War crimes trials are a 20th Century invention. Although a vehicle for punishment and, perhaps, the reestablishment of the rule of law, one has to won...moreWar crimes trials are a 20th Century invention. Although a vehicle for punishment and, perhaps, the reestablishment of the rule of law, one has to wonder the extent to which individual defendants truly acknowledge any real guilt.
This is seen in the autobiography written by Auschwitz camp commander Rudolf Hoess while in prison following the war. Hoess' several hundred page work was first published some 50 years ago and has since appeared in a variety of editions and under varying titles. The latest is The Commandant, a condensed volume edited by Jürg Amann, a Swiss author and dramatist. Amann edited Hoess' writings down to about 100 pages, what he terms a 16-part monologue conceived for the stage and as a radio play. Yet even The Commandant provides a singular view into the operations and psychology of the Nazi killing machine.
Whether an intentional construction or a reflection of a psychological compartmentalization employed by those running the death camps, Hoess almost simultaneously defends his actions, accepts a slight form of, what is to him, responsibility for what occurred, and claims to have been greatly disturbed by them. As Ian Buruma notes in an afterword, these internal inconsistencies leave us with a man who might exemplify what Hannah Arendt had in mind when she referred to "the banality of evil."
It doesn't take long for Hoess to lay the groundwork for thee so-called "Nuremberg defense," the claim that "I was just following orders." In the first chapter, Hoess tells us, "Even from childhood on up, I was trained in a complete awareness of duty. Attention to duty was greatly respected in my parents' home, so that all orders would be performed exactly and conscientiously." In other words, it was impossible for him to have acted any differently when told to kill Jews.
Of course, that trait was reinforced by his belief in the Nazi party. When the orders for Hoess to create a mass killing center to annihilate the Jews came down, he recognized them as "something extraordinary, something monstrous." But he didn't give them a thought or form an opinion about them. Why? It was not his place to be "second guessing" the Fuhrer. According to Hoess, when Himmler issued orders in Hitler's name, those orders "were holy. There was no reflection, no interpretation, no explanation about these orders. Whatever the Fuhrer or Himmler ordered was always right."
Still, given a chance in prison to consider those orders and express an opinion on them, he says they were "absolutely wrong." Yet his reasoning is insightful. It was not morals, decency or even justice that rendered the orders wrong. Instead, he objects because "[i]t was exactly because of this mass extermination that Germany earned itself the hatred of the entire world. The cause of anti-Semitism was not served by this act at all, in fact, just the opposite."
What is also disturbing is the empathy Hoess claims to have had for the prisoners. In the 1920s, Hoess was among a group of people who, invoking "an unwritten law," killed someone they considered a traitor. Hoess suggests that the six years he spent in prison for his role in the murder allowed him to understand what concentration camp inmates were going through. "I had been a prisoner for too long for me not to notice their needs," he wrote. "It was not without inner sympathy that I faced all of the occurrences in the camp. Outwardly I was cold, even stone-faced, but inwardly I was moved to the deepest." It also was empathy that caused him to be encouraged by the efficacy of gassing Jews rather than shooting them. He felt that would alleviate the stress that was leading to suicides of SS Special Action troops "who could no longer mentally endure wading in the bloodbath." Hoess doesn't say whether this was less psychologically stressful for the victims.
This reflects Hoess' odd view of culpability. He claims his "guilt' began when he was first assigned to Dachau. At that point, Hoess claims it was clear to him he was not suited for concentration camp duties because he didn't agree with the conditions and the practices followed in them. He even asserts that even though he followed orders, "I never became insensitive to human suffering. I always saw it and I felt it." In fact, Hoess claims he used "every means" at his disposal" to halt "the horrible tortures" at Auschwitz but could not stop them. Why? "One person is no match for such viciousness, depravity, and cruelty." It perhaps goes without saying that this is especially so when the cruelty stems from what the person considers "holy" orders.
We do not know whether these fractured rationalizations reflect the mindset of those involved in "the Final Solution' or represents Hoess trying to somehow portray himself as merely a cog who felt sorry for his victims. However, there is no doubt Hoess ultimately agreed with the Nazi program. He believed in the need for concentration camps to lock up "enemies of the state" and professional criminals. Likewise, he seeks to "emphasize" that he "personally never hated the Jews." Instead, he just "considered them to be the enemy of our nation." The fact that certain results flow from those positions seems utterly inconsequential to Hoess.
Given the subject, both individually and topically, I don't see wanting to sit in a theater to hear Hoess expound on his life and thoughts. Still, the 16 chapters Amann extracts from the original, lengthier writings are a concise recap of Hoess' life and the concentration camp system. More important, they provide stark insight into the nature of many of those responsible for the Holocaust.
So says Adam Salmen, a fictional narrator in Dieter Schlesak's The Druggist of Auschwitz: A Documentary Novel. But what Salmen and others imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II got "used to" is staggering, so much so that it continues to shock the world decades later. Children grabbed by their legs and smashed into walls. Infants catapulted alive into trenches in which dozens of corpses have been set afire. Mussulmen, inmates so emaciated and starved they are a sort of an "undead creature, ... a human being past tense."
Sadly, that is not the imagination of fiction. Schlesak takes a unique approach to literary nonfiction. The vast majority of the book consists of excerpts from actual trial transcripts and interviews. Salmen, "the last Jew of Schlossberg," Romania, serves as a somewhat ubiquitous witness, personifying various details. As in the original German edition, his and other fictional narration appear in italic while roman type is used for material taken from the second Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt from 1963 to 1965 and interviews.
Adam is a member of the Sonderkommando, prisoners forced to dispose of the mountains of corpses, as well as an inmate resistance group. But Adam is not the real focus of The Druggist of Auschwitz. Instead, the book is built upon the 1944 deportations of thousands upon thousands of Romanian and Hungarian Jews to Auschitz and Capesius, a drug salesman from Transylvania before the war. Once Romania joined the Axis, ethnic Germans in the Romanian army like Capesius were transferred to the Waffen-SS. Capesius eventually became the camp pharmacist at Auschwitz and was present when his fellow countrymen arrived at the camp. These focal points allow Schlesak to provide the perspective of both the persecutors and the persecuted.
Many of the details of what occurred at the camp are, as would be expected, appalling. In addition to storing drugs and some of the Zyklon B used in the gas chambers, Capesius' workplace contained trunks with thousands of gold teeth pulled from victims, many with bits of flesh still attached. There was widespread belief that his post-war wealth stemmed from his access to these teeth. Yet what is perhaps most shocking is the capacity Capesius and others have to feel no guilt or blame for what transpired. Dozens of witnesses testified that during the Hungarian transports, Capesius was among the SS officers involved in the "selection process" on the loading ramps, directing people either toward the labor camp or the gas chambers. Both at trial and later, Capesius vehemently denies this, just as he denies having any role in handling the Zyklon B. For him, the trials are simply about saving his own life. The suffering, the victims, the inhumanity are lost, secondary details in a miasma of dates, data and denial.
Capesius is far from alone in possessing that inability to feel guilt or be bothered by his conscience. And this goes far beyond the claim that "I was just following orders." Thus, some involved in the selection process would claim they actually "saved" the Jews they pointed toward the labor camp instead of the crematoria. Auschwitz also was where Dr. Josef Mengele and others performed experiments on prisoners. Yet within weeks of the end of the war, the chief of the Auschwitz doctors wrote that "we can stand before God and man with the clearest consciences. ... What crime have I committed? I really do not know."
Translated by John Hargraves, The Druggist of Auschwitz was first published in German in 2006. It made its initial U.S. appearance this year and is now out in a paperback edition. It can feel a bit choppy, jumping in time and location and occasionally more meandering than linear. This is magnified by at times almost abrupt transitions from trial transcripts to Schlesak's interviews to his own observations. Although initially a bit distracting, the reader will adapt to the use of italic and roman text in the narration. In fact, there are a couple literary nonfiction books over the last year or so where I wish the author had been required to distinguish between fact and invention.
Ultimately, these flaws are inconsequential in the context of the work and what it reveals about the human ability to absolve one's conscience or oneself. In fact, Adam observes, that may be almost as bad as the crimes themselves -- "it was precisely this ability that made Auschwitz possible in the first place!"
It sticks out on almost any bookshelf. Like the cover, a white circle appears in the center of the jacket spine, the antithesis of the black that othe...moreIt sticks out on almost any bookshelf. Like the cover, a white circle appears in the center of the jacket spine, the antithesis of the black that otherwise fills the space. In the midst of the circle is black again, but in the shape of the Nazi swastika. The title, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, is in gold at the top. It is as if the cover symbolizes what is within, history viewed as a recounting of the rise and destruction of evil.
Considering it was nearly 1,300 pages long, the book was a significant popular accomplishment. Not only did it top the New York Times bestseller list and win the National Book Award, it was a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. A worthy achievement for any historian. Yet the author, William L. Shirer, was not a historian. He was a reporter who provided firsthand coverage of Hitler's Germany and the onset of World War II from 1934 through 1940. Those six years are the focus of Steve Wick's new biography of Shirer, The Long Night: William L. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
Like his subject, Wick is a journalist, not an academic, a point he makes in an author's note. His goal "was to write more of an adventure story than a book of history." The Long Night meets the objective.
Wick traces Shirer's life and career from Coe College in Iowa to Europe and India and his work as a wire service, newspaper and radio correspondent until his departure from Berlin in December 1940. Throughout, Shirer was an inveterate diarist. The notes and journals he smuggled out of Nazi Germany when he left were the basis of Shirer's Berlin Diary, itself a bestseller in 1941. Wick relies on and quotes extensively from those notes and journals. He occasionally looks to other sources in attempting to give a more complete picture but perhaps not as often as one might like in fully setting the significant times and events in the Nazi rise to power and entry into war.
Although Wick writes in the straightforward prose one would expect from a journalist, he uses the original material to tell the story in a way that utilizes but does not abuse the concept of creative nonfiction. In addition to detailing Shirer's journey as a European correspondent, The Long Night presents some of the conflicts that confronted Shirer and other reporters as the Nazis increased their power. As the Nazis grew stronger, reporters struggled with balancing government censorship against the risk of expulsion. Is censored news better than no news about what was happening in Germany? Wick also points out the human level of some of the conflicts. How does a reporter balance the extent to which they use a source in the government or the Nazi party against the risk that contact will result in the source's arrest? Perhaps more crucially, should the Nazi government's treatment of the Jews require a journalist subject to censorship to become an advocate for them or at least against the Nazis?
Although it was his coverage of Nazi Germany that made Shirer famous, he actually set off for Europe in 1925 without a job. By luck, he was hired by the Chicago Tribune in Paris just as he was preparing to return to America. At the beginning, he only covered Europe, including Charles Lindbergh's landing in Paris after his solo flight across the Atlantic. Eventually, the job would take him to India to report on Gandhi's efforts for independence. He would also find his way into Afghanistan, where, according to Wick, he concluded the seemingly endless conflicts and wars left a "sinkhole not worth a drop of foreign blood."
In 1934, Shirer began work in Berlin as a correspondent for William Randolph Hearst's Universal News Service. The news service, however, was shut down in 1937. Again, luck played its hand as Shirer was contacted and hired by Edward R. Murrow, the head of CBS's European staff. Somewhat ironically, although he and Murrow would essentially pioneer foreign radio correspondents actually broadcasting news from the scene, that was not Shirer's main task when he started with CBS. Instead, he arranged and set up venues for non-news programs, such as musical performances. When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, though, he and Murrow headed up a round-up of European coverage, a format the CBS radio network would use for years.
As censorship increased, Shirer tried to use subtle references and intonations to convey more meaning to audiences with the language the censors would allow. Wick examines Shirer's true feelings toward the Nazis and the internal conflict -- and even depression -- the censorship produced. The Long Night also suggests this period could be the source of a theme of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich frequently criticized by academics. Shirer's perspective was that Hitler and Nazism arose because of the character of Germans and their society. Wick acknowledges that Shirer's feelings toward the German people hardened and became more cynical with time. "He saw them as cows. They wanted to be led around by a strong leader who lied to them every time he opened his mouth," Wick writes. "They did what they were told and did not debate moral issues. They never debated moral issues when self-interests were involved."
While that theory was debated and criticized by academics, The Long Night makes clear he was not a historian; he was a reporter whose later books allowed him to express what he could not when in Germany. Because Wick's intent was to write "about a journalist at work," he does not delve into those books or the validity of Shirer's ideas and themes. Rather, Shirer's life after leaving Berlin in 1940 is summarized in a 12 ½-page "Postscript." To that extent, those interested in Shirer will be disappointed and need to await a full biography. For now, Wick at least provides insight not only into the man but the formative period of his most notable work.
Good fortune -- luck -- manifests itself in a variety of ways. Frequently, just how lucky we are comes only with hindsight and even then we may not re...moreGood fortune -- luck -- manifests itself in a variety of ways. Frequently, just how lucky we are comes only with hindsight and even then we may not realize just what contributed to a serendipitous result. Yet the extent of a person's fortune may well be a matter of perspective, much like the adage about regretting having no shoes until seeing the person with no feet.
Waydenfeld was a teenager in Otwock, Poland, a city not far from Warsaw, as the European continent moved toward the outbreak of World War II. The son of a medical doctor and a medical bacteriologist, Waydenfeld enjoyed the benefits and opportunities afforded by a comparatively comfortable life, one he even terms "idyllic." That would end rather abruptly when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and become even worse when the Soviet Union invaded the country from the east 16 days later. Waydenfeld's father, who had served as a medical officer in the Polish Army, was mobilized before the German invasion. Five days after the German invasion, Waydenfeld, then 14, set off on foot with friends toward a mustering point to the east to join the Army. He and his friends wouldn't join the Army on their trip -- and he would not see his home for another eight years.
Through a fortunate turn of events, Waydenfeld's father located him when he took shelter with another family. And, by chance, his mother joined them just as they were going to attempt to return to Otwock to find her. Yet the Waydenfelds faced a dilemma: try to return to the portion of Poland occupied by Germany or stay in what was now the Soviet occupied section. They ending up staying in the Soviet-controlled area. Ultimately, although not technically prisoners, hundreds of Poles were deported in crammed cattle cars to Siberian labor camps in 1940. The Waydenfelds ended up in Kvasha, a camp in far western Siberia with a subarctic climate. "Here you shall live," they were told.
Kvasha was not a prison camp. There was housing and food available. Yet survival depended on working in the great forests of the area cutting and removing timber. The phrase frequently heard from the Soviet officials at the camp was, "He who does not work, does not eat." Although in his teens, Waydenfeld performed a wide variety of difficult tasks in the camp. The worst, which gives the book its title, was when he and his father were part of a crew charged with maintaining "the ice road." The road consisted of iced ruts on which sleds would transport felled trees in the midst of the winter. Maintenance required traveling up and down the road gathering water from the adjoining river and resurfacing the ice in the ruts. Often working at night, the task not only involved working outdoors in sub-zero temperatures but often being coated with ice as a result of the water they were required to spread on the road. The physical burdens and distress of the work almost beggars the imagination.
After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Soviets released the Poles, although they were limited to places within the Soviet Union and were responsible for their own transportation. Although this meant the Weydenfelds would leave Kvasha, it also embarked them on a journey of thousands of miles through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan by rail, on foot and by truck. They scavenged local markets for food and took up housing where available, aided by the senior Weydenfeld's ablity to occasionally find employment thanks to his medical degree. The family and numerous others eventually found passage to Tehran and outside Soviet and German influence.
Waydenfeld recounts events with an excellent eye for detail, both in terms of events and the family's surroundings. Some readers might even wonder about the extent of the detail given that he did not keep a diary and only started making notes of his experiences some 15 years after. Regardless, The Ice Road tells a compelling story about the treatment of the Poles during World War II, an aspect of the conflict that is often overlooked. Additionally, the book includes a look at the Polish deportations and the formation of a Polish Army corps, which Waydenfeld joined once outside Soviet control.
Despite the hardships it recounts, The Ice Road is a story of good fortune in that the Waydenfeld family survived. Yet a couple items in his recounting show just how fortuitous they may have been. For example, in May 1940 the Waydenfelds stood in line for a German repatriation train that would have returned them to Otwock and the part of Poland occupied by the Germans. The family ahead of them in line filled the quota of returnees and they were told to go back to where they were staying and wait for the next repatriation train. There was never another and they were deported to Siberia.
Or they could look back just a bit more. In May 1939, the Waydenfelds took a cruise to the Mediterranean. They picked it over one slated to go to New York City in August 1939. That ship was in New York City when the war broke out -- and the passengers spent the war in the United States.