January 27, 2015

Daniel Goldhagen is mistaken: Why the technology of the Holocaust mattered, and still matters

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.”

Cheering Hitler

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    

January 16, 2015

Paul Tillich on the lost dimension

“The decisive element in the predicament of Western man in our period is his loss of the dimension of depth.”
Paul Tillich

January 13, 2015

Stanislaw Lem: Eight good questions about technology

“Who causes whom? Does technology cause us, or do we cause it? Does it lead us wherever it wishes, even to perdition, or can we make it bend before our pursuit? But what drives this pursuit if not technical thought? Is it always the same, or is the ‘humanity/technology’ relation itself historically variable? If the latter is the case, then where is this unknown quantity heading? Who will gain the upper hand, a strategic space for civilization’s maneuvers: humanity, which is freely choosing from a widely available arsenal of technological means, or maybe technology, which, through automation, will successfully conclude the process of removing humans from its territory?...Is there another potential direction in which our civilization could develop, other than a technical one?”
Stanislaw Lem, Summa Technologiae (1964) 

January 8, 2015

Mark Zuckerberg’s New Frontier: The World of Ideas

So, Mark Zuckerberg has a New Year’s resolution: he’s starting a book club. He’s committed himself to reading two books a month this year and suggests — although his announcement is a little vague on this point — that he’ll participate in online discussions of the books he’s reading.

It’s hard not to be suspicious of Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books" plan, for several reasons. I’m a dedicated bibliophile and I find it hard to read two books a month, in large part because of all the electronic distractions that compete for my attention, Facebook among them. Zuckerberg apparently enjoys a challenge — learning Mandarin was one of this previous resolutions — and he’s certainly set himself one here.

Indeed, reading may well be a challenge for Zuckerberg not unlike learning Mandarin. Katherine Losse’s The Boy Kings, which documents her time working at Facebook in its early days (she was employee #51), demonstrates pretty clearly that, at that point at least, her boss had little interest in the printed page. 

“When I perused Mark’s profile on Facebook after we had become virtual friends,” Losse writes, “I noticed that in the Favorite Books field he wrote, ‘I don’t read.’”

This causes one to wonder about the bibliophilic passion Zuckerberg described in his book club announcement. “I’ve found reading books very intellectually fulfilling,” he said. “Books allow you to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today.”

The allusion to various online media, including Facebook, seems clear. It also seemed to several commentators that Zuckerberg’s comment conveyed an element of surprise, as if he’s only recently discovered that books might be worth looking into after all. As James Walton of the Telegraph put it, “For old-school book-lovers, the literary reference that springs most readily to mind here is ‘no ——, Sherlock’.”

It’s possible, of course, that Zuckerberg’s resolution represents a hoped-for transformation, rather than an achieved one. That’s what New Year’s resolutions are for, after all. The next sentence in his announcement reminded me of the sort of thing people say when they want to lose weight after a holiday season of culinary overindulgence. “I’m looking forward,” he said, “to shifting more of my media diet towards reading books.”

Not surprisingly, some in the press derided the whole thing as a p.r. gimmick, calculated to buff Zuckerberg’s image and to refute the charge that Facebook represents the antithesis of immersive exploration. Charlotte Wilder of the Boston Globe said the tone of his announcement reminded her of a quote from the movie Anchorman: “I have many leather-bound books and my office smells of rich mahogany.” 

Mark Zuckerberg’s bookshelf

(In fact, the photograph adorning the book club’s Facebook page shows a shelf of what appear to be leather-bound books, an image that could convey either repositories of ancient wisdom or the forgotten contents of an abandoned mansion. Either way, an odd choice for a digital book club, in part because it’s reminiscent of the discarded skeuomorph design at Apple’s iBooks, a design Steve Jobs reportedly loved and pretty much everyone else hated.)

Steve Jobs' bookshelf

Sincere or not, Zuckerberg’s book club commitment represents a dramatic shift from the personal habits and interests of the Zuckerberg depicted in The Boy Kings. Here are a few examples: 
  • Zuckerberg tended “to mock or disregard everything that wasn’t a technical issue,” Losse writes. She also writes that the only people he felt completely comfortable with were fellow engineers. He made a point of reiterating that Facebook is a company driven by engineers and engineering, and there’s no evidence that books were a subject of much, if any, discussion there. When Facebook employees got together socially, Losse says, it was only a matter of time before everyone pulled out their MacBook Pros, “happy to have an excuse to have their familiar screens in front of them, networked to the system and to distant friends on instant message.”
  • The “mission” of the Facebook troops was the inexorable expansion of the company’s technological domain. So pervasively and passionately were they dedicated to furthering that goal that Losse felt it was a bad idea to show an interest in issues outside the mission. “The company wasn’t paying anyone to be aware of the world beyond the screen,” she says. “The only questions you were supposed to ask or ideas you were supposed to have at work, as a good citizen of Facebook nation, were about new ways to technologize daily life, new ways to route our lives through the web.”
  • A principal goal of this radically narrow vision, of course, was the all-American dream of getting fabulously, obscenely rich. Hence the atmosphere at Facebook, as elsewhere in the computer industry, tended to be less about intellectual fulfillment and more about the accumulation of power. “[T]he young men of Silicon Valley were not trying to tear down the capitalist system,” Losse writes. “They were trying to become its new masters.” 
Bill Gates in Nigeria

Again, it’s possible A Year of Books represents a transformation in progress for Zuckerberg. Having achieved his dream, perhaps he’s now ready to expand the scope of his interests, as Bill Gates has. If so, good for him. 

Still, some skepticism seems in order. Given Zuckerberg’s belief that technology is a vehicle of individual empowerment (certainly his personal experience would affirm such a conviction), it’s not surprising that his first book club selection would celebrate the supposed liberating powers of technological expansion. 

“Our first book of the year will be The End of Power by Moisés Naím,” he said. “It's a book that explores how the world is shifting to give individual people more power that was traditionally only held by large governments, militaries and other organizations. The trend towards giving people more power is one I believe in deeply, and I'm looking forward to reading this book and exploring this in more detail.”

Moisés Naím (with leather-bound books)

Presumably Zuckerberg is basing these comments on reviews, the book jacket or a press release, unless he got a head start on his resolution and has already read The End of Power. In any event, two commenters who have read Naím’s book had some interesting things to say about it. 

It’s true, writes Carlos Lozada of the Washington Post, that Naím believes various changes, most having to do with technology, are diminishing the power of large, traditional institutions. This doesn’t automatically translate, however, to liberation for individuals. 

Naím argues, Lozada says, that the revolutionary impact of social media, such as in the Arab Spring protests, has been "exaggerated." He also points out that the same technologies that have supposedly empowered average citizens have also (as Naím puts it) "ushered in new avenues for surveillance, repression, and corporate control."

These aren’t original observations, by any means, but they do directly challenge the technology = freedom dogma that Zuckerberg apparently endorses. 

These qualifications aside, it’s fair to assume that Zuckerberg will find the overall message of Naím’s book amenable, which is why Flavorwire calls its selection for A Year of Books  “a shameless act of propaganda.” Anyone who thinks The End of Power documents anything close to a genuine end of power, says literary editor Jonathan Sturgeon, is a sadly mistaken. He calls it “a neoliberal update of libertarianism, one that would pave the way for free-market capitalism to conquer the world.” 

If true, this diminishes any hope that Zuckerberg will have the balls to choose book club selections that challenge the libertarian ideology that dominates the billionaire boys club of Silicon Valley. It will be interesting for that reason to watch his choices, and especially interesting to read his comments about his choices, if he makes them.

If he does make them, we’ll have to wonder if it's really him who's making them, rather than a ghostwriter. Katherine Losse describes an episode when Zuckerberg wanted her to write a series of blog posts that would explain his take on “the way the world is going.” Topics to be addressed included “revolutions and giving people the power to share,” “openness as a force in our generation,” “moving from countries to companies,” “young people building companies” and “everyone becoming developers and how we support that.”

Losse says she wasn’t at all sure what Zuckerberg was trying to get at with some of these arguments. She asked him to schedule time to sit down with her to explain his thinking in more detail, but he never got around to it, and the blog posts were never written. Just as well, from Losse’s perspective, since she was pretty sure they wouldn’t have expressed anything she herself could subscribe to. “It sounded,” she writes, 
like he was arguing for a kind of nouveau totalitarianism, in which the world would become a technical, privately owned network run by young, “technical” people who believe wholeheartedly in technology’s and their own inherent goodness, and in which every technical advancement is heralded as a step forward for humanity. But that reasoning was deeply flawed. While technology can be useful, it is not God; it is not always neutral or beneficent. Technology carries with it all the biases of the people who make it, so simply making the world more technical was not going to save us. We still have to think for ourselves, experience the world in reality as well as online, and care about one another as people as well as nodes in a graph, if we are going to remain human.
Amen, sister. Check out The Boy Kings. It’s not likely to appear as a selection for A Year of Books.

©Doug Hill, 2015