I don’t remember what triggered it, but the most terrifying epiphany I had in grad school was when it struck me that the only difference between Adolph Eichmann and a clean-cut Air Force first lieutenant sitting in a missile silo in the wheatfields of Kansas was that Eichmann had been given the opportunity to carry out his orders while the lieutenant hadn’t. However, if so ordered, this apple-pie American boy would not have hesitated to press a button that would have resulted in the death of millions.
Slaughter is slaughter, whether the ideology driving it is anti-Semitism or anticommunism.
So great is our revulsion at the Holocaust that we treat it as an aberration, the result of a group of mentally unbalanced Nazis, a historical fluke that could never happen again. This view is reinforced by movies such as Luchino Visconti’s “The Damned” that depicted a Nazi Germany rift with sexual depravity.
The tragic truth is that it took more than depravity to make the Holocaust the stunning success that it was.
Once the Nazis decided that extermination was the only efficient way to rid Germany of its Jewish population, they assigned the task to the SS. The idea was to keep it an interparty operation.
The poor sots tried everything including mass shooting and packing their victims into trucks into which carbon monoxide was pumped. Not only couldn’t they get the numbers, but their executions were going psycho.
Reluctantly, the Nazis decided they had to bring in the German civil service and German industry. This led to the Warmsee Conference, chaired by SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich
Before the conference, Heydrich was very apprehensive over how the civil servants and industrialists would react. After the meeting, he was thrilled by the enthusiasm by which participants greeted the plan.
The Holocaust was a product of corporate management theory. As one writer puts it:
Even a single transport of German Jews required the involvement of many municipal authorities other than the local police. An assembly and loading area, usually in the cargo depot, had to be made available by local railway authorities. Officials from the Finance Office collected property inventories from the deportees, liquidated the property, and turned the proceeds over to the Tax Office.
Engineers drew up blueprints for the death camps while contracts were inked for their construction. Marketing managers of the large chemical firms were thrilled with government orders for large quantities of poison gas.
The point is that the Holocaust was executed by people we’d feel very comfortable sitting next to in church or at a conference. They were solid citizen, respectable in their behavior and mores.
We’d feel as comfortable with them as we would our first lieutenant. To a certain extent, I can identify with him. I was in the military and would not have hesitated to kill if so ordered, and would have made scant distinction between civilian and combatant. The only difference between the lieutenant and me is that my M1 rifle would have created less havoc than his missile.
This suggests that the Holocaust was not an aberration, that the qualities that made it possible are universal to Western society. And with the replacement of paper and forms by the computer, there would be a quantum increase in its efficiency.
The question that has always plagued me is what is the mechanism that numbs our moral sensibilities to such an extent that we would be willing to perpetrate mass slaughter, especially if we knew we would never ever see a dead body? Is it group think, or the bland language of our policymakers that scrubs murder clean of its gore? It must be an adrenalin high for a bored civil servant to implement a policy of state-sanctioned slaughter.
I suspect it all comes down to the language, its tepid drone that normalized horror and gives it respectability. A normal voice or a dry paragraph drowns out the screams of the victims.
What time bombs we are in our well adjusted normality. All we need is a workable label and we're off to the races.