How could you not have known? Ignorance and denial of the Holocuast

Buchenwald Concentration Camp was, as I told our guide, “depressingly pretty”, covered in a blanket of pure snow, the trees and wire fence alike encased in ice. It seems wrong for a concentration camp to look like a winter wonderland, a place where teenage volunteers were inclined toward snowball fights until chastised by our local guide. But it was also bitterly cold and windy, providing new perspective on the death march from Auschwitz that began on this same date, January 17th, 68 years years ago. The fog as we left made it impossible to see the horizon, an environmental disorientation to match my emotions as we left the crematorium.

The size of the camp, even with so few buildings left standing, emphasizes the question all Germans were faced with after the war: “how could you not have known what was happening to the Jews?” Current sentiment – shared by our guide at the German Resistance Memorial Center, of her grandparents – is “they lied; they had to know”. Faced with a map of all the concentration camps sites and Gestapo prisons in Germany at the time (which includes my birthplace, Fulda, as a subsidiary of Buchenwald), the Final Solution does seem far more widespread than it sounds from the handful of famous concentration camp names we know now. But while we can certainly argue that the German public should have known, because the evidence was right there if they’d only taken a moment to look for it, saying that they must have known underestimates the power of the human brain to delude itself.

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Even the greatest victims were often unaware of the systematic extermination. Some certainly knew; Anne Frank wrote in October 1942 wondering what happened to the Jews who were deported from Holland: “We assume that most of them are murdered. The English radio speaks of their being gassed”. In the Thereseinstadt ghetto, on the other hand, there were those ignorant of their fates: “people volunteered for deportation from Thereseinstadt to Auschwitz and denounced those who tried to tell them the truth as ‘not sane’.” (Hannah Arendt, Eichmann and the Holocaust). This is in part due to the Thereseinstadt Jewish leaders, who selected the individuals to be deported to meet Nazi quotas; they often kept quiet about the fate of those who went, because ignorance is bliss, or at least better than panicked anticipation of being murdered.

It is a fascinating trick of the human mind to believe whatever we want to believe, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Psychologists know this as belief perseverance, the truth behind the adage about the importance of making a good first impression: beliefs are sticky, and hard to change. Early propaganda efforts regarding the concentration camps were successful enough that even British papers were reporting decent living conditions (as shown in a newspaper page we saw later in Dachau); this first impression that the camps weren’t that bad would have been very hard to change.

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Beliefs would be even more sticky for the German public, who might be emotionally invested in either that Nazi regime or at least in sticking to that early idea that the concentration camps – which they had not really protested – were not that bad. Partly this is because we become emotionally invested in our beliefs, and allow these emotions to rule our thinking about evidence that would prove the belief wrong. In modern American politics, for example, strong Democrats and strong Republicans have emotional reactions to evidence that their favored candidates sometimes compromise their stated positions. Partisans were shown pairs of statements by 2004 Presidential contenders John Kerry and George W. Bush; the first statement made on claim by the candidate, and the second statement showed the candidate contradicting himself. When people viewed their own preferred candidate being a “flip-flopper”, emotional regions of the brain came online to try to resolve the conflict, and in the end a Republican would rate a Bush contradiction as far less of a problem than a Kerry contradiction.

Many beliefs don’t even get to this stage of emotionally excusing disconfirming evidence, though, because we also have a confirmation bias, a tendency to look only at the evidence that would confirm our beliefs and not at the evidence that might disprove them. The Wansee House had exhibitions quite near each other that illustrate what it might have been like in the 1940s. One exhibit of Abram Jakub Krzepicki, who escaped from Treblinka in August 1942 and reported what was happening there; the other displays a postcard from Hansi Silberstein, written on her arrival at Auschwitz in August 1943 saying “I’m still here” and talking about the “fantastic summer weather”.

People who did not want to believe that the Jews were being exterminated could latch onto the evidence of the postcard – as intended by the “Letter Operation” – to support their beliefs, and excuse Krzepicki’s story as that of a madman. Even those without firmly held beliefs could have looked at two contradictory stories, and relied on the one that was more pleasant to believe. They might say, for example, that if this were true the Red Cross would have known – as they have since admitted they did know – but the Red Cross was saying nothing. And thanks again to retrieval-induced forgetting, the more people thought and talked about evidence that the Jews were alive, merely deported, the harder it would become to recall the evidence that showed the truth.

These same biases in the human thought process are what lead some even today to deny that the Holocaust ever happened. Once the belief is formed, it becomes virtually impossible to dislodge, as Holocaust deniers will point to any crack in the evidence, any inconsistency in testimony or questionable translation of German documents, that confirms their belief, ignoring everything else. Sadly, many of them would not be swayed by Buchenwald, because they will admit to this sort of camp – discrimination, internment, deaths due to malnourishment and disease – but will reject the policy of deliberate extermination, and say that Auschwitz was no different than this. It took a concerted policy of walking German civilians through camps, and documenting what the liberators found on film, to get the contemporaries to finally change their beliefs; it’s not clear what might have the power to overcome belief perseverance in this generation of deniers.

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