Monday, June 19, 2017

In Detail

24 Ramadhan, 1438

Main reading of the day has been Nikolaus Wachsmann's KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. The KL in the title is from the German Konzentrationslager, a term that before I read some of the reviews of this monumental study was entirely unfamiliar to me, in something of the same way that I'd never heard the term Gulag prior to reading Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. I  wonder, in the light of the publication of Wachsmann's work whether KL will become as definingly familiar a term.

I'm roughly a third of the way into the book and already overwhelmed by its astonishing detail, astonishing both in the sense of just how much detail exists regarding every aspect of the camps (this is a text that Holocaust-deniers would do well to avoid if they wish to cling on to their pathetic illusions) and in the darker sense of its relentless revelation of the human capacity for extreme cruelty. Wachsmann skilfully blends accounts of individual behaviour involving both the perpetrators and the victims of the evil of the camps with a broader sense of the general development of the KL against the unfolding events of the 30s and 40s so that you're never allowed to lose sight of the horror in human terms. But the horror is never played up - I suppose because it simply doesn't need to be. The bare details are quite enough.

But the implications of those details are devastating in terms of how we look at ourselves. On the page I'm reading at the moment, dealing with the development of the Nazi euthanasia programme, known as Operation T-4, in relation to the camps, Wachsmann's flat statement regarding the physicians involved, Mass murder seems to have come easy to them, is massively troubling, and it's backed up with ample evidence. The doctors who singled out prisoners for execution in the first, experimental gas chambers enjoyed their work and the prestige, and chances for career advancement, involved.

I'm not sure exactly why I'm reading this, I just know that at some level I have to.

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