This past Sunday the Review section of the New York Times published a rather odd opinion piece by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, the author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.
Entitled “How Auschwitz is Misunderstood,” the essay anticipated today’s 70th anniversary of the liberation of that most infamous of Nazi killing camps.
Goldhagen’s basic point was that the importance of technology in the Holocaust – what he calls "the cliché" of assembly line killing -- has been exaggerated. There’s no need to apply modern technology to the project of genocide, he says. He cites as an example the Hutus' success at slaughtering some 800,000 Tutsi in Rwanda using only machetes, knives and clubs. What matters, according to Goldhagen, isn’t the methodology of the Holocaust but the anti-Semitism that inspired that methodology.
“Focusing on Auschwitz’s mechanistic qualities as a precondition for the Holocaust’s vast destructiveness,” he says, “allows people to see the Nazis’ eliminationism as something uniquely modern — to believe that it takes a technically proficient, bureaucratically expert state to carry out such violence. And even though we all recognize that genocides can be unleashed without such advanced systems, people still too often assume that true eliminationism, with the intention of completely destroying another group, takes a relatively rare constellation of a state apparatus and technological means.”
I have some problems with Goldhagen’s arguments that I’ll enumerate here. Before I begin, though, let me make clear that I am not a scholar of the Holocaust. I’m a journalist and student of the history and philosophy of technology. It is from that perspective that I think Goldhagen is, in ways that are important for us to recognize, mistaken. The technological aspects of the Holocaust matter a great deal.
My reaction to Goldhagen’s argument is admittedly a defensive one. Two months ago I posted an essay on my blog essentially arguing precisely what Goldhagen disputes: that the assembly line technology of the Final Solution was intrinsic to its execution. My essay was based entirely on a close reading of what is universally considered one of the seminal works of Holocaust scholarship, Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews. (Hilberg, incidentally, was one of several Holocaust scholars who dismissed Hitler's Willing Executioners, calling it “worthless” and “totally wrong about everything.”).
What follows, then, are six reasons why I believe Goldhagen’s dismissal of technology as centrally important in the Holocaust is misguided:
1. Goldhagen’s overall argument sets up and knocks down a straw man. He suggests that a wide body of opinion, even a consensus, exists that the Germans would never have attempted to eliminate the Jews if they didn’t have assembly line techniques at their disposal. He also states that the Nazis “would still have killed around the same number of Jews and non-Jews” had the technology of the extermination camps never been created.
First of all, no one can know how many Jews the Nazis would have killed had they not used the technologies they had at their disposal. More to the point, Goldhagen doesn’t identify anyone who argues that technology rather than anti-Semitism was the Holocaust’s motive force – undoubtedly because no sane person would make such an argument. Would the Germans have tried to eradicate the Jews if the techniques of the assembly line hadn’t been available? Given the climate of anti-Semitism there, and Hitler’s encouragement, it’s possible they might have. Nonetheless, all we can know for certain is that, thanks to Henry Ford and others, the techniques of the assembly line were available, and were immensely useful in facilitating the Nazi’s intentions.
|The first step on the Nazi's assembly line|
There’s a big difference between making the Holocaust possible and making it easier. For better and for worse, our tools allow us to more effectively realize our desires. Our prehistoric ancestors discovered at some point that they’d have better luck killing dinner if they used a spear. The spear, however, wasn't a “precondition” for their wanting something for dinner.
2. Perhaps the most obvious rationale for using techniques of mass-production, whether in the manufacture of automobiles or the killing of human beings, is efficiency. If you want something done on a huge scale, fast, assembly line technology is the way to go.
Goldhagen points out that the Hutus in Rwanda needed no assembly lines to slaughter nearly a million Tutsis, but how long could they have kept it up? Hacking people to death with a machete is a lot more physically demanding than turning the valve that released the Zyklon B. Could they have killed six million had they persisted? Impossible to know, but the fact is, they didn't.
Goldhagen acknowledges in passing a chilling thought about the Nazi’s killing machine, which is how they might have put it to use had they won the war. As it was, they’d just about gotten the process perfected when the Allies stopped them. Hilberg documents how the Nazis struggled to fix a host of logistical problems, from how to keep fresh supplies of Zyklon B (it tended to deteriorate after a few months) to which Nazi department had dibs on the dead Jews’ possessions (the SS became, Hilberg says, “a veritable Salvation Army”), to, most vexing, disposal of the corpses. With the installation of the crematoria, he says, they finally nailed it. “The capacity for destruction was approaching the point of being unlimited,” Hilberg says. “Simple as this system was, it took years to work out in constant application of administrative techniques.”
|Shoes at Auschwitz|
In 1939 the worldwide Jewish population was approximately 16 million (not to mention the populations of non-Jews the Nazis also marked for elimination). There was, then, plenty of work left to be done. So, yes, it’s true, as Goldhagen says, that you don’t have to use assembly line techniques to commit genocide — the task can be accomplished by hand. Nonetheless the technology of the Holocaust matters because it shows us the potential of what can be done when human depravity and modern technological efficiency are combined.
3. An essential quality of technology, from the spear to Skype, is action at a distance. Technology enables us to have an effect on people and things far away. In general, the more advanced the technology, the further away it is able to impose an effect.
Nothing is quite so intimate, by contrast, as murder. It's necessary to somehow inflict sufficient damage upon your victim’s physical person – upon his or her body — to cause its biological functions to cease. Technology makes it easier for the would-be murderer to bridge that gap. As much as anything that was the purpose technology served at Auschwitz and the other Nazi death camps.
Goldhagen argues that the cliché of assembly-line killing “belies the fact that rounding up Jews and shipping them, sometimes for many hundreds of miles, to a death factory was far less efficient than merely killing them where the Germans found them.”
Well, that depends on what you mean by “efficient.” It also begs the question, why would the Nazis go to all the trouble of erecting the architecture of the Final Solution if they could have simply shot the Jews where they lived? Shipping them off to concentration camps must have served some purpose.
And indeed it did — several purposes, in fact. On the most basic level, if the Nazis had shot all the Jews where they lived, what would they have done with the bodies? As mentioned above, disposal of the Jews’ corpses was one of the most difficult technical problems the Nazis encountered in their prosecution of the Holocaust. An early solution to that problem, burial in mass graves, proved unworkable, Hilberg says, because the ground would break open in the sun, exposing rotting corpses. Cremation eventually provided the answer, but even then the number of bodies often exceeded the capacities of the crematoria, requiring the digging of pits 40 yards long, eight yards wide and six feet deep, into which bodies were piled for burning.
|Crematoria at Buchenwald|
All of this could conceivably have been accomplished somewhere in closer proximity to the cities, but that would have eliminated one of the most potent, and most important, weapons in the Nazi’s arsenal.
4. That weapon was denial, and killing at a distance was essential to its effective deployment. That’s why the Nazis did everything possible to hide what they were doing. Secrecy helped maintain Jewish passivity, for one thing. If the Nazis' victims knew for certain what was in store, it’s likely more of them would have resisted. As it was the Nazis told the Jews that the trains they were boarding would take them not to their deaths, but to labor camps somewhere in “the East.” This is somewhat different than the Hutu approach of hacking their victims to death in their homes, on the road or in the churches where they hid.
The Nazis' deception of the true purpose of the camps persisted even after the Jews arrived. This was why the gas chambers were disguised as showers. At Birkenau (part of the Auschwitz complex) the Jews were told to hang their clothes on numbered hooks outside the chambers, and to remember what number hook their clothes were on so that they could reclaim them when their showers were done. One reason the Germans were anxious to dispose of the bodies efficiently, Hilberg says, was to avoid having the Jews see piles of corpses as they got off the trains.
This is not to dispute that there was endless, unimaginable brutality at the camps. My point is only that the Nazis expended considerable effort to ensure that the machinery of extermination ran smoothly. A studied combination of lies and shows of force, Hilberg says, was found to be the most effective formula for accomplishing that goal.
5. The killing camps also served the purpose of enabling the denial of the German people themselves. This would seem to be a direct contradiction of Goldhagen’s central premise — that the German people were willing and enthusiastic participants in the murder of the Jews — but in fact his essay for the Times includes, again in passing, exactly this point. “The Nazi leadership created death factories not for expeditious reasons,” he says, “but to distance the killers from their victims.”
A pity Goldhagen didn't pursue that point, because it goes directly to the reason assembly line technology was as useful as it was for the Nazi’s purposes. According to Hilberg, even in the military there was squeamishness about what was required, squeamishness the Nazi hierarchy sought to deflect. The Nazi commander who first suggested employing gas chambers rather than some more intimate means of slaughter did so, Hilberg says, because he felt gassing the Jews would “spare his men a great psychological burden.” This was one reason, aside from the need to kill as many Jews as quickly as possible, that the Nazis worked as hard as they did to perfect their killing technique. As Hilberg put it, “The personnel of the machinery of destruction were not supposed to look to the right or to the left. They were not allowed to have either personal motives or personal gains. An elaborate discipline was introduced into the machine of destruction.”
It’s easy to gag on any suggestion that killing the Jews by gassing them was seen by the Germans as humane, but as Hilberg says, “this ‘humaneness’ was evolved not for the benefit of the victims but for the welfare of the perpetrators.”
I don’t doubt that the vast majority of the German people had no problem with killing Jews, as Goldhagen argues. But it’s one thing to approve of mass murder in principle and another to see women and children slaughtered in front of your eyes. It’s much easier to hate, and to kill, at a distance.
For all their anti-Semitism, there seems little doubt that, even if the Germans felt no need to be ashamed of what they were doing, they were aware that much of the rest of the world would disapprove. Hence the Nazis' careful use of euphemisms when referring in official documents to the death camps (terms like “evacuation” and “special installations” were consistently employed), and hence their desperate attempts to destroy evidence of the killing apparatus as Allied troops approached.
The need to hide what they were doing — from the Germans as well as from the Jews and the Allies — is why the Nazis built the killing camps at remote locations. The other requirement was that they be accessible by rail line, another way technology played a central role in what transpired. Speedy disposal of the corpses also served to hide the truth: the most damning evidence needed to be destroyed as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.
Hilberg quotes an SS officer who worried that the smell of decaying bodies from mass graves would be too noticeable. “A future generation might not understand these matters,” he said. He also quotes a speech SS leader Heinrich Himmler made to his commanders, congratulating them for having the fortitude to face the truth of the Final Solution head on. “Most of you know what it means when 100 corpses lie there, or 500 lie there, or 1,000 lie there,” Himmler said. “To have gone through this and — apart from the exceptions caused by human weakness — to have remained decent, that has hardened us. That is a page of glory in our history never written and never to be written.”
Long before Goldhagen, Hilberg made the point that the German people as a whole were virulently anti-Semitic, and thus supported elimination of the Jews. “However one may wish to draw the line of active participation,” he wrote, “the machinery of destruction was a remarkable cross-section of the German population. Every profession, every skill, and every social status was represented in it.”
Hilberg also emphasized, however, that it was relatively easy for the vast majority of Germans to maintain their distance, physically and psychologically, from the horror. In this he also anticipated Hannah Arendt’s famous “banality of evil.” While it’s true, he said, that a good many Germans were required to participate directly in killing the Jews, “most of the administrators and most of the clerks did not see the final, drastic link in these measures of destruction. Most bureaucrats composed memoranda, drew up blueprints, signed correspondence, talked on the telephone and participated in conferences. They could destroy a whole people by sitting at their desks.”
Hilberg adds that once the war had ended, many of those who enabled the Holocaust were free to return to their desks, where they often prospered. They may have supported the Final Solution ideologically, but practically, they’d managed to keep their hands clean. I wonder if they’d have been able to accomplish that so easily if they’d wielded machetes.
6. The last reason I think it’s important to recognize the use of technology in the Final Solution is that it contradicts, powerfully, one of the more persistent myths of technological enthusiasm: That societies become more humane — more civilized — as their technologies advance.
The Nazi killing machine is an expression of unimaginable barbarity from a nation that supposedly represented a pinnacle of Western culture. How could such horror emerge from the nation that gave us Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Goethe, Mann, Schopenhauer and Schiller?
Goldhagen's essay doesn’t address this issue, but it’s one of the reasons the genocide perpetrated by the Hutus isn’t equivalent to the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis.
Unlike the Hutus, the Nazis were able to use the tools of a supposedly advanced civilization – modern technology – to manifest humanity’s most debased impulses. Winston Churchill commented on this. “There is no doubt that this is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world,” he wrote, “and it has been done by scientific machinery by nominally civilized men in name of a great state and one of the leading races of Europe.”
Obviously, we need to avoid ethnocentric and racist assumptions regarding what it means to be “civilized.” But however we define “civilized,” if we think of technological progress as a vehicle for getting there, the Holocaust tells us we ought to think again.
©Doug Hill, 2015