Too slow? Too fast? The speed of change affects recognition

by Yule Heibel on March 22, 2004

This is a continuation from yesterday when I wrote that I’d like to make available some things I learned in my research over ten years ago. I learned that sometimes terror takes its time, coming in slow increments via the “administrative route,” so “normal”-seeming that it’s difficult to understand what it will do. In 1989-90, I was in Berlin researching my dissertation, and since it was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the now defunct formerly western branch of the Federal Republic of Germany, all sorts of interesting symposia and exhibitions were on offer. One such exhibition was “Konzentrationslager Buchenwald,” at the Martin-Gropius-Bau [Building] in Berlin (April 10 to June 4, 1990), which coincided with the publication of and related exhibition Topographie des Terrors (edited by Reinhard R�rup, a professor of history at the Technische Universit�t, Berlin), as well as a discussion series (April 25 to May 23, 1990) that featured specialist historians from both East and West Germany: Hans Mommsen, Manfred Weissbecker, Ulrich Herbert, Kurt P�tzold, Klaus Drobisch, Eberhard Kolb, Kurt Finker, Peter Steinbach, Rolf Badst�bner, Wolfgang Benz, Wolfgang Meinecke, and Lutz Niethammer. (You will note that it appears as though Germany disallows women in the serious strata of historical scholarship….) R�rup was the discussion chair. On May 9, 1990 the symposium focussed on the camp system in Nazi Germany. It’s just something to think about, how slowly-subtly, yet inexorably, terrible things can happen if there are administrative blessings attached. From my book, in a footnote, on p.150-151, some notes I took at that symposium, a portrait of banal evil:

Klaus Drobisch and Eberhard Kolb elaborated the following: the first concentration camp was not at Dachau, but at Nohra, west of Weimar, and the pupils of the F�hrerschule (a Hitler-Youth school) were its first guards; a total of 19 camps already existed prior to Dachau. From 1933-34, the concentration camp system was established, and from 1934-36, the SS took over its perfection. The period from 1936-39 was essentially one of preparing for war (1939-42 is but an extension). In 1942-44, death camps were instituted and mass murder began taking place on an industrial scale; from 1944-45 there was a period of chaos, evacuation, and “final solution.”
The concentration camps (or “KZ”s) were the Nazis’ most significant means of power over the citizenry. The basic right of sovereignty of the person had been abolished at the start of the Nazi regime, which meant among other things that individuals could be arrested and held without charge or trial for an indefinite period of time (the so-called Schutzhaft). The KZs initially were filled will “political prisoners,” i.e., opponents of the Nazi regime. By March/April 1933 there were between 46,000 to 49,000 prisoners in KZs; by 1936 the number was up to over 100,000. At the beginning, all the KZs were manned at least in part by local police, and were financed by state money. Around 1935, a new type of KZ was developed, one that was expandable; this is explained by the increasing mobilization for war: while the Nazis had extensive lists of potential oppositionists to their regime, not all of them had yet been locked up, but with the outbreak of war, the people on these lists could immediately be rounded up and shipped to the new, expandable camps (Sachsenhausen was one of the first examples). Between 1936-39 there was also an upswing of camp construction on the Eastern border, in preparation for imperialist expansion. By 1937-38, the so-called “asocials” (homosexuals, prostitutes, etc.) were locked up, and by 1938-39, KZ inmates were used for industrial labor. Every major capitalist business in Germany employed slave labor from the KZs, and continued to do so through 1944. Mass murder started around 1938-39.
The KZs were never meant to be temporary; they were the Nazis’ best way of disabling opponents via the “administrative route.” They imply a fundamental systematic and structural change from anything that existed previously; their potential for intimidation initially depended on their ubiquity coupled with their invisibility — not until 1942, when KZ inmates were used on a massive scale for slave labor (by which time they were primarily foreigners), did the inmates become visible to the general populace. But everyone knew about the KZs — which, however, were initially different from death camps: a concentration camp is not a death camp, even though in the second half of 1942 alone, for example, c.57,000 of 100,000 KZ inmates died due to overwork and malnutrition. By the end of the war, 18 million persons were imprisoned in concentration and death camps, and c.11-12 million persons perished in concentration and death camps (including the “inmates” of enforced ghettos). These are estimates, as it is practically impossible to ascertain exact numbers. Also, by war’s end, c.90 percent of inmates were foreigners.
A brief note on postwar camp historiography: according to Drobisch and Kolb, the topic was taboo, especially in the West, from 1945 into the 1960s. In May 1945, Bergen-Belsen was razed by the British (due to plague fears). Almost all other camps were maintained, at least initially; Dachau was used as a refugee camp, until the 1960s, when it was razed (and was later rebuilt as an example of a death camp, which it never in reality was, thus feeding neo-Nazi charges that the death camps are merely an “invention”). Only around 1955 did camp survivors begin calling for a remembrance of the sites. In the 1970s and 1980s, a more persistent, constant interest developed.

It’s not a nice topic, and perhaps it’s inappropriate even to bring it up. And anyway, disasters probably don’t appear in the same guise twice. But criminal leadership and the workings of the administrative route are infamous partners wherever they appear. Nothing wrong with a backward glance at history, s’far as I can say…


Joel March 24, 2004 at 12:55 am

It’s too bad that we think of Nazis as being “somone else”. Many people have rightly drawn parallels between the Nazis and the Patriot Act, for example, only to find themselves attacked for “too much emotionalism”.

It’s become a sacred cow of sorts, like asking whether the Buddha and Jesus might have exhibited bipolar behavior when they abruptly abandoned their real lives to go preaching.

Thou shalt not question especially when the question might lead one to discomforting answers is the unwritten Eleventh Commandment.

Joel March 24, 2004 at 1:04 am

To expound a little more: the other day, on another more political and supposedly spiritual blog, someone attempted to write off an account of sexual harassment at Camp X-Ray by saying “Well, he’s got a grudge so we should be suspicious.”

I responded by observing that people often have grudges for good reason. Do we discount evidence against the Holocaust because the people in question are angry about what the guards did to them and to other people, I asked?

That analogy naturally provoked outrage because the person whose views I questioned was a liberal, but right wingers get just as irate. My point is that we’ve allowed these stupid values to color our preliminary judgements too much. We should call for investigation and avoid making prejudicial statements against the alleged victim until they are proven to be a liar.

When a government throws up an apparatus to block investigation by independent outside parties, that’s reason to be very suspicious. What you describe, my friend, is what I see happening in the Good Old USA now and even liberals are showing entirely too much caution when judging the claims of outsiders and critics of the administration.

Why is this happening? They are afraid of losing face if the guy is proven to be a liar. (People don’t get that the purpose of calling for an investigation is to prove guilt OR innocence. It’s finding a truthful answer that is the triumph.) There’s a type of banal evil that Arendt did not consider. We need to append her masterpiece.

Joel March 24, 2004 at 2:23 am

Darn you, Yule! You incited me again!:

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