Thomas Nagel

There­sien­stadt 1941–1945: The Face of a Co­erced Com­mu­nity by H. G. Adler

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There­sien­stadt 1941–1945: The Face of a Co­erced Com­mu­nity by H. G. Adler, trans­lated from the Ger­man by Belinda Cooper, with an af­ter­word by Jeremy Adler. Cam­bridge Univer­sity Press, 857 pp., $125.00

There­sien­stadt, the con­cen­tra­tion camp about forty miles north of Prague, held a unique place in the Nazis’ cam­paign of ex­ter­mi­na­tion. While its main pur­pose was to gather Jews from Cze­choslo­vakia, Aus­tria, and Ger­many for de­por­ta­tion to the death camps in Poland, it was pre­sented to the out­side world as a self-gov­ern­ing Jewish set­tle­ment, to sup­port the fic­tion that the re­moval of Jews from Ger­man so­ci­ety was be­ing car­ried out in a hu­mane fash­ion. The camp had an in­ter­nal Jewish ad­min­is­tra­tion, which, un­der the ab­so­lute con­trol of the SS, had an im­por­tant part in car­ry­ing out both of these tasks. As the Czech writer and his­to­rian H. G. Adler says, this made There­sien­stadt “into the most grue­some ghost dance in the his­tory of Hitler’s per­se­cu­tion of the Jews.”

To be­gin with the num­bers: be­tween Novem­ber 1941 and April 1945, ap­prox­i­mately 141,000 peo­ple were sent to There­sien­stadt. Dur­ing this pe­riod about 33,500 died there, mostly of disease and mal­nu­tri­tion. Eighty-eight thou­sand were de­ported from There­sien­stadt to the East, of whom 3,500 sur­vived; the oth­ers were mur­dered in Auschwitz or other camps. A fur­ther 2,400 were re­leased to neu­tral coun­tries or es­caped; and there were 17,500 sur­vivors in the camp when the SS re­lin­quished con­trol to the Red Cross, shortly be­fore Ger­many’s sur­ren­der. In the fi­nal weeks of the war thou­sands of in­mates were trans­ferred to There­sien­stadt from other con­cen­tra­tion camps, but of the to­tal num­ber who had been sent there orig­i­nally, slightly fewer than one in six sur­vived the war.

One of those sur­vivors was Adler (1910–1988), a writer and scholar from Prague whose first lan­guage, like that of many Czech Jews, was Ger­man, and who af­ter the war had a pro­duc­tive ca­reer as a poet and nov­el­ist in that lan­guage, though he lived in Eng­land. He and his fam­ily were de­ported to There­sien­stadt in Fe­bru­ary 1942. His wife, Gertrud, a physi­cian and chemist, served as a doc­tor and headed the med­i­cal lab­o­ra­tory in the camp, but he held only me­nial or cler­i­cal po­si­tions in the camp’s work­force. In Oc­to­ber 1944, they were sent to Auschwitz in one of the last trans­ports from There­sien­stadt. Gertrud could have lived but would not leave her mother, and died with her in the gas cham­ber.1 Adler, se­lected for forced la­bor, sur­vived Auschwitz and sev­eral other camps un­til the end of the war, af­ter which he re­turned to Prague.

1The Nazis have left us a vast legacy of what is un­bear­able to imag­ine. An­other ex­am­ple re­ported by Adler: in July 1944, six hun­dred women from There­sien­stadt “went vol­un­tar­ily to the gas cham­ber with their chil­dren, even though they could have been in­cluded in la­bor kom­man­dos with­out the chil­dren.”

He had lost eigh­teen close rel­a­tives in the Holo­caust.

When Adler en­tered There­sien­stadt he did not ex­pect to sur­vive, but re­solved that if he did, he would write about it in de­tail. He left notes and ma­te­ri­als be­hind when he was sent to Auschwitz and re­cov­ered them later. He ac­cu­mu­lated more ma­te­rial af­ter his re­lease, be­fore em­i­grat­ing to Eng­land in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the Com­mu­nist takeover of Cze­choslo­vakia in 1947. The ma­jor study that emerged from this re­search, There­sien­stadt 1941–1945, was orig­i­nally pub­lished in Ger­man in 1955, with an ex­panded sec­ond edi­tion ap­pear­ing in 1960. It was reprinted in 2005 with an af­ter­word by his son, Jeremy Adler, who was born af­ter the war, and has now fi­nally been trans­lated into English. Run­ning to more than eight hun­dred care­fully an­no­tated pages, in­clud­ing nu­mer­ous orig­i­nal doc­u­ments and records, it is a mon­u­men­tal work of in­for­ma­tion, anal­y­sis, and moral re­flec­tion, painful to read and his­tor­i­cally in­dis­pens­able.2

The book is di­vided into three sec­tions—His­tory, So­ci­ol­ogy, and Psy­chol­ogy—of which the sec­ond, with twelve chap­ters on ev­ery as­pect of the camp, from nu­tri­tion to cul­ture, is by far the long­est. Half of the book con­sists of pri­mary sources—of­fi­cial doc­u­ments, ad­min­is­tra­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tions, ta­bles of sta­tis­tics, or­ga­ni­za­tional and le­gal pro­to­cols, and quo­ta­tions from the tes­ti­mony of oth­ers who had been in the camp—rather than Adler’s own words. The avalanche of data em­beds the reader in the re­al­ity of a patho­log­i­cal sit­u­a­tion and serves Adler’s in­ten­tion to treat the sub­ject as if he were

2Adler also pub­lished a tril­ogy of nov­els based on his ex­pe­ri­ences, but they are mod­ernist works writ­ten in a stream-of-con­scious­ness style, to­tally dif­fer­ent from the dense fac­tu­al­ity of There­sien­stadt. They have re­cently been trans­lated into English by Peter Filkins: Panorama, The Jour­ney, and The Wall, all pub­lished by Ran­dom House. a cul­tural an­thro­pol­o­gist im­mersed in an alien com­mu­nity. But when it comes to his own ob­ser­va­tions and com­men­tary, this is not value-free so­cial sci­ence. What Adler writes is per­vaded with moral judg­ment, and the at­tempt to draw a moral les­son from the hu­man re­sponse to these un­speak­able cir­cum­stances is a chief aim of his work.

In the au­tumn of 1941 de­por­ta­tions to Poland be­gan from Ger­many, Aus­tria, and the oc­cu­pied “Pro­tec­torate” of Bo­hemia and Mo­ravia (cor­re­spond­ing to the present-day Czech Re­pub­lic mi­nus the Sude­ten­land, which had been an­nexed by Ger­many un­der the Mu­nich agree­ment of 1938). Though the ex­ter­mi­na­tion camps were be­ing built and be­gan op­er­a­tion in De­cem­ber 1941, the Nazis man­aged to keep them se­cret for some time. Nev­er­the­less, the un­known fate of those de­ported to the East made “trans­port” the most ter­ri­fy­ing word for ev­ery Jew.

To the of­fi­cial Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tion in Prague, the Jűdis­che Kul­tus­ge­meinde (JKG), the es­tab­lish­ment of a nearby camp seemed like a safer al­ter­na­tive. Adler writes:

The men of the JKG told them­selves that any­thing was bet­ter than de­por­ta­tion to Poland, and, like the “Re­ich As­so­ci­a­tion” in Ber­lin [the Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tion there], they hoped at least to de­lay the de­por­ta­tions. The course of events would dis­ap­point these hopes.

From the be­gin­ning, there were only two pos­si­bil­i­ties: (1) They might have de­cided in March 1939 [when the Nazis dis­man­tled Cze­choslo­vakia and marched into Prague], even at the cost of their lives, to dis­solve all Jewish com­mu­ni­ties and in­sti­tu­tions and de­stroy all records and doc­u­ments. (2) They would have to fol­low poli­cies aimed at de­lay­ing the worst and clev­erly ne­go­ti­at­ing and eas­ing the sit­u­a­tion. This sec­ond path was fol­lowed to the bit­ter end, with ever more ter­ri­ble en­tan­gle­ments, and it led to fail­ure.

The first course was ad­vo­cated by some Jewish of­fi­cials, but the sec­ond won out. In spite of the com­plete fail­ure of the sec­ond strat­egy to achieve what the JKG lead­ers hoped, Adler re­frains from con­demn­ing them for this choice; his blame is fo­cused else­where. There­sien­stadt was a walled gar­ri­son town cre­ated un­der the Hab­s­burg Em­pire. Its bar­racks made it easy to pack in large num­bers of pris­on­ers when it was emp­tied out and con­verted to a ghetto. The max­i­mum pop­u­la­tion of the camp, in Septem­ber 1942, was over 58,000. (It is now an or­di­nary civil­ian town called Terezín, with a pop­u­la­tion of about three thou­sand.) The over­crowd­ing and the san­i­tary con­di­tions were atro­cious. Men and women were housed sep­a­rately, ex­cept for mem­bers of the Jewish Coun­cil of El­ders, the in­ter­nal ad­min­is­tra­tion of the camp, who were al­lowed to live with their fam­i­lies. The camp was con­trolled by a small num­ber of SS—about twenty—and guarded by 120 Czech gen­darmes. Most pris­on­ers had al­most no con­tact with the SS, and the SS rarely killed a pris­oner inside the camp. Only the head of the Jewish Coun­cil of El­ders and his deputy were al­lowed to speak to the camp com­man­dant, to make daily re­ports and re­ceive or­ders. (The Coun­cil of El­ders came ini­tially from the Prague JKG, but af­ter trans­ports ar­rived from Ger­many and Aus­tria in June 1942, they were joined by Jewish of­fi­cials from Ber­lin and Vi­enna.3) Or­ders from the SS were de­liv­ered orally, never in writ­ing, but they were car­ried out by the Jewish ad­min­is­tra­tion through a bliz­zard of writ­ten in­struc­tions, forms, records, and mem­o­randa so elab­o­rate that the prob­lem of in­suf­fi­cient sup­plies of pa­per was a fre­quent com­plaint.

Amid all this co­er­cive machinery the rich cul­ture of the Cen­tral Euro­pean Jews con­tin­ued to express it­self. Mu­si­cal in­stru­ments had been brought by some pris­on­ers, and per­for­mances were pos­si­ble; com­posers con­tin­ued to com­pose, artists to draw, and writ­ers to write. There were fre­quent lec­tures by spe­cial­ists in many fields; Adler him­self ar­ranged a com­mem­o­ra­tion of Kafka to cel­e­brate his six­ti­eth birth­day. But an elab­o­rate bu­reau­cracy con­trolled the ma­te­rial and prac­ti­cal con­di­tions of life in the camp, and it cre­ated the pos­si­bil­ity of dread­ful cor­rup­tion, which in this set­ting was equiv­a­lent to mur­der.

3One of them, Rabbi Ben­jamin Murmel­stein of Vi­enna, was the sub­ject of a film by Claude Lanz­mann, The Last of the Un­just, re­viewed by Mark Lilla in these pages, De­cem­ber 5, 2013. He was the last chief el­der of There­sien­stadt and sur­vived the war. Adler’s at­ti­tude to­ward him is com­plex: he de­scribes Murmel­stein as “smart, clear, su­pe­rior, cyn­i­cal, sly, and far su­pe­rior to his col­leagues in in­tel­li­gence, and es­pe­cially in cun­ning.” But Adler is re­pelled by his icy, au­to­cratic char­ac­ter and the ab­sence of any sign of com­pas­sion.

The main ob­ses­sion of pris­on­ers, apart from not be­ing on the next trans­port, was food. The diet was barely suf­fi­cient to sus­tain life, and there was per­sis­tent theft from the mis­er­able com­mon food sup­ply by those who con­trolled its prepa­ra­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion, for them­selves and their al­lies— with the re­sult that oth­ers, es­pe­cially the help­less old, were left to starve. A few mem­bers of the ad­min­is­tra­tion strove to pre­vent these abuses, with only oc­ca­sional suc­cess. It is one of Adler’s many ex­am­ples of the gen­eral fail­ure of hu­man­ity and de­cency in a des­per­ate sit­u­a­tion:

Even if they held out phys­i­cally, peo­ple fell al­most ir­re­triev­ably into a strug­gle of all against all, in which only peo­ple with a deeply an­chored moral­ity could keep from sac­ri­fic­ing their souls.

A dif­fer­ent kind of moral fail­ure ap­peared in the way the ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­er­cised its power to de­ter­mine who would be de­ported to the East when trans­ports were or­dered by the SS:

The story of a trans­port or a se­ries of trans­ports within a short pe­riod went ac­cord­ing to the fol­low­ing pat­tern. Eich­mann gave or­ders to the SS “of­fice” in There­sien­stadt on the num­ber of trans­ports and per­sons, the date, gen­eral guidelines, and “spe­cial in­struc­tions.” The camp leader, some­times to­gether with other SS of­fi­cers, gave more spe­cific or­ders to the Jewish El­der, who was told what age groups, coun­tries of ori­gin, and other cat­e­gories of peo­ple to choose or to pro­tect . . . . The SS went no fur­ther in choos­ing the vic­tims but left this en­tirely, or largely, to the Jews.

The choice was made by a “Trans­port Depart­ment,” which was part of the cen­tral ad­min­is­tra­tion. Un­til the fi­nal trans­ports in the au­tumn of 1944, when two thirds of the in­mates were shipped to Auschwitz in the course of a month, the mem­bers of the Coun­cil of El­ders and their fam­i­lies were ex­empt from de­por­ta­tion, and oth­ers tried des­per­ately to se­cure po­si­tions in the camp’s work­force or bu­reau­cracy that made them in­dis­pens­able.

Even with­out know­ing about the gas cham­bers, ev­ery­one feared what awaited them in the East. Then, early in 1943, the lead­ers of the in­ter­nal ad­min­is­tra­tion learned the truth through some es­capees from Auschwitz, but kept it a se­cret—this was done even by Rabbi Leo Baeck, the honorary chair­man of the Coun­cil of El­ders, whom Adler sin­gles out as a per­son of ex­cep­tional hu­man­ity and rec­ti­tude.

The de­ci­sion to hide the truth strikes me as com­pre­hen­si­ble but ap­palling— though none of us can know what we would have done in the cir­cum­stances. Adler, who must have learned about it af­ter the war, seems un­able to come to a judg­ment about the El­ders’ de­ci­sion; he re­serves his condemnation for in­di­vid­u­als who, know­ing the truth, not only tried to spare their friends but used the trans­ports to get rid of peo­ple who were giv­ing them trou­ble. For ex­am­ple, af­ter Vladimir Weiss, a mem­ber of the “De­tec­tive Depart­ment,” sent the Jewish El­der Paul Epp­stein a de­tailed com­plaint of fla­grant cor­rup­tion in the al­lo­ca­tion of food, he and his fam­ily dis­ap­peared on the next trans­port.

Adler also in­di­cates that even some­one like him­self, who de­lib­er­ately avoided any po­si­tion of author­ity, nev­er­the­less be­longed to the “com­mu­nity of guilt” that the camp cre­ated. This feel­ing is ob­vi­ously gen­uine, and it seems to re­fer to any form of par­tic­i­pa­tion in a struc­ture whose ul­ti­mate aim was mur­der.

It is hard to guess what the Nazis would have said about the dis­ap­pear­ance of the Jews from Europe if they had won the war. The pol­icy of ex­ter­mi­na­tion was con­cealed from the time of its for­mu­la­tion at the Wannsee Con­fer­ence in Jan­uary 1942, and There­sien­stadt was de­scribed at the time by Adolf Eich­mann as an el­e­ment in the process that would al­low them to “save face to­wards the out­side world.” The de­cep­tion in­cluded forc­ing some of those who ar­rived at Auschwitz to write re­as­sur­ing post­cards to rel­a­tives left be­hind, which were sent at in­ter­vals af­ter their au­thors were gassed. Se­crecy about the out­come was of course use­ful in mak­ing the de­por­ta­tions go smoothly; but there seems also to have been a sense that this project, un­like the cam­paign of mil­i­tary con­quest or the pre­lim­i­nary poli­cies of racist ex­clu­sion, de­pended on val­ues that even the Nazis were un­will­ing to pro­claim pub­licly.

There­sien­stadt served as cam­ou­flage in more than one way. It was de­scribed as a re­tire­ment colony for de­por­tees from Ger­man ter­ri­tory too old to be sent for la­bor in the East. It re­ceived a cer­tain num­ber of “no­ta­bles”—prom­i­nent Jews known to the out­side world, whose fate might arouse in­ter­est be­yond their friends and rel­a­tives. On two oc­ca­sions, in 1944 and be­fore it was lib­er­ated in 1945, the camp (de­scribed as a “Jewish Set­tle­ment Area”) un­der­went a pro­gram of “beau­ti­fi­ca­tion” in or­der to be shown to a few for­eign­ers, in­clud­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Red Cross. And it was the sub­ject of a pro­pa­ganda film.

The first beau­ti­fi­ca­tion of There­sien­stadt, dur­ing which 7,500 of the camp’s in­mates were sent on to Auschwitz to re­duce the pop­u­la­tion den­sity, in­cluded not only pol­ish­ing the streets and the out­sides of build­ings, plant­ing 1,200 rose­bushes, build­ing a “chil­dren’s pav­il­ion” with a sand­box, wad­ing pool, and carousel, and dou­bling the food ra­tion. It also in­volved stag­ing con­certs, cabaret and the­atri­cal per­for­mances, a soccer match, and even a trial for theft be­fore a Jewish court. Ev­ery­thing that would be seen was care­fully planned and re­hearsed.

The first in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors, in June 1944, were two rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Dan­ish gov­ern­ment and a Swiss rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the In­ter­na­tional Red Cross. (There were four hun­dred Dan­ish Jews in the camp who had not man­aged to es­cape the Nazis when the Danes, warned of an im­mi­nent roundup, ac­com­plished their re­mark­able feat of evac­u­at­ing more than seven thou­sand Jews from Denmark to neu­tral Swe­den.) The Jewish El­der Epp­stein was pre­sented as mayor of the town, dressed in a morn­ing coat and derby, though he had a black eye from a blow de­liv­ered by the camp com­man­dant a few days ear­lier. His care­fully scripted speech to the vis­i­tors un­der

the eyes of the SS, and their guided tour of the camp, left them with no way of gath­er­ing in­de­pen­dent ev­i­dence.

One would think that all this might have in­duced whole­sale skep­ti­cism on the part of the vis­i­tors. In fact, the Danes pro­duced cau­tious re­ports that re­ceived al­most no at­ten­tion. The re­port of the Red Cross rep­re­sen­ta­tive, on the other hand, took ev­ery­thing he had seen and heard at face value but was sup­pressed by his su­pe­ri­ors in Geneva as ev­i­dently much too fa­vor­able. So in a sense the mas­quer­ade had worked, but it yielded no pro­pa­ganda. That Septem­ber, a film was made de­pict­ing life in the camp un­der the same idyl­lic as­pect. (It was pro­duced by three pris­on­ers with show busi­ness back­grounds, in­clud­ing the well-known ac­tor and film­maker Kurt Ger­ron, who was de­ported to Auschwitz and gassed af­ter the film’s com­ple­tion.)

In­tended for for­eign con­sump­tion, the film was never dis­trib­uted, though ex­cerpts were in­cluded in a Ger­man news­reel, con­trast­ing the easy life of these Jews (most of them dead by then) with the hard­ships be­ing en­dured by Ger­man sol­diers. It is doubt­ful that There­sien­stadt had much of a san­i­tiz­ing ef­fect on Ger­many’s im­age in the out­side world. By the time of the sec­ond Red Cross visit, in April 1945, Epp­stein had been shot by the SS, the war was al­most over, and the vis­i­tors were not fooled, in spite of a re­newed beau­ti­fi­ca­tion ef­fort.

As the in­evitabil­ity of Ger­many’s de­feat be­came clear, the Nazi lead­er­ship split over what should be done with the Jews who still sur­vived in There­sien­stadt and other camps. Hein­rich Himm­ler, of all peo­ple, pre­sented him­self as a mod­er­ate, and hoped to use some Jews as a bar­gain­ing chip in ne­go­ti­a­tions; in Fe­bru­ary 1945 1,200 Jews from There­sien­stadt were trans­ferred to Switzer­land with Himm­ler’s au­tho­riza­tion. Oth­ers, fol­low­ing Hitler, pur­sued ex­ter­mi­na­tion to the end. Eich­mann was one of these: he wanted all the re­main­ing Jews in There­sien­stadt to be killed be­fore the Rus­sians ar­rived, but his plans were not car­ried out.

Adler’s book is not au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, but it is highly per­sonal. What ob­sesses him is the moral and psy­cho­log­i­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of hu­man con­duct in ex­treme cir­cum­stances. He be­lieves there is some­thing of uni­ver­sal value to be learned from what he has ob­served. In a let­ter to a friend writ­ten just af­ter his re­turn to Prague in 1945 and quoted in the af­ter­word, he makes the fol­low­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary state­ment: “I have ex­pe­ri­enced some ter­ri­ble things, but since I ex­pe­ri­enced them, it is not some­thing I re­gret, and I would not do with­out them.” This is Ni­et­zsche’s “love of fate” with a vengeance.

Given what Adler went through, it is not sur­pris­ing that his view of hu­man be­ings and hu­man in­sti­tu­tions is pro­foundly pes­simistic—though he may have been pre­dis­posed in this di­rec­tion. He writes in his con­clu­sion:

Paradig­mat­i­cally, and in rare con­cen­tra­tion, the de­vel­op­ments, ex­pe­ri­ences, and crimes at the camp in There­sien­stadt con­tained the sum of all suf­fer­ing and evil that could and ac­tu­ally do oth­er­wise, with a wider dis­per­sion and less vis­i­bly, op­er­ate in other com­mu­ni­ties. The unique as­pect of the camp we have con­sid­ered is that ev­ery­thing skewed, danger­ous, fool­ish, and mean that pro­lif­er­ates in hu­mans and hu­man in­sti­tu­tions, of­ten in se­cret and or­na­mented with aes­thetic con­ven­tions, emerged in There­sien­stadt so un­can­nily and in such un­mer­ci­ful naked­ness that no one... was spared insight into the pre­vail­ing sit­u­a­tion.

The one pos­i­tive con­clu­sion he drew from his dark ex­pe­ri­ences is that there is none­the­less a ground of moral­ity that is in prin­ci­ple al­ways avail­able. Adler calls this per­sonal qual­ity “hu­mane­ness” (Men­schlichkeit, also trans­lat­able as “hu­man­ity”)—an in­ner re­source that en­ables in­di­vid­u­als of suf­fi­cient strength to act morally in any cir­cum­stance, how­ever hor­ri­ble. That is the stan­dard by which he judges the camp of­fi­cials and their en­tan­gle­ment with the Nazis:

The Jewish lead­er­ship had an enor­mously dif­fi­cult task. Not even the great­est in­tegrity could have pre­vented the sum of its de­ci­sions, in an ab­so­lute sense, from be­ing bad. No free­dom but self-de­struc­tion would have re­mained to the lead­er­ship had it of­fered the kind of re­sis­tance that would have coun­tered ab­so­lute evil with ab­so­lute good. But an in­fi­nite amount of good could have been done within the ex­ist­ing bound­aries. The SS’s spe­cial plans to pre­serve this camp might have been bet­ter used to the ad­van­tage of thou­sands of peo­ple. Here, apart from its purely tragic re­spon­si­bil­ity, be­gins the lead­er­ship’s much more ter­ri­ble guilt .... A much more de­ter­mined bat­tle was pos­si­ble against dirt, cor­rup­tion, theft, and the worst kind of pro­tec­tion­ism .... Al­most noth­ing that could have im­proved these cir­cum­stances was done.

Adler blames them not for serv­ing as in­stru­ments of the Nazis, which was the re­sult of a tragic choice to co­op­er­ate in the vain hope of slow­ing the de­por­ta­tions, but for the fail­ure of hu­man­ity in the way most of them con­ducted them­selves in of­fice.

That is why, in spite of his own sever­ity, Adler ob­jected strongly when Han­nah Arendt cited his book in sup­port of her in­dict­ment of Jewish of­fi­cials for col­lab­o­ra­tion. When Arendt’s Eich­mann in Jerusalem ap­peared in Ger­man trans­la­tion, Adler pub­lished a scathing re­sponse, “What Does Han­nah Arendt Know about Eich­mann and the ‘Fi­nal So­lu­tion’?”4 In main­tain­ing that Jewish of­fi­cials could have im­peded the ex­ter­mi­na­tions by act­ing dif­fer­ently, Adler charges, Arendt com­pletely failed to un­der­stand their trapped sit­u­a­tion. He also cap­tures her im­per­cep­tive­ness about Eich­mann. In his ap­pear­ance at the trial, no traces of his de­monic char­ac­ter re­mained, be­cause it had come into ef­fect only with the enor­mous power con­ferred on him by the Nazi regime:

[It is] the Eich­mann who acted in the Third Re­ich. . . , not the scat­ter­brained de­fen­dant 15 or 16 years later, who de­mands the at­ten­tion of pos­ter­ity . . . . Alone, most of the evil have lit­tle power, they need their Hitler, with whose down­fall and with­out an equally strong re­place­ment they are ren­dered im­po­tent and also lose their de­monic char­ac­ter, burnt out, dis­in­te­grated, shad­ows of them­selves and fi­nally as sur­vivors, piti­ful and ba­nal.

Adler is not of the view that the Holo­caust was a unique and in­com­pre­hen­si­ble cat­a­clysm in the his­tory of hu­man­ity, as it is some­times seen. He be­lieves it re­sulted from gen­eral char­ac­ter­is­tics of both in­di­vid­u­als and po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions that are still in place:

There­sien­stadt is still pos­si­ble. It can be im­posed on a mas­sive scale, and, in the fu­ture, the Jews—who in mankind’s over­all his­tory of suf­fer­ing so of­ten have had to serve as har­bin­gers and as those most es­pe­cially at oth­ers’ mercy—might not be the only vic­tims. There­sien­stadt stands not as an ex­per­i­ment but as the writ­ing on the wall, and it is more al­lur­ing than our dis­gust at the hor­ror is yet will­ing to ad­mit.

The his­tory of ide­o­log­i­cally driven mas­sacres and per­se­cu­tions in the in­ter­ven­ing years would not have sur­prised him. Or­ga­nized power re­peat­edly cre­ates the op­por­tu­nity for evil on a large scale, which heroic in­di­vid­ual hu­mane­ness is too weak and rare to re­sist. In his in­for­ma­tive and il­lu­mi­nat­ing af­ter­word, Jeremy Adler says that his fa­ther’s po­lit­i­cal out­look was an­ar­chis­tic. He seems to have be­lieved that moral­ity de­pends on the in­ner re­sources of in­di­vid­u­als, and can­not be found in in­sti­tu­tions. But no in­ner source of hu­man de­cency can solve these prob­lems by it­self. Even if H.G. Adler is right that in­di­vid­ual moral­ity can op­er­ate un­der the most mon­strous of co­er­cive in­sti­tu­tions, that does not mean that it is our only, or even our chief, moral re­source. Other co­er­cive in­sti­tu­tions, such as due process of law, can them­selves em­body moral­ity—and in a way that re­lieves the pres­sure on in­di­vid­ual moral­ity, whose fragility he so un­spar­ingly ob­serves.

Adler’s en­counter with the outer lim­its of hu­man wicked­ness and de­base­ment led him to a fully jus­ti­fied fear of hu­man na­ture, and his per­cep­tion of the dan­ger of col­lec­tive power led him to a dis­trust of the state that even res­i­dence in the rel­a­tively be­nign so­ci­ety of post­war Bri­tain did not dis­lodge. Yet lib­eral demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions, with their guar­an­tee of in­di­vid­ual rights, are the best pro­tec­tion so far de­vised against both the strug­gle of all against all and the bot­tom­less ca­pac­ity for col­lec­tively em­pow­ered evil in hu­man na­ture. If the frag­ile hu­mane­ness that is also part of our na­ture can bring peo­ple to­gether in at­tach­ment to such in­sti­tu­tions, that, rather than re­liance on in­di­vid­ual moral­ity, is prob­a­bly our best hope.

Jews in the camp-ghetto of There­sien­stadt, Cze­choslo­vakia, Jan­uary 1944

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