Reasoning and cruelty

By Kristian Jebsen

On the road between Oświęcim and Bielsko-Biala sits an unassuming house with a well-kept backyard. A golden Labrador patrols the premises, barking as people pass. It appears a normal residence, until one gets close enough to see the familiar craned, concrete necks of the old concentration camp fence, marking the edge of the property. Surrounded as it is by leafy trees and uncut grass, the house appears to be of no interest to the crowds that gather around Auschwitz‘s gas chamber and crematorium, situated no more than a stone’s throw away.

Kristian photo

House of Rudolf Hoess, Auschwitz commandant, and his family. (Kristian Jebsen/FASPE)

Although the house is not part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim, it is marked on the map of the museum’s guidebook as “Commandant’s house.” This is where Rudolf Hoess lived with his wife and five children from 1940 to 1945, except for one five-month period. It is difficult to imagine people having a comfortable and normal family life in such close proximity to murder. Yet this is exactly what defines the Nazi approach to the treatment of the Jews: genocide was seen to be an inevitable, necessary undertaking which followed the Nazis’ view of natural selection.

The Nazis seem to have been so successful in their deportation, transportation and extermination of Europe’s Jews because of the rationality governing their approach. The barbarity of their actions was fused with sophistication and intelligence regarding their processes—their reasonable approach to an unreasonable ideology. It is within this contradiction that we can see ourselves: people as capable of irrationality and cruelty as we are of being pragmatic or loving.

Nazi rationality is apparent in every detail of the concentration camps; no more so than in the gas chamber nestled behind a copse in a far corner of Birkenau. Initially, the Nazis built one large room where hundreds of Jews were gassed at a time. In order to ensure that the poison gas saturated the air and that those inside the chamber were killed, the Nazis had to administer the same amount of gas regardless of whether the victims numbered one or one thousand.

As a solution, they separated the chamber into three rooms that could be sealed using a gas-proof door. This way, should there be a smaller number of Jews to be killed, they could isolate them in one or two rooms, thereby requiring less gas. This approach saved the SS money (they had a contract with IG Farben, the producer of the poison gas) and made the process more efficient. In their murdering of millions of Jews, the Nazis were applying the same reasoning that we use in our daily lives. The simple laws of logic, economy and efficiency were applied to murder.

There is a danger in thinking of the Nazis as inhuman. In thinking of them as an “other,” or as people we cannot relate to, we leave ourselves vulnerable to repeating their crimes. If we can’t see ourselves in them, then there would appear to be little chance that we could act like them. “Sometimes today we have this tendency, which is a trap … to dehumanize the perpetrator. This is the way we today isolate ourselves from the story, from this human part of the perpetrators,” says Pawel Sawicki, a press and public relations officer at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

“So that’s again thinking, planning, logistics of killing, that’s very important. And perhaps this is the most difficult universal lesson coming from this place,” Sawicki says. “When you learn about the system, how organized it was, it’s shocking and astonishing that this is very rational. That there is a human thinking behind every aspect of this process … and this is something that one has first of all to accept, that people are able to do so, which is not very easy, and then learn from that experience something good.”




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