Monday, June 07, 2010

The Nuremberg Trial: Lessons for Engineers, and Everyone Else

In today's overheated political rhetoric, the word "Nazi" tends to turn up whenever someone wants to compare an act or person to ultimate evil. Though the term is in danger of becoming meaningless through overuse, the reality of Nazi Germany represented the unimaginable in wrongdoing at the time the fullness of its horrors became generally known after World War II. The extraordinary judicial proceeding by which the world learned in abundant detail of the Holocaust and related crimes against humanity was called the Nuremberg Trial, after the German city in which it was held. Lasting almost a year (from November 1945 to September 1946), this trial brought to justice some twenty-one former leaders of the Third Reich, ranging from Luftwaffe chief and Hitler right-hand man Hermann Goering to armaments and war production head Albert Speer. Judges and prosecutors of the Allied Powers (England, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union) took thousands of pages of testimony, called hundreds of witnesses, examined tons of documents, and issued verdicts that condemned most, but not all, of the defendents to be hanged. The lesson I learned from recently reading a one-volume history of the proceedings is that, although the Nazi regime was a unique chapter in history, the motivations and causes for many of their heinous acts are still with us. And advances in technology mean that the same things the Nazis did crudely and inefficiently then can be done elegantly and efficiently today.

Evil does not always follow logic, but the actions of Hitler's government often followed logically from a few (wrong) premises. One detestable premise was that Jews were human vermin whose extermination was necessary before Germany could be racially purified for its alleged glorious future. Therefore, the efficient killing of Jews and other undesirable elements was a legitimate engineering goal. So German engineers experimented first with mobile execution units that used carbon monoxide in the engine's exhaust to kill a truckload of people in ten to fifteen minutes. When this method proved too slow and erratic, the famous gas chambers were designed and built so that hundreds of people packed into a space not much larger than a living room could be killed without fail inside half an hour.

Jews were not the only undesirables destined for gas chambers. Anyone whose existence imposed an economic burden on the State was a candidate for at least a concentration camp, and ultimately execution. One of the early signs of these horrors noticed by Catholic clergy during World War II was that many parishoners who had elderly or disabled relatives in rest homes and hospitals began getting messages from the government saying in effect: "Dear Blank, This is to inform you that So-and-So was recently moved to a new hospital, whereupon he contracted pneumonia and died." And the bodies were always cremated "for sanitary reasons." While the regime did not allow investigation of these reports at the time, it turned out that a plan was being implemented to move "unproductives" out of their existing care facilities to the gas chambers. In this way thousands of mentally and physically disabled citizens of the Third Reich ceased to be a burden to their fellow citizens, and in the Nazi mind contributed thereby to the wellbeing of the State.

Another charge well supported by the evidence was that "doctors" performed experiments on prisoners, not only without their consent, but with flagrant disregard for elementary standards of decency, medical ethics, or safety. People were boiled or frozen in water tanks, injected with scarlet-fever germs, had air injected into their veins, and were sterilized by hidden X-ray machines without their consent. All these things were permissible once the "doctors" made the mental transition to objectify their subjects: the prisoners were no longer human beings like their torturers, but only raw material for scientific investigation.

What are the lessons for today? I can think of three without even trying hard.

One, is that the modern state of Israel was formed largely as a way for the community of nations to apologize to the Jews for what happened to them in World War II. In Albert Speer's phrase, "No apologies are possible," but the creation of a free and independent Israel after two thousand years of exile for the Jews marked one of the bright spots in an otherwise tarnished century. There are now nations and organizations whose stated official policy is the eradication, not only of the Jewish state, but of Jews too. We have seen this before. And we have seen what it leads to. And if we haven't learned from the most horrendous chapter in the history of the twentieth century to oppose not only antisemitism wherever it is found, but organizations and states which foster it, then we are shirking our responsibility to God's special people, the Jews. The recent actions of the present U. S. administration towards Israel are not encouraging in this regard, to say the least.

Two, is that doing away with human lives that are a burden, or inconvenient, or economically unproductive, was heinous when the Nazis did it, and is just as heinous today. Abortion has been unfortunately legal in the U. S. since 1973, and euthanasia is now legal in some U. S. states. Both of these things treat human beings as inconveniences to be disposed of if they do not meet certain criteria. That is exactly what the Nazis did, and if it was wrong then, it is wrong now.

Three, the use of human embryos for research purposes is just as objectifying an action as that of a Nazi "doctor" who treated a young Jewish woman like a guinea pig to be experimented upon at his pleasure. A human embryo is just as human as you are or I am. We were both embryos at first, and until recently, the younger a person was, the more he or she was entitled to respect, compassion, and protection. The reversal by the present administration of former President George W. Bush's policy against the use of federal funds for human embryo research is a step in the direction of objectifying human beings. And the example of Nazi Germany showed us where that leads.

Sources: The book I read was The Nuremberg Trial by Joe J. Heydecker and Johannes Leeb, tr. R. A. Downie (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975). Defendant Albert Speer's closing statement before he was sentenced to twenty years of imprisonment showed a prescient insight into how technology enabled many of the Nazi horrors and threatened to allow even worse in the future (pp. 369-370): "In five or ten years' time the technique of war will have made it possible to fire rockets from continent to continent with uncanny precision. An atomic rocket, operated perhaps by only ten men, may be able to destroy a million people in the center of New York within seconds. . . . [T]his Trial must be a contribution toward preventing wars in the future and in laying down the fundamental laws of human existence. What does my fate matter, after all that has happened?"

1 comment:

  1. I think there's a point in here that's been sort of glossed over, which struck me as odd. You wrote: "So German engineers experimented first with mobile execution units that used carbon monoxide in the engine's exhaust to kill a truckload of people in ten to fifteen minutes." You sort of mentioned the engineers but then left them out of the final analysis. Is there a reason? What were these engineers doing? How have we learned and improved today?

    I ask because I'm more a fan of Hannah Arendt's and Herbert Marcuse's interpretation of what happened with the Jews during WWII. Arendt would say that the final solution wasn't evil at all, but the perfect application of people who failed to think critically (i.e. morally) about their actions. Not out of malice, but simply because they didn't want to think.

    Marcuse (and other members of his school of philosophy) would probably say that the final solution was the perfectly rational end of the sort of empiricism and rationality that had been building since the 17th century. Without science and engineering there would have been no way to do what the Germans did: no transportation system to move Jews, no camps, no gas chambers.

    I was expecting a different set of lessons that we might learn from this, perhaps to compliment yours:

    1) The unthinking action that produced the final solution may still be with us. It doesn't take a large group of people hell-bent on destruction and death: it only takes a small group of them and a larger group of people willing to go along with it. Corollary: it doesn't take evil engineers to make some incredibly terrible, deadly things that on a moral analysis may be bankrupt and insane, i.e. atomic and biological weapons, environmentally catastrophic products and methods, military weaponry, etc.

    2) Engineers inherit a massive past that is at times wonderful, challenging, spectacular, farsighted, troubling, nearsighted, and perhaps even evil. To deny the complexity (and the role of engineers in other systems of power) is to repeat these mistakes. Sometimes it might have been better if engineers stayed out of something. Sometimes it would have been better if they had gotten involved in other ways (politically, perhaps).

    I'm sure there are other things to pull from this, of course. I'm just wondering if engineers really have evolved to move beyond the thought patterns (or perhaps more apropos, the lack thereof) that allowed what happened to happen.