The Ovens at Buchenwald

In honor of Yom HaShoah a post of mine from 2008.


I’m currently in Germany studying with some students from ACU. One of the classes I’m teaching is called The Psychology of Ideology. In the class we are studying three cases of ideological change, confrontation, or conflict: WWII, the Cold War, and the Reformation.

Last week we toured the Buchenwald concentration camp outside the town of Weimar.

Buchenwald was not an extermination camp like Auschwitz. It was a labor camp. Still, the atrocities committed at Buchenwald are chilling. Buchenwald operated from 1937 to 1945. During its time it housed over 250,000 prisoners. Over 55,000 died here.

There is a crematorium at Buchenwald where the dead were reduced to ash. The ovens housed there were the prototypes of those made for Auschwitz. The ovens at Auschwitz were destroyed so the only place to see such ovens is at Buchenwald.

As my students and I moved through the “autopsy” room (where the dead bodies were plundered for their gold tooth fillings) and the oven room in the crematorium many were overcome with emotions. It is difficult to describe your feelings standing in front of those ovens or looking at the cold tile tables fitted with drains in the autopsy room. The evil and horror and terrible sadness overwhelm you.

One of the things that haunts me is the Buchenwald zoo.

One of the first things the prisoners had to do in the early years of the camp was to create a little zoo for the SS officers, their families, and their dates. The zoo was a place for the SS to enjoy nature and leisure time. Horrifically, and I still can’t shake this, the zoo was placed just outside the camp fence, in clear sight of the muster grounds where the prisoners lined up for inspection, often standing for hours at a time. The Buchenwald prisoners looked almost directly across at the zoo, watching SS families and girlfriends take in the pleasures of the place. Even worse, the zoo was just a hundred yards from the crematorium. This proximity boggles the mind. As an SS officer sat with his date looking at the swans he could casually watch the smoke coming out the smokestack from the ovens.

This vast separation of circumstance—a day at the zoo versus facing the ovens—is cynically captured on the gate a Buchenwald. As the prisoners mustered each day they could glance across the fence at SS personnel enjoying the zoo while the words built into the gate faced them: Jedem das Seine.

To each his own.

In many ways the Holocaust presents my discipline with a horrific challenge. Can psychology come to grips with how such evil could occur? Can psychology understand how a zoo and a crematorium can exist side by side?

Roy Baumeister, in his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, suggests that the answers to these questions begin with looking at the stories both the victims and the perpetrators tell about the events.

What do we hear when we listen to the stories of victims and perpetrators? Baumeister notes that victim narratives are often governed by what he calls “the myth of pure evil.” That is, victims often feel that the actions of the perpetrators were random, motivationless, and sadistic. The perpetrators did what they did because they love cruelty. No doubt sadists exist, but these persons account for only a small portion of evil. So when we step across to ask for the stories of perpetrators we tend to hear narratives that are very much driven by motives, good motives in the eyes of the perpetrators. To understand evil we must understand these motives.

Two motives are relevant to the ovens at Buchenwald. First, much evil is caused by idealists. Once a person is governed by an idealist ideology, be it political, moral, or religious, “evil” becomes a means to a glorious end.

The Nazis were utopians. Their worldview was dominated by the notion of building a perfect society, one sanctioned by God. This idealism and utopianism allowed them to justify their actions at places like Buchenwald. Their evil was instrumental, a means to an end.

A second motivation for evil is darkly ironic. Very often when you inquire into the motives of someone who has victimized a person you hear the story of a victim. Perpetrators of evil often feel they have been victimized first. Victims—real or imagined—often victimize others. This is very common in domestic abuse cases. But it can be seen in a variety of situations from the 9/11 attackers to Rwanda to the Nazis. Specifically, after WWI large parts of Germany felt victimized by the treatment they suffered. Massive economic hardship poisoned many. This broad sense of victimization in Germany fueled much of the horror in WWII.

Baumeister’s analysis is a good place to begin to analyze the ovens of Buchenwald but more is needed. True, the Nazis were idealists who felt like victims. This may explain a great many wartime atrocities but it doesn’t explain the ovens or how close the zoo was to the crematorium at Buchenwald. That kind of coldness requires a bit more explanation.

What needs to be explained is not simply “normal” anti-Semitism but what Daniel Goldhagen has called eliminationist anti-Semitism, a hatred that demands not just the removal but the eradication of the despised group. How did this eliminationist anti-Semitism take hold?

It partly had to do with the psychology of purity, disgust and contamination. Disgust and revulsion are mainly aimed at monitoring oral incorporation. This visceral response is governed by a logic of contagion/contamination. This logic has (among others) four features (this analysis is based on the work of Paul Rozin):

Contact/Proximity: When a contaminant touches or is close to a foodstuff the food is considered contaminated. For example, if I place a bug on your sandwich or, to up the stakes, touch it with feces, you’ll push the sandwich away.

Irreversibility: Once the foodstuff is deemed “contaminated” nothing can be done to the food to render it pure. For example, if I put a drop of urine in your gallon of milk generally little can be done (filtering, boiling) to get you to drink it.

Dose Insensitivity: There is no “dosage effect” with contamination. In the prior example, one drop of urine is not any better or worse than an ounce. In short, very little of the contaminant is just as bad as very much of it.

Negativity Dominance: Contamination flows one way. That is, if I drop some wine into a bottle of urine the wine doesn’t make the urine palatable. But a drop of urine can render a huge vat of wine undrinkable. The negative of the contaminant dominates the positive of the chosen foodstuff.
This logic of contagion is relevant as it governs the emotions of disgust and revulsion. This is critical in that disgust isn’t only involved in oral incorporation. Sociomoral disgust occurs when disgust properties are applied to people. When we find a person or a class of persons revolting, icky, disgusting, or loathsome sociomoral disgust is at work.

Sociomoral disgust sits at the heart of genocide. And it goes a fair way in accounting for the ovens at Buchenwald. As Martha Nussbaum has written:
Disgust is all about putting the object at a distance and drawing boundaries. It imputes to the object properties that make it no longer a member of the subject’s own community or world, a kind of alien species of thing…Thus, throughout history, certain disgust properties—sliminess, bad smell, stickiness, decay, foulness—have repeatedly and monotonously been associated with, indeed projected onto, groups by reference to whom privileged groups seeks to define their superior human status.
What created the eliminationist anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany was that purity—national, racial, and blood purity—was elevated to the level of an ideology. An ideological purity applied the logic of contagion to the Jews. Contact or proximity with them was polluting. This contamination couldn’t be reversed or cleaned up. Only cutting out the contaminated stock would work. A quarantine logic emerged. But worse, dose insensitivity dictated that even a small number of Jews were just as dangerous as millions of them. Only a “final solution” of eradication could deal with this.

In the end, this ideology of purity helps explain the zoo and the ovens. To the SS officer walking a date in the zoo what was being fed into the ovens only yards away were not human persons. Something sub-human and dangerous was being destroyed. The ovens were morally justified acts of self-protection in the eyes of the SS.

It is entirely possible that this analysis, by being an analysis, diminishes the horror of Buchenwald. Analyses in front of the ovens may seem obscene. No doubt evil can’t be accounted for in reductionistic theories. But this analysis wasn’t done in front of the ovens. It was done afterwards, in the wake of the questions that came from my students. Why? Why did this happen? What I write here is just a bit of the answer I gave my students. But at the end of the day I don't know if such evil can be explained. Words and thought fail in front of the ovens at Buchenwald.

To end on a personal note, Jana and I allowed my 10 year old son to go into the crematorium. We were fearful he was too young to know about all this. But he did well. Afterwards Jana and I sat with him and I spoke, with tears in my eyes:

“Brenden, I want to talk about why we came here. We came here because some of the worst things humans ever did happened in places like this. We came here to remind ourselves that these things happened. And we came here to honor those who died.

We came here to remember so that this will never happen again.”

[pictures taken by Richard and Jana Beck at Buchenwald Memorial June 13, 2008]

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8 thoughts on “The Ovens at Buchenwald”

  1. I have read that Jesus addressed this in the Lord's Prayer when he told us to pray "and lead us not into temptation (to do terrible things in God's name) but deliver us from evil". Certainly much evil has been done for "good" reasons.

  2. I am glad and grateful, Richard, that you do not use the word theodicy in this account. And I presume that you were consciously very careful about this omission. Insofar as you offer an "explanation" of the ovens, it is not a theological explanation of evil (which I take to be an intellectually misguided and morally objectionable project, designed to shield us from despair by invoking some idea of compensation, earthly or eschatological) but a psychological analysis of the form this particular evil takes - viz., "eliminationist" - and the (ideologically justified) gut-feelings that help to resource it - viz., those relating to contamination and disgust.

    Coupled with the (post-Arendt) banal, but no less disturbing fact that the most horrendous crimes can be committed by the most ordinary of people with the most laudable motives, your analysis about purity and revulsion is not only psychologically persuasive, it is also ethically alerting. I'm thinking of both Islamaphobia and homophobia. To wit: on the one hand, populist talk about "filthy" Muslims "polluting" our country; and on the other hand, the recent intervention by "Pure Church" blogger Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile urging Christians to "return the discussion to sexual behavior in all its yuckiest gag-inducing truth". So - as ever - thanks for this enlightening post.

  3. I agree. I think that's why such psychologically analyses, while woefully insufficient, help alert us to the same dynamics at work in our own society and in our own hearts and minds.

    Incidentally, for readers, this post was written in 2008 and was a part of the seeds that eventually grew into Unclean written three years later.

  4. Kim, I appreciate your statement regarding Islamaphobia and homophobia. While I am always hopeful that those who hold to such hateful views are shamed into a more enlightened understanding of the world around them when their "heroes" open their mouths with projectile ignorance, the "realistic" part of me is afraid that many of them simply fall into a quiet "we'll just wait until we have someone intelligent to lead us" mode. That possibility is what terrifies me.

    That is why I am thankful for Richard's blog, and other progressive blogs that expose the ugliness when it first raises its head.

  5. There is a quote I remember from an episode of CSI "Sometimes the Darkness makes friends with the Light and drags them into the Dark",

  6. An Israeli remembers another monstrous genocide.

    One and a half million Armenians, mainly Christian, were killed by the Ottoman Turks in 1915+.

    "As I do every year, tomorrow I will commune with the memory of my uncles
    and aunts and their sons and daughters who perished in Auschwitz. I
    recall that there are those in the world who deny that my family members
    and my people were murdered, and I congratulate those fighting against
    those contemptible people. True, no event in modern history can compare
    to the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime against the Jewish people,
    but Adolf Hitler’s deeds do not give us permission to ignore the
    tragedies of other peoples. We don’t require a seal of approval from a
    Turkish tyrant to be moral Jews."

    -- Akiva Eldar, columnist for Israel's Pulse, from his article "Israel has a moral duty to recognize the Armenian Genocide", 27 April.

  7. I accept apprehend that Jesus addressed this in the Lord's Prayer if he
    told us to adjure "and advance us not into allurement (to do abhorrent
    things in God's name) but bear us from evil". Certainly abundant angry
    has been done for "good" reasons.


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