D-Day in Colour, narrated by John Hurt
D-Day in Colour, narrated by John Hurt
My flash fiction piece “Among the Snowdrops” has been published in the Journal of Microliterature:
Imagine waking up one day and learning that your mother or father was a serial killer, a torturer in the employ of a brutal dictatorship, or a violent criminal whose “work” has led to the death of innocent children. There must be many such sons and daughters confronting such horrifying realizations, and, for the German generation that was born in the final years and aftermath of the Third Reich, it must have been a common story indeed.
In addition to the Nazi leaders whose names are well known, thousands of ordinary men and women were employed in the massive bureaucracy that engineered and managed the Holocaust, and much study has been made of their motivations, of the means by which they morally justified their actions, and of even of their eventual reabsorption into post-war German society. Yet comparatively little has been said regarding their children, each of whom, must, at some point, have discovered that the man or woman they loved and respected had been a participant in arguably the greatest tragedy in history. How does a child reconcile the image of a parent they know as gentle and doting with the picture of one screaming “Schnell! Schneller!” at starving concentration camp inmates while wielding a whip? How many young people have listened to their elderly grandparents regale them with tales of the “good old days” only to later discover that they meant the Nazi regime?
Although the image of Magda Goebbels poisoning her six children in the bunker beneath Berlin as the Russians invaded fills us with pity and horror for the innocent victims, one can’t help but wonder what kind of lives they would have led, growing up in the shadow of the crimes of their father. What life would have awaited Hitler’s sons and daughters, if he had had them? Would they have defended or even glorified their father, like Gudrun Burwitz, daughter of Heinrich Himmler, who, seventy years later, is still a staunch supporter of Nazi ideology and a hero of the neo-Nazi movement? Few, I think, could maintain such a stance. Most, I suspect, would prefer to simply forget the troubling history of the older generation, because the participants in the massacre we know as the Holocaust were once so ubiquitous and so widespread that their children could not have rejected them, as Gretchen in this story rejected her mother. The former low-level Nazis were rarely shunned or ostracized by their society; by and large they returned to their lives, as did their parents and brothers and sisters and yes, even their children.
Somewhere in Germany a very old woman sits and examines a photograph of herself or her young husband in uniform and remembers those days as the best time of her life. In so many ways, she is no different from any other elderly lady who fondly recalls her era of youth, and this is what we must find so disturbing. Because she does not look like a criminal, and she does not seem sadistic or evil; she is merely an old woman who works in her garden and has tea with her neighbors, and her “colorful” past has been graciously forgotten. But sometimes let us stop, let us look at her and remember how easy it can be to forget, how much more comfortable it can be to disregard what we don’t wish to remember. And let us take flowers from her carefully tended garden and place them on the graves where they truly belong.
Hess, Rudolf, Commandant of Auschwitz, tr. Constantine FitzGibbon, World Publishing Company: Cleveland and New York, 1951.
Commandant of Auschwitz combines the autobiography which Rudolf Hoess wrote while awaiting trial at Nuremberg as well as a number of official statements he gave to his interrogators regarding other SS personnel with whom he had significant contact. There is a lot I could say about this book, because Hoess, rather surprisingly, has a number of interesting ideas and observations, particularly in regards to the concept and execution of imprisonment and the lesser-known victims of the concentration-camp system, but for the moment I’ll confine myself to what he has to say about conducting the affairs of Auschwitz.
Hoess makes no bones about his political beliefs; he unwaveringly avers his continued allegiance to the Nazi Party, and, unlike many Nazis, who denied complicity with the concept behind or execution of the Holocaust, even suggests that he would have been in favor of it were it vital to the cause:
“Whether this mass extermination of the Jews was necessary or not was something on which I could not allow myself to form an opinion, for I lacked the necessary breadth of view.” p. 160.
However, what is most fascinating about the book is that as it progresses, it becomes clear that Hoess was, generally speaking, against the customary Nazi treatment of the Jews, not out of compassion for their situation or any sense of wrongdoing in causing their suffering, but for purely bureaucratic reasons.
Thus he complains about the nature of the site, which lacked sufficient water, drainage and building materials for the size it was later to assume; he argues against the massive overcrowding, which caused disease to run rampant and had terrible psychological effects upon the inmates, which he believed led to rapid deterioration in their health; against the incompetence and maliciousness of the guards under his control, whose approach to corporal punishment he felt was detrimental to the objective of maintaining peace in the camp while it conducted its operations. He berates the Food Ministry for constantly reducing rations during the course of the war, not because he had pity for the starving concentration-camp dwellers, no, but because it prevented him from maintaining an adequately-functioning work force. The selection process itself, he argues, was faulty at its core:
“If Auschwitz had followed my constantly repeated advice, and had only selected the most healthy and vigorous Jews, then the camp would have produced a really useful labor force and one that would have lasted.” p. 176.
The implication is that more Jews should have been sent immediately to the gas chambers rather than being corralled into the work details if the goal of attaining adequate war-workers was to be achieved. In other words, if Hoess had had his way, the concentration camps would have contained a large contingent of healthy, well-fed Jews and many more dead ones.
Hoess relates anecdotes of the desperate starvation of the camp residents; of inmates being attacked and beaten by their fellows for a crust of bread, of cannibalism among Russian prisoners-of-war. He assures us that his war-time prisoners became little different from civilian criminals, unhesitant to sacrifice their fellows in order to improve their own condition; in order to get an edge on survival. He speaks of the attachment of the Jews to the members of their own families; of the efforts of the mothers to calm their children as they walked into the gas chambers or to throw them out of the doors, pleading for their young lives, just before they are sealed. And then he tells a story of one Special Detachment Jew who had been assigned to the burning of corpses. When the man pauses for a moment in the course of his labors, Hoess inquires of the Capo in charge as to the cause. The Capo informs him that one of the dead in the pile is the man’s wife.
But following his moment’s pause, the man has already gone back to work. And that is when it struck me, that in spite of the distinction between the powerful and the powerless, what a terrible similarity exists between the Commandant and the prisoner. The Commandant does not deal with people; he deals with issues, problems, supply chains, bureaucracy. He is almost entirely detached from the suffering of those under his care. And likewise the inmate has detached himself from his own suffering; he is unable to acknowledge or permit it to penetrate him. Instead he merely attends to his work, the work that, ironically, makes him free, even as the sign above the gate so illusively promised. Detachment means survival; and the ability to detach oneself from one’s circumstances is perhaps a necessary adaptation. For as long as people are able to view one another without acknowledging their humanity, their personhood, they will treat their fellows cruelly. And in order to endure that cruelty, those who suffer from it will have to become like their oppressors: empty of compassion and feeling, intent only on bare survival.
It is now well-known that many Nazis who were recruited into concentration-camp or extermination services were unable to endure it; indeed, many were transferred, upon request, from participation in the brutalities that accompanied occupation and deportation into other branches of service. Considerable care and effort were expended in making exterminations tolerable for the executioners as well as their victims; as horrendous as the mass gassings were, they were viewed as more humane, less wearing on the soul than the mass shootings which had theretofore been employed. Hoess describes how numerous of his subordinates approached him, expressing deeply-troubled thoughts over the mass exterminations; how he deemed it his duty to appear unmoved. Not all of the Nazis were able to view their captives as chattel, as mere bodies to be fed and housed and employed and killed and burned, any more than some of their victims were able to forget the essential humanity of their captors. Consider Hoess’ description of the Allied air raids, which brought terror to the skies over Germany and the occupied lands:
“Attacks of unprecedented fury were made on factories where prisoners were employed. I saw how the prisoners behaved, how guards and prisoners cowered together and died together in the same improvised shelters, and how the prisoners helped the wounded guards.
During such heavy raids, all else was forgotten. They were no longer guards or prisoners, but only human beings trying to escape from the hail of bombs.” p. 183.
Humans, one and all. Hoess is not one of the Nazis who viewed the Jews as somehow less than human, and therefore worthy of extinction. He sincerely believes that they were a threat to what he sees as the truly German way of life, and that the measures that were taken against them were necessary in order to preserve the integrity of the nation. He is therefore offended by the vicious propaganda propagated by publications such as Der Stürmer, believing its exaggerated attacks upon Jewish morals and behavior capable of backfiring and creating sympathy for the Jews. He argues that the nations conquered by Germany during the Second World War should have been treated with greater respect and kindness, which would have unmanned much of the resistance which grew following the invasion. And finally, in the ultimate expression of utter disregard for the unadulterated evil imposed upon the unoffending peoples of the world, Hoess at last concedes that the Holocaust should not have occurred. But listen to his reasons why:
“I also see now that the extermination of the Jews was fundamentally wrong. Precisely because of these mass exterminations, Germany has drawn upon herself the hatred of the entire world. It in no way served the cause of anti-Semitism, but on the contrary brought the Jews far closer to their ultimate objective.” p. 198.
The Holocaust was wrong, according to Hoess, not owing to fundamental human principles of kindness and decency, or compassion for one’s fellows, but because it did not serve the Nazi cause. Which eerily implies that he believes that it would have been “right” had it only served the purpose for which it was intended. Is that, too, an essentially human characteristic? To be able to justify the means, if they achieve what is perceived to be a desirable end?