Maybe it wasn't *that* beautiful...
March 1, 2006 5:36 PM   Subscribe

She was a female guard. At Ravensbruck. While she was having 'the most beautiful time of her life', women were suffering and dying. 'Blond beasts', indeed.
posted by ersatzkat (43 comments total)

 
Can you help me find the part where she says WHY it was the most beautiful time of her life? Perhaps I'm scanning too quickly. This is a fascinating post.
posted by snsranch at 5:57 PM on March 1, 2006


"Page 3 of 5", following the WaPo article link.
posted by ersatzkat at 6:03 PM on March 1, 2006


I meant to skim that first link quickly but got totally sucked in. Thanks for posting this.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 6:14 PM on March 1, 2006


It was my youth, you see, even if it wasn't much of a youth, and we didn't know the worst of what was going on. Truthfully -- we felt so free! The landscape was beautiful, the weather was heavenly."

This, I believe is all we need to know about this woman and those like her. It was too easy for them to look away and ignore the horror. May their crimes be recorded and live in memory forever.
posted by Flakypastry at 6:18 PM on March 1, 2006


When some friends and I decided to go to Oswiecim (Auswitch ) in Poland in the early 80's, one thing I remember through all the horror of the exhibits is that it was a truly beautiful early September day. Really, really nice weather. Very weird juxtaposition.
posted by telstar at 6:31 PM on March 1, 2006


The testimony of everyday German men and women who perpetrated Nazi horror has almost never come to light. Nazi leaders testified in their own postwar trials; a few wrote memoirs. Soldiers left diaries and letters that historians have since unearthed. But the vast majority of Nazi perpetrators -- the millions of low-level functionaries who did the daily, dirty work of genocide -- took their stories with them to the grave. Few divulged their pasts, even to their own families.

Intresting.
posted by delmoi at 6:35 PM on March 1, 2006


A more ordinary girl from a more typical German family can hardly be imagined. Her household was neither ardently Nazi nor resolutely opposed. Her father, a left-leaning miner, refused to hang the Nazi banner, while her mother, devout and authoritarian, quietly placed little swastika flags in the flowerpots.

WEIRD.
posted by delmoi at 6:37 PM on March 1, 2006


"This, I believe is all we need to know about this woman and those like her. It was too easy for them to look away and ignore the horror. May their crimes be recorded and live in memory forever."

Yes, it is so easy to stand up to an entire nation. That would explain why slavery was ended so quickly, and the civil rights process was so simple.

I won't defend her, but I don't think I have, or ever will, earn the right to condemn her.
posted by QuarterlyProphet at 6:49 PM on March 1, 2006


Yes, it is so easy to stand up to an entire nation.

She didn't have to. As the historian said later in the article, there were numerous occasions where she could have found reasons to quit and didn't. At one point, they actually told her to leave, and she still didn't. Could she have been expected to kick the first SS man she saw in the balls? Probably not. But she could have done a little, in her own way, without any personal risk, just a loss of privilege. And she chose not to.
posted by unreason at 6:56 PM on March 1, 2006


You're right, and I won't attempt to explain or defend that. I was just a bit miffed at the insta-damn the previous poster laid on.
posted by QuarterlyProphet at 6:59 PM on March 1, 2006


QuarterlyProphet, no need to go so far in the past to look for examples. Here's one that's quite current. Now, unreason, explain to me how you are standing up to that one.
posted by telstar at 7:13 PM on March 1, 2006


Now, unreason, explain to me how you are standing up to that one.
posted by telstar at 10:13 PM EST on March 1 [!]


I beg your pardon? Are you honestly comparing the "war on drugs" to the Holocaust? As to what I'm doing, I'm voting for and donating money to programs that focus on drug rehab rather than imprisonment. Do I meet with your approval now? Am I now allowed to criticize a woman who helped kill people like so many in my family, who died in the Holocaust? This prison guard didn't even have to do anything. She just had to accept a job without so many perks. And she chose to keep the job. When she smelled the smell of burning flesh, her reaction was not one of horror, but of disgust, and she just shut the window so that she wouldn't have to smell it. That says everything. Don't give up your cushy position. Don't feel bad. Just forget it's happening and enjoy yourself.
posted by unreason at 7:26 PM on March 1, 2006


Quote from the very end of the article:

It's one of many recent studies concluding that most of those who participated in the genocide were neither National Socialist zealots nor sociopaths, but average people who slipped, bit by bit, into evil. Virtually all the battalion's members, he says, considered what they were doing normal. It was simply a job -- unpleasant, sometimes upsetting, but ultimately necessary and unavoidable. "Very, very rarely do you have any evidence that any of these people felt they had done anything wrong," he told an audience in Berlin recently.

The key to understanding this behavior, says Welzer, is to realize that under the Third Reich, a gradual process of exclusion took place. By the time war broke out, the perception of the "other," primarily Jews, as a threat to the majority had become so pervasive that otherwise moral people accepted their "duty" to do whatever was required to protect their community.


At the risk of hitting everyone over the head with an anvil, its hard not to see the connection with current events -- the guards and soldiers at Abu Ghraib who felt that "It was simply a job -- unpleasant, sometimes upsetting, but ultimately necessary and unavoidable. " The ongoing perception of 'The Other" as a threat to the majority. The idea that otherwise moral people would be silent or even participate on the grounds that they are "protecting their community".

As much as I hate to say it, I have a lot of ... well, empathy, I guess ... for Frau Barthel. There but for the grace of god go many people I know. She's 21. She has, at best, a rudimentary education. The Nazi's took power when she was 8, so for the past 13 years -- more than half her life, and all her formative years -- she's been told that The Other is The Devil, full of danger, who must be destroyed. She's been raised in a culture that values conformity, uniformity, and is, for the first time in her life away from her parents. None of us are fit to judge her.

You and I both know that there are otherwise normal seeming young women in the US today who would do what Frau Barthel did. (Does anyone else here remember the post about the Fast Food Employee who was forced (by a series of other employees) to strip and otherwise humiliate herself based on instructions from a man on the phone who claimed to be a police officer?)

Its a hard thing. In the end, she will live and die with her own memories of what happened, and even if she does not outwardly show that she feels guilt, who knows what dark thoughts stay with her late at night.

Excellent first post, ersatzkat. Thanks for sharing it.
posted by anastasiav at 7:42 PM on March 1, 2006


Actually, I have earned the right to condemn her, through years of stories from grandparents with numbers stamped on their arms. And through pictures of family that were murdered in the death camps.
posted by Flakypastry at 7:47 PM on March 1, 2006


Yes, but the burning question is: would you hit it?
posted by nlindstrom at 7:56 PM on March 1, 2006


Yes, but the burning question is: would you hit it?
posted by nlindstrom at 7:56 PM on March 1, 2006


If we don't have the right to condemn others for this (lack of) action, then how are we to ensure it doesn't happen again? I read this article hoping to find SOME attempt at redemption - the quotes I read were self-serving, selfish, and showed a complete contempt for the reality of the women behind the barbed wire: witness her reaction to the knowledge that humans were being killed, incinerated, and their ashes dumped in the lake:

"I told Leni, and we were horrified; we said to ourselves, 'Thank God we never swam there.'"

This woman does not deserve pity, or empathy - she deserves scorn and contempt in turn:

"Margarete Barthel -- like most -- chose to remain a guard out of fear and opportunism; there is little evidence that her own conscience troubled her that much at the time."
posted by aberrant at 8:00 PM on March 1, 2006


Could you please stop using the "blond beast" quote out of context? Even a futile attempt to be clever serves to reinforce this widespread (and utterly asinine) take on that line.
posted by joe lisboa at 8:01 PM on March 1, 2006


Yup, I am indeed comparing the Holocaust to the War on Drugs. After reading the last link (blond beasts) I see little difference in how the US has passed myriad laws to insure that one segment of society (drug users) has been villified and legislated against, allowing hugely profitable fascist forces to gain a toehold for slave-type labor profitability (private prison labor). Thank you for voting for rehab instead of prison. But, alas, it's only a scratch on the surface. Cronkite doesn't go nearly far enough in describing the decades of destruction visited on the cities as a true "war" (with real guns and real black-suited fascists) grinds on around them.

How do I make my connection between the two? My grandfather was in the Nazi army and fought in France. (He walked home to southern Germany after his unit broke up under numerous attacks.) We on the other side of the experience may be a bit more sensitive to what we see as parallels to a history that we don't want to see repeated. And that's the way it is.
posted by telstar at 8:03 PM on March 1, 2006


Definitely a difficult piece to read because it doesnt fit into such an easy good versus evil. She didnt turn any screws. She looked the other way. One gets the sense that in more ordinary circumstances, she would have just been another girl, having fun with friends, meeting boys, settling down to a quiet life. In reading the article, there was a part of me that wanted her to be "more evil" because I dont want to believe that an otherwise average person can stand by while the scent of human flesh wafts through the air.

I kinda felt as anastiav did. That is, that I know people who might have acted and behaved as she did. I hate that I believe thats true and yet I do. And I dont think it says anything in particular about the people I know or about Barthel but about the unknowable range of human nature. I mean I also know people who I am sure would have tried to smuggle prisoners out at the risk of their own lives.

We can all condemn her, Flakypastry, because the people dying around us were our fellow humans, innocent people, regardless of whether they were also our grandmothers. I think what anastasiav means is that, deep deep down in our hearts, can we be sure we wouldnt act as her when placed in the same situation? How can we ever know unless we ourselves are tested? We can all agree she failed the test spectacularly but is it so clear who would fail and who would pass?
posted by vacapinta at 8:04 PM on March 1, 2006


Vacapinta, it is difficult for us to know the weaknesses of others, but I am sorry for you if you do not know whether you would pass that test.
posted by aberrant at 8:08 PM on March 1, 2006


Exactly, aberrant. I saw the same self-serving, obtuse lack of insight. Irrespective of whether I have a notional right to condemn her, I was so sickened I could hardly finish the article.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:10 PM on March 1, 2006


I have no sympathy for her, however she doesn't seem to be seeking sympathy. The way she describes herself as a youth and the inconsistencies in her story make me think she really did delude herself into thinking things weren't as bad as they were. Overall I think she comes off as self-centered.
posted by obol at 8:32 PM on March 1, 2006


Excellent post. I think it's important for people to be continually reminded that much evil in the world is not brought about solely by villains, but by normal people who chose to do the easy thing as opposed to the right thing.
posted by justkevin at 8:35 PM on March 1, 2006


Where Are the Good Americans?
posted by muckster at 8:40 PM on March 1, 2006


Vacapinta, it is difficult for us to know the weaknesses of others, but I am sorry for you if you do not know whether you would pass that test.

Fair enough. In reality, I believe I am as sure as myself as you are. In practice, I kind of made it a vow to never stop questioning myself.
posted by vacapinta at 8:43 PM on March 1, 2006


anastasiav, I am impressed by your understanding. Also, it was a less informed time, in the media, and in the schoolhouse. This article begs for a pile-on, but its wise to investigate self-delusion, it inhabits most of us. To some extent its necessary to remain sane. But when it infringes on others it becomes evil. What is Abu if not a prison camp, where a trial never happens?
posted by uni verse at 9:34 PM on March 1, 2006


I'm glad she came forward and talked about what she did, and is open about her ignorance, willful (as looks likely) or not. Think about the hundreds of thousands of others who never did.

It reminds me of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, in that the message seems to be that there will be no justice, but there might at least be some understanding of the cause.
posted by atchafalaya at 9:36 PM on March 1, 2006


"Each one of the 110 respondents sees himself disobeying the experimenter at some point during the command series ... These subjects see their reactions flowing from empathy, compassion, and a sense of justice. They enunciate a conception of what is desirable and assume that action follows accordingly. But they show little insight into the web of forces that operate in a real social situation." -Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority

Milgram's experimental results showed that well over half of his subjects would obey and proceed to the end of the series- effectively choosing to kill a man in a painful manner rather than disobey.

Mrs. Barthel, to be sure, deserves the condemnation that is given to her. To view her with contempt, however, is to greatly underestimate our own falliability. I think that vacapinta's thoughts about personal vigilance form the most valuable lesson that can be learned from this sort of story.
posted by monocyte at 9:39 PM on March 1, 2006


WHY it was the most beautiful time of her life?

Also, the after-war experience was not particularly agreeable one in Germany or in many of the allied countries.
posted by pwedza at 10:23 PM on March 1, 2006


Hannah Arendt and "the banality of evil".

Well, I don't feel right condemning her the same as the worst of the perpetrators. Most of the German populace was caught up in a massive, sick Milgram experiment, and the penance of living with that for the rest of their lives is, one would hope in a just world, enough. Thus I can feel some empathy for her tale and her belated awareness.

At the same time I can use Arendt's metric of self-reflection and self-judgement and say that she did fall quite short, still. It's only a beginning to understand what you were caught up in. I don't think that by any means she achieved anything close to "righteous gentile" -- which might be the standard I would apply to anyone asking to have their cremains join those already in the lake.

What I can say is that the cruelty of denying her what she honestly believes is an act of apology, when it cannot possibly be anything sufficient, is the last appropriate punishment -- the last call for self-reflection.
posted by dhartung at 11:28 PM on March 1, 2006


Telstar,
I have to assume your Holocaust/War on Drugs "thing" (I don't know what else to call it; it's certainly not an argument) is a bit of personal hobby horse rhetorical silliness and not intended to offend.

But - more generally - I find it impossible to extend empathy to this woman when that is the most significant non-heroic yet crucial human quality she lacked - and which torpedoes her sly 'run-of-the-mill, just an ordinary German trying to get by at the time, oh I was so young' excuse.

The quote aberrant pulled - about the woman's fastidious shudder at the mere thought of swimming among dissolved human ash - is the detail that got me too.

It's as though she's still not making some vital human connection.

Still, I am glad she was treated gently enough to give us her "testimony". I'm certainly not sure I could have mildly coaxed her memories.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 5:55 AM on March 2, 2006


I think the thing that scares me more than anything in this is having read enough cognitive and social psychology to recognize that just about any person in this discussion might be willing to do exactly the same thing if placed into such a groupthink situation. I've pretty much lost my faith in the concept of individual moral free will.

I'd like to believe that making independent moral thought into a virtue is enough to counteract this, but I suspect that it's not.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:29 AM on March 2, 2006


KirkJobSluder, nice weasel words there: "just about any" person "might be willing". What exactly are you trying to say? Why not come up with some hard numbers and stick to them? Why not name names?

Oh, you can't. So you make some vague assumptions based on some knowledge you have about historic groupthink and mob mentalities and you water your statement down with enough ambiguity that you're able to preserve your original point while saying nothing that can be substantiated.

Sorry if this sounds harsh, but it's exactly what I despise about analysis like this.
posted by aberrant at 9:02 AM on March 2, 2006


aberrant: KirkJobSluder, nice weasel words there: "just about any" person "might be willing". What exactly are you trying to say? Why not come up with some hard numbers and stick to them? Why not name names?

Well, that's the nature of psychology as a science. If you want actual numbers, Milgram found that over half of the people involved would follow orders to the end.

I don't think my assumptions are all that vague. My belief after having read and seen far too much evidence to justify a belief otherwise, is that "free will" is a myth. The fantasy that one would engage in moral disobedience and run off to join the resistance is just a fantasy. If it is possible for a genocidal authoritarian regime to be built around your ideology and beliefs, I'd consider it a safe bet that you would guard the gas chambers if so ordered.

Which from my point of view, means that it is critically important to nip these kinds of authoritarianism in the bud.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:44 AM on March 2, 2006


aberrant, did you read the Nation article I linked upthread? This matter is not purely hypothetical. If you're American, people are being murdered and illegally tortured in your name right now--while we pontificate about what we would have done.

I'm German, so I've been wondering about these questions for a long time, and I certainly come down on the side of vacapinta, monocyte, and KirkJobSluder: none of us can claim we'd do any different. If there's anything to be learned from the Holocaust, it's that we have to be on guard about our own complicity always. It's like Pynchon said: the Man has a branch office in all of our heads.

And it's not just the torture. Chances are, coming generations are going to condemn us for our inaction re: global warming. We knew, yet we did very little.
posted by muckster at 10:10 AM on March 2, 2006


And I know that the above statements are going to displease and piss off many of the people reading here. I would hope that most of the people reading here would have strong moral commitments and an ornery streak a mile wide which would help mitigate tendencies towards conformity and obedience.

Still, the fact remains that most people are sheep, including many people who believe they are goats. No amount of outrage is going to make this problem go away.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:10 AM on March 2, 2006


“If you're American, people are being murdered and illegally tortured in your name right now--while we pontificate about what we would have done.”

Indeed. Some of us are busting ass on that - right now. But this isn’t about a citizen, this is about a person who was actively participating.

“No amount of outrage is going to make this problem go away.”
True, you can get further with a kind word - and a gun - than you can with just a kind word.
(yes, that’s a lighthearted metaphor - but I’m in earnest about the use of force)

I know someone who was at Bergen-Belsen as a child. As someone who excels at mayhem myself, I’d rather die than participate in guarding a death camp. I’d much rather take some of the bastards with me.
Life is wonderful, but it isn’t that precious in comparison. But that’s me. I’ve had a trial by fire. Passed mine. But I’m not unsympathetic to the issues raised by the Milgram experiment. There’s always another trial and I might fail that one. Which is why I spare myself no room in these matters. I can’t speak for someone else, I understand her position. There are always “shoulds.” Coming forward shows more contrition than those who didn’t. But I can’t empathize with her.

“Even when police were explicitly excused from the mass slaughter of Jews, without adverse consequences, no more than 10 of 400 refused to shoot. "You realize with horror," he says, "that it was easier to decide to participate in mass murder than to break away from the dominant group."”

There is always an interest to have the aims and interests of power supercede humanity. That line is often ambiguous, but there are certain acts which are manifestly inhuman. Torture comes to mind. There is a debate there, but not for me. I would never do it and I would vigorously oppose anyone who would.
I realize that not everyone would. I also understand that the average person has a hard time “breaking away from the dominant group.”

But you know what? That’s why they’re fucking average people.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:24 AM on March 2, 2006


Muckster says: "I'm German, so I've been wondering about these questions for a long time, and I certainly come down on the side of vacapinta, monocyte, and KirkJobSluder: none of us can claim we'd do any different."

I give you the obvious truth here: none of us can be certain our best intentions would survive groupthink and our own muddled hopes for survival at that particular time.

However our lonely lady of the camp doesn't fit my idea of someone who has come to soberly revevaluate her part in the horror at all.

I hope I can plausibly claim I would at least be different from her in that respect - given 60 years to think about it.

Never mind the self-serving memory "slips", she's still stuck on finding a a nicely elastic definition of "innocent" that comfortably fits her.

When she says she'd still like to find surviving fellow guards - I wonder what sort of chat she imagines them all having behind closed doors? More furtively selective snapshots from a "wonderful" time in their lives, perhaps?
posted by Jody Tresidder at 11:13 AM on March 2, 2006


The trouble with making the decision to resist as an individual is the knowledge that most people don't believe they can make a difference. That's why soldiers are trained to obey orders without question. We don't want them deciding on their own that there is no point in taking the hill. We don't want them deciding not to give their lives until they find something meaningful to do. We want them to trust our officers and follow their orders.

Yet we still ask them to retain enough humanity to be able to pull back and not slaughter surrendering prisoners, not to do things to facilitate criminal actions.

I do not want to forgive this woman, yet I cannot completely condemn her. At least she has enough bravery to face up to where she was and admit something of what she did. She has learned about what happened and has sympathy for the victims. Asking for forgiveness is far more than most of her generation have done.

I don't think that I always stand up against injustice when it is directed against others. I am not ready to risk giving up my life to possibly save others. I admit to being somewhat of a coward in that regard. I have stuck up for friends in the past when they were unfairly accused. I have tried to intervene in some situations online when people have made hateful speech. But I am not ready to give up my life to protect strangers' lives. I tell myself that I have a duty to protect the interests of my family and can't afford to make such a move.

Still, I'd like to think that when a real challenge comes where I can make a difference, I would make the right choice. I would probably let the moment pass while thinking about it. Many of the people who make a difference go ahead because there is a moment when there is simply nothing else they can do. Others wait for their chances and never find them, thinking that as long as they have never done anything themselves, they are not as completely to blame.

Would that the choices were always so clear.
posted by notmtwain at 11:25 AM on March 2, 2006


If you're American, people are being murdered and illegally tortured in your name right now--while we pontificate about what we would have done.

Anyone can say they're doing something "in my name", and there's nothing I can do to control that, especially when they've got more gold and guns than I do.

However, there's a line between accepting that reality and actively participating in it (and refusing to abandon it given the opportunity), which is the line that this monster crossed. That she refuses to take responsibility for her actions 60 years later, and despite the overwhelming evidence that she participated (or at least knew of) the genocide is what gives me the moral right to condemn her for her actions.
posted by aberrant at 4:40 PM on March 2, 2006


Anyone can say they're doing something "in my name", and there's nothing I can do to control that, especially when they've got more gold and guns than I do.
She can say the same thing that you do. The Nazi's did indeed have more gold and guns than she did. You would have walked west into the advancing American army?
posted by notmtwain at 5:51 AM on March 3, 2006


notmtwain, please read my next paragraph. I think that explains the difference.
posted by aberrant at 9:22 AM on March 4, 2006


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