THEOSOPHY, Vol. 37, No. 1, November, 1948
(Pages 9-13; Size: 14K)
(Number 7 of a 15-part series)



For those who seek to understand the psychological illness of our time, the Nazi death camps of World War II may prove to have been object lessons nearly as valuable as they were costly. These "camps" represented the acute stage of a universal disease called Institutionalism. In Buchenwald and Dachau, for instance, a plan for the systematized dehumanization of human personality was conceived and executed with considerable "scientific" acumen. After prolonged incarceration, even the death of an individual seemed less and less important to his friends and family -- finally, to himself. His identification was gone. He was already as if dead, to family and acquaintances. He was not even charged with any particular crime, nor was he serving any specified sentence. For him, the world, as it is commonly known, had ceased to exist. Only The Process of the camp remained. In the vast majority of instances, the moral person was successfully killed before the death of the body.

In a comprehensive article, "The Concentration Camps" (in the June Partisan Review), Hannah Arendt centers her discussion around one point, that "the psyche (or character) can be destroyed even without the destruction of the physical man." Tersely and effectively, she sums up the technique designed for the destruction of moral consciousness:

When a man is faced with the alternative of betraying and thus murdering his friends or of sending his wife and children, for whom he is in every sense responsible, to their death; when even suicide would mean the immediate murder of his own family -- how is he to decide? The alternative is no longer between good and evil, but between murder and murder. In perhaps the only article which really gets to the core of this matter, Camus (in Twice a Year, 1947) tells of a woman in Greece, who was allowed by the Nazis to choose which among her three children should be killed.

Through the creation of conditions under which conscience ceases to be adequate and to do good becomes utterly impossible, the consciously organized complicity of all men in the crimes of totalitarian regimes is extended to the victims and thus made really total. The SS implicated concentration camp inmates -- criminals, politicals, Jews -- in their crimes by making them responsible for a large part of the administration, thus confronting them with the hopeless dilemma whether to send their friends to their death, or to help murder other men who happened to be strangers.

The aim of the concentration camps, Miss Arendt shows, was to destroy the civil rights of the whole German population, to render the total citizenry incapable of individuality in any form. "Even free consent is an obstacle," for spontaneity of any kind proclaims the presence of a distinct person whose acts and responses cannot be exactly the same as everyone else's and who is therefore a disturbing factor in the regimented society. But we of the "democracies" expect a great deal of conformity also, especially when involved in a war or when afraid of being so involved. In wartime the use of individual moral discrimination is more or less dishonored under democratic as well as under authoritarian systems of government, and few are the active champions of this prerogative of ethical freedom. The death-camp psychology is only the last mile on the road of materialism, a thoroughfare with which every nation is familiar. The ideology of the death camp is an attempt to repeal the power of choice in the human ego, in the interests of efficiency.

What once seemed to be a technical debate about the reality of mind versus matter is now revealed to have been essentially a denial of the individual man's value. Miss Arendt writes that in a totalitarian system, "Character is a threat and even the most unjust legal rules are an obstacle; but individuality, anything indeed that distinguishes one man from another, is intolerable." Totalitarianism does not strive simply toward despotic rule over men, but "toward a system in which men are superfluous." To realize that the social consequence of materialism is institutionalism will make clear the way in which American bureaucracy in both business and government, national militarization programs, and national propaganda are related to the horrors of Buchenwald and Dachau. Unless the premises of Institutionalism are denied in practice, unless the individual citizen is continually granted more "inalienable rights" and more areas of responsibility in government, any system is tending toward the death-camp goal: total disenfranchisement of man. The acme of Institutionalism is graphically described by David Rousset in his seven-hundred-page recollection of concentration camp experience entitled Les Jours de notre mort (literally, "the days of our death"):

The triumph of the SS demands that the tortured victim allow himself to be led to the noose without protesting, that he renounce and abandon himself to the point of ceasing to affirm his identity. And it is not for nothing. It is not gratuitously, out of sheer sadism, that the SS men desire this defeat. They know that the system which succeeds in destroying its victim before he mounts the scaffold ... is incomparably the best for keeping a whole people in slavery. In submission. Nothing is more terrible than these processions of human beings going like dummies to their death. The man who sees this says to himself: "For them to be thus reduced, what power must be concealed in the hands of the masters," and he turns away, full of bitterness but defeated.
The death camps aimed at perfecting an idiot- or robot-producing machine, and must have succeeded in the "extreme cases" (which were the rule instead of the exception) in so crippling the bodily instrument that the inner character could hardly communicate intelligibly. As Miss Arendt observes: "Actually the experience of the concentration camps does show that human beings can be transformed into specimens of the human beast, and that man's 'nature' is only 'human' in so far as it opens up to man the possibility of becoming something highly unnatural, that is, a man."

Eugen Kogon, another survivor whose book Miss Arendt refers to as the product of "assimilated recollection," has offered the thesis that "most of the prisoners [left] the concentration camps with exactly the same convictions that they had before; if anything, these convictions became more accentuated." This is striking evidence of the fact that it is extremely easy to encourage large portions of humanity to "reinvolute into the animal kingdom" -- the alternative to moral growth. Man cannot stand still and remain human. The camps, as Miss Arendt points out, are a demonstration that "the power of man is so great that he really can be what he wishes to be" -- even if he wants to be less than man. The "drill grounds" for SS men, in Kogon's phrase, were also a fantastic experiment in cultivating inhumanity in the administrators themselves.

The cruelest situation must have some reason for being and for afflicting certain persons and not others; for one thing, the onlooker is always involved, and must choose between indifference and degrees of purposeful action. From Miss Arendt's conclusion it is evident that the indifference of the "outside world" to the fate of concentration camp victims would be only another Nazi victory. She writes:

Today, with population almost everywhere on the increase, masses of people are continuously being rendered superfluous by political, social, and economic events. At such a time the instruments devised for making human beings superfluous are bound to offer a great temptation: why not use these same instruments to liquidate human beings who have already become superfluous?

This side of the matter is only too well understood by the common sense of the mob which in most countries is too desperate to retain much fear of death. The Nazis, who were well aware that their defeat would not solve the problems of Europe, knew exactly what they were doing when, toward the end of the war -- which by then they knew they had lost -- they set up those factories of annihilation which demonstrated the swiftest possible solution to the problem of superfluous human masses. There is no doubt that this solution will from now on occur to millions of people whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, or social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.

One difficulty in arousing the popular conscience with respect to the death camps is the fact that most people seem to find the very existence of the Nazi crimes unbelievable. Even when faced by the most exact corroborating testimony, complete with photographs and statistical records kept by the Nazis, the mind seldom accedes to the reality. Yet the process of deliberately destroying the personality of "political enemies" continues in Russia today in only slightly attenuated form. And now, for the citizens of the democracies, comes the vital question. Were eighty million German people completely different from ourselves? Was their culture, one filled with the contributions of fully as many humanitarian philosophers and artists as our own, of an entirely different bent? Are two hundred million Russians utterly dissimilar to ourselves? True, they are governed by a system which practices many horrors, and they support that system either by acquiescence or by positive zeal. But unless "citizens of the democracies" are themselves hopelessly institutionalized, they may answer truthfully that neither the German nor the Russian people are fundamentally different from ourselves, nor are their institutions based upon an entirely "foreign" psychology.

The programs of totalitarianism in Germany, Russia and Japan began with militarization. At present the process of militarization is still proceeding in the United States. Once grant the inescapable premise that men in the mass in all countries are much the same, and there is no dodging the conclusion that the degree of militarism already attained in England and America makes us to some degree like "those others." How fantastic and remote this sounds! Yet there is no flaw in the logic. The outcome of the argument appears fantastic and unreal only for the reason that in no modern western nation are men aware of the world-wide encroachment of institutional values upon the life of the human soul. The institutionalisms of England and America have not produced concentration camps, nor will they necessarily do so, but they have produced millions of minds already prone to think in "concentration-camp" terms, and to be blinded to all values apart from those of commercial, religious and political propaganda.

Few Americans saw anything of the "totalitarian" psychology in the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima or in the subsequent Bikini tests. But there is a strong connectedness of motivation and attitude. Both death camps and atom bombs are distinct repudiations or twistings of the moral sense. The real destruction is not by atom bombs, any more than the real obliteration of the German death camp inmate was accomplished in the gas chamber. Final destruction is death of the soul. If the moral man dies, there ends also that area of interdependence in aspiration uniting all who share a common humanity.

COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:


The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. 


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