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Chris Hedges: How Careerism Is a Big Part of Our Social Predicament

The greatest crimes of human history are made possible by people with the blandest occupations.

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Gitta Sereny makes the same point in her book “Into That Darkness,” about Franz Stangl, the commandant of  Treblinka. The assignment to the  SSwas a promotion for the Austrian policeman. Stangl was not a sadist. He was soft-spoken and polite. He loved his wife and children very much. Unlike most Nazi camp officers, he did not take Jewish women as concubines. He was efficient and highly organized. He took pride in having received an official commendation as the “best camp commander in Poland.” Prisoners were simply objects. Goods. “That was my profession,” he said. “I enjoyed it. It fulfilled me. And yes, I was ambitious about that, I won’t deny it.” When Sereny asked Stangl how as a father he could kill children, he answered that he “rarely saw them as individuals. It was always a huge mass. … [T]hey were naked, packed together, running, being driven with whips. …” He later told Sereny that when he read about lemmings it reminded him of Treblinka.

Christopher Browning’s collection of essays, “The Path to Genocide,” notes that it was the “moderate,” “normal” bureaucrats, not the zealots, who made the Holocaust possible. Germaine Tillion pointed out “the tragic easiness [during the Holocaust] with which ‘decent’ people could become the most callous executioners without seeming to notice what was happening to them.” The Russian novelist Vasily Grossman in his book “Forever Flowing” observed that “the new state did not require holy apostles, fanatic, inspired builders, faithful, devout disciples. The new state did not even require servants—just clerks.”

“The most nauseating type of S.S. were to me personally the cynics who no longer genuinely believed in their cause, but went on collecting blood guilt for its own sake,” wrote Dr. Ella Lingens-Reiner in “Prisoners of Fear,” her searing memoir of Auschwitz. “Those cynics were not always brutal to the prisoners, their behavior changed with their mood. They took nothing seriously—neither themselves nor their cause, neither us nor our situation. One of the worst among them was  Dr. Mengele, the Camp Doctor I have mentioned before. When a batch of newly arrived Jews was being classified into those fit for work and those fit for death, he would whistle a melody and rhythmically jerk his thumb over his right or his left shoulder—which meant ‘gas’ or ‘work.’ He thought conditions in the camp rotten, and even did a few things to improve them, but at the same time he committed murder callously, without any qualms.”

These armies of bureaucrats serve a corporate system that will quite literally kill us. They are as cold and disconnected as Mengele. They carry out minute tasks. They are docile. Compliant. They obey. They find their self-worth in the prestige and power of the corporation, in the status of their positions and in their career promotions. They assure themselves of their own goodness through their private acts as husbands, wives, mothers and fathers. They sit on school boards. They go to Rotary. They attend church. It is moral schizophrenia. They erect walls to create an isolated consciousness. They make the lethal goals of ExxonMobil or Goldman Sachs or Raytheon or insurance companies possible. They destroy the ecosystem, the economy and the body politic and turn workingmen and -women into impoverished serfs. They feel nothing. Metaphysical naiveté always ends in murder. It fragments the world. Little acts of kindness and charity mask the monstrous evil they abet. And the system rolls forward. The polar ice caps melt. The droughts rage over cropland. The drones deliver death from the sky. The state moves inexorably forward to place us in chains. The sick die. The poor starve. The prisons fill. And the careerist, plodding forward, does his or her job.

 
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