The pictures are all from an album that belonged to SS-Obersturmführer Karl Höcker, who was Adjutant to SS-Sturmbannführer Richard Baer the Commandant of Auschwitz in 1944/45. The album was passed on to the Holocaust Museum in 2006 by a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel who was a Counter-Intelligence Officer working in Germany at the end of, and just after the war. As part of the teams hunting down Nazi war criminals he had picked up the album in an abandoned apartment in Frankfurt.
(Members of the SS Helferinnen (female auxiliaries) and SS officer Karl Hoecker sit on a fence railing in Solahuette eating bowls of blueberries)
The album shows the ordinary side of barracks life (and ordinary is the right word here) for the troops running Auschwitz.
My thoughts finally started to come together about these photographs when I was reading Max Sebald's early book The Immigrants. It deals with four different people and four different stories (five if you count the author himself) who were in some way exiles from Germany. It covers the periods from both before and after World War II (and earlier in a few places). One of the stories is that of Max Feber now in self exile in Manchester, England. Sebald travels back to the area he sets as Feber's home in Germany, which is close to the same area in Southern Bavaria that Sebald himself grew up in, during and just after WWII.
(Nazi officers and female auxiliaries (Helferinnen) run down a wooden bridge in Solahuette)
Sebald describes (as he frequently does elsewhere) the small towns of Bavaria and the Allgäu region during the 1920's and early 1930's. Many rich with a vibrant Jewish community - part of the community as a whole. In many towns, forming up to 30% of the population. He describes their lives and families and jobs. Then, post-war as Sebald was growing up, and later on as he re-visits in the 1980's, there are none. Their homes and businesses long since appropriated (see this recent art case, for example), their memory gone. But more than that - he describes a sort of collective amnesia of the people he meets in these towns now - a wilful state of denial that these people - the German jews, their homes and businesses - ever existed in these places - the slate of their existence wiped clean.
(I also recently read Michael Chambon's humorous yet thought provoking "detective" novel The Yiddish Policeman's Union, in which an alternate Jewish history evolves. The Holocaust was diverted by laying Berlin in nuclear ruins early in WWII, settlement in Israel - however - failed and so several million Jews were settled post-war in the Alaska panhandle... but with their families, histories and traditions of all sorts fairly intact - a good read btw).
(An accordionist leads a sing-along for SS officers at their retreat at Solahuette outside Auschwitz - front centre right is SS Doctor Josef Mengele)
All this helped my see these photographs a little more clearly. The SS Officers and their wives and girlfriends enjoying everyday life. The soldiers and the SS women's auxiliaries having fun. All scenes from Garrison life that almost any soldier anywhere would recognise - picnics, concerts, drinks and formal occasions in the mess, musical concerts, joking and laughing, sunning themselves outside the barracks - the soldiers "frolicking" as someone put it. All the while, a few short miles away - these men and women commuting daily to their duties - the production line carnage, suffering and death of Auschwitz carried on - efficient and well ordered.
(SS officers gather for drinks following the dedication of the new SS hospital in Auschwitz)
Hannah Arendt's dictum of "The banality of evil" is inevitable quoted in connection with this album of photographs - but rightly so. It is perhaps the best, almost perfect example of what she was defining:
"...the thesis that the great evils in history generally, and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by fanatics or sociopath but rather by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal." (for once the Wikipedia entry is spot on).
And that's why these pictures are so important. Yes, we need George Rodger's brutally honest photographs of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and what he witnessed there - so painful we can hardly bear to look at them (Rodger was one of the founding four of Magnum). We need the incredible film "Memory of the Camps" - produced by the British in 1945 (with assistance from Alfred Hitchcock) with its footage from several concentration camps - but left unfinished. Rediscovered in the Imperial War Museum in 1985 it was broadcast for the first time. The script was read by veteran war-time actor Trevor Howard, but like parts of the film, the script was unfinished. So we get fragments, silences, dead air for much of it - making it perhaps one of the most poignant and effective descriptions of the horror that was found - heightened by the obvious anger and outrage that is in the script from 1945. (you can watch it online).
We need these vivid documents (and more), but SS-Obersturmführer Höcker's album present the other - equally important - part of the picture. These were on the whole not monsters who perpetrated these acts, but ordinary everyday men and women - men and women who enjoyed a drink after work, played the accordion, went on picnics, even fell in love. Their evil was banal, but all the more dangerous and horrific because they were not acting outside the norms of society, but carrying out societies wishes. They believed that what they were doing was for the good and welfare of their own people. They were doing their duty - not "just following orders" under duress, but acting as dutiful members of the state. They simply believed in what they were doing - apparently, and on the whole, without serious internal conflict. (this is also what makes them so different from the Abu Ghraib pictures - as abhorrent as those were, they were "trophy" photographs - photographs of men and women who had "got away with it" and knew it. They knew they were being sadistic, acting out some kind of gamer fantasy for real, but deep down - in fact probably not that deep down at all - they knew what they were doing was wrong. So despite how far up the chain of command the complicity went, I see this as a substantial difference between those and this album. Society as a whole was not condoning - implicitly or explicitly what they were doing in Iraq.)
These pictures return us again to the power of photography - its power to depict the ordinary in compelling detail, its power to contain memory, its power to work in opposition to those who would attempt to monopolise history, to draw out these individual moments. And in their banality, these photographs become all the more powerful and unforgettable.
(as a final aside, Höcker's history itself is also telling precisely because it is so typical and mundane. The mine the officers visited above was run with slave labour, with the minimum amount of rations carefully calculated against the amount of work a labourer could provide before they dropped so as to maximise productivity for the least cost - all with the cold efficiency of an accountants actuarial tables. The way Höcker was dealt with and treated - even down to getting his comfortable job back after a short term for his crimes as recently as 1970 - also seems to say much. Finally, perhaps, what could be more mundane than a bank teller keeping tally of the horrific day to day work and "productivity" of Auschwitz:
"Karl Höcker was born in Engershausen, Germany, in December 1911. His father, a construction worker, was killed in World War I, and his mother struggled to support the family. Höcker, who worked as a bank teller in Lubbecke, joined the SS in 1933 and the Nazi party in 1937. He married in 1937, had a daughter in 1939 and, in October 1944, a son. Upon the outbreak of war, Hoecker was assigned to the Neuengamme concentration camp. In 1943, he became the adjutant to the commandant at Majdanek-Lublin during the Operation Reinhardt mass deportations and murders. When Sturmbahnführer Richard Baer became the commandant of Auschwitz in May 1944, Hoecker was also reassigned to the camp, again in the position of adjutant. Hoecker remained at Auschwitz until the evacuation, then moved with Baer to command Dora-Mittelbau until the Allies approached. He escaped the camp before it was taken and was captured by the British while posing as part of a combat unit near Hamburg. As Allies had an erroneous description of him, Höcker spent only one and a half years incarcerated in a British prisoner of war camp and was released at the end of 1946. Until prosecutors began looking for him in the wake of the Eichmann trial, no one came for Karl Höcker. He resumed his life in Engershausen with his wife and two children. He turned himself in for a de-Nazification trial in 1952 and was sentenced to serve nine months for membership in the SS, a criminal organization. He did not have to serve it, thanks to a 1954 law of freedom of punishment. He took up gardening in his spare time, and became the chief cashier of the regional bank in Lubbecke, only losing his during the pre-trial investigations for the 1963-1965 Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, in which he was a defendant. The judges ruled that Höcker was guilty of aiding and abetting the murder of 1000 people on four separate occasions. They weighed the facts that he had been a model citizen after the war, had voluntarily asked for denazification in 1952, and they could only find proof that he had been a desktop functionary. The court determined that Höcker had never been proven to be at the ramp. He was sentenced to only 7 years, but time served was deducted and Höcker was released on parole in 1970. He regained his job as a Chief Cashier of the regional bank in Lubbecke. Karl Höcker died in 2000 at age 88").