Tuesday, January 22, 2008

No, They Weren’t Animals

A distraught mother, being shoved onto a train to the death camp Treblinka, leaves her baby on the ground, hoping a stranger will save her. Franciszek Zabeki, a Polish railway worker, describes what happened next:

“In no time, an SS man ran up…seized the child by its feet, and smashed its head against a wheel of the wagon. This took place in full view of the mother, who was howling with pain.”

How do you describe someone who takes joy in splitting open the heads of babies? The horrific actions of the Nazis defy comprehension. It would seem natural to call the inhumane perpetrators of these killings “animals”. But it would also be wrong.

By calling the Nazis animals, we’re actually letting them off the hook. Animals are instinctive beings without free will. Animals are unable to choose between right and wrong, and cannot be held responsible for their actions. While the brutal murderers of the death camps were inhumane, they were still as human as you and I. Unlike animals, the Nazis could have chosen otherwise, because they had free will.

Free will is an intimidating idea. The 12th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides sharply opposed astrology, (a respectable discipline at the time) because he understood that the belief in astrology negated free will. A future that is already decided devalues personal initiative. In actuality, this subversion of responsibility is precisely what makes astrology attractive; with the right lucky stars, there’s no need to worry about hard work and difficult choices. That is why multitudes of people, from ancient times until today, continue to follow the zodiac, sure it will predict the course of their day. It’s much easier to suppose that our destinies are in the stars than to accept the responsibility placed into our own hands.

Responsibility is an annoying burden. We’d prefer to imagine that our failures have been forced upon us against our will. In the 12th century, a person could blame the stars for his faults. And, as science has progressed, so has our ability to craft ever more sophisticated excuses for our own failings. Criminals have already claimed diminished capacity due to the psychotropic effects of eating Twinkies or MSG. In a short while, DNA tests and CAT scans will be used to “prove” that criminals were compelled to act the way they did.

No doubt, a clever defense attorney could have crafted similar arguments for the Nazis, explaining that really they were helpless animals who killed because they had no choice. But the Nazis were not animals, and we have the pictures to prove it.

A photo album assembled by Karl Hocker, the chief assistant to the Commandant of Auschwitz, catalogued the lives of the S.S. officers stationed there. Hocker’s pictures capture the Nazi’s gentler side. Here, they kick back at a country resort, where they socialize with the female auxiliary of the SS, conduct sing alongs, and sun themselves on the porch. Of course, in a moment of holiday spirituality, they painstakingly decorate the Christmas tree.

What struck me about these photos was their utter banality. Here are jovial, good spirited people enjoying life, eating blueberries and drinking schapps. While viewing photographs of Hocker playing with his dog, I felt a twinge of empathy for him; he didn’t very seem different from me at all. Of course, if a time machine had dropped me into that very same photograph, Hocker wouldn’t have hesitated to shoot me dead. This regular, dog loving guy was a genocidal murderer.

Yes, the Nazis were regular people like you and I. They cried at funerals, loved music, and laughed at jokes. They were not animals at all. Yet despite being normal human beings, they made horrific choices. These average Joes chose to be genocidal murderers.

The idea that all of us stand one bad choice away from being as evil as the Nazis is a sobering thought. But the burden of personal responsibility means that we have to be ever vigilant in our pursuit of virtue, and remember that we can’t blame our mistakes on the stars, or on the Twinkies.

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