Why do people not resist being put into gas chambers?

From the Foreword to Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account:

Prisoners at Auschwitz were already doomed. Rebellion could only have saved either the life they were going to lose anyway, or the lives of others. When Lengyel and many other prisoners were selected to be sent to the gas chambers, they did not try to break away, as she successfully did. Worse, the first time she tried it, some of the fellow prisoners selected with her for the gas chambers called the supervisors, telling them that Lengyel was trying to get away. Lengyel offers no explanation except that they begrudged anyone who might save himself from the common fate, because they lacked enough courage to risk action themselves. I believe they did it because they had given up their will to live, had permitted their death tendencies to flood them. As a result they now identified more closely with the SS who were devoting themselves to executing destructive tendencies, than to those fellow prisoners who still held a grip on life and hence managed to escape death. …

Lengyel, too, mentions Dr. Mengele, one of the protagonists of Auschwitz, in a typical example of the “business as usual” attitude that enabled some prisoners, and certainly the SS, to retain whatever inner balance they could despite what they were doing. She describes how Dr. Mengele took all correct medical precautions during childbirth; for example, rigorously observing all aseptic principles, cutting the umbilical cord with greatest care, etc. But only half an hour later he sent mother and infant to be burnt in the crematorium.

All this would be past history except that the very same business-as-usual is behind our trying to forget two things: that twentieth century men like us sent millions into the gas chambers, and that millions of men like us walked to their death without resistance. In Buchenwald, I talked to hundreds of German Jewish prisoners who were brought there in the fall of 1938. I asked them why they had not left Germany because of the utterly degrading and discriminating conditions they were subjected to. Their answer was: How could we leave? It would have meant giving up our homes, our places of business. Their earthly possessions had so taken possession of them that they could not move; instead of using them, they were run by them. As a matter of fact the discriminatory laws against the Jews were meant to force them to leave Germany, leaving most of their possessions behind. For a long time the intention of the Nazis was to force undesirable minorities, such as the Jews, into emigration. Only when this did not work was the extermination policy instituted, following also the inner logic of the Nazi racial ideology. But one wonders whether the notion that millions of Jews (and later foreign nationals) would submit to their extermination did not also result from seeing what degradation they were willing to accept without fighting back. The persecution of the Jews was aggravated, slow step by slow step, when no violent fighting back occurred. It may have been Jewish acceptance, without retaliatory fight, of ever harsher discrimination and degradation that first gave the SS the idea that they could be gotten to the point where they would walk to the gas chambers on their own. …

Perhaps a remark on the universal success of the Diary of Anne Frank may stress how much we all wish to subscribe to this business-as-usual philosophy, and to forget that it hastens our destruction. It is an onerous task to take apart such a humane, such a moving story that arouses so much compassion for gentle Anne Frank. But I believe that the worldwide acclaim of her story cannot be explained unless we recognize our wish to forget the gas chambers and to glorify the attitude of going on with business-as-usual, even in a holocaust. While the Franks were making their preparations for going passively into hiding, thousands of other Jews in Holland and elsewhere in Europe were trying to escape to the free world, the better to be able to fight their executioners. Others who could not do so went underground—not simply to hide from the SS, waiting passively, without preparation for fight, for the day when they would be caught—but to fight the Germans, and with it for humanity. All the Franks wanted was to go on with life as much as possible in the usual fashion. Little Anne, too, wanted only to go on with life as usual, and nobody can blame her. But hers was certainly not a necessary fate, much less a heroic one; it was a senseless fate. The Franks could have faced the facts and survived, as did many Jews living in Holland. Anne could have had a good chance to survive, as did many Jewish children in Holland. But for that she would have had to be separated from her parents and gone to live with a Dutch family as their own child. Everybody who recognized the obvious knew that the hardest way to go underground was to do it as a family; that to hide as a family made detection by the SS most likely. The Franks, with their excellent connections among gentile Dutch families should have had an easy time hiding out singly, each with a different family. But instead of planning for this, the main principle of their planning was to continue as much as possible with the kind of family life they were accustomed to. Any other course would have meant not merely giving up the beloved family life as usual, but also accepting as reality man’s inhumanity to man. Most of all it would have forced their acceptance that business-as-usual was not an absolute value, but can sometimes be the most destructive of all attitudes. There is little doubt that the Franks, who were able to provide themselves with so much, could have provided themselves with a gun or two had they wished. They could have shot down at least one or two of the SS men who came for them. There was no surplus of SS men. The loss of an SS with every Jew arrested would have noticeably hindered the functioning of the police state. The fate of the Franks wouldn’t have been any different, because they all died anyway except for Anne’s father, though he hardly meant to pay for his survival with the extermination of his whole family. They could have sold their lives dearly instead of walking to their death.

There is good reason why the so successful play ends with Anne stating her belief in the good in all men. What is denied is the importance of accepting the gas chambers as real so that never again will they exist. If all men are basically good, if going on with intimate family living no matter what else is what is to be most admired, then indeed we can all go on with life as usual and forget about Auschwitz. Except that Anne Frank died because her parents could not get themselves to believe in Auschwitz. And her story found wide acclaim because for us too, it denies implicitly that Auschwitz ever existed. If all men are good, there can be no Auschwitz.

I have met many Jews, as well as gentile anti-Nazis, who survived in Germany and in the occupied countries. But they were all people who realized that when a world goes to pieces, when inhumanity reigns supreme, man cannot go on with business as usual. One then has to radically re-evaluate all of what one has done, believed in, stood for. In short, one has to take a stand on the new reality, a firm stand, and not one of retirement into even greater privatization. …

I recommend to careful reading the description of how the first task of every new Sonderkommando was to cremate the corpses of the preceding kommando , exterminated just a few hours before. I recommend to the reader’s speculation why, though the twelfth Sonderkommando revolted, the thirteenth went quietly to its death without opposition.

In this single revolt of the twelfth Sonderkommando , seventy SS were killed, including one commissioned officer and seventeen non-commissioned officers; one of the crematoria was totally destroyed and another severely damaged. True, all eight hundred and fifty-three prisoners of the kommando died. But this proves that a position in the Sonderkommando gave prisoners a chance of about ten to one to destroy the SS, a higher ratio than existed in the ordinary concentration camp. The one Sonderkommando that revolted and took such heavy toll of the enemy did not die much differently than all other Sonderkommandos. Why, then—and this is the question that haunts all who study the extermination camps—why then did millions walk quietly, without resistance, to their death when right before them were examples such as this commando that managed to destroy and damage its own death chambers and kill 10% of their own number in SS? Why did so few of the millions of prisoners die like men, as did the men of only one of these commandos?

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A friend writes:

… why does anyone walk up to a mass-execution trench and kneel to be shot? Is it because they expect greater physical pain if they resist? are they in “compliance mode”? Does thought become impossible due to terror? Or do they take a Stoic view (which does not seem dishonourable to me, but is probably indicative of a more romantic view of warfare, and seems absurd in the context of Nazi slaughter ) and say “I now am certainly dead; I should focus on comporting myself with dignity” - does not imply any obligation to attack one’s captor, who sort of drops out of the calculation entirely.

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In the past 5-10 years, I’ve moved to a gene-culture model of what drove human evolution. A direct corollary of this is humans evolved to have a very strong norm instinct. Norms norms norms. And sure, we also select norms to follow. But even this is socially mediated.

Norms as the pathway for human greatness is both a blessing and a curse. It is what allows humans to build technology and tacit knowledge. We effortlessly stand on the shoulders of giants. Imitating without knowing why. Religion too. But if norms go wrong, we are (mostly) built to lock step walk off the cliff. And a human society which has too many non-norm followers won’t function, so balancing selection keeps them around. But not too common.

Anyway, that’s my gene-culture evolution take on this. It is profoundly disturbing. As it means the stability of any culture is based on memory of norms. But if norms change enough too rapidly, we all feel lost. And some will long to elevate a leader cult-god, one to lead us back into purity and norm clarity.

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