Anthology – Peoples’ Plan for Life, Now and Forever …
“The responsibility of the system for the culpability of the individuals appears with the utmost clarity when one examines the actions of those who committed bloody crimes while wearing the striped apparel of the inmates. Who bears the responsibility for a morally deficient man: the habitual delinquent who was granted sweeping powers over his fellow men or the camp’s authorities who rewarded him when he gave vent to his criminal instincts and put his privileges at risk if he conducted himself humanely? Here, a serious warning must be given not to reach a hasty judgment on the behavior of those who, although not having been sent as criminals to the camp, could be induced by the authorities to act as henchmen. Only someone who was himself a capo, a block warden, a prison doctor, or any similar functionary, knows the pressure that had to be endured, and those who managed to resist it successfully – and, similarly, all blandishments offered with a view to joining the masters (that is, the killers) – may pronounce judgment. Many of those who did not abuse the power delegated to them by the authorities of the camp hesitate to make such a judgment, precisely because they have known of the tensions involved.
“The responsibility for the fact that Auschwitz was possible in the twentieth century and in a country proud of its civilized traditions rests entirely with Nazism and consequently with those who contributed to that regime gaining unlimited power. Only a totalitarian system that tried to suborn every single individual could have created, in a terrifyingly short time, the conditions for a well-organized, unconcealed program of genocide – hardly ten years had elapsed since Hitler assumed the reins of government in Germany before it had become a daily routine to cram the gas chambers of Auschwitz full of human beings.
“Only a totalitarian system that holds humanity in contempt could cold-bloodedly include genocide in its political program. Hitler never denied it, nor can anyone who voted for him have been in any doubt about it. Auschwitz meant the realization of the slogan proclaimed time and time again: ‘Die Jew!”
“Anyone who has learnt how quickly a totalitarian system can gain overwhelming powers over its subjects can appreciate the merits of a democratic system, even if one is not prepared to overlook its obvious weaknesses. Certainly, democratically organized communities have also committed crimes. But many examples prove that in such a system the voice of conscience cannot entirely be suppressed when injustice is being committed – in a democracy an Auschwitz would be unthinkable. On the other hand, there are examples to suggest that every totalitarian system is inclined to develop tendencies which lead in the direction of Auschwitz.
“For a long time to come, the German people will have to bear the burden of guilt for the deed perpetrated in its name by the government in its extermination camps. There is no doubt that the perfect organization of the apparatus of destruction shows typical German traits. Certainly, the organizers of genocide were able to exploit the militaristic cult of authority and blind obedience, the prestige of uniform and the desire to clack heels exclaiming smartly ‘Jawohl’ which was more pervasive in the German people than in other, neighboring populations.
“One shouldn’t assume, though, that other countries with a totalitarian system would not find ways and means to arrive at similar developments. The recent past has shown all too often how mistaken this assumption is. The essential nature of Auschwitz does not lie in its detailed organization, but in the principles it embodies: utter contempt for human beings, an automatic division into friends and foes, and complete submission to the will of a Führer are the elements that one comes across in every totalitarian system. They have led to the construction of a mechanism of annihilation for which the name of Auschwitz serves only as a symbol.
“A fantasy came into my head once in Auschwitz and remains fresh in my memory: we were sitting one day in our prisoners’ office in the SS infirmary – we didn’t have much to do and I clattered away in a desultory fashion on my typewriter while in the adjoining office, divided only by a thin timber partition, members of the SS quietly discussed problems of leave and family matters. At that point I imagined that no one would be able to distinguish between member of the SS and the prisoners – i.e. who is boss and who is destined to die – if we were all naked and not wearing uniform. The fantasy was false. We would have been able to distinguish them by the numbers tattooed on their arms, their shaved heads as opposed to neat haircuts, and by their state of nourishment, which was in most cases widely different between the two groups. But this is not what my fantasy was all about; it concerned the omnipotence or total helplessness that attended wearing a uniform which separated human beings in such a way that the mood of one who wore an SS uniform could mean the death of someone who was forced to wear prisoners’ garb. This is an indication of the violence of the system, which turned every human being into a uniform-wearer with its dire consequences.
“Nobody could have had a clearer view of this system than we who were in Auschwitz. The example of Dr. Eduard Wirths, a medical officer of the SS shows us how easy it is to become an instrument of Nazism: a little bit of opportunism, a certain taste for uniform, were enough to lead him on to a path from which it became more difficult, day by day, to return, and which ultimately led to Auschwitz. From this and other examples one can learn how dangerous it is to dedicate oneself to an organization, without proper scrutiny, and to identify oneself with it; and the consequences that may follow if one is lured into the belief that human beings can be judged on a global basis. The temptation to pass judgment is then very great. Let everyone guard himself against it.
“The lesson of Auschwitz is as follows: the first step, namely the tolerance of a social structure that pursues a total domination of man, is the most dangerous. Should that type of regime set its mind on a plan to exterminate ‘subhuman’ people (and this is not necessarily a matter of the Jews and Gypsies) and one wears its uniform (which may be adorned with symbols other than the runes of the SS and the skull), one has become its tool.
“I, like many others, dreamt at Auschwitz that humanity would draw the proper lesson from what there became reality, even though, until then, everyone would have judged it unimaginable and totally out of the question. Will humanity do so?”