Something that has always made the Holocaust – or any form of extreme violence and hate – seem distant is understanding how people could go through with their actions. When studying the Holocaust in schools, we focused on the Jews, both the survivors and the victims, and shied away from the individuals committing the atrocities. That made it easier to deal with because we could claim that people just got swept up in their actions, that the killers were faceless masses, and that they had lost their autonomy with the rise of Hitler, the one true villain in this tragedy.
What makes the Holocaust and the death of six million Jews (among the 12 million victims) easier to understand is how Ms. Lower in Hitler’s Furies identifies individuals involved and how or why they became involved. It suddenly becomes clear that, yes, thousands (if not millions) of people were involved in the systematic degradation, humiliation, torture, and murder of millions of Jews and that these people were normal human beings like you or I who every day had to face what they, their country, and their colleagues were doing. How then did anyone manage to do what they did day in and day out and not go thoroughly insane?
Nowadays, when we discuss serial killers or murderers, we go through great pains to emphasize that these people were not normal, that they had some defect in them that made them want to kill and hurt. We point to traumatic childhoods, sexual dysfunctions or abuses, cruel parents, and spurned ambitions, anything to justify why they would have a desire to kill. And while my limited research shows that there does seem to be some vague connection between serial killers and dysfunction, how could it be possible that thousands (if not millions) of people could be so blasé about committing genocide? Was there something in the water? Does mustard gas have significantly more long-term side effects? What in the world happened there?
Ms. Lower helped me out there by describing “how systems of mass murder can become embedded in everyday life. The embedding, and the normalization that accompanies it, allows such crimes to occur unimpeded.” (Pg. 118) The specific systems were the bureaucratic processes that facilitated and perpetuated the genocide, including but not limited to the registration of Jews, the selection of which Jews to kill based on certain criteria, and the filing of the paperwork involved. By adding bureaucracy to starvation, deportation, and murder, the acts of the Holocaust became normal, everyday office work. They became clean, bloodless pieces of paper shifting large numbers of people around. They became files to sort, memos to type, dictation to keep, and personal effects to organize, all of which contributed to making genocide look much like regular office work.
And that got me thinking. If we take horrible actions and beliefs like racism, police brutality, and the militarization of police and create bureaucratic systems around them, can we not normalize these actions and beliefs? If we see the transfer of military-grade weapons to small, local police departments as papers to push around and numbers to tally up, can we not forget that we’re giving human beings rocket launchers to shoot at other human beings? If we separate ourselves from the people involved and just read statistics or news reports – or, better yet, use personal anecdotes to dismiss these statistics and reports – can we not claim to live in a post-racial society? If, in other words, we make wrong actions and mindsets instead about paper, numbers, and busy work, can we not completely avoid thinking about them in any real sense?
Is that what we’ve done to racism in this country? Are we all just keeping our heads down and doing our jobs and trying to make our own lives better while contributing to racial inequality? Do we see actual dead, persecuted people like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and John Crawford as mere statistics, who are therefore not our problem? Do we dehumanize suffering humans and focus on material gains like how much it would cost to implement social systems so that we don’t have to face the reality of human suffering?
I’m starting to think so, and it’s a terrifying prospect. It certainly explains why typically good, decent people can say and do hurtful things and why political corruption, an abhorrence of social systems, police brutality, and racism are so endemic in our everyday society. And it also explains how many people, even those who seem good and decent, can ignore their own hatred and cruelty – after all, they’re just following procedure, they’re just doing what their superiors told them to, and if that was a real problem, someone would do something about it. In other words, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game” – because the player has abnegated their free will and all personal responsibility for their actions.