Tuesday, July 15, 2003

I read a lot about the Holocaust. And I mean a lot. Maybe I read more books about the Civil War, but...probably not. Although I do read plenty of academic history texts about it, mostly I read journals and memoirs. One thing that always strikes me about this sort of personal writing is its ability to represent the humanity involved in the whole 'Final Solution' process. You always get a sense of the actual humans behind the rather monolithic agenda of the National Socialists: it's humans who do the terrorizing, it's humans who imprison you, it's humans who feed/don't feed you, it's humans who do the executing, and I guess that's what makes this genre of writing so powerful. It has the ability to bring to the forefront all the most evil possibilities in human behavior.

But one thing that has always puzzled me is how humans actually managed to pull off the Holocaust. I mean, not how they pulled a trigger here or there, beat up a person here or there, or even how they came to believe that was the proper thing to do, but rather, how they orchestrated the entire system of eradication. How do humans do that? Most of us can't remember where we left our car keys. How can we be expected to remember all the steps involved in exterminating an entire population?

I've always wondered who exactly kept track of all the lists of people, how anybody ever knew who was supposed to be in what railroad car, who was supposed to be fed, who was supposed to be starved. Obviously, there was a numerical system behind everything, but who designed it, and where was it being managed? I recently finished Gerda Weissmann Stein's All But My Life. At one point in this memoir, she recalls being singled out because she was a trained weaver, and she (and I both) wondered, "Hey, how did they know I could run a loom? I just got here." These people are being transported in absolute chaos, escaping, being recaptured, and yet, the people in charge of the camp know exactly who she is and where she came from. Where did they get that little piece of paper that told them everything about Gerda Weissmann?

So, now I'm reading Edwin Black's IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation, a book that is opening a lot of possibilities in my mental map of the Holocaust. I cannot recall a single book in which a survivor has mentioned statistical technology at any concentration camp--all the books are too concerned with humanizing the Holocaust to pay any attention to machines. I'm not that far into the book, but a lot of things make a lot more sense all the sudden. I'm not even sure I need to read the book to get the idea of how punch cards, census bureaus and unchecked capitalism can turn into a very, very dangerous combination. Mr. Black is most concerned with making a moral argument, I think; he's horrified by the role he believes IBM played in the Holocaust. That's sort of refreshing--god knows I've lost my ability to be horrified at anything humans will do for money. The author is astounded at the ruthlessness of the early players in IBM's history, and I find myself shrugging and thinking, "Yeah, well, tell me something I don't already know." If it hadn't been IBM, it would have been someone else.

Anyway...technology. Getting things done more efficiently. The human juggernaut of National Socialism had a little bit of mechanical help doing its dirty work, and although I know it's wrong, I can't help but feel just a little bit fascinated by a well-oiled machine. I realized today that I wasn't still reading because I wanted to judge whether IBM was right or wrong, but rather I just wanted to know how they did it so well. And that, I guess, really shouldn't sit very well with my conscience.

No comments: