Frolicking in the shadow of hell


While I happen to have found myself back on the subject of the Holocaust and Holocaust denial again today, I thought I'd mention this, something I've been meaning to blog about since I found out about it last week.

Beginning this week, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum will start featuring a display that, to me at least, is almost as disturbing as the usual pictures of the horrors of Auschwitz and other Nazi camps with which we've become so familiar and to whose horrors we have perhaps become inured. Basically, it's a recently discovered scrapbook with photos depicting the daily life of the SS Officers assigned to Auschwitz:


Dr. Josef Mengele is in the center.

As Erbelding and other archivists reviewed the album, they realized they had a scrapbook of sorts of the lives of Auschwitz's senior SS officers that was maintained by Karl Höcker, the adjutant to the camp commandant. Rather than showing the men performing their death camp duties, the photos depicted, among other things, a horde of SS men singing cheerily to the accompaniment of an accordionist, Höcker lighting the camp's Christmas tree, a cadre of young SS women frolicking and officers relaxing, some with tunics shed, for a smoking break.

In all there are 116 pictures, beginning with a photo from June 21, 1944, of Höcker and the commandant of the camp, Richard Baer, both in full SS regalia. The album also contains eight photos of Josef Mengele, the camp doctor notorious for participating in the selections of arriving prisoners and bizarre and cruel medical experiments. These are the first authenticated pictures of Mengele at Auschwitz, officials at the Holocaust museum said.

The photos provide a stunning counterpoint to what up until now has been the only major source of preliberation Auschwitz photos, the so-called Auschwitz Album, a compilation of pictures taken by SS photographers in the spring of 1944 and discovered by a survivor in another camp. Those photos depict the arrival at the camp of a transport of Hungarian Jews, who at the time made up the last remaining sizable Jewish community in Europe. The Auschwitz Album, owned by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, depicts the railside selection process at Birkenau, the area where trains arrived at the camp, as SS men herded new prisoners into lines.

The comparisons between the albums are both poignant and obvious, as they juxtapose the comfortable daily lives of the guards with the horrific reality within the camp, where thousands were starving and 1.1 million died.

For example, one of the Höcker pictures, shot on July 22, 1944, shows a group of cheerful young women who worked as SS communications specialists eating bowls of fresh blueberries. One turns her bowl upside down and makes a mock frown because she has finished her portion.

On that day, said Judith Cohen, a historian at the Holocaust museum in Washington, 150 new prisoners arrived at the Birkenau site. Of that group, 21 men and 12 women were selected for work, the rest transported immediately to the gas chambers.



As Rebecca Erbelding reminds us in the slideshow of some of these images, "The album reminds us that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were human beings, men and women with children, families, and pets who celebrated holidays and took vacations." It's also particularly creepy to remember that these photos were taken during the time that Auschwitz was killing thousands upon thousands. Some photos were taken even as late as Christmas 1944 and show SS officers putting up Christmas decorations mere weeks before the rapid Soviet advance led the Germans to flee Auschwitz, taking what prisoners they could on a brutal death march back into the Reich. How human beings could hold sing-alongs, parties, and frolick in the shadow of hell is disturbing to watch. I agree again with Deborah Lipstadt in that on a certain level these photos are even more disturbing than the usual photos of piles of corpses.

These photos very much remind me of Robert J. Lifton's seminal book, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. In it, he describes a phenomenon known as "doubling," in which an "Auschwitz self" was created that was viewed as not the same or as separate from the "real" self. This allowed officers to avoid guilt:

The way in which doubling allowed Nazi doctors to avoid guilt was not by the elimination of conscience but by what can be called the transfer of conscience. The requirements of conscience were transferred to the Auschwitz self, which placed it within its own criteria for good (duty, loyalty to group, "improving" Auschwitz conditions, etc.), thereby freeing the original self from responsibility for actions there. Rank spoke similarly of guilt "which forces the hero no longer to accept the responsibility for certain actions of his ego, but to place it upon another ego, a double, who is either personified by the devil himself or is created by making a diabolical pact"16; that is, the Faustian bargain of Nazi doctors mentioned earlier. Rank spoke of a "powerful consciousness of guilt" as initiating the transfer;17 but for most Nazi doctors, the doubling maneuver seemed to fend off that sense of guilt prior to its developing, or to its reaching conscious dimensions.


Doubling is an active psychological process, a means of adaptation to extremity. That is why I use the verb form, as opposed to the more usual noun form, "the double." The adaptation requires a dissolving of "psychic glue" as an alternative to a radical breakdown of the self. In Auschwitz, the pattern was established under the duress of the individual doctor's transition period. At that time the Nazi doctor experienced his own death anxiety as well as such death equivalents as fear of disintegration, separation, and stasis. He needed a functional Auschwitz self to still his anxiety. And that Auschwitz self had to assume hegemony on an everyday basis, reducing expressions of the prior self to odd moments and to contacts with family and friends outside the camp. Nor did most Nazi doctors resist that usurpation as long as they remained in the camp. Rather they welcomed it as the only means of psychological function. If an environment is sufficiently extreme, and one chooses to remain in it, one may be able to do so only by means of doubling.

In many of the anecdotes from those who had worked at Auschwitz, this feeling of a "second" self that did all those horrible things was a recurring theme. Alcohol was also a frequent escape valve. Even so, it's hard for us in the U.S. to understand how one could have parties and sing-alongs knowing full well what was going on and knowing their part in it. These photos, besides being creepy and reminding us of the human dimension of the perpetrators at Auschwitz, also bring to mind the doubling process that allowed so many of these officers to avoid (at least in their own minds) blame for their crimes. They document some of the times when these perpetrators were able to take shed their "Auschwitz self" for brief periods of time.

More like this


The Holocaust Museum should invite Ahmadinejad to pay a visit there while in the US.

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 25 Sep 2007 #permalink

Turns my stomach.
I often wonder if it could happen again?
Who will the scapegoat of all or problems be next?

How many times have you heard this statement at work or anywhere else people feel slight pressure;
"I am just doing what they told me to do..."

By Uncle Dave (not verified) on 25 Sep 2007 #permalink

Fascinating and creepy. Evil looks pretty normal.
I love old photos of people, to try to imagine what they were like and what they did. In this case I'm not sure I'll try to hard.

If you have not read Kogon's "The Theory and Practice of Hell" - it's a very detailed view of the day to day in Buchenwald. It is not for the faint of heart.

I think I see the point you're making, but I can't share it. I don't find such pictures particularly creepy; rather, I find them to be a useful reminder. It's all too easy and too common(particularly in reference to the death camps) to paint the perpetrators as "monsters." But that explains nothing. The harder view is to recognize the humanity of the individuals in pictures such as these, and to try to develop any glimmering of how that can be reconciled with their unfathomable actions.

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 25 Sep 2007 #permalink

I remember watching a documentary about the SS and Henrich Himmler (sp). Aparently, after or during one of his camp tours (The face of NAZI german efficiency), Himmler couldn't handle the experience and got sick and vomited on his boots. Bringing to mind the importance of leaders distancing themselves from the tedium and filth of thier own responsibility.

By Uncle Dave (not verified) on 25 Sep 2007 #permalink

Re: Himmler

The event described by Dave happened when Himmler witnessed a mass shooting by the Einsatzgruppen. I'm not sure if there's any evidence that he actually vomited, but he was reported to look distinctly unwell.

In fact, it was the effect on the men of having to shoot women and children at close range, probably helped along by Himmler's experience watching a mass excecution, that led to experimentation with gas vans and then the development of industrialized gas chambers, where German troops did not have look at the people whom they were killing or directly pull the trigger. Further helping distance them from the killing was having Jewish Sonderkommandos do the dirty work of leading the Jews into the gas chambers, clean up after the killings, and run the crematoria. Industrialized killing was actually done primarily for German troops, not as a more "humane" way of killing. It was a way of preventing the emotional and mental problems that shooting women and children at close range were causing SS killers.

Lynchings in the South were often an excuse for a party. Evil knows no nationality.

Heck, Pol Pot leader of Khmer Rouge was so paranoid and secretive not many people even knew what he looked like. I believe there was a time when he would have others pose in group pictures for him.

Hows that for keeping your distance from the tedium and filth of orchestrating genocide.

By Uncle Dave (not verified) on 25 Sep 2007 #permalink

"It's all too easy [...] to paint the perpetrators as 'monsters.' But [...] recognize the humanity of the individuals in pictures such as these,"

Why yes, that's the creepy part.

It reminds me of a serious issue I had with the news reports of genocide in Bosnia. What erks me most of that episode in history is that the media chose to refer to that episode as "Ethnic Cleansing".
Not sure what the motivation was for that choice of words but websters refers to cleansing as "to rid of impurities by or as if by washing"
Aparently we are in a constant state of trying to subdue or mitigate pain, so much so that someone in the media chose to change the term genocide, mass murder or serial killing on a large scale to "Ethnic Cleansing".

Kind of like using the phrase eliminate with extreme prejudice to describe murdering someone.

If you kill one person your a murderer.
If you kill a group of people over time your a psychotic serial killer.
If you kill thousands of people, your called a dictator.

By Uncle Dave (not verified) on 25 Sep 2007 #permalink

Global politics also plays a role in using sanitized terms like "ethnic cleansing" in place of genocide.

If the US or UN uses the term "genocide" then there is supposed to be an imperative to act. If it's just "ethnic cleansing", then they can stand by and wring their hands.

If memory serves, neither the US or UN used the term genocide regarding the massacres in Rwanda until it was far too late.

By dochocson (not verified) on 25 Sep 2007 #permalink

The really creepy part isn't just to understand that the people doing such evil were human, it's to realize that they were normal humans doing evil. It shifts the frame from "they were evil" past "they were evil but did other normal things just like I do" to "they WERE normal people just like me, but placed into a circumstance in which they freely did evil, so does that mean if I were placed in the same situation..." and then one's brain wants to shut down.

Turns my stomach.
I often wonder if it could happen again?
Who will the scapegoat of all or problems be next?

How many times have you heard this statement at work or anywhere else people feel slight pressure;
"I am just doing what they told me to do..."

Uncle Dave: Genocide and state-condoned mass murder has happened several times since WWII. "It" happened in the USSR, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan (I'm only mentioning the ones that come immediately to mind).

"I am just doing what they told me to do..." is an excuse that will likely never fall out of favor with the military for when they do bad things.

These pictures are quite moving as they clearly show how evil is not confined to monsters, but rather intercollated into all humans. Some of the people who contributed great good to the US were also tainted with some of the greatest evil as they were slaveholders.

Even so, it's hard for us in the U.S. to understand how one could have parties and sing-alongs knowing full well what was going on and knowing their part in it.

Really? Are the people applying, ahem, "moderate physical pressure" at Guantanemo, etc always serious and glum? They sure looked like they were enjoying their work in the pictures that came out. Not that they've reached the level of evil displayed in the Dritte Reich, but the difference strikes me as more one of degree than kind. I find it hard to imagine that, if the order to kill all the prisoners came tomorrow, that many would resist such an order.

I like S. Rivlin's idea at the top of the thread about taking Ahmadinajad to the Holocaust Museum.

We're back with Hannah Arendt and "the banality of evil" here, I think - see e.g.

Some historians argue that the "maintaining normality" for the guards was a deliberate official policy in the camps and killing fields. A good intro to this is in the article here:

- by the noted holocaust historian Konrad Kwiet. Also quite illuminating about the different interepretations that have been put on the available evidence from contemporary documents.

The Nazis certainly placed official emphasis on how "normal" and "decent" those called upon to do the killing should feel themselves to be. The classic text for this is Himmler's 1943 speech to the SS Senior Officers:

"We shall never be rough or heartless where it is not necessary; that is clear. We Germans, who are the only people in the world who have a decent attitude to animals, will also adopt a decent attitude to these human animals, but it is a crime against our own blood to worry [about their fate].

...Most of you know what it means to see a hundred corpses lying together, five hundred, or a thousand. To have gone through this and yet - apart from a few exceptions, examples of human weakness - to have remained decent fellows, this is what has made us hard. This is a glorious page in our history that has never been written and shall never be written.."

Himmler's speech to SS Officer Corps at Posen, Poland, 4th Oct 1943. See:

.."decent fellows", and the stuff about being nice to animals, are the phrases that really chill me.

By Student of History (not verified) on 26 Sep 2007 #permalink

I doubt that George Orwell was aware of Lifton's definition of "double" when he described "doublethink" as the official mentality of 1984, but the two usages mesh eerily well.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 26 Sep 2007 #permalink

Had I more time and archival prowess, I would offer a few links here to the NY Times photos of US naval pilots returning to their aircraft carrier after bombing the "target-rich environment" of 1990 Iraq, "giddy with excitement."

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 26 Sep 2007 #permalink

US naval pilots returning to their aircraft carrier after bombing the "target-rich environment" of 1990 Iraq, "giddy with excitement."

Considering these guys are only a hit away from being shredded into bits, or trapped in a descending fireball, screaming their lungs out in agony and shitting their pants in mortal terror, or descending slowly by parachute into murderous ground fire with half their guts dangling (which are the sorts of things that bomber pilots have faced since 1915 or thereabouts), the opportunity to make successful strike after successful strike with no ground fire to deal with, probably would make them rather exhilarated. Especially since the losses to ground fire in the first part of that war were by no means negligible.

By Justin Moretti (not verified) on 26 Sep 2007 #permalink

I like S. Rivlin's idea at the top of the thread about taking Ahmadinajad to the Holocaust Museum.

Agreed. Maybe we could take Bush too? Although I really doubt that either would get much out of it except a conformation of their own views. Ahmadinajad would see the lengths to which the International Jewish Conspiracy would go to to make themselves look like victims, Bush would see that the US had vanquished Evil before and that he is being called upon to do it again. But you never know: maybe some detail would make them stop and think and that might be useful.

I agree with Lipstadt that these photos are as disturbing or moreso than the photos of bodies. The people in them look so...normal. It makes it hard to other effectively and therefore takes away part of our ability to insist that it can't happen here, that the Nazis were an inhuman aberration, that only German culture could possibly have resulted in this horror, etc. These smiling, friendly looking people were part of one of the worst acts of genocide* in history. Yet they are normal looking people. Well, they are normal people. Committing genocide is a potential part of normal human behavior. It could happen here. Live with it.

*Where "worst" is defined by sheer numbers, deliberation, and level of betrayal. There are numerous examples of genocides that were worse--that is, more successful--throughout history, some committed by the US or the British colonies.

An art student who was researching Holocaust-era art told me the following story about a German-Jewish artist. I wish I could remember the artist's name, but I can't; I was assured it was a true story.
This artist had been in a concentration camp as a teenage boy, where a fellow prisoner taught him how to draw. The camp commandant saw the boy's drawings and was so impressed that he gave him pencils and drawing paper so that he could draw as much as he liked. The boy then went around the camp drawing everything he saw - people starving, scrabbling for food, sick, dying, bodies on the ground. All the awfulness of daily camp life.
The commandant collected these and when the Red Cross came to inspect the camp, they were shown the drawings with pride.
"Look!" said the commandant, perfectly seriously, "We give these people cultural activities while they are here. See how this one has profited from the art lessons he has had!"

If the US or UN uses the term "genocide" then there is supposed to be an imperative to act. If it's just "ethnic cleansing", then they can stand by and wring their hands.

Not quite, though I do understand the sentiment behind such a comment. The UN has pretty strict standards for what does and doesn't qualify as genocide, and if they can't get confirmation that all the qualifiers have been met, a situation doesn't get the label. This can be due to a lack of free press to get the horrors out there, lack of interest (sadly), or other factors. You're right: Rwanda was not called a genocide for far too long (neither were Darfur or the current crisis in Zimbabwe or many, many others). I doubt it was out of malice, but out of lack of governmental/media interest in Europe and the US. This lack of interest was likely fueled by a belief that things weren't as bad as they were because of a lack of (verified) information on the crisis. I could also go into problems with sovereignty and a misguided belief that aid is as good as intervention, but I'm really stretching things. My expertise in international relations is more towards politio-linguistics, not Rwandan history. My apologies for that, as I wish I knew more to be able to explain more. There are a few Africa-centric scholars at my university; I'll see what I can learn.

I am led to understand that these formal linguistic rules are why the 'ethnic cleansing' (such an icky turn of phrase--if not genocide, something better than that can surely be found!) of the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia is not traditionally or legally reffered to as a genocide; the professor teaching on genocide at my unversity uses this as the explanation, at least.

"Even so, it's hard for us in the U.S. to understand how one could have parties ... "

I really want to know what this sentence means. Why are you singling out the US? I'm sure Germans find as hard or maybe even harder to understand, being forced to deal with their history all the time.

I find this patriotism offensive. Are we not humans in the rest of the world?

These photos have a special significance for me. I recently completed my dissertation on transgenerational transmission of trauma in the grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors. In September I was invited to speak at a conference in Germany focused on Forgiveness and Reconciliation sponsored by Eurotas, the European Transpersonal Association, and I visited Auschwitz for two days before I went there to speak. At the conference I met a number of the descendents of the Nazis, the children and grandchildren. I had an opportunity to learn from them, first hand, the price they paid every day for being descended from the generation associated with the mass murders of 11.5 million people. I can say with certainty that no one escapes the powerful dark energy that infused the effort to slaughter so many. Also in the audience were the grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors. The similarity in the power of the effect of the transgenerational trauma that accompanies being the descendent of a victim or a perpetrator bears a striking similarity. Where the descendent of the Survivor cannot do anything to bring back all the lost, the descendent of the perpetrator cannot do anything but bear the guilt and shame of the murders. I found myself saying to the grandchildren of Nazis, lovely young people who have nothing in common with their grandparents beyond their DNA, that it is good works in the world and voices raised against genocide that are the only balm for this wound. The photo album of the Auschwitz SS portrays how easy it is to separate ourselves from our acts as human beings, and how easy it is to claim that we are justified if our actions protect our country from potential destruction by people different from oursleves. The decision as to which voice we will attend, the one who is the good human being or the one who is the good killer of human beings, is the one that establishes our humanity. The acts of the men and women shown in these photos seeem impossible to understand until the force of a state sanctioned hatred for others that permits the commission of any act against humanity with the full permission of authority is fully recognized and understood. When criminality is not only encouraged but rewarded it becomes a badge of honor. I believe that is what is being seen in these photos and the photo album. The reason for Hitler demanding so many deaths as quickly as possible was far beyond any darkness I have ever known. He was harvesting life energy to increase the power of the Reich, in the mannner that we would harvest grain to feed the hungry. Until arcane Nazi spirituality is brought into this perspective it is impossible to understand how people could do what they did. Hitler harnessed the devotion to the cult of power that had been a popular myth in Germany for more than 100 years and built it into the code of the Reich. He was a political-spiritual leader who preached that morality and conscience were weaknesses that had to be overcome to do the "hard work" of preparing the world for domination by the Reich. The combinaton of three forces, state sanctioned genocide, the cult of power, and a deep hatred for anyone who could taint the purity of the Aryan descendants of Atlantis, embodied in the evolved supermen of the German SS, had to be destroyed. I am still wrestling with how to hold all of this in my heart, and the recoverd photos in this album have added another important view to my perspective.