Auschwitz: A Mountain in the Path

Aaron Streiter, a professor of mine at Brooklyn College, challenged his students to tell him which was the grimmest, darkest century in human history. After listening to varying responses--the early Roman era, the dark ages--he responded that the worst century in human history was the twentieth century. And we were a great deal more astonished to hear it then than we would be today.

Each of us had grown up with the pleasant impression that, despite certain detours and embarassments, we lived in a time more civilized than any before, and with more material comforts and technological benefits as well. The thread running through history, as we had learned it, was the idea of progress, that the world of the children is better than the world of the parents, and the world of the grandchildren better still.

No, said Professor Streiter; there has been more violence, more war, more mass killing and evil, in the twentieth century than in any earlier one. And he was right. Auschwitz stands like a mountain unexpectedly encountered, blocking the path to the future.

In his haunting book, Modernity and the Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman examines the popular premise that the Nazis overcame civilization, that a unique phenomenon happened in Germany that resulted in the suspension of civilization. (Of course, scientists know that there are no unique phenomena.) The premise presupposes that civilization imposes morality upon us, that without it we are wild beasts, and that the Nazis, principally through antisemitic propaganda, overcame the civilization of the German people.

Bauman's thesis is the exact opposite. He suggests that morality has a biological origin, the "animal pity" we feel when we see another human being suffering. Civilization is a process that overcomes morality, rather than instilling it. Civilization makes rules merely. Some of the rules may be coextensive with moral ones, when convenient, but they derive from much different sources. When necessary--and very frequently--the rules of civilization run at right angles to those of morality, and try to cut them to shreds and eliminate them.

The antisemitism of the Germans may have been profound, but Bauman observes that, being human, it did not translate into spontaneous violence, or even into a tolerance of physical violence by others. In my essay What I Learned from Auschwitz I reached a similar conclusion--I had not read Bauman yet--when I stated that the German people, in a true secret ballot, would not have voted for the death of the Jews. Bauman points out that Kristallnacht and every other Nazi mass action in plain sight was a failure-- the population was not mobilized and many people complained about the ill treatment of Jewish neighbors. Eventually, when the Final Solution was implemented, it was considered necessary to hide it from the German people. Even quite late in the war, Himmler complained that eighty million Germans agreed in principle that the Jews were evil, but each had an exception, the "good Jew" he would maneuver to save.

Civilization is the work of trying to organize things on a grand scale, and the steps necessary to implement the Final Solution involved a distancing of the Jews, and the creation of a bureaucracy to destroy them in which the responsibility for the actual killing was so remote from the bureaucrats, and distributed across so many people, that it was close to impossible for anyone involved to experience the "animal pity" that depends so much on proximity. Bauman quotes a memo in which an engineer, charged with creating a more efficient carbon monoxide gas van (before the gas chamber using Zyklon B was invented), speaks of the inevitable "shifting" of the "cargo" towards the rear door, the necessity of draining "thick" and "thin" fluids, and so forth. Here we find a very typical work of civilization--the solution of a difficult problem in a moral vacuum, where the result, disguised beneath a technical or bureaucratic vocabulary, is the murder of human beings.

If Auschwitz is not an accident or a surprising, unexpected detour--if indeed, it is an inevitable byproduct of civilization, which has been repeated several times since 1945 and will be many more times in the future--than it may prompt those who follow a moral light, or hope to, to throw their hands up and ask what the great work is actually worth, if murder is always utilized as a tool.

Note, however, that in a bizarre way, Bauman, and I who stand with him, are optimists. Rather than believing that the world is the Hobbesian "war of all against all", and that civilization imposes a frail morality, we are optimists in that we believe that morality precedes civilization and functions independently of it, surviving like a weed in the cracks even when civilization does its best to extirpate it.

Auschwitz, rather than representing a hole in history, is an extreme by-product of an every-day process. If you sit in the cheap seats overlooking Congress and listen to the work, every day our leaders are deciding who will live and who will die. Its a rare law that doesn't contribute to someone's wealth, while hanging an anvil round the neck of someone else. Decisions pertaining to welfare, the FDA, gun control, war and peace, or secret foreign policy as practiced by the CIA, all harm or kill some people to manufacture prosperity or comfort or security for others. And in fact that same process goes on in corporate headquarters, when decisions are being made about the contents of products or the design of airplanes or the construction of buildings. Every human group when it gets together to make important decisions is manufacturing something based on human suffering.

One of the first things you learn in law school is the doctrine of foreseeability. There is no liability in tort for consequences that cannot be foreseen. Typically, you learn the doctrine from the case of Palsgraf vs. Long Island Railroad, where it wasn't foreseeable that a conductor trying to push passengers onto the train would cause a man to drop a box of fireworks, which would go off, causing a ceiling tile to fall on a scale which tipped over, breaking Mrs. Palsgraf's foot. When we say, as so many do, that the Holocaust wasn't foreseeable, we are being ingenuous; we are saying that we never expected that our little policy murders would lead to large ones, on the scale that Hitler practiced the engineering and bureaucracy that the West had created long before he was born. The chain of causation, from the inception of Western civilization to the Holocaust, is shorter and more obvious, therefore more foreseeable, than the sequence of events in Palsgraf.

In New York recently, a little girl named Eliza Izquierdo was beaten to death by her mother, and the resulting scandal revealed that the city's Child Welfare Agency, which had known that the girl was being abused but failed to remove her, had a mandate--expressed in a memo from management--to close two files for every new one opened. Although the goal of the bureaucracy of the Final Solution was to destroy the Jews and the goal of the Child Welfare Agency is to save children, the two bureaucracies have much in common, including a distance from the person being managed--the Jew or the child--which results in a view of the latter as a kind of raw material to be processed by the bureaucracy. The Jew as "cargo" or Eliza Izquierdo as a "file" lie on a continuum and are related to one another.

Our primitive problem is a version of the prisoner's dilemma. Not only are the short term benefits of betraying our fellow always evident, there may not be enough resources available to make cooperation safe or even possible. When there are two human beings and only one egg, playing the cooperation card may mean that both players divide the egg and starve. Betrayal means seizing the egg and eating it oneself. There is no name in game theory for the move of sacrificing oneself by foregoing the egg and allowing one's partner to survive.

The Hobbesian war of all against all is within us, an evolutionary memory offset by the animal pity. All the beauty and evil of human life are expressed in the question whether to eat the egg, share it or give it to your partner. The twin pillars of civilization, engineering and bureaucracy, arise from the dilemma of the egg: engineering is the framework within which we raise the chicken, produce, process and distribute the egg; bureaucracy picks up there to determine who gets how much of the egg. Legislatures decide what laws will direct the engineers and bureaucrats in their activities pertaining to the egg.

It is not difficult to place the Holocaust within this framework. The leadership decided that the best way to secure the production and distribution of the egg was to kill the Jews. It was a profoundly irrational decision, but again lies on a continuum with our own decisions that securing American prosperity or security requires the murder of Indians or Guatemalans. Once the leadership makes the decision--and it is the job of leadership to set the vision and call, at least in broad strokes, for the means of its implementation--all that is left is the routine, civilized human work of engineering and bureaucracy.

Thoreau stated a similarly resonant metaphor for the work of civilization:

Men have an indistinct notion that if they keep up this activity of joint stocks and spades long enough all will at length ride somewhere, in next to no time, and for nothing; but though a crowd rushes to the depot, and the conductor shouts "All aboard!" when the smoke is blown away and the vapor condensed, it will be perceived that a few are riding, but the rest are run over,--and it will be called, and will be, "A melancholy accident."

The degree of evil of the work varies according to the amount of animal pity with which it is informed. If the question is, who, and how many, are to be run over, democracy is at least one mechanism to ensure that fewer people are run over, or at least, that the largest possible number of the population influences the decision. We are better off still when the greatest possible number of the people making the decision are compassionate. This is a different dilemma. Bureaucracy and engineering, by placing us at a great distance from the lives we affect with our decisions, allow civilization to work around our primitive, biological compassion.

There is an ugly tone in the air today. For decades, we have at least paid lip service to compassion as an important value, even when we did not practice it. In a much different context, I have speculated that self-deception about the existence of a thing may call that very thing into existence, though, after a certain point, it may simply take the place of what is desired (Yeats said, "And soon enough, the dream had all my thought and love/ And not the thing it was an emblem of.") However, when the thing once desired, in this case compassion, is no longer even given lip service, we are at a dangerous pass--again, in a variation on the old theme, watching the demotion of human beings into "cargo" or "files".

The Holocaust proves that there are no social arrangements of civilization--and there is certainly no engineering--which can substitute for, let alone bring about, the healthy part of the human heart. All prescriptive structures--whether as sweeping as socialism or as specific as eliminating the electoral college-- are fantasy or, at best, bandaids. The answer lies in the individual human heart, and the dilemma, the pitfall that makes the race stumble time and again, is how to govern the lives of billions of people on a limited planet via the choices of billions of hearts.