What is the book about? The title gives no clue. Cursory reading of the first page suggests there’s a love story coming. Only later is the real subject matter unveiled, and then only gradually: this book contains the everyday story of Auschwitz folk and the deeds they carried out in the name of the Third Reich. Auschwitz takes the fictional name Kat Zek.
The tale is told by three narrators, each taking his turn in successive chapters. The first is Angelus Thomsen. He’s the nephew of Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary, and he’s responsible for managing the smooth running of the concentration camp; the second is Major Doll, the camp commandant (but only loosely based on the real commander, who was Rudolf Höss); the third is Szmul, one of the Sonderkommando, the special squad made up of Jewish prisoners recruited to do the dirty work among the Jewish corpses, laboring with heavy scissors, pliers and mallets, removing gold fillings. In his own words:
We are in fact the saddest men in the history of the world. And of all these very sad men I am the saddest.
But looking on the bright side, there is indeed a love story. In brief: Thomsen loves the commander’s wife Hannah, but whilst she finds her own husband totally disgusting and refuses to receive him in bed, she is unable fully to express her feelings for Thomsen.
Some of us were confused at the start of the book, not realizing the author’s ruse of rotating the narrators, and even after the penny had dropped, we felt the need to revise the real history of Auschwitz. Wikipedia was busy. Certainly the author assumes too much about his readers’ knowledge. Granted, he has done his own research very thoroughly (he boasts of this at the end), but should it be necessary for us to read the book twice as some of us did? One of our group (himself an established author) considered twice-reading to be a compliment to the author. Well, err, yes: I did read Hamlet twice but that’s different.
It’s a book about industrialized evil and its human impact. It raises important questions about the how, the why and the when of genocide. Perhaps each one of us may be capable of causing pain and suffering to a fellow human when authorized to do so by a higher power, as shown in the famous experiment using young males to inflict pain on others (Milgram, 1963). Did the perpetrators at Auschwitz carry out their deeds just because they were told to (and were scared of the consequences of refusing) or did they share the Fuhrer’s vision of the 1000 Year Reich and how to achieve it by means of the Final Solution? Were they ‘just doing their job’ or were they fanatics, akin to the religious fundamentalists throughout history from the Crusades to the suicide bombers of today? And how did the Germans, the ordinary Germans who are now our friends, ever let this dreadful thing happen? We expected that some of the answers would be given in next month’s blog of Berlin at War by Roger Moorhouse.
Yes, humans are a tribal species – but tribalism alone does not explain how any man can trick hundreds of fellow humans to walk into a room before sealing the doors and filling the room with the deadly Zyklon-B. Yes, many parts of the book made grim reading. It’s not for the faint hearted. It prompted us to discuss other ways in which people kill. The clever physicists at Los Alamos inventing the atomic bomb probably saw it as an intellectual challenge. They will never be charged with war crimes. The pilots who dropped the atom bomb, or razed German cities to the ground were far removed from the consequences of their actions, and hailed as heroes. They were carrying out orders and had been trained to hunt and kill. But the staff of Auschwitz were intimately involved in selecting, tricking, killing and cleaning up the mess – all of which was to be done on schedule so that targets could be met. Perhaps the first time they murdered was hard, but successive Aktions became progressively easier, a process of brutalization.
There is humour, more subtle than the familiar war humour of Dad’s Army, Allo, Allo or Blackadder) but ribald nonetheless. A slight knowledge of German is necessary to appreciate some of it, but that wasn’t a problem. We laughed often, for example: German slang names for the parts of the female anatomy, the nicknames of Goebbels and Goring, anything that Doll has to say about sex. Oh yes, sex and depravity are there too. In fact the Jewish Chronicle’s reviewer David Herman found the book ‘pornographic’, and reminds us that Susan Sontag and Saul Friedländer warned readers about the growing eroticisation of Nazism. Really?
The humour is overshadowed by the bigger picture and the frequent statements of both Doll and Thomsen. As he descends into drunken insanity, Doll says:
In any case, as we’ve always made it clear, the Christian system of right and wrong, of good and bad, is one we categorically reject. Such values – relics of medieval barbarism – no longer apply. There are only positive outcomes and negative outcomes.
There is plenty of history in this book. The gradual realization that Germany is on the brink of defeat comes on page 164 in my edition, and with it, the realization that the whole project was doomed:
Let me give you a little lesson in war, Golo. Rule number one: never invade Russia. All right, we kill five million and take five million prisoner, and starve another thirty million. That still leaves a hundred and twenty-five million.
There are expressions of humanity, the most profound coming from Szmul. His chapters are always brief and his sentences short and powerful. He imagines what he himself will do if ever sent to the gas chamber. He’d tell the boy in the sailor suit to breath deeply, and the old man to stand close to the meshed shaft where the gas comes in. He is proud that ‘we save a life, or prolong a life’. He is referring to the 0.01 per cent who are young men with a trade. They go to the factory instead of the gas chamber, at least at first.
The story, and the love-story within it, did not end well. How could they?
One of Szmul’s longer speeches is reproduced on the back cover:
There was an old story about a king who asked his favourite wizard to create a magic mirror. This mirror didn’t show you your reflection. Instead it showed you your soul. It showed who you really were. But the king couldn’t look into the mirror without turning away…no-one could.
What does it mean? The mirror, like the one in Snow White, reveals the truth. If we look deep inside ourselves we may find dark elements of our psyche that we can’t face. Some people deny them, others come to terms with them, still others can’t control them.
At this, I put my notebook down, nearly spilling my pomegranate juice all over the host’s carpet. It would be blood on my hands, albeit a small quantity. None of us can ever know what it is like to kill thousands, to have hands so bloody as that; and if we were to do so, would we need to commit suicide like some of the characters did when the war was over.
Our discussion tailed off into the parallels between Hitler’s Youth and our own Boy Scouts/Boys’ Brigade. Encouraging nationalism in young people and supporting ‘my country right or wrong’ were popular forms of brainwashing in the 1930s. And it’s easy to forget that Adolf Hitler, and all he stood for, had significant support in Britain. Is there a causal link: economic stress > blame foreigners > support nationalism > social unrest and ultimately war?
Those thoughts, in turn, led us to contemplate Brexit, the state of politics in USA and Europe, and the upsurge in racism on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Then it was time to go home. I won’t be looking in the mirror tonight.
Milgram S (1963) Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 67 (4): 371–8. For those unable to download the original, you can read about it at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment