by Sarah Roark
What we allow is not just what we condone—it’s what we become.
Editor’s note: This piece was originally posted before the Coronavirus pandemic and the conditions in which immigrants are being detained in concentration camps and prisoners are being locked down in potentially deadly prisons. It is being reposted now with all the more relevance.
The Topography of Terror Museum in Berlin recently marked Holocaust Remembrance Day with the unveiling of a newly-discovered trove of rare photos taken by a deputy commandant at the Sobibor Nazi death camp—a significant find, given how few images from the camp have been found to date.
The photos embody one of the lessons of the Nazi era that remains so crucial and yet at the same time so hard to digest, what Hannah Arendt referred to as the “banality of evil.” Here at one of the most infamous sites of mass murder in history we see not blood-soaked monsters, but ordinary people doing very ordinary things. In one picture, uniformed SS guards and men and women in civilian clothes gather for drinks and a smoke on a patio in the sunshine, smiling and chatting.
Uniforms aside, it looks like any other party, really. Mostly because it is like any other party. It’s chilling only in context: the gas chambers are unseen but close by.
More than 70 years later, we still can’t seem to fully wrap our minds around this by now well-established reality. But it doesn’t care how much trouble we have believing it. It just sits there, stubborn proof in black and white of a thing that definitely happened. (And happened again, and happened again.) It’s part of why we have Holocaust Remembrance Day in the first place. The truth this photo represents may be hard to explain or accept but shouldn’t be remotely difficult to keep in memory.
And that terrible truth is, these were very ordinary people. Not monsters. Not at all. No psych screening for the dark triad would have ever flagged most of them. Yet here they are, toasting each other’s health with fine glassware likely stolen from their murder victims. Why? Because it had become the way of things, and we have strong instincts to conform to the way of things no matter what that way is, especially when the other ordinary people around us seem to think it’s fine too.
So if you don’t think your own moral compass could ever possibly be spun around by living under a fully-consolidated fascist US government under Trump and Pence? Think again. The past teaches us otherwise.
If you don’t think you can be lulled into gradually accepting worse and worse atrocities while telling yourself at every stage of the process “Well, at least I’m not having a patio party at Sobibor!”, then you need to do some research on how this process actually works. I personally recommend They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer, based on personal postwar interviews with Germans of different professions and views. One of them, who had taken the hated loyalty oath only to keep his engineering job, recounted to Mayer:
“But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.
“And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jew swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose.” [Mayer, Milton. They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 (pp. 170-171). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.]
But that’s only one study of many. There’s a lot of good research out there, collected and analyzed over many years by those who also wanted to understand how this was possible so they could make a gift of that knowledge to us, their descendants. Don’t ignore all they struggled to learn. Don’t just decide you’re immune because, well, you’re not a bad person.
Most of these people running Sobibor weren’t either. To believe you would of course respond differently—in other words, to believe that you can swim in nuclear waste and not end up radioactive—requires a conviction that you’re somehow inherently superior to these startlingly normal human beings. Are you sure you are? I’m not sure I am.
Humans are deep-wired social creatures. Psychology and sociology as well as history coldly demonstrate that what we think of as our “selves” and our “identity” are far more mutable and mediated by our environment than we ever care to admit. If you live in a society where people have picnics at lynchings or patio parties at a death camp, you can’t expect to be less affected by that than you are by experiences of the opposite, of compassion or justice. Whether you’re literally at that picnic or on that patio, or not, such an environment will compromise the very “you” that you so want to believe actually exists. As that environment degrades, you degrade with it. Step A leads to step B, and so on to step D. (And I’m speaking here of the adults. No need to think forward to the children who’ll be parroting Trumpist slogans.)
This is an argument people tend to find disturbing or even enraging. They don’t want to contemplate the dissolution of the person they have been up till now as one of the possible casualties of fascist tyranny, or any kind of tyranny. Of course they don’t. Neither do I. But there’s no point in shooting messengers. Facts can’t be argued away. They can, however, be faced and dealt with.
That’s all our elders who swore “Never Again” wanted. Most of us never chose to be put into the rapidly deteriorating ethical environment where we Americans are now so shocked to find ourselves; all we get to choose is what to learn about it, and what to do in response—at least before the ability to respond is lost to us. But that itself is a great power that can revive hope for humanity, the moment we begin to exercise it.
We can let ourselves be gradually prepared to have drinks at Sobibor someday. Or we can refuse the invitation now, in advance. What we decide about that becomes who we are.