In 1943, in their last successful offensive operation of the war, the Germans seized the Dodecanese Islands (off the coast of Turkey) from the surrendering Italians. There was a marginal military value in the islands, perhaps, if only to drive off the British who attempted to beat them to it (the Guns of Navarone is about this campaign). But one of the primary reasons the Germans were so determined to take the Dodecanese was that the Italians had refused to deport the several thousand Jews–Ladino speakers, originally from medieval Spain–to German death camps. The SS came in right behind the troops the troops and as soon as fighting was completed (the Brits were licked, their last complete fiasco of the war), preparations were made to collect all the Jews, seize their valuables, and transport them to Auschwitz. Upon arrival nearly all were immediately gassed. One of the oldest Jewish communities in existence was exterminated in the time it takes to take a shower.
The Germans left a force of five thousand soldiers on the strategically useless (but Judenrein) islands where they remained till the end of the war, doing nothing. But they were an afterthought anyway. Basically the Nazis launched an offensive at high risk in an area they didn’t need just so they could exterminate its Jews. Keep in mind that the Allies were already landing in nearby Italy and the Wehrmacht was desperately in need of help there, but killing the Jews came first. The Nazi regime was committed to the annihilation of all eleven million European Jews, and none, not even a few thousand on some islands in the remotest corner of the Reich, would escape if Himmler’s bureaucrats could get there to arrange the logistics.
I think you need to read some of the recent scholarship on the Nazi state to appreciate the uniqueness of it as a genocide machine. It’s primary function once the Holocaust began was the annihilation of the Jews. That was virtually the Nazi raison d’etre, and was such an obsession that it trumped more existential needs, such as defending the nation from the Russian army. Obviously the Nazis were human, and humans can do terrible things, but were not talking about the Nazis as people, those sad frail things in the docket at Nuremberg. We’re talking about them organized into a vast killing machine. There are some states that go far, far beyond being merely human to the point where they are an actual threat to humanity itself.
The Nazis are like the Mongols, another state that engaged in deliberate genocide on a scale unfathomable now. Western civilization as we know it, built upon the structure of the Roman Empire, only survived the Mongols because the Mongols had never updated their leadership succession process from the days of the small tribe. When Genghis’ heir Ögedei died suddenly in 1241, his general Subutai–perhaps the most brilliantly successful military leader in all history–had to ride from Germany to Karakoram deep in Mongolia. He called off the planned offensive that would have annihilated all the armies and leadership in his way all the way to the Atlantic. Spain would have followed soon afterward. Italy too. England would have been an easy catch. Scandinavia? The Mediterranean? Had Ögedei lived another ten years all Europe would have been under a similar yoke as Russia. As it was another brilliant Mongol leader, Batu Khan was set to conquer Europe in 1255 when he died. After that the Mongols turned to China, the Middle East and India, all of them vastly more wealthy than Western Europe. Europe was spared and western civilization as we know it survived. It’s little realized now just how close it came to destruction, and how it was sheer luck that saved us. Had either Ögedei or Batu Khan lived a decade longer, the flowering of medieval civilization, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment would never have happened. The west was actually already terribly weakened by that time, pushed into a corner of Europe, impoverished, stalled, its economy shrinking, its intellectual output meager, one more Mongol push could have finished it off. There was nothing inevitable in our rise to world domination.
And the west faced nothing even remotely like that again until the Third Reich. And while the Nazis never came that close, were never on the verge of snuffing out western civilization (though they dreamed of it) world conquest was only their secondary aim–annihilating Jews was their first goal. They stated this over and over, even on Hitler’s last day he spoke of it, as did Goebbels as Hitler’s corpse burned. And The Nazis were remarkably successful at it, virtually destroying one of the world’s oldest civilizations, that of the European Jews. And remember what it took to stop the incredibly efficient Nazi killing machine–their own outright annihilation as an entity. It had to be completely destroyed. The genocide machine was so automated that is kept operating right up until the end. Even as Soviet armies advanced to the walls of Chelmno in January, 1945, the SS methodically executed every single Jew on the grounds, dispensed with the bodies–a bone crushing machine, the Knochenmühle, helped speed along the process–and destroyed all the records because the SS was fully aware that the genocide of the Jews was a crime. Indeed, they’d known that all along, so that only within the legal system of Germany was killing Jews legal. It was a genocide of extraordinary efficiency, even banality. It was automated, bureaucratized. The killers had sick leave and benefits, they took vacations and got together for company dinners. Corruption was looked down upon–Auschwitz’s first commandant was tried and executed for pilfering–and there are mountains of memos. The SS, and in particular the RSHA, contained the best and the brightest, and it used all of the most modern organizational, technological and “best practices” of its day to carry out its mission.
This was not blood lust, this Holocaust. It was not even race hate as we think of it here–these men often expressed pity for the Jews–it was the very essence of modern civilization repurposed for the annihilation of Jews. You can find comments in the reports of Ensatzkommandos that the SS were often appalled at the Lithuanians and Ukrainians and others who pitched in to help round up and slaughter Jews. They were so unscientific, so full of hate. So murderous. But for the Nazis this wasn’t about murder. This was about removing what they considered a dangerous parasite from humanity, the Jew. It was a duty to be performed methodically, without emotion. There was no need for human feelings on the matter. The SS knew it was not easy for a civilized German to engage in such mass murder. Himmler gave pep talks to that effect. It is something that had to be done. It was race science, not lynching. It’s procedure. You can see that in the bored looks on the faces of SS men watching the Last Jew at Vinnitsa being murdered. 28,000 is a lot of Jews, not bad for a day’s work, let’s write up our status reports and call it a day. And that’s what they did.
To me that is what singles the Holocaust out. It was not people killing people, it was the processes of modern civilization exterminating people. It was best practices. It was some of the most intelligent people in one of the most intellectually advanced states on Earth, committing mass murder on a deliberate scale not seen since the Mongols in volume, organization, logic and efficiency. Indeed, the members of the Einsatzgruppen were for the most ardent Nazis what members of the Peace Corps were in our time, idealists out to improve humanity. That is how they saw themselves.
When you downplay that, downplay this genocide, comparing it to just another horrendous human tragedy, I think you lose sight of the truly awful nature of the Holocaust. That is wasn’t hate that drove it, it was logic. And that goes to the very core of western civilization. We are a civilization that prides itself on our science and logic. We make fun of superstitions, we increasingly condemn religion. Logic, we think, separates us from barbarism. And yet logic was behind the Holocaust. Just as logic was behind the eugenics movement that was quite the rage in pre-war intellectual circles through Europe and the US. George Bernard Shaw was an advocate of eugenics. George Bernard Shaw. Think of that. There is a direct logical connection between the eugenics movement on the 1930’s and the Nazi genocide of the Jews. The same principle is involved. The same thinking. It was all so perfectly logical. Only the means and ends were different. To me, that is what makes it so singularly terrifying. We are not talking about the Ku Klux Klan here. None of those lowbrow small town racist goons. We’re talking the best and the brightest and scientific theory. The Holocaust began as an intellectual movement. The division of the SS in charge, the RSHA, was like the MIT of mass murder. The elite.
Incidentally, it’s been pointed out that you could not have had the Holocaust without the industrial level mass slaughter of World War One. All that automated killing on such an enormous scale is what allowed the Nazi mind to imagine using automated methods–whether Einsatzgruppen and their methodical mass killing methods, or the ovens working on factory time tables, and those bone crushing machines producing high grade fertilizer–to kill people by the hundreds of thousands. We have an image of the First World War as mud and corpses and useless slaughter, which was true. That’s what it was for the soldiers. But not for the planners. The battles were immense set piece things, with carefully calculated artillery barrages (which became a science in itself), complex chemical warfare, tremendous logistical issues, organization on an incredible scale. All this to kill more of them than they could of you. Acceptable casualty rates that grew into the hundreds of thousand per battle. Even if a force took 90% casualties running through machine gun fire, it could be acceptable if the surviving ten percent managed to take their objective. You wound up with millions of men living in environments surrounded by the dead, bodies everywhere, till the dead became just everyday things. Everyone had seen piles of bodies and grew quite used to everything but their smell. Thus, amid the slaughter of the First World War, was the civilization of the Enlightenment exposed to the concept of economies of scale and mass production techniques, even to the use of railways to ships large number of humans in record time–first used to mobilize armies in 1914, and then a generation later to send entire populations to extermination camps. The annihilation of the Jews of Hungary in Austerlitz is a truly impressive accomplishment, in strictly logistical terms. Eichmann was rightly proud of it from his Nazi point of view. It was a marvel of German efficiency. And imagine, then, had the Third Reich not lost the war how the Holocaust would become standard operating procedure. It’s not the killing that makes the Holocaust special. It’s best practices learned in World War One. You can kill huge numbers of people if you do it right, without even getting your hands dirty, and it’s just a job like any other job. Some people manage milk bottling plants. Some people managed extermination camps. Take that forward a generation and some people were managing ICBM complexes with procedures to be followed that would wipe out hundreds of millions of people. As with the Holocaust, it was also carefully planned out, with documents documenting the step by step processes. Nothing was off the cuff. There was no improvisation. It was best practices. Killing is easy, if done big enough.
I’m not trying to say that other horrors, African slavery among them, weren’t horrors. Indeed, I compare the slaveocracy in the south to the Third Reich. Not that it compared in methods and aims, but there was a lot of the same sort of thinking, but 19th century style, pre-industrial. To read the writings of the thinking class in the American slave states in the 1850’s is eye opening. There’s a comforting illusion developed in the past 150 years that slavery would have disappeared even if the Civil War not been fought, but it is nonsense. Slavery was in better shape in the 1850’s than it had ever been, and indeed was ceaselessly trying to expand out of the South, which is what so much of American politics had been about since the War of 1812. And slavery would not have disappeared but expanded as the south industrialized (this is the current academic thinking), as slavery is just as suited to industry as it is to agriculture, and what industry did exist in the ante-bellum south was quite dependent on slave labor. Slavery would have been proven a viable economic system into the 20th century. Had the Confederacy decisively won the Civil War it would have begun expanding south into the Caribbean and west to California. Southern California would have had a slave economy. (The climate here is perfect for year round agriculture, which maximizes a slave’s profit making potential.) Had Britain and France entered the war on the side of the Confederacy–a real possibility in 1862–slavery could have regained some of the acceptability (or tolerance, anyway) it had lost to the Abolitionist movement over the previous hundred years. Slavery now is as wrong a means of production as we can imagine. That is, at least in America, because the North won the Civil War and criminalized slavery. Until then not everyone thought it was bad, not even outside the United States. Until then it was just another way of making a living. Maybe people didn’t like it, but they could live with it. There had always been slavery, they figured. It was older than capitalism. It was a natural way of doing things. The slave owning class in the American South saw themselves as the direct descendants of a natural social order that had existed since the Old Testament. It was the industries of the North, said southerners, that were new and alien and unnatural.
The destruction of slavery in America in the 1860’s is one of the most important revolutions of the modern era. But because it was so successful in completely destroying the institution of slavery, we can’t see just how dramatic a change it was. There are hundreds of thousands of neo Nazis today, and probably a couple million sympathizers. Even the absolute destruction of the Third Reich failed to eliminate Nazism. It remains a threat. But there is almost no one who advocates a return to the chattel slavery of pre-Civil War America. Not even the KKK calls for that. The very concept has been purged from western civilization. Abraham Lincoln did that. Had he bungled the war who knows where we’d be now. But it is because of the magnitude of Union’s victory that people don’t realize just how important to western civilization the American Civil War was. It made the Nazi slave labor system a crime against humanity. It made the Soviet gulag system the blemish that communism can’t seem to escape. (And it makes many people wonder what the hell is going on in Angola Penitentiary.)
People also don’t realize that slavery was not only a successful labor system, but was even more successful as a financial system. The slaveocrats had more wealth in their slaves than there was in all the other forms of wealth put together in the US–industry, banks, shipping, farming, railroads, everything–with the sole exception of the value of all the land in the US itself. Only all the real estate in the US was worth more than all the slaves, though of course real estate wealth was diffused, while much of slave wealth was concentrated and even more importantly could be turned immediately into cash. Land took longer to sell. If a slave, on average, was worth $800 in 1860, and there were four million slaves, that comes to over $3 billion in 1860 dollars (or nearly a hundred billion 2015 dollars). This system seems to be the result of the fact that so few slaves shipped from Africa–around 300,000 or so, about four per cent of the total–arrived in the United States. The vast majority of slaves were sent to Brazil and the Caribbean, where work was so brutal they rarely survived long. A steady supply made them cheap and disposable. The slave system in the United States was forced to raise their own slaves. That three hundred thousand were, with careful husbandry, grown into a workforce of six million or so. And as the supply from Africa was limited and eventually dried up altogether in the 1820’s, slaves became a very valuable commodity. Soon a banking and finance and insurance system evolved to meet the needs of both slave owners and slave traders. Slaves attained such a value that one’s wealth could be measured in the value of one’s slaves. Slavery attained a place in the pre-war South’s economy like that of real estate now.
Even if slaves themselves were of no use outside the South, the wealth in slaves extended the south’s reach far beyond its borders. The southern slave owners were a vastly rich and powerful class, and their financial power reached throughout the United States and across the globe. By banning slavery, an entire financial class and all its accoutrements was eliminated, their power and influence ended. Their kind was never to be seen again. Only in Brazil did slavery, much weakened by manumission and drought and popular resentment, linger on for another generation. Brazil ended it, finally, in 1888.
Much like the Germans’ race theory driven National Socialism, the American South believed that owning slaves made them morally and physically indomitable both as men and as a civilization. Just like Germans who saw strength and world domination in their genocide–killing the Jews went hand in hand with expanding German power in the Nazi mind–to the southern slaveocrat elite their Peculiar Institution was an institution that would make the South a world power and be the guiding light and future of all mankind. God intended the slave owners to rule. It’s the white man’s burden thing carried to the extreme degree. A degree not surpassed until the Third Reich.
Yet while slavery is an abomination, one of humanity’s great horrors, it never achieved its modern apogee because, unlike the Germans, the Confederates were hapless and mostly incompetent in matters of war and administration. And, also unlike the Germans, slavery benefitted mostly the large landowners and financiers. (The middle class slave owners, of which there were far more than realized now, were concentrated in the border states, states retaken by the North early in the war if they had seceded at all). So while National Socialism was bought by the entire population of Germany and almost all the European Ausländers (Germans living outside Germany), the townsmen and peasantry of the American South tired quickly of the war (remember secession was not universally popular to begin with) and the Confederate government had to deal with widespread internal rebellion (also forgotten today). And then there’s this–slavery disintegrated as soon as even a small party of Union soldiers showed up in the neighborhood. But German genocide had little economic purpose–killing is easy. It had no purpose other than killing Jews. Slavery is a much more difficult undertaking, and unlike the genocide of the Jews was extremely sensitive to outside interference. Slavery would have thrived had the South not declared independence, something they quickly became bitterly aware of. As soon as the Union’s armies or even a single gunboat approached, the plantations hemorrhaged slaves. The southern economy, indeed its very economic engine, dissolved.
But Auschwitz continued operating right up until Himmler ordered all the death camps closed as the Russian armies moved in, and all the remaining inmates were to be killed on the spot or force marched to other camps. Whereas slavery was in its death throes by 1865, existing only in places that Union troops had not reached, in Germany the Holocaust was one of the few institutions in the Third Reich that existed right up until the very end of the war in Europe, surviving even the capture of the camps, becoming mobile, death camps turned into death marches, until in many places the only aspect of the Nazi state still existing were the SS involved in killing Jews. The SS remained even as the liberators moved in, as if convinced the Holocaust would survive even the end of the Reich itself.
As a genocide, the Holocaust had an extraordinary vitality, it seemed like nothing could kill it except it Allied armies. The only Holocaust I can think of that compares in tenacity was the Killing Fields of Cambodia, which only stopped when the Viet Namese army moved in and drove off Pol Pot. Like the Holocaust, the Killing Fields defied any logic but its own perfect logic. It’s that logic, the logical thought process which has been a cornerstone of western thinking since the Greeks, surviving even the Dark Ages, that makes certain Holocausts so terrifying. People massacre entire peoples because they hate–Rwanda is a perfect example of that, a St. Bartholomew’s Massacre across a whole country–and people exploit people to the point of annihilation if it makes them money (think of some tribes wiped out early in the Spanish Conquest). And people wipe out peoples all the time to gain their land (think just about anywhere).
But on rare occasions people wipe out people because a political philosophy decrees it necessary to do so, with impeccable logic. Marx somehow became the political basis of the Killing Fields. The Holocaust had elaborate ideological and legal writings justifying it. The implications of this are terrifying. It wasn’t just murder, it was the result of a well thought out doctrines. It made perfect sense. The ideology made the genocide necessary, justified and inevitable. Indeed, for a good Nazi or member of the Khmer Rouge, it would be morally wrong not to exterminate Jews or enemies of the Revolution. Their belief system required it, and they believed implicitly in the validity of those belief systems. The fanaticism of the members of the Islamic State we see now is nothing new. Indeed, it can trace its justifications back to the same logic that drove the Nazis and, via Marx by way of Mao, the government of Pol Pot. Islamic thought in its Golden Age (circa 750-1250 A.D.) was just as hip to logical thought processes of the Greeks as were the intellectuals and academics of the west. Its in our shared cultural genome.
Remember too, that both Islam and the West are rooted in Persian thought, the binary world view of Zoroaster a thousand or so years before Christ and well before the Greeks (indeed, well before the Persian Empire or even its predecessor the Median Empire, as if Christ or Confucius or Mohammed had lived before the Roman Empire or China or the Arabs existed.) We inherited the ancient Persian world of truth and lie, of good vs evil in eternal battle. There is probably nothing more fundamental to both the Islamic world and the west than our shared binary view. Everything is truth or lie or right or wrong and, by extension, good or bad. The internet has only exacerbated this. It’s our default position. It is so much a part of us, so fundamental to how we view, interpret and think, that we are not even aware of it. We like to think we are the inheritors of the Greek way of thinking but only in part, because we are far more inculcated in the thought of the ancient Persian Empire, in some fundamental ways the ur-civilization of the west. Our binary world view, good and evil in eternal battle, all that goes back to the first Holy Book, the Avesta, the word of Zoroaster. The seeds of western ideological fanaticism lie in the Persian Empire. Ironically we celebrate Alexander the Great, a pagan, as its conqueror, as if we are his descendants and the Persians utterly alien to all that we believe, yet Alexander couldn’t recognize our outlook at all today. He would be utterly at a loss to understand why we think like we do. Oh, he could tease out our Aristotelian antecedents. But good vs evil made no sense to him. And we are absolutely lost without our binary world view. Alexander, to us, would be a madman lunatic on Facebook, some nut with a reality show sacrificing to various gods and doing macho, dangerous things. But give Zoroaster a Facebook account and he’d have a zillion followers in no time at all, because he would recognize all our sturm and drang as the battle between truth and lie, and he would show us the Way.
Zoroaster was all about free will but I wonder just how much free will we have now after centuries of truth vs lie, right vs wrong, good vs evil. That world view is so ingrained into us. Our brains think like that now. We process information like that now. How much of it is innate? If there truly was free will would eighty million Germans have followed a lunatic like Hitler to absolute destruction? How could so many smart, even brilliant people be stupid enough to believe the Jews needed to be murdered en masse to save civilization? It’s not instinct, but the thinking can be so automatic it might as well be. The entire German Volk pitched in to save the world from the evil of world Jewry. It was inconceivable that they were wrong. The Truth of the Führer versus the lies of the Jew. They believed that till the bitter end. There was almost no rebellion against Hitler. They believed in him and his anti-Semitism till the country was conquered, leveled, broken, destroyed.
There’s a famous picture of German prisoners of war watching concentration camp footage. They looked stunned. They all knew Jews were being dealt with, but most had never seen the camps, the ovens. Probably everyone of these soldiers had known Jewish families before the War. Unlike in Poland, German Jews were fully integrated into German society. They were Germans. Germany, before the First World War, had been in many ways a model state, without caste and dangerous religious bigotry. You can see the looks on these soldier’s faces when they realize what happened to their Jewish neighbors. The Holocaust machine was broken, and suddenly the Jews are people again. These Nazis are people again. Hell, most of them weren’t even Nazis. They just went along. It wasn’t like a howling lynch mob. Kristalnacht had been one ugly night that left Germans very uncomfortable. The Holocaust was a smoothly running machine, quite neat and clean, very efficient, quite logical. It’s just they never saw the pictures before.
Myrmecologists, that is entomologists who specialize in ants, the E.O. Wilsons of biology, speak of certain species as being fascist, world domineering ants. Our own household pest the Argentine ant is one, as it automatically wars and eventually destroys any other species of ant it comes across. There are several species like these. Not too many–were they all like this there’d be only one remaining species, the victor in all the endless ant wars to the death, and then something would have happened, a disease or fungus or climate change, and that last remaining ant species would have died out and there’d be no more ants in the world. But there are a few of these fascist, world dominating species, and myrmecologists joke darkly that if one of those species had the nuclear bomb the world would end in a week. Destroying an enemy ant colony is worth destroying yourselves over. Ant colonies do this regularly. The reason is that they are genetically programmed to war to the death. They will immediately attempt to destroy whatever colony they come across that is different from them. It’s not logic, obviously–they have brains the size of a head of a pin–but the genes are perfectly logical. Annihilation makes perfect sense. The Holocaust has always struck me as the same thing, though instead of genetic programming, a philosophy developed into an ideology that contained within it the logic that requires the absolute total annihilation of perceived enemies. The Nazis used Einsatzgruppen and ovens because they had no nuclear weapons. If the Third Reich had nuclear weapons, the world would have been over in a week.
Because to Hitler the total destruction of Germany was worth it if the world could be rid of the Jews. In the Führerbunker at war’s end, he said just that. And that was the logic of the Holocaust. It was the logic of World War One, when empires destroyed themselves to destroy each other. And it might have been the logic of World War Three. Destroying the village in order to save it. Who knows how close we came during the Cold War? And do we still have within us the seeds of that logic? Or were circumstances just perfect between 1914 and 1945 for nihilism on such a vast scale? Maybe so, maybe we’re not like that anymore, and maybe that is why we are still here, and not radioactive cinders throwing shadows by the light of the moon.
I discuss the fate of indigenous Americans in The Spanish conquest hit the population of the Americas like a thermo-nuclear war.
I discuss the end of the Third Reich in Operation Bagration.
I discuss Zoroaster in Zoroaster.
I discuss fascist, world domineering ants in Two giant tiny civilizations trying to conquer the world beneath our feet.