Auschwitz and the Wisdom of Crowds
On this the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in Poland, we should perhaps take time to reflect on humanity's potential for inhumanity.
History testifies time and again to the fact that whilst we, as a race, are capable of reaching the noblest heights, we also have the potential to plumb the lowest depths. We forget this at our peril.
My own generation, the once ubiquitous baby boomers, have never known war on the scale of the two bloody conflagrations that engulfed much of the globe in the first half of the twentieth century.
We grew up knowing a different kind of global conflict, a so-called Cold War.
The very name reflects an underlying sense of tension, an awareness that this insidious ideological quarrel might actually heat up at any time, its latent energy bubbling to the surface, fuelled by uncontained nuclear fission.
For my father’s and grandfather’s generations, however, WW2 represented a much more present and existential threat.
For them, the liberation of Auschwitz and the discovery of the full horror of the Nazi death camps brought a reminder of just how thin a veneer is human civilization.
If it is possible to explain the unique horror of the Nazi death-camps – and Auschwitz in particular – the pseudo-science of eugenics must be a factor for discussion.
All of the Nazi death camps were set up to support Hitler’s murderous eugenics – of which anti-Semitism was the most blatant and vicious expression.
Among those deported to Auschwitz, which consisted of three camps, were 150,000 Poles and 23,000 Romani and Sinti, plus thousands from other ethnic groups. They were joined by 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and 400 Jehovah's Witnesses.
Also consigned to this complex were homosexuals and those battling epilepsy and other physical or mental challenges. In short, anyone considered to be subnormal was deported and many of these were killed.
All would have been allowed and encouraged to live fruitful lives today.
The vast majority of those killed at the Auschwitz complex, which consisted of three camps, were murdered simply because they were Jews.
Auschwitz accounted for the deaths of more than 1.1 million prisoners. Ninety percent of these were Jewish. One in six of all Jewish people killed in the Holocaust died at this complex.
By 1945 two out of every three of the nine million European Jews had been killed.
While the gas chambers accounted for most of the deaths, many people died of starvation, infectious diseases, the effects of forced labour and the camps’ infamous “medical” experiments.
Though the Nazis carried it to its “logical” conclusion in an especially ruthless fashion, anti-Semitism was not peculiar to their particular party line.
Indeed, in the early twentieth century, eugenics itself was considered by many in academia and polite society to be a bona fide subject for scientific debate and exploration.
Perhaps not surprisingly, anti-Jewish sentiment also ran high in the corridors of some major universities, in Britain and the USA.
In the postscript to his novel Pantheon, Sam Bourne (aka journalist Jonathan Freedland) notes how US Ivy League colleges were involved with a practice known as “posture photography”.
This involved taking official snaps of students in the nude with the aim – unbeknown to the students – of establishing a link between physical prowess and superior intellectual ability.
The practice was fuelled by a desire to prove the benefits of eugenics as a form of social engineering.
No less eminent thinkers than George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and the economist John Maynard Keynes were drawn to eugenics. For them it represented the best hope of preserving the best of humanity as it underwent what they saw as its inevitable evolution.
It is probably true to say that many, if not most, of those supporting the principle of eugenics at that time would have been horrified by anything approaching Hitler’s “final solution”.
Yet the difference between his thinking and theirs was arguably only a matter of degree.
The truth is that the Holocaust represents history’s largest experiment in raw eugenics and the greatest demonstration of its diabolical power.
In a truly just world, the post-war uncovering of the death camps should have spelt the end of eugenics as a philosophy. Sadly, it still crops up from time to time, albeit usually in milder form – for example, among those who advocate selective abortions based on gender or genetic defect.
Eugenics relies heavily on the thinking of such philosophers as Friedrich Nietzsche.
Though he was perhaps not a direct supporter of eugenics,his philosophy suggested that humanity might do better by abandoning virtues such as mercy and compassion, for these are signs of weakness.
Instead, Nietzsche seemed to suggest, the focus should be upon developing the next stage in human evolutionary development – the Übermensch, the “Over-man” (or, in one translation, superman).
It is not surprising that Nietzsche was among Hitler’s favourite philosophers. Richard Wagner, a contemporary of Nietzsche and strong anti-Semite, was his favourite composer.
For its part, ethnic cleansing – such a polite name for such a wicked practice – has gone on in other places since WW2, of course. Indeed, it has shown its hand in one form or another throughout history.
In the Soviet era, the Czech government expelled 25,000 to 30,000 Hungarians by the end of 1945. The fighting in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s saw the displacement and killing of thousands, particularly though not exclusively by Serb forces.
Since 2003, Sudan has allegedly carried out a campaign against several black ethnic groups in Darfur. Militia units and police forces have killed an estimated 450,000 people and expelled around two million.
These and other recent examples prove that ethnic cleansing is far from on its last legs. In all of this, however, the Holocaust stands out as its most stark and brutal example.
People of my generation and the one after mine can relate to the Holocaust only as a part of history – despite the fact that many of us were born in the near aftermath of WW2.
For my children’s generation, the link may seem even more tenuous and its lessons even less clear.
These “digital native” Millennials, are the world’s first globalised cohort. They may find it hard to imagine the very fact of a world war.
That men could take up arms on such a scale, without having it end in total mutual destruction, may seem unthinkable to them.
What’s more, it may seem totally unimaginable to them that civilised human beings would let a conflict situation degenerate to the point of such brutality.
In the age of the information explosion, much is written about the “wisdom of crowds”.
Surely, the thinking goes, when we can so easily collaborate on solving major problems via digital platforms, we should be able to stamp out destructive patterns of thought before they take hold.
Moreover, today’s easy access to travel and migration provide unprecedented opportunities to break down cultural walls and promote empathy between people groups.
Surely, something as clearly outrageous as eugenics and its flatmate ethnic cleansing will in future be eradicated through our viral and physical interconnectedness.
I’m not so sure.
Marking the liberation of Auschwitz forces us to remember that the general principles that effectively undergirded this forlorn place were at times, whether overtly or indirectly, supported by popular sentiment among some very learned people.
The wisdom of crowds is not always terribly wise.