The Image of Hell
The Black Book: The Nazi Crime Against The Jewish People.
by the World Jewish Congress, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, the Vaad Leumi, and the American Committee of Jewish Writers, Artists and Scientists.
New York, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1946. 560 pp. $5.00.
by Max Weinreich.
New York, Yiddish Scientific Institute, 1946. 291 pp. $2.50.
As the formal accusers of the German people before the bar of the civilized world, it may be properly demanded of the Jews that they prepare . . . a bill of indictment. It is easily done. . . . The blood of Hitler’s victims cries from the ground. The purpose of our bill is to make the cry articulate.
But if the authors of The Black Book thought the story of the last decade an easy one to tell, they are sadly mistaken. The awkwardness of their book, for all its good intentions, is sufficient proof of that. It is not, however, simply a matter of technical skill. True, the material could have been better organized, the style less journalistic, and the sources selected more scientifically. But such and other improvements would have made even more obvious the discrepancy between the facts themselves and any possible use of them for political purposes. The Black Book fails because its authors, submerged in a chaos of details, were unable to understand or make clear the nature of the facts confronting them.
The facts are: that six million Jews, six million human beings, were helplessly, and in most cases unsuspectingly, dragged to their deaths. The method employed was that of accumulated terror. First came calculated neglect, deprivation, and shame, when the weak in body died together with those strong and defiant enough to take their own lives. Secondly came outright starvation, combined with forced labor, when people died by the thousands but at different intervals of time, according to their stamina. Last came the death factories—and they all died together, the young and the old, the weak and the strong, the sick and the healthy; not as people, not as men and women, children and adults, boys and girls, not as good and bad, beautiful and ugly—but brought down to the lowest common denominator of organic life itself, plunged into the darkest and deepest abyss of primal equality, like cattle, like matter, like things that had neither body nor soul, nor even a physiognomy upon which death could stamp its seal.
It is in this monstrous equality without fraternity or humanity—an equality in which cats and dogs could have shared—that we see, as though mirrored, the image of hell.
Beyond the capacities of human comprehension is the deformed wickedness of those who established such equality. But equally deformed and beyond the reach of human justice is the innocence of those who died in this equality. The gas chamber was more than anybody could have possibly deserved, and in the face of it the worst criminal was as innocent as the new-born babe. Nor is the monstrousness of this innocence made any easier to bear by such adages as “better to suffer ill than do ill.” What mattered was not so much that those whom an accident of birth condemned to death obeyed and functioned to the last moment as frictionlessly as those whom an accident of birth condemned to life (this is so well known, there is no use hiding it). Even beyond that was the fact that innocence and guilt were no longer products of human behavior; that no possible human crime could have fitted this punishment, no conceivable sin, this hell in which saint and sinner were equally degraded to the status of possible corpses. Once inside the death factories, everything became an accident completely beyond control of those who did the suffering and those who inflicted it. And in more than one case, those who inflicted the suffering one day became the sufferers the next.
Human history has known no story more difficult to tell. The monstrous equality in innocence that is its inevitable leitmotif destroys the very basis on which history is produced—which is, namely, our capacity to comprehend an event no matter how distant we are from it.
The spell is broken only when we come to the story of Jewish resistance and the Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto. The Black Book, however, deals with these events even more inadequately than with the others, devoting a mere nine poorly-written pages to the Ghetto battle—and without even mentioning Shlomo Mendelsohn’s masterful analysis of the event that appeared in the Menorah Journal of Spring, 1944. No conceivable chronicle of any kind could succeed in turning six million dead people into a political argument. The attempt of the Nazis to fabricate a wickedness beyond vice did nothing more than establish an innocence beyond virtue. Such innocence and such wickedness have no bearing on that reality where politics exists.
Yet Nazi policy, realized best in the phony world of propaganda, was well served by the fabrication. Had the Nazis been content merely to draw up a bill of indictment against the Jews and propagandize the notion that there are subhuman and superhuman peoples, they would hardly have succeeded in convincing common sense that the Jews were subhuman. Lying was not enough. In order to be believed, the Nazis had to fabricate reality itself and make Jews look subhuman. So that even today, when faced by the atrocity films, common sense will say: “But don’t they look like criminals?” Or, if incapable of grasping an innocence beyond virtue and vice, people will say: “What terrible things these Jews must have done to have the Germans do this to them!”
In drawing up a bill of indictment on the part of the absolutely innocent Jewish people against the absolutely guilty German people, the authors of The Black Book overlook the fact that they lack the power to make the whole German nation look as guilty as the Nazis made Jews look—and God forbid that anyone should ever again have such power! For to establish and maintain such distinctions would mean installing hell permanently on earth. Without such power, without the means of fabricating a false reality according to a lying ideology, propaganda and publicity of the style embodied in this book can only succeed in making a true story sound unconvincing. And the account grows all the more unconvincing as the events themselves become more atrocious. Told as propaganda, the whole story not only fails to become a political argument—it does not even sound true.
Politically speaking, the death factories did constitute a “crime against humanity” committed on the bodies of the Jewish people; and had the Nazis not been crushed, the death factories would have swallowed up the bodies of quite a number of other peoples (as a matter of fact, Gypsies were exterminated along with Jews for more or less the same ideological reasons). The Jewish people is indeed entitled to draw up this bill of indictment against the Germans, but provided it does not forget that in this case it speaks for all the peoples of the earth. It is as necessary to punish the guilty as it is to remember that there is no punishment that could fit their crimes. For Goering the death penalty is almost a joke, and he, like all his fellow-defendants at Nuremberg, knows that we can do no more than make him die but a little earlier than he would have done anyhow.
From innocence beyond virtue and guilt beyond vice, from a hell where all Jews were of necessity angelic and all Germans of necessity diabolical, we must return to the reality of politics. The real story of the Nazi-constructed hell is desperately needed for the future. Not only because these facts have changed and poisoned the very air we breathe, not only because they now inhabit our dreams at night and permeate our thoughts during the day—but also because they have become the basic experience and the basic misery of our times. Only from this foundation, on which a new knowledge of man will rest, can our new insights, our new memories, our new deeds, take their point of departure. Those who one day may feel strong enough to tell the whole story will have to realize, however, that the story in itself can yield nothing but sorrow and despair—least of all, arguments for any specific political purpose.
Only a common subject matter justifies reviewing Max Weinreich’s book together with The Black Book. His book possesses all the qualities the other so glaringly lacks, and, in its implications and honest presentation of the facts, constitutes the best guide to the nature of Nazi terror that I have read so far.
Soberly written from an expert knowledge of the organizational set-up of the Nazi machine, its larger part deals with the steps by which the Nazis carried out their “scientifically” planned program. Many documents that the Yiddish Scientific Institute ingeniously acquired for its archives are reproduced and, in addition, correctly evaluated. However, the list of the German scholars who collaborated with Hitler is not complete; many more names, especially from the humanities, could have been added. But even in this case, the book provides a good trunk to which supplements and additions can be grafted. The same holds true for the short bibliographies in the index. In his—understandable—excitement about many hitherto unknown documents marked “top secret” and many newly discovered sources, Dr. Weinreich has failed to pay enough attention to more easily accessible books and sources.
This happens to be more than a technical question. Dr. Weinreich’s main thesis is that “German scholarship provided the ideas and techniques which led to and justified unparalleled slaughter.” This is a highly controversial statement. It is true that some outstanding scholars went out of their way and did more to aid the Nazis than the majority of German professors, who fell into line simply for the sake of their jobs. And quite a few of those outstanding scholars did their utmost to supply the Nazis with ideas and techniques: prominent among them were the jurist Carl Schmitt, the theologian Gerhard Kittel, the sociologist Hans Freyer, the historian Walter Frank (former director of the Reich Institute for Research into the Jewish Question, in Munich), and the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger. These names are lost, however, amid the mass of material Dr. Weinreich’s book provides on lesser known scholars and scholars of bad reputation. Moreover, only a careful and complete bibliography of all these scholars’ pre-Hitler publications would have shown their real standing in the world of scholarship. (Conspicuous by their absence are Walter Frank’s books on the Stoecker movement and on the Third Republic, both of which already showed a strong anti-Semitic bias before Hitler.)
It is also true, and Dr. Weinreich is right to insist thereon, that Hitler showed one of his crucial insights into the nature of modern propaganda when he asked for “scientific” arguments and refused to use the standard crack-pot ones of traditional anti-Semitic propaganda. The reason for this surprising inclination of his for “scientificality” is simple and can be explained by the same example Hitler himself uses in Mein Kampf. He begins by stating that the advertiser of a new brand of soap would be doing a bad job if he admitted that there were other good soaps on the market. It is obvious, as every businessman knows, that the usual claim, “My soap is better than any other soap in the world,” can be greatly improved by adding a little threat like: “If you don’t use my soap you’ll get pimples instead of a husband.” And what you do, as long as you can’t deprive all the girls who don’t use your soap of husbands, is back up your claim “scientifically.” But once you succeed in acquiring the power and put all girls with the wrong kind of soap beyond the reach of boys or, even better, monopolize soap-fabrication, “science” is no longer necessary.
So while it is perfectly true that quite a few respectable German professors volunteered their services to the Nazis, it is equally true—which was rather a shock to these gentlemen themselves—that the Nazis did not use their “ideas.” The Nazis had their own ideas—what they needed were techniques and technicians with no ideas at all or educated from the beginning in only Nazi ideas. The scholars first put to one side by the Nazis as of relatively little use to them were old-fashioned nationalists like Heidegger, whose enthusiasm for the Third Reich was only matched by his glaring ignorance of what’ he was talking about. After Heidegger had made Nazism respectable among the élite at the universities, Alfred Bumler, well-known as a charlatan in pre-Hitler times, stepped into his place and received all the honors. The last to fall into disgrace with the Nazis were people like Walter Frank who had been anti-Semites even before Hitler rose to power but nevertheless managed to cling to some remnants of scholarship. In the early 40’s Frank had to surrender his position to the notorious Alfred Rosenberg, whose Myth of the Twentieth Century had revealed no inclinations whatsoever toward “scholarship” on its author’s part. The point here is that the Nazis most likely mistrusted Frank precisely because he was not a charlatan.
The only science the Nazis appear to have actually trusted to some extent was racial “science,” which, as we know, has never yet gone beyond the stage of somewhat crude superstition. But even racial “scientists” had a rather hard time of it under the Nazis, being asked at first to prove the inferiority of all Semites, chiefly the Jews; then the high standing of all Semites, chiefly the Arabs (for the Jews as a “Mischrasse” did not belong to the Semites)—and then, finally, even having to abandon their pet notion of “Aryan” superiority for the sake of Japanese susceptibilities. More interesting, however, than all these “results of research” that changed according to political necessity, was the unchanging docility of the “scholars” concerned. And to finish the picture, there is the fantastic ease with which the victorious Allies were able to persuade top German scientists, who had held the key to important military inventions and worked with more or less devotion for the German war effort, to transfer the scene of their activities to the enemy’s country.
Dr. Weinreich’s book pays too great a compliment to these professors by taking them too seriously. Their shame is pettier than that and they were hardly ever guilty of having “ideas.” That not one of the first-rate German scholars ever attained to a position of influence is a fact, but this fact does not mean that they did not try to. And even so, the majority of them were soon taken aback more or less by the outspoken vulgarity of the representatives of the Nazi regime—not, however, by their crimes. If anybody wants a real glance at the physiognomy of the average German professor under Hitler he should read the candid confession of Gerhard Ritter, professor of history at Freiburg, in the April, 1946 Review of Politics. This anti-Nazi professor kept his real opinions so secret and had so little knowledge of what was going on that he could feel that “the machinery of the Hitler Reich . . . did not function well.” And he was so involved in the “deeper life of the intellect,” so busy preventing “the inevitable damage from becoming too great,” and so convinced of his chances to “publish . . . independent views on historico-political questions“—although “there were certain impassable limits to [his] freedom as teacher“—that the Gestapo, to his own great surprise, decided to use him for propaganda abroad. . . .
One of the most horrible aspects of contemporary terror is that, no matter what its motives or ultimate aims, it invariably appears in the clothes of an inevitable logical conclusion made on the basis of some ideology or theory. To a far lesser degree this phenomenon was already to be seen in connection with the liquidation of the anti-Stalinists in Russia—which Stalin himself predicted and justified in 1930. He argued at that time that, since parties are nothing but the expression of class interests, factions inside the Communist party could not possibly be anything else than the expression of the interests of “dying classes” in the Soviet Union or of the bourgeoisie abroad. The obvious conclusion was that one had to deal with these factions as one would with a hostile class or with traitors. The trouble is, of course, that nobody except Stalin knows what the “true interests of the proletariat” are. Yet there is available an infallible doctrine on the course of history and the origin of human opinions that makes it possible for anyone not feeble-minded to obtain this knowledge—so why not Stalin? Besides, he holds the power. The expression, “dying classes,” makes the argument even more convincing because it is attuned to historical progress—in accordance with whose laws man does only what would happen anyhow. The point at issue is not as to whether this is still true Marxism—or true Leninism either—but the fact that terror should appear as a logical, matter-of-course conclusion from a pseudo-scientific hypothesis.
This “scientificality” is indeed the common feature of all the totalitarian regimes of our time. But it means nothing more than that purely man-made power—mainly destructive—is dressed in the clothes of some superior, superhuman sanction from which it derives its absolute, not-to-be-questioned force. The Nazi brand of this kind of power is more thorough and more horrible than the Marxist or pseudo-Marxist, because it assigns to nature the role Marxism assigns to history. While the basis and source of history is still man, the basis and source of nature seems to be nothing at all or consists only in nature’s own laws and functioning. The Nazi interpretation of these laws culminated in the tautology that the weak have an inclination to die and the strong an inclination to live. By killing the weak, we merely obey the orders of nature, which “sides with the strong, the good, and the victorious.” And Himmler would add: “You may call this cruel, but nature is cruel.” By killing the weak and the helpless, one proves by implication that one belongs to the strong. A rather important byproduct of this kind of reasoning is that it takes victory and defeat out of the hands of man and makes any opposition to the verdicts of reality hopeless by definition, since one no longer fights against man but against History or Nature—and thus to the reality of power itself is added a superstitious belief in the eternity of that power.
It was a general atmosphere of “scientificality” of this sort, coupled with efficient modem technique, that the Nazis needed for their death factories—but not science itself. Charlatans who sincerely believed the will of nature to be the will of God and felt themselves allied with superhuman and irresistible forces served Nazi purposes best—not real scholars, no matter how little courage real scholars may have shown and how great the attraction they may have felt towards Hitler.
But neither science, nor even “scientificality,” neither scholars nor charlatans, supplied the ideas and techniques that operated the death factories. The ideas came from politicians who took power-politics seriously, and the techniques came from modem mob-men who were not afraid of consistency.