November 25, 2014

On the "completion" of the Final Solution: The application of technique to mass murder

On this day 70 years ago, Heinrich Himmler declared that the Final Solution, the Nazi’s campaign to exterminate the Jews, had been completed. He ordered the Nazi network of extermination centers, with their gas chambers and crematoria, closed and dismantled. 

He did so under pressure. Allied forces, the Soviets in particular, were closing in. And as grandiose an operation as the Holocaust may have been, the Nazis always knew it had to be carefully concealed, from the Allies, from the Jews, and from their own consciences. 

Left to his own devices, Himmler might have pursued his campaign a bit longer, but supplies of new victims were becoming scarce. The Nazis’ conquests of new territories had stalled, and Allied bombers were increasingly disrupting the rail lines needed to carry captives to the camps. By 1944 only one of the killing centers, Auschwitz, was still operating at full capacity, “processing” nearly 600,000 Jews between May and October. 

I’m writing about the Holocaust in this space — a blog about technology —  for a specific reason: To remind us of the scale of atrocity that technique makes possible. 

This is an obvious fact that we nonetheless tend to overlook as we celebrate the salvific potential of our latest technological wonders. Those who worship technology tend to think only of the freedoms it promises to provide. They forget that among those freedoms are unprecedented opportunities for humans to destroy one another. 

Set aside for the moment the arguments over technological determinism. Whether you see technology as a force that exerts, independently, a shaping influence on human culture or as a neutral tool that is effective only insofar as human beings decide to use it, for good or ill, the fact remains that the Final Solution was a technological enterprise, both in the machinery the Nazis employed and in the management techniques they used to keep that machinery in motion. 

A definitive source of scholarship on the Holocaust is Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, one of the most thoroughly researched books I’ve ever read. All the details in the opening paragraphs of this post are from Hilberg’s remarkable work, and from here on I will be drawing on passages from it. What follows are snapshots of the Nazi genocide machine. 

Jews on their way to Sobibór
The Assembly Line

Three of the earlier extermination camps, Treblinka, Sobibór and Bełżec, constructed in occupied Poland in late 1941 and early 1942, demonstrate the basic workings of the world’s first application of assembly line techniques to mass murder. 

The camps, chosen because of their seclusion and proximity to railroad lines, were only a few hundred yards long and wide. Laborers from the Warsaw ghetto were “recruited” to build them. Arriving shipments of Jews were off loaded from freight cars to an undressing area. They were then led, naked, through an S-shaped walkway called the Hose, which was two or three yards wide and bordered on either side by a high barbed wire fence covered with ivy. The Hose led to the gas chambers, large rooms disguised as showers that were filled to capacity for each round of exterminations. 

The Jews were told they were to be transported to camps further “east” and needed to clean themselves for the journey. This was done to ensure they would walk peacefully to their deaths. The aim wasn’t compassion, but efficiency. At Bełżec the arriving Jews were greeted by the music of a ten-man inmate orchestra.

“The killing operation was a combination of physical layout and psychological technique," Hilberg says. "Every step of the victims from train to gas chamber was controlled through a combination of lies and shows of force."

Himmler visits Globocnik
The limited capacity of the camps troubled SS and Police Leader Odilo Globocnik, who worried he might get “stuck” with more Jews than he could handle. All three camps were expanded in late 1942. At Bełżec and Treblinka massive buildings were built containing at least six gas chambers in each camp. As the numbers of victims threatened to overwhelm facilities, the answer was always to accelerate the killing process, rather than to scale it back. 

This was true of the system as a whole. In 1939 there were six relatively small camps. In 1944 an aide sent Himmler a map showing 20 full-fledged concentration camps with 165 satellite labor camps grouped in clusters around them. Himmler was pleased. “Just such examples show how our business has grown,” he said.

The Disposal Problem

Himmler shut down the mechanism of the Holocaust just as those in charge of running it had finally worked out one of their most vexing production problems: how to dispose of the mountains of corpses they were creating. Early mass burials had a habit of splitting open the earth that contained them, spilling decaying body parts and fluids onto the surrounding terrain, attracting insects and spreading foul odors through the nearby camps. Funeral pyres, primitive ovens and even explosives were tried, but it wasn’t until full-scale crematoria were established at Birkenau, one of three camps in the Auschwitz complex, that the disposal problem was effectively solved. 

Ovens at Birkenau
By May of 1944, Hilberg says, Birkenau’s four crematoria kept 874 men working in two shifts day and night. At times the supply of corpses exceeded the crematoria’s capacity, requiring the digging of eight or nine burning pits, forty yards long, eight yards wide and six feet deep. Human fat was collected from the bottom of the pits and poured back into the fire to increase the intensity of the flames. 

The combination of the pits and the crematoria effectively handled the 10,000 bodies the chambers could produce each day. “Thus the capacity for destruction was approaching the point of being unlimited,” Hilberg writes. “Simple as this system was, it took years to work out in constant application of administrative techniques.”

The Banality of Evil

Hannah Arendt’s famous characterization of Adolph Eichmann as a bloodless bureaucrat simply doing his job as he sent millions to their deaths has been criticized for letting Eichmann off too easily. A recent book has documented that he participated with enthusiasm, a true believer in the cause.

It’s odd that Arendt misunderstood this, if she did*, given that she'd read Hilberg’s book (in Eichmann in Jerusalem she calls it “the first clear description of [the Nazis'] incredibly complicated machinery of destruction”) and Hilberg clearly documents Eichmann’s true character. He quotes a comment Eichmann reportedly made to a weeping member of his staff as the Soviets neared Berlin. So satisfying was the knowledge that he'd killed millions of Jews, Eichmann said, that he could jump into his own grave laughing.

Nonetheless, Hilberg also documents that the “banality of evil” label can accurately be applied to thousands of other Germans. The majority of those responsible for keeping the killing machine running, he points out, never aimed a weapon at a Jew or poured gasoline into a gas chamber. “Most bureaucrats composed memoranda, drew up blueprints, signed correspondence, talked on the telephone, and participated in conferences,” Hilberg writes. “They could destroy a whole people by sitting at their desks.”

American soldier sorts through crates of silverware at Buchenwald
Coordinating the Final Solution constituted a massively diffuse, massively complex logistical task. A subset of functionaries was responsible, for example, for collecting and distributing what the murdered Jews left behind. The quantities were astounding. One of Himmler’s lieutenants reported that he'd dispatched 2,900 freight cars filled with clothing with enough left over to fill another 1,000 cars. Another officer noted receipt of 94,000 men’s watches, 33,000 women’s watches and 25,000 fountain pens. As the Soviets closed in on Auschwitz, the Germans rushed to destroy what evidence they could, including the remaining prisoners, but they didn’t have time to finish the job. Troops liberating the camp found six intact storerooms containing 368,820 men’s suits, 836,255 women’s coats and dresses, 5,525 pairs of women’s shoes and large quantities of children’s clothing. In the tannery they recovered seven tons of human hair, used to make felt footwear for German sailors, among other things.

German bureaucrats adapted their customary procedures as necessary. Railroad agents, for example, billed the Security Police for the transport of Jews to the camps, calculating a one-way fare for each deportee by track kilometer. The inevitable unexpected consequence arose. When the Warsaw Jews were rounded up in the summer of 1942, they left behind their unpaid gas and electricity bills, creating a mess for accountants at the local utility companies to straighten out.

Walking to the gas chambers at Birkenau
The complexity of the Final Solution required the active participation of Germany’s civilian as well as military culture. The scope of its component parts defined it as a fully-developed technological system.

“An administrative process of such range cannot be carried out by a single agency,” Hilberg writes, “even if it is a trained and specialized body like the Gestapo or a commissariat for Jewish affairs, for when a process cuts into every phase of human life, it must ultimately feed upon the resources of the entire organized community….The machinery of destruction, then, was structurally no different from organized German society as a whole; the difference was only one of function.”

* Michael Sacasas alerted me to an article that suggests Arendt's "banality of evil" quote has been widely misinterpreted and that Arendt didn't misunderstand Eichmann as much as many scholars think.

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