FIRST PUBLISHED ON 2 October 2007
Evil at play. SS Guards having a picnic in the shadow of Auschwitz, 1944.
Recently, a fascinating photo album was donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. It was found by a U.S. counterintelligence officer in an abandoned apartment in Frankfurt, Germany after the end of World War II in 1945. (This meant that whoever assembled the book took it with them as they fled the camp before it was liberated by the Red Army in February 1945.) He kept it hidden away all of these years. It was sent to the Museum in December 2006. It is essentially a scrap book of photos of SS male and female officers and ranks at play outside Auschwitz in 1944. (Here is a short slide show with narrative.)
The photos show these people having picnic lunches, engaging in choral singing, playing with their dogs, gathering for smiling group photos, and smoking cigarettes (even though at Hitler’s behest, the Nazis had instituted the world’s first comprehensive anti-smoking campaign in Germany in the 1930s. And there you thought that all German armed forces members always followed orders.) They even decorated Christmas trees (after all, the slogan “Gott mit Uns” was on their belt buckles). And all this time, thousands of Jews and other nationalities were being gassed and burned at the camp every day. Talk about the banality of evil.
Among the reactions to the contents of the exhibit has been that expressed by The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen (“Down Time from Murder,” NYT, 9-24-07): how could those Germans do that and boy do they still have a lot to make up for. Yes, how indeed. Funny, but I was reminded of the set of photographs made over many decades and actually made into picture postcards sent through the U.S. mails, of public lynchings in the U.S. South. (You can see a sample here.) People, other than the victims, laughing, smiling, kids playing, having lunch, and etc. How could that happen? And how indeed, especially because they were not Germans. And then I thought of those smiling photos of the guards at Abu Ghraib. Just ordinary folks, having fun while brutalizing Iraqi prisoners. And then most recently, we have the reports of the for-fun shootings of Iraqi civilians by Blackwater mercenaries in Iraq. Hey, they ain’t Germans either.
So, is it just us and the Germans? Well, no. It is any nationality that is fed the line that certain people who look just like humans, actually ain’t. For the Germans, the Jews, and the gypsies, and the Slavs were sub-human. For the Turks, it was the Armenians. For the American South it was (and unfortunately in a variety of parts of our country it still is) that blacks were subhuman. For certain members of our armed forces, there was a message delivered to them somehow, that somehow their Iraqi prisoners were subhuman. Humans don’t do to other humans what the particular members of our species recorded in all of these photos did. Those deeds are done only to sub-humans.
In this context, it is fascinating to read what Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America, had to say about slavery: “Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were, and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s law. With us, all of the white race, however, high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the Negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Cain, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. Our new government is founded on the opposite idea of the equality of the races. Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the White man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural condition.”
That is the basis of the horrors that we observe in the behavior of the German guards at Auschwitz, of Southern townspeople, of American guards at Abu Ghraib, at Japanese soldiers during the Nanking Massacre of 1937: a particular group of humans aren’t; they are sub-human and thus can be treated like animals (that is if one is into brutalizing animals). When one government engages in systematic dehumanization of one or more groups of either its own citizens or the citizens of a country with which it has gone to war, “fun at Auschwitz” and “fun at the lynching in the center of town” can happen, all too easily.
But it couldn’t happen here again, could it? Nah. Couldn’t possibly. We’re just too advanced. No one could get away with labeling all of their political opponents as “traitors,” as “godless,” as “just not like us,” as “not Christian and thus not qualified to govern” (and yes, none other than John McCain said that in so many words just the other day [The Progress Report, “Blackout and Brownout,” Oct. 1, 2007]), and thus quite possibly somehow less than human. Couldn’t happen here, could it. Could it?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
[box]Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a senior editor with The Greanville Post. He is also a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY), a weekly contributing author for The Political Junkies, and contributing editor for The Moving Planet Blog, among other leading political venues that carry his essays. [/box]