Something a little disturbing.

There’s a new exhibit at the US Holocaust Museum, which they’ve put up on-line. It’s a collection of 116 photographs from Auschwitz, showing SS officers in their spare time, on-duty, and so on. The first 12 are the ones I find the most interesting and simultaneously unsettling; it’s just photos of people having fun. Lots of them look like really nice people; the sorts of faces you would expect to see amongst your friends. Except that the men are wearing the uniforms of SS officers, the women of SS auxiliaries, even while they’re playing accordions and laughing in the rain.

(There was lots of rain there. I’ve heard that the amount of smoke produced tended to seed clouds.)

Several of the later photos are interesting, too. #57 shows the commandant (Richard Baer), the previous commandant (Rudolf Hoess), and Josef Mengele just hanging out; this picture has a lot less of the “oh, what nice guys” aspect and a lot more of the “wow. So this is what villains look like in their spare time” aspect.

The usual sentiments about “the banality of evil” apply. The NY Times has an article and op-ed piece about the exhibit, which have some interesting bits about the provenance and significance of the photos.

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Published in: on September 24, 2007 at 12:04  Comments (28)  
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28 Comments

  1. This is very surreal.

  2. This is very surreal.

  3. it’s human nature
    we want to believe that the villains are somehow different than us
    that we are somehow incapable of truly horrifying actions
    but it doesn’t take much
    for humans to cross the line

  4. it’s human nature
    we want to believe that the villains are somehow different than us
    that we are somehow incapable of truly horrifying actions
    but it doesn’t take much
    for humans to cross the line

  5. When the enterprising burglar’s not a-burgling –
    When the cut-throat isn’t occupied in crime –
    He loves to hear the little brook a-gurgling –
    And listen to the merry village chime –
    When the coster’s finished jumping on his mother –
    He loves to lie a-basking in the sun –
    Ah, take one consideration with another –
    A policeman’s lot is not a happy one.

  6. When the enterprising burglar’s not a-burgling –
    When the cut-throat isn’t occupied in crime –
    He loves to hear the little brook a-gurgling –
    And listen to the merry village chime –
    When the coster’s finished jumping on his mother –
    He loves to lie a-basking in the sun –
    Ah, take one consideration with another –
    A policeman’s lot is not a happy one.

  7. What is a coster? I have a student who was just cast as one….

  8. What is a coster? I have a student who was just cast as one….

  9. What really strikes me about these is that the people photographed were doing horrifying things on a day-to-day basis; and not impersonal ones, but the sort where you’re hearing people screaming in agony and terror, dragging them off and shooting them, and so on. Nor were they situations like combat where adrenaline and continual danger can keep you from thinking too much about it. Yet they seem calm, relaxed, happy. How did they manage to section off their lives to this extent?

  10. What really strikes me about these is that the people photographed were doing horrifying things on a day-to-day basis; and not impersonal ones, but the sort where you’re hearing people screaming in agony and terror, dragging them off and shooting them, and so on. Nor were they situations like combat where adrenaline and continual danger can keep you from thinking too much about it. Yet they seem calm, relaxed, happy. How did they manage to section off their lives to this extent?

  11. when the coster’s finished jumping on his mother – costermongers (street vendors of fruit, fish, etc.) were sometimes rather rough characters

  12. when the coster’s finished jumping on his mother – costermongers (street vendors of fruit, fish, etc.) were sometimes rather rough characters

  13. The Omnivore’s Dilemma touched on this in discussing slaughterhouses (that is, the kind we still use, with food animals). My (somewhat hazy) recollection is that it makes humans uneasy even to kill animals like cows and chickens, but if you do it frequently enough you somehow adjust. I seem to recall mention of some connection between sociopaths and slaughterhouses, like perhaps the latter causing the former, but I forget the details now.

  14. The Omnivore’s Dilemma touched on this in discussing slaughterhouses (that is, the kind we still use, with food animals). My (somewhat hazy) recollection is that it makes humans uneasy even to kill animals like cows and chickens, but if you do it frequently enough you somehow adjust. I seem to recall mention of some connection between sociopaths and slaughterhouses, like perhaps the latter causing the former, but I forget the details now.

  15. It’s amazing how soothing people find the idea that they’re making the world a better place and it’s all for a good cause… And it probably helped that they had fully dehumanized their victims.
    Borges has a really good short story on the theme, actually, you might like it. I think it’s called Deutsches Requiem.

  16. It’s amazing how soothing people find the idea that they’re making the world a better place and it’s all for a good cause… And it probably helped that they had fully dehumanized their victims.
    Borges has a really good short story on the theme, actually, you might like it. I think it’s called Deutsches Requiem.

  17. It doesn’t take much.
    Put it in terms of the survival of your family, homes, communities, and even race and people very quickly will do all manner of evil to protect those things that they hold dear.
    The only way to combat such madness is to eliminate ignorance.
    But we haven’t had much success in the world with that, have we.

  18. It doesn’t take much.
    Put it in terms of the survival of your family, homes, communities, and even race and people very quickly will do all manner of evil to protect those things that they hold dear.
    The only way to combat such madness is to eliminate ignorance.
    But we haven’t had much success in the world with that, have we.

  19. Completely surreal.
    This theme is explored really elegantly in the Ariel Dorfman play “Death and The Maiden”. Even the humans who act most discordantly with humanity must sometimes go about their own personal business. Rarely (if ever) are our lives so extraordinary that we do not at times go about the ordinary.
    The captives of Auschwitz did not have the luxury of banality. The mortal vulnerability of the victims, I believe, was only part of the violence perpetrated against them. This is to say that the violence of the holocaust cannot simply be considered as an amalgamated list of discrete incidents of killing, torturing, enslaving etc. but must be considered as a systematic manufacture of a cohesive nightmare which left quite literally no room for its victims to express their humanity in any manner other than enslavement, bondage, and ultimately, death.

  20. Completely surreal.
    This theme is explored really elegantly in the Ariel Dorfman play “Death and The Maiden”. Even the humans who act most discordantly with humanity must sometimes go about their own personal business. Rarely (if ever) are our lives so extraordinary that we do not at times go about the ordinary.
    The captives of Auschwitz did not have the luxury of banality. The mortal vulnerability of the victims, I believe, was only part of the violence perpetrated against them. This is to say that the violence of the holocaust cannot simply be considered as an amalgamated list of discrete incidents of killing, torturing, enslaving etc. but must be considered as a systematic manufacture of a cohesive nightmare which left quite literally no room for its victims to express their humanity in any manner other than enslavement, bondage, and ultimately, death.

  21. I think that you just put your finger on the thing that I’ve always found so disturbing about the whole matter, but never could quite put into words.

  22. I think that you just put your finger on the thing that I’ve always found so disturbing about the whole matter, but never could quite put into words.

  23. hey man, I got a request.
    Can you do a general outline blog entry on the whole Iran thing we are going through right now? I have had the feeling, throughout the entire bush administration, that we are being fed a bunch of bullshit by said administration and our media. Everything I have read and heard from Ahmadinejad sounds more legit and honest than what I hear coming out of the mouth of our administration.
    I understand that’s it’s our prerogative to take out these middle eastern countries in the pursuit of fossil fuel control and protecting Israel, and that the media and Bush admin generally will support propaganda towards this end. But I see no logical argument towards military action against Iran.
    Perhaps they are developing nukes. I am personally not convinced of that. Regardless – we all have them, so who are we to say they cannot develop them.
    The senate or whoever decided to decide that part of the Iranian military/goverment was a “terrorist organization”. Um. What the hell is that supposed to mean? They give no rationale for that decision based on what I can find.
    It seems taken as an axiom in american media stories that Ahmadinejad claimed the holocaust was a myth. Every fact that I can find, however, points to him simply claiming that we are displacing/harassing palestinians in support of a ethnic group that happened to suffer persecution at the hands of a regime completely removed from anything Islamics had anything to do with.
    It would be cool if you could call out some of the shit our media and administration is feeding us, based on your political knowledge/experience in studying this stuff. Hopefully the fact that you are Jewish (????111two) doesn’t bias you too much.

  24. hey man, I got a request.
    Can you do a general outline blog entry on the whole Iran thing we are going through right now? I have had the feeling, throughout the entire bush administration, that we are being fed a bunch of bullshit by said administration and our media. Everything I have read and heard from Ahmadinejad sounds more legit and honest than what I hear coming out of the mouth of our administration.
    I understand that’s it’s our prerogative to take out these middle eastern countries in the pursuit of fossil fuel control and protecting Israel, and that the media and Bush admin generally will support propaganda towards this end. But I see no logical argument towards military action against Iran.
    Perhaps they are developing nukes. I am personally not convinced of that. Regardless – we all have them, so who are we to say they cannot develop them.
    The senate or whoever decided to decide that part of the Iranian military/goverment was a “terrorist organization”. Um. What the hell is that supposed to mean? They give no rationale for that decision based on what I can find.
    It seems taken as an axiom in american media stories that Ahmadinejad claimed the holocaust was a myth. Every fact that I can find, however, points to him simply claiming that we are displacing/harassing palestinians in support of a ethnic group that happened to suffer persecution at the hands of a regime completely removed from anything Islamics had anything to do with.
    It would be cool if you could call out some of the shit our media and administration is feeding us, based on your political knowledge/experience in studying this stuff. Hopefully the fact that you are Jewish (????111two) doesn’t bias you too much.

  25. The dehumanization and idea of working for a good cause is not even necessary. Numerous psych studies, from the Stanford Prison experiment to numerous electrical shock experiments have shown that the large majority of people will do what they’re told to do, even if it is something they know is morally wrong. The internal motivation to follow the crowd and follow orders seems much stronger than the will to do what is right.

  26. The dehumanization and idea of working for a good cause is not even necessary. Numerous psych studies, from the Stanford Prison experiment to numerous electrical shock experiments have shown that the large majority of people will do what they’re told to do, even if it is something they know is morally wrong. The internal motivation to follow the crowd and follow orders seems much stronger than the will to do what is right.

  27. One might argue that the subjects in the Stanford Prison experiment et al thought they were furthering science… It’s unfortunate, but psych experiments do have an unavoidable skew. However, I seem to recall that even the Stanford experiments resulted in the “jailers” mentally dehumanizing the “prisoners”. Popular method for resolving cognitive dissonance, that.

  28. One might argue that the subjects in the Stanford Prison experiment et al thought they were furthering science… It’s unfortunate, but psych experiments do have an unavoidable skew. However, I seem to recall that even the Stanford experiments resulted in the “jailers” mentally dehumanizing the “prisoners”. Popular method for resolving cognitive dissonance, that.


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