The Psychology of a Nazi Extermination Camp Commandant

I just finished the most remarkable book: “Into That Darkness,” by Gitta Sereny. This book is organized around 70 hours of interviews that the author conducted with Franz Stangl, a leader in the Third Reich who worked at the T4 euthanasia program in Berlin and who commanded the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps. He was the only Commandant of a camp brought to trial, and ultimately was sentenced to a life sentence in prison.

First, a little background information I learned while reading the book. When most people think about the most horrific aspects of Nazism, they typically think of the concentration camps in which millions of Jews, Roma, political prisoners, and others worked and died. The primary purpose of concentration camps was work, however, and many fortunate individuals survived. Far less attention is given to the Nazi extermination camps, of which there only were four (or five, depending on whether one counts Birkenau, connected with Auschwitz). These camps were built exclusively to kill people, and very few survived. Stangl was the Commandant of two of these, overseeing the deaths of approximately 1,000,000.

There appear to be many reasons why Stangl was involved in such horrors. I was struck by how Stangl appeared to go along with the Nazi plan out of fear of punishment. At every “advancement” in the system, Stangl seemed to speak of his fear for his survival (or his family’s). At the same time, Stangl appeared to be motivated to be effective in carrying out his work, and hoped for promotions. Much of this seemed to be gradual, the “foot-in-the-door” process that often leads people to changes in beliefs and behavior. For instance, a key development in Stangl’s slow moral erosion came when he signed a card signifying that he gave up his allegiance to the Catholic Church (but not to God). Ultimately, it seemed that Stangl started to rationalize his behavior, such as when he said he thought it was okay to euthanize Jews because a Catholic scholar said that the Church didn’t necessarily disagree, that there always has been a debate about euthanasia. Another example of Stangl’s rationalization occurred when he emphasized that he only was the overseer of the camp and that he never was directly involved in killing anyone. He began to operate on two different levels, one with his buddies and at home with his wife and children, and another when he conducted his operations. In fact, Stangl even lost the ability to recognize the Jewish children as people. Generally, he didn’t think of the individuals he killed, but rather the effectiveness of the operations.

Interestingly, much of Stangl’s psychology appeared to be designed by higher authorities. It seemed that many involved in the euthanasia program were given more authority because they were desensitized to suffering at that location. As another example, I was struck by one passage that suggests that the Jews were humiliated publicly in front of the Nazis so that the Nazis would come to dehumanize them.

I long have thought that it might have been easier to overcome the horrors of World War 2, that perhaps if more individuals had resisted, none of this would have happened. However, in reading this book, I started to realize that many individuals involved really seemed to be quite powerless. At least they felt that way. For example, Stangl once commented that:

“If I had sacrificed myself. . . if I had made public what I felt, and had died. . . it would have made no difference. Not an iota. It would all have gone on just the same, as if it and I had never happened.”

In thinking more about this, it seemed that there were several likely candidates for making a significant difference in these crimes. First, those who harbored individuals at risk obviously helped them, although this didn’t change much of the grand scope of what transpired. Second, in this book, a strong case is made that the Pope may have been able to substantially influence the course of events if he had taken a strong, public stand (obviously, he failed in doing so). In fact, Hitler stopped the euthanasia program immediately after a sermon condemning the program was delivered in Rome. Finally, I was interested in the relationship between Stangl and his wife. She is interviewed for the book as well and, when asked hypothetically what she thought might have happened if she had presented an ultimatum to the Commandant to either continue to go along with the Nazis or she and her kids would leave, she thought that he would have stopped (although, significantly, later she said this wasn’t true, perhaps as a rationalization for her failure to do more).

In the end, though, reading this book really left me shaking my head. One particular passage mystifies me. In this passage, one of the guards at Treblinka states:

“A mother jumps down with her baby and calmly looks into a pointing gun-barrel – a moment later we hear the guard who shot them boast to his fellows that he managed to ‘do’ them both with one shot through both their heads.”

I believe that there were social-psychological factors involved in the Holocaust, but ultimately, I think these events speak to the evil that exists in humanity, perhaps even in every individual. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Or, as Origen once stated, “The power of choosing between good and evil is within the reach of all.”

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2 thoughts on “The Psychology of a Nazi Extermination Camp Commandant

  1. ESLowe (@stewart461)

    From my own life experience, it seems that the sorts of people who’d become guards in these camps roam powerlessly about in every civilized society: shunned and reviled…it’s only when criminal regimes, like the Nazis, come to office that they promoted to positions of authority where they can act out their sadism and cruelty.

    Reply

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