Sardari Project

Blog: 'Business as Usual’ in the Time of Totalitarianism

July 3, 2022
Mahya Ostovar
3 min read
At a recent webinar hosted by IranWire and USHMM, participants reflected on what it took for the Nazis to enact the so-called 'Final Solution'
At a recent webinar hosted by IranWire and USHMM, participants reflected on what it took for the Nazis to enact the so-called 'Final Solution'

The Final Solution is the euphemism one of the most horrible crimes in history. When looked at as a whole, as one gigantic system operated by the Nazis, it might be difficult to imagine how this transnational genocide, which resulted in the killing of millions of people, ever became possible at all.  

For me, the most shocking part of the webinar was when we focused on some details of this operation: when Edna Friedberg described the cogs in the machine. How could Nazis overcome the logistical challenges of murdering millions of Jewish people around Europe without the collaboration of local individuals, institutions, and companies? This enormous killing apparatus could not have functioned without those tiny cogs, each with their own place and function inside the system, driving it forward. The Nazis had to stand on the shoulders of local collaborators to advance their horrific agenda.

It is appalling that for some companies, this collaboration with Nazis was ‘business as usual’ – or even better than usual, as Edna Friedberg mentioned that for many, profit was the main motivation. Terrifying to imagine, as Edna explained, that engineers and companies probably engaged in a bidding war to design and construct the death camps. But then again, businesses have always justified unethical, immoral behavior by appealing to their essential purpose as being ‘for profit’. As an Iranian, a citizen of a country currently under a totalitarian regime, I can see this clearly. These collaborations remind me of a recent debate on Persian social media, about a certain tech company cooperating with the government, building the infrastructure for Iran’s national intranet, and providing other services to the authorities to make a total internet shutdown possible for the regime. The Islamic Republic shuts down the internet during protests to prevent people from organizing online, but also to stop them sharing news, photos and videos of oppression and killings on the streets. This tech company and its engineers claimed they were not (directly) involved in the shutdown, which might well be true, but they are laying the groundwork for it. For them, this is ‘business as usual’, but in an authoritarian system that takes on a different hue.

The impact of such collaboration becomes clearer when one imagines what would have happened had they resisted. What if some of the Nazis’ collaborators had refused to be a cog in the genocidal machine? How many lives could have been saved? For example, what if the French rail company SNCF had refused to transport deported Jewish people to the camps, and blown up the tracks instead?

In the webinar, in response to my question of whether these collaborators were aware of the result of their collaboration, Edna told us: “If they didn't have direct knowledge, it was willful blindness.” This ‘willful blindness’ became more evident, and also painful, for me when we discussed the individuals who would participate in auctions to buy the confiscated properties of Jewish people, whom they might have known for years. People turned a blind eye to murders, to their neighbors’ fates, for the sake of petty acquisitions like dishes or table linen. Edna described the situation very well: “If your neighbor has been taken away, and suddenly the public authorities are selling off everything that happened to be in their house, they are not coming back. You don't need to be a very sophisticated thinker to draw that conclusion.” Even in that case, some would go to the auctions in a rush to acquire the best items. This is also how one becomes a cog in a genocide machine.

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Sardari Project

Blog: On Authoritarian States and Systemic Violence

July 3, 2022
Azadeh Pourzand
7 min read
Blog: On Authoritarian States and Systemic Violence