Auschwitz: Human nature and pitfalls of unchecked authority

A view of the gate of the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Poland in 2020. PHOTO | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • We should look at Auschwitz and learn. History has taught us that we should always be suspicious of human character. We should never allow powers to go unchecked. This serves as the only insurance we, the people, have against our so-called leaders.

When I received an email from the Polish embassy informing me about a potential study trip to Poland, I immediately expressed my desire to visit Auschwitz if it could be accommodated in the schedule. Despite having watched countless documentaries about Auschwitz, my fascination with this place remains insatiable. While haunted by the memories of unspeakable horrors, Auschwitz holds profound lessons for us today.

As I write these words all the way from Warsaw, the weight of what transpired in Poland merely 80 years ago is heavy on my mind. Nothing provides a more sobering reminder of the true nature of human character than Auschwitz.

The chain of events leading to Auschwitz began in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. A part of Germany’s territory had been given to Poland following Germany’s defeat in World War 1. Adolf Hitler wished to correct those historical misdeeds and Poland – literally, an open field – provided many attractions. The Polish stood no chance.

Hitler believed that Germans were a superior race and that many others were inferior. Among the groups that Hitler considered inferior were the Jews: he blamed them for all the evils in the world. So, wherever the Nazis went, the Holocaust followed. With a Jewish population of 3.5 million, Poland became the stage for some of history’s most heinous crimes against humanity.

Initially, the Nazis attempted an attritional approach to address the “Jewish problem”. However, this method proved inadequate. In Warsaw alone, one-third of the city’s 1.3 million residents were Jewish. The Nazis needed a more efficient solution.

In 1942, the Wannsee Conference convened in Berlin, bringing together 15 high-ranking Nazi officials. Their objective: the implementation of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” This plan aimed to systematically exterminate Jews through the collaboration of various agencies across Nazi-controlled Europe, placing the lives of 11 million Jews in grave danger.

When people discuss the Holocaust, there is often confusion between death camps and concentration camps. While concentration camps resulted in numerous deaths, their primary purpose was detention rather than extermination. In contrast, death camps were specifically designed to eliminate targeted groups, such as Jews, employing industrial methods to carry out mass murder.

This was coordinated in a chilling manner. Death camps were built next to railways. Jews were gathered across Europe regions to these camps. Such an operation required the collaboration of various agencies and individuals. The system functioned with terrifying efficiency. At Auschwitz, up to 2,000 people could be packed into a gas chamber, their bodies consumed within 20 minutes.

Upon hearing about the Auschwitz story, a Polish man called Witold Pilecki, deliberately had himself arrested to validate the claims of horrors occurring within the camp. Having witnessed the horrors, Pilecki asked the Allied forces to bomb the camps. The Allied nations did nothing.

While inspiring tales like Pilecki’s uplift us, they also highlight the rarity of such sacrificial acts. On the contrary, many of us are driven by deprivation, calculation, and self-interest. Without the framework of laws and consequences, we are capable of exhibiting profoundly depraved behaviour.

In the West, centuries of religious and ethnic conflicts have given people a sixth sense of human nature. Consequently, they instinctively limit the powers entrusted to individuals, fearing the potential for abuse. They know that when human depravity is encouraged, the cost can be devastatingly high.

Unfortunately, we appear not to have learnt this lesson yet. Our instincts are all wrong. We grant excessive powers to individuals assuming good intentions. However, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

This is what happened in Tanzania in the 1970s when Tanzania embarked on one of the most ambitious human migration projects in history.

This endeavour resulted in the forced relocation of at least 7 million people, leading to the loss of livelihoods and properties, leaving countless individuals destitute. Yet those in power executed their will unchallenged, with the people and the nation paying the price.

We have not learnt anything. Today, after we have granted our president immunity, then the speaker of parliament and the chief justice, proposals are underway to extend immunity from prosecution for crimes committed while on duty to members of the intelligence service.

The unconstitutionality of this proposal, violating the principle of equality before the law, is only one concern. More alarmingly, it reveals our flawed judgment regarding human nature. What could possibly go wrong? The very individuals tasked with protecting the people may end up working against them, as they would bear no responsibility to the people or the law.

Over the past three decades, we have witnessed audacious corruption schemes that have unfolded before our eyes. Stories of IPTL, Richmond, EPA, ESCROW, Dege, SGR, and numerous others demonstrate how those in power blatantly abused their powers. These incidents occurred despite the existence of some semblance of responsibility. And now we are contemplating expanding the scope of protection to potentially tens of thousands of individuals?

A friend of mine often quotes Ronald Reagan, who proclaimed that ‘the most terrifying words in English are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ Catastrophic events that unfolded at the hands of governments in the 20th century, giving us leaders such as Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, and others, give credence to the idea.

We should look at Auschwitz and learn. History has taught us that we should always be suspicious of human character. We should never allow powers to go unchecked. This serves as the only insurance we, the people, have against our so-called leaders.

Apart from this, we are in effect playing with fire.