Surviving Auschwitz

There is this woman in my life, my Uncle’s mother, who I have known since I was quite young. As a child, there were three things I knew about Huggy (as we kids called her) she is tiny (about 4’6″), she is French, and she always wears long sleeves.

Growing up Jewish, the holocaust was a key part of my religious education. French Jews were imprisoned? Huggy is a French Jew. It took place in the 1940s? Huggy was growing up then. Piecing realizations together until figuring out Huguette was a Holocaust survivor.

Huggy entered Auschwitz with her family when she was about 12, and due to treatment/malnutrition in the camp did not grow. She is tattooed with her ID number on her for arm. She and her brother were the only surviving members of the family. She is an Auschwitz survivor.

Reading Levi’s book, you can understand the  gravity, and hopelessness of the situation he is in. However, he preaches that hope, compassion, and looking out for each other were the key to survival. I don’t think that Huguette would agree with any of these tactics and plans, to her there were those who were lucky enough to survive, and those who weren’t.


Survival in Auschwitz

In Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi, Levi argued that one survived in Auschwitz by maintaining his humanity. In Auschwitz, everything possible was done to strip people of their humanity: upon arriving, people were robbed of their clothes, belongings, and money. They were then shaved and tattooed with numbers that replaced their names. People in Auschwitz lived without food or proper medical treatment; most were separated from their families. Everyone was forced to do back-breaking labor day after day with little to look forward to or hope for.

At the end of Chapter 9, Levi described how four particular people survived Auschwitz. In each of the stories, these people survived by maintaining elements of their personality within the de-humanizing walls. They found little things to cling to:  keeping clean, singing songs, or stealing to remember who they were. Levi explained that those “not initially favoured by fate” could survive if they had the will power “to battle everyday and every hour” (Levi 92).

There was also an emphasis on the methodical daily existence within Auschwitz. Everyday there were numerous pointless rules, rituals, and ceremonies designed to wear down the human psych. Simply finding a way to break the monotony of such a harsh structure was very important to surviving Auschwitz. Prisoners did this by partaking in the Exchange Market, or helping each other out in exchange for food.

Essentially, surviving in Auschwitz consisted of clinging to the little things. People had to find the small  things that helped them forge meaning into a system that attempted to make their lives meaningless.

Levi, Primo, and Stuart Woolf. Survival in Auschwitz. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. Print.

Quiet Survival

In the afterword to Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi stated: “As for survival…I insist there was no general rule, except entering the camp in good health and knowing German. Barring this, luck dominated” (180). Levi did enter the Lager in relatively good health and quickly learned some German, and he did encounter more luck than many of the Häftling, especially in the case of meeting Lorenzo, who provided Levi with both the physical sustenance of soup as well as the less tangible reminder of the world outside, where goodness still existed. Despite Levi’s statement that luck was the most important factor in survival, throughout his book, Levi mentioned other factors that likely contributed to his ability to survive despite the horrendous trials he and his fellow prisoners faced.

Levi’s ability to retain or at least remember his humanity was one of the most important factors to his survival. As mentioned previously, Lorenzo offered Levi a reminder of humanity in addition to the soup he gave him. Levi could see this element of Lorenzo’s offering, where other people might only see the soup. The fact that Levi could find the deeper meaning to such a simple gesture enabled him to never become the animal that the Germans saw him as. Before Levi met Lorenzo, a man named Steinlauf explained to him the importance of not becoming a “beast” (41). Levi carried this idea on with him thenceforth.

In addition to the importance of humanity, Levi also emphasized the importance of looking forward to small things. “Hope” may be too strong a word for this act, but any motivating factor could have given the prisoners the ability to stay alive, even if only one day at a time. During his first winter in the Lager, Levi explained that the prisoners’ “only purpose [was] to reach the spring” (71). Even though they would still be hungry and miserable in the spring, they would not be as cold, and this was something the prisoners could look forward too, small as it might seem to us. Another small light in Levi’s life was the menaschka, or pot, that he and Alberto obtained to transport Lorenzo’s soup. The tiniest of act of defiance, having such a pot boosted their social standing and gave them something other than hunger and misery to think about.

Throughout Levi’s book, it is small acts of humanity and small changes to daily life that seemed to have sustained him during his time in Auschwitz. In his book, survival is not a grand, heroic triumph but rather a quiet sustaining of the things that make us human, even in the face of dehumanizing forces.

Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. Trans. S. J. Woolf. Ed. Philip Roth. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. Print

The Racial Paradigm: Hitler and the Holocaust

Both Stargardt and Kershaw discuss Hitler’s leadership style. Each specifically discusses Hitler’s leadership as it relates to the extermination of the Jewish population in Germany, or the Final Solution. Kershaw discusses Hitler’s leadership style as a bottom-up approach. Stargardt similarly argues that Hitler relied on local leaders to implement his policies.

It is commonly known that Hitler had his inner-circle of advisors whom he relied on for advice and implementation. However, both articles brought up the racial issue that was central to Hitler’s regime. To orchestrate something as large as the Holocaust, mass organization was necessary.

Stargardt has a section of his article titled “The Racial Paradigm” in which he addressed the complexity of race during the Holocaust. He argued that although political decisions were made within the inner-circle, the majority of participation came from middle class lobbyists. Stargardt’s claim is logical, as mass participation had to occur in order for society’s perception to change.

This brings up the subject of societal consciousness. Although there was mass participation, was society aware of the bottom-up format of government, or were they still under the impression that this was solely Hitler’s doing?


Conflict of Perceptions: Intentionalists vs. Structuralists

In Nicholas Stargardt’s “The Holocaust” and Ian Kershaw’s “Hitler and the Holocaust”, many different interpretations as to the relationship between Hitler’s personal agenda and the “Final Solution” are presented. The two prevailing modes of thought in regards to Hitler’s influence in the mass extermination of the Jews within these texts are the “intentionalist” perspective and the “structuralist” perspective.

The “intentionalist” thinkers seek to place Hitler as the main fountain from which the anti-Semitic actions of the Nazi regime spilled forth. Intentionalism, also known as “Hitlerism”, assumes that Hitler had always desired and intended the annihilation of the Jews, and that the major policies of the Nazis in regards to the Jewish population was a result of his own aspirations. Structuralists, on the other hand, believe that there was a greater context than just Hitler’s own misgivings about the Jews that led to the eventual implementation of the Final Solution. They claim that it was the “improvised shaping” of Nazi policies towards Jews that led to the ultimate order for their extermination. ((Kershaw, Ian. “Hitler and the Holocaust” in Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, 239.))

There is evidence for both interpretations; Hitler clearly despised Jews, which intentionalists use as support for the idea that individual autonomy can influence the course of history dramatically. On the other hand, historian Hans Mommsen pointed out that Hitler also despised decision making (though in my opinion, this could be used to detach him from all policies of the German state he was not explicitly involved in) and that the Nazi policy towards Jews went through multiple stages and considered several options before arriving at their Final Solution.

There is also a compromise between these two interpretations of history: that the plan to kill the Jews came from Hitler, but only after a long deliberation and this was not his original intent. ((Kershaw, “Hitler and the Holocaust”, 244-5)) This interpretation leans towards the intentionalist approach, however, as it directly involves Hitler whereas structuralists seek to incriminate a much large German participating audience.

A common falsity pointed out in “Hitler and the Holocaust” is that because Hitler made clear his desire for the eradication of the Jews, and because such an episode eventually occurred, many historians draw the conclusion that “Hitler’s expressed ‘intention’ must have caused the destruction”. ((Kershaw, “Hitler and the Holocaust”, 246)) Besides being an egregious oversimplification of the contingency of the Final Solution in a wider historical context, it also ignores vast amounts of evidence that the Nazi government was primarily responding to public demands with their increasingly hostile policies towards the Jews; to say that Hitler was the sole cause of their destruction is to cast away notable events such as the implementation of the Nuremberg Laws and the incorporation of Poland’s three million Jews at a time when the Nazis were attempting to rid the country of them. ((Kershaw, “Hitler and the Holocaust”, 252))

There is also a great deal of research supporting the intentionalist approach. According to Stargardt, Hitler and the Nazis “created an atmosphere in which this was discussable”. ((Stargardt, Nicholas. “The Holocaust” in German History Since 1800London: Arnold, 1997, 349)) However, the evidence presented in this text supports only Hitler’s hatred of Jews and his intent to remove them- not the contingency of the Holocaust on Hitler’s plans.

A particularly striking delineation I found was the attribution of a “traditional notion” of totalitarianism to intentionalists; that society bends to the will of its dictator. This is contrasted with the structuralist concept of the state bowing to the people. This contrast illuminates some of the deeper differences between the two schools of thought. As for myself, the structuralist approach seems to make more sense, as it takes into account the broader implications of the day.


Holocaust as an Outcome of Modernity

Bauman’s introduction to Modernity and the Holocaust raises questions pertaining the Holocaust and its relationship with modern civilization.  While there are many historical and theological arguments attached to the questions raised, there are minimal accounts of sociological arguments.

If looking though through a historical/theological lens, one can find how modernity contributed to the Holocaust.  While human beings would like to think only about the positive outcomes of modernity, we must think of the negative outcomes that resulted in such a change in society.  While there is not a specific beginning of modern society, I believe in the later 19th century when individuals moved to urban cities due to industrialization, the shift in society changed to a more modern view.  Life shifted away from religion and more towards consumerism and urban ideals.  With modernity taking over, industrialization began to sweep Europe.

Relating the shift of modernity to the Holocaust, Nachama Tec, John R. Roth, and Henry Feingold try to explain how modernity could have influenced the Holocaust.  A journalist from Le Monde interviewed hijacked victims who experienced divorce after their horrific experiences.  As a result, the victims were able to notice negative characteristics of their spouses that were not as obvious as before the hijacking occur.  This proves that there are hidden abnormal traits amongst all people that are most likely never to be identified by people due to the desire to only view what is the norm.  In relation to the Holocaust, while modernity is viewed as a positive shift, somehow the hidden abnormal traits were exposed, which resulted in the Holocaust.  Bauman states, “we suspect (even if we refuse to admit it) that the Holocaust could merely have uncovered another face of the same modern society whose other, more familiar, face we so admire.  And that the two faces are perfectly comfortably attached to the same body.  What we perhaps fear most, is that each of the two faces can no more exist without the other than can the two sides of a coin” (7).

Further explaining how the Holocaust resulted from the shift towards modern civilization, Feingold states, “Auschwitz was also a mundane extension of the modern factory system.  Rather than producing goods, the raw material was human beings and the end product was death, so many units per day marked carefully on the manager’s production charts” (8). As expressed by Feingold, the Holocaust produced all evidence from the modern shift, it was just the inhumane choice to destroy human beings instead of producing materialistic goods.

The Dormancy of “Aberration”

In the first chapter of Zygmunt Bauman’s “Modernity and the Holocaust”, multiple perspectives are provided regarding the relationship between modernity and the Holocaust. Bauman begins by refuting the concept of the Holocaust- or any major sociological development, for that matter- as a singular “event” that can be scrutinized in terms of the multitude of historical elements that contributed to its development. Rather, he projects the idea that unless we revise our sociological perspective on the past, we will never see it as anything but “a unique but fully determined product of a particular concatenation of social and psychological factors” (4). Though such phrasing might be a bit gratuitous, Bauman raises an interesting point here: pointing to the research of Nechama Tec, he imprints upon the reader that rather than examining the Holocaust as an “aberration” of human behavior, it must be viewed as a sort of “sleeping menace”- that the kind of moral extremism exhibited on both sides does not arise as a result of human development, but rather exists alongside the norm, and only surfaces when conditions permit (7). Bauman argues that we mustn’t examine the Holocaust through a sociological perspective, but rather see the Holocaust as a revelation of what society is capable of given the culmination of “efficiency…technology…[and] subordinate thought and action to the pragmatics of economy” (13). This inductive approach forces us to reevaluate sociological perspectives on a sweeping scale, which is Bauman’s major point, but his conclusion- that the Holocaust occurred as a result of modernity, advancement, and the conditions that they brought on- is flawed. While this assertion holds a basis in valid reasoning, Bauman merely takes steps in the right direction. The point he seems to miss, however, is ironically his own- that the correlation between the development of industrial and unethical means and the occurrence of genocide are not directly related. It becomes clear, however, when applying Tec’s disputation of the “social determinants” of morality that the Holocaust was not a result of the times, but more accurately a simultaneous development that fostered in an era of efficiency and modernity (5).

Understanding Bauman’s “Civilized Nazis” Theory in the Context of Modernity

In the introduction to his most famous work, Modernity and the Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman argues from a sociological perspective that the genocide of non-Aryans by the Nazis in an effort of ethical cleansing can only be strictly understood in the context of a modern and civilized society. His view is quite radical, especially to those raised in the West who have been ingrained with the ideology that developed cultures exclude those that practice all forms of brutal savagery, particularly a Holocaust. Bauman throws away this traditional theory. He also rejects the thesis that the Holocaust was the work of madmen or explainable through European anti-semitic tendencies as extremely simplified and therefore non-considerable.

On the other hand, Bauman asserts his own powerfully convincing thesis — That the true potential of a modern, civilized society is actually exemplified through the Holocaust and is representative of the cruel reality that humans are capable of creating. He cautions that if not prevented, it is in the realm of possibility that either current or future societies are adapted to committing genocide on perhaps an even larger scale than what was witnessed in the dark period of the early 1940s. Further, he makes clear that this genocide was not committed by a group of anomic barbarians, but a so-called moralized and democratic society that not only allowed the creation of death camps but was complicit and vital to their functioning. Through implementing the production capabilities of the industrialized factory system, coordinated with the efficiently organized chain of command facilitated through bureaucracy, the Third Reich applied the advanced technological and business models available in the 20th century to a sophisticated killing machine, the concentration camps. To Bauman, the success of the Nazi’s mass murder scheme was rooted in its ‘correct use’ of bureaucracy. It was essential that the German administration utilized this formalized system of procedure to have efficiently achieved their government goals by synthesizing (1) the civil service composed of ‘normal’ citizens, (2) brute military force, (3) an industrialized mode of production, and finally (4) a single political party that provided an overall idealistic sense of a united nation. (13-14 Bauman) In the Third Reich, tied to the sense of a united nation was a united German Volk, of only the purest Germanic blood. Hitler’s functional objective of a judenfrei Germany was not originally presented in the terms of ridding the world of all Jewry through mass murder. His sinister dream of a ‘racially pure’ Aryan nation began in active forced deportation of minority groups to surrounding European nations. But as the war continued and the National Socialists political-military prowess and territory swelled, Germany quickly was responsible for more Jews than they knew what to do with or had any desire to humanely deal with.

As Bauman explains, The Final Solution was enacted and rationalized in a civilized nation through a tri-fold effect that would only have been possible in a modernized state. First, the SS hierarchy always shifted duty for otherwise immoral acts to a superior in command. Second, killing was always performed when capable at a physical distance with the aid of technology and never with zealous motivation, only professional efficiency due to the Fuhrer and Vaterland. In this way, responsibility for mass murder was diverted (in the minds of the killers) by the flick of an electrical switch and the psychological intention of murder was detached from the physical act of murder. Gas chambers were used purposefully; a chemical and technological barrier between the victim and the killer was intentionally in place. Shooting was discouraged and by the time the Einsatzgruppen mobilized, executioners who were overzealous about the concept of carrying out the firing squad were removed from that station. Finally, the Nazis systematically removed anything close to resembling humanity and humanness from their victims through removal of all basic rights, starvation, torture, and forced slave labor. In this way, the ‘invisibility’ of the Muselmanner (walking corpses) was complete. The murder of millions under the Third Reich regime was possible because each dead body was not considered as a corpse; it was just another final, capitalized product of the factory-line system.

In Bauman’s summarizing words, “It [the Holocaust] was a legitimate resident in the house of modernity; indeed, one who would not be at home in any other house.” (Bauman 17) He emphatically rejects the notion of the German Final Solution as an irrational aberration from traditional civilized tendencies. In fact, he presents civilization not a force that has overcome barbarism, but one that actually supports natural violent tendencies towards ethnic minorities. He continues to explain his meaning of civilization, which in his words has dual, co-existing potentialities for extreme good as well as extreme evil. In Bauman’s sociological viewpoint, the humanity that put the man on the moon and co-orchestrated the Olympics is the same humanity that allowed the death camps of the Third Reich to murder 6 million Jews and 5 million other civilians, all in the heart of Western Europe only 70 years ago. He quotes Rubenstein to what he concludes as the ultimate lesson of the Holocaust, “Both creation and destruction are inseparable aspects of what we call civilization.” (Bauman 9) In conclusion, Bauman explores the devastation of the Holocaust as strictly a rationally explained historical incident explicitly to be considered in the framework of highly bureaucratic and highly industrialized nations, both of which are only possible in a modernized civilization.

The Holocaust: A product of modern society?

Is the Holocaust a failure or product of modern society?  Bauman in the first chapter of his book Modernity and the Holocaust argued the Holocaust represented the darker possibilities of modern civilized life.  Using the bureaucracy and social engineering utilized by the Nazis to create a judenfrei Europe as evidence to support his claims, Bauman stipulated that the Holocaust existed as an extension of modern civilization. This thesis contradicts a mainstream theory of sociology, i.e. the prevailing notion that the Holocaust was a failure, not a product, of modern society.  However, the bureaucracy, industrial complex pattern, and, rational efficiency all utilized by the Nazi’s to exterminate the Jewish people relate to Weber’s characteristics of modern society.  All of these characteristics differentiate the Holocaust and put it in a unique place as the first example of modern genocide.  In essence, Bauman argued that Nazi’s followed the precursor’s of all the traits encouraged in modern society to their rational, if not moral, conclusion.

In support of his overall thesis that the Holocaust was a product of modernity , Bauman pointed out the path of the Nazi plans to remove Jews from their territory.  By presenting the gas chambers and concentration camps as the logical conclusion to what might have been a costly relocation project, the extermination of millions of people became a rational, cost cutting plan to realize Hitler’sThird Reich.  By dehumanizing the Jewish people and making them another quirk in the system to be solved as efficiently as possible, the involvement of normal German citizens becomes comprehensible.  The people outlining the plans for the gas chambers could remain distant and claim to be merely following orders, similar to the SS officers responsible for mobile killing.  Everyone was just listening to their superior, and therefore not responsible for the greater outcome, similar to the necessity of a well-oiled cog in a factory machine.

The common notion that civilization has somehow advanced beyond the barbarism and savagery of the past becomes a falsity if Bauman remains correct.  Moreover, the factors of the Holocaust remain a normal part of the makeup of modern society.   Reason and logic failed to eliminate violence, instead they merely amplified and  facilitated the ability of humanity to exterminate an undesirable, regardless of any moral quandary.


Modernity: Crop Tops or Mindless Bureaucracy?

In Bauman’s article, Modernity and the Holocaust, it is questioned whether the Holocaust was a social phenomena or the culmination of European antisemitism. Genocide is a ‘normal’ aspect of human civilization, one group reaches a point where it believes it is necessary to eliminate the other. Often this is carried out by senseless violence and bloodshed, Rwanda for example. It is a logical conclusion that the Holocaust occurred due to ethnic and religious hatred, yet, the murder of millions of Jews was carried out by a systematic, and well-oiled machine, the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is something that has exploded in modern life, and with it came the Holocaust. As Bauman states, “whatever moral instinct is to be found in human conduct is socially produced. It dissolves once society malfunctions” (Bauman 4). In the case of Nazi Germany, the people were willing to give up many freedoms and power to achieve normality in their lives given the turbulence following WWI. The Jews were a common scapegoat. The leaders of Germany made it morally acceptable to its soldiers and citizens to commit the Holocaust by making violence authorized, routine, and dehumanizing the victims. Given this, the everyday man could have a hand in a mass murder. Only 10% or so of SS men were sadistic or considered madmen, most were normal men, the accountant down the street, the salesman, the father of four. Men no longer felt responsible for their actions when they were following orders, the man who gave the order to kill did not pull the trigger and did not feel responsible, he merely signed a piece of paper. The man who did pull the trigger felt no responsibility as the actions were not his own, he was merely following orders, being a good soldier.

The Holocaust could not have occurred without the chain of bureaucracy, which is a development of modernity. The Holocaust was a failure of modernity, the bureaucratic system was corrupted, used for unthinkable cruelty, yet was utilized to its utmost potential. The Holocaust is a product of the modern world, no longer is it necessary to run through a village brandishing torches and pitchforks to remove undesirables, you merely have to file the proper paper work to send millions to their graves. This is the triumph of the modern world.