Tomorrow marks 64 years since the Russian Army liberated the few survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
The view of the train tracks leading up to the red brick building that marked the entrance, the cynical sign on the iron gates with the words, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work Brings Freedom,” the gas chambers where Zyklon B was used to kill more than 1 million people, the chimnies that belched smoke from the crematoria, Dr. Josef Mengele making his selections and conducting experiments on human subjects are all images that have been seared into our collective consciousness.
My great-grandfather, Joseph Lowenstein, our family patriarch and the man for whom I am named, was one of the victims.
Since its liberation, Auschwitz has become a worldwide symbol of genocide, evil and hatred.
It also has been the subject of many books, art and film.
Psychologist Robert Jay Lifton wrote about the concept of ‘psyching doubling’ by which one creates a separate persona who commits unspeakable atrocities during the day and returns home as a loving father at night in The Nazi Doctors.
Italian chemist Primo Levi wrote about his struggle to make it through his time in the camp in Survival in Auschwitz, while Tadeusz Borowski made his experience there the subject of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Both men killed themselves.
Poets like Charlotte Delbo have written about the place that many consider the symbol of ultimate evil.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith for ever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live
as long as God Himself.
With such a rich collection of sources, it’s hard to imagine an additional work adding much to our undersanding, but I recently read German historian Hans Mommsen’s From Weimar to Auschwitz: Essays in German History, published in 1991, and felt that my knowledge and historical understanding expanded.
Mommsen’s collection of essays takes the reader from late 19th century German through the rise of the Nazis , their ascent to power, dismantling of the fledgling Weimar democracy and gradual move to genocide-a move that is most vividly embodied in Auschwitz.
For many, this is familiar territory, and Mommsen’s work is noteworthy in several regards. To begin, he begins earlier than many accounts, which start with the Treaty of Versailles, the punitive pact that wrapped up “The War to End All Wars,” later known as World War I.
From there, the analyses proceed in a chronological direction, with the hyper-inflation that peaked in November, 1923, Hitler’s beer hall putsch in Munich and subsequent nine-month incarceration, during which he dictated what became Mein Kampf, and the Nazi’s growth in popularity following the stock market crash of 1929 and ensuing Great Depression all playing significant parts.
Mommsen includes these elements, too, but in a much richer and textured description of the German social and political context than one might find in books like Paul Bookbinder’s Weimar Germany: Republic of the Reasonable.
In one chapter, Mommsen demonstrates convincingly the generational divide between the Social Democrats and the youth who eventually became a key Nazi constituency by showing the average of the Social Democratic leadership, for example.
Indeed, Mommsen’s detailed look at internal Nazi party politics is an integral element one of the book’s most enduring contributions: an incisive look at the workings of the Nazi bureaucracy.
This issue has been the subject of intense debate among historians, who have generally fallen into one of two camps.
The intentionalists, among them the late Lucy Dawidowicz, asserted that Hitler planned the genocide of the Jews from as early as the end of World War I-a 1918 document in which he talks about the need for rational antisemitism is an important one in this formulation-and spent the next 27 years working to carry out his evil plan.
The functionalists paint a different picture. They talk about ‘the crooked road to Auschwitz,’ a path that was filled with dips and turns and possible directions not taken. These historians emphasize how there was no central order from Hitler, talk about the conflicting factions within the upper levels of Nazi bureaucracy and note that the killing was carried out on the ground, and cite discussions in top Nazi circles of a forced emigration of Jews to Madagascar as far along as the late 30s for evidence to support their point.
Mommsen is one of the influential functionalists who stresses in his work both the chaotic workings of the Nazi bureaucracy and Hitler’s lack of day-to-day involvement in government action.
Other historians like Yehuda Bauer have criticized the distinction between intentionalists and functionalists, arguing instead for a synthetic interpretation that includes both elements in the society’s ‘cumulative radicalization. Bauer has also criticized Mommsen’s work as overstressing the continuity in values and action between the traditional German bureaucracy and the Nazi bureaucracy.
Bauer’s critiques have some merit, and Mommsen’s contribution to the debate should not be ignored, nor should his courage as a German historian who has been raising these issues within German society for more than 40 years be ignored.
Mommsen’s emphasis on intra-bureaucratic rivalry may be excessive, and his analysis’ leads to the debatable conclusion of a confluence of factors creating a nearly inevitable outcome.
Still, From Weimar to Auschwitz is a rich collection of essays that push against the idea of a people in the grip of a mad dictator and instead point toward the individuals who carried out transformative evil being accountable for their actions and being able to be judged as such.
With genocide continuing in Darfur and Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga going on trial today at the International Criminal Court for recruiting child soldiers he sent into battle, that’s a thought worth remembering, too.