Foundations of Holocaust: Eichmann, Bureaucracy and the depersonalization of annihilation
“The Nazis' mass murder of the European Jews was not only the technological achievement of an industrial society, but also the organizational achievement of a bureaucratic society.”
Introduction: According to Zygmunt Bauman, the Holocaust was “the culmination point of European-Christian antisemitism.” Which is true so far as it goes. But what made the Holocaust possible, that which represents an even greater threat into the future, was not just the secular inheritance of 2,000 years of Jewish persecution providing the ideology, stereotypes and precedent justifying persecution: what made a final solution to the Jewish Problem possible was the convergence of two more recent developments. The Industrial Revolution provided the machinery for large-scale murder, streamlined by the industrial assembly line. The second was modern bureaucracy rationalizing the process of extermination, depersonalizing the victims: transforming Jews into objects/data to feed that assembly line of murder.
Hollerith card puncher used by the United States Census Bureau (Wikipedia)
What could better represent the pinnacle of bureaucratic management than the information loop between computer and person? All pertinent information regarding an individual with even a single Jewish grandparent could be easily stored on a single IBM punch card, a unique card that would follow the victim from home address in 1933 to death camp in 1943. IBM’s decades of experience in computing, collating and analysis; experience in handling census work in the United States, made it the ideal instrument for realizing Germany’s Final Solution. If IBM did not physically fire the rifle or drop the Zyklon pellets into the gas chamber, yet is it safe to say that even the most dedicated and professional collection of German bureaucrats could never, without IBM, have come close to locating their six million Jewish victims.
Regarding the German bureaucracy, when National Socialism entered government the decision was made to not install a “Nazi-dedicated” system but to retain the Weimar personnel and management, itself inherited from the Bismarck era. Bureaucracy is malleable, adaptive to tasks consistent with its history and culture. And nothing in that history was inconsistent with antisemitism and German’s Final Solution.
“The frictionless operation
of the machinery of destruction required that the victims be dehumanized in the eyes of the perpetrators. This was achieved… by a bureaucratic mode of operation, in which depersonalized and dispassionate behavior unprejudiced by human emotions was a fundamental and positive value of the civil service.'
Reduce human life to a computer code, “children” this series of holes on a punch card, “women” that series, “slave laborers” another; it is all so routine, and impersonal:
“[C]hildren… were infected with a hepatitis virus.
Their livers were later biopsied, without the use of anesthetic to see how the disease progressed. While female prisoners were brought in for use as sex slaves, while prisoners marched endlessly, and often to their deaths, on the shoe-testing track, and while the ovens burned furiously, the bureaucrats came to work each day to shuffle papers and organize further torments. Meanwhile, in the surrounding houses, the local suburbanites went about their daily lives, much as they do today.”
Hitler’s bureaucrats differ little from almost any governmental employee we encounter anywhere today. Their job is anonymously and expeditiously to process instructions from above according to a culture of well-established rules and procedures. Whether a driver’s license request, an IRS audit or a drone-strike on a far-away person: all are carried out with little question regarding importance or, for that matter, morality.
" could shuffle papers, set rations, draft telegrams, schedule trains, and dispatch personnel, resulting in the deaths of millions, without once seeing their victims or perceiving themselves as involved in the taking of human lives... It also revealed the potential for depersonalized violence inherent in modern, bureaucratically organized society.”
Reduce the task to small and discrete units and bureaucrats involved are ”insulated” from the result of their contribution and, as with Eichmann, remain distanced, at least to the degree they are capable of convincing themselves, from “responsibility,” and guilt.
Nor was National Socialist Germany the only example of bureaucracy, particularly in service to “science,” a morality-free instrument of torture and death. At about the same time German scientists were using their “unfit” for unethical experimentation (the “twins studies began long before Mengele and Auschwitz) so also were such experiments being conducted in the United States. In 1932 the US Public Health Service began recruited 600 black sharecroppers under the guise that they would be treated for syphilis. In fact the perpetrators (scientists) were interested in observing the course the disease took leading to the deaths of its “subjects.” Called, The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male
“Even when penicillin became the drug of choice for syphilis in 1947 [fifteen years into the study], researchers did not offer it to the “subjects”… [they were never] given the choice of quitting the study, even when this new, highly effective treatment became widely used.”
The study lasted far longer than the Third Reich, ending only in 1972 when a whistleblower went public.
When “people” become “numbers” any atrocity is possible.
Bureaucracy and anti-Jewish legislation:
“[T]he first major anti-Jewish legislation of the Third Reich, the Law for the Restoration of the Civil Service
, enacted in April, 1933, was not forced upon a reluctant Interior Ministry by the triumphant Nazis but represented a convergence of their interests. This law, with its "Aryan paragraph" excluding Jews from the civil service became the model for a continuing flow of legislation restricting Jewish participation in other professions and organizations.”
A bureaucracy is a social collective with memory. Once an assigned task is learned it is integrated into, streamlines future applications. In 1933 the bureaucracy enacted legislation that first deprived the Jews of protection under the law (civic death). In 1935 the Nuremburg Laws forbade intercourse between Jews and Aryans (social death). In 1938 the Reich confiscated Jewish businesses (economic death). And finally, the 1942 Wannsee Conference codified rules and tasks for the agencies of the governmental bureaucracy for the Final Solution of the Jewish Problem (physical death).
“The German bureaucracy adapted to the evolution of Nazi Jewish policy from legislative discrimination and expropriation to deportation and extermination. In fact, the bureaucracy proved itself capable not only of ‘systematic legal opposition’ but also of mass murder… ‘The Nazis' mass murder of the European Jews was not only the technological achievement of an industrial society, but also the organizational achievement of a bureaucratic society.” (Christopher Browning, The German Bureaucracy and the Holocaust
Bureaucracy is the machinery by which the state gets work done. It is also a state of mind. And Eichmann is an outstanding exqample of the “bureaucrat.”
Adolf Eichmann's Red Cross–issued passport facilitating his escape, (Wikipedia)
Captured in 1960 in Argentina, brought to Israel for trial for Crimes Against the Jewish People, Eichmann’s 1961 mea culpa (he never denied guilt, only responsibility) was based on his relatively low position within the bureaucracy of the Final Solution. Whatever its desired legal merits, not even he believed it the argument as evidenced by his interview to a journalist in Argentina some time before Israel’s Mossad took him into custody:
“I was no ordinary recipient of orders
. If I had been one, I would have been a fool. Instead, I was part of the thought process [italics added]. I was an idealist … We didn't do our work correctly,” he said. “There was more that could have been done.”
And this is an important issue, that Eichmann may psychologically insulate against the consequences of his participation, yet is he aware of those consequences. In fact, the degree to which he apparently relished his role in the Final Solution is reflected in Deborah Lipstadt’s description of Eichmann “following orders”:
“There would be times
when he would get a communiqué from the German Foreign Ministry saying the Italians have contacted them and there's a Jew in Vilna, or a Jew someplace else in a ghetto who's married to an Italian Catholic ... and Eichmann would quickly rush to get the man deported, sent to Auschwitz or hidden away so that he couldn't be turned over to the Foreign Ministry and maybe escape. He went after every individual Jew he could find.”
The “banality” of evil: By all accounts Adolph Eichmann was indistinguishable from any middle management bureaucrat stepping onto New York City subway, suit and tie, briefcase in hand:
“During the fifteen years
between the end of World War II and his kidnapping in Argentina by Israeli agents, Eichmann lived a simple and quiet life with his loving family, going to work every day as people do throughout the world. His normality was unanimously confirmed by the half-dozen psychiatrists who studied him in prison during the year he awaited his trial and by the minister who regularly visited him. Arendt subtitled her book A Report on the Banality of Evil precisely because Adolf Eichmann was psychologically indistinguishable from people who populate countries throughout the world.
Pre-arrest boasts notwithstanding, throughout his Jerusalem trial Eichmann’s testimony represents an ordinary and God-fearing bureaucrat innocently caught up in events above his pay scale:
“Hitler became the head of government
… After the first quick victories in the war that was forced upon Germany [sic]… the State leadership of that time, carried away by these victories on the presumption of a supposed invincibility, went awry… went on to a stupid senseless, unrestricted measures brought about a tragedy which nobody could have foreseen, including me; for that my rank was too low, and my position too insignificant…[italics added]”
Eichmann eagerly pursed his assigned task, became the Reich’s “expert” on Jew and Judaism. His enthusiasm above and beyond that demanded by his assignment extended to learning Hebrew, to studying Zionism:
“My desire at that time was a thing which was ridiculed… and distrusted. [I]t was something entirely unusual that a member of the SS suddenly decides that he wants to learn Hebrew.”
Apparently his request was turned down in part due to the three marks the rabbi asked to provide instruction.
“[It] would have been best had I proposed that a rabbi be arrested so that he could give me instruction from the prison. But I had not thought of this.”
Eichmann in Jerusalem court, 1961, (Wikipedia)
Eichmann’s guilt was never in doubt: his public record was inescapable, regardless how he rationalized it. More than anything Eichmann faced Justice in Jerusalem as catharsis, limited to be sure, for the survivors; an opportunity also to educate a world still somehow viewing the Holocaust as a side issue, rather than a prominent war aim of Germany. Before 1961 there was not even a term for Final Solution, for the War against the Jews. The introduction of the terms, the Shoah and the Holocaust were an important outcome of the Eichmann trial.
Obviously I have not set out to discuss the trial itself, only to put a face to the bureaucracy that made the Final Solution work; to all too briefly demonstrate how bureaucracy serves as mechanism of denial, insulation against responsibility and guilt.
A complete transcript of the Eichmann trial is available to anyone interested at several websites. Nizkor is the site I reference.
As we move forward in our discussion
of Antisemitism and Jewish Survival
it is important to remember the implications of those two modern contributors to the Holocaust: twentieth century industrial technology finally made an efficient mass murder campaign feasible; while data collection, collation and analysis assisted by even a primitive computer made possible the identification of each designated victim.
Jews on selection ramp, Auschwitz (Wikipedia)
Today, seventy years after the ovens of Auschwitz have cooled, punch card tabulating and gas chamber are primitive relics of the past. Supercomputers store every persons daily activities, provide a history from birth to death: credit card transaction track our every purchase, describe our tastes, reveal our locations. IRS, internet use; even the public library all feed the maw, those supercomputers. How much more efficient and complete a Holocaust of the future?
A book not cited above,
but I suspect will play a significant part in discussion of bureaucracy when I bring all this together in book form is, Architects of Annihilation: Auschwitz and the Logic of Destruction
. I began reading the book several years ago and found its discussion of the “architects,” often non-political intellectuals attracted by the freedom to create placed themselves at the service of the Nazis and the Final Solution. As described on Amazon:
“Two of Germany's most provocative investigative historians examine the frightening role of young educated careerists in building the Holocaust's ideological and material infrastructure.”
Chilling, and a warning to all who insist that good and intelligent people could not possibly lend themselves to such as the Holocaust, past or future.
Recent writings in this Series:
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