A Blind Eye

March 14, 2016

The SS at Play, 1944 -- Snapshot by Karl Höcker (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. mounted a remarkable online exhibit of images from a recently donated photo album that once belonged to Karl Höcker, adjutant to the SS commandant at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland during the closing months of World War II.  The photographs are remarkable principally for how strangely unremarkable they are.  Höcker is seen playing with his German shepherd, lighting candles on a Christmas tree and hobnobbing with Nazi higher-ups, the most notorious of whom would later be hanged for war crimes.  There are also shots of more formal occasions, including the dedication of an SS field hospital and a military funeral for officers killed during an Allied bombing raid in December, 1944.  There are no clues within the album that Höcker and his colleagues presided over a large-scale industrial enterprise that exterminated more than one million Jews, gypsies and other “undesirables” between 1942 and early 1945.  You see no barbed wire, no prisoners, no gas chambers, no smoking crematoria, nothing that could be later used to connect Höcker with the crimes that occurred at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

It is doubtful that Höcker was the least bit concerned about covering up his crimes when he compiled the album.  The photographs were not meant to document his role at Birkenau but rather to show how he saw himself as a rising young SS functionary.  Before he joined the SS in the early 1930s, Höcker was a bank clerk, a job he would return to after the war.   He was clearly proud of his close association with Richard Baer, the camp commandant, whose photograph appears on the album cover along with his own.  As his album attests, Höcker was now able to rub shoulders with senior Nazi functionaries, including Baer’s predecessor, Rudolph Höss; Josef Kramer, the notorious “Beast of Belsen”; and Dr. Josef Mengele, who performed grotesque medical experiments on arriving Hungarian Jews.  The photo album suggests that Höcker’s wartime duties left plenty of time for hunting parties, sing-alongs and social gatherings with pretty young SS women auxiliary members. 

When Höcker was eventually tracked down after the war and placed on trial for his role in the Final Solution, he claimed never to have witnessed the execution of an inmate.  He testified that he had played no role in the process of selecting arriving prisoners for immediate death or for assignment to a slave labor camp.  His album includes no photographs of the ramp where these selections took place, nor was there any testimony at his trial placing him there.  He was ultimately convicted only of transporting Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau, for which he served a seven-year prison term.

Rudolph Höss, who was hanged by Polish authorities in 1947 for his role as the first commandant at Auschwitz, protested that he had been unjustly vilified.  “May the general public simply go on seeing me as a bloodthirsty beast, the cruel sadist, the murderer of millions, because the broad masses cannot conceive the commandant of Auschwitz in any other way,” he wrote.  “They would never be able to understand that he also had a heart and that he was not evil.”  Hannah Arendt coined the term “banality of evil” to describe Adolf Eichmann, another functionary like Karl Höcker who joined the SS to advance his career and who was utterly incapable of grasping the moral consequences of his actions.  

The true horror of the situation is that monstrous deeds were committed by those who, in every other respect, never rose above the ordinary.  How can this be?  In The Nazi Doctors, Robert Jay Lifton observed that physicians assigned to the death camps commonly adopted a second self capable of sending people to their deaths while continuing to regard themselves as good doctors and family men.  As Karl Höcker’s photo album so chillingly demonstrates, evil always turns a blind eye toward itself.