The Luggage and Lies of Auschwitz


On the study abroad tour that I lead to Germany and Poland, we spend half a day each at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II, more properly known as Auschwitz-Birkenau or just Birkenau. The Birkenau camp contains the iconic railhead, infamous selection platform, ruins of four gas chambers and crematoria, as well as the ordered rows of chimneys stretching out over vast open fields. These poorly functioning appliances being the only remnants left of the dreary and inhospitable barracks that once checkered the grounds inside the electrified and barb-wired fences. Auschwitz I, however, is composed of 22 two-story brick buildings originally built in the 1910’s to house transient workers during WWI and then used as barracks for the Polish Army in the interwar period. About 6 months after the Germans overran the Polish village of Oświęcim (and Germanized it by renaming it Auschwitz), the SS decided to convert this location into a concentration camp in which to house, torture, and work to death the Polish intelligencia, Jews, and political opponents that were now inside the borders of the Third Reich. (The Birkenau camp, built mid-war in response to the “Final Solution,” is situated a couple of kilometers away.) Contrary to Birkenau, all of the well-built brick buildings at Auschwitz I are still standing and usable. In fact, after the war, several of these buildings were retrofitted to hold what are called the “evidences” of the atrocities; the massive piles of clothing, shoes, personal effects, and even human hair that were found at the Birkenau camp by the advancing Russian army in the winter of ’45 after the Nazi SS had made their hasty retreat.

Scores of visitors are paraded through these buildings every day to see with their own eyes what the Nazis were up to at Auschwitz. Each type of evidence prods the visitors’ imagination to envision various aspects of the unspeakable darkness that envelopes the holocaust. The heaping piles of assorted shoes and the tangled nest of thousands of eyeglasses, for instance, force the abstraction of human annihilation into a horrific concreteness as the viewer contemplates the particularity of individuals and their intimate connection to these basic accessories of life. Another form of evidence is a reminder of the utter contempt the Nazis had for the people who were harshly ushered to this place; that is, the towering piles of luggage, each one with a name and address dutifully written on its side. Evidenced by these markings, the cynical intention of the Nazi’s becomes clear; the practice of deception sits right at the heart of these crimes.

Luggage found at Birkenau

The form of malicious subterfuge exhibited at Auschwitz and represented by those labeled pieces of luggage, surely has as a prerequisite a radical dehumanization of the victims, a qualitative and dramatic separation between oneself and the other. The guard’s dehumanization of the victims was no doubt accomplished by a host of factors, but this process was unquestionably aided by an underlying rationale that is itself rooted in a deception; the stridently held belief of the Nazis that humans are “in development” – to be more precise, a design-free developmental process. The developmental hypothesis holds that, just like all other life forms, populations of people are ever changing, ever adjusting to the demands of the environment through the actions of unguided and blind mechanisms. Within this flux, then, there are always bound to be some individuals as well as some groups of people who are simply more developed, more advanced, and more fit to function in their surroundings than others. According to this naturalistic line of thinking, the inferior versions of any species, including humans, must necessarily retreat and dissolve like the melting of snow before the advancing rays of the sun. The Nazis saw ethnic Germans as clearly superior to other invasive and inferior species of humans, people whose time had surely come and gone. They were simply moving this scientifically validated natural process along more quickly; and they were absolutely convinced that in the fullness of time future generations would be grateful and would thank them.

Auschwitz’s victims, bearing luggage noting their identity, were deceived about the intentions of the Nazis; but the Nazi’s, in turn, were deceived about the identity of the Jews. The Nazis had fully embraced the developmental hypothesis; what we would now call scientific racism. History, however, tells us the Nazis were not the only ones to take this idea seriously; they were only the ones to act upon it so decisively. Once humans were de-theologized by Darwin’s version of biological evolution, the second-order implications of this new truth for human interactions and relations started to flow fast and furiously; big ideas, after all, are like railroad tracks, they take you places. Some reasoning, typically embraced by the political right, favored a return to a harsher natural selector and were subsequently labeled Social Darwinism. (Now that we know natural processes created us blindly, the thinking went, we must marginally reintroduce the state of nature into society so as to clean out the human debris that civilization, and particularly Christianity, has allowed to accumulate.) Others, typically representative of the political left, preferred the introduction of a kinder, gentler artificial selector in substitution for this harsh natural selector; this strategy, championed by Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, was given the term “eugenics.” Both of these core responses to Darwin’s thesis quickly proliferated into a variety of forms and methods and migrated around the globe, infiltrating the intellectual, political, and social life of much of the modern world.

Civic Biology, Hunter

Constituent to a blind and purely natural creation account is the belief that biology makes up the sum total of a person. Biology alone became the fundamental basis for understanding the entire human experience. Everything about human culture and life was believed to emerge, ultimately, from a biological foundation. In a world bereft of design and intent, everything that happens must ultimately come from the bottom up. Exemplifying this perspective, the famed and enthusiastic German Darwinist, Ernst Haeckel, once claimed that, “politics is applied biology,” a slogan the Nazis readily latched onto when they emerged as a political movement a few decades later.

Biological reductionism, however, was not unique to Germany. Here in America, many academics, particularly biologists, social scientists, and social reformers, were eager to articulate and apply this new, more objective and scientific, understanding of humanity. The Eugenics crusade swept through the American culture promising to solve so many of society’s ills. To many educated elites, it seemed unquestionably obvious that a better world could be made if only we would take seriously the selection of better people as its inhabitants. Perhaps emblematic of this movement are the titles and content of many of the science textbooks of the era. For example, to the right you can see perhaps the most famous textbook of that era, the text that sat at the heart of the 1927 Scopes Trial, A Civic Biology. (Let that title sink in for a moment, A Civic Biology; what might that be meaning to convey?) In this book, like most others of the era, there are numerous references to eugenics, the superiority of Caucasians, and the increased rates of “feeble-mindedness” among criminals, immigrants, and the rural poor. For example, in a chapter dealing with Heredity and Variance, and under the heading, “The Remedy,” students read,

If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with success in this country.” (Hunter, A Civic Biology, 1914, pg. 263)

By the way, emboldened in the aftermath of the famous Dayton, Tennessee trial, the subsequent edition of Hunter’s text expanded the references to eugenics and included a discussion exploring various ideas regarding the “proper treatment” of “inferior” peoples.

Shoes found at Birkenau

Eventually, the Nazi genocidal machine was stopped, and when the curtain was pulled back to reveal the concentration camps and extermination centers, people looked on with horror at the implications of biological reductionism. Thankfully, with this shock of sobriety, the intuitive bonds between people and people groups began to be renewed and human solidarity became strengthened; in fact, the origins of numerous human rights initiatives and organizations emerged from the smoldering ashes of World War II and the holocaust. Furthermore, dramatic recalibrations of theory and perspective took place in many relevant fields of study including biology, anthropology, and psychology. (Lest we become too relieved, however, eugenic-inspired thinking did not disappear after the war. The core motivation to improve the human stock through controlled breeding survived this flash of inspection and critique, and actions related to that motive continued to function in the shadows of this country as well as others. In fact, they continue still today.)

Now we find ourselves well into the 21st century, and yet it seems clear that the challenge of understanding just what our biology means for our identity has not been resolved. For instance, in some ways, today we see a renewal and indeed an intensification of the belief that our inherited bodily and demographic features are the primary determinants of our social identity and value. By mere skin color, form, and age we are deemed to be in the majority or minority, a victim or oppressor, inherently trustworthy or untrustworthy. Then again, in other ways, we have come to believe our body to be a meaningless and, at least for some, rather inconvenient physical tag-along to our truer, psychological-emotive self, there to be manipulated at will to fit our mind’s desire. In fact, today many argue that the self should be completely unencumbered by one’s biology, social environment, and personal history.

A little sober reflection suggests that questions about the relationship between one’s biology and identity are perennial. Who am I? What does it mean to be embodied? How do I live authentically? The importance of knowing who one is measures equally with the costs of being misled; our identity being our most precious cargo and our susceptibility to deception our greatest liability. Amongst life’s luggage, these items seem to be necessarily, and tragically, bundled together.

Rail head at Auschwitz II (Birkenau)