“They seem nice and handsome and educated. They worked. And rested. And worked again.”
This description was found in the film Ordinary Fascism by Mikhail Romm. He was describing the German soldiers who were fighting on the Eastern Front during the Great Pattriotic War. While using these descriptors, Romm inserted into his film images that alternated between these images that showed German men fitting these descriptors and the work they were doing. Half was of these images of them at work, carrying out of the greatest moral failing of this or possibly any other century: the Holocaust. Watching this made me feel a lot of things and reminded me of a lot of things that I had learned about the Holocaust in the past, but for some reason one thing in particular stuck out to me that for some reason had never hit home as hard before. Romm’s presentation of the Holocaust helped me realize just how casual it all was. The greatest mass murder in our times was carried out by these young men who were also capable of acting their age. Looking at other sources provided also really emphasized to me the kind of lack of gravitas it appeared to be given by those involved.
While watching Romm’s film, there were numerous examples of how casual the entire event was for those who carried it out. Romm noted how soldiers carried pictures around with them of the great atrocities. Sometimes they included themselves in these photos. One image in particular that struck me was one where a German soldier was standing smiling in the foreground while in the background there was a woman dangling with a rope around her neck. The soldier’s smile, a look of innocence, disturbed me more then the body. Romm noted how the campaign to kill the Jews dehumanized its victims, but those who carried out these atrocities were as well. That soldier, whose smile seemed to not have a care in the world, was just one example of that. Another moment of note was a clip a group of German men playing in a river, obviously during of period of relaxation. One could not help but think of it as a time to relax and enjoy oneself before heading back to do the work. It made me think of them as just taking a few hours off after a long days work, enjoying time with friends, something we all enjoy having after work or school. The footage of them playing in the river made it seem as if this was everyday for them, that they would go from the camps to the river. The casualness of it all was striking. The title of Romm’s film was what really hit home. He entitled it Ordinary Fascism, pointing to how normal it was for the people involved. This normalcy, this attitude of treating these atrocities like a days work, was most disturbing of all.
The orders from Heinrich Himmler entitled “Order for the Liquidation of the Ghettos of Ostland” also emphasized to me how casual the system was. His order for sending the Jews of Ostland to the camps was not an elaborate one, but instead a simple 6 step order. He told his subordinates to destroy the ghettos, to send their residents to camps, and to not let people in the camps out of them for work for any reason. Reading it almost felt like reading an order to move troops to another city or orders for the building of a new barracks or command post. It was shocking to see human life treated with such casualness and lack of meaning, even in one as brutal as the Great Patriotic War.
Watching Ordinary Fascism and reading Himmler’s orders was a stunning reminder of how normal it was to those who carried out the Holocaust. To them, it was a job, it was something they were ordered to do. As Romm pointed out in the quote above, they seemed like nice, handsome young men who woke up every morning and went about carrying out the work they were ordered to do. They were following orders. And maybe to them, who were they to say no. To them, it was just part of the job. That is the most disturbing thing of all. They were so dehumanized, so distant from what they were doing that they were just orders from those above. It was ordinary. And they did it with a smile.
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