Overlooking Auschwitz

To mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, there has been widespread interest in a haunting video shot for the BBC using a commercial drone:

For once, the emptiness of the scene – just buildings, fences and railway tracks – is desperately affecting.   It’s surely impossible to watch this without thinking of the millions of people whose lives were so brutally effaced by the murderous regime of the Third Reich.  The only sign of a human presence in the video is a glimpse over the wall of trucks racing by: a reminder that Auschwitz was (and disconcertingly remains) at the centre of a small town (see also my post on Auschwitz here).

There are at least two other films that ought to be seen too.

Night Will Fall 2

The first is a documentary commissioned in 1945 by the Psychological Warfare Film Section of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force to document the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.  The producer was Sidney Bernstein, for Britain’s Ministry of Information; Alfred Hitchcock was drafted in as a ‘treatment adviser’.  The working title was German Concentration Camps: Factual Survey; it was never shown in its entirety (though Billy Wilder turned the footage into a short, Death Mills), and the Imperial War Museum notes:

From the start of the project, there were a number of problems including the practical difficulties of international co-operation and the realities of post-war shortages. These issues delayed the film long enough to be overtaken by other events including the completion of two other presentations of concentration camp footage to the German people and the evolution of occupation policy, where the authorities no longer considered a one-hour compilation of atrocity material appropriate. The last official action on the film was a screening of an incomplete rough-cut on 29 September 1945, after which the film was shelved, unfinished.

The footage has now been incorporated into a stunning HBO documentary, Night Will Fall, directed by André Singer, who was an Executive Producer for Act of Killing (see my posts here, here and here).


There are all sorts of stories about why the full version was never shown – see the Guardian‘s report here – but the fullest discussions are Kay Gladstone‘s ‘Separate intentions’ in Toby Haggith and Joanna Newman (eds) Holocaust and the moving image (2005) (see also Haggith’s ‘Filming the liberation of Bergen-Belsen here) and her ‘Memory of the Camps: the rescue of an abandoned film’, in Griselda Pollock and Max Silverman (eds) Concentrationary cinema (2011).

The second film returns to the aerial view and to Auschwitz: Harun Farocki’s Images of the world and the Inscription of War.  Shockingly and sadly, Farocki died last summer at the age of 70, and Images is widely regarded as his masterpiece (see Thomas Voltzenlogel‘s wide-ranging and appreciative discussion of ‘Dialectics in images’ here).  The central motif is an image taken from a series of aerial photographs of Auschwitz shot by the Allies between April 1944 and January 1945 (see also here and here).

1389.3 Holocaust E

This image was taken on 4 April 1944 by Lt Charles Barry flying a Mosquito from 60 Photo Reconnaissance Squadron of the South African Air Force.  From the film’s commentary [available in Discourse 5(3) (1993) 78-92]:

American aircraft had taken off in Foggia, Italy, and flown towards targets in Silesia – factories for synthetic petrol and rubber – known as Buna.

On the flightover the IG Farben company factory still under construction, a pilot clicked his camera shutter and took photographs of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

First picture of Auschwitz taken at 7,000 meters altitude.

The pictures taken in April 1944 in Silesia arrived for evaluation in Medmenham, England [the RAF’s Central Intelligence Unit concerned with air photograph interpretation].

The analysts discovered a power station, a carbide factory, a factory under construction for Buna and another for petrol hydrogenation.

They were not under orders to look for the Auschwitz camp, and thus they did not find it.

How close the one is to the other: the industry – the camp.

It was not until 1977 that two employees of the CIA [Dino Brugioni and Robert Poirer: see their detailed report here] went through the archives to find and evaluate the photographs of Auschwitz. It was not until thirty-three years later that the following words were inscribed:

Tower and Commandant’s house and

Registration Building and Headquarters and Administration and

Fence and execution wall and Block 11 and the word “Gas chamber” was inscribed.


Kaja Silverman adds this gloss [‘What is a camera?’ Discourse 5 (30 (1993) 3-56]:

Not only does the camera here manifestly “apprehend” what the human eye cannot, but the latter seems strikingly handicapped by its historical and institutional placement, as if to suggest that military control attempts to extend beyond behavior, speech, dress,and bodily posture to the very sensory organs themselves. This sequence indicates, in other words,that military discipline and the logic of warfare function to hyperbolize the distance separating look from gaze and to subordinate the former completely to the latter.

These are similar issues that haunt my own discussions of the video feeds from Predators and Reapers over Afghanistan and Iraq.  In another commentary, Christa Blümingler writes:

The vanishing point of Images of The World is the conceptual image of the ‘blind spot’ of the evaluators of aerial footage of the IG Farben industrial plant taken by the Americans in 1944. Commentaries and notes on the photographs show that it was only decades later that the CIA noticed what the Allies hadn’t wanted to see [my emphasis]: that the Auschwitz concentration camp is depicted next to the industrial bombing target.

Bombing of AuschwitzThe claim that the ‘Allies didn’t want to see’ spirals through an important debate about whether the Allies could or should have bombed Auschwitz (see, in addition to the symposium on the right, here and here).  In fact, as Christa observes later,

In … 1944, the allies bombed not Auschwitz, but the IG Farben factory nearby the death camp. Drawing on analyses of these events, how and why the allies didn’t act on their knowledge of the mass destruction of the Jews, Farocki … decodes a host of military images, focusing on two visual dispositives: American pilots in 1944 and CIA agents in 1977 offering two different [readings] of the aerial photographs of Auschwitz.

In this instance, Farocki developed an epistemological field of technological history — measurement and surveillance in a period of rapid automatization. At the end of the film, a blind spot in the photographic act, referring back to the reality of the concentration camp, becomes visible.

The final shots further emphasize details of the American pilots’ aerial photos, which are picked up in the sweep of the film several times, framed and arranged in different ways. At the end of the film, through a permutative movement of cuts, the extreme enlargement of the photographs reminds us once again of their materiality. Farocki shows these images in precisely the spaces where visual thought takes place, and in connection to specific techniques of reproduction and distribution (in albums, archives, institutions). Whenever he used marginal and hard-to-access image materials from specialized archives, he sought to consider these conditions of visibility in his analysis.


What particularly interests me, and the reason I juxtapose these two films, is an interview with Chris Darke in 2003 in which Farocki artfully tracks between the eye-witness and the aerial shot:

Chris Darke: In Images of the World and the Inscription of War there is this repeated phrase: “Beside the real world there is a second world, a world of pure military fiction”. I was very strongly reminded of Colin Powell at the UN Security Council presenting degraded military surveillance images as proof and justification for military action.

HF: Yes, it reminded me so much of the Auschwitz sequences in Images of the World, the way they involved aerial reconnaissance images that you had to be a specialist to read. Who knows what they are telling you? Who knows what happened there? What is so interesting is that the personal witness of two people who had escaped from the camps was so important. It was the way that traditional history was always written. You need an eye-witness, a narrative, otherwise you’ll never believe in it. And it turns out that our imaginative minds are still very old-fashioned. We don’t understand modernist strategies such as those used by the Americans in the first Gulf War. You really want to see these terrible, dirty images of burning streets and wounded people in the same way that psychoanalysis knows that you need dirty thoughts for the imagination, just as for love you need dirty images. The audience is not prepared for this automatically recorded history that more or less happens already, where everything is recorded; so there has to be an old-fashioned drama made out of it.

There are at least two other detailed commentaries on the film that address the question of visuality in depth: Thomas Keenan‘s ‘Light weapons’, in Documents 1/2 (1992) 147-58 and Nora Alter‘s ‘The political im/perceptible in the essay film:  Farocki’s Images of the world and the inscription of war‘, in New German Critique 68 (1996). More generally, I also recommend the special issue of e-flux on Farocki’s work here, including a commentary by Trevor Paglen on Farocki’s ‘operative images’, and David Cox‘s brief commentary here.

Note:  Belinda Gomez writes (in relation to the commentary for Images of the World):

“Fence and execution wall and Block 11 and the word “Gas chamber” was inscribed….” But that’s not quite accurate. Brugioni and Poirier didn’t write that in 1977. The gas chamber didn’t have a sign. That they were able to locate the gas chamber and crematoria was due to their superior technology and they knew what they were looking for. The pilot/photographers in 1944 took photos of the factory and what was taken as a workers camp. To say that they didn’t see Auschwitz because they weren’t told to look for it is more of a hind-sight interpretation.

The camp and geographical imaginations

Last Thursday, the last full day of my visit to Ostrava, Tomas took me to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in the Polish town of Oswiecim: I’m still trying to come to terms with what I saw and felt.

It was Tomas’s third visit.  Last time, he said, it was in the depth of winter, with the ground covered in snow: Auschwitz rendered in the sombre black and white tones we’ve come to expect.  On Thursday it all seemed so incongruous: full colour on an unexpectedly sunny day – brilliant blue sky, flowers coming in to bloom and birds singing – and made even more unsettling by the new housing at the edge of the town and the supermarket up the road.  To say that is at once to invoke a moral geography of sorts, and in a series of revealing essays Andrew Charlesworth, Robert Guzik, Michal Paskowski and Alison Stenning have documented the controversies that have shaped the site since the establishment of the State Museum in 1947 and the subsequent development before and after the fall of Communism: see ‘”Out of Place” in Auschwitz?’ [in Ethics, place and environment 9 (2) (2006) 149-72] and ‘A tale of two institutions: shaping Oswiecim-Auschwitz’ [in Geoforum 39 (2008) 401-413].

Auschwitz then and now

But as soon as we entered the complex a different (though related) series of moral geographies were invoked, also about the dissonance between Auschwitz then and now but more directly bound up with what Chris Keil calls ‘Sightseeing in the mansions of the dead’ [in Social & Cultural Geography 6 (40(2005) 479-494] or what is variously called ‘thanato-tourism’ or  ‘dark tourism’: the tourism of death.  You can find other fine reflections, following in Keil’s footsteps, in Derek Dalton‘s ‘Encountering Auschwitz: the possibilities and limitations of witnessing/remembering trauma in memorial space’ [in Law, Text, Culture 13 (1) (2009) 187-225] here.  Significantly, Dalton argues that current theorising ‘fails to highlight the vital role of the imagination in animating the artefacts and geography of a place and investing them with meaning’.

AUSCHWITZ3 April 2013

For the tour is, of course, both pre-scripted (it is surely impossible for most visitors to come to what was the largest extermination camp in Europe without prior expectations and understandings) and scripted (it invites and even licenses a particular range of performances and responses). It takes in Auschwitz I (above), the original site more or less at the centre of Oswiecim that was established in the spring of 1940, and the sprawling open/closed space of Auschwitz II at Birkenau beyond the perimeter established the following year.  (Auschwitz III, the labour camp at Monowitz linked to the IG Farben works, is not part of the memorial complex; neither are any of the 40-odd satellite camps).

Auschwitz 1944

We started by walking through the gates, their hideous sign Arbeit macht frei silhouetted against the sky, and filed into a series of prison blocks in a silence broken only by the guide’s voice whispering through our headphones and the shuffle of feet on stone and stair.

AUSCHWITZ April 2013

Inside we saw the collections of suitcases and shoes stripped from those who were murdered inside the camp: signs of movement from all over occupied Europe to the dead stop of the gas chambers.  The first, experimental ones killed people in their hundreds; the later ones killed them in their thousands.  We will never know the exact number nor all their names, but we do know more than 1,100,000 people were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, around 960,000 of them Jews.



Dalton’s attention was also captured by these collections: a fraction of the total, yet the sheer number of shoes confounded any attempt ‘to posit individual histories’; and even though the suitcases had names and sometimes dates on them, Dalton was numbed by his inability ‘to focus on an individual case; my eye took them in as a mass despite their differences.’  This is a recurrent theme in his essay, but I saw the artefacts differently.  As I looked at the collections behind the glass, I started to wonder about the aestheticisation of suffering – about what Keil calls ‘a Hall of Mirrors, a half-world between history and art’ (and in my photographs you can just about see the spectral reflections of the visitors in the glass) – and the ways in which these everyday objects had been turned into a vast still life that none the less could evoke such unutterable terror.

‘I have nothing to say, only to show,’ wrote Walter Benjamin (about his working method).  Perhaps that is the best way to apprehend the museum; perhaps, too, this begins to explain Theodor Adorno‘s insistence in Negative Dialectics that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’ And yet he later qualified his remark:

‘Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream … hence it may have been wrong to say that no poem could be written after Auschwitz.’ 

He said his objection was to lyric poetry; perhaps, then, we need to reaffirm what Michael Peters [in Educational Philosophy & Theory 44 (2) (2012) 129-32] calls ‘poetry as offence’: a notice inside Dachau declared that anyone found writing or sharing poetry would be summarily executed. For as I trudged across the vast expanse of Birkenau, alongside the railway tracks and the infamous ramp and around the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria, I began to think that Auschwitz made poetry all the more necessary – as defiant affirmation.

My visit also prompted me to re-visit Giorgio Agamben‘s meditations on Auschwitz in Homo Sacer: sovereign power and bare life and Remnants of Auschwitz: the witness and the archive (which is Homo Sacer III).   If you’re not familiar with his work, Andrew Robinson provides a short and accessible summary that speaks directly to his incorporation of the Nazi concentration camp here.

Auschwitz master plan (summer 1942)

AGAMBEN Homo sacerAlthough the cover of the English-language translation of Homo Sacer (right) shows part of the second master plan for Auschwitz (February 1942), which I’ve reproduced above (and you can find more maps and plans here), Agamben’s discussion is brief, confined to Part III and most of it in §7, where he treats ‘The camp as the nomos of the modern’ and, specifically, as ‘the materialization of the state of exception’ and ‘the most absolute biopolitical space ever to have been realized.’ The plan provided for the expansion of the camp, and van Pelt explains it thus:

The left side of the drawing depicts the concentration camp. Its center is the enormous roll-call place, designed to hold thirty thousand inmates. To the south are the barracks of the original camp, a group of brick buildings built in 1916 as a labor exchange center for Polish seasonal workers in Germany. To the east (on the right side), are the SS base and a Siedlung for the married SS men and their families. The center of town includes a hotel and shops.

Given what Agamben subsequently argued about the witness and the archive in Remnants, it is worth remembering that these detailed plans constituted important legal evidence against David Irving‘s notorious dismissal of Auschwitz’s function as an extermination camp as ‘baloney’ (in a Calgary lecture); you can find a detailed account of this early instance of forensic architecture in Robert Jan van Pelt‘s The case for Auschwitz: evidence from the Irving trial (2002) and a suggestive discussion of the plans (including an account in the appendix of the geographical selection of Auschwitz as a ‘central place’: given what we know of Walter Christaller‘s involvement in the spatial planning of Eastern Europe under the Third Reich, I wonder whether this was used in a technical sense?) in van Pelt’s ‘Auschwitz: from architect’s promise to inmate’s perdition’ [in Modernism/Modernity 1 (1) (1994) 80-120], from which I took the plan and explanation above. In our imaginations Auschwitz is full of people, and the plans are naturally as empty of the prisoners as today’s buildings: and yet through van Pelt’s patient, methodical commentary, they become redolent of the horrors they were intended to instil.

agamben_remnantsofauschwitz64In Remnants, Agamben does not attempt to make the plans and stones – the spaces – speak, but he is concerned, in quite another register, to erect ‘some signposts allowing future cartographers of the new [post-Auschwitz] ethical territory to orient themselves.’  Still, I’m left puzzled by the closed geography that captures his attention.  The nearest he comes to transcending this is his brief discussion of Hitler’s insistence on the production in central Europe of a volkloser Raum, ‘a space empty of people’, which Agamben glosses as a ‘fundamental biopolitical intensity’ that ‘can persist in every space and through which peoples pass into populations and populations pass into Musselmänner’, the ‘living dead’ of the camps (p. 85).  The sequence of transformations evidently stops short – there is, as Agamben says himself, a ‘central non-place’ at the heart of Auschwitz: the gas chamber – but Agamben’s reluctance to go there is in part a product of his interest in bare life and in part a product of an argument directed towards elucidating the position of the witness (even then his selection and examination of witnesses is, as Jeffrey Mehlman shows, strikingly arbitrary).  It’s a profound absence, but even Agamben’s abbreviated sequence shows that to make sense of Auschwitz-Birkenau and that still space at its centre you have to turn outwards and imagine spaces of exception that spiral far beyond and converge upon the dread confines of the camp: the contraction of the spaces of everyday life, the confinement of the ghettoes, the transit camps, the railway lines snaking across the dark continent.  Their absence from Remnants has acutely political and ethical consequences, because it threatens to turn the act of witnessing into a purified aesthetic act; the best discussion of this that I know is J.M. Bernstein‘s ‘Bare life, bearing witness: Auschwitz and the pornography of horror’ [in parallax 10 (1) (2004) pp. 2-16], which I drew on in my discussion of Agamben and Auschwitz in ‘Vanishing points’. Paolo Giacarria and Claudio Minca have more recently emphasised in their ‘Topographies/topologies of the camp’ [in Political geography 30 (2011) 3-12] that

‘what will eventually become the most infamous extermination camp was … not located in a void; quite the contrary, it was fully embedded within the broader spatialities and territorialities that were implemented by the Nazi imperial project.’

I sketched some of these geographies in my entry on holocaust in the Dictionary of Human Geography, and for me all this means that the immediate struggle during my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was an effort of the imagination: to focus in on the individual lives lost in the mass murder while simultaneously panning out to the wider spaces of terror set in motion far beyond and, crucially, constitutive of the site of the camp itself.

REES AuschwitzBut the ongoing, far greater conundrum is to understand how it all was possible: how could people do such things?  Agamben himself portrays this as the ‘incorrect’, even ‘hypocritical’ question….  As with his more general argument about homo sacer, responsibility plainly does not lie solely with those who used political and legal artifice to put so many people to death; mass murder on an industrial scale, surely the most exorbitant of all the grim termini of Fordist war, required more than Hitler and Himmler.  Neither can the willingness of so many men and women to be party to these murders be explained by their “following orders” and being “fearful of punishment”, a putrid defence that most historians have exposed as a lie.  What is so extraordinary, after all, is the way in which, under general directives, so much was left to local improvisation and ‘ordinary’ functionaries.  The ‘prison within the prison’, Auschwitz’s Block 11, is an exemplary instance: here punishments were devised for people who were already destined for death.  I have no answer, but I do think that the key is not only in turning ‘ordinary’ people into ‘functionaries’ but also in luring and licensing the transformation of base imaginations into physical realities.

Note: There’s a vast specialist and a general literature on Auschwitz, but for a book that brilliantly bridges the two I recommend Laurence Rees‘s authoritative and accessible Auschwitz: the Nazis and the final solution, also published as Auschwitz: a new history (available in a Kindle edition).

ADDENDUM:  This post continues to attract many readers several years after I wrote it, so I should probably add that I’ve since become even more critical of Agamben’s views on the exception.  If we think of a space of exception as one in which groups of people are knowingly and deliberately exposed to death through the removal of ordinary legal protections then the conflict zone is surely a paradigmatic case (and its indistinction has become ever clearer [sic] since the ‘deconstruction of the battlefield’ from the First World War on); but this is not a legal void, since the right of combatants to kill one another – and the concomitant obligation to afford at least minimal protection to civilians – is regulated by international law (Agamben’s concern in State of exception is entirely with the suspension of national laws).  It is sadly the case that the invocation of international law as anything other than a rhetorical gesture has become all too common, but the failure to respect its norms or to sanction those responsible for its transgression has not reduced civilians crouching under the bombs or caught in the cross-fire to ‘bare life’.  For an indication of what I have in mind, see ‘The Death of the Clinic‘.