The theft and then recovery of the famous sign at the entrance of Auschwitz-Arbeit macht frei, work will make you free-has brought that artifact of the Holocaust to international attention once again. Merely dismissing the sign as "cynical," few understand the meaning of the sign in context and its underlying implications for Jewish thought and Israel today.
At the time--and this was very clear in Eastern European towns like that of my grandparents in Poland-- Jews were used by the Germans for forced labor. While many were involved in road repair (an extremely important task during the war when highways were heavily used by the Nazis for military purposes), tree cutting, or other manual labor, others labored in their usual professions.
The Germans, of course, wanted to win the war, which they were waging, despite their victories, against difficult odds. Even after the French were defeated and the British retreated across the Channel, the combat was ferocious against the Soviets and the United Kingdom fought on. In pragmatic terms, the Germans needed Jewish labor. After all, too, they could hardly be receiving it under better circumstances. The Jews were not paid for the work, they were denied consumer goods, and their food rations were minimal.
In short, the German strategy toward the Jews-focusing on forced labor-made sense in pragmatic terms. And Western civilization is governed by pragmatism. One does what is beneficial to one's material self-interests. The German behavior made sense.
It was not hard to explain, for the overwhelming majority of the Jews under German occupation as well, the killings of Jews that they knew about. Here, it was a reprisal for Germans killed by partisans; there, it was a pure act of cruelty or the deeds of a sadistic officer. Or it could be perceived by the pragmatic German goal of keeping the Jews intimidated or to appeal to local anti-Semitic Christians themselves under occupation or actions against Jews who were known for anti-Nazi views.
Whatever it seems to those looking back from a time of much greater knowledge, this pragmatic understanding did make sense in terms of all past history (including Jewish history) and the events people knew about. True, Hitler had written about the extermination of the Jews but this was considered to be just ideology. In Western society, people had become cynical about ideology or at least of ideas that went against immediate self-interest. This was just rabble-rousing.
Thus, it could be expected that if Jews really did work hard and did not cause too much trouble, they would survive, at least the great majority, as had happened during so many previous persecutions. That was their life experience and their historical experience. Of course, it was richly supplemented by wishful thinking, sometimes a wishful thinking that promoted blindness to events that were clearly visible, but this line of reasoning gave an ample logical basis to that wishful thinking.
And so, work makes free. It was not just a sarcastic act of derision but an actual control measure. If the Jews believed they were in Auschwitz to work hard in exchange for their lives, they would be more docile and far easier to manage. The sentiment was meant to be taken seriously, and almost always, at least until late in the war, it was.
To understand all of this is of vital importance for historical reasons. The Jews who became victims were not just cowards or fools or sheep but people who often believed they were using their wits to survive once again a terrible but ultimately passing pogrom. No matter how much they were starved or mistreated, they could take the hunger and put up with the beatings with the confidence that one day this, too, would end. Of course, they often had no choice and they wanted to believe this, yet it was quite rational for them to do so, certainly before the middle of 1942.
At this point, I hesitate to continue. The analogy of the Holocaust has been too often used, and misused. Moreover, many will think that I gratuitously or lightly exaggerate what I'm about to say. But consider this explanation seriously and you will better understand our own era.
The key here is the Western obsession with pragmatism, the dismissal of ideology, and the wishful thinking that believes conflict can be negotiated away or at least whittled down to the tolerable level by patience and concession. These were also the fundamental ideas that motivated both most European Jews and the expectations of most Western leaders and observers regarding the treatment of the Jews during the war (and in many cases, German intentions before the war as well). This mode of thinking is still very much with us.
Thus, it is disbelieved that radical Islamists, and in many cases militant Arab nationalists or various others, really mean what they say. Instead, it is expected that they will act according to narrow and individual personal interests. They would rather be rich than right, or revolutionary. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, architect of Iran's Islamist revolution, derided this concept as thinking the revolution was made for the sake of lowering the price of watermelons.
Western deception and self-deception is also reinforced by the fact that the main contemporary experience in this regard has been with a tired and cynical Communism, long bereft of its revolutionary fire. It was well symbolized by a Soviet regime that was mainly interested in self-aggrandizement and staying in power. This was followed by the dealings with a Chinese Communist regime which seemed to be fanatically revolutionary but later settled down to making money and avoiding trouble abroad. The answer to Khomeini was the statement of Deng Xiaoping, the architect of that turn, who expressed the following view of ideology: "It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice." One can argue, with some justification, that after fifty years this has happened to Arab nationalism.
So, yes, revolutions do moderate, get tired, and settle down to redecorating with expensive furnishings. This is precisely the fate that the current Iranian regime is struggling to prevent for itself. Then there is the belief that the Supreme Being is guiding their steps. Then there is the belief of the Islamists-both pro- and anti-Iran ones--that they haven't been trying that long and will win eventually. And the belief that their enemies are weak and close to surrender while they have such secret weapons as suicide bombing and soon nuclear weapons.
While, then, it is easy to believe that they don't really mean what they say, that they would never do anything "anti-pragmatic" this is not likely to be true, at least not unless they are contained for many decades first. Or if they perceive they have failed or been defeated, which generally is nowhere near happening. Does Syria's regime prefer Western aid to an alliance with Iran? Will Iran be responsible in its use of nuclear weapons? Is Hamas or Hizballah eager to be moderate? Are the Palestinians on the verge of making peace with Israel? Can American dollars buy off the Taliban in Afghanistan?
The answer that appeals to most Western leaders and intellectuals to all these questions is "yes." After all, "they" must be just like "us" and it is allegedly arrogant or even racist to think otherwise. Needless to say, the Germans were much more like the Americans or British yet what happened did indeed happen. To put it bluntly, ideology and demagogic leadership turned the lovers of Mozart into the builders of Auschwitz.
It is easier, less painful, a much quicker solution that makes the problem go away. Underlying those thoughts, however, is the idea that they must not believe their own ideology and that they wouldn't do anything that went against their interests or material well-being.
Let me underline the point here. I am not saying that radical Islamists or Arab nationalists or those holding various other extreme ideologies today are "fascist" or "Nazi." That is simplistic, not credible, and misleading in its own way. They have their own history, world view, ideology, and goals. But they also have certain specific things in common: an ideology they really believe; profound genocidal hatred of others; readiness to sacrifice on behalf of these principles; and a profound belief they will win even though their enemies think this is ridiculous.
Of course, the Germans lost World War Two and their anti-pragmatism hastened that defeat. This, too, is worth keeping in mind. That is a factor to be used in the setting of strategy by democratic states and in the thinking of their people. Assuming they will act in the opposite way will not, however, strengthen that resistance.
Yet the greatest threat to the West of all is the mistaken belief that if we are really polite and avoid giving offense, that if we make concessions or work really hard we will be free of their threat. We have set up our own signs at the entrances to our universities and foreign ministries that are the precise equivalent of Arbeit macht frei.