Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Book Review: Dachau Review (Volumes 1 and 2)

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: Dachau Review

Editor: Wolfgang Benz

Publisher: Comite Internal de Dachau, Brussels

Date: 1988

Length: 240 pages (v. 1), 206 pages (v. 2)

ISBN: 0854962697

Quote: "The Dachau Review is the first volume of a new periodical which contains in unabridged form in English the most important contributions of the previous three issues of the Dachauer Hefte."

Fair disclosure: these two cheaply produced, poorly bound paperbacks aren't fun to read. They weren't meant to be. They're a serious, apparently scholarly and peer-reviewed, collection of survivors' accounts and historians' studies of the German prison camps during the 1930s and early 1940s. Their purpose is to document the atrocities that really happened, and dispel the myths.

Although there's no reasonable doubt that the prison camps were the scenes of atrocities, one thing these reports confirm is the huge amount of concealment and deception that went on, the impossibility of knowing for sure whether some stories were true or false. Prisoners lied, for obvious reasons. Prison managers also lied, for reasons that may be less obvious. Bribery often worked, and the value of a bribe was completely unpredictable: a gold ring or a gold tooth might buy a prisoner a cup of dirty water, or a plausible English passport. Threats were used as discipline. Rumors abounded.

So, were prisoners' bodies used to manufacture household goods? After reviewing the evidence Benz, Barbara Distel, and others can't really say that that never happened; all they can say is that no such goods were found.

Were masses of prisoners gassed in shower rooms? In some other places--first in nursing homes for elderly and disabled "Aryans"--that happened. "In Dachau no gas chambers were used," our researchers report. In Dachau prisoners could be shot for any breach of discipline, for becoming unable to work, or just to intimidate other prisoners, but rumors about gas chambers seem to have been based solely on the existence of crematoria, which no living prisoner had actually entered. Poison gas cost money; both gas and money were in short supply. Guards and overseers could be vicious--there was no penalty for beating a prisoner to death, whenever they felt able to spare the time. Still, starvation and infectious diseases killed far more prisoners than were either euthanized due to illness, executed according to what passed for due process of law, or murdered outright.

Were the majority of those imprisoned, or of those killed in the camps, Jewish? Not at Dachau.

Were individual guards kind enough to help individual prisoners escape? Sometimes, but not often or predictably. One informant describes having to thank for saving his brother's life the same guard he blamed for killing his mother.

In the end, how many people--Jewish or otherwise--did the Nazis kill? No true answer will ever be known. The number is certainly in the millions, but too much lying and destruction of evidence went on for any estimates to be accepted as facts. These books contain some eyewitness accounts of faked deaths that may or may not have allowed prisoners to escape.

Certainly faked deaths did allow several of the presumed dead to survive. In a family I know two teenaged Jewish boys, first cousins, disappeared at about the same time. During the year each young man mourned the other's death, they were living within a mile of each other in London. Both enjoyed long and successful lives, and were able to recognize each other and share memories when one of those fifty-years-later TV programs featured one of the cousins.

Neo-Nazi apologists have even cited the case of an entire town whose Jewish population, apparently decimated during the Holocaust, surged back almost to prewar levels between 1945 and 1946. And not many houses or businesses had been sold, either during or after the war, either. Apparently there was just a benign conspiracy to accept, for the duration of the war, that a few thousand individuals had never been Jewish--whom did people think they were talking about?--until it was safe for these people to identify themselves as Jewish again.

Unfortunately it wasn't always so easy, and while the species of contrarians known as Holocaust deniers were able to disprove some claims without much difficulty, the Nazi Holocaust was just too big to fake.

Meanwhile, people who view the Holocaust from a different historical perspective have exaggerated the sadism of the Third Reich and overlooked the profit motive. Dachau was built not to torture or kill men, but to profit from their labor as the (alleged) criminals "paid their debt to society." As long as it was profitable to keep prisoners healthy, most were well enough fed and sheltered, even medicated where possible, to keep them alive (as slaves) for years. That's why there were so many survivors.

But why, now that most of the survivors have written out their memories and died of old age, do we need to go on reading about it? Certainly not for pleasure; and I for one don't think there's any comfort to be gained from comparing our own immediate misery with someone else's theoretically greater misery. If you're feeling sad because you didn't win the competition or the person you've had a crush on has asked someone else for a date, reading about how the victorious U.S. troops found one group of seventeen almost-survivors who were too sick and starved to survive being fed may help you put your angst into perspective, but it's unlikely to make you feel good. (If it does, I don't want to know you.)

I don't get any particular jollies from thinking about "the triumph of the human spirit" in the survivors, either. My brother, adoptive sister, and I inherited the non-depressive gene along with the brown eyes and crooked teeth genes. My natural sister got the alternative genes. That humans can agree that some genetic traits are more pleasant to be around than others doesn't say anything particularly uplifting about the human spirit, to me.

Some survivors learned moral lessons in the prison camps, although that's not what you'll find in the Dachau Review. In one of Bob Schuller's books, reviewed here last week, a survivor shared the edifying story of how his camp usually offered two kinds of food to prisoners: bread, and soup. The bread was cold, coarse, and flavorless, and tasted vile, but did contain some fibre and nutrients from whole grains. The soup absorbed some flavor, but was usually just a cup of hot water with very little nutrient value. Some prisoners would trade their bread for other prisoners' soup rations...and at the end of the war, all the survivors turned out to be bread eaters; the soup sippers starved. Preachers have already publicized that kind of stories. The Dachau Review didn't need them, or use them.

So, what made this well-fed, non-Jewish American, whose late father wasn't even old enough to have gone to Germany in 1945, pay hard-earned cash for these books? Supporting the library that allows me to maintain this web site was one reason, but why choose the Dachau Review over the "westerns" and romances that had also been donated to the library's benefit sale? Obviously, I thought these books deserved resale; I do think this piece of history has some relevance to our time.

It's best stated, though oddly reversed, by Ralph Giordano in volume two: "I warn you young people of today: don't let anyone tell you that this undemocratically and un-humanly motivated anti-communism ever was, is or will be anything other than the belligerent brother of its own professed diametrical opponent."

Germany, a smaller country already impoverished by losing another idiot dictator's useless war, collapsed faster under National Socialism than Russia did under Soviet Socialism. In both countries, and in most other countries that have experimented with socialism, the socialist government collapsed and the result was chaos, wars, plagues, and mass deaths. A few countries that flirted with socialism, like Britain and China, have survived by learning from examples and giving up unsustainable socialist schemes. Either of those things could happen here.

German Jews, Lutherans, and "Communist" atheists had not exactly liked each other, but had coexisted peacefully, in times of prosperity. Religion became a cause of hate and war when the people felt poverty-stricken and desperate. Hitler whipped up hate of both minorities in order to unite the majority for his own self-aggrandizing purposes, while telling people he trusted how much he preferred the war and death cults of Pagan Germany to the Protestant churches he had to exploit. (What has survived of Germanic Pagan mythology was complex; there were "gods" and cults of love and peace, as well as war and death; Hitler had no use for the nice "gods.") These United States have prospered as a nominally Christian, in practice predominantly Humanist, nation where all other religions are tolerated...until what are still a minority of Americans have started to feel poverty-stricken, and although I doubt that most of these people know anything about poverty, immediately mistrust of all religions but one's own (including the pseudo-religion of atheism) sets in. Religious hate could happen here. Even the explosion of religious hate into mass violent insanity could happen here.

Hitler really owed his success, though, less to hate than to his Biggest Lie of All--the seductive promise that Germans could recover prosperity, rather than sinking into real plague-and-famine poverty, by giving their leaders total power over every aspect of life. The United Nations, once the trusted mediator between Europeans like Stalin and Hitler, has succumbed to this fantasy with its "Agenda 21" bid for total control over every aspect of life in every member nation. To the extent that the ostensibly civilized nations of the world cooperate with Agenda 21, the totalitarian government and the poverty it produces could very easily happen the U.S., in the U.K., in any part of Europe or of any other continent, or, if the lunatics in the U.N. get their way, in all of them.

Probably everyone who was alive in the late twentieth century has, and should have, our own way of saying "Never Again." For me, as an American Christian, "Never Again" tends to blur into an older slogan: "Love all (never buy into collective hate as any kind of solution to anything), trust few (never entrust anyone with more power than is necessary to prevent violent crime), and always paddle your own canoe (make your own decisions based on what you observe where you are, which really is something about which you would know more than anyone else could)."

The Dachau Review is a good clear explanation of the alternative.

Price: $5 (each volume) plus $5 (shipping). In the absence of information about Benz and Distel, $1.50 will be sent to another living person who survived some part of the Holocaust if you buy this book from this web site. E-mail: