The Auschwitz Kommandant: a daughter’s memoirs about Arthur Wilhelm Liebehenschel

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Arthur Wilhelm Liebehenschel is often contrasted to Rudolf Höss, to indicate that he was the “good” or “more humane” Commandant of Auschwitz, who ruled the notorious concentration camp from December 1943 to May 1944. His daughter from his first marriage, Barbara Cherish, does everything to exonerate her father’s tarnished image and to confirm a rosier picture of his deeds in her memoir, The Auschwitz Kommandant: A Daughter’s Search for the Father She Never Knew (United Kingdom: The History Press, 2009). There is no doubt that Liebehenschel was widely regarded as less brutal than Höss. Once he took over Auschwitz concentration camp from Höss, he eliminated the notorious “standing cells”, where prisoners were punished by standing for days without food and water in rooms smaller than a closet. He also put a stop to the selections for regular prisoners who were already in the concentration camp. While the sadistic punishment of inmates, particularly of Jews, was (at the very least) tolerated by Höss, Liebehenschel took steps to discourage the severe punishments and forms of torture of camp inmates. According to Hermann Langbein, a prisoner in the Auschwitz infirmary, “in general one could establish that even those SS members who were very bloodthirsty before became a bit more reserved because they realized that their fanaticism would not necessarily be tolerated anymore”.

Perhaps Liebehenschel’s reputation for relative “leniency” played a role in his transfer from Auschwitz in the spring of 1944 and replacement with the previous commandant, Rudolf Höss. Known for his callousness and efficiency, Höss was called back to Auschwitz to facilitate the extermination of nearly 500,000 Hungarian Jews deported to the concentration camp during the spring and summer of 1944. Liebehenschel was put in charge of the Majdanek extermination camp (outside Lublin) in May of 1944. Although initially a labor rather than a death camp, Majdanek was transformed into an extermination camp of enormous proportions once Operation Reinhard (October 1941-November 1943), which stipulated the mass murder of all Jews in occupied (General Government) Poland, was put into effect. At the end of WWII, Liebehenschel was arrested by the American Army and imprisoned for a short while in Dachau (under conditions he himself described as humane). He was then extradited to Krakow to stand trial for crimes against humanity. Like Höss, the other Auschwitz Commandant, he was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging on January 28, 1948. Evidently, the law didn’t distinguish between his crimes and those of Höss. Should we?

For me, reading the obviously biased memoirs of a daughter in search of her own identity by exploring her father’s dark past, raises the following question: is there a real difference between men like Rudolf Höss and men like Arthur Liebehenschel; between “harsh” and “more humane” SS leaders? Although this memoir is meant to raise such a question in its readers’ minds, in my opinion, the answers it provides won’t be that satisfying. Exonerating her father, making apologies for his murderous deeds and, to some extent, even covering up the outright lies he tells the court in Krakow—testifying during the trial that he didn’t know about the crematoria in either Auschwitz or Majdanek and wasn’t in any way involved in either–this memoir offers an extremely partial version of the facts and a deeply flawed moral perspective. There really was no way one could be a so-called “humane” Auschwitz commander. This is a contradiction in terms. There was nothing humane about life in a Nazi concentration camp.

However, I do believe that just as there were differences in attitude and behavior among the SS officers at the camp—some of whom did their “job” with relish and sadism in punishing the prisoners, others who tried to avoid or minimize the punishments—the same can be said about the differences between Höss and Liebehenschel. This doesn’t in any way excuse the mass murders committed by either man. If we draw a distinction between the two Auschwitz commandants it’s to better understand Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil,” which plays a big role in our attempts to understand Nazi behavior. Unlike Arendt, however, I believe that there was nothing commonplace or “banal” about the evil of men like Eichmann, whom she uses as her main example of this concept in Eichmann in Jerusalem, or of men like Höss. These two Nazi leaders exemplified extraordinary evil, going far and beyond the call of duty. Both, in fact, played a big role in masterminding the deportation and extermination of almost half a million of Hungarian Jews during a time when it was evident Germany had already lost the war.

In my estimation, the concept of “the banality of evil” as elaborated by Arendt applies much better to ordinary men such as Arthur Liebehenschel. His daughter’s claims that Liebehenschel didn’t like to see death and violence, learned mostly second-hand from her correspondence with Anneliesse, her father’s second wife, are corroborated to some extent by Auschwitz survivors’ testimonies. At the same time, the Auschwitz Kommandant still oversaw the deaths of thousands of innocent human beings, who spent their last days in conditions that were, in themselves, sheer torture even if actual physical torture was discouraged.

Furthermore, according to Cherish’s own account, Liebehenschel was a loyal German and a fervent Nazi: without these qualities he couldn’t have risen in the ranks of the SS. In different times, Arthur Liebehenschel could have played a role in better causes. In Nazi Germany, however, his ambition and misplaced loyalty to Hitler’s regime led him to play a significant role in “the banality of evil”: namely, in committing gravely immoral acts against tens of thousands of innocent human beings, without any particular hatred for the victims or zest for violence.

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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