It was 70-years ago today that the advancing Russian army came upon the Nazi’s Jewish extermination factory at Auschwitz, and so the air is sure to be thick with somber meditations upon the Meaning of it. For my part, I’m not sure that it Means anything at all — except, perhaps, that Mark Twain had it right when he dismissed humankind as “the damned human race.”
But, of course, as everyone knows, ol’ Twain was quite the jokester.
A few things will not be remarked amidst the dreary cliché photos of piles of abandoned shoes, their former owners vanished up the crematorium chimneys:
Germany’s systematic anti-semitism was not a freak, one-off event inspired by the humiliations of Versailles; in fact, it had been deeply embedded in German culture since the Protestant Reformation. From Martin Luther’s odious On the Jews and Their Lies:
Moreover, they are nothing but thieves and robbers who daily eat no morsel and wear no thread of clothing which they have not stolen and pilfered from us by means of their accursed usury. Thus they live from day to day, together with wife and child, by theft and robbery, as archthieves and robbers, in the most impenitent security.
There are 300 or so more pages of the same in that book (I own a copy), and it inspired centuries of pogroms at the hands of the Godly.
What is more, as Hannah Arendt documented and complained for decades, the concentration camp guards returned to their homes at the end of the war and suffered no public odium, not even after the depravities of the camps had been revealed. Indeed, like Southern Baptists who learn that Pastor Bubba is w-a-a-a-y too friendly with the children’s choir, the German public rallied to the guards’ defense, insisting that the guards had no choice but to exterminate the Jews in order to protect themselves from their licentiousness and shameless squalor.
Anyone who has read Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again is aware that the Final Solution was underway by the latter 1930s; if an American writer without official connections could learn of it, then it is not believable that the United States government didn’t know of it. There has never been a very thorough airing of the government’s failure to acknowledge the mass extermination underway; there are probably two reasons:
Some, like Joseph Kennedy, Ambassador to the Court of St. James, admired the Nazis and didn’t actually care that the Jews were being exterminated. Recall, too, that the American KKK was a Methodist and Baptist enterprise that targeted Jews and Catholics as cruelly as it targeted blacks; if the public had known what the Nazis were up to, a very great many of them would undoubtedly have approved.
But there would almost certainly have been public pressure to launch the cross-channel invasion earlier than we actually did, too — before the Italians had been rolled-up and southern Europe and the Mediterranean were securely in Allied hands; that would have wholly undone the military strategy.
Before Hitler’s rise to power, Germany was considered one of the most advanced and civilized countries of Europe, universally admired for its advances in the arts, in philosophy, in the sciences. But when the Brownshirts began howling about “Jewish science” — Jewish physics are something distinct from Good Ol’ Aryan Boy physics? — and “Jewish philosophy” and “Jewish arts” … the intellectuals quailed, shut up, turned tail, and fled. Some, such as philosopher Martin Heidegger, actually went over to the Dark Side and gave the Nazis a paper-thin veneer of intellectual respectability and relieved conscience.
It is a commonplace that firm and decisive action by Britain and the United States could have arrested Hitler’s depredations before the war even began. The German intelligentsia were equally negligent.
The appalling evil of Nazism is not an ancient horror, something in the distant past and which humankind has since outgrown. Some of its perpetrators are among us still, as are the no-longer-young men who cinched-up their belts and grabbed their guns and stopped them. Neither barbarism, nor decency, is ever very far away; which prevails in public affairs depends upon which the leadership chooses to summon.