured and, in some cases, gassed like the Jews. In short, the suffering and martyrdom of these others were ignored, to the great loss of historical accuracy and, I am afraid, of moral responsibility. We shall perhaps never even begin to understand the Holocaust until we are able to discern the shadows of the enormity looming beyond the enormity we already know.

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