On May 18, I took part in a webinar organized by IranWire as part of the Sardari Project on the topic of the Holocaust. Edna Friedberg, a historian of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, spoke about the death camps in the Nazi Germany and the mass murder of Jews, Roma and Sinti minorities, political opponents and the mentally handicapped.
Friedberg spoke in detail about early Nazi plans for the annihilation of the Jewish community in Germany, which ultimately became genocide, under the secretive name ‘the Final Solution to the Jewish Question’. She spoke about the development of Nazi plans from forcing German Jews to leave the country by making their life conditions unbearable, to the largest project of industrialized killing of civilians in modern human history.
A turning point in Friedberg’s narration, at least for me, came when she spoke about the logistical details of this horrifying plan. She spoke of a meeting in 1942 when high-ranking Nazi officials discussed expanding a process that had begun a year earlier, and making it more systematic. She spoke of the atmosphere in the room: these were people of different walks of life, backgrounds and professions, gathered to plan in cold blood the best and most effective methods of killing millions of civilians. She described the topics of the meeting: Where would the massacres take place? How should the victims be transferred to the death camps? Through what method should they be killed? How should the bodies be collected and disposed of?
The very fact that such a meeting was hosted by a government in modern times is terrifying enough on its own. But in addition, with their “Final Solution” project, the Nazis went on to industrialize and even commercialize the slaughter of human beings. It was a profitable industrial project, and one only possible with the help of hundreds of companies and contractors, and thousands of individual people.
We are faced with a crime not only carried out by a bunch of deranged, evil monsters, but by ordinary citizens for profit. We are faced with a human catastrophe in which thousands in Germany and occupied lands played a knowing role. Who built the camps? Who built the gas chambers? Who provided for the needs of the death squads? How many of these people were truly not aware of what went on in the camps and what resulted from their work?
I asked Friedberg about ‘Aryanization’, a massive drive to seize the assets and property of German Jews, and its possible links to the Final Solution. I’d often heard that ordinary Germans didn’t know what was going on in the death camps. But they couldn’t have not been aware of the requisitioning of Jewish properties by the state. And, Friedberg confirmed, it would have been almost impossible not to know that your neighbor and all their family had been taken away by the Nazis, and were unlikely to return, if their home and belongings had been put up for rapid sale by the state.
She made an important point. Based on the polls, around 20 percent of German society at the time completely believed in the Nazis’ political and ideological agenda. But the rest were silent in the face of these crimes, or else they ignored them, or aided and abetted them for financial or business reasons, or to try to advance themselves.
This aspect was very familiar to me as an Iranian. Over four decades of rule by the Islamic Republic, we have seen something similar happen to political opponents and minority groups, such as Baha’is, who have been harassed, alienated from society and victims of a state-backed seizure of their properties.
Massive bodies such as the Foundation of the Oppressed and the Executive Headquarters of Imam’s Directive claim to be working in the public interest, while in fact seizing the properties of minorities and political opponents, and using the wealth gained from oppression of these groups to expand their octopus-like arms all over the economy and markets of Iran and the world.
They, too, demonstrate how individuals can play a supporting role in a government’s criminal projects via business and trade relations. An important part of the industrialization of crime works like this: like any other large-scale process, the components of the production line are kept separate, and thus alienated from the final product. Any single individual just takes care of a little part of the machine.
This brings us to the darkest aspect of totalitarian regimes. Not only do they commit the most terrible crimes, of sometimes indescribable proportions, but they can entice a large part of society to join in their efforts, even if they don’t believe in the thinking behind them.