I have some thoughts on the general subject of my previous post that did not really belong there, but might serve to expand the context in a useful way. Books could, have been written on the subject, this post will not be one of them. Necessarily there are many possible topics that I am not going to be covering, I will be presenting a smattering that were crossing my mind as I was writing the previous post.
Victims of Their Own Oppression – The Wild Camps
One explanatory [I rejected saying “mitigating”] factor, in the behavior – or lack of moral behavior – of the German people during the war, – meaning why did they do so little to oppose what they surely knew was going on all around them – can be partially explained if you remember [what? you didn’t know?] that the very first concentration camps, the very first tortures, the very first atrocities committed by the Nazi regime, were against its own German people, meaning naturally all of the political and social opposition to the Nazi Party [particularly Communists], at places like Kemna, and which are almost almost outside of the ken of American education.
As it turns out, when the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933 they moved to ruthlessly suppress all real [or potential] opposition almost immediately. The general public was intimidated through threat of arrest, imprisonment and arbitrary psychological terror for years before the War began. This was before the eugenics programs, before the euthanasia of the mentally ill and the handicapped, before the rounding up of the Roma, [gypsies] and the Jews – before all of that came the rounding up the Germans. Dachau came first in March, 1933, more so called, “wild camps” soon followed. It was the case that by 1935 little ditties were being sung warning: “Dear God, make me dumb, that I may not to Dachau come” – and this was the so called Aryan Germans. Between 1933 and 1935 3.5million Germans of all sorts spent time in various concentration camps or prisons and some 77,000 were executed – that’s a Bend, Oregon – dead.
The Germans at that time, raised to be obedient to authority, were trained to look the other way, to accept that resistance was futile, even suicidal, long before the ‘final solution to the Jewish question’ was implemented. This provokes an interesting question about what culpability means in a society where systematic oppression exists, and where even the people who are to some degree benefiting from that oppression are also to some reciporical degree subject to it as well, and that essentially everyone is subject to the whim of the mad man at the top. It certainly raises the bar on heroism. You could have this same discussion about Stalinist USSR as well I suppose, some other day. This was not an excuse of course, but it does broaden the context of what happened.
An American Version of the Story
A parallel can be drawn for the sake of American understanding between this Nazi intimidation tactic prior to the opening of the War and that of the brutal effectiveness of the Ku Klux Clan [as compared to the Gestapo or the later Stazi] in the post-bellum United States. It is generally considered true that the practice of the lynching of negro men [mostly] by the Ku Klux Klan was a pervasive and common practice throughout the south up until the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement [The Tusegegee Institute has recorded 3,446 blacks and 1,297 whites were lynched between 1882 and 1968]. In fact the practice of lynching actually peaked in the year 1892 with 230 lynchings that year, the practice had virtually disappeared by the 1920’s. During the decade of the 1950’s only eight lynchings were recorded. The terrible reality was that by the 1950’s lynching was practically unnecessary – everyone understood how to behave, white and black – the hundreds and thousands of lynchings that had happened generations previously had proved incredibly effective in maintaining the social order. There is a certain brutal parallel here between the acquiescence of the populace of the Jim Crow south and the Nazi era German populace and that needs to be considered.
A Big Red Confab
I remember as an architecture student at Cornell, it must have been about 1992, I participated in a symposium presented by the College of Architecture, Art and Planning there on the topic of the use and misuse of art and architecture by the Nazis. At that time I had a fairly conventional view on the subject of the Third Reich and the Holocaust: the Nazis were evil, the Holocaust [as a totality] represented probably the greatest crime against humanity in history, the Jews of Europe suffered enormously and disproportionately at the Nazi’s hands and the Nazis were working towards their extinction from early on. Other than that, since I wasn’t a Jew myself, I wasn’t a German, and my family was relatively untouched by the Second World War, I didn’t think too much about it, I had watched Holocaust with the correct degree of horror and fascination, what else was I supposed to do? My experience participating in this symposium changed that presumption and sparked a deep and abiding interest in the subject because I could start to see direct applicability to many other areas of life and thinking about life, and not just history.
I’m not intending to write an essay on the contents of the symposium itself, but rather note some of the idea that were put forward there representing the cutting edge of scholarship. I will take few moments to mention a few of the points of the experience I found salient.
The first idea of interest was that much of what was presented really was new scholarship [as of 1992] and drew on the wealth of new information that became available after the fall of the Iron Curtain only a few years previous. New primary information such as the actual construction documents of Auschwitz and all of their changes and were incorporated into into the analysis of what actually happened at these places that set in motion a rewrite of the then standard narrative. If your particular narrative about the Nazis has not taken on this new information, you need to update your story.
A Neurosis of Purity
Being mostly architects and urban planners there was long discussion of the [tasteless] architecture and symbolism that the Nazi regime used to glorify and magnify their megalomaniacal vision. Peter Cohen’s 1991 documentary The Architecture of Doom, which was screened at that time, will give you a good introduction to the subject and presents the notion of Nazis as second rate artists and Nazism as a low class and extremely perverse aesthetic movement, much more so than say a political, or economic theory. A particularly notable psychological driving force of Nazi ‘aesthetics’, if you can call it that, revealed by the film is the foundational notion of purity as an archetype. Almost every aspect of Nazi thinking was infected with this notion. Nazism was a whole ideology that revolved around purification at every level, purification by war, by blood and by murder, but with carefully tended gardens and heroically scenic views – fresh air and sunshine.
[I won’t flay you with it today, but it is worth saving for the future, similarities between today’s environmental movement and the rudiments of National Socialism thought.]
As an interesting contrast to The Architecture of Doom is Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious 1934 propaganda piece Triumph of the Will, here you watch the subject matter of the former film act itself out on the historical screen in the latter – fairly chilling. There is also an excellent and much more recent  six part BBC series: Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State which covers all of this material very thoroughly. Very highly recommended.
Another aside, yet another movie along that will take you far along this vein is director Claude Chabrol’s 1993 documentary The Eye of Vichy which is a French language documentary about the pro-Nazi propaganda efforts of the collaborationist Vichy Government during the years of their subjugation by the Nazis – you’ll never look at the French quite the same way again watching fields of French bras justes raised in that ‘Roman Salute’. If you are not already familiar with the Vichy regime and its infamous cast of characters: Henri Philippe Pétain, the Battle of France, François Darlan, the Mers el Kébir Affair and the Révolution nationale, you’ll have a hard time as the film maker’s commentary is very sparse, Charbol apparently felt little need for editorializing, and preferred to let the collaborationists hang themselves with their own words. One trope to watch for is how the perfidious Pétain lubricates the bitter pill of German suzerainty by larding of a refrain of a united “Europe! Europe!”.
A second take away from the symposium was that new documentary evidence showed the evolutionary nature of the whole Nazi forced labor and deportation programs over time as indicated by the changes to the infrastructure of the camp systems. For instance you may not know that the Auschwitz-Birkinau complex was not created originally as an extermination camp and that a whole series of ad hoc changes could be documented according to changes in function of the camp facilities and that it was not earlier than November/December of 1941 and no later than January 1942 that Hitler and Nazi leadership actually committed themselves to the policy of extermination of Europe’s Jews, which was an important change in the then current narrative which tended to place that decision at a speech Hitler gave on January 30, 1939 where he said:
Today I will once more be a prophet: If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe
~ Adolph Hitler
Hitler may have had the thought on his mind then or even long before, but it seems fairly conclusive now that he had not committed to the idea as official policy until the beginning of 1942.
A third topic of interest presented at the confab was the discussion of efforts to psychologically prepare the German populace for the coming genocide starting in the early 1930’s by the use of public health programs and films. One of the greatest social engineering tools of the day was the manipulation of the sense of hygienic cleanliness [I mean purity neurosis] of the Bavarian haus frau. This was accomplished over time by establishing a perceptual link in the minds of ordinary Germans dehumanizing and equating Jews [and other ‘undesirables’] to vermin through the use of public health measures and educational films. Later Nazi propaganda films started to conflated the images of rats and vermin with images of dirty and disheveled Jews. Quite literally there were scenes from earlier public heath films of rats scurrying jam cut against images of Jews running, rats scurrying, Jews fleeing, rats scurrying, Jews running… the very same footage… you had to see these things presented side by side to receive the proper impact. If you went to the movies in Nazi Germany as a child this was the kind of thing you would be shown between features. It was incredibly creepy to behold.
It’s an incredible topic, and one not easily exhausted, the Nazis left little to chance, a completely self-sealing set of rationalizations and a massive propaganda and enforcement structure. One wonders how a truly informed and functioning public can possibly exist in an information and media saturated world like we have today. Maybe that’s the key, there are still so many paths of information available, nobody can control them all.
Let us hope,
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