Looked at from the point of view of the male group that seeks an identity through a collective unspeakable act, many otherwise inexplicable details of the Holocaust fall into place. The Jews were gassed in mock-bathrooms and showers because these are places of cleansing and purification. The Nazis needed to cleanse themselves of the impurity that had entered their own blood. It is sometimes thought that the reason was to fool the Jews at Auschwitz and Treblinka into thinking that they were to be given showers in order to minimize their resistance. And of course up to a point it was. But by 1944, certainly, at least some of the Jews were well aware what the real purpose of the supposed showers was. It is hard to think that when they were confronted with the showers news of the reality didn’t spread among them like wildfire Nor does it explain the nakedness which was almost universally connected with the killings, as when Gnade made the male Jews strip naked before he made them crawl to their deaths. In Russia, as in the mass shootings at Babi Yar, Jews were regularly made to strip naked in front of the pits into which their dead bodies were to fall. How much longer and more complex this must have made the whole process. It is usually explained on the grounds that nakedness removed identity from the victims and made it easier for the soldiers to shoot them. But this is hardly cogent. Nakedness must have made them even more vulnerable and pitiable. It makes more sense to see the enforced. nakedness as a collective unspeakable act which was profoundly sexual.
This thesis explains, too, much of the apparently gratuitous degradation which accompanied the Holocaust. To justify their actions it was necessary for the Nazis to reduce their victims to the degraded beings it was claimed they were, and to emphasize their own superior humanity by contrasting it with the inferior evidence before their eyes. This was hardly a rational procedure. What it shows us, though, is that people whose behaviour has become highly algorithmic and compulsive are not swayed by reason but by vivid sense impressions and behavioral triggers, which is entirely in accord with the purely behavioral nature of algorithms. Every tabloid newspaper editor knows this. Primo Levi gives us a vivid description of how during the transport to Auschwitz the cattle trucks were stopped at mainline stations and the inmates forced to defecate in public on the lines like animals while the SS jeered and took photographs. The need to keep the Holocaust as secret as possible and the administrative inconvenience of disembarking and re-embarking the prisoners was over-ridden by the desire to render them less than human. The toilet regimes in concentration camps were deliberately organized so that the prisoners had no time to clean themselves after defecating. Look how like animals these people are. Dehumanization was the purpose of removing the prisoners’ names and giving them a new numerical identity.
The Holocaust was made up of many little things as well as big. Primo Levi’ describes how he and his co-workers must have appeared to bystanders. They are ridiculous and repugnant. Their cranium is bald on Monday, and covered by a short brownish mould by Saturday. They have a swollen and yellow face, marked permanently by the cuts made by the hasty barber, and often by bruises and numbed sores: necks are long and nobbly like that of plucked chickens. Their clothes are incredibly dirty, stained by mud, grease and blood. Kandel’s breeches only arrive half-way down his calves, showing his bony, hairy ankles: Levi’s own jacket runs off his shoulders as if off a wooden clothes-hanger. they are full of fleas and often scratch themselves shamelessly: they have to ask permission to go to the latrine with humiliating frequency. Their wooden shoes are insupportably noisy and are plastered with alternate layers of mud and regulation grease. ‘Besides which we smell’. The Nazi doctors at Auschwitz saw themselves not as doing anything immoral but, on the contrary, as stedfastly exercising high Darwinian virtue. It was the determination with which they overcame their natural feelings of pity that made them in their own eyes supremely moral and rationally human. High priests who had been appointed as guardians of a precious biological logos. But it was, in fact, so mad to believe that little Jewish tailors in Cracow or scientists in Leipzig whose fathers had been awarded the iron cross in the first world war were a major threat to Germany, we have to ask ourselves why so many, from university professors and doctors to the grocers and postmen of Hamburg who made up Unit 101, were so able to believe such a ludicrous fantasy and so willing to do terrible things in its name.
It is primatology which begins to give us an answer. If the Kasakela chimpanzees had been able to construct Auschwitz this is exactly what they would have done. What we have to learn is how easily we degenerate from the human condition into the chimpanzees that we so nearly are. But for every degeneration a preliminary mythologizing is required. Before all else we are beings with imaginations. How dangerous to us are sciences which treat us as if we were no more than purely biological entities, and religions that seek to enforce eternal salvation on us at all costs. Better to burn in this life than for ever in the next. Every atrocity, no matter how bestial, requires its mythical narrative, no matter how absurd, which will enable algorithmic instincts which have been inherited from pre-human stages of evolution to enter consciousness, so that first they can be imagined and then enacted. How ready we are to believe the most ludicrous ideas to justify our inhumane actions; the widespread belief among the industrialized nations that we are practising free trade in our commercial relations with the third world is just about as absurd as what the Nazi doctors believed. And how precious to us those works of civilization are which preserve and communicate to us the universal sympathy which is the peculiar and specific mark of the human.