Auschwitz: History and Icon

Nathan Stoltzfus

Florida State University

Dr. Nathan Stoltzfus is Dorothy and Jonathan Rintels Professor of Holocaust Studies at Florida State University and is author or editor of seven books including Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany (W.W. Norton 1996) and Hitler’s Compromises (Yale University 2016). He has published widely including in academic journals as well as in The Atlantic Monthly, Der Spiegel, The Daily Beast, and Die Zeit.

These comments were originally presented at an AICGS panel on “Auschwitz and Holocaust Memory Today,” on January 27, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Auschwitz has become an icon of other-worldly evil, rightly signifying a crime like no other. That monstrous camp of gas chambers and crematoria, however, is also a distinctly human creation on a scale with the house of many horrors from human history. Parallels to Nazi Germany should be made very carefully; evil does continue, but the evil of Nazism was exceptional. Like other histories, Auschwitz occurred in a specific time and place, it evolved in a line of continuity from past to future. Both as icon and as history, Auschwitz raises the question of who we are. It represents an inversion of humane civilization; humanity at its worst. How civilized are we really, deep down? No other species acts this way. Why did so many choose evil?


More from AICGS on Memory of the Holocaust and Auschwitz


To Historicize Auschwitz

Professor Saul Friedlander, the Holocaust survivor and eminent historian, has argued for remembrance of Auschwitz as mythologic memory. Auschwitz stands apart, so monstrous that all other events of the same era must be considered in relation to it. It is a “Grenzereignis,” something previously unseen that stretches historization to its limits, situated on the edge of or beyond other histories. Remembering Auschwitz as one more part of history risks relativizing it; reciting the mundane facts of everyday life at this camp trivializes the totality.[1]

Professor Friedlander’s concern might be illustrated by the way the city of Auschwitz (Oświęcim in Polish) today presents its history. While welcoming more than a million tourists per year to that destination of massive murder, the town of Oświęcim today represents the wartime camp as a blip in its eight-hundred-year history—as though one fact equals another. The death camp is an unparalleled pivot in the city’s history—but the camp’s history might be minimalized when it is viewed as any other several year period.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to study precisely the earthly, the corporeal of Auschwitz history. Countering Friedlander’s position, the German historian Martin Broszat argued for remembering the camp as history rather than philosophical or theological evil, in a well-known exchange of the late 1980s. A pioneer of everyday life history (Alltagsgeschichte), Broszat argued that Auschwitz cannot symbolize the Holocaust. Rather, the camp, like Hitler himself, must be treated with the historical methods applied to other eras of history. Viewing it from a political-moral perspective alone brackets it away from human experience, which is the raw material historians are bound to examine. We must perceive any history within the proper context of continuities—and for Broszat, Auschwitz could never symbolize the entire Nazi period.[2]

While I agree that historians must historicize Auschwitz, I would argue that the Nazi years must be judged in light of their end point: catastrophe. All that Hitler thought and did added up to war and genocide; he does not get merit points for erasing unemployment at some point along the way, for example. This same calculus about judgement in light of the end point, it appears, will also render a harsh judgment on humanity itself, of which Auschwitz will be a part.

Day to day life—not just the massive killing—at Auschwitz is one reason that camp is the most recognized symbol of the Holocaust.

A history of everyday life at Auschwitz may be mundane. But day to day life—not just the massive killing—at Auschwitz is one reason that camp is the most recognized symbol of the Holocaust. Only because people lived at Auschwitz, and not just died, do we know so much about it—because people escaped, buried records, and survived to tell the story of Auschwitz.[3]

Only Everyday Life Shows the Differences Gender Made

Israeli historian Judith Baumel-Schwartz has argued persuasively, on very different grounds than Broszat, that treating Auschwitz as negative icon alone brackets out absolutely critical perspectives. Examining the Holocaust through the prism of Auschwitz, she wrote, screens out women’s history. Gender history is only revealed in treating Auschwitz as other parts of history are treated. Seeing only that people were murdered—and not how they lived at Auschwitz—obscures this elemental perspective on human experience. To see the difference gender made, we must study the camp precisely as everyday social experience. Moreover, she argues, such a change of perspective has helped mightily to legitimate the study of women’s Holocaust history, a field that status quo historians waved off dismissively for years.

Baumel-Schwartz identified several gendered differences in everyday life at Auschwitz. Unaccustomed to hard physical labor, many women found it more difficult than men did. Second, in the tradition of gendered responsibilities, women in the camp passed on to girls how to run a household, even teaching them recipes by heart at night. Also, critically, women faced what Baumel-Schwartz calls “double jeopardy:” unlike men, women were targeted both as Jews and as women—cruelly molested by Nazi guards, or even other inmates.[4]

Professor Mordecai Paldiel has pointed to rescue at Auschwitz as another reason that everyday history is absolutely critical to our memory of Auschwitz. If we remember Auschwitz as only the icon of evil, we obscure the example of extraordinary resisters and rescuers. And we need those examples to teach goodness. The stories of notorious SS camp guards like Irma Grese at Auschwitz are well known; but great exemplars of alternative behavior exist as well, although much less well known. Their stories say with certainty that we do not have to allow the evil of perpetrators to have the last word.

Women’s Defiance and Rescue

Gisi Fleischmann, for example, refused to join friends and family in hiding or fleeing Europe. She insisted that her conscience demanded that she help Jews, and she paid for that at Auschwitz with her life. Dr. Hadassah Rosensaft is credited with rescuing hundreds of Jewish inmates while imprisoned at Auschwitz. Trained as a dentist she helped prisoners with general medical care, attending to wounds from SS dogs and whips.

Humane action is not something figured out in the library. Rather, it is taught with examples of people who behaved humanely, heroically, like these women. Auschwitz is a warning and these rescuers show the steep cost of heeding it. Most people think about personal safety, but a few people put everything on the line.

Consider Auschwitz inmate Dr. Gisella Perl, ordered by SS officer Dr. Josef Mengele to inform him of any pregnant women. This was so they could be treated better, he said. But Perl soon realized that, on the contrary, Mengele was using pregnant women as guinea pigs in his notorious research block. So she performed abortions at night with her hands, without equipment, without anesthesia, on the dirty floors and bunks of camp huts.[5]

Adelaide Hautval, another example, was a French physician and a Protestant sentenced to Auschwitz as a friend of the Jews: “As you wish to defend them, you will follow their fate.” Auschwitz SS doctor Eduard Wirths ordered Hautval to participate in the sterilization experiments in Block 10. When she refused Wirths asked, can’t you see that these Jews are different from you?” Hautval retorted that indeed, Wirths was different from her.

Liberated in April 1945, Hautval made a critical statement in a 1963 London trial. Wladyslaw Dering accused Leon Uris of libel for writing in The Exodus that Dering had cut open prisoners without anesthesia to sterilize them. Dering testified in defense that he had had no choice; he followed orders. Hautval bore witness to the contrary: that it was in fact not always futile to refuse orders at the camp, while avoiding punishment. Dering had not dared. Because of her courage, Dering did not have the last word, which he otherwise would have had.

Primo Levi’s Witness and Arendt’s “Banality of Evil”

When we remember Auschwitz, to be sure, we do have to remember perpetrators such as Dering, especially considering human fascination with evil. Various theories shed light on the process of how ordinary people (not the monsters like Hitler) become evil, when in ordinary times they would not have been villains. Encouraged by her mentor German philosopher Karl Jaspers not to monumentalize Nazi criminals as monsters—as though they are icons apart from the rest of history—Arendt found that the great majority of perpetrators were ordinary persons. Moreover, these ordinary persons had committed unspeakable evils for ordinary reasons. Arendt’s “banality of evil” model does not show how the bad radicalizes into evil. But it does show that a great many persons adjust to their circumstances no matter how extreme, to become perpetrators of evil for motives as ordinary as building a career or providing for family. They might rationalize that their pernicious actions are logical or serve a worthy purpose. Or they might simply change their perspectives to conform, so they no longer need a rationalization.

Agreeing with Arendt about the banal motivations of evil-doers within an evil system, the great survivor and interpreter of Auschwitz, Primo Levi, wrote that those who bore the greatest responsibility at Auschwitz were “made of the same raw material we are. […] With some exceptions they were not sadistic monsters; they were people like us, trapped by the regime because of their pettiness, ignorance, or ambition. Nor were there many fanatical Nazis.”[6]

A salient point to take from Auschwitz concerns our ability to exercise choice, in light of individual and social responsibilities, illustrated by rescuers.

The radical inequality of Nazi ideology and “race science” is key to understanding the murder of Europe’s Jews and the targeting of other so-called community aliens and incurables. There are also important social, economic, and political perspectives key to perceiving the complete picture, and Arendt’s model is just one among others for seeing them. A salient point to take from Auschwitz concerns our ability to exercise choice, in light of individual and social responsibilities, illustrated by rescuers.

The Holocaust evolved and escalated over the years, beginning with Hitler’s offer to the people that if they believed in him, he would be their strongman and, as he said, “make Germany great again.” Death camps did not develop overnight, just as these operators of the death mills also morphed into the role. The Holocaust did not begin with the gas chambers but with Hitler playing on insecurity and fears of the masses, promising a utopia for the “German-blooded” that eventually introduced mass extermination and genocide, under the cover of secrecy and patriotism of war.

This process of inverting values, by rationalization or change of perspectives, to suit power and personal comfort continues today.

This process of inverting values, by rationalization or change of perspectives, to suit power and personal comfort continues today. In our era of expanding autocracy, the bases for inverted values and becoming evil include mass support of strongmen who are just setting out on a journey of narcissistic power that could well lead to catastrophe and extermination. Primo Levi also described how easily ordinary persons had changed their perspectives to become perpetrators: “it did not require a great effort or real coercion to make them into cold-blooded assassins of millions of other people. A few years of perverse indoctrination and Dr. Goebbels’ propaganda were sufficient.”[7]

How do we maximize those who make the choice of defiance and rescue? Today we use the language of the perpetrators judiciously—including, for example, the term “concentration camp”—because it triggers the language about the spectrum of behavior we are already on, from perpetrator through benefiter, collaborator, bystander, to resister. Because we should not allow perpetrators to have the last word, however, we must hold up examples of the good. In the interest of humane civilization, we should remember Auschwitz as more than the hulking icon of monsters and the master of death.


[1] Martin Broszat and Saul Friedländer, “Um die ‘Historisierung des Nationalsozialismus.’ Ein Briefwechsel,” Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte (April 1988), p. 339-372, here p. 371.

[2] Ibid., p. 363ff.

[3] On the other hand, icons may change with trends: British historian Tony Judt wrote in 2005, for example, that Holocaust recognition was a unifying symbol, a country’s entry ticket, for membership in the European Union. Auschwitz was a key common agreement that helped bind so many disparate countries together. Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York: Penguin, 2005), p. 803.

[4] Judith Baumel-Schwartz, Double Jeopardy: Gender and the Holocaust (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998).

[5] See Gisella Perl, I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019 [1948]).

[6] Anne Goldstein, ed., Primo Levi, The Complete Works of Primo Levi (New York: Liveright, 2015), p. 2727.

a href=”#_ednref7″ name=”_edn7″>[7] Ibid.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.