A Regime Defined by Torture
What is human dignity? What is the meaning of asserting that a particular action is an affront to human dignity? Notions of human dignity are at the core of ethical maxims, such as the golden rule, and the principle that humans are not to be treated as mere means, but as ends in themselves. But then, when humans are set to achieve certain goals, while possessing the means — both institutional and of firepower — to back them up, those who they see as obstacles will not be spared all kinds of indignities and abuses, including torture and murder.
The farther humans are from our circles of family, tribe, or nation, the harder it is for empathy and compassion to do its magic, making us, at the very least, to think twice before striking. It is easier to inflict abuses on peoples whom we consider “the others.” That is one of many blind spots shared by homo sapiens everywhere.
But a regime based on depravity and genocide can and must obliterate the also very human tendencies toward compassion and basic decency. That was the case of the Nazi regime (1933–1945).
Tortured by the Nazis
Hans Maier was born in 1913, in Vienna, Austria, where he studied philosophy and literature. His father, who died fighting in the First World War, was Jewish. His mother was Catholic, and raised Maier accordingly. The Anschluss, the annexation of Austria to the German Reich, took place in March of 1938. By then, Maier had been paying attention to developments in Nazi Germany, and knew by heart the 1935 Nuremberg laws enacted by Hitler’s regime. Convinced that his paternal Jewish heritage was potentially fatal, he fled Austria with his wife Regina.
The annexation of Austria brought what Maier feared: A festival of cruelty and dispossession descended upon the Jewish population, much of it courtesy of Austrian mobs. Hans and Regina ended up in Belgium, then in France, then in Belgium again. In the midst of all that commotion, Regina died of heart failure. Maier joined the Belgian Resistance. In July, 1943, he was arrested by agents of the Geheime Staatspolizei, best known as the Gestapo, Germany’s Secret State Police. Gestapo agents tortured Maier.
When, after several weeks, his torturers determined that he had no information to give, they “demoted” him from political prisoner to Jew, and sent him to the Auschwitz concentration camp, in Poland. There, he was an underfed slave, laboring for the benefit of the German industrial behemoth I.G. Farben. He was later transferred to Buchenwald, and from there to Bergen-Belsen, from where he was freed by British troops in early May, 1945.
After the war, Hans Maier returned to Belgium, where he worked as a journalist under the name Jean Améry. He also published several books. His first book saw the light in 1966, under the title Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne (“Beyond Guilt and Atonement”). In 1980, two years after Améry’s death, Indiana University Press published an English translation of that book, under the title At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities.
Reflections on Torture
Again, what is human dignity? And, what does it mean to lose it? For Améry, the phrases “human dignity,” and the losing thereof, lacked precision. After all, he wrote, “one person thinks he loses human dignity when he finds himself in circumstances that make it impossible for him to take a daily bath. Another believes he loses it when he must speak to an official in something other than his native language. In one instance human dignity is bound to a certain physical convenience, in the other to the right of free speech.”
Améry stated that he did not know whether a person who is beaten by the police loses human dignity. But he was sure that, with the first blow, such person loses his “trust in the world.” He explained what he meant: “The boundaries of my body are also the boundaries of my self. My skin surface shields me against the external world. If I am to have trust, I must feel on it only what I want to feel.” It follows that trust in the world “is the certainty that by reason of written or unwritten social contracts the other person will spare me –more precisely stated, that he will respect my physical, and with it also my metaphysical, being.”
What happens, then, when that first blow is followed by outright torture? That is, what happens to the torturer, and what happens to those who are tortured? Torturers and those tortured are transformed by the experience. But, how are they transformed?
First, a definition of torture is in order. The current definition that interests me here states that torture is the deliberate infliction by someone in an official capacity of severe mental or physical pain and suffering to another human being for a specific purpose, be it to extract a confession for a crime, or to extract information.
Torture methods can be physical or psychological. Beatings and electro shocks are examples of physical torture. Sleep deprivation and prolonged solitary confinement are modalities of psychological torture. Torture of a sexual nature include rape and sexual humiliation.
The most straightforward objection to torture is that it is a gross violation of human rights. Moreover, those who today still fight against the use of torture stress that it does not work, as any “confession” or information extracted by means of torture is not reliable, for obvious reasons. Torture is illegal under international law and most domestic law regimes. However, it is still widespread all over the world.
For Jean Améry, torture is the negation of both the social principle and the reality principle. The social principle, as defined by Améry, provides that the only way to live is by granting life to our fellow human beings, which includes easing their suffering. For the torturer, however, the tortured are fellow humans, whom the torturer has “transformed into flesh,” and are “brought to the edge of death into Nothingness.”
Hence, adds Améry, “torture becomes the total inversion of the social world.” Besides being a negation of human decency, torture also negates reality, because “a world in which torture, destruction, and death triumph obviously cannot exist.” But the torturer does not care, because he is uninterested “in the continuous existence of the world. On the contrary: he wants to nullify this world.”
By exercising an “agonizing sovereignty” over the tortured, the torturer has attained an “unchecked self-expansion” through “power”, through “dominion over spirit and flesh.” Those who are tortured experience another transformation: They are reduced, precisely, into flesh –flesh over which the torturer exercises dominion. The torturer has expanded into the body of the tortured, extinguishing their spirit.
Torture as the Essence of a Regime
Hitler and the Nazis preached hardness, that is, the obliteration of feelings of empathy and compassion. Humanitarianism was considered weak and pernicious. Consider these words, from Adolf Hitler himself: “My pedagogy is hard. What is weak must be hammered away. In my fortresses of the Teutonic Order a young generation will grow up before which the world will tremble. I want the young to be violent, domineering, undismayed, cruel. The young must be all these things. They must be able to bear pain. There must be nothing weak or gentle about them. The free, splendid beast of prey must once again flash from their eyes.”
Améry thus seems justified, when asserting that torture “was the essence of National Socialism –more accurately stated, it was precisely in torture that the Third Reich materialized in all the density of its being.” Torture has been practiced since ancient times, and continues to be practiced. It was “no invention of National Socialism. But it was its apotheosis. The Hitler vassal did not yet achieve his full identity if he was merely as quick as a weasel, tough as leather, hard as Krupp steel. He had to torture, destroy, in order to be great in bearing the suffering of others.”
That horrific regime, with its depraved ideology, made possible the tortures and atrocities committed by Klaus Barbie, Dorothea Binz, and countless others. They were not born torturers.