A Reviewer's Notebook: The Evil of Nazism
AUGUST 01, 1975 by JOHN CHAMBERLAIN
I must begin with a confession. I put off reading Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness: From Mercy Killing to Mass Murder (McGraw-Hill, $9.95) for weeks because, having once spent a morning in the Museum of the Holocaust outside Jerusalem, where the horrors of the Hitler gas chambers are made unbearably explicit, I didn’t think I could stand repeating a shattering experience. It was chicken-hearted of me to behave in such a way.
Once I had conquered my queasiness and decided to take the plunge all over again, I must say that I was relieved to find myself reading a document that is as far above being a routine listing of horrors as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is above a mere detective story.
There are fashions in contemplating the evils of Nazism. At the time of Nuremberg it was enough to say that Hitler, Goebbels and Company were moral monsters who deserved what they got, which was assuredly true even though the "victors’ justice" court which tried the top-ranking Nazis was in itself a dubious legal instrument. But the larger question of acquiescence in guilt was not settled at Nuremberg. There were Germans who knew all about the gas chambers and other crimes of the Nazi State who "went along." In the Burkean phrase, they were the "good men" who did nothing. And there were those who, though they didn’t take part in the actual killings, carried out the administrative jobs connected with the maintenance of the grisly death camps.
Hannah Arendt has spoken of the "banality of evil." In the Hitler State "little" men, taking orders, made their little decisions. Taken separately, these seemed ordinary concessions to prudence. By the time the cumulative effect of step-by-step choices became apparent it was too late to extricate one’s self from the web that had been woven. Suicide or the assassination of one’s evil superiors was always possible, but the vulnerability of one’s family and friends was usually enough to repress any belated decision to become a martyr.
A Tool of the Totalitarian State
Gitta Sereny picked a not-so little man, but a cog-type individual nonetheless, for her study of how a person who bore no ill will toward other human beings could be trapped into becoming an administrative tool in the hands of a State that had decided to make mass murder an instrument of policy. She spent seventy hours in 1971 talking with Franz Stangl, who had been the Kommandant of Treblinka extermination camp in Poland where more than a million Jews died. Stangl, who had escaped from Austria via the so-called "Vatican Route" to Rome after the Allies had overrun the Nazi lines, had been extradited from Brazil to stand trial at Düsseldorf, and he seemed to want to talk with a stranger about the meaning of his life. His story, and that of his wife and family, is anything but banal, for it raises fundamental questions which all of us, in this day of burgeoning State power, must answer even though our immediate circumstances may not yet involve decisions that are life-or-death matters.
Franz Stangl died of heart failure the day after Gitta Sereny had completed her interviewing. He had finally admitted to a sort of guilt for not taking a stand against what went on in the extermination camps. "My guilt," he said, "is that I am still here."
But in the context of a life that could not have perfect foresight, was a stand ever possible for a man of Stangl’s nature? He did not want to do evil and he would never have willed it. He had a normal animal commitment to remaining alive, and he could never have brought himself to hurt his wife and daughters.
As a young police officer in Austria, he had good reason to think he was on a Nazi list for extermination after the Anschluss. After all, he had received a citation for bringing a secret Austrian Nazi to justice for poaching. He got out of that by spreading the story that he himself had been a secret Nazi. Speaking more than thirty years later, Stangl told Gitta Sereny that he should have killed himself in 1938. "I hate the Germans," he burst out in 1971, "for what they pulled me into." But this was hindsight; no one with an instinct for survival would have taken a different course than the one chosen by Stangl at the time.
The problem of remaining alive involved escaping to Germany from Austria, where a Party functionary named Prohaska had it in for him. So, from the frying pan Stangl jumped into the fire, taking a job at Schloss Hartheim connected with the Nazi Euthanasia Program. Stangl had nothing to do with choosing the crippled or mentally retarded people that Nazi State doctors had selected for "mercy-killings." And he could not have known that the Euthanasia Program was a trial run for gassing six million Jews, along with other "undesirables" and "enemies of the State."
When he was asked to be Kommandant in Poland of extermination camps, he tried to wriggle out of it. But nobody was willing to pick him for a job in the Crimea. He consoled himself at Sobibor and Treblinka by telling himself that he had nothing to do with shoving people into the extinction corridor and by saying that if he were to quit his administrative job it would not save a single Jew. If he had made a strong stand, the Nazis would not only have liquidated him, they would have seized his wife and children and shipped them to concentration camps where, most probably, they would have died.
Gitta Sereny does not condemn Stangl explicitly; she lets him condemn himself. He knew he had acquiesced in evil. But he was caught. Like everyone else with family and friends in Germany he was a man who had given hostages to the superstate.
Lessons for All of Us
The story is horrifying in its implications for all of us. As we give more and more power to our governments in the West to override what used to be called the inalienable rights (to life, liberty and property), how do we know that we aren’t doing precisely what Stangl did when he first tried to placate the Nazis in 1938 in Austria? One little thing leads to another. The monster State does not show its hideous face all at once. In Germany the Nazis were legally elected by a people who thought they were helping to solve an economic crisis and get back at Versailles.
Meanwhile, as Gitta Sereny offers us her heart rending document about mass killings in Hitler’s Germany, the Communists are busy liquidating thousands in Cambodia and Vietnam. They do it for “class” reasons, not “race.” But is it any more consoling to be beheaded as a bourgeois than as a Jew?
The total State is the same everywhere. So beware those “little” decisions. They make you a Stangl tomorrow.