Blumen Wallace (Thanks, Seth) has assembled "An Auschwitz Alphabet," twenty-six alphabetical ruminations on Auschwitz, interspersed with first-hand accounts and documentary photographs. To say it is horrifying is to understate by several orders of magnitude. It is a catalogue of shocks and twisted transgressions, a litany, a series of harsh notes that ring dischord on the mind's ear.
I visited Dachau with my parents when I was twelve, in the winter of 1984. Nineteen years later, that two-hour visit is still vivid in my mind.
Why do the Nazi horrors so fundamentally discomfit us? I think it's their infantile banality. If you gave a psychopathic seven-year-old a box of crayons, a pad of construction paper and a month's time, he would recreate each of these horrors: "I'll chop them and starve them and rape them and tear their teeth out of their heads and starve them some more and x-ray their pensises until they fall off and make them eat shit and drink piss and I'll shoot them in the face and hang them and stab them and burn them alive –"
The Tom of Finland Nazi chic is about the refined, intellectual spirit of the Third Reich: The swooping Romanesques, the futuristic deco streamlining of the double-lightning-bolt SS insignia, the arch piss-elegance of the gentleman fascist with his swagger-stick and his precise little pistol in its gleaming leather holster.
But the reality is that the Nazi aesthetic was arrested at a second-grade level. It was the shock-for-shock's-sake naughtiness of a seven-year-old with his first swear-word, "You're a big fuckety fuck fucker!" It wasn't clean and simple and elegant. It was baroque and childish, the horrors of a schlock B-movie monster with tentacles that end with claws that end with guns that shoot flaming radioactive bullets that explode on impact and spread black death.
And that's why it's so horrifying, so primal. Auschwitz wasn't a series of individually tailored Room 101s devised by hyper-intelligent fiends to pry apart your psyche. It was a Child's Garden of Terror, a pull-the-wings-off-flies playset built by intellectual infants to terrorize their victims, a lame Star Trek episode where it turns out that the kidnapped hu-mans were in the power of an alien eight-year-old whose parents didn't adequately supervise his playtime.
To be at the mercy not of monsters, but of children of monstrous strength and disposition, that is the true horror.
If you want to communicate a message to the great mass of people, you are told to simplify it and simplify it again. Reduce it to a mission statement, then a vision statement, then a slogan. You can't get 300,000,000 people to understand a 500 word-blog entry, but boil it down to "Things go better with Coke," and you've got a socko-boffo hit you can take to the bank.
Childish messages and childish horrors are the stock-in-trade of demagogues. It's a demagogue's willingness to shave the corners off the truth and elide nuance and reduce the program to a single bullet point in words of one syllable that gives him the ability to command a mob.
For purposes of defense, reality can be distorted not only in memory but in the very act of taking place. Throughout the year of my imprisonment in Auschwitz I had Alberto D. as a fraternal friend: he was a robust, courageous young man, more clearsighted than the average and therefore very critical of the many who fabricated for themselves, and reciprocally administered to each other, consolatory illusions ("The war will be over in two weeks", "There will be no more selections", "The English have landed in Greece", "The Polish Partisans are about to liberate the camp," and so on, rumors heard nearly every day and punctually given the lie by reality). Alberto had been deported together with his forty-five year old father. In the imminence of the great selection of October 1944, Alberto and I had commented on this event with fright, impotent rage, rebellion, resignation, but without seeking refuge in comforting truths. The selection came, Alberto's "old" father was chosen for the gas, and in the space of a few hours, Alberto changed. He had heard rumors that seemed to him worthy of belief: the Russians are close by, the Germans would no longer dare persist in this slaughter, that was not a selection like the others, it was not for the gas chamber, but had been made to choose the weakened but salvageable prisoners, in fact like his father, who was very tired but not ill; indeed, he even knew where they would be sent, to Jaworzno, not far away, to a special camp for convalescents fit only for light labor.