Gospel & Universe
Hitler's Perfect World
This page applies Voltaire's view of evil to a visit my wife and I made to Auschwitz and Berlin.
The Best of All Possible Worlds - Pilgrimage to Birkenau - Berlin Underground
The Best of All Possible Worlds
In Candide (1759), Voltaire's titular hero is constantly told by Pangloss (who glosses everything bad into something good) that no matter what happens, we live in the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire uses Pangloss' notion to parody the optimism of the German philosopher Leibniz, who coined the term theodicy to describe the problem of evil in a world that most theists believe is created and controlled by a merciful, all-powerful God. Leibniz' philosophy is complex (see https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/leibniz-evil/ for a contextualized discussion of it) yet Voltaire boils it down to a quasi-mystical attempt to assert optimism over common sense. Voltaire's attack on the stupidities of 18th century Europe put him in the company of Montesquieu and Swift, yet his purpose is more focused: he simply can't accept the notion that misfortune or horror can be explained away in religious or philosophic terms.
Pangloss' concept of optimism may seem absurd (at least this is Voltaire's satiric argument) yet it isn't all that uncommon. Variants of it operate on personal, mundane levels and also on general, historical levels. On the mundane level, it can be used to give an individual life meaning: everything that happened was meant to happen, was meant to lead to the present moment in an individual's life:
Pangloss would often say to Candide, "All events are linked together in the best of possible worlds; for, after all, if you hadn't been driven from a fine castle because of your love for Miss Cunégonde; if you hadn’t been sent before the Inquisition; if you hadn’t traveled across America on foot; if you hadn’t given a good sword thrust to the baron; if you hadn’t lost all your sheep from the good land of Eldorado; you wouldn’t be sitting here eating candied citron and pistachios."
The power of Candide doesn't lie so much in his parody of Leibniz, but in Voltaire's combination of comic personal optimism and tragic international historical events -- both used to parody the type of optimism that tempts people to apply the five words, it was meant to be, to tragic and horrific things like the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.
Voltaire, however, never heard of Hitler and the 50 million dead in World War Two. He never imagined that a German leader would try to wipe out an entire race and build death camps like the ones at Auschwitz and Birkenau.
Pilgrimage to Birkenau
I start the day at 6:45 with eggs and pancetta. That is, with unborn chickens and thick, sweaty rinds of pork. I call it pork to make myself forget it's pig meat. Like beef instead of cow. Schwein! I smile grimly to myself: we're all sinners. I must resist the temptation to pick up a field of stones. Wryly, I sip from a wine glass filled with Monster energy drink.
I imagine the engines starting up in the cold dawn on a field near Kursk. 25 million Russians caught in the whirling blades of the swastika. Treblinka, Cambodia, centuries of African slavery. I try to keep a sense of perspective, but this only magnifies the enormity.
My wife and I are picked up at ten to eight. I refuse to compare this with round-ups, or bodies thrown into trucks.
They show a video in the mini-bus: a Russian cameraman opens the eye of the world as he enters the camps in January 1945. A voice explains that the Russians later made a film to recast their 'glorious liberation,' which was nothing like the original scene, where the inmates were too weak to talk, their heads empty of meaning.
We have two and a half hours to wander through the buildings in Auschwitz I.
The rooms are full of tins and shoes, photos of taut faces and sunken eyes. There's also a glass case full of tiny shoes. Tiny shoes and a broken doll. And photos.
I take it all in stride, until I get to the gas chamber. I've seen something like this in films before, and it made for dramatic horror. Now the room's bare, bereft of drama. Cold cement. Black tubes run along the walls.
We're driven to nearby Auschwitz II -- Birkenau.
I try to grasp the enormity of the wide open field with its rubble and chimneys stretching almost as far as the eye can see.
In the distance I can make out a line of trees, and to the left of it, we're told there's a gas chamber that was mostly used for gypsies.
We walk up the railway line and look into the sunken gas chambers.
The day is beautiful. The birds are singing in the trees.
I try to grasp the enormity, but my mind won't let me.
Flowers, ruins, photos, music, words, are weak
The horror they transfuse with fitting truth to speak
We surface from the U6 line on Mohren Strasse, and walk several blocks west.
There's construction on Voss Strasse, and we can't find the former entrance to the Reich Chancellery at number 6.
Bright pink tubes run overground all over the city. They sprout from construction sites, running water to the Spree River or to one of the canals that flow into it. It's April 23, 2013, and the pink tubes offset the pink buds of the cherry trees that are bursting into the sky. The city is a riot of colour and prosperity. It's anything but 1945.
Last night I left my friend Burkhard, a professor from Bochum, at the central train station. Apart from Grand Central, it's the most impressive station I've seen.
I wait for him to leave before we go to the Reich Chancellery or the nearby museum, called The Topography of Terror. I just didn't have the heart to suggest it to him. Everywhere we went, we found reminders of Birkenau and Treblinka. A few days ago, he stopped in the middle of the street and said, "I love this city, but it gets depressing. It's a monument to shame."
Back on Voss Strasse, a very ordinary street, there's an information plaque about tunnels, bunkers, and Hitler's final days. Somewhere beneath, the caged monster did what someone should have done eighty years ago. But it would have been impossible to hear the short blast.
The Russians levelled the Chancellery at number 6, and blew up some of the rooms. Yet apparently some of the tunnels remain. I wonder if they look at all like the sunken chamber I saw at Birkenau, with its iron tubes.
From Berlin to Birkenau. A cause and effect only Dante or Himmler could describe.