The Commission’s efforts have been undertaken in the service of memory, with the conviction that in remembrance lie the seeds of transformation and renewal. Throughout the Commission’s work, two guiding principles have provided the philosophical rationale. They are: (1) the uniqueness of the Holocaust; and (2) the moral obligation to remember.
The Uniqueness of the Holocaust
The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators as a central act of state during the Second World War; as night descended, millions of other peoples were swept into this net of death. It was a crime unique in the annals of human history, different not only in the quantity of violence—the sheer numbers killed—but in its manner and purpose as a mass criminal enterprise organized by the state against defenseless civilian populations. The decision was to kill every Jew everywhere in Europe: the definition of Jew as target for death transcended all boundaries. There is evidence indicating that the Nazis intended ultimately to wipe out the Slavs and other peoples; had the war continued or had the Nazis triumphed, Jews might not have remained the final victims of Nazi genocide, but they were certainly its first.
The concept of the annihilation of an entire people, as distinguished from their subjugation, was unprecedented; never before in human history had genocide been an all-pervasive government policy unaffected by territorial or economic advantage and unchecked by moral or religious constraints. Ordinarily, acts of violence directed by a government against a populace are related to perceived needs of national security or geographic expansion, with hostilities diminishing after the enemy surrenders. In the case of the Nazis, however, violence was intensified after subjugation, especially in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe, against all the subjugated populations. Jews were particular targets despite the fact that they possessed no army and were not an integral part of the military struggle. Indeed, the destruction frequently conflicted with and took priority over the war effort. Trains that could have been used to carry munitions to the front or to retrieve injured soldiers were diverted for the transport of victims to the death camps. Even after the Nazi defeat on the Russian front, when it became evident that the Germans had lost the war, the killings were intensified in a last desperate attempt at complete annihilation. Clearly, genocide was an end in itself independent of the requisites of war.
In the Nazi program of genocide, Jews were the primary victims exterminated not for what they were but for the fact that they were Jews. (In the Nuremberg Decree of 1935, a Jew was defined by his grandparents’ affiliation. Even conversion to Christianity did not affect the Nazi definition.) While Gypsies were killed throughout Europe, Nazi plans for their extermination were never completed nor fully implemented. However, Nazi plans for the annihilation of European Jews were not only completed but thoroughly implemented. Many Polish children whose parents were killed were subjected to forced Germanization—that is, adoption by German families and assimilation into German culture—yet Jewish children were offered no such alternative to death.
The Holocaust was not a throwback to medieval torture or archaic barbarism but a thoroughly modern expression of bureaucratic organization, industrial management, scientific achievement, and technological sophistication. The entire apparatus of the German bureaucracy was marshalled in the service of the extermination process. The churches and health ministries supplied birth records to define and isolate Jews; the post office delivered statements of definition, expropriation, denaturalization, and deportation; the economic ministry confiscated Jewish wealth and property; the universities denied Jewish students admission and degrees while dismissing Jewish faculty; German industry fired Jewish workers, officers, board members and disenfranchised Jewish stock holders; government travel bureaus coordinated schedules and billing procedures for the railroads which carried the victims to their deaths.
The process of extermination itself was bureaucratically systematic. Following the mob destruction of Kristallnacht, a pogrom in November 1938 in which at least 36 Jews were killed, 20,000 arrested, thousands of Jewish businesses looted and burned, and hundreds of synagogues vandalized, random acts of violence were replaced by organized, passionless operations. Similarly, the angry, riotous actions of the S.A. gave way to the disciplined, professional procedures of the S.S., which by 1943 had substituted massive, impersonal factories of extermi nation for the earlier mobile killing units. The location and operation of the camps were based on calculations of accessibility and cost-effectiveness, the trademarks of modern business practice. German corporations actually profited from the industry of death. Pharmaceutical firms, unrestricted by fear of side effects, tested drugs on camp inmates, and companies competed for contracts to build ovens or supply gas for extermination. (Indeed, they were even concerned with protecting the patents for their products.) German engineers working for Topf and Sons supplied one camp alone with 46 ovens capable of burning 500 bodies an hour.
Adjacent to the extermination camp at Auschwitz was a privately owned, corporately sponsored concentration camp called I.G. Auschwitz, a division of I. G. Farben. This multi-dimensional, petro-chemical complex brought human slavery to its ultimate perfection by reducing human beings to consumable raw materials, from which all mineral life was systematically drained before the bodies were recycled into the Nazi war economy; gold teeth for the treasury, hair for mattresses, ashes for fertilizer. In their relentless search for the least expensive and most efficient means of extermination, German scientists experimented with a variety of gasses until they discovered the insecticide Zyklon B, which could kill 2,000 persons in less than 30 minutes at a cost of one-half-cent per body. Near the end of the war, in order to cut expenses and save gas, "cost-accountant considerations" led to an order to place living children directly into the ovens or throw them into open burning pits. The same type of ingenuity and control that facilitates modern industrial development was rationally applied to the process of destruction.
During previous centuries, excess populations were alleviated through emigration to less populated regions, but by 1920 the frontiers had receded and the New World no longer absorbed the overflow from the Old. When Germany could not ship out a population she wished to eliminate (no country was willing to accept Jews), she took the next fatal step and sent them up in smoke. In a world of increasing over-population, the inclination to duplicate the Nazi option and once again exterminate millions of people remains a hideous threat. The curse of the Holocaust is a dire warning.
The Holocaust could not have occurred without the collapse of certain religious norms; increasing secularity fueled a devaluation of the image of the human being created in the likeness of God. Ironically, although religious perspectives contributed to the growth of anti-Semitism and the choice of Jews as victims, only in a modern secular age did anti-Semitism lead to annihilation. Other aspects of modern dehumanization contributed to the Holocaust, notably the splitting of the human personality whereby men could murder children by day and be loving husbands and fathers at night. The division of labor that separated complete operations into fractions of the whole permitted thousands to participate in a massive bureaucracy of death without feeling responsible. For example, Adolf Eichmann, who supervised the roundup of Jews for deportation, could claim he never personally killed a single person, employees could insist they did not know what they were doing; executioners could explain they were only following orders.
Whether the product of technology or a reaction against it, the horror of the Holocaust is inextricably linked to the conditions of our time. By studying the Holocaust, we hope to help immunize modern man against the diseases particular to the twentieth century which led to this monstrous aberration.
The Moral Obligation to Remember
The American philosopher George Santayana has warned that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. The Holocaust reveals a potential pathology at the heart of Western civilization together with the frightening consequences of the total exercise of power. Remembering can instill caution, fortify restraint, and protect against future evil or indifference. The sense of outrage in the face of the Holocaust expressed in the declaration "Never Again"—neither to the Jewish people nor to any other people—must be in formed by an understanding of what happened and how.
Although we have no guarantees that those who remember will not repeat history, the failure to remember the past makes repetition more likely. Nothing more clearly illustrates this claim than Hitler’s alleged response to those in his government who feared international opposition to genocide. "Who remembers the Armenians?," he asked. Indifference to that earlier twentieth-century attempt at genocide may well have fortified those who later questioned the impact of extermination if not its wisdom or necessity. Conversely, memory can avert future errors. Perhaps it is no accident that the government official most responsible for a fundamental shift in American policy toward the plight of the Jews, former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., was the son of the Ambassador to Turkey during the Armenian massacre in World War I. It was at the behest of Secretary Morgenthau that a report was prepared for the President on the murder of the Jews.
To remember the Holocaust is to sensitize ourselves to its critical political lessons. Nazism was facilitated by the breakdown of democracy, the collapse of social and economic cohesion, the decline of human solidarity, and an erosion of faith in the political leadership and in the ability of democratic governments to function. Recalling these danger signals intensifies our concern for the health of the body politic and the processes of democracy, the forms of government and the importance of human and social values.
By remembering the excesses that marked the Nazi era, we can learn again the importance of limits, of checks and balances. We can also learn that a democratic government must function and perform basic services and that human rights must be protected within the law. We can renew our appreciation for moral and philosophical guidelines, for the need to consider the human cost of scientific experimentation. We can strengthen our belief in inalienable individual rights. We can also come to understand that a universalistic ethic unbalanced by respect for particular variation is ultimately tyrannical. Tolerance for ethnic diversity and pluralism can be enhanced.
But remembering is not easy for either individual or group. Confronting the Holocaust threatens to sear our souls and challenge our perceptions, our complacency. It introduces a tone of somberness and tragedy into human discourse and heightens our awareness of the precariousness and vulnerability of life. Not only has the moral landscape of human reality been altered by the Holocaust, but the acceleration of technology and nuclear power now threaten human existence itself. By focusing on the dangers inherent in the ends and means of a technological, bureaucratic society, study of the Holocaust and its implications can encourage a renewal of commitment to sanity and humanity.
Americans have a distinct responsibility to remember the Holocaust. Millions of our citizens had direct family ties with its victims, our armies liberated many concentration camps and helped rehabilitate their inmates, and many thousands of survivors have since made their homes in this country. On the negative side although the United States assumed a leadership role in rehabilitation after the war, our failure to provide adequate refuge or rescue until 1944 proved disastrous to millions of Jews.
In a 1944 memo presented to the President, senior officers of the Department of the Treasury accused State Department officials of neglect and acquiescence:
[State Department officials] have not only failed to use the Government machinery at their disposal to rescue Jews from Hitler, but have even gone so far as to use this Governmental machinery to prevent the rescue of these Jews.
They have not only failed to cooperate with private organizations in the efforts of these organizations to work out individual programs of their own, but have taken steps designed to prevent these programs from being put into effect.
They not only have failed to facilitate the obtaining of information concering Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe but in their official capacity have gone so far as to surreptitiously attempt to stop the obtaining of information concerning the murder of the Jewish population of Europe.
They have tried to cover up their guilt by:
a. concealment and misrepresentation;
b. the giving of false and misleading explanations for their failures to act and their attempts to prevent action; and
c. the issuance of false and misleading statements concerning the "action" which they have taken to date.*
The preceding memo was written at the height of the war, when the industries of death were working 24 hours a day to eliminate European Jewry, yet there was still time to save Hungarian Jews. The document marked a turning-point in American policies toward the Holocaust for it moved the President to appoint the War Refugee Board. Prior to entering the war, the United States had reacted to Nazi atrocities with guarded outrage and quiet diplomacy. Many isolationists had considered the Nazi treatment of Jews a German domestic matter. When emigration was still part of the Nazi approach to the Jewish question American officials erected paper walls by rigidly enforcing both quota regulations and obscure requirements of the immigration laws so as to minimize the number of persons admitted to our shores. Jewish children were summarily denied admission or any form of preferential treatment. American consular officers demanded that immigration applicants produce certificates of good character from their government at the very time that the Nazis considered Jewishness itself criminal. The American principle of separation of church and state, which blinds our laws to the religious affiliation of individuals, found ironic misapplication. Instead of being recognized as refugees, German Jews were considered citizens of a hostile nation and were thus excluded.
Government conferences on world conditions issued public utterances of displeasure toward the Nazis, but such pronouncements only diffused public pressure, giving the appearance of action rather than substantively altering the situation. The international conference held in 1938 at Evian demonstrated the unwillingness of the nations involved to receive Jews. The United States refused to relax its immigration laws or to borrow on future quotas; Great Britain failed to open the doors of Palestine to immigrants; Canada, Argentina, France, Australia, New Zealand, and Panama were also among 32 nations unwilling to come to the rescue of the victimized Europeans. Ships of refugees seeking haven were turned away from port after port while the Nazis viewed the world’s response as tacit compliance if not silent assent to their policies.
Failures of communication included the State Department’s closing of secured embassy lines to private organizations, thus blocking the transmission of vital information confirming the existence of extermination camps and the plans to exterminate all the Jews. The State and War Departments displayed no recognition of the fact that the Holocaust was distinct from the general German war effort. Eyewitness accounts, reports from informed sources, and oft-repeated Nazi pledges to exterminate the Jews were not integrated, analyzed and internalized to form a basis of action.
During the work of this Commission, the controversy as to why Auschwitz was not bombed by the Allies was raised once again. Considering the documents that have been made available recently, a more thorough analysis of American policy can now be undertaken. If we are to be responsive to crises in the future, an examination of the errors, the value judgments and reasoning processes that led to decisions may be useful.
America did play a major role in bringing Nazi criminals to justice. Herbert Pell, the United States representative to the War Crimes Commission, was the driving force behind the American assent to charge war criminals with crimes against humanity. The Nuremberg trials represent a new international moral standard for they reflect the conviction that each individual is responsible for his actions even in times of war.
Americans recognized early the need to confront and remember the Holocaust. General Dwight D. Eisenhower insisted that the concentration camps be fully documented and photographed, and General George S. Patton demanded that Germans in surrounding towns be forced to visit the scenes of the Nazis murders. For more than 6 years following the war, American soldiers managed the displaced persons camps, aiding in the survivors’ recovery. These and similar efforts were among the most honorable in our nation’s chronicles. Our armed forces witnessed not only the depths of despair and depravity but the resurgence of the human spirit, the yearning to live in freedom.
In reflecting on the Holocaust, we confront not only a collapse in human civilization but also the causes, processes, and consequences of that collapse. As we analyze the American record, we can study our triumphs as well as our failures so as to defeat radical evil and strengthen our democracy.
*January 13, 1944, "Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government to the Murder of the Jews," Henry Morgenthau Diaries, Book 693, pp. 212–229, located in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library. This report was later edited and retitled by Secretary Morgenthau, "Personal Report to the President," Henry Morgenthau Diaries, Book 694, pp. 194–202.
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