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.

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.

Copyright © 1978 by William Styron.

This Issue

June 29, 1978