Civilisation and Auschwitz are not a contradiction in terms

With Nazism, it was proven, if proof was ever needed, that barbarism does not necessarily stand in contradiction to culture and that even the most noble artistic expressions can inspire the most barbaric acts.

Yad Vashem, Hall of Names, photographs of victims of the Holocaust lining a circular wall, Jerusalem, Israel.
Yad Vashem, Hall of Names, photographs of victims of the Holocaust lining a circular wall, Jerusalem, Israel. Credit: Cosmo Condina / Alamy Stock Photo.

This essay originally appeared under the title ‘Civilisation and Auschwitz’ in ‘Civilisation: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2013.

‘There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’ Walter Benjamin

In Voltaire’s Candide, the young protagonist is taught by his mentor, Pangloss, that we live in the best of all possible worlds, that even the cruellest of tragedies, the most meaningless of fates, the most inhuman of atrocities, have a purpose in the large scheme of things. As Candide is forced to roam the world in search of his beloved Cunégonde, his acquired faith, l’optimisme, is persistently and severely tested by every misfortune possible and can, in the end, only be upheld by him leaving the best of worlds to its own machinations and instead cultivating his ‘own garden’. The contemporary targets of Voltaire’s satire were philosophers and theologians who postulated the harmonious design of the world and thus the ultimate compatibility of human evil with divine purpose. Although this particular kind of faith-based optimism has lost ground to Darwinian arbitrariness, I don’t think Voltaire would have had any difficulties in finding similar targets today, most obviously among those philosophers and theologians (under the name of economists) who postulate the existence of an invisible hand steering the world for the best, often arguing that the progress of economics, science and technology is going hand-in-hand with a corresponding progress in human morals and values. As Steven Pinker does in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, there are those who argue that modern society is making us more civilised, less prone to violence, more tolerant and humane in our attitudes.

This may or may not be true, but the case for moral progress is based on a relatively short period of human existence. Only a few generations ago, modern man set a new record in human destructiveness: the largest number of people killed in the shortest period of time. Sixty million people killed in six years remains an unsurpassed feat, as is the instantaneous lethal effect (225,000 deaths) of two atomic bombs. The fact that human violence, with increasing precision, can be exerted from a distance (drones targeted at single individuals can be steered from a control room 7,000 miles away), does not necessarily imply that the human penchant for violence has diminished, only that the use of violence has become increasingly ‘virtual’ and depersonalised. On his journey, Candide painfully learns that there is nothing inhuman about atrocity. Torture, rape, mass killing, slavery, expulsion and genocide are part and parcel of human history and, not least, the history of Western civilisation, however one defines it. Lofty human ideals and values have in no way been incompatible with the most gruesome of human actions. On the contrary, they have often been committed in the name of those ideals. One could even argue that there is a link between the progress of Western civilisation and its potential for dehumanisation and destruction. As Zygmunt Bauman argues in his book, Modernity and the Holocaust: ‘The Holocaust was born and executed in our modern rational society, at the high stage of our civilisation and at the peak of human cultural achievement and, for this reason, it is a problem of that society, civilisation and culture.’ The relationship between values and actions is not straightforward and ultimately depends on how we define values. Values may be defined as collectively assimilated human norms and ideals (ie, the values of a specific culture or religion), but they may also refer to individual disposition or inclination to act in specific ways in specific circumstances. Values in the latter sense are fostered by what Han Joas calls ‘experiences of self-formation and self-transcendence’; they become ingrained in a person’s character. In The Genesis of Values, Joas goes further: ‘Value commitments clearly do not arise from conscious intentions and yet we experience the feeling of ‘I can do no other’, which accompanies a strong value commitment not as a restriction, but as the highest expression of our free will.’ Whatever actions such values inspire, they are more driven by intuitive impulse than by rational reflection and are, therefore, less amenable to opportunistic change and adaptation. These are the kind of values that become manifest in what we do and not in what we say we ought to do. A perturbing question, then, is to what extent and under what circumstances even values of this character-forming category can be changed, suppressed and ultimately corrupted by exterior value systems. Nazi Germany remains a bewildering case. What made so many Germans acquiesce in a value system that rapidly and, in almost every respect, turned seemingly well-integrated norms of human behaviour on their head?

The excommunication of Germany’s Jews from German society took effect immediately after Hitler’s rise to power on January 30, 1933. ‘Jewish’ books were burnt, Jewish shops boycotted, Jewish professionals cleansed from public institutions and all this with remarkably little opposition. The relentless and intrusive character of anti-Jewish measures was there for all to see. On August 16, 1933, it was proclaimed that Jews were to be excluded from choral societies, Gesangsvereinen. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 that effectively put Jews (or those who were thereby defined as Jews) beyond the social pale, making a mockery of ideals and values that had until then been considered emblematic of German Kultur (Bach, Beethoven, Schiller, Goethe etc), were probably as much upheld by citizen vigilance as by the repressive apparatus of the Nazi state. Within a few years, the same German citizens that had resented the ascendance of Adolf Hitler became the passive bystanders to the dispossession, eviction and deportation of their former neighbours, associates and friends, while also becoming the beneficiaries of their ‘aryanised’ factories, shops, apartments and personal valuables.

This rapid and radical transformation of collective values and norms in Nazi Germany has generated the proposition that human values are largely, if not wholly, determined by exterior ‘frames of reference’ and that any such frame of reference under specific circumstances might have the force to replace any value system and ‘normalise’ any kind of actions. In their much discussed study, Soldaten: on fighting, killing and dying, historian Sönke Neitzel and psychologist Harald Welzer provide a disturbing insight into a value system that seems to have lost all connection with deeply assimilated standards of human conduct and civility. The main source of this study is a trove of secretly taped and transcribed conversations between German soldiers captured by the allies in the Second World War. In passages selected by the authors, prisoners exchange detailed accounts of the most ghastly deeds and actions they performed or participated in. The tone in these conversations is often casual and callous, distinguished by a striking lack of remorse and moral guilt. Some express a certain disgust with the sheer messiness of the mass killing operations in the East (it should have been done more professionally). Some fear the wrath of the world if their deeds are to be revealed (‘if we killed all the Jews at the same time, no one would be able to blame us’). You can indeed get the impression that these perpetrators of mass murder regard themselves as decent and civilised, only doing the necessary, albeit dirty work of a superior civilisation. This is, of course, reminiscent of the infamous speech by Heinrich Himmler, at a closed meeting with SS officers in Poznan on Oct 4, 1943, in which he hailed the civilisational feat of ‘having remained decent’ (anständig geblieben zu sein) after wading through piles of corpses.

Welzer and Neitzel take the view that Nazi Germany succeeded in establishing a frame of reference that not only inverted long prevailing collective values and norms, but also managed to transform inner personal values and beliefs and, thereby, individual standards of morality and normality. Nazi Germany did not become an immoral society, they argue, neither were the mass killings a symptom of moral degradation; they were just the manifestations of a new ‘National Socialist morality’. Many Germans did what they did because their inner convictions and intuitions told them it was the right thing to do. This might help to explain why so many Germans of the war generation remained emotionally attached to the Nazi era and remarkably resistant to the exterior pressures of denazification. To what extent ‘National Socialist morality’ was embedded in a specific German history and tradition has remained a matter of contention. In 1945, the British historian AJP Taylor argued, in The Course of German History, that ‘it was no more a mistake for the German people to end up with Hitler than it is an accident when a river flows into the sea.’ A similar thesis has been advanced by the American historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners.

Succumbing to Nazi morality was, in any case, not a matter of ignorance or lack of lofty ideals on the part of the German population. On the contrary, its most ardent and visible proponents were often people of higher education and cultural refinement — writers, film directors, artists, philosophers, musicians — thereby defying the deeply entrenched idea in Western thinking that cultural progress feeds noble values and cultural decay forebodes moral decline. In The Republic, Plato stated that an increasing lawlessness in music and art portends the erosion of law and order in society as a whole: ‘After establishing itself there [in music and the arts], lawlessness quietly flows over into the character and pursuits of men. Then, greatly increased, it steps into private contracts and, from private contracts, it makes its way insolently into laws and the government, until, in the end, it upsets everything public and private.’

What Plato did not foresee was a society where the highest expressions of music and art would be employed in the service of barbarism; where the most heinous acts would literally be committed to the sound of sonatas; where ‘cultivated’ people would enjoy Bach in the morning and the choked murmurs from the gas chambers in the afternoon; where it would be fully possible to celebrate Mozart and outlaw Mendelssohn, to admire Hölderlin and burn Heine. In many Nazi concentration camps, music was used for the purpose of torture and humiliation. In Buchenwald, prisoners to be executed were pulled through the camp on a wagon to the tune of ‘Alle Vöglein sind schon da’. In Flossenburg, the violinist Zdenek Kolarsky was forced to embellish the beating to death of his camp inmates with the Ave Maria variations for G string by Schubert. Orchestras with the most macabre tasks existed in Mauthausen, Auschwitz, Dachau and other camps. The women’s orchestra in Auschwitz, which became the subject of a book and a movie, had, among its other duties, to be at the permanent disposal of SS personnel. One day, a female SS officer wanted to have a piece by Chopin played for her. After hearing it, she went out of the barrack and kicked an old woman who languished outside. (A thorough documentation of the role of music in the Nazi death and concentration camps can be found in Milan Kuna’s 1993 book, Musik an der Grenze des Lebens.) Adolf Hitler himself attached great importance to the role of art and music in his totalitarian vision of society. At the roots of the Nazi extermination projects lay very outspoken and detailed aesthetic ideals. Society was to be cleansed of all disturbing features, from everything foreign, weak, ugly, Jewish. Lines were to be straightened, human bodies to be perfected, weeds uprooted, degenerate art and music suppressed.

With Nazism, it was proven, if proof was ever needed, that barbarism does not necessarily stand in contradiction to culture and that, under certain conditions, even the most noble artistic expressions can inspire the most barbaric acts. The parallel experiment of Soviet communism seems to provide yet another confirmation of the thesis that, within certain frames of reference, the malleability of human values and actions may be infinite. In 1981, the Russian writer and dissident, Alexander Zinoviev, famously postulated the emergence of a new human species, the homo sovieticus, with its values and moral intuitions radically transformed by the pressures of ideology, conformism and fear.

Only a decade later, the homo sovieticus, if there ever was such a thing, was flung into a wholly new frame of reference — that of crony capitalism — establishing a wholly different ‘normality’ and, presumably, having yet another transforming impact on values, incentives and actions. One would perhaps have expected that the political and moral implosion of Soviet communism and the rapid transformation of collective welfare states into individualistic market societies, disseminating the values of individual autonomy and freedom, would bring forth of a more independent-minded and less malleable human personality. This, however, has not been an apparent consequence of the ongoing individualisation and marketisation of human life. Instead, we may observe an ongoing individual conformity to fads, fashions, advertised lifestyles and peer pressures.

Erich Fromm, in his influential 1942 essay, ‘The Fear of Freedom’, traces this longing for conformity in a society with seemingly endless possibilities for individual self-formation to the development of a personality that feels ‘powerless and alone, anxious and insecure’. More recently, Richard Sennett has postulated that ‘the corrosion of character’ in the wake of ‘flexible capitalism’ diminishes the value of lifelong personal knowledge and experience, weakening individual self-esteem and thus the resting power of inner values and motivations.

Further contributing to such a ‘corrosion’ might be the emergence of a growing social group, ‘the precariat’, characterised by weakening ties to the labour market (and thus to the institutions of society), diminishing social status and the ‘precariousness’ of a life in permanent flux and insecurity. The character of a man depends on his connections to the world, said Horace, today giving rise to the question: to what world? Or, to put it another way, what civilisation will the generations of tomorrow be connected to — or disconnected from?

This brings us to the notion of civilisation, or more precisely to civilisation in its role as civiliser. Civilised is not an attribute of the same category as polite, or courteous, or virtuous. For the latter, there are no verbs; for civilised, there is: to civilise. A civilised person is what you get when people who define themselves as civilised are doing the civilising. To claim that some values are more civilised than others is to make a normative judgement, not an empirical statement. There can be no natural or universal hierarchy of civilised values — at least, not without introducing a super-human or divine arbitrator — only hierarchies established by specific people under specific circumstances. Ultimately, hierarchies of value are only as valid and binding as their power to impact on human choices and actions.

Still, there are values that most humans would probably deem more universal than others. We will typically recognise them as values emanating from the human condition as such, or more precisely from the human predicament of being determined by both biological predestination and cultural self-construction. There is neither a biological nor a cultural blueprint for human societies. Some are well-built, others fragile, some flourish, others languish, some improve the conditions for human life, others worsen them. Values inducing humans to act for the good of society might, from such a standpoint, be perceived as higher and more universal than others.

However, since there is no universal blueprint for the good society, there can be no blueprint for universal values. All human values, no matter how universal in theory, can only manifest themselves in particular actions by particular people within particular frames of reference. This may also be understood in reverse: no particular frame of reference, no matter how universal it proclaims itself to be, can claim universal validity.

The initial conundrum remains: to what extent did German citizens accommodate their actions to a proclaimed Nazi morality and to what extent did they act out of personally fostered values and motives? Neitzel and Welzer give primacy to the exterior frame of reference. Goldhagen puts more weight on ‘the phenomenological reality’ of the individual ‘perpetrators’ themselves, implying that Germans acquiesced in Nazi morality because they were imbued with values that made them inclined to do so. It seems safe to say that the truth lies somewhere in between; the rapid and widespread assimilation of Nazi norms and values was most likely made possible by the confluence of personal values largely formed in the specific historical and cultural milieu of German society. While many Germans certainly acted out of opportunism and conformism, many acted out of personal and emotional affinity with the actions of the Nazi elite, hence out of that category of values that, in specific situations, might compel individuals to act without regard for the pressures of opportunism and conformity — or compel them to initiate and exert those very pressures. The public façade of the Nazi regime, with its well-choreographed displays of mass discipline and cohesion, certainly did not inspire acts of individual responsibility, moral courage and personal independence. The self-destruction of Nazi Germany thus arguably went hand in hand with the weakening of inner values, which were vital to the emergence and maintenance of what we might call the Western civilisation and out of which both Nazi Germany and totalitarian Communism arguably emerged. The question then arises whether the political, cultural, spiritual and financial elites of the current incarnation of Western civilisation — global and flexible capitalism — will be more capable of instilling and upholding such values and strong enough to resist the corrosive pull of conformism and opportunism; or, with Nietzsche, whether they will be able to foster the ‘free spirits’ necessary to make human society rise from the destructive pull of nihilism in the wake of ‘God’s death’. I fear not. Not the kind of elites that increasingly, demonstrably and shamelessly promote unrestrained self-interest, turn their backs on the societies to which they ultimately owe their fortunes, evading long-term social commitments for short-term personal profit, propagating and glorifying the cardinal sins of greed and gluttony, making conspicuous (and increasingly contemptuous) consumption a legitimate way of life, giving short shrift to codes of civility, courtesy and decency, destroying social trust instead of building it.

Where this is taking our present civilisation we cannot know. Civilisations may rise and fall but they tend to do so over centuries, rather than over months or years, which is now the measure of most things. What we do know is that human values are formed and fostered by human culture and that no culture, not even in ‘the best of all possible worlds’, can shield us from becoming the barbarians. Civilisation and Auschwitz are not a contradiction in terms. Candide would probably understand.


Göran Rosenberg