The wife of Talking Points Memos’ Josh Marshall discovered recently that her maternal great-grandfather didn’t die at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen when they swept through his town. Instead, according to a death certificate found in records the Russians released in ’09, he died at Auschwitz-Birkenau of “decrepitude”. Here’s Josh Marshall:
The reason I’m sharing this with you is that the death certificate itself captures for me one of the paradoxes of the Holocaust. Why even keep death certificates? Auschwitz was after all a network of concentration and extermination camps. I’m not even talking about the fear of possible punishment after the war, though that’s another significant question. Just simply, why? These are people, a whole people, being sent into oblivion, to be erased from the earth and from memory. These were to be much less than ordinary deaths.
Most societies keep death certificates for things like estate settlements, to verify and locate the cause of a death and rule out crimes, to end the person’s legal existence in the eyes of the state and for a host of other reasons. But none of them seem relevant in the context of genocide.
The usual and largely correct answer is that the Germans were just so addicted to the procedures of the modern bureaucratic state that at some level they couldn’t help themselves. Indeed, a similar need was actually part of the undoing of several of the late 20th century Latin American juntas who actually kept very professional and detailed records of torture, disappearances and various crimes against humanity.
This is an fascinating question. I think bureaucratic habit may have played a role–undoubtedly the person responsible for recording deaths at Auschwitz thought he had a better job than those getting their brains blown out at the Russian front. Such a person would have made sure he had plenty of work to do. But there are some other reasons to bear in mind.
The death books at Auschwitz recorded some 69,000 fatalities at the camp between 1941 and 1943. The bulk of these deaths came from disease, overwork, and undernourishment–what the participants at the Wannsee Conference were talking about when they talked about “natural causes”. This number is a tiny fraction of the total number of deaths at the camp, estimated between 1.1-1.5 million.
Why the discrepancy? Because most of the prisoners sent to Auschwitz were killed shortly after arrival. Those who could work–able bodied men and healthy, childless young women–were temporarily spared for work assignments. The rest, comprising 75-90% of each trainload, were sent directly to the gas chambers and were usually dead within a few hours. The Nazis never recorded these deaths in their death books for two reasons. First, the red tape involved would have extended the killing process. And second, the Nazis refused to record their gas executions as executions, murders, or deaths. Mass murders were always called “special action” or “special treatment”. Indeed, as Bischoff, the head of the Auschwitz architecture office discovered, even using the word “gas chamber” was frowned upon at the camp. (The underlining of the word “Vergasungskeller”, which means “gassing basement”, is from the camp censor, who flagged this word as one forbidden even in internal memoranda.)
As Auschwitz historian Robert Jan Van Pelt put it in Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred Leuchter, Jr. “The Nazis were the first holocaust deniers, because they denied to themselves the reality of what they were doing.”
So why death records for those who remained after the initial selection? I think because, unlike the other Aktion Reinhard camps, Auschwitz, and its various sub-camps, had a large population of forced laborers who were to be worked to death. The managers of these facilities sweated over the possibility of inmate escapes–nobody wanted witnesses to reach partisan groups who might spread the word. Thus the need for counts, inmate photographs, identification numbers, and death records, which would have been a safeguard against some idiot guard raising the escape alarm because dead inmates weren’t in their bunks, didn’t show up for roll call, or failed to appear for work detail. Accurate death records would also have served as documentation of the results of the SS’s “medical experiments”, and probably allowed the upper echelon bean counters to assess how efficient the camp’s living conditions and work-to-death methods were at destroying the inmates.
Did this make sense? Yes and no. Narrowly speaking, the SS’s policies for handling death records in the camps is understandable, but in the larger sense, no. Taken in moral, practical, or even ordinary political terms, there’s little about Nazi policy in any domain that makes sense. In setting off to enslave or wipe out entire nations of people, to level whole cities and eradicate entire cultures, the Nazis didn’t just go to war with other Western powers, they waged war against civilization, reason, and humanity.