Snatch & the Holocaust

So Choosybeggar and I were discussing the movie Snatch. Choosy mentioned how interesting it was that in some (sub)cultures killing is an expected response to a provocation, and it can be considered ‘normal.’ Beggar went on to say that these weren’t at the extreme on the scale violence. There are countless examples of what we would call horrific violence being common in countless cultures around the world, and throughout history.

It’s not like these are aberrant subhuman freaks that are rare exceptions. So what separates ‘them’ from ‘us?’

A common example of aberrant horrific violence is the eugenics program of Nazi Germany. But what makes it so horrible to me, is that these were people with strong ideas of right & wrong, of honor & justice, many of which agree with current commonly held ideas.

Basically, to make a long post short, to quote a paraphase of what Abraham Licoln said when people spoke vehemently against southerners, “Don’t criticze them; they are just what we would be under similar circumstances.”

So are we essentially Nazis who’ve grown up in ‘better’ circumstances?

It is truly amazing the behaviors we can become habituated to perform.

I work in immunology, a burgeoning field in the life sciences. Research in this area has produced countless lifesaving vaccines, rationally designed therapies for autoimmune diseases and a deeper understanding of the means that life has developed to combat the countless micro and macroscopic invaders that derive their livelihood by employing us as their petri dish. Furthermore, it would not be an overstatement to say that exerting control over the immune system is a key element for sucessful gene therapy and that directing the immune system to target cancerous tissues represents the brighest prospect for next generation in cancer therapies. These are, in part, my motives for working in immunology. I feel they are reasoned and valid.

So my field has glorious aspirations, but the day to day in the trenches is gruesome. There are few questions in immunology that are answered satisfactorially with use of non-animal based systems. Yes, we do some work on cultured cells, and there are labs which work with human material obtained from human blood. For the most part, though, the humble mouse is the immunologist’s workhorse.

And my job involves putting it to these little guys. When I began doing animal reaseach, I was horrified and repulsed. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could do this, inflict so much pain on these innocent rodents, that clearly let you know how much pain you are causing. What is amazing (alarming?) to me now that I have been in animal research for 5+ years, however, is that I have become entirely accustomed to the work. I neither like nor dislike my animal work, I just do.

Some may believe that whatever tortures are visited on so-called lower life forms, their suffering cannot compare to the depth of suffering experienced by our sentient selves. I’d say that this cannot be known. Sure, we know that human suffering/torture/death is a really bad thing, but what do we really know of the suffering of other species. As I recall, the Nazi dogma was that Jews were not human and thus killing a Jew was not a really bad thing. Both rationales, the anti-animal and the anti-Jew, are at some level spurious.

Anyway, I’ll conclude with a detailed description of 2 common procedures in animal research. Things that I never imagined I’d acclimate to, yet I have. Do not keep reading if you are squeamish.

Retro-orbital bleeding: This is a common technique for getting blood from a mouse. The blood is commonly used to assay a cellular or soluble blood component. To do this, first grab a mouse by the tail. Then, alter your grip so that you are holding it firmly by the back of the neck. Push the face of the mouse into a tube containing inhalational anaesthesia. Hold the mouse there, against its struggling, for about 30 sec until the anaesthesia starts working. Now the mouse is out. Pick the mouse up firmly with the left hand grasping the skin just below the ears with your thumb and forefinger. Adjust your grip so that you are pulling the skin taut. If you do this correctly, you will observe the eyeballs bulging prominently. Now take a glass pastuer pipette (for the uninitiated, a pastuer pipette is about 9cm long and the diameter of the business end is approx 2-4mm) and insert the tip into the junction of the eyeball and the eyesocket, on the nasal side. Work the tip of the pipette in by rotating slightly. You know you are where you want to be when you feel a slight crunch (or pop). At this point, withdraw the pipette ever so slightly and blood will begin flowing into the pipette. Withdraw the desired amount, remove the pipette, put the mouse back in the cage and you are done. Done properly, this procedure results in no permanent harm to the mouse. But when performed by someone inexperienced, mice are commonly left blinded by the procedure. Also, some elect to do this without anaesthetizing the mouse. I often do 40 bleeds in an afternoon.

Making MEFs (Murine Embryonic Fibroblasts): This is a procedure that generates cells from an animal that you can culture and experiment on in vitro. Step 1 is put male and female mice together. In the morning check the females for plugging (evidence of intercourse during the night). Separate the plugged females and start the countdown. 11-13 days after plugging is when you harvest the embryos for making MEFs (BTW: mouse gestation is 21 days, so the 11-13 d.o. embryos look fairly well developed.) To harvest, sacrifice (read:kill) pregnant female. Open peritoneal cavity aseptically. Remove gravid (pregnant) uterus (which looks remarkably like beads on a string). Open uterus and remove embryos. Transfer into a petri dish containing culture fluid. At this point, movement is evident in the embryos and they look for all the world like small baby mice. Now, holding sterile razor blades with forceps, mince the embryos. Keep at it until no large chunks of tissue remain. After this, some of the fibrous proteins are digested with enzymes, followed by the cells being plated out into new petri dishes for culture.

  • but a good question, nonetheless.

I believe that a lot of basically decent people were caught up in the Nazi ideology. Had I been 13 years old in Germany in say, 1936, I certainly might have become a believer. (This isn’t easy to admit, but have you seen some of the propaganda they churned out ? These people were good at that.)

Who doesn’t like being told that if you have it rough, it’s because you’ve been victimized, and now it’s time to go and get back what has been unfairly taken from you ? (Hmm - a certain mr. Milosevich might have read too much history, but I digress… )

This doesn’t mean that I would’ve guarded Auschwitz without a second thought. But I might have been willing to believe that no such place existed for much longer than I should have.

As you say, the Germans in the 1930s were generally speaking civilized & decent people. (Most people are, I believe.) Most of them weren’t involved in politics at all (this, IMHO, was their One Big Mistake), and when the Nazis eventually took over, the average German’s situation actually improved - employment rose,as did the standard of living. The youth programs were a complete success - William Shirer makes a comment on how the German soldiers of 1940 looked so much healthier than the English POWs.

When the decent average German woke up, so to speak, he was presented with a fait accompli. Bad Things happened to those who were against the Nazis, party membership was the way to success. (Reminds you of another one-party system, doesn’t it ?) Under these circumstances, most people will shrug, make the best of it, try to ignore the disturbing rumours, prefer to believe the official news that all is well and basically hope everything turns out OK.

In short: We’re not necessarily Nazis who grew up in better circumstances. The hard-core Nazis had no excuse. But I believe many good people will support bad causes - or at least not fight them - if that’s what everybody else does. And if you choose not to take part in politics, you’re playing a very dangerous game.

S. Norman

If you have no outside information, you’ll believe whatever you’re told, especially while growing up.

When I was a kid, it was quite fashionable to refer to people we didn’t like by calling them various epitats that I won’t repeat here. It wasn’t until I got older, and actually MET some of the people these derogitory terms refer to (Hispanics, blacks, others) that I realized how wrong it is. The really ironic thing is that I was picked on constantly while growing up, for being a nerd.

People can have stereotypes without even knowing it.

This looks like more of a GD topic.

To say that it wasn’t circumstances that made Nazis is to say that Germans are inherently evil. That in itself is racist, and somewhat nazi-like, in my eyes.

Thanks for moving it Euty

The principle that what happened in Germany wasn’t a unique situation (that has been borne out in other situations since) is the basis for the concept that this is something we must teach our children, and always be watchful, because it can (and does) happen again and we may become victims or victimizers if we’re not careful.

Something I’m not so sure of is that many people living in Germany didn’t know a lot of what was going on. There were tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people involved in rounding up,guarding, and transporting the Jews, in using them as slave labor, and reallocating & aquiring their posessions. Remeber that they had to wear different clothing, were commonly beaten or killed by Nazi mobs, etc. as the culture became progressively more intense in this matter.

If we were living in Berlin during this time, we’d see our neighbors being beaten or threatened, being fired or dismissed, limited in what they could do or say, and then being forcibly moved to a state prepared ghetto, while new ‘real’ Germans moved into their old digs. We wouldn’t see them being sent to the gas chambers, but what we would see, and what was allowed and encouraged by many, would be considered ‘uncivilized’ to many people then and now.

I think Choosybeggar’s point works with Nazi Germany. We can get aclimated to almost anything if it’s rationalized well. I should say that I also am in research and have learned to do many things that I wasn’t sure if I would be able to.

The key ingredient in teaching a human being how to slaughter or torture without compunction is to remove the person’s empathy with the objects of his violence. I the case of the nazis, they did this by dehumanizing the jews/gypsies/homosexuals, demonizing them in propoganda, appealing to both jingoistic pride and the human desire to blame others for our troubles. Other examples of this tactic have used religious, racial, tribal or social differentiations.

With animal research, of course, the initial empathic barrier is smaller. Most people do not grant animals the same empathic value as they do other human beings.

Once the empathic barrier has been weakened, psychological adjustment comes into play. Human beings forced to take extremely unpleasant actions often attempt to “normalize” their behavior, to reduce the psychological stress by rebuilding their value system to make the action less extreme.

Combine these two factors effectively enough, and you have a “monster” willing to take a machete to the infant children of his enemies.

I agree that empathy is key. Even in our communities are people with a variety of empathic ability (not ESP :)) which seems to directly affect their interactions socially.

I wonder how much of this empathy is internalized from our community?

Actually, it’s frightening to think how EASY it was to fool the German people. I would say the vast majority-not the higher ups but the German citizens, were your average, everyday people.

Anyone ever hear of a school experiment called The Second Wave?

The teacher actually turned a little school experiment into something very deadly. It was frightening how easy it was.

A few years back, a Lubavitcher friend of mine and I were with a few people in our law school hang-out, having a few beers. (Being a non-Jew, I’m not a focus of his conversion efforts, so I can enjoy his company. ;)) Somehow the conversation swung around to the U.S. bombings of Libya in the mid-80’s. One of the groups was saying the the bombings were totally unjustified and that the wrongness of the bombings was shown by the fact that some of Quadaffi’s kids were killed. My friend said that it’s just as well that they died, as they were destined to grow up just as evil as their father.
I interjected, “My grandfather was in the SS.” Shocked silence. I then said, “No, he wasn’t, but you get my point?”

I could have been the grandson of an SS officer. If my ancestors hadn’t left, they were of the social standing that he would have been at least a Wehrmacht officer. So, yes, circumstances make a huge difference. But I say that, so long as countervailing information is available, no one is destined to have any beliefs.


I saw a movie about the wave. It was scary. Which brings up the point of who is culpable?

If I’m converted by a well orchestrated movement that I just “follow” or if I’m a leader?

A friend of mine once told me that although he is Catholic, he believes that we are each judged according to our own religion- basically that we’re judged on whether we do what we feel is right.

But there were people who honestly believed that they were “right” to kill the jews/homosexuals/gypsies/etc. In fact, I read a letter from one commander who after leading his men to round up and shoot Jews was offended by a decree that all officers sign a statement that they wouldn’t steal or lie. His letter states that as officers and members of the German army, they were hororable men and that it should be assumed that they wouldn’t steal or lie so making them sign such a statement was an affront.

What I mean is, many of these people were following their principles. How can we say they were wrong about what they ‘knew’ was right?

Here is an essay written by the teacher about the experiment:

Yeah, it was scary.

Another thing-anti-semitism was MUCH more common back then. In the 19th century, it was pretty much well spread and perfectly moral and lovely people were anti-semetic. Why?
Ignorance, is what I guess. We weren’t as, oh…in touch, I guess…now we’ve got more technology, and we’re less isolated and we see more viewpoints than our own.