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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Replace the Mob With Bureaucracy (p. 554)

From chapter "Holocausts"

When I was, maybe, thirteen, I decided that each night before I went to sleep I would read ten pages of some book that would have been too big or difficult for me to otherwise read. I did this every night for the next twenty years, when for some reason I stopped (if memory serves, it was in a vain attempt to actually get a life). I recently began this tradition again. In those two decades I made it through some extraordinary books: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, most of Solzhenitsyn; a lot of Foucault; Decline of the West, Lee’s Lieutenants and a four-volume biography of Robert E. Lee; the complete Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen; most of Joseph Campbell; the complete Sherlock Holmes; The History of German Resistance 1933-1945; other history books and books on the lives of painters; and so on. But through all of these books, the one I remember most is the first, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Some twenty-seven years later I still remember that it weighed in at 1,481 pages, or one hundred and forty-eight days. And, from this book, there is one long passage that has stayed with me all this time, that I’ve held in front of me through all these years, as I have devoted my life to understanding this culture and to stopping its ubiquitous destructiveness. I’ve held it in front of me, particularly as I’ve written this book, attempting to understand the hatred and atrocities that dog us wherever we go, attempting to understand how a near- implacable hatred causes us to with machinelike regularity abandon our humanity and substitute in its place a compulsion to turn the living into the dead. There are many things I can easily understand. I can easily understand rage or hatred toward an individual. I can understand striking out in frustration. I can even understand killing in cold fury. But the regularity with which our culture has fired the villages of Indians and captured the children of Africans, has denuded hillsides and destroyed rivers, has systematically devoured so much of the world, took me aback, as a child, and takes me aback, today.

The image I remember from so long ago was the sworn affidavit by a German engineer that was read into the record at the Nuremberg trials. I do not know why this image stuck out so much; it was of, as William Shirer, author of Rise and Fall, put it, “a relatively minor mass execution” on the Eastern Front, nothing more than five thousand people. In the larger picture of World War II, that’s not really so many at all. And in the scheme of civilization, it’s the merest drop of blood in an ever-expanding ocean.

Here is what the engineer said: “My foreman and I went directly to the pits. I heard rifle shots in quick succession from behind one of the earth mounds. The people who had got off the trucks—men, women and children of all ages—had to undress upon order of an S.S. man, who carried a riding or dog whip. They had to put down their clothes in fixed places, sorted according to shoes, top clothing, and underclothing. I saw a heap of shoes of about 800 or 1,000 pairs, great piles of under-linen and clothing.

“Without screaming or weeping, these people undressed, stood around in family groups, kissed each other, said farewells and waited for a sign from another S.S. man, who stood near the pit, also with a whip in his hand. During the fifteen minutes that I stood near the pit I heard no complaint or plea for mercy. . . .

“An old woman with snow-white hair was holding a one-year-old child in her arms and singing to it and tickling it. The child was cooing with delight. The parents were looking on with tears in their eyes. The father was holding the hand of a boy about 10 years old and speaking to him softly: the boy was fighting his tears. The father pointed to the sky, stroked his head and seemed to explain something to him.

“At that moment the S.S. man at the pit shouted something to his comrade. The latter counted off about twenty persons and instructed them to go behind the earth mound. … I well remember a girl, slim with black hair, who, as she passed close to me, pointed to herself and said, ‘twenty-three years old.’

“I walked around the mound and found myself confronted by a tremendous grave. People were closely wedged together and lying on top of each other so that only their heads were visible. Nearly all had blood running over their shoulders from their heads. Some of the people were still moving. Some were lifting their arms and turning their heads to show that they were still alive. The pit was nearly two-thirds full. I estimated that it contained about a thousand people. I looked for the man who did the shooting. He was an S.S. man who sat at the narrow edge of the pit, his feet dangling into the pit. He had a tommy gun on his knees, and was smoking a cigarette.

“The people, completely naked, went down some steps and clambered over the heads of the people lying there to the place where the S.S. man directed them. They lay down in front of the dead or wounded people; some caressed those who were still alive and spoke to them in a low voice. Then I heard a series of shots. I looked into the pit and saw that the bodies were twitching or the heads lying already motionless on top of the bodies that lay beneath them. Blood was running from their necks.

“The next batch was approaching already. They went down into the pit, lined themselves up against the previous victims and were shot.”

* * *

By now, most of us have read or heard a great deal about the Holocaust, how and why it happened, its human costs, its horrors. We’ve seen the pictures of the skeletal figures of concentration camp survivors, and seen the black-and-white footage of their limp and loose bodies being thrown into pits or onto the backs of trucks to be taken away for disposal. We’ve seen the deep eye sockets and protruding cheekbones of the dead, and of the living. We’ve seen the faces of those who soon would be dead. The small boy in Warsaw, hands raised. The man in the Ukraine, kneeling at the edge of a pit where below we can see bodies; behind him stands a man in a uniform holding a pistol, tiny in his hand, yet still large enough to kill. The piles of glasses, or shoes, the bales of clothing, hair. The soap or lamp shades made of fat or skin. The assembly lines where slaves were worked to death, and the assembly lines where death was not merely the primary product but the only one.

We know that Jews were not the only people killed by Germans in assembly lines, but also Russians, Poles, Slavs, Romani, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, intellectuals (at least those who opposed the regime), the disabled, members of the resistance. And we know that Hitler again and again watched films of those who plotted against him hanging, nude. Hang him using piano wire until he’s almost dead, then release the pressure. Revive him, and do it again. And again. And again.

We know also that Germany was not the only country to participate (odd word, participate, so neutral, so bureaucratic), but, that, Hungary, too, did its share, and Rumania, and Poland, and, toward the end, Italy. We know that banks in Switzerland profited from the murder of Jews, and that the Vatican did not oppose the killings. Actively did not oppose the killings. Time and again both the United States and Britain ducked chances to stop or slow the genocide. Indeed, a 1943 U.S. State Department memo gave the reason the United States was not willing to accept Germany’s offer to deport all German Jews to the United States: “There are grave objections to a direct approach to the German Government to request the release to us of these people. . . . [It would be] impossible for us to take them. The net result would be the transfer of odium from the German to the Allied Governments.” And we know that, after the war, the United States recruited many of the architects and technocrats responsible for the killing to work for the CIA, and we know that the Vatican helped the U.S. government smuggle these people—these nasty-ass motherfuckers, if ever there were any—out of justice’s way.

We can probably detail the deep, broad, and absurd European tradition of hatred of Jews that has manifested in myriad ways, from the pogroms of Russia, to the Dreyfuss affair, to, especially, the Holocaust itself. We know that, in fact, as sociologist, philosopher, and scholar of the Holocaust Zygmunt Bauman put it, “before the Nazi ascent to power, and long after the entrenchment of their rule over Germany, German popular anti-semitism came a poor second to Jew-hatred in quite a few other European countries.” Indeed, Germany had long been known as a relatively safe haven from the persecution Jews suffered elsewhere. We could outline the arguments used across Europe to justify exploiting or eradicating Jews, for example, the scientific, ranging from quack phrenologists quick to provide scientific proof that Jews, like Africans (or anyone, really, but Aryans) were inferior to the scientists and their patrons, to the mainstream of the scientific community itself. Historian of science Robert Proctor painstakingly researched the relationship between Nazis and the scientific community, and found that, contrary to popular opinion, scientists were not dragged off to conduct horrid experiments on unwilling subjects under fear for their own lives. Not only is it true that “many of the social and intellectual foundations [for the anti-Jewish programs] were laid down long before the rise of Hitler to power,” but that mainstream scientists “played an active, even leading role in the initiation, administration, and execution of the Nazi racial programmes.” Undoubtedly, the scientists’ greatest contribution to the Holocaust, however—and, in our larger case, to the destruction of the planet—is a rigid, nonsensical, absurd, and, in fact, evil insistence on the more or less absolute divorce of ethics—values—from science.

Then there was the religious argument, that Jews had killed Christ, never mind that: a) the actual killing was done by Romans; b) Jesus was a Jew; and c) it happened (if it happened at all) a hell of a long time ago. More reasonably, yet, less often stated, is the understanding that hatred of Jews emerged from Christianity defining itself as having broken away from the Jewish tradition, meaning, as Bauman put it, “Christianity could theorize its own existence only as an on-going opposition to the Jews. Continuing Jewish stubbornness bore evidence that the Christian mission remained as yet unfinished.
Jewish admission of error, surrender to Christian truth, and perhaps a future massive conversion, served as the model of Christianity’s ultimate triumph.” In other words, Jews were to be given the same choice as other non-Christians: Christianity or death. Yet another way to say this is that Jews have been long hated because they continue to commit the unpardonable sin of not allowing themselves to be fully assimilated. As was true with the Chinese in America, this indigestibility is intolerable. Alternatively, I’ve heard hatred of Jews characterized as a result of long-standing resentment over the fact that they were really the first to saddle us with monotheism. “What we must recapture to mind, nakedly as we can,” writes George Steiner, “is the singularity, the brain-hammering strangeness, of the monotheistic idea. Historians of religion tell us that the emergence of the concept of the Mosaic God is a unique fact in human experience, that a genuinely comparable notion sprang up at no other place or time. The abruptness of the Mosaic revelation, the finality of the creed at Sinai, tore up the human psyche by its most ancient roots. The break has never really knit. The demands made of the mind are, like God’s name, unspeakable. Brain and conscience are commanded to vest belief, obedience, love in an abstraction purer, more inaccessible to ordinary sense than the highest of mathematics.” Nietzsche, by the way, would have agreed, for he called monotheism “the most monstrous of all human errors.”

And there was the economic argument that we hear even today, with stories of cabals of Jewish bankers plotting their control of the most intimate aspects of our lives. Oddly enough, Jews were and are hated not only for their alleged participation in the international conspiracy of supercapitalist bankers, but also for their alleged participation in the international conspiracy of Bolshevists. This seeming contradiction has to do with the traditional role of many Jews in Europe as small businesspeople and “middle men” between the gentry and the poor, hired by the rich for such unpopular public functions as rent collection. Consequently, they were despised, or looked down upon, by the aristocracy, but, at the same time, because they formed a shield between the very rich and the poor, they were resented by this latter class. The rich often despise the poor, and the poor often hate the rich, but the Jews of much of Europe found themselves in the unenviable position of being hated by both, or, as Bauman put it, they became “objects of two mutually opposed and contradictory class antagonisms.” Translated into plain English: They were screwed.

A major reason for the eruption of this hatred in Germany, as opposed to another European country, was how grievously Germans suffered after World War I, having been forced by the Allies to sign a devastating and humiliating treaty at its conclusion (we should note, however, that it was less devastating and humiliating than the treaty the Germans forced the Russians to sign a year earlier), calling for, among other things, their effective disarmament. A couple of years later, the Allies presented the Germans with a bill for reparations: a whopping 132 billion marks, or 33 billion dollars. One of the ways the German government paid this debt was by simply printing money. The mark began to fall: Within three months the exchange rate was four hundred to the dollar, six months after that, it was seven thousand to the dollar, a month later, eighteen thousand to the dollar, and ten months after that (when Hitler made his first attempt to seize power), it was at a billion per dollar. Soon enough, it became trillions. What this meant in fiscal terms is that life savings of the middle and lower classes were wiped out virtually overnight. Once again, I’m sure we’ve all seen pictures or read descriptions of people carrying satchels of cash to the store to buy their daily bread. And, as always, the rich got the best of it: All through 1921, as the economy collapsed, the government lowered taxes on the rich. The collapse of the German economy made conditions right for scapegoats, for existing contempt to ripen into hatred.

And, of course, it did. Against the Jews, against the Slavs, against anyone but the real sources of their misery. Hitler articulated this rage, and captured the hearts of enough Germans to become an overwhelmingly popular leader. The Nazis, as had been true of the KKK (and the Republicans and Democrats) in the United States, became a hugely powerful political party. Hitler and the Nazis had two goals, as articulated by Hitler, which were “to make secure and to preserve the racial community and to enlarge it. It was therefore a question of space [lebensraum, or, living space].” The Germans, as Hitler put it, echoing American leaders from the Founding Fathers till today, had “the right to a greater living space than other peoples.” He said, “The history of all ages—the Roman Empire and the British Empire—had proved that expansion could only be carried out by breaking down resistance….There had never…been spaces without a master, and there were none today; the attacker always comes up against a possesser.”

The parallels between Hitler’s language and actions, and those of Americans, is more than coincidental. Hitler stated explicitly that “Neither Spain nor Britain should be models of German expansion, but the Nordics of North America, who had ruthlessly pushed aside an inferior race to win for themselves soil and territory for the future.” We don’t even have to take Hitler’s word for American motivations. Theodore Roosevelt put it succinctly when he wrote, “Of course our whole national history has been one of expansion.” He concluded the essay where he made that admission—if you can call a boast an admission—by stating “that the barbarians recede or are conquered, with the attendant fact that whether peace follows their retrogression or conquest is due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace to the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of this world hold sway.”

But the correspondence between American genocide of the nineteenth century and German genocide of the twentieth is by no means one to one. Hitler had a huge advantage: the bureaucratic nature of modern industrial society. As Bauman notes, “Rage and fury are pitiably primitive and inefficient as tools of mass annihilation. They normally peter out before the job is done. One cannot build grand designs on them.” This is true whether we’re talking about the destruction of the European Jews, the population of Iraq, the great runs of salmon, the Amazonian rain forests, or the lives and hearts and hopes of the vast majority of human beings. In an essay entitled “Destroying the Innocent with a Clear Conscience: A Socio-psychology of the Holocaust,” John Sabini and Mary Silver commented that “Thorough, comprehensive, exhaustive murder required [I would say requires] the replacement of the mob with a bureaucracy, the replacement of shared rage with obedience to authority. The requisite bureaucracy would be effective whether manned by extreme or tepid anti-Semites, considerably broadening the pool of potential recruits; it would govern the actions of its members not by arousing passions but by organizing routines; it would only make distinctions it was required to make, not those its members might be moved to make, say, between children and adults, scholar and thief, innocent and guilty; it would be responsive to the will of the ultimate authority through a hierarchy of responsibility—whatever that will might be.”

This bureaucracy represents the near-absolute conversion of human beings into machines. It represents the triumph of our society over our humanity.