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The Holocaust and the Human Spirit; “Choiceless Choice”

jan peczkis|Sunday, March 5, 2017

There are books that become known less for their content, and more for an idea that they had introduced or popularized. This book is one of them. Lawrence L. Langer and his “Choiceless Choice” has become part of Holocaustpeak, thanks in large part to this book. My review exclusively focuses on this.

“CHOICELESS CHOICES” DEFINED


 

“CHOICELESS CHOICES” DEFINED

Lawrence L. Langer explains what he means by “choiceless choice” as follows, “…to clarify of how utterly the Nazi mentality corrupted moral reality for the victims…where crucial decisions did not reflect options between life and death, but between one form of abnormal response and another, both imposed by a situation that was in no way of the victim’s own choosing.” (p. 72).

EXAMPLES OF “CHOICELESS CHOICES” AS IDENTIFIED IN THIS BOOK

Langer does begin with an obvious kill-or-die situation at Auschwitz. He describes the situation where the Jewish inmates had to choose between killing a newborn infant, and letting the Germans find out that one of the Jewish women was a mother, which would send her to the gas chambers. (pp. 72-73).

An obey-or-die (in fact, obey-AND-die) “choiceless choice” situation involved the Jewish SONDERKOMMANDO at Auschwitz. They had to burn the bodies of their fellow Jews, under the certain knowledge that disobedience was only another form of suicide and that, whatever they chose to do, they would all be put to death anyway. (pp. 95-96).

What about non life-or-death situations? Lawrence L. Langer describes the “choiceless choice” situation, at Auschwitz, that consisted of two alternative indignities: Forego bathing, so that the sewers work adequately, to take a bath, and make the sewers back up and create an intolerably offensive (and unhealthy) situation. (p. 74).

CONCLUSION ON LANGER’S “CHOICELESS CHOICES”

The author’s discussion of “choiceless choices” is somewhat simplistic. Fact is, questions about Jewish non-culpability (and culpability) had been discussed many times before, and had not consistently led to the conclusion that Jews are summarily excused from collaboration with the Nazis. For instance, please click on [and read my detailed review] of International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law (The Collected Courses of the Academy of European Law).

Langer tells only half the story. What about the "choiceless choices" faced by Polish inmates (including my father) of Nazi German concentration camps?

Clearly, the reader needs to go beyond the purely Judeocentric framework and examples of this book, and to consider the following:

BROADER IMPLICATIONS OF THIS BOOK

Lawrence L. Langer’s statements raise more questions than they attempt to answer. In other than extreme cases, when does the "choiceless choice" consideration leave off, and personal responsibility begin?

Consider the following: A Jewish KAPO has been told by the Germans what to do. The KAPO is acting at German gunpoint. Almost everyone would recognize that the Jew is in an obey-or-die, choice-less choice situation. Now consider less clear-cut circumstances. No German is pointing a gun at the Jewish KAPO, but there is a German standing in the background. Is the Jewish KAPO still in a choiceless-choice situation? Now what happens when there is no German overseeing the Jewish KAPO? Does the Jew now have a choice, and is therefore responsible for his actions, or is he still in a choiceless-choice situation? Finally, could it be said that the very NATURE of the relationship, between the Nazi and the Jew, ipso facto always puts the Jew in a choiceless-choice situation?

Now let us repeat the foregoing set of scenarios with a Pole at Jedwabne. The Pole had been told by the Germans what to do. Almost everyone agrees that no Germans were pointing their guns at the Poles. However, Germans were present—as even conceded by arch-Polonophobe Jan T. Gross. The implications are clear: No German is pointing a gun at the Pole at Jedwabne, but there is a German standing in the background. Is the Pole still in a choiceless-choice situation? Or does somebody arbitrarily decide, after the war, that the Pole had a choice, and is therefore responsible for his actions? Now what happens if (hypothetically speaking) there were no Germans at Jedwabne—that is, there was no German overseeing the Pole? Does the Pole now have a choice, or is he still in a choiceless-choice situation? Who decides this? Finally, could it be said that the very NATURE of the relationship, between the Nazi and the Pole, ipso facto always puts the Pole in a choiceless-choice situation?

The answer is rather obvious. It all boils down to the following: There one standard in existence for one people (the Jews), and another standard for other peoples (e. g, the Poles). Jewish-Nazi collaboration is summarily exculpated, if not defined-away entirely, while gentile-Nazi collaboration is not.
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