The Horror Behind the Holocaust
Academia's Days of Infamy

Lehman College Professor of History John Weiss has just published Ideology of Death: Why the Holocaust Happened in Germany (Ivan R. Dee), in which he banishes the single-cause fallacy that the Holocaust would not have occurred without Hitler. He explores, instead, many long-simmering factors that contributed to the construction of Auschwitz and its ghastly brethren, notably the complicity of the German academic community. Prof. Weiss has adapted the following essay from his book.

Given the decades-old history of racist attitudes within the German academic community, its wholesale collaboration with the Nazis is not surprising. Dr. Josef Mengele has too often been singled out as an aberrant, singular monster. The true horror is that Dr. Mengele, like others who committed similar horrors, was simply a scientist and researcher, an assistant professor at the famed Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Genetics. When he selected victims for death or fatal experiments at Auschwitz, he worked with other academics as a faculty member of the Institute, where faculty not only trained the SS (Schutzstaffel) but participated in all phases of the destruction of Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals.

Mengele's sponsor and the head of the Institute, Prof. Otmar von Verschuer, also helped select candidates for death, and, along with professors from various universities, competed for research grants to study death camp victims. Mengele's Auschwitz research was also sponsored by the Berlin-based Institute for the Advancement of Science, which funneled Nazi funds into academic research. Moreover, various universities requested and received the body parts of murdered victims for research. Academics thanked Mengele when their learned papers were composed with the help of his research data.

It was all quite normal. Prof. Hallervorden, head of a respected institute, collected the brains of children killed in death camps. The head of the University of Strasbourg, Prof. Auguste Hirt, wrote Heinrich Himmler, commander of the SS, about the need to preserve the skulls of "sub-human Jewish Bolsheviks" for research. In 1939, Prof. Eugene Fischer, Rector of the University of Berlin, declared that the Jews must be eliminated. A conference of academics recommended in 1941 that the "gypsy problem" be solved by drowning them at sea en masse. Indeed, the standard German textbook on genetics, written in 1922, was full of anti-Semitic racism and was considered good science. Its co-authors later competed for high positions in the SS. My examples are neither atypical nor unprecedented; as we know, racism was already common in the German academic community by as early as 1880.

In Auschwitz, Mengele was once asked, "When will all this killing cease?" His answer: "Never. My friend! It will go on and on and on." As a specialist in racial purification, Dr. Mengele, the holder of degrees in anthropology and medicine, knew that after the Jews, gypsies and homosexuals were gone, millions of Slavs would remain, and a constant stream of German babies would have to be "selected out" for mental and physical disabilities. As we have seen, many academics had called for such policies decades before the Nazis.

The proof that Mengele's colleagues never thought him criminal came in 1949. A faculty committee at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute found him innocent of wrongdoing, declaring: "We cannot tell, from the evidence available to us, to what extent Dr. Mengele himself was aware of the abominations and murders perpetrated in Auschwitz during the period under discussion..." Mengele fled only when the Allies, needing Germany for the Cold War, ceased hunting even the most vicious mass murderers, while the German judiciary busily acquitted men as culpable as Mengele or more so.

Mengele's escape from Germany and his high visibility at Auschwitz singled him out. But for many Germans his allegedly unique monstrosity, like that of Hitler, created an excuse for avoiding the investigation of the decades-old culture of German and Austrian racism. Westerners of good will still assume too easily that scientific learning imparts liberal values; hence, they look for psychological deviancy rather than cultural and historical causes for the racist terror committed by educated Germans. But German intellectuals rarely accepted the Enlightenment view that the human personality is formed by social experience and external conditioning rather than innate and unchangeable racial traits. This belief, of course, enabled German academics to distance themselves with cold rationality from any human connection with their victims.

There is a more profound truth at stake here. The Holocaust is unique; but it is not unintelligible. Like all historical traumas, it is subject to a rational analysis of cause and effect. Until now we have been too ready to believe that the causes of racial hatred are located mainly in the deep recesses of deviant psyches; we remain relatively unaware of the particular historical situations and social upheavals which can release and sanction the almost universal need to punish racial or religious scapegoats. Sadly, as it recedes into the past, the Holocaust takes on the aura of a sacred event, an abstraction resistant to comprehension.

One is left with a sense of despair and frustration, for what cannot be explained cannot be prevented. "Never Again" becomes a pious hope, and we are rendered incapable of distinguishing between the ever- present but transient obscenities of the thousands of anti-Semitic incidents reported each year, and a full-blown ideology of hate which points to deep-rooted social tensions and presages mass violence. Unexplained, the horror is mourned, memorialized and given over to the ruminations of moralists, psychologists, and theologians. They have much of value to say, but they cannot tell us what we must know: How it was that in one of the most advanced nations of the West, millions of innocent civilians were sacrificed in the service of an ancient and barbarous mythology of racial purity? And it is my belief that, until now, we have been deaf to the resounding echo of hatred toward Jews in large sectors of the German public, to which the Nazis were so keenly attuned... and blind to the long decades of cultural devolution in Germany that made it possible for the terrible sound to reverberate in such deadly fashion.