Final Questions about Arendt’s “Auschwitz on Trial”

This is the final installment of frequent questions raised by my students when reading Hannah Arendt’s essay “Auschwitz on Trial,” my responses follow.

For Questions 1–5; for Questions 6–10.

Question 11:
Is it possible that the defendants denied the truth because they didn’t want to accept the truth of the crimes they committed in Auschwitz? Or did they simply take advantage of the late proceedings of the trial?

Part of what is so terrible about the Holocaust is that at seemingly every opportunity for failure to occur, it did. Even in pursuing justice at the trials there is great harm done, to our sense of stability through law. Law seems to be reduced to the will of those in power rather than something more rarified and good. Even though the prosecution is trying to make things right, by pursuing these “intolerable cases,” the result is to reveal a broken system.

Perhaps it is the case that justice is something that doesn’t always happen through the machinations of the criminal justice system.

Would justice for the crimes of the Nazi regime and the society that supported it mean that all the people of Germany would also die like their victims? Is justice simply delivering an eye for an eye?

Or is justice something different?

Something that can arise through the bearing witness to harms caused and from this witnessing there might be generated a sense of mutual obligation and mutual concern that these harms will not happen again?

Perhaps when folks like us read and discuss what happened at Auschwitz, look at what the Bogers did, we become something like agents for justice?

In reading and discussing what happened at Auschwitz, do we not become obligated to warn our friends and family and children that people are capable of doing these things if we don’t pay attention and if we don’t hold one another to a higher standard?

Question 12:
To the question of Nazi suicides and leaving the “small frys” in a lurch.

Socrates is ready to die because he has been practicing philosophy and this practice, he thought, purified his soul (psyche) and prepared his soul for a smooth transition to the best place for his soul.

The Nazi war criminal kills himself or herself, it would seem, because they see no value in living (nor the value of anyone’s life). Death is of no consequence and nothing matters beyond the exertion of one’s will onto others. That was the ethos of the Nazis.

Question 13:
To the question of Jewish resistance.

To be clear: there were Jews who rebelled.

And, to be truthful there were Jews who agreed to assist in the functioning of the camps.

And, there have been trials and convictions of some of the Kapos, in some instances for crimes against humanity.

Question 14:
To the question of whether people need hierarchies of dominance.

To your ultimate question about a psychological dependence on hierarchies of dominance: I’m not sure. I think that people seek relationships of reciprocity where they feel they have meaningful ways of effecting changes they’d like to see.

Further, there have been studies that suggest that both non-human primates and humans are inclined toward equitable distribution of resources and when they sense that there has been a grossly unbalanced distribution of resources, both non-human primates and humans react against that person not fairly sharing.

My experience suggests that leadership is not so much about making the decisions no one else wants to make, but orchestrating the best options given what the folks around us have the moral courage to do.

Question 15:
What about Dr. Lucas?

Part of what Arendt points out here is that the world has gone topsy-turvy, perhaps because of the madness of genocide.

Dr. Lucas is clearly the only person at this trial who demonstrates and testifies to remorse. But he goes out of his way to avoid accepting that he was somehow less culpable for his participation in genocide.

He is on trial for two different offenses: “The prosecution had indicted for ‘murder and complicity in murder of individuals,’ together with ‘mass murder and complicity in mass murder.'”(242) He is guilty of being complicit. He will not deny that he helped the camps do what they were designed to do. He could have made other choices.