Antoni Kępiński, MD, PhD, 1918–1972, Professor of Psychiatry, Head of Chair of Psychiatry, Academy of Medicine in Kraków. Former prisoner in the Miranda de Ebro concentration camp (in Spain).
(Blaise Pascal, Pensées)
In a conversation with the SS physician J. P. Kremer, his colleague Dr Heinz Thilo, a member of the SS staff of Auschwitz, called Auschwitz the anus mundi (the world’s anus—quotation after Sehn). We may infer that this trenchant epithet was an expression on the one hand of the revulsion and horror this concentration camp evoked in anyone who saw it, and on the other hand justified its existence by the need to purge the world. Catharsis, the motif of cleansing, so important in the life of every human individual, appears to play a salient role in the life of whole societies.
The death camps had a special purpose and deeper sense in the Nazi German plan—apart from their immediate political and economic aim to eliminate the enemy as efficiently and as cheaply as possible—they were to purge the German race of all that was at odds with the ideal of the German Übermensch. They were inspired by a distant vision of a world of people who were fine, strong, and healthy, a world in which there would be no room for the infirm, the disabled, the mentally abnormal, for those corrupted by an admixture of Jewish or Roma blood, etc.
To achieve this “fine” aim they had to go through the repulsive abominations of the concentration camps. No wonder, then, that serving in a concentration camp was treated on a par with military service on the front, albeit SS men would have no doubt preferred to be heroes of the concentration camp than on the front line. The law of self‑preservation is generally stronger than ideology, and stronger still if a lofty ideology can be employed to explain away one’s cowardice. However, there were a few, only a few, who could not stand the moral degeneration of concentration camp service and preferred to choose either the front or suicide. The majority allayed their reservations with alcohol and the feeling that they had done their duty well for their country and for the grand design.
The ability to transform the world around us, which we may say is an inherently human characteristic, has a scope encompassing contrasting features at the very extremities of human nature. It gives rise to heroism, holiness, self‑sacrifice, the arts and sciences; but also to cruelty, human beings’ torment of other human beings, enslavement and killing. It is for the sake of transforming the world that wars are waged and people are tortured in prisons and camps. Whatever does not fit into the structure to be imposed on the world around is alien, hostile, and has to be destroyed.
In biology we know of a phenomenon whereby an alien structure implants itself in a host. Jerard Hurwitz and J.J. Furth have shown how T2 and T4 viruses can attack and infiltrate Bacterium coli, implanting their DNA genetic material in the bacteria and taking over its biochemical machinery, within minutes making it start to produce hundreds of new viruses identical with the invader. The bacteria continues to live, but it now has a different structure; its biochemical processes are now governed by the virus DNA, not by its native DNA; so although it looks the same, in reality it has lost its original structure and its true identity.
An analogous phenomenon, albeit on a far more integrated level, may be observed in the life of a human individual who becomes obsessed with an idea which is strange and alien at first but later becomes their very own, and for which they give up everything; which is all they ever see and for which they are ready to give their life, or the lives of others (generally more easily). Just like the bacteria, such a person loses their identity. Their thoughts, feelings, and actions stop being a reflection of their own personality and become a reflection of the alien structure they have admitted from outside—just like the viruses produced by the infiltrated bacteria. Individuals obsessed by the same idea start to be as similar to each other as twins; the differentiation within society decreases, but its efficiency rises, in the sense that all its members pursue the same aim, which is all they ever see. Any individual who is not marked by the same idea is thus an obstacle to its implementation, becomes an enemy, an obstruction which has to be cleared away. The greatness of the idea—I don’t mean its objective greatness, only its subjective grandeur, the way those obsessed by it see it—vindicates the principle of “the end justifying the means.” If someone has given up everything for an idea, he or she thinks that everything around must be sacrificed for it, too.
When the “chaos,” “contradiction,” the “imbecile worm of the earth,” the “sink of uncertainty and error” allows oneself to be taken over by an idea, thereby forfeiting oneself, what is received in return is order, uniformity, clarity, and certainty. The greater an individual’s inner fragmentation and sense of his or her own weakness, the more there will be longing for something which will make him or her whole again and restore self‑confidence (actually, not confidence in oneself, but in the idea which has replaced one’s self). The disgust with oneself is compensated for with one’s image as a hero and champion of the idea. The bond uniting the group makes this imaginary model more attractive. The individual comes up against an alternative: he or she can either be like others, or cannot be at all. Not being what the ideology says one must be means crossing over to its enemies, putting oneself on their side and therefore destined for destruction. The followers of the ideology start to vie with each other—not to be any worse than their fellows, because that would mean their rejection by the group. Depending on the nature of the ideology, they may contend against each other in virtue or atrocity.
Our Concentration Camp Apocalypse (according to St. John). Marian Kołodziej
What I am interested in here is not an evaluation of the Nazi ideology; its superficiality, naivety, and arrogance are self‑evident, while the fact that it took root in German society may perhaps be accounted for by the specific social atmosphere in the 1920s and 30s, which in Germany was intensified by an exaggerated sense of injustice done to the German nation. The collapse of the old ideological structures, the feeling of emptiness, the want of a sense, the economic crisis, the traumas sustained during the Great War—all this offered a good climate for any ideology that promised better prospects for the future.
Regardless of the message it conveys, the danger inherent in an ideology as a structure that is imposed from outside is that it arrests development. Instead of the struggle between structures in opposition to one another, some of which emerge while others perish, thanks to which something new is constantly being created and humanity makes progress—instead of this an alien structure is imposed and subordinates all the others to itself. The individual stops developing and turns into a tool in the service of the idea, blind to everything but the aim which has been set, and above all blind to his or her fellow man. What he or she sees instead are comrades in faith or an obstacle on the road to their destination, an object which has to be removed, destroyed.
There has been no German Major Eartherly1, particularly among those Germans who were actively engaged in the vast industry of death and destruction. The few who fell into the hands of justice, as a rule did not have a sense of guilt, but instead felt they were being treated very unfairly, because they were being punished for obeying orders. They were only doing their duty. It was to their ideology that they owed their release from the sense of guilt, which can be a crueller scourge than a punishment imposed by society. They were not the guilty ones; it was the alien structure inflicted on them that was to blame. It had made them purblind and served as the chief motor propelling their actions, their thoughts and their feelings. On its removal they have again become “decent people,” making and honest living, and perhaps only in their heart of hearts looking back to the grand days of their “heroic” spell.
Those who had stood in their way, the ballast designated for destruction to save the new world from being corrupted by them, responded to their fate in various ways. There were those who had not yet shaken off the shock of suddenly finding themselves in the hell of the concentration camp when their life was cut short. Others went to their death fatalistically convinced that there was no other way. Still others wanted to survive whatever the cost, so they tried to adopt the practices of their oppressors, since in a death camp only those who were the lords and meted out death to others could do well for themselves. And then there were those who despite the hunger, the thirst, the cold, and the pain, despite the disrespect for their human dignity, were capable of distancing themselves off from their ordeal and not thinking only how to get something to eat, how to get themselves out of the cold or the heat, and stop the pain. The biological imperative is extremely strong, and you need tremendous willpower to stop thinking of nothing but bread when you are hungry, and nothing but water when you are thirsty, and nothing but your body when you are stricken with pain. But you needed to make that act of willpower to preserve your inner freedom—the leeway which lets you freely think, dream, make plans, take a decision, liberate yourself from the nightmare you were in. If in the anus mundi of life in the concentration camp there was so much self‑sacrifice, courage, and love of one’s neighbour—phenomena that might have seemed unimaginable in such conditions—it was only thanks to that inner freedom some prisoners had.
For survivors the memory of that time are not just a nightmare, but also proof that even in the most dreadful conditions they managed to save their humanity, that they survived the ordeal of fire—the question “who am I really?” And presumably many of them will feel most at home in the company of those who went through the same, because they know who their fellows really are deep down.
You might think that in conditions of the most extreme enslavement, degradation, and ordeal heroism is completely out of the question. To aspire to heroism you would need to have at least some leeway to act and a certain amount of strength. Yet it could be attained even in such conditions; and the full grandeur of humanity was manifested in the hell of the concentration camp.
The Nazi Germans did not accomplish their aim; they did not purge the world, despite millions of victims out of all that was irreconcilable with the ideal Herrenvolk, but they showed the world what an insane ideology could lead to. Let’s hope that the smoking chimneys of Auschwitz will be a warning still for a long time against obsessive insensitivity, hatred, and contempt for our fellow humans. The consequences of ready‑made formulas for thought and action, and blind obedience to orders may be very dangerous, and that is why we have to take full responsibility for our thoughts, emotions, and deeds. This is how Claude Eartherly put it in a letter to Günther Anders:
“In the past it has sometimes been possible for men to ‘coast along’ without posing to themselves too many searching questions about the way they are accustomed to think and to act—but it is reasonably clear now that our age is not one of these. On the contrary I believe that we are rapidly approaching a situation in which we shall be compelled to re‑examine our willingness to surrender responsibility for our thoughts and actions to some social institution such as the political party, trade union, church or State. None of these institutions are adequately equipped to offer infallible advice on moral issues and their claim to offer such advice needs therefore to be challenged.”
The anus mundi has shown the world humanity in the full scope of its nature—from monstrous bestiality to heroism, self‑sacrifice, and love. With such a picture before our eyes we may say with Pascal:
“Humble yourself, weak reason; be silent, foolish nature; learn that man infinitely transcends man.”
Translated from original article: Kępiński, A. “Anus mundi”. Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1965.
1. On the morning of 6 August 1945 Claude Eartherly of the US Air Force flew over Hiroshima to check the atmospheric conditions and the city’s air defence, and gave the go ahead for the air raid which dropped the atom bomb. When he learned that 200 thousand people had been burned to death in the raid Eartherly experienced an escalating conflict between the glory of a hero that came to him and the feeling he had contributed to an atrocity and needed to atone for it. His guilt complex plunged him into periods of severe depression, hallucinations, and suicide attempts. He voluntarily took up heavy labour and sent donations of money for Hiroshima victims. His correspondence with the philosopher and pacifist Günther Anders was published, first in a German edition, Off Limits für das Gewissen (1961), followed by an English edition, Burning Conscience (1962), and a Polish edition, No More HIroshima (1963).
1. Hurwitz, J., and Furth, A. J. Messenger RNA. Scientific American. 1962; 206: 41–49.
2. Letter 2, (Claude Eatherly to Günther Anders, June 12th, 1959) in: Burning Conscience: The case of the Hiroshima pilot, Claude Eartherly, told in his letters to Günther Anders. With a postscript for American readers by Anders. New York: Monthly Review Press; 1962: 6–7. Available online: http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/projects/anders/Anders1962BurningConscienceEatherlyOCR.pdf (accessed 1 Aug. 2018). Other editions: Off Limits für das Gewissen. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag G.m.b.H., 1961; No more Hiroshima. Warszawa: Książka i Wiedza; 1963.
3. Pascal, B. Pensées. Translated by W.F. Trotter as Pascal’s Pensées. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc.; 1958; 121. Cf. online version on Project Gutenberg here
4. Sehn, J. Sprawa oświęcimskiego lekarza SS J. P. Kremera. Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1962; 18: 49–61.