Saturday, December 3, 2016

Disposable People

Remains of the death house and crematorium at Sachsenhausen.  The Nazis dynamited this building days before the Soviet army arrived and liberated the camp.  Floors in the building are still buckled from the blasts.  My photo from July 2016

It is hard to imagine a more complete and concrete rejection of the idea of common humanity than Sachsenhausen. Even in its current cleaned up and memorialized state, it is still a deeply disturbing place to experience. The Nazis and the public who supported them thought of such facilities as equivalent to garbage incinerators or sewage treatment plants, places where waste was disposed of as expeditiously as possible. Sachsenhausen’s death house and crematorium have a utilitarian quality of mechanical efficiency, what we would expect and want in a waste disposal system. That is precisely what makes the place so chilling. The whole place is formed out of the idea that the people who died here were waste.

When contemplating such places, the question always comes up about how could ordinary people be persuaded to take part in such operations. That question is usually the beginning of much anguished speculation. I would argue that going along was easy for most people. After nothing but loud emotional declarations for years that the community is under threat, and that they and people like them are the only people who matter -- that they are being threatened from without and subverted from within -- people considered service in such places to be a duty. A lot of people were even eager to take on this task. Disposing of the enemy, of the undesirable, in places like Sachsenhausen was seen to be as much a moral duty as treating an infection.
People sent to places like Sachsenhausen were considered not fit to survive. For whatever arbitrary reason, they were considered unfit to be human; “life unworthy of life.” They were unworthy to be part of the human community and therefore expendable. And so, they were brought to places like Sachsenhausen to be disposed of.

Sachsenhausen was not a death camp. It was a concentration camp where undesirables were collected and confined to be used as slave labor and worked to death, or killed en masse there or elsewhere in places like Auschwitz. Even so, in its nine years of existence from 1936 to 1945, around fifty thousand people died in Sachsenhausen; by hanging, shooting, gassing, medical experiments, casual murder by the guards or other prisoners, by disease, and starvation. It was originally built to house political prisoners, but over the course of time, thousands upon thousands of Jews were confined here beginning in 1938 in the wake of Kristallnacht. Sachsenhausen served as a collection point for Jews to be sent east to Auschwitz. After the War began, legions of Soviet prisoners of war were sent to Sachsenhausen and killed by the thousands, slaughtered like cattle in the death pit attached to the camp death house. The hospital barracks saw hundreds of people subjected to medical “experiments” that they were not expected or required to survive. Some were vivisected in the pathology department. Others were sterilized and castrated. Many were injected with chemicals, drugs, and infectious agents.
All of this was made possible because the people who were confined here were considered subhuman. The guards and employees of the camp did all these horrible things with a clear conscience because the prisoners here were considered “losers.” They didn’t matter. They were not like Us. They were Them. And so, they were considered a burden, as mouths to feed. Or, they were seen as a threat, as an infection within the community or as enemies from without.

Prisoners confined here were made to feel that they deserved to be here, and were constantly beguiled with a false hope of redemption and ultimately freedom. “Work makes freedom” says the inscription on the iron gate. Painted in large letters on the end walls of the barracks facing the camp assembly grounds was this quote from Heinrich Himmler, “There is a path to freedom. Its milestones are obedience, endeavor, honesty, order, cleanliness, sobriety, truthfulness, self-sacrifice, and love of the Fatherland.” In fact, this false hope was held before the eyes of the prisoners to demoralize them, and to make them active collaborators in their own destruction.

The casual almost festive neo-Nazism that manifests itself these days in the USA in everything from swastika graffiti everywhere to racist rants by crazy hotheads in public places to high price little Nuremberg rallies in federal buildings in Washington DC with all these expensive suits giving us the Hitlergruss and yelling “Hail Victory!” is very alarming. I wonder if such people ever thought much at all about the meaning and the magnitude of what they are doing. I doubt it. I doubt that they really care. The whole election campaign was about spite and vindictiveness. That’s what made this probably the ugliest and most repellant election cycle in the USA since the Civil War. People voted for revenge, and they are going to get it along with all the consequences that come with it.

There’s no reason why places like Sachsenhausen can’t happen here. We have no special dispensation from history in this country whatever divine blessings we may enjoy. Basic human nature with its selfishness and cowardice dwells in North America as much as it dwells anywhere else on earth. We’ve even had a lot of practice at disposing of people. We thought of the native population of this continent as part of the wilderness to be cleared, and we acted accordingly. Apart from famous massacres like Wounded Knee and Sandy Creek, there were professional scalp hunters who made a bloody living harvesting the scalps of native peoples. In California in the early 19th century, cash prizes were offered for the most scalps turned in to the local courthouse. Thousands of Africans were abducted from their homelands and forcibly brought across the Atlantic to work for generations as slave labor on immense plantations that produced sugar, tobacco, and cotton for mass consumption and industrial production in Europe. The USA is already an empire built on slavery and genocide. The levees along the lower Mississippi river are full of the bones of convict laborers who built them. The westward expansion of the USA in slavery and genocide inspired Hitler’s ambitions to conquer eastern Europe. He said that he wanted to turn the Volga river into a German Mississippi and Moscow into a lake.

“Survival of the fittest.” People think Darwin said this. In fact, he never said any such thing. Herbert Spencer said this, and he was not talking about the natural world. He was talking about human society. He was talking about culling the human herd. The question is, what to do with those who get culled. The Nazis had an answer. The 19th century USA also had an answer. Hitler persuaded his followers that they held the key to history in their hands, that they were involved in a life or death struggle between the Aryan race and the Jewish race for the domination of the planet. The 19th century USA believed in the natural superiority of the white race, that God destined the Americas as a home for white men. From there, white Christian America would dominate all the rest of humankind and civilize a benighted world. But, why should anyone dominate the world? Why should humanity be culled in the first place? What are the criteria? Who gets to set them and why? Why should anyone care about or respect those criteria? Is success simply survival in some mass battle to the death? (that’s not what Darwin meant at all by “natural selection”). Hitler and the Social Darwinists conceived of the world as an arena of struggle. They thought of history as a constant struggle for supremacy among peoples, of human life as perpetual warfare. Why would anyone of sound mind want to live in such a world?

Perhaps Social Darwinism and its vision of humanity constantly fighting over ever dwindling resources is obsolete. None of the dire predictions of Thomas Malthus or any of the later Social Darwinists have panned out. It turns out that there are 7 billion people on earth now, far more than these 19th century thinkers ever imagined. And yet, the planet can sustain them so far. Even more, since the end of the Second World War, North America, western Europe, and large parts of east Asia enjoyed mass prosperity for the first time in history. Most people in those areas live in decency and comfort with a measure of economic security never seen before anywhere in history. Far from diminishing, that economic comfort and security is gradually spreading to eastern Europe, to south Asia, most strikingly to China, and even finds its way into parts of Africa and Latin America. “The poor shall always be with you,” says a passage in the Gospels mistakenly interpreted as license to ignore the demands of social justice. For the first time in history, the elimination of gross human poverty is thinkable, and even possible. It may not be socially or politically possible now, but it may already be technologically possible.

The rise of technology and automation creates not only new possibilities for life and production, it also raises a new specter of human disposability with so many jobs, skills, and professions rendered obsolete. A technologically fully functional world may not need so many people to sustain it. If so, what to do with so many people who are no longer economically necessary? Is it possible that we may have to find another basis upon which to organize human society if economic necessity no longer matters? Where do people fit into a world that no longer needs their labor?

The idea of disposable people should make us ask if we are all that indispensable ourselves. The wheel of Fortune turns and in our era, circumstances of living can change radically very quickly. Today’s privileged may be tomorrow’s paupers. Today’s necessity may be tomorrow’s superfluous luxury. Today’s Chosen People may be tomorrow’s “mud people.” Is there a fundamental inviolable worth to being human? Is there something beyond our own instinctual emotional revulsion that makes the mass slaughter of people deemed unnecessary and undesirable wrong? We consider people who volunteer to leave this world and this life through suicide to be mentally ill and unfortunate. Why should that be if indeed, as the old Social Darwinists and their modern incarnations say, no one has a fundamental right to live? I believe in such a fundamental and inviolable worth, but then again, I’m just a woolly headed liberal humanist, a Christian who believes in Santa Claus and flying spaghetti monsters, a weepy sentimentalist, or so I’m told repeatedly. But, no one shows me anything else beyond the actuarial nihilism of the market economy that prevails now. As Karl Marx pointed out, capitalism reduces all values to those of use and exchange; it rejects the very idea of intrinsic value. It should be remembered that Marx points this out not to criticize bourgeois capitalism, but to praise it for its capacity to strip off the accumulated prejudices of centuries. Marx was a ruthless modernist gleefully reducing human beings to their most naked animal state, stripping them of all the spiritual eschatologies that gave their lives meaning, before remaking them after his vision of a materialist economic eschatology. Everything and everyone in such a capitalist world is ultimately trash, to be disposed when they are no longer useful or desirable. The cold comfort of success in an unrelentingly impersonal and anonymous vast global human artifice where everyone is ultimately disposable is no comfort at all.


There is a German proverb that says that the only true equality is in the cemetery. Nonsense! Our sorting, classifications, and rankings follow us all the way into the cemetery and determine where and how our remains are buried. As in life, so in death. We bury the dead and respect their resting places based on how we ranked them in life. We determine who is elect and who is damned long before God does.

Washington Park Cemetery in Saint Louis County, Missouri; this is an African American cemetery founded in the 1920s when cemeteries were segregated, as was everything else.  Lambert International Airport and suburban development swallowed up most of the northern half of the cemetery that was split by the construction of Interstate 70.  Graves were dug up and moved, but in the process of exhumation, it was discovered that many records of who was buried where were lost or mixed up.  The cemetery has no endowment for maintenance and depends for financing from new burials.  As a result, the cemetery is badly maintained with part of it used as a tire dump.

The largest city cemetery in the world is New York City's famous potter's field, Hart Island in Long Island Sound.  Since 1868, Hart Island served as a burial ground for the city's indigent who could not afford decent burial, and for its unclaimed dead.  Some estimates say that the total number of burials on the island is roughly equal to the population of Boston today.  The island remains a source of scandal for the city since many buried here were neither indigent nor unclaimed, but simply had the bad luck to have records lost or be victimized by unscrupulous lawyers assigned to them by courts to be legal guardians in their dotage.
The dead are buried without rites or ceremony in long trenches.  They are placed in pine box coffins with an assigned number and their name wood-burned into the sides.  The coffins are stacked five deep and twenty coffins long in the trenches.  Prisoners from Rikers Island do the work of burying the city's unwanted dead.


JCF said...

So many thoughts, Doug. You've raised so many questions, for which I have no answers.

Just this---

"I believe in such a fundamental and inviolable worth, but then again, I’m just a woolly headed liberal humanist, a Christian who believes in Santa Claus and flying spaghetti monsters, a weepy sentimentalist, or so I’m told repeatedly."

Me too, and "God bless us every one!"

JC said...

Thought inspiring post. But i think you might be a bit harsh on old Karl here. I don't think his goal was so much to strip away the "opiate" as to strip away the brutal economic conditions that made the opiate necessary. Most only quote the "opiate" line, shorn of its context:

"Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions." -Hegel's Philosophy of Right, KM

When I read old sermons of Oscar Romero, I understand this. When I am forced to hear the bad spiritual-vaudeville of Joel Osteen every Sunday on the overhead tv at the laundromat, I want to reach for a brick.

But I'm not here to defend Karl as much as to think about this out loud as I read the statements defending this shit-show health care/tax cut plan of the GOP. Here we are, in an advanced stage of Capitalism that old Karl could barely have imagined, listening to the privileged defend austerity for the sick and old.