The Ovens at Buchenwald

The reason I’ve been away from the blog is because 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. If I can, I’d like to find some time to post some of my reflections/lectures from our stay here. This is a first installment. We’ll see if I find the time to get some more out.

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 there.

There was 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 has stayed with me from the visit 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 explain how such evil could occur? Can psychology explain 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. Generally, evil is a story of victimization and the accounts of the victims are often the only data taken as valid. Morally speaking, this makes good sense. But from an explanatory stance one needs to ask the perpetrators about their motives. Only by assessing these stories can the roots of evil be comprehensively uncovered.

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 the Columbine killers 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 come. Why? Why did this happen? This is my answer for my students. And for you.

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]

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

12 thoughts on “The Ovens at Buchenwald”

  1. James Carroll's book "Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews" gives a theological, political, and psychological analysis of the tensions that have always existed in some form between Christians and Jews. That contentious rivalry twists and turns its way through history towards its tragic fratricidal conclusion with the Holocaust.

    The legend engraved at the first Holocaust museum is apropos: "Forgetfulness is the way to exile. Remembrance is the way to redemption."

  2. Atrocities committed by the communists were also caused by this kind of idealism: There have to be victims if society and human nature is to be remade. They saw humans as maleable blank slates. Current research into the nature/nurture debate makes it clear that nature plays a much bigger role in human behavior than was thought early last century. Perhaps these atrocities could have been avoided by simply having a better understanding of human nature.

  3. step2,
    Wonderful quote. I've had the students pondering this one from Primo Levi, survivor of Aushwitz:

    "It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say."

    Interesting you should bring up the communists. After 1945 Buchenwald fell under Soviet control and Stalin kept the camp open and functioning. This camp was called "Special Camp #2." And many thousands died there as well.

  4. hi!
    i was excited to read that you are currently in germany. i live/volunteer here. i was wondering if there is an opportunity to hear you speak? or if you maybe are traveling to bremen, you are very welcome to be my guests at the half-way house i run.

  5. Hi Cate,
    What a kind offer! We are in Leipzig for only about a week or so more. As for my speaking, my forum is humble. It is mainly being done in the apartments while where we are staying. But anyone who could cram inside with me and the students would be welcome :-)

  6. Richard - I can recommend ¨Humanity - a moral history of the 20th century¨ by Jonathan Glover, as a book that is very relevant to this topic, if you havent come across it previously.

    Best wishes


  7. Hi Jason,
    We are enjoying the city very much. Right now we are in the middle of Bachfest (Bach was choirmaster here at St. Thomas) so lots of musical offerings around us.

    Hi Robert,
    I actually had the book in my hand once in a bookstore but put it back (probably because I had a stack and had to make some $ choices). Thanks for the encouragement to go pick it up. It did look really good.

  8. Search as I might, I still do not know how many ovens at Buchenwald. Thanks for a prompt reply.

  9. Step 2 said "That contentious rivalry twists and turns..."

    Rivalry is a competition. Jews have never proselytized, never tried to convert even pagans to Judaism. Christians, however, have converted at the point of a sword for 2000 years, culminating in the ovens. Citizens of every European country occupied by Germany contributed to the Holocaust. A deeper question must be answered by Christianity: Why do you hate Jews? when Jews do not hate Christians.

  10. lol - Are you lying or truly stupid?
    To Orthodox Jews Christianity is idolatry, Jews are commanded in their Mitzvots to destroy idolatry:  "To slay the inhabitants of a city that has become idolatrous and burn that city" Jews despise Christianity, and Jews do not expect non-Jews to convert to Judaism but they commanded to enforce the Noahide Laws amongst gentiles.
    btw I'm not a Xian, not even a theist.

Leave a Reply