In a famous scene towards the end of 1949 film The Third Man, the penicillin racketeer Harry Lime (played by a devilish Orson Welles) is up on a Ferris wheel overlooking bombed-out Vienna when he asks his friend Holly Martins if he would really care if any of the “dots” on the ground stopped moving. For £20 a dot, surely anyone would wipe out hundreds of them. Harry Lime is here a modern-day devil’s ambassador, Dan Gretton suggests, who sees the human body as mere worthless carrion. “Nobody thinks in terms of human beings,” Lime explains. “Governments don’t, so why should we?”
In his 1,000-page study of the faceless bureaucrats behind Auschwitz and other industrialised mass exterminations, I YOU WE THEM, Gretton argues that it is much easier to kill people once they have been deprived of their humanity. All modern dictatorships have indeed known as much. Treblinka commandant Franz Stangl was able to ignore the moral consequences of his work through a willed ignorance of the thousands of deaths it entailed. Gretton, a human rights activist turned writer, reflects that ours is an age of diminished responsibility. The division of labour at the Nazi death camps — the fragmentation of responsibility — made the contribution of any one person seem unimportant.
Gretton’s is manifestly not a conventional history. The book unfolds as a series of “journeys” undertaken by the author and his partner across West Germany and Poland in an effort to understand the psychology of Adolf Eichmann and other Schreibtischtäter — “desk murderers” — who eliminated the innocent at the stroke of a pen. The journeys are presented as diary-like exercises in digression and travelogue; they record weather conditions, food and even railway timetables. Some may weary of Gretton’s reflections on his Suffolk childhood, his Cambridge University years and love of swimming (“I should explain at this point that I’m not a very skillful swimmer”). It is not always clear how these excursions serve the book’s exploration of “white collar” killers and their enormities, though one should applaud the experiment.
As he makes clear, apprenticeship in totalitarian obedience required a stunted moral imagination. Typically, Auschwitz personnel ensured that their awareness of the horror was confined to their own special competence (the punctual departure of trains, the registration of arrivals). In a brilliant chapter, The Doctors of Wannsee Meet in a Villa by the Lake, Gretton considers the wretchedly servile Nazi functionaries who convened in January 1942 outside Berlin to finalize plans for the annihilation of European Jewry.
Outwardly respectable German companies such as Bayer, Agfa, BASF and Pelican (who provided the ink to tattoo prisoners) were then co-opted into running the death camps. A visit to Oświęcim (Auschwitz) railway station near present-day Kraków leaves Gretton feeling disturbed and contaminated. In some ways the spirit of Hitler’s well-dressed, middle-class bureaucrat Albert Speer “has never left us”, he reflects. Elsewhere, he turns an appalled eye on Kaiser Wilhelm II’s liquidation of indigenous populations in early-1900s German South West Africa — now Namibia — and the environmental depredations wrought today in Nigeria by Shell.
The book is powerfully influenced by the Italian Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi’s reflections on human cruelty, and by Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half-hour film Shoah. It makes significant demands on the reader’s time, patience and, one might add, wrists (the hardback is heavier than a housebrick). It is worth persevering, though, as the writing has the power at times to mesmerise. A second volume, due out in the “near future”, promises to continue the harrowing exploration; Gretton is a brave man to have stared so long and intently at the subject.
I YOU WE THEM: Journeys Beyond Evil: The Desk Killers in History and Today by Dan Gretton (Heinemann, £25), buy it here.