The wind was more energetic, rowdier than it should have been. Perhaps I merely wanted the place to be completely silent. The grass outside the gatehouse looked like bare, naked seaweed, and from my vantage point in the guard tower it seemed as though it could swallow up worlds, and hold them boiling out of sight under the soil. Gravel underfoot and crow-song in the trees heralded the dullness of high summer. The barracks hung in the dampness, and a gulf opened in the clouds as I departed. The sun began its descent below the maw of the horizon, and its bronze light caught the letters of the wire sign over my head and held it above me: “Arbeit macht frei.”
One would think that Auschwitz would be a life-changing experience. I do not know what I expected. Something loud, obvious. There is a near-throwaway line in Schindler’s List: “Do we have to invent a whole new language?” Sonderbehandlung – special treatment – is the death sentence. German had defeated itself by creating the dullest, most uninspired contradiction of all: the one most insipidly literal in its bloodsoaked euphemism. Of course it is not special. Of course. Work does not make you free.
Germania has been in the rut of Fimbulwinter, the chill first of the Nordic presages of Ragnarök, for the greater part of the past century. Germania was “[geweihte] / [Jungfräuliche] Erde,” the protective female presence who gave out counsel to the kings and princes of her soil in the eponymous poem by Hölderlin. By the halfway mark of the next century, Paul Celan could dub “Tod,” “ein Meister aus Deutschland,” – death, a master from Germany. Something gave out in the century-and-a-half between the two, some core of decency and responsibility was fatally lost or was misunderstood. Germania was Europe’s poetically kind mother, but by ’45 lay weighing upon the continent like a black-hearted succubus. Standing outside Auschwitz, there was a kernel of the totality of this shift that nagged at the back of my brain.
Historiographical portraiture of the Nazi period depicts the German Volk as being a mob that can be cooed to with a happy lilt of Semite-bashing, satiated with bread and circuses and a job in the armaments factory. Looking at the heaped piles of stolen luggage, hair, and confiscated personal valuables, I was less horrified by the act itself than by its childishness. I do not have what you have, it said, so I will take it, because I carry the club. Immaturity on a mass-scale is the death rattle of a civilization.
There is an element of infantile self-deception which is salient in German fascism. It was called Gleichschaltung: a bringing-into-line, a leveling, equalization under the party platform, a synchronization of the efforts of mind, body, and soul. The ideal was couched in Nordicisms, given a blonde Nordic face, and then ordered about in tin-soldier file at Nürnberg and the ’36 Olympiad, to the clapping of fat, ugly Nazi brass. Of course, we shan’t forget that the best Aryan was blond like Hitler, tall like Goebbels, slim like Göring, blue-eyed as Hess, clever as Eva Braun, and bore the name Rosenberg.
Denial and grubby self-justification became the norm for the most Nazified of the Nazis when the façade came crashing down. There is a sly, puerile, and utterly unintentional humor inherent in the desperate, salvage-speeches of the Nazi brass. There is talk of duty, hidden threats, and personal honor.
“Ich fühle mich nicht schuldig an irgendwelchen Kriegsverbrechen, ich habe nur meine Pflicht als Sicherheitsorgan getan und weigere mich, als Ersatz für Himmler zu dienen.” -Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Obergruppenführer und General der Polizei, SS. Duty, duty, duty!
“…wir hatten die Pflicht unserem Volk gegenüber das zu tun, dieses Volk, das uns umbringen wollte, umzubringen.” Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer-SS. Duty!
Nazism is accused of being the exaggeration of German masculinity; Klaus Theweleit called his childhood beatings from his father his first lessons in fascism. I, however, accuse Nazism of the opposite: it was the infantilization of the German male, his reduction to an unthinking, irresponsible wolfman. Infants are jealous, greedy, and domineering, and every drop of blood spilled in the name of a totalitarian regime is an act of infant-cruelty. Composed of lean, hungry men with lightning-collars and fenrir-eyes gleaming murder, firing squads are the epitome of infantile.
In the Nerobefehl, ’45, Hitler orders the destruction of all military and civilian facilities capable of sustaining the Allied push towards Berlin: “Der Kampf um die Existenz unseres Volkes zwingt auch innerhalb des Reichsgebietes zur Ausnutzung aller Mittel, die die Kampfkraft unseres Feindes schwächen und sein weiteres Vordringen behindern,” or, in personal translation, “The struggle for the existence of our People necessitates the exploitation of all resources within the domain of the Reich which weaken the ability of our enemy to fight and prevent his further advance.” This entails their destruction; sie sind zu zerstören. If the Allies must win, so it goes, the German people shall be dragged into a second Dark Age to take the sting away from the Führer’s wounded pride. Hitler’s Endsieg, his vast gamble on Europe, that gangrenous hoodwinking of the German male, was never even valid. It was a counterproductive enterprise from its inception. The Midgard serpent is coiled round, it has sunk its fangs into its own tail. Out of Hitler’s rhetoric spews the river Ván, corrosive, poison-drivel. Und morgen die ganze Welt!
There is a tacit assumption which underlies all discussion of the Shoah: remembrance is the golden calf, the idol held up, but what is there to actually remember? Remembrance, in its full vividness and with an ounce of self-respecting honesty, is to invite nightmares. Battering at the gates of one’s fogged-over subconscious to drudge up the spectre of some past monstrosity, why? Nie wieder, never again, nie, nie, nie wieder? Repeated enough, it becomes half-incantation, the sort of formula to lay on a mummified corpse. Remembrance is not enough. One must cry out for resistance. The Germanic psyche is afforded mystified self-flagellation as the only balm to satiate what was once assumed to be its inherent aggression.
If Hitler is to be finally explained, banished and ultimately overcome, he must be overcome in a German way, drawing on the past 2,000 years of Germanic history. There is no room for the hand-wringing and crocodile tears of dilettante Marxism. Hitler is not German. He is the degeneracy of the German spirit, an intruder upon its stage, the jumped-up Herostratus who burns simply because he can. In a deep-seated, irrevocable way, Hitler hated Germany.
Proving this is how I shall spend the next year.