What Auschwitz and Hiroshima left us: the social mechanisms saw through the men who made them

Introduction

The holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bomb are seen as two events that have only the historical period in common. The former is seen as an act of extermination, the latter as an act of war. The truth is that they have much more in common than they might at first seem, and indeed with their realization the world has started from a new ‘year zero’. This text is based on the comparison of two men and their events after the war. Adolf Eichmann, responsible for the Shoah, and Claude Eatherly, the protagonist of Hiroshima. Through their stories, I will try to show how, although in different contexts, the mechanism that led to the construction of Auschwitz and the H-bomb are still relevant today, and how the comparison of these two characters can be important for future generations. But before going into the specifics, let us take a few diversions and start by asking ourselves whether these two events could have been avoided.

Explaining Auschwitz and Hiroshima

As R.J.B. Bosworth explains in his book ‘explaining Auschwitz and Hiroshima’, their realization was inevitable. In Europe, anti-Semitic sentiment had been present for centuries, it was only a matter of time before it degenerated and found its fulfillment. Nazi Germany is to be blamed for being the first nation in which the factors for this degeneration came about. As far as the atomic bomb is concerned, its realization was already written. Most states throughout Western history have been searching for ever more powerful weapons. The atomic bomb was the result of this long search. It was not only the United States that was looking for a way to create a weapon of mass destruction during the war. Nazi Germany was also trying to split the atom, while Japan, through its ‘Unit 731’, was looking for a bacteriological weapon. Why the United States succeeded before the others is a well-known fact. They had more resources and more men than the other two countries. Even today, there is still a strong debate about the real importance of this weapon, and therefore the outcome of the war. I believe that its use was more ‘demonstrative’ than strictly warlike. Japan was already on its knees in August 1945, Russia was about to declare war on it, and an American invasion directly on Tokyo was ready. The costs the US invested in the bomb were to be repaid, it was initially intended to end the war in Europe, but the conflict ended before the device was ready. The end of the conflict would also establish a new world order, so a show of force was needed. With such a weapon at its disposal, it could only wait for the United States to play the leading role. The interesting key to reading these two events is not to assess their effects but through a reading of how they unfolded. The Jewish genocide carried out by the Nazis and the fate of the Japanese city are the result of the same pattern. Both were carried out with the greatest resource of all: science. Industrially subdividing the whole operation, to speed up success, and depriving the individual user of responsibility, making him unaware of what he was doing. It is with this in mind that the comparison of the post-war lives of our characters is fundamental to this text, and their stories to future generations. 

The Case A. Eichman 

Let us start with Adolf Eichmann, the last of the Nazis to surrender, who tried to carry on the Jewish extermination until the very end, even when the Soviet advance in Germany was unstoppable at the end of 1945. He was head of the Reich’s ‘Jewish problem’ section. He was the monster who organized the drama of the Shoah in his sick logistics. Eichmann is a key character in this text. It is very interesting to understand and analyze his way of looking at his ‘work’: “I am a soldier, and like you I only followed orders” he replied to Peter Z. Malkin, the man who captured him in a suburb of Buenos Aires in May 1960. It is too easy to justify himself in this way, but was that what he thought? Or was he hiding the truth behind his enigmatic face? To make sense of the story and clarify it, we need to go back a moment and start by following his biography. Born in Solingen in 1906, he later moved to Linz. The first of five children, he had a closed and indefinable character. A mediocre student at school. At the age of ten, he lost his mother, but this event did not upset him too much; his father took him back shortly afterward. As he grew up, a sense of anger about Germany’s defeat in World War I took shape, fuelled by his history teacher Leopold Poetsch, who extolled Hitler and reinforced the idea in the young Eichmann that the war was not lost at the front, but behind the lines, a defeat caused by socialists and Jews. During the German economic crisis, Eichmann gave up his job as an oil representative to join the Nazi armed forces. He would later take up the post of Jewish expert in the Reich. Eichmann would never declare himself anti-Semitic, instead, he would make several trips to Palestine and even learn Yiddish. His role in the Holocaust is known to history, he was responsible for “scraping” and transporting Jews to the camps. He saw his mission as a military victory, it was his task and he had to carry it out.

After the war, during his years on the run in Argentina during a session with the Nazi-Dutch journalist, Willem A. M. Sassen states: “despite rigorous self-analysis, I must say, in my defense, that I was not a murderer, not even a mass murderer…I carried out the task imposed on me with a moral sense and loyalty. I have always been a good German, I am today and I will always be a good German!”

Does he think so? How can a man live knowing that he has condemned millions of men, women, children, and old people to death by his orders? Maybe because he killed them indirectly, only through orders? Maybe because he was “only” a big pawn in the machine of death and barbarism that was the Third German Reich? Perhaps he was able to live without remorse after the war despite the horrors he committed because, as he declared, when he visited the camps, he always tried to avoid seeing the worst, and so by not touching it directly he was able to live with it. He perhaps never really saw.

The book ‘Between Her and My Hands’ narrated by Peter Z. Malkin and written by the American H. Stein, tells of the operation that led to Eichmann’s capture, trying to make sense of what his people, the Jewish people, had to endure during the war. In an explanation of how Eichmann became ‘Eichmann’, the monster who condemned so many men to death, he leads him to analyze it starting from his childhood, beginning with what he thinks forms the sense of moral responsibility in a person. According to him, it depends on how one is treated as a child. Those who receive affection and care, who are loved and listened to, are more likely to become understanding adults, capable of thinking for themselves and making moral choices. In contrast, children brought up in an environment where regimentation is normal and nonconformity is considered aberrant grow up believing that they are only valuable as individuals because they are part of a superior whole. Thus, as a consequence of nature, they imbibe passivity and obedience, not conscience. As modern psychology states, the foundations on which an individual is built are created during childhood. To understand Eichmann and his importance for future societies, in a world where globalization and fear of ‘different’ are an everyday reality, it is important to start by analyzing him from the earliest years of life, but this is not enough. Another way to analyze the situation is to immerse the individual and his actions in the society in which he lived, trying to see him with the parameters of his society but judging him with those of ours. As the political philosopher Leo Strauss wrote in his treatise “What is Political Philosophy?” about the ‘just citizen’, to make his point that every society has its model of the ‘just citizen’, he uses the example of the good citizen of ancient Greece as opposed to the good citizen of Nazi Germany, in which neither is fit to live in another’s society. The Nazi death factory, through the compartmentalization of work (which also took place in the USA with the creation of the atomic bomb), managed to remove the responsibility from every single worker in the extermination camp. Perhaps this is why Eichmann will never be found guilty, he was a ‘good citizen’ but in a society based on hatred of difference and the exaltation of race. It is the perspective on how you see things that give the judgment, there is no absolute reality, but in some cases, it is only common sense that answers. This was Eichmann, the man who organized the death sentence on six million Jews. The man who organized the Holocaust. Other times in history, both before and after mass genocides have been carried out, but none with such a systematic organization, none on an “industrial” level, none managed to build such a machine, that unlike other dictatorships, where forced labor was the death sentence, in the Nazi one we have as a sentence, the elimination of the individual in its deepest meaning. 

But how did the world react to the capture of this individual? How did the Argentinean government deal with the fact that a clandestine secret operation had taken place within its borders without its authorities being aware of anything? And above all, did Eichmann’s capture, his trial, and later death sentence succeed in bringing some peace to the Jewish people?

Immediately after the war, there was a real manhunt by the Allied nations to condemn the Nazis and their war crimes. In 1946 during the Nuremberg trials, Eichmann’s name came up several times, but he managed to escape capture by fleeing to Argentina and changing his name to Ricardo Klement. In 1947, just two years after the end of the war, the Allied nations that had taken on the task of prosecuting the Nazis seemed to abandon their intentions because the threat of the Cold War had begun to arise in the meantime, and efforts were concentrated on other things. Only Israel, which in the meantime has consolidated itself as a state, is left to hunt down the Nazis, selling it as a moral obligation to its people. The capture took place in 1961 and in Israel it was greeted with great enthusiasm, people celebrated in the streets, at last, a real culprit had been found the millions of Jews who lost their lives could be avenged, at last, the holocaust could be given a real face. What was the international reaction? The capture aroused a diplomatic storm beyond all expectations. Israel’s initial position, which for internal security reasons could not make public the details of the operation, triggered a wave of astonishing speculation. Each media outlet came out with its review declaring that it knew the truth about the details of the capture and the location, there was talk that the country where the operation took place was Iraq, or Germany, or Kuwait. Seventy-two hours after Eichmann’s capture was made official, a Buenos Aires daily newspaper, referring to the internal government and army sources, who were aware of the presence of the former Nazi officer on Argentinean territory, declared with certainty that the operation took place in South America. The revelation caused a national scandal. Newspapers competed to denounce what was considered a clear violation of international law and Argentine sovereignty. Politicians demanded that the facts be made public and spoke threateningly of sanctions against Israel. The Israeli ambassador was expelled from Argentina and a motion for a resolution was submitted to the UN Security Council, which argued that the illegal transfer of Eichmann created an atmosphere of insecurity and mistrust, incompatible with the protection of international law. It was not until 3 August that the waters calmed down with a joint declaration by the two countries stating that the incident was closed. The official atmosphere was one of opposition to the Eichmann operation, but unofficially there were many congratulations from Israeli state representatives in the world’s capitals, few of whom did not recognize that the Israeli action had been motivated by unavoidable national and moral interests. How did Eichmann’s native countries, such as Germany and Austria, react? They had nothing to say against the capture and even kept their distance. 

How did the process take place?

The trial lasted more than four months, followed by a no less long period of debate between the three judges of the court. The verdict was delivered on 10 December 1962, guilty on all counts of crimes against humanity and the Jewish people. During the reading of his death sentence, Eichmann stood rigidly by, not letting on. Despite his poor health, he did not present himself as a loser, his line of defense was that he had only obeyed orders, like any good soldier, so logically only Hitler was guilty. There, sitting in the box of the indictment, he did not realize that he was wrong. On 31 May 1962, his conviction took place. The actions of the ex-SS were terrible, but his actions were shaped in him by the society in which he lived, to the point of complete degeneration. Eichmann felt that he was part of his era, completely integrated into the Nazi regime, and probably considered his actions not to be his direct work, but rather a Nazi work, and this was for him a greater reason than any man.

The case C. Eatherly 

In contrast to him, I will take Claude Eatherly, a soldier in the US Air Force, as an example, trying to understand from the outset why I chose him for this text. I chose him because he was the first. The first of the men who took an active part in history without asking for it, who, through the role of ‘executioner-victim’, managed to become aware of what his actions created, the first who did not hide behind the excuse of ‘it was only my job’ or ‘I was only a small part of a plan bigger than myself’. He was the first who denounced social mechanisms by his actions, seeing in it a great threat to our consciences. Too many times during the courts of the 1960s, his name was associated with that of Eichmann and they were both accused of the same crime, no! Eatherly is his antithesis, he is a hopeful figure, a human figure, who tries to assert his individuality, always remembering that first and foremost he is and remains a Man. All this at a time when world governance was trying to be an “Eichmann” with the shadow of an atomic war between the USSR and the USA constantly present in the minds of citizens, with a society that was organized with a fragmented plot to divide individual responsibility. As Hannah Arendt said: “the division of labor degenerates into a division of responsibility”.  Eatherly is there to warn us, denouncing man’s entry into a new era in which he is incapable of representing the result of his actions, while the establishment of the time tries to silence him and make him believe he is crazy, through false trials and imprisonment in Airforce psychiatric hospitals. He is there to launch messages of peace and brotherhood to the peoples of the Earth, and even during his years of imprisonment he tries with all his might to make society aware of the importance of atomic disarmament. I want to write about Eatherly because I think that history does not remember his case often enough and forgets about it. I have been to both Auschwitz and Hiroshima, and what they evoke even more than seventy years later is frightening. They are strange places where you breathe a different air, an air that you don’t forget and that makes you stay alone, immersed in a silence made of respect. It is incredible that between these two tragic events only one of their greatest perpetrators repented, and when he tried to find some peace, telling his story and opening his conscience, those in power did everything they could to silence him. That is why I decided to take him as an example for my text and to tell his story. 

Who was Claude Eatherly?

Claude Eatherly was born in 1918 in Van Alstyne, Texas. In 1940 he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps entering the school for bomber pilots, during the war, he distinguished himself as a skilled pilot and was chosen in 1945 as one of the pilots who would be part of the “Hiroshima” mission. Eatherly was the meteorological commander of the B-29 bomber who was in charge of verifying whether or not the weather conditions on the chosen targets were suitable for the drop. On the morning of August 6, 1945, the skies over Hiroshima were slightly overcast, but as the weather improved, Eatherly was able to give the go-ahead for the mission. As history teaches us, at 8.15 a.m. the bomber Enola Gay dropped its load, the second atomic bomb in history to be triggered, the first to be used in ‘war’. “Little Boy”, as the bomb was nicknamed because of its small and “harmless” shape, caused the instantaneous death of between 100,000 and 200,000 people (the exact figure is undetermined), with tens of thousands more dying in the years to come as a result of radiation exposure. On 6 August, Eatherly’s life changed forever. Back home, public opinion celebrates him as one of the “victor boys” who, thanks to his deeds, put an end to the war, but unlike his other companions, he cannot see himself in this way, he does not accept the role he played and refuses to be considered a hero. He refuses to be considered a hero. Why he thinks, should he consider himself a hero, if through one of his orders he ended the lives of thousands of innocent civilians in an instant? He tries to overturn the idea of the valiant, righteous soldier of the Second World War by trying to expose himself to society. Eatherly could live what is considered the Western ‘dream’, a nice house, a comfortable life, a large family, etc… But the torment of the victims does not give him peace, his remorse is unparalleled. So in the years to come, his private life is shattered and he lives with the desire to make peace with his victims by seeking forgiveness from others and from himself. His life takes a new turn, shattered by the repercussions of the bombing, he continues for five years with the monotony between the petty acts of an amateur criminal, the court, and the healing attempts of a sick man who does not need therapy because he is morally healthier than his environment. He is incapable of adapting to the sick society he returns to each time after imprisonment, having lost the shell with which his contemporaries manage to live with relative comfort in an era in the midst of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, and with the atomic threat ready to rattle humanity at any moment. It was only in 1959, when his desperate acts were reported by the public and the press began to take an interest in him, that his actions began to make sense, thanks to the interest in his case by Günther Anders, a German writer, and philosopher who had taken exile in America during the Second World War because he was Jewish, and after his return home had devoted himself spasmodically to the atomic problem. Anders got to know Eatherly by reading his story in a newspaper, and the two began a correspondence that lasted several years, through which the German writer helped the former American aviator make peace with himself and his victims. From this moment on, Eatherly’s story becomes more and more popular, also abroad, and thanks to Anders’ help, his figure is overturned, taking on the role of a figure of the peace who fights against atomic rearmament. But just when it seemed that there might be a turning point in the case and that at any moment his release would take place, the Airforce on 12 January 1961, through a trial in which his doctors declared him “insane”, decided to lock him up in the wing of the Waco psychiatric hospital dedicated to patients declared insane or violent, blocking all contact with the outside world. With the passage of time, his case has not aged, and he is still a model. We all receive reassurances every day that the effects of our actions do not affect the world (climate change may be an example?), that ours is not an act but a job, and that this job regardless of what its goals and aims maybe cannot be morally dubious.   

Conclusion 

By comparing these two men and reading their stories, analyzed by trying to go deeper into their actions, we find ourselves asking questions.

Why did Eichmann have a trial with an international echo but not Eatherly? Why is Eichmann remembered more than Eatherly? What do their stories leave for future generations? What differentiated the two trials were what the two men stood for, the actions they took part in, and this is also related to the nation they belonged to. The Israelis demanded a face in which to identify their losses, the world wanted to leave the dregs of the Nazi regime behind once and for all, and who better than the monster who organized the entire holocaust? Another important part is the factions to which they belonged, Eichmann was in the ranks of the defeated, Eatherly of the victors, he was part of the “good guys” and they could not be challenged. It is the winners who write history, not the defeated, it is not a problem to condemn a defeated, it is more a problem to blame a winner. The American was playing an uncomfortable role, he was a ‘rebel’ and so they tried to keep him in the shadows. The American and the German are bound by an invisible thread, which leads them to be different sides of the same coin. Eatherly condemns himself in a society ready to celebrate him. Eichmann, innocent for himself, finds himself in a society that was ready to judge him for the monster he was. Two antitheses compared, two different ways of reacting to the usual social setting, with history ready to judge them. Both children of a society, which had never before been so thoroughly manipulated by technology and speed, making us incapable of determining the consequences of our actions. It was only with the Second World War that our inability to foresee the effects began, with Auschwitz and Hiroshima as the ultimate expression of the beginning of this era. Why can we consider the Second World War as the first time this mechanism occurred? Because never before have actions had such great effects and such a great involvement of men and resources. No matter what color the flag of the nation is, both the Nazis and the Americans organized their plans in the same way, by dividing up the work in such a way that every single worker, from the smallest to the largest, was deprived of responsibility. The result was the success of their cruel plans that changed history forever in one way or another. Our world is a system of cause and effect, where every action has a corresponding reaction. The technology and the way of life of western society have led to the blindness of the individual to the effects it creates; many of the problems of the society we live in today are due to the inability to deal with this phenomenon. Eatherly is the prime example of this and we should never forget it. Eichmann, on the other hand, is its greatest achievement. History concerning the problem exposed has a fundamental role, it must always walk side by side with the progress that humanity obtains every day, ready to remind us of the choices that other men before us have already made so that we do not make mistakes that were already made in the past. 

I close my text with a poem by Primo Levi, “Delega”, so entitled, was written on 24 June 1986. His personal story makes the Italian chemist the most suitable person to leave a message to future generations about what was. Hoping that the story and this poem will serve the generations of tomorrow.

Delegate:

Don’t be scared if the work is a lot:

You are needed who are less tired.

Since you have fine senses, feel

How under your feet it sounds hollow.

Mend our errors:

There have also been those among us

Who have been searching blindly

As a blindfolded man would repeat a profile,                                                        

And who has set sail as corsairs do,

And who tried with goodwill.

He helps, insecure. He tries, though insecure,

Because insecure. See

If you can repress the revulsion and boredom

Of our doubts and certainties.

Never have we been so rich, and yet

We live among stuffed monsters,

Others obscenely alive.

Do not be dismayed by the rubble

Nor the stench of the dumps: we

We cleared them with our bare hands

In the years when we were your years.

Hold your course, your best. We have

Combed the hair of comets,

Deciphered the sand of the moon,

Built Auschwitz and destroyed Hiroshima.

You see: we did not stand idly by.

Stumped, puzzled;

Don’t call us masters.

Reference:

  • Anders G., off limits für das Gewissen. Der Briefwechsel zwischen dem Hiroshima piloten Claude Eatherly (Hamburg: Verlag C.H. Beck oHg,1961)
  • Bosworth R.J.B., explaining Auschwitz e Hiroshima (New York: Routledge 1993)
  • Levi P., Ad ora incerta (Milano: Garzanti 1984)
  • Malkin P. Z. & Stein H., Eichmann in my hands (New York: Sperling e Kupfer editori 1991)
  • Strauss L., What is Political Philosophy? ( Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1959)

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