Chapter 5: The Holocaust and Human Nature


The Holocaust left between five and six million Jews dead. Why did it happen? Seeds of anti-Semitism sprouted in segments of Europe’s economically and socially frustrated underclasses during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Unfortunately, a cadre of poorly-educated and vindictive lower class men obtained political power in Germany, and brought the fruit of these seedlings to the table with them. Playing on the collective bitterness of a nation humiliated in war, they sanctioned systematic killing by a network of ambitious bureaucrats, who established an impersonal web of machinery that in turn devoured the Jews.

But tellingly, in his masterful study of the murderous policemen at Józefów in July 1942, a historian named Christopher Browning does not find a great deal of anti-Semitism in German motives. Certainly the policemen from Hamburg saw Jews as ‘the enemy’, profoundly different from themselves. But they shot Jews for a variety of reasons. They cowed in the face of authority, they wanted to bond with one another as a group; they believed that real manhood and toughness requires a willingness to be violent.

There is another reason why Nazi Germans hated the Jews, but it has largely slipped under the dark waters of forgotten history. When Adolf Hitler sat down to chat with physicist Max Planck in 1933, he confided that Jews primarily enraged him because they were communists. Historically, the Holocaust has been displayed in the ‘window’ of a rising Nazi Germany; nearly everyone links the two events hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, historians have spent much time describing Germany under Hitler, while devoting much less time to describing it shortly before he came to power. In fact, the nemesis of every Nazi in the 1920s and 1930s were the Communists—bitter political rivals who mobilized tens of millions of Germans and threatened to come to power themselves. Many leaders of the socialist and communist parties were in fact Jewish. Jews played prominent roles in the German labor movement, urban political organizations, and segments of the nation’s press. Hitler was simplistic when he labeled all Jews ‘communist’, but disproportionately German Jews did align themselves with the German parties of the political left.

If ideology played a significant role in motivating Nazis to kill Jews, why has it disappeared from the history books? At the center of Holocaust remembrance is the Jewish community in the United States—indeed, with one national and several regional Holocaust museums, foundations, scores of websites, meetings and conferences, one American Jew has dubbed it all the ‘Holocaust Industry’. But in postwar America communism was a dirty word. In the context of a frightening cold war rivalry with communist Russia, two generations of Americans were raised on hating ‘reds’. This made acknowledging Jewish involvement in Europe’s socialist and communist movements inconvenient for those who aspired to evoke sympathy for the Holocaust. Just as America’s Jewish community has largely forgotten that it comprised a third of the United States’ own Communist Party membership in the mid-forties, it has found it useful to forget the leftist leanings of European Jewry.

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For a man who micro-managed the S.S. and meticulously planned his daily activities, Heinrich Himmler was surprisingly inept in anticipating his own need to survive. As the Red Army rolled west, and Allied armies closed in on Germany, he clung to power and seemingly refused to accept the demise of the Nazi regime. Convinced that he could personally save it by parleying with the western Allies, he alienated Hitler—who in his last days unceremoniously ousted him from the Nazi hierarchy. Adopting a disguise not much better than that found at a children’s Halloween party, the mighty Reichfuhrer who oversaw the death of millions prepared to sneak through advancing enemy lines. Donning an eye-patch and carrying papers far too suggestively proper, he walked across a bridge with an aide, passing through various British checkpoints. One inspecting officer found his answers a little tidy. Removing his eye patch, it seemed fairly obvious that there was nothing wrong with his eye—it moved in sync with the other. Suspicious enough to detain him, his charges soon found Himmler demanding to see the Allied Supreme Commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower. This unusual request led to further questioning. As his interrogators began to realize his identity, Himmler retrieved and bit hard on a phial of poison sealed in a cavity in his mouth. He convulsed and died on the floor of an occupied German home, British soldiers unable to induce adequate vomiting or revive him. A detachment of soldiers sworn to secrecy buried his body in an unmarked countryside grave in present-day northwest Germany.

Odilo Globocnik, too, met an inglorious end. After Operation Reinhard wound down he was reassigned to northern Italy, where he again proved adept at killing the defenseless but had much more difficulty combating partisans. In spring 1945, fleeing into the ever-shrinking Nazi territory, he made his way into the Austrian Alps just north of his Slovenian homeland. Like Himmler, Globocnik made the fateful error of refusing to part with staff members and move discreetly alone. Six aides accompanied him up the mountain slopes above the town of Paternion, staying by day in nearby woods and by night in a remote cabin overlooking the valley. Globocnik and his men kept three women with them as well, and had far too much interaction with local contacts to ensure his safety. Below, in the town after Germany’s surrender, a small contingent of British troops occupied the local castle, rounding up visible Nazis. Prisoners were denied food for days-on-end, compelling the desperate among them to talk. One hungry Schutzstaffel told his captors about the cabin, and a 4 a.m. raid easily netted the fugitives without a fight.

At first, the British intelligence officer on the scene was uncertain if he really had the notorious killer. Globocnik kept his cool, steadfastly claiming to be a poor local merchant. But as he calmly walked the castle yard the British officer suddenly called out his name; his head cocked. Ordered to a holding cell, Globocnik suddenly fell into convulsions—he had swallowed a metal phial which he had skillfully kept under his tongue since his capture over six hours earlier. As with Himmler, attempts to revive him failed. Following guidelines for renown Nazi leaders, the British secretly buried him in the castle yard.

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Studying the Holocaust sheds light on human nature. The history of the Holocaust has been written from various angles. Arguably the most common and most appealing angle is that of pure victimhood. Many best selling authors have chronicled the awful abuses of the labor and death camps, with a one-dimensional victimhood of mostly Jews. But how do people react when facing oppression or death? Do they uniformly or typically bond with other victims, and create a righteous community of the innocent?  

One of the storylines of real history is that there are no pure victim-groups. The vast majority of us willingly collaborate with Power. And those allowed to do so pro-actively collaborate, thereby ensuring their own peoples' destruction. Such was the case of Benjamin Mumelstein, a Jewish rabbi who worked with Adolf Eichmann and helped him carry out his murderous policies. Mumelstein had such a close and robust relationship with Eichmann that, on one occasion, he told Eichmann to his face that he could not make an ordered appointment--he had other things to do. In truth, many Jews collaborated directly with the Nazis, thereby assuring their own peoples' destruction. Judenrat (Jewish elders) provided lists of people and facilitiated control of the ghettoes. Inside the ghettoes, there was typically a singular lack of communal victimhood. Jews competed, sometimes viciously, for limited resources and evasion of labor and death camp drafts--turning in other Jews in their place. Jews placed in power over ghettoes often became power-hungry and tsar-like, ruling their comrades with cruelty and control, while collaborating heartily with the Nazis. The classic example of this--narrated in Primo Levi's devastating The Drowned and the Saved, was Chaim Rumkowski, Master of the ghetto in Lodz. A Jew drunk on power, he wielded dictator-like authority over his fellow Jews, exploiting them and even issuing ghetto currency with his emperor-like image on it. But in truth there were thousands of Chaim Rumkowskis. People in victimhood do not bond and become a harmonious community of Innocents--we scrape and claw and fight for scraps that might allow us to survive. When in comfort, we are ambitious and thirst for power and money;  the vast majority of us naturally suck up to those in power above us, in an endless quest for more 'success'.  

"When they say in a hundred years that the inhabitants of the ghettoes were saints, that will be the biggest lie of all."     --Holocaust survivor Bashevis Singer

We see the inclination of people to survive, at all costs, and to pursue comfort and money and Power, in the present-day ordeal of (ironically) the Palestinians. As Jews displace the Palestinians and expand Israel by taking over their lands, many Palestinians willingly collaborate and facilitate the destruction of their own people and culture. Much of the Palestinian Authority today, and especially its security apparatuses, works closely with the Israelis and helps to destroy Palestine. Ahmed Izz Halawa in Nablus aspired to resist the Israeli Occupation with arms . . . and in August 2016 was beaten to death for it. But he was not killed by the Israelis; he was murdered by Palestinian police and security men! Mahmoud Abbas is the epitome of a collaborator. He and his FATAH cohort ensure that Palestine will eventually cease to exist.

Obviously, this dimension of human nature--the overwhelming inclination of the vast majority of us to collaborate with Power for our own benefit, at the expense of others (and even those in our own community or cohort), makes all political agitation for change illogical. History, too, weighs in with a resounding conclusiveness, that the world does not and is not about to become 'a better place'. The philosoophical meaning of the Holocaust is evident, when we slip past the one-dimensional and shallow accounts that turn it into a pantheon of pure evil over pure victimhood.