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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Bureaucracy and Genocide (p. 566)

From chapter "Holocausts"

Look again at photographs of the Holocaust. This time focus not on the victims but the killers. What do you see? Do you see maniacs gibbering for blood, gobbets of flesh and splinters of bone jutting from their leering mouths? Not particularly. You probably see soldiers, not much different from soldiers the world over, not much different from the soldiers who rode with Custer, or those who flew over Baghdad. Young men with short haircuts, guns in their hands or in their belts, wearing what look in the black-and-white photographs to be monochromatic uniforms. They’re just kids. They’ve been trained to kill, but they’re kids nonetheless. Sociologists Kren and Rappoport summed up current thinking on the subject: “By conventional clinical criteria no more than 10 percent of the S.S. could be considered ‘abnormal.’ This observation fits the general trend of testimony by survivors indicating that in most of the camps, there was usually one, or at most a few, S.S. men known for their intense outbursts of sadistic cruelty.” They conclude, “Our judgment is that the overwhelming majority of S.S. men, leaders as well as rank and file, would have easily passed all the psychiatric tests ordinarily given to American army recruits or Kansas City policemen.”

Now, look at the photos of those who planned the killings, rarely using words so indelicate as murder, atrocity, hate. They look far more bureaucratic than demonic. Indeed, they are more bureaucratic than demonic. The department within S.S. headquarters in charge of eradicating Jews was officially designated as the Section of Administration and Economy (analogous, perhaps, to the U.S. bureaucracy in charge of deforesting public lands being a part of the Department of Agriculture). The Germans were neither lying nor obfuscating. As [Zygmunt] Bauman notes, “Except for the moral repulsiveness of its goal (or, to be precise, the gigantic scale of the moral odium), the activity did not differ in any formal sense (the only sense that can be expressed in the language of bureaucracy) from all other organized activities designed, monitored, and supervised by ‘ordinary’ administrative and economic sections.”

Here is the way a technical expert described improvements in the mobile killing vans used by the Einsatzgruppen. I trust readers can see past the awkward writing style to the intent. The technician wrote that a shorter, fully loaded truck would be able to operate much more quickly. A shortening of the rear compartment would not disadvantageously affect the weight balance, overloading the front axle, he wrote, “because actually a correction in the weight distribution takes place automatically through the fact that the cargo [that is, the people to be killed] in the struggle toward the back door during the operation always is preponderately located there.” Because the connecting pipe [where carbon monoxide was introduced] was quickly rusted through by “fluids” [that is, by blood, vomit, piss, and liquid shit], the gas should be introduced from above, not below. To facilitate cleaning, the technician suggested that an eight- to twelve- inch hole should be made in the floor and provided with a cover that can be opened from outside. The floor should be slightly inclined, and the cover equipped with a small sieve. Thus all “fluids” would flow to the middle, the “thin fluids” would exit during operation, and “thicker filth” could be hosed out afterward. The disposal of corpses was a huge technical problem, causing significant competition among firms vying for the lucrative market. One firm made the following recommendation: “For putting the bodies into the furnace, we suggest simply a metal fork moving on cylinders. Each furnace will have an oven measuring only 600 millimeters in breadth and 450 millimeters in height, as coffins will not be used. For transporting the corpses from the storage points to the furnaces we suggest using light carts on wheels, and we enclose diagrams of these drawn to scale.” Another company pointed to its excellent furnaces at Dachau and Lublin, which, it said, had given “full satisfaction in practice,” then continued, “Following our verbal discussion regarding the delivery of equipment of simple construction for the burning of bodies, we are submitting plans for our perfected cremation ovens which operate with coal and have hitherto given full satisfaction. We suggest two crematoria furnaces for the building planned, but we advise you to make further inquiries to make sure that two ovens will be sufficient for your requirements. We guarantee the effectiveness of the cremation ovens as well as their durability, the use of the best material and our faultless workmanship.” Sometimes, ashes from the crematoria were sold as fertilizer. One company constructed an electrically heated tank for making soap, with a recipe of “12 pounds of human fat, 10 quarts of water, and 8 ounces to a pound of caustic soda … all boiled for two or three hours and then cooled.” The conversion of the living to the dead has been converted from a moral, human, question into a technical problem to be solved, and, if at all possible, profited from.

“Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs—these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration,” wrote Max Weber, presciently, it would seem, except that he was not writing of death camps but the production process in general, whether the product is soap from the flesh of Jews, fish sticks from the flesh of cod, or two-by-fours from the flesh of trees. He continues, “Bureaucratization offers above all the optimum possibility of carrying through the principle of specializing administrative functions according to purely objective considerations. . . . The ‘objective’ discharge of business primarily means a discharge of business according to calculable rulesand ‘with out regard for persons.’”

The point is this: When those in power set social goals aimed at increasing that power (this includes maximizing revenue, since, in our society, money translates to power, and includes maximizing production for the same reason), and when the rest of us do not question these goals too deeply but merely attempt as smoothly as possible to make our own minuscule contributions to the goals of our society, the culture will smoothly commit atrocities seemingly without end. This is true whether our contributions consist of making certain that shifting cargos do not stress front axles, increasing the efficiency of oil extraction from beneath the ground, or writing books that earn profits for bookstore chains or publishing conglomerates. The smooth functioning of bureaucratic society requires we each do our part.


In front of the gas chambers and crematoria were well-kept lawns and flower gardens. Often, as those who were about to die arrived, they would hear light music, played by an orchestra of “young and pretty girls all dressed in white blouses and navy-blue skirts.” The men, women, and children were told to undress, so they could be given showers. They were told, most often pleasantly, to move into the room where they would soon die. As Bauman observes, “rational people will go quietly, meekly, joyously into a gas chamber, if only they are allowed to believe it is a bathroom.”

Once the doors were locked, behind them, a sergeant would give the order to drop the crystals: “All right, give ’em something to chew on.” Soon, but too late, the people would realize that they had signed their final false contract, and, at last they would fight for their lives, stampeding toward the doors that were sealed behind them, where “they piled up in one blue clammy blood-splattered pyramid, clawing and mauling each other even in death.”


By this point, the pyramid of blue and bloodied bodies is really beside the point. The men who dropped the crystals, or who oversaw the use of Jews to clean up the thick and thin fluids and fire the bodies, did not make up the bulk of the killers. Most of the killers worked at regular jobs, just like you and me. The preeminent historian of the Holocaust, Raul Hilberg, commented, “It must be kept in mind that most of the participants [of genocide] did not fire rifles at Jewish children or pour gas into gas chambers. . . . Most bureaucrats composed memoranda, drew up blueprints, talked on the telephone, and participated in conferences. They could destroy a whole people by sit ting at their desk.”