Auschwitz officer scrapbook -- "the banality of evil"

Picture 1-104
Next week, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will feature an online display of a photo scrapbook that depicts the day-to-day lives of Auschwitz's SS officers. It was donated to the museum by a former United States Army intelligence officer who found the photographs over 60 years ago in Germany.

Shown here: Nazi officers and female auxiliaries pose on a wooden bridge in Solahütte (a recreation lodge for the SS near Auschwitz).

The comparisons between the albums are both poignant and obvious, as they juxtapose the comfortable daily lives of the guards with the horrific reality within the camp, where thousands were starving and 1.1 million died.

For example, one of the Höcker pictures, shot on July 22, 1944, shows a group of cheerful young women who worked as SS communications specialists eating bowls of fresh blueberries. One turns her bowl upside down and makes a mock frown because she has finished her portion.

On that day, said Judith Cohen, a historian at the Holocaust museum in Washington, 150 new prisoners arrived at the Birkenau site. Of that group, 21 men and 12 women were selected for work, the rest transported immediately to the gas chambers.

The New York Times has a slideshow with audio commentary by Rebecca Erbelding, an archivist at the the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Link


  1. …I can see some of these captions now:

    “Here ist Hanz und Fritz, smiling happily und at attention before der showers for der Juden!”

    “Here ist a photo of der annual picnic mit der visiting enlisted families from Bergen-Belsen. Ve see all der families enjoying the sunshine und der pleasant breeze blowing upwind from der camps und der ovens!”

    “Und here ve see der Kommandant’s head chef, Klaus, preparing a special brick oven-baked selection of der gourmet pizzas der visiting dignitaries from Italy so love.”

    “Here ve see Hanz und Fritz again, both are now on guard duty in der tower next to der electrified fence, where dwei Juden have volunteered to demonstrate der effectiveness of der fence for the camera!”

    …I swear, putting it into context, the only way to stay sane is to treat it as if it were a Python “And here we see…” sketch.

  2. This is always the scarey part: realizing that mass murderers are in many ways just like everyone else. They wake up in the morning, they put on their pants one leg at a time, they brush their teeth and walk their dog, they kiss their kids and head out to the concentration camp to oversee the deaths of thousands.

    I’ve always liked to say that monsters are real, and it’s far worse than we ever imagined when we were kids. We thought monsters were big and hairy and had fangs. If only it were that easy! A monster like that you can recognize from a hundred meters away. A monster like that, you have a chance against. The real monsters are worse, because they look and act just like everyone else.

  3. This is just a more distinct look at our everyday reality, isn’t it? Even if I don’t directly participate in atrosities, they occur everywhere, and my failure to act makes me proportionately culpable. That doesn’t mean I don’t have fun. In fact, I have fun all the time.

  4. The book to read is “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” which points out that the entire German society had been for many decades debating what to do about the commonly accepted “Jewish Problem.” This is somewhat analogous to our current system in the USA in which our final solution to the commonly accepted “Drug Problem” is to hand out mandatory minimum sentences (upwards of 20-30 years with no probation possible) for just enough drugs found in your car or house (which is then confi$cated often under promise that they not be prosecuted) to qualify you as a “dealer.” It’s was also a consistent fact that a racial minority of people in most industrializing countries were the “merchants” and “land owners” and thus the subject of envy by the masses, so when democracy really gets rolling in such countries, often a genocide occurs. This continues to this day in Africa, in which whites used to be the ones who ran things while blacks mostly just labored. “World on Fire” is another book to read, in that aspect, and certainly it was the Jews who owned most of the shops in Germany before their genocide. Democracy needs the right type of start in order to avoid killing fields. In Zaire, they finally had an election, and a Hitler type was elected, so they killed all the white land owners, but nobody else knew how to fix and run the farm equipment, so everybody starved. Remember, Hitler was democratically elected, and also remember that NAZI means “National Socialist Workers Party” so it was in fact a leftist/populist and not “fascist” (industry friendly) movement. Women, especially, at Hitler rallies, screamed in ecstasy just like they did at Elvis concerts.

    – Nik

  5. One of the problems facing the way history is written around the holocaust, is the exclusion of women as victims and perpetrators throughout. It’s important and productive for us to acknowledge that it was men and women taking the lives of men and women.

  6. The commentary of the slideshow at one point says something about people succumbing to anti-semitism and racism, but you have to wonder after seeing these photos, which put a very human element to the perpetrators of the 20th century’s biggest atrocity.

    If there’s one thing to be gotten out of the Milgram and Stanford prison experiments, is that normal, well adjusted people, when put into a position of power over others and absolved of all responsibility of their actions, have no problem inflicting the most atrocious suffering on other human beings.

    It’s a complex situation with plenty of food for thought, especially after seeing these pictures.

  7. The scary part *isnt* that there are monsters out there. The monsters have always been us. These photos serve as a warning to any of us who believe the civility and enlightenment of our own nation, state, city, neigborhood would prevent complicity to mass violence and genocide. It happened in Kosovo, it’s happening in Darfur. Look at these monsters. They live lives, cherish hopes, suffer disappointments just like you or I do. What makes them monsters is only that they could not concieve of what they would be capable of and so did not recognize the small (at first) ways in which they became complicit in separating their neighbors from their humanity. It’s so easy to go along with extermination once you can no longer see that other the person is a person, like you.

  8. The folks in the snap at the top of this post are able to be jolly because they have so completely demonized their victims…much as today we demonize the folks in the snap.

    The moral is that it can always happen here, with a possible corollary that the best prevention is to affirm the humanity of all, even the monsters.


  9. It is a good idea to show the banality of life, but surely it is better to show the totality of the enterprise.

    This fragment will not enlighten much beyond the guards lived normal lives part of the time. What about work time? What were the mechanisms to maintain the regime that allowed them “normality”?

    On balance I think that the photos should be left alone. we should move the worlds focus to closer to the present. We need to stop current horrors and learn from the more recent catastrophes of politics like in Cambodia and Rwanda. These are more meaningful than atrocities of the past nearly 75 years ago.

    The analysis of mechanisms of the totality of the enterprise should be examined to prevent the politics of institutional Ghettoisation and isolation permeating the present, if inadvertently through walling off of communities and collective punishments.

  10. Goodness, the irony of this display being in America is simply astounding. At least it’ll be thought provoking. After all:

    Over 100,000 dead, maimed, or missing Iraqis could watch American television everyday and experience that exact same thought.

  11. The extermination campaigns were initially done by shooting victims with machine guns and pistols. Those Nazis taking part and those just in the vicinity of the murdering began to request “sick leave” and many began drinking heavily. There had been indoctrination which effectively made most Nazis view their victims as sub-human or not human, but close-up killing was taking a toll on their psyches and was affecting morale. The solution was to dehumanize mass murder by removing the killers from those who were to be killed. This was the instigator of the gas chamber. Killing needed far fewer active participants and was as indirect as possible. Mass murder had become another highly organized bureaucracy with endless record keeping, accounting, budgets and goals.

  12. This resort for guards and other employees was not far from Auschwitz, so you know that everyone in that photo lived with the smell in their nostrils of the dying and the cremated. Perhaps that is why they are so giddy–that might be one’s only recourse in the midst of the macabre.

    It’s worth looking at these and then reading the brilliant, brilliant book, “Into that darkness,” by Gitta Sereny. Sereny spent weeks interviewing Franz Stangl, a commandant at Sobibor and then Treblinka, trying to determine what set him first on the slippery slope that led to his effortless extermination of thousands of people. He was conscious enough of right and wrong to lie to his wife about his work (she eventually left him when the lies couldn’t conceal the truth), and his work drove him to alcoholism eventually, but he maintained to the end that he was doing his duty. It’s a chilling and absolutely necessary book.

  13. oh btw, the comment at #8 was totally facetious. my html joke didn’t come out when the post appeared.

  14. The wonderful sf and mystery author Frederic Brown once told a writer friend that he came up with his villains by modeling them after the nicest people he knew. That way, his bad guys were more dimensional and all the more creepy.

  15. My favorite quote of all time applies here in spades:

    “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” —Alexander Solzhenitsyn

  16. Yes, yes. Monsters are everywhere and every time.

    In England it was/is white educated people v the brown Indian people (for starters).

    In France it was/is the white educated v the brown North Africans.

    In Belgium it was/is the white educated people v the black people of the Congo.

    In the United States it was/is white people against anybody who isn’t.

    Christians all.

    In Germany it was/is white people against the Jews (and others).

    Not Christians these.

    Now, in Israel, it was/is Jews acting monstrously toward the Palestinians from whom they have stolen land.

    No Christians here either, but they learned their trade from Christians, and the Germans.

    Now the Jews are monsters as well.

    Monsters everywhere.

Comments are closed.