Guest column Jonathan Klate: Auschwitz, Trump and killing machines

  • This Friday, Oct. 19, 2012, photo shows the entrance to the former Nazi German Auschwitz death camp with the inscription ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work Sets You Free) in Oswiecim, Poland. AP

Monday, December 09, 2019

I have just returned from a weeklong pilgrimage to the Auschwitz/Birkenau extermination camps.

Days were spent inside the camps contemplating this incomprehensibly vast industry of death, including many hours meditating upon the strip of ground beside the tracks where the cattle cars disgorged starving throngs of brutalized prisoners into the maw of flailing whips and attacking dogs.

Children, older men and most of the women were to be murdered in the gas chambers immediately. Younger men and some of the women deemed fit for hard labor were driven into wretched slave quarters for a short, unspeakably cruel life, along with some of the children designated for obscenely torturous “medical experiments” under the hand of the diabolical Dr. Mengele.

Among the mystifying horrors we pondered was how the individual S.S. members, human beings whose original nature was no different from our own, participated in this hideous enterprise.

I returned home to the news of our president granting full pardons to three members our own armed forces, convicted and unrepentant murderers of undefended civilians.

Presidents beginning with George Washington have provided pardons to deserters or draft evaders after the fighting ended. There is no incident of any other president pardoning a soldier for the commission of a violent crime while in uniform. Trump’s official forgiveness of killers of innocents is a new and dreadful ethic for our military, properly opposed by most of those who served with them, and by those who commanded them. It provides a moral sanction for our country that coarsens all of us and corrupts our humanity

“We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!” tweeted the president, in his injudicious and perpetual outrage.

Theodor Eicke, the architect of the Nazi death camps said, “Anyone who shows even the slightest vestige of sympathy towards them (Jews and other deemed less than human) must immediately vanish from our ranks. I need only hard, totally committed SS men.”

For Eicke, any form of compassion was a manifestation of weakness, and moreover a consequence of the enemy’s devious manipulation of a soldier’s mind and heart. Among the despicable Nazi propaganda was a widely distributed book called “The Poisonous Mushroom” that warned of the cunning nature of the Jews by use of a childish metaphor of a mushroom that appears attractive on the surface but is really poisonous.

The S.S. troops were programmed to reject their own feelings of basic human concern when they witnessed a defenseless prisoner being beaten to death, a child’s skull crushed under a boot, or thousands driven by whips and vicious dog into the gas chambers.

This nation has striven to hold its military to a higher standard. We have far too often fallen far short of this aspiration. For reference see No Gun Ri, My Lai, Abu Ghraib, etc. But at the highest level of our military command, we have at the very least declared that we believe in superior moral values and that this distinguishes us from our adversaries.

That is the departure from all of our history with this president. None of us always lives up to our values. But we acknowledge that we do have them and aspire to live up to them. Now we have a leader who has no values to live up to, and insists that as a nation we also live in this nihilistic way. There is nothing but shameful precedent for this in our world, as we witnessed in Auschwitz.

Our president gleefully reads the poem “The Snake” at his rallies, emphasizing that the referenced snake is an allusion to immigrants who appear at our borders seeking asylum. Here is the propagandistic final verse:

“I saved you,” cried that woman

“And you’ve bit me even, why?

You know your bite is poisonous and now I’m going to die”

“Oh shut up, silly woman,” said the reptile with a grin

“You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in

Is this not evocative of “The Poisonous Mushroom?”

No Mr. Trump, our soldiers must not be killing machines, but rather whole and honorable human beings, skillful in action, obedient to their code of honor, and exemplary citizens with fully activated hearts and minds and the capacity to distinguish friend from foe, dangerous enemy combatant from nonthreatening bystander.

In the early months of the Third Reich, Jews were prohibited from owning newspapers, from being included in the national health insurance system, from practicing law, and performing on the stages of the major concert venues. Such oppressive discrimination as these seemed yet perhaps sufferable. The genocidal enterprise would evolve over time, as those charged with perpetrating the Holocaust, driven by their craven leaders, exorcised their capacity for compassion.

Among the lessons I have taken from my days of contemplation in Auschwitz are vigilance for any manifestation of dehumanization of a group, of seeing any human beings being regarded and treated as less deserving of freedom, dignity, safety and any other human right that is assumed by the dominant group as theirs.

Another lesson, which yields the first, is elevating compassion to the forefront of our values, rejecting any efforts, in any place or circumstance, to denigrate it, even when, especially when, such denigration is encouraged by a president.

Jonathan Klate lives in Amherst and writes about spirituality, ideology, and the relationship between these two.