The book which parallels the BBC television series on Auschwitz … and one which can most effectively be read in conjunction with a viewing of the series (either on television or DVD). The BBC has developed considerable skill in combining scholarly but accessible written and visual history, and this is no exception.
For the most part, Rees’ book is highly accessible, especially given the emotional volatility of his subject matter. He achieves a laudable degree of balance and objectivity, avoiding the urge to be judgemental. Present the facts – the reader is well capable of making his/her own judgement.
The central theme is that Auschwitz was not simply a death camp. It was conceived as an industrial complex, as a profit-making concern which would wring the maximum work from a force of slave labourers. German industry profited from it … and, in due course, the complex that was Auschwitz would be run on industrial principles as its managers created a production line of death.
Mass murder, here, was a process. Over a million would be murdered in Auschwitz, but the thousands of people who contributed to its operation were, for the main, ‘ordinary’ people. The writer Hannah Arendt commented that she attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the German officer in charge of the final solution: she had expected to look into the face of evil; instead, she found herself facing an innocuous, petty bourgeois, bald, insignificant old man, devoutly sticking to the mantra that he had only been following orders and couldn’t be held responsible. [ See Hannah Arendt, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil”.]
Rees demonstrates that the thousands of bureaucrats, workers, even the guards, were simple jobsworths who rubber stamped murder and treated genocide as a matter of double-entry accounting. The victims were a commodity to be processed, stripped of their dignity, stripped of their humanity, sent to their death packed into cattle wagons. It was a job. How many this week? Evil is not a matter of consciously deciding to commit some horrific act or uphold an abominable philosophy: evil is simply ordinary people not questioning, not objecting … because they are too scared, too greedy, too busy, or so corrupted that they accept that someone else is no longer to be regarded as human, someone else deserves their fate.
The commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf H??ss, was an ambitious Nazi functionary whose business management skills were devoted to the task of making the executions more efficient and cost-effective – finding better, less costly ways to kill in numbers and then dispose of the bodies.
The great evil here is the blind conviction that the individual can abdicate responsibility, that s/he is only following orders. Even Jews collaborated in murdering others. What is most disturbing about the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is that genocide is still occurring – it is only a matter of years since it last flared up in Europe in the former Yugoslavia. And when Rees analyses the way the Jews were made less than human in the decades before the outbreak of World War 2, it’s worth considering how readily we can all demonise and dehumanise others because of their religion, race, nationality, or whatever.
Laurence Rees offers a thoroughly researched account of the building and role of Auschwitz, made all the more vivid by the wealth of first hand accounts he includes. It seems that half of Britain’s teenagers have never heard of Auschwitz. Rees demonstrates precisely why it is vital everyone is reminded of the name – it is only too easy to find yourself acting as a jobsworth, turning a blind eye to this or that. Chilling, disturbing, but essential reading. [For the interested, I’d also recommend Primo Levi’s “If This Is a Man”, the account of a survivor, and Deborah Dwork’s “Auschwitz”, where she dissects how the town became the centre of death.]