Interview with a former Auschwitz prison guard

It is interesting throughout, here is just one bit:

SPIEGEL: What did people talk about?

W.: People weren’t enthused about the leadership. We of course knew and everybody almost felt that it couldn’t end well, that it couldn’t been good when trains were being brought here full of people who were then getting killed. We all had that feeling. But, I mean, when you’re a soldier …

[Commentary] In the personnel files of camp staff members, there are official declarations stating, “I may not cause bodily harm or death to opponents of the state (prisoners).” It also states, “I am aware and I have been informed today that I will be punished by death if I misappropriate Jewish property of any kind.” The SS team at Auschwitz — a camp where the indiscriminate torture, robbing and murder of people was part of everyday life — were required to pledge in advance to do precisely the opposite.

One could view forms like that as a special form of cynicism. Or one could see it as a pseudo-legal facade aimed at covering up the Holocaust. One provision called for “absolute secrecy” to be maintained. In practice, it had no meaning.

The full interview is here.


"SPIEGEL: What did people talk about?" What do uneducated young males normally talk about?

This is typical of government in general. High minded ethics are posted on the wall and trumpeted in training, but common practice was the exact opposite and rewards flowed to those who best skirted the letter and spirit of the law.

Yes. Government in general acts just like Nazis. Only government trumpets high minded ethics while doing something else. Wish I could write more on this but I have to go to a late wedding at a Catholic church. Tomorrow I am having breakfast with an old friend who is a retired investment banker.


Enjoy your evening. Ive got mass early tomorrow morning, so Im off to bed soon.

Steve, no one else does it with guns.

I have never had an interaction with gov't, nor has anyone I know (and I know people who've been arrested), where guns were used.

Ohh I get what you're saying, push hard enough and maybe at some point a gun is going to come out. That's hardly unique to gov't. For example, if I stiff people on my debts long enough it's possible someone will show up with a gun sooner or later.

False. Stiff people on your debts and you might get sued and see your credit rating drop. That's it. Millions of people stiff their creditors every year in America; none is threatened with a gun. Stop living in the Hollywood fantasy world where businesses use violence. In America, only governments and street gangs do that.

Really? Suppose I don't pay my mortgage but refuse to leave my home? Will the only bad thing that could happen to me is my credit rating will drop? At some point I'm going to be removed from the house and it will be by someone with a gun, if needed.

It is also true in the corporate world in general. The more online ethics classes you take the more you realize that many of the examples of" unethical behavior" are meant as suggestions. I suppose you could call it Straussian.

People here keep saying Straussian. I dont know what that means.

Neither do they.

LOL. That's what I meant. :)

My life has become so Straussian that non-Straussian it has no meaning anymore.

Wait, you are a lawyer!

LOL, of course I know who Leo Strauss is. I just don't understand precisely what people mean when they say Straussian.

Meaning the opposite of what you say?

They were just doing their job, like IRS employees, prison guards, TSA agents, FBI agents, and so on.

This is sadly not news. Hitler charged Heydrich with organizing the final solution in a way that would maintain plausible deniability, hence the Wannsee conference and the secrecy concerning the project. Eichman once sent Himmler a cable that didn't obfuscate behind code words, and was upbraided for it. They took to heart the lesson of "who remembers today the Armenian genocide?", I.e. If the victims are disappeared, no one will ask embarrassing questions.

The Einsatzgruppen were perfectly able to kill people with gunfire at deathcamp rates, and stalin racked up quite a body count with the same method. the main reason they were abandoned in favor of gas was that the executions were "bad for morale." I've always found it particularly horrifying that people were perfectly willing to shoot tens of thousands to death for no reason, and that while it would make them sad, it wouldn't make them uncomfortable enough to refuse their orders, just uncomfortable enough to cause their bosses enough trouble that they decided to find a different method.

The penalty for refusing was rather harsh, not that coercion is a defense. Growing up as a Jew whose family escaped Poland, I have often tried to wear the shoes of a German soldier. In the JAG Corps, I volunteered to learn and teach Law of War. While I'm knowledgeable of what lawful actions in war are, I am still mystified at how otherwise normal people can become so callous and indifferent. My one brief experience in a rather "safe" war was not instructive. I had considered joining the IDF, but did not. I'd like to think that could never be me on the wrong end of a war crime, but I admit I can't be sure.

'The penalty for refusing was rather harsh, not that coercion is a defense.'

There was no harsh penalty for refusing to do it the first time, at least in some of the first units involved in carrying out mass shootings, according to the documented sources which are part of this work - 'Browning is best known for his 1992 book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, a study of German Ordnungspolizei (Order Police) Reserve Unit 101, which used to commit massacres and round-ups of Jews for deportations to the Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland in 1942.'

If I recall, before the first mass shooting, it was possible to refuse. Yes, those who went out and shot men, women, and children would consider you a coward, and you got the shit jobs (and when talking about military field operations, shitty definitely applies to some of the jobs).

For a record of what one of the first units involved in mass killing did, and to see how effective they were compared to mass transport with an industrial approach to disposing of the bodies, the link provides some information.

Dealing with 43,000 bodies is beyond a shitty job - as has been seen both historically in the Teutoburg Forest or more recently in the Katyn Forest. Meaning that the possibility to argue that a mass slaughter occurred is much more limited.

Incinerating massacred victims was a modern twist, as is something like the need to name campaigns of mass slaughter - Aktion Erntefest/Action Harvest Festival was the name of its last slaughter.

"I admit I can’t be sure"

Decide now. Better yet, get your kids and grandkids to decide. Better yet, figure out how to make the cost of opting out lower and the cost of coercing higher.

Let's assume that someone was conscripted into the SS. And that it was made clear that they were not allowed to be transferred. And that if they did not do their job, they would be shot. [Of course many volunteered. Many did have an option to leave. Many were in positions of authority where they could have done 'less', or they could have inhibited the genocide. Many want beyond their orders in the cruelty they inflicted. And for all those people, history should judge them harshly.] But for those that were faced with being shot, what else were they supposed to do?

If A puts a gun to B's head and says he must press some button that will kill C. And that if B does not comply then A will shoot B immediately. Assume that based on previous experience that it is certain that A will carry out his threat and that B cannot run away or someone prevent A from carrying out his plan. Assume that the penalty for murder is death. Would you say B is guilty of murder if he presses the button and kills C? Would you then put him to death? If so, B is screwed, because no matter what he does, someone else is going to violently kill him. Some people might call B a victim (in addition to C).

The purpose of punishment is to change behavior. Here a nation state punished people for refusing to do something between 1933 and 1945. Decades later it punished people for not refusing to do something during that period - that is, it punished them for not breaking the law. It makes a mockery of the whole notion of punishment. Why obey the law if it will be ex post facto the law is changed and you will be punished for obeying it. Indeed the victors write the history and had the Nazis won WWII then history would record SS guards as saints and the people who refused as evil. And now people who obeyed the law in Britain and the US by fighting the Nazis would be the ones being prosecuted for obeying an 'obviously' immoral law.

And if you persist on insisting that they should have refused to take part even in the certain knowledge of being shot, then anyone nowadays could violate any law they choose and claim that their conscience says they must do it and that history will vindicate them in 200 years. And you can't morally censure them because who knows maybe they will be right. [If you don't believe the initial assumption, then you could just require that people obey the law when they are not being coerced and you don't have to worry about people second guessing current law because the threat of punishment absolves them from moral wrongdoing when the law is immoral.]

You could shift in another direction as well: If someone believes in God and believes that they will go to paradise for refusing to commit murder then it makes sense that they would do so. If they don't believe that, then some people are expecting that others must die in service of of a belief alone. It doesn't seem reasonable.

And what if doing X at t=1 is deemed good at t=1. Then at t=2 it is deemed bad even when done at t=1. Then at t=3 it is deemed good again when done at t=1. Then at t=4 it is bad. And so on. What the hell are people supposed to do? Maybe in the future we will change our minds and then back again. And who says that people are wiser at t=3 than at t=2. Think about homosexuality. In Greece and Rome 2500 years ago it was good. Then starting around 1600 years ago it was bad. And now starting around 30 years ago it started getting good again. And who knows, maybe in 1000 years we will find out that being gay is bad for some new reason. Now what? Do you have to second guess what will happen in 1000 years time? Are you evil because you are tolerant of gays and go to their weddings?

I think it's not reasonable to expect people to behave according to some moral code that is outside of the time and place they are living. Heck, I think it requires that we show humility and realize that it's often not so obvious what is right and wrong to begin with, if there even is such a concept. Growing up in Europe after 1900 people may have been surrounded by propaganda that Jews were evil and revolting. And then if they went to high school in 1930s Germany they would have been brainwashed. The only thing I can think of is that there were parts of German society that knew that Jews were not evil and that people hated them only because they were different. And that many people somehow would have 'known' this. Perhaps, especially those who knew Jews in person.

But according to this theory anyone who believed in the legitimacy of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe between 1946 and 1989 was also evil because they should have been fighting for human rights. Does that mean most people cooperating with dictatorships (ie not opposing them and obeying their laws) are evil? If you are an atheist, then do you believe religious people are evil? If you believe that the historical evidence shows that Mohamed did not talk with an angel and that he made up false stories, then do you believe all Muslims are evil? What about people who don't follow the data and believe we should follow certain policies to the point of forcing other people to do things based on nothing other then blind prejudice - this happens in economics, criminal justice, occupation and employment law, and healthcare. Many times these 'wrong' opinions kill and I mean in the hundreds of thousands every year. And they certainly create much unnecessary poverty.

So how about an alternative theory. Most people are quite stupid and are slaves to their emotions even if they are not. They are ignorant and have not been sufficiently educated to understand many areas of thought. People are strongly biased to believe what is in their interest. There are all kinds of studies that show that humans behave in accordance with the majority opinion. They are 'sheeple'. And it's not valid to expect 99.9% of people to behave any differently to how the mores of their day dictate. And besides, all the latest neuroscience strongly implies there is no such thing as free will. So if you force someone under pain of death to do something, it's patently absurd to moralize about their action and to 'punish' them later.

Got that out of your system?

This is a great comment.

In the specific case of the SS, I think the answer should be to declare the entire organization and membership of the entire organization illegal, which is reasonable because such an organization would never have been allowed to operate if either the Second Reich had continued, or the Weimer Republic had actually gotten the police and courts to cooperate with them. Being forced into the organization under duress would have been a valid defense to both the charge of membership of an illegal organization, and for many potential crimes that someone would commit due to being a member. The sentence for just being a member of the SS would involve various legal disabilities, mostly designed to keep former SS members from reappearing as federal and state police officers, and loss of pension, but no jail time.

However, since it would be understood that just being a member of the SS would mean committing crimes, to be convicted of additional crimes beyond just being a member it would have to be shown basically that this is something that even run of the mill SS members wouldn't do. This would be a good approach if we decide after the fact that we have problems with how entire organizations/ countries/ religions in the past approach things. Just sanction just being a part of the whole scene (and the sanction doesn't have to be judicial, it could be in the form of reparations) but try not to pretend that people weren't part of that scene in making additional judgements.

Many of Stalin's executioners went insane and ended up committing suicide (or being executed themselves by a second tier of NKVD killers). Retail killing exacts a terrible psychic toll on its implements. The Nazis' singular accomplishment was the industrialization of the process, from planning (using punched-card IT eagerly provided by IBM) to transportation logistics, to slave labor profit maximization, to efficient mass-murder. The only part they had not fully cracked was disposal of the evidence, despite significant engineering effort expended in researching high-throughput crematoria.

Is it really your contention that IBM executives in Endicott, N.Y. were knowing and happy participants in a mass killing enterprise with an enemy nation in the middle of a world war?

Death camp guards who volunteered for combat units were not punished or threatened with punishment. That would have been dysfunctional for the objectives of the regime. Individual behavior is always and everywhere a question of the price one is willing to pay.

We have heard stories from Vietnam of individual commanding officers threatening those requesting transfer.

It is weird to be prosecuted by the same country that made you do the evil things.

Transfer to what, Andrew?

Transferring to another unit that isn't going to threaten your life if you break the code of silence.

Yeah. My point is, being threatened for requesting a transfer is not unheard of. And to echo another commenter and the end of the post, if the higher ups say "we take fragging of whistleblowers very seriously" the first thing it does is give people ideas and the second is it tells you they don't really take it all that seriously.

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Makes one wonder what sort of security guards they use.

The hotel staff has signed that they won't steal tourists property or treat them rudely.

So how did it come to pass that the victims of nazi brutality have descendants quite willing to impose brutality on defenceless peasants? The recent carnage in Gaza is collective punishment of the kind that would have been seen as normal for the nazis. The Jews in the Warsaw ghettos as well as the French resistance both used tunnels to resist the persecution. I'm ashamed of what Israel has become.

There are no peasants in Gaza. It's a welfare dump. The 'carnage' is not 'collective punishment'. It's what happens in warfare because weapons technology is imperfect. If people in Gaza wish to live a quiet life, they can quit building tunnels, dismantle their artillery, and stop placing their artillery in hospital courtyard.

I’m ashamed of what Israel has become.

Who would care? Your judgements are tendentious and malicious and no sensible person would want your good opinion.

Maybe 'it came to pass' that you, in despair, expect always to be hated and don't see a way to win in a peaceful way. Certainly the Palestinians have accommodated them in that in that after the recent conflict their leaders all round have said they will eventually win against the 'occupiers' like they did the 'Crusaders'. But maybe there was/ even will be a way with Hamas on the ropes and accepting unity with the PA to have some better management of Gaza*.


"everybody almost felt that it couldn’t end well,"

A certain deep understatement that.

I recall from _Bloodlands_ that many death camp guards were recruited from POW camps where they were essentially being left to starve to death.

The restrictive rules might just be another level of coercion -- you take a workforce that has no options, work them under conditions where life obviously has no value, and impose work conditions where it's clear that anyone can be denounced at any time.

Nasty people, the Nazis.

In the 1960's I was in Germany in the US Army and hated it. I requested transfer to Vietnam by way of a 1049 and they thought I was nuts. A few months later they transferred me to a place that had no barracks. It was fine after that.

I went in when I was 18. I am glad I was never commanded to do something I would have found objectionable. I knew a lot of men in the Wehrmacht back then - they were in their 40's and 50's. All of them had been on the Russian front and made it back home. They were all glad not to have been a part of the death camps to a man.

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