Remembering Wannsee: Civilization and Barbarism

“I propose to treat the Holocaust as a rare, yet significant and reliable, test of the hidden possibilities of modern society.”

-Zygmunt Bauman

“Pack your swimsuit and head on out to the Wannsee.” These are the opening lyrics to Pack die Badehose ein, a cheery German beach song of the 1950s, referring to the shores of one of the lakes found in the southwestern plains of Berlin.

But Wannsee, for non-Berliners, evokes other connotations. On January 20th, 1942, a villa on the edge of that lake hosted the infamous Wannsee Conference. Here high-ranking Nazi Party and German government officials gathered to discuss and coordinate the implementation of what they called the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” – the physical annihilation of the European Jews.

wannseevilla
Wannsee Villa

The 75th anniversary of this decisive event in the history of the Holocaust coincides not only with the Donald Trump Inauguration, but also with the passing, this month, of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, the author of a seminal book titled Modernity and the Holocaust. In its pages, Bauman poses a fundamental admonition: None of the societal conditions that made Auschwitz possible have truly disappeared. His argument can be described as the sociological unpacking of an intriguing aphorism that German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) had written shortly before falling prey to the Nazis: “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” For Bauman, the Holocaust “has uncovered another face of the same modern society whose other, more familiar face we so admire.”

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Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017)

What is “modern” about killing on an industrial scale? It is methodical planning and implementation, the coordination of science, technology and the bureaucracy of population administration and transport logistics; a “Final Solution,” undertaken with a problem-solving mentality. Bauman enlists in support of his argument Max Weber, who predicted an ever-increasing process of bureaucratic rationality in modern social life, an “iron cage” from which there would be no escape:

“bureaucratization offers above all the optimum possibility for carrying through the principle of specializing administrative functions according to purely objective considerations…. According to calculable rules and without regard to persons. (Weber)

The Nazis committed bureaucratic mass murder. This was something very different from an outburst of colossal violence such as the many bloodbaths that are found throughout human history.

In an interview in Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah (1984), the former Treblinka extermination camp commandant Franz Suchomel described, with precision, how the camp’s gas chambers operated. These were capable, he stated, of “finishing off 3,000 people in two hours.” This illustrates Bauman’s thesis that the extermination facility became an extension of the modern factory system, which instead of producing goods, produces death. “And Treblinka?” asks Lanzmann. “Treblinka was a small but good functioning assembly line of death,” Suchomel responds.

Bauman left us with a disquieting proposition, since he removed the Nazi crimes from the realm of the exceptional. In line with Hannah Arendt’s earlier insights in Eichmann in Jerusalem, the perpetrators of such crimes were not necessarily sadistic monsters nor hate-filled fanatics, but rather law-abiding officers in societies with compliant and indifferent citizens. The Holocaust is considered not the antithesis of modern civilization, a deviation from the path of progress, but rather the Janus face of the same modern society. In that sense, Auschwitz did not vanish from the face of the earth with the destruction of Nazism in 1945. It remains as an ominous possibility, more so in a world in which the means for the kind of bureaucratic domination that the Nazis pioneered has increased exponentially.

 

 Alejandro Baer is the Stephen C. Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

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