How the teaching-principal instituted business curriculum and was scolded by his mildly illiterate yet perceptive secretary.

During economic downturns, things changed for school board members, many of whom were local small business owners. Their emphasis on saving money in the district reserve rose dramatically since times were getting worse. Reserves climbed during these difficult times from the required 3% sometimes as high as 20% just in case, they argued, the state short changed the schools. And this was no mere fantasy. Sometimes the state did renege on its promises.

But the idea of saving money also translated into resentment for the public employees who didn’t suffer the ill effects of economic downturns. And this, in turn translated into a growing emphasis on “teaching children the value of a dollar.” I felt this was a disguised resentment recast as one of the great lessons of life. This especially was the case when it came to free lunch and breakfast. Some board members even wanted to cancel free lunch and breakfast since this kind of program, they asserted, taught kids that they could get something for nothing. One would often hear them say, ‘There’s no free lunch.”

And this strange mix of resentment and free enterprise ideology led such board members to recommend fundraising for the kids. Not fundraising for the basics such as books or pencils but fundraising for those obvious frivolous items such as playground equipment. Now educators saw play and playground activities in the era prior to the no-nonsense No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 as vital for social, emotional, and intellectual development. But when one’s own local business is suffering a significant downturn, it just didn’t’ seem right to deprive kids of the knowledge that work is more important than play, that money doesn’t grow on trees, and that you can’t be a rugged individualist American if someone is always just handing you something for nothing, especially a free lunch

Thus, if I as the principal wanted to get more or newer or safer playground equipment, then I’d better organize the kids into fundraising campaigns. This was not optional, the school board said. And when I came back to school from a meeting with the Supt and let the school secretary Joleen know about this new plan, she responded with a stoic but not completely detached look. She had opinions but would save them for now.

The playground equipment fundraiser took off with a basic business question: what was the profit margin in the stuff we would sell? Experienced fundraisers taught us that it was chocolate bars. You could get specially ordered, delicious gourmet chocolate bars branded with your school name printed on the wrapper, sell them for $2 each and make $1.50 per bar. The ones with almonds in them could be sold for $2.50 and you would make $1.75 per bar. This was a great product and a great program. Luckily it was February so the possibility of melting chocolate bars and disappearing profits was out of the picture. A parent from the parent club (also a small business family) spear-headed the project. Our 4th and 5th graders were outfitted with 10 bars each to sell in their neighborhoods door to door and to their friends and family. They were to bring the money back to us and then become eligible for a set of collective prizes: class pizza party or items for ‘fun and learning’ such as crayons or colored pencils with paper. It was a splendid little strategy of extortion! The whole effort would last for one week so the chocolate would go out and the money come back in a timely manner.

Things went well for the first three days as the money rolled in. The parent manager of the program dutifully collected envelopes full of cash from the working parents who drove up to the school with their kids. The bus kids also brought their envelopes with money back. The manager then deposited the loot in our special district account. But by day 4 some problems started to pop up. First, a heat wave struck. The temperature soared to 101 degrees. This meant that the chocolate that had not been returned would be melted and in no condition to sell.

On Friday when all the money or the left over chocolate was due, there were some kids who didn’t sell the candy and also didn’t return the unsold bars. Suddenly, this problem became my problem to solve. It was a situation that was bigger than lost money. The fact that this project was a hugely important part of the small business curriculum for which I might be held accountable hit home hard. How could the kids learn about business and becoming self-reliant individualists if they had a project that lost money?

By 10am the project manager had identified the 8 delinquent chocolate sellers and by noon she had made contact with all but one of them and their families. In each situation, the story was similar. The candy got lost. That was it. Who was to say it wasn’t lost? Of course we knew that the candy was eaten, or melted or sold, and the money kept by the family. The parent manager actually said this to one of the parents.

In about 5 minutes the father showed up outraged. He was dressed in logger boots, a tank top, old jeans and wore a fairly big buck knife on his belt that I thought might be associated with his missing finger before I remembered that missing fingers were signs of pride for mill workers. I welcomed him into my office where Joleen and I shared a small space. Joleen took one look at him and left.

He squatted on his haunches in the corner of the office like he was getting ready for a bar fight. “ ‘You sayin’ we stole the money?” he said angrily.

“No,” I said. “No one is saying that.”

“She done said it,” he responded, indicating the parent manager had made this insulting comment. “We give the chocolate to our kid and he brung it this morning. Just call my kid in here and we’ll cut this story down to size.”

We called 4th grade Cody into the office. Cody arrived with chocolate smeared all over his face and hands.

His dad roared at him in anger. “You done ‘et the candy, you little son of a bitch.

I’m going to whup you hard, boy.”

Cody started crying and without thinking I said, “Wait, lets check the records to see if Cody won his chocolate in the lottery.”

I had seen enough beaten kids to intervene here. I rummaged through some files and said, “Hey, this is amazing, Congratulations Cody. You get the chocolate for free!”

His dad changed his demeanor immediately.

“Well that’s lucky. We was always lucky in our family,” he said. “Grandpa won his stake in a poker game and bought the land we are livin’ on today. And now Cody won his chocolate. Damn boy, that’s fine!”

With that, they left. The hit to the profits was minimal, we were able to buy a new jungle gym and Cody didn’t get beaten. All in all, it was a good fundraiser.

Joleen was disgusted. In private she later said to me, “It ain’t right. Kid’s don’t need to sell on the street to fix up their playground. That be the job of them cheapskate business owners. Me, my brothers and sisters worked pickin’ fruit when we was little, and that wasn’t right neither. These kids, they come to school for learnin’, not to work for some candy company.”

Originally posted at Ethography.com in May 2016

Bruce Wayne and George Orwell Philosophize, or “Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. Just have to figure out what he’s after.”

     Colonial Burma has a strange hold on the colonial British imagination—it is a remote and exotic place where the British were not very successful in holding sway. And the place it emerges occasionally is in the inability of the west to “understand” the east. Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s butler in the film Batman Returns (2008) had some experience in colonial Burma which sheds some light on how the British might have thought about their imperial adventure there. Indeed, he is even able to relate it to he problem of The Joker, a maniacal character who savaged Wayne’s own Gotham City.

Bruce Wayne: “I knew the mob wouldn’t go down without a fight, but this is different. They crossed the line.”

Alfred Pennyworth: “You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them. You hammered them to the point of desperation. And, in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.”

Bruce Wayne: “Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. Just have to figure out what he’s after.”

Alfred Pennyworth: “With respect, Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man that you don’t fully understand, either. A long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So we went looking for the stones. But, in six months, we never met anybody who traded with him. One day, I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.”

Bruce Wayne: “So why steal them?”

Alfred Pennyworth: “Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn. …”

Bruce Wayne: “The bandit, in the forest in Burma, did you catch him?”

Alfred Pennyworth: “Yes.”

Bruce Wayne: “How?”

Alfred Pennyworth: “We burned the forest down.”

I picked this exchange out of a Thomas Friedman column, in which he advocates intervention in Arab states which are “decent,” but oddly concludes that outsiders can indeed use their military power to intervene in such circumstances. This is an odd conclusion, because what Alfred is saying, I think, is that the danger of massive over-reaction (burning the forest down), can be a disproportionate response to an evil, which only makes the evil worse.

Had Alfred been on his toes though, he might have gone on to recommend the short story of his colleague in the Burman colonial service, Eric Blair a.k.a. George Orwell, to Bruce Wayne and Friedman. “Shooting an Elephant” is part of Orwell’s memoir of colonial Burma, where he was once a colonial officer developing a skepticism about the imperial project. A domesticated elephant had come into its period of “must,” and began to wreak havoc in the town, killing a low-status man. But when Orwell arrived with his big gun, the elephant’s period of must had passed, and it was placidly browsing, as elephants will do. Orwell (or his character) must make a decision. Does he shoot the peaceful elephant as the crowd expects, or does he let it browse—since it is no longer dangerous to anyone.

As the representative of British colonial power, Orwell, is widely despised by the crowd—he recalls:

I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter.

But the crowd wants blood revenge taken on the poor elephant. And besides if it is killed, they can take the meat.

So if Orwell shoots the elephant, he will satisfy the bloodlust of the crowd, but continue to be despised for killing the valuable property of a local mahout. If he lets the elephant go, the crowd will think him a coward, and still despise him. So the choice of the young Orwell is, do I shoot and be hated, or do I not shoot and be hated? By shooting the elephant, he is symbolically burning down the forest and therefore making a fool of himself. By not shooting the elephant, he is being a wimp, or in his word, a fool.  Some choice.

So what does he do and why?  No spoiler alert, you will have to read the brief original essay yourself to find out.  I will note though that Orwell himself noted that there was a division of opinion about what to do among the Europeans:

Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said [it was right to shoot the elephant], the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie.

But isn’t this the same choice that Alfred Pennypacker presented to The Dark Knight? Both burning down the forest and shooting the elephant may satisfy immediate short-term needs, but are they really in the longer-term interest of anyone?

Originally posted at Ethnogrpahy.com on February 11, 2016

Prison Vignette: Educators Only Whisper in a Custody World

This is an extract from our book Prison Vocational Education in the United States.  Palgrave MacMillan 2016, by Andrew J. Dick, William Rich, and Tony Waters.  

The passivity of the education administrators was at first striking, but I came to understand it as a normal response to this system where the concept of safety as defined by custody officials always holds sway. Custody was in charge and they held all information confidential. Lives could be at stake, they dramatically whispered.

This perspective at first appeared melodramatic. To make matters worse, correctional custody officers in green uniforms are closely watched by internal affairs custody officers in black uniforms. The black uniforms make sure the green uniforms are not involved with smuggling cell phones, drugs, and other contraband, which can be a very lucrative side business.

The dangers custody feared became more apparent when a librarian was stabbed in one of the prisons we visited. The incident emphasized to all that inmates are locked up because they are criminals, not simply the victims of poverty, poor education, alienating foster care, neglect, childhood abuse, and violence. They could hurt other people, and the librarian was just one victim of that convoluted world.

A gang contract had been put out on a prison employee and an elaborate plan developed to carry out the contract. The outcome placed the librarian as a player in another Kafkaesque scene, because she was not the target of the contract. But the inmates were intent on stabbing the person identified by the gang arrived at the appointed location but went through the wrong door to the library. The intended victim was not there. Left on their own to figure out what to do next, they decided they should stab someone, even if it was the wrong person. So the librarian was stabbed and killed. The entire prison went on lockdown since the incident because it was feared that more gang violence would follow if inmates had contact with each other. Lockdown means every inmate remains in his cell. Inmate movement outside cells to eat, exercise, stand in line to get meds, or go to or from class is a chief source of problems for custody officials.

With such experiences in mind, education administrators inevitably deferred to custody officials. One vice principal crystallized the concept with the statement, “It’s a custody world.” For anyone operating in prisons, it is truly a world controlled and defined by custody officials. This results in a passivity among educators that gave me the impression that principals, vice principals, and teachers made few decisions. They wrote reports, accreditation applications, consulted with other officials, and moved paper around, but none actually pressed a particular instructional agenda. They seemed to have mastered the bureaucratic skill of waiting for orders. The issue detailed in the “Greenhouse” story (see Chapter XX) only confirmed this perspective.

Passivity appeared was most evident in situations where important educational decisions were made. Placement hearings serve as a prime example. When inmates enter the prison system, they are assessed and assigned to a level based on their danger of violence using a custody risk scale of I (low) to IV (high) which depends on commitment offense, sentence, gang affiliations, disciplinary record, and so on. After each inmate arrives at a new prison, they meet with a board consisting of a counselor, custody captain, an educator, and any other appropriate experts such as medical personnel. The school principal is also invited. This is a placement hearing, and since the advent of AB 900, its educational purpose is to determine the most effective path towards rehabilitation for each inmate. The educational decisions should move the inmate toward a GED and a vocational trade certificate.

However, these hearing committees have been in place for a long time before AB 900 and serve another purpose, not easily displaced even by legislation: the safe operation of the prison by placing individuals in the context of their medical needs, the gestalt of the yards and prison gangs. So, inmates were placed expediently in a class with an opening so that no seat remained empty—educational goals were peripheral. The educational representatives in placement hearings, left in the dark about the information custody officials used to make placement decisions, were relegated to making uninformed suggestions to a committee. Likewise, the inmates we interviewed believed their educational interests had nothing to do with the work of these placement committees.

For example, once while visiting a welding classroom in another prison, I had a conversation with an inmate-student who looked as if he were studying the text intensely. I introduced myself to him and he was very willing to talk with me. I asked him if he used the new electronic welding simulator in the classroom. This simulator looked a bit like a video game with a rod that students manipulated as if they were actually making a weld. The student told me in broken English that he was already a welder on “the street” so he already knew most of what was taught in this class. His big problem was that he couldn’t pass the written tests since he couldn’t read English very well. He indicated that if he had a Spanish-English text in which he could read for understanding in Spanish and then learn English at the same time, he would succeed in the course. He had already failed several tests in English and believed he didn’t have a chance to pass any other tests in English.

I wish these prinicpals would take a risk in the placement hearings. Their passivity in accepting the “custody world” left me frustrated and disappointed. To make matters worse, the areas where they spent their energy were narrowly focused on operational matters: How many days off could teachers take, and why did they take them on that day? From an operational perspective, these issues are important because they impact instruction. Yet one hopes that educational leaders would stretch beyond keeping the classrooms staffed as a mission for their professional lives.

Following these experiences, I expected that some relationship existed between the level of custody risk of the inmates in the prison and the degree of passivity exemplified by the principal and vice principal. In other words, it seemed reasonable that in the institutions that housed the highest risk Level IV inmates, the educational administrators would be the most passive. Even starker custody requirements overpowered rehabilitative efforts through education. However, once again, prison surprised me.

One prison in our study is famous, even notorious, for the heinous nature of the inmates housed there. Prisoners who entered the prison system were involved in violent behavior, intense gang activity, or increase the threat they posed to others and custody staff to be transferred to this prison.

After we arrived at this dank place, we were met by the principal, a woman who wore warm pants and a jacket. She welcomed us and was eager to know what we wanted to see. When we were checked in through the security checkpoint, the principal addressed the officer by name saying, “Good Morning Officer” and introduced us as visiting researchers.

We spent time talking about the study as we walked through the gate and saw the yards for the first time. There were many smaller sections of yard fenced off for different groups of prisoners so they would not be able to form a large group and rush a door. This had been learned through an unfortunate experience in the past.

We visited a shop class with a very effective teacher, where the principal introduced us, again addressing the person by his name. She also introduced us to the correctional officer who was assigned to the classroom and addressed him by his name. She then left us so we could observe.

Later, the principal led us to the educational programs being offered in the highest security section of the prison, in “administrative segregation.” As the principal took us up a flight of stairs, we ran into the assistant warden. He stopped and said, “Good Morning,” and the principal introduced us. He told us that he had not believed the program we were on our way to see could work but the principal finally convinced him to try it. The assistant warden is now the biggest supporter based on the results with the inmates. The principal then explained to us what a huge difference it made to work with such an open-minded, dedicated, and caring individual as the assistant warden. She let him know our itinerary and indicated she could be available at any time even though visitors were present. He indicated he would see us again in the program we were on our way to visit.

When we arrived in the area, we not exactly underground but it felt that way. We were surrounded by concrete, bulletproof glass, steel doors, and steel bars. When we entered the Administrative Segregation Unit (Ad Seg), we were required to check in with the checkpoint officers and issued standard bulletproof vests. The principal greeted each of the officers by name and then introduced us. An officer was then appointed to serve as our guide and take us into one of the pods. These pods consisted of hallways, like spokes of a wheel, with a console and armed officer at the center hub. The officer wore a helmet with a visor that extended below his chin. He wore a bulletproof vest, and an automatic rifle was slung across his chest. This officer was sitting in a kind of turret so he could easily swivel to see any of the hallways. This turret sat above us with no way to enter from below without first going through a kind of hatch that he controlled. The principal waved and said hello to him, also addressing him by his name. He smiled down and they exchanged greetings.

We were led into one of the hallways where four or five cells were lined up next to each other. Each cell held only one man who was clad in a kind of white underwear, long shorts and a T-shirt. In the cell were a closed-circuit computer and monitor that provided the programmed learning that made the assistant warden so proud. Inmate students were making steady progress toward getting a GED using this equipment and program.

The cell itself was completely concrete and contained two bunks, a toilet, and sink. We saw through what looked like 4-inch steel bars into the cell from the hallway. We spoke with the inmate who told us about the program and how glad he was to have something to do in this cell.

Two cells away, the principal was leaning against the bars and speaking very softly, whispering through the bars to an inmate and listening to him intently. I walked over slowly and learned the story. This young man was tattooed on his neck and face and finishing the last weeks of a 10 year to life sentence. He was to be paroled in three weeks and, as the system required, would be released with $200 back to the county of his crime, Los Angeles. He appeared to be upset, as if he would almost come to tears. The principal introduced me to him addressing him by his name and changed the subject to his use of the computer and the program. He explained he enjoyed the learning and felt he was close to earning a GED. We were then escorted to the exercise area at the end of the hall. It was a small concrete room outside, and looking up the 15 foot walls, one could just catch a glimpse of cloud or, if very lucky, sunshine.

She explained to me that this young man was 26 years old and had entered prison at 16. He was terrified to return to his neighborhood because he feared being killed by his gang or a rival gang if he did not rejoin and become an active member. The principal said she simply spoke reassuring words to him, but also told him she would advocate for him.

On the way out of the Ad Seg unit, walking down the tunnel-like hall, we passed a correctional officer sitting in a chair looking at what appeared to be the wall. As we came closer, we saw that he was watching a naked man lying down in a small cell. The principal introduced us to this officer addressing him by his name, and at that point, the assistant warden appeared again. He asked us about our visit, and we shared how impressed we were at the system and programmed learning that received praise from the inmates. We then turned back to the officer and asked him what he was doing. He shared that he was waiting for the inmate to pass a pen that he had shoved up his anus. The inmate could see us through the glass, and the principal moved further down the hallway. I quickly followed.

We exited and walked through the yards to the library. Along the way, we encountered several correctional officers and were introduced to each by name. In the library, a teacher and two porters (assistants) managed a closed-circuit academic program that could help an inmate earn an Associate of Arts degree through a community college in southern California. All courses, lessons, and work were to be accomplished individually by inmate students in their cells. We were introduced to the teacher and the porters as well. Each porter was addressed by his name with the respectful salutation, Mr. We enjoyed an informative conversation about the way their program operated. The porters managed an extensive file system of student work and other assignments that could be taken while locked in a cell.

We continued to visit with the principal over lunch and learned about her background in the correctional system. She had been a teacher and recently completed an MA degree at a nearby state university. Her major paper addressed the issue of selecting and educating teachers for work in prisons. I asked her if she could share her paper with me, and she made a point of bringing it to us the next day in the parking lot. Her interest and questioning perspective combined with her desire to build a team across the education- custody divide was remarkable.

It was clear from the interactions I witnessed and took part in that this principal knew and respected every correctional officer she met. She saw herself on the same team with custody officials, not a member of a group with separate goals for inmates. She moved easily among inmates throughout the institution, whether in cells, the library, or classrooms. She knew the teachers well and was able to understand what they needed. I never sensed disdain for custody staff; neither did I sense passivity about any part of her role in the institution. This principal worked through and with custody staff for the benefit of her students, and did not relinquish power to them in ways that would foster the resentment we saw elsewhere.

Subservient passivity of education to custody within prison environments is the wrong response. The institution we visited in this story contains the highest threat inmates and, in some ways, appears to be operated for the violently insane, yet this principal was not subservient to custody officials. It might be said she held a servant attitude towards the ideas and ideals of each role: custody and education. And her adherence to each did not exclude the other. Like a good teacher, she treated custody staff as her students, individuals to be understood, not opposed. And once understood, she was able to elicit a kind of membership, Gemeinschaft, in the mission she carried into the prison: rehabilitation through education.

“It’s the State Pen, not Penn State” Three Professors Go to Prison!

Every once in a awhile, I get to write an excited blog because after some years, a new book is published. Or rather a book I wrote is published! This is one of these blogs. The pretentiously titled Vocational Prison Education in the United States by Andy Dick, Bill Rich, and Tony Waters is now available for your reading pleasure! The title not quite catch your attention? Well ok, here is what we really wanted to call it: Three Professors Go To Prison. Our publisher, who knows about things like marketing $100.00 books to academic libraries, insisted the former title was better. And they got their way. Now you can do us a big favor by making sure that your library buys the book, and you read it. To convince you that it is worth reading, a couple of the “vignettes” which describe our experiences behind the walls of California’s prisons are linked below.

One reason the publisher chose such a boring title is that the origin of the book is in fact pretty boring. In 2008, the three of us, all professors at California State University, Chico, were hired by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to evaluate the vocational education courses they started in 2007 with a half billion bucks signed off by California’s Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger who has a tough guy movie persona, also has the heart of a Austrian youth who himself went through vocational training at in Europe at a young age. As Califronia’s governor, he wanted to nurture criminals into following a better path—by training them for the job market. This is all fine, and still a little boring. But what made a seemingly boring project really interesting for three geeky professors was that we would have unusual access to inmates, teachers, correctional officers, and prison administrators. (At least that was the cock-n-bull tale we told ourselves. To be honest, we were probably just pretentious).

So for three years Andy, Bill, and I were in and out of California’s prisons, watching the programs we were evaluating crumble under the weight of first the Great Recession, and then a US Supreme Court decision which noted that the conditions in California’s over-crowded prisons were in fact cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore unconstitutional.

I know what you are thinking. Why is a stupid report about vocational education of any relevance to anybody when the prisons were in financial free fall, and an instrument of mass cruelty to boot? Anyway, if you weren’t thinking that, we were. And to be honest, the hard-working vocational teachers, correctional officers, and prison administrators were probably wondering the same thing. They put their hearts into Governor Schwarzenegger dream, while trying to maintain the day-to-day reality of their life in a prison on which the justice system was placing demands to rehabilitate, punish, protect the public, and ensure security all at the same time   And thus this book which is really about the contradictions in nurturing human minds through education, in a place that is designed to punish the human mind. As one wise prison officer reminded us, “This is the state pen, not Penn State.”

So yes, this is a book about writing a report. But the back story is indeed interesting, and in a lot of respects what gives the book legs. Here are some short extracts:

Chapter 2 Applied Research in California’s Prisons
Chapter 7 Sunglasses
Chapter 14 Educators only Whisper in a Custody World

Like I wrote above, please ask your library to order a copy!

The Last Auschwitz Trial, Moral Guilt, and Criminal Guilt

On June 2, 2015, I attended the trial of Oskar Groening, a German SS officer who was assigned to Auschwitz in 1942-1944. He is being tried for being an accomplice to murder of 300,000 people at Auschwitz, the number of people sent to the gas chambers during the time he was there. Another 100,000 were sent to work during the same period, where many more died from hunger and the cold. Most were Hungarian Jews. His trial is in Luenburg, Germany, where I am a Guest Professor this summer. The trial is here because he lives in this judicial district.

At Auschwitz, Groening worked as a bookkeeper. His assignment was to catalog the luggage, money, and affects from the luggage of Jews brought to Auschwitz and send it to Berlin. By his own account, he was also occasionally assigned to guard duty, including at the entry point to Auschwitz, where an early decision was made about who would go to the gas chambers, and who would live a bit longer by one of the SS officers assigned that task.

After the war, Groening was sent to a British Prisoner of War Camp in Britain until about 1947. After that, he returned to Germany, and lived with his family near where I am staying in Lueneburg, and had a middle class lifestyle until retirement in the 1980s.

Groening told his wife never to ask about what he did during the war. And apparently this was the case until about 1984. Groening was a stamp collector, and very active in local philately club. One of his acquaintances in the club told him about a new radical view emerging in parts of Germany (and elsewhere) that the Holocaust was a fable-that it never happened, and that what happened at Auschwitz was not technically feasible. He recommended a book by a “Holocaust denier.” Groening took the book, apparently read it, and then returned it with a note: “I saw everything. The gas chambers, the cremations, the selection process. One and a half million Jews were murdered in Auschwitz. I was there.”

With this note, Groening, as an Auschwitz guard, became a minor celebrity. Over the next thirty years his testimony about death, selection procedures, gas chambers, and crematoria were written about in German and international publications. The message of the former “bookkeeper of Auschwitz” was the same: “I was there, I saw it, I still lose sleep over it, I knew what happened when I was there, I am morally guilty, and it must never happen again.” He accepted moral guilt for his participation in the Holocaust. He continues this testimony up to this day, and regrets his participation.

But moral guilt and criminal guilt are two different things. Courts are in charge of criminal guilt, and over the decades, they have established criteria for who should be tried for genocide and crimes against humanity. A number of the organizers and more sadistic guards at Auschwitz were convicted at the end of the war, and hanged or imprisoned by the victorious Allies. Others were given sentences, most of which were shortened in the 1950s, and then released. Most of 6,000 or so SS who served in Auschwitz between 1942 and 1945 have of course since died of old age.

But the question for the courts linger. At what level of responsibility should the perpetrators be held accountable? Who is a perpetrator, who is an accomplice, and who is just a bureaucratic functionary? Is there a difference? Recently, German prosecutors assert that being a cog in the machine, whether a guard or a bookkeeper at Auschwitz, was enough since how could the Holocaust have been committed, unless the “little people” following orders and participated? People like Oskar Groening, and others, even if they did not make the “big decisions” have criminal guilt, too. The fact is that if the little people had not been there, the 1.2 million people could not have been delivered to the crematoria of Auschwitz by just 6,000 SS.

So, consistent with this principle, German courts in 2012 issued what are probably the final arrest warrants for World War II war crimes. The indictments are for men who were guards and bureaucrats—and by now all are in their 90s. Groening continues to acknowledge moral guilty, but claims not to be criminally guilty—but is willing to let the court decide.

Groening’s trial for being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 people began here in Lueneburg this last April, and will be concluded in July. A few survivors of Auschwitz gave testimony in April and May—they are in their late 70s and 80s, and all acknowledge that they personally did not remember Groening being there. Children of survivors have also related the stories of their parents. The day I was in court on June 2, the witness was Angela Orosz-Richt. Her parents were sent to Auschwitz in May 1944 and she was born secretly in Auschwitz’ barracks just before Christmas in 1944.

At the ramp in May 1944, her father was sent one direction, never to be seen again—presumably went straight to gas chambers, and was turned to ashes at Auschwitz’ crematoria soon after. Her mother was eventually selected by Dr. Josef Mengele for medical experiments on sterilization. Mengele sterilized her in a series of experiments which involved injecting hot burning substances into her cervix, apparently without noticing that she was pregnant. And seven months later, in the dead of winter, Oroscz-Richt was born in the Auschwitz, weighing only one kilogram. Two months later, Russian soldiers liberated Auschwitz. The young mother and her baby made her way back to Budapest where she remembered being asked for her place of birth, and writing “Auschwitz.”

They later moved to Canada where Angela Orosz-Richt had a daughter. Oroscz-Richt had heard about Auschwitz from her mother on occasion: about the burning shots in her cervix from Dr. Mengele, the hunger, and the cold. But she said the stories really came out when her own daughter in 1986 questioned her grandmother about family history for a school report. And that apparently was the details we heard of her mother’s story tumbled out in court on June 5, 2015.

Angela Orosz-Richt visited Auschwitz, her birthplace, for the first time last January on the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the camp—walking her way around her birthplace, wondering if she was walking on the ashes of her own father.

My sense is that Groening will be convicted—but then what will happen? The penalty for accomplice to murder of 300,000 people is up to 15 years in prison for a 93 year old man.

A few court dates have been cancelled due to his health, but most have been conducted. Notably, the other defendants in the indictment have been excused from prosecution due to ill health, and other incapacity—it is generally believed that Groening’s will be the last of the World War II war crimes trial.

Germany today is of course a very different place than it was in 1944, and 1945 when it committed the Holocaust, and was bombed into submission by the victorious Allies. Still even in 2015, The War is always present. There are the understated memorials to those who died, which include the brass “bricks” in German streets identifying where the Jews lived before they were deported and murdered at places like Auschwitz.

There are also occasional memorials to civilians and soldiers who died. The obelisks of the Memorial the Murdered Jews in Berlin is the most well-known perhaps, and the most disconcerting. Disorientation was indeed its purpose. And there are frequent documentaries and stories in the German press each time a significant anniversary comes, or major figure dies.

In some ways, trials like Groening’s are in their own way also a memorial to World War II victims. I was impressed that the majority of the people attending the trial (which was translated into English, Hungarian, and Hebrew), were young people, many in the twenties. They struck me as modern Germans, too, some had piercings and other fashion statements of the 21st century. And yet they were there, to hear about the crimes of a really old man, and the testimony of a 70 year old woman who described the horrors of what can easily be thought of as a different time. But their presence, and the coverage by the press, asserted that the acknowledgment of the horrors of World War II is still important.

As for Oskar Groening himself, I do not yet know quite what to think. Germans I have talked to find his behavior at Auschwitz worthy of censure and conviction—they find the distinction between “moral guilt” and “criminal guilt” to be specious, and the scope of the crime committed to be so extraordinary that it is worthy of censure seventy years later. How can passively watching of the Auschwitz gas chambers and crematoria which Groening admitted, be excused? And yet, I also find Groening to be a tragic figure—he was after all the one who reacted so vociferously and vigorously after the Holocaust denier approached him at the stamp collectors meeting in 1985, and for thirty years has consistently insisted that it happened, it was criminal, and must never happen again.

One of my Facebook friends thought a play could be written about the case. I think that she may be right. Plays are well-suited to tragedy, and this is yet another appropriate way to tell the story of Holocaust and the ordinary people—people like me, if truth be told—who observe, but do not obstruct?

Such trials are of course never enough to equal the scope of the crime committed, but neither are memorials. But in a small way, such trials are a gift of Germany to the world, by a country that committed one of the greatest crimes ever. By pursuing Oskar Groening 70 years after the war, the young people with the piercings who were at the trial, or watching the television coverage, will relay to their own grandchildren in 50 years, what it was like to gaze into the faces of people who saw Auschwitz.

Related Writing

To read more about my thoughts regarding justice, genocide, and war please see Chapter 5 of When Killing is a Crime linked here, a recent blog about bodies from the Kagera River linked here, and what a baker once told me about the fire bombing of Dresden linked here.

Originally Posted, June 2015 at Ethnography.com

Participant Observation at Its Best: How Max Weber Concluded Nine out of Ten Politicians are Windbags!

It was January 1919, and Max Weber was on a roll in his career as a German politician, journalist, and academic.  Germany had on November 11, 1918, more or less surrendered to the Allied forces of France, Britain, Italy and the United States, and Germany slowly began to collapse into an anarchic state. Bavaria sort of seceded under the apologist Kurt Eisner, and set up its own government—this new government was releasing documents from the Bavarian archives so that the Allies meeting at Versailles could better make the case that World War I was indeed started solely by Germany.

Street demonstrations were erupting in Berlin, and the Spartacist forces of Karl Liebcknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were ruling the streets (Liebknecht and Luxemburg were assassinated that same month, on January 15).

The Rhineland was being occupied, and Max himself was campaigning vigorously as a Center-Left candidate of German Democratic Party, even as he was publishing articles in the German press critical of the Allied role in starting World War I.

It was indeed a lively time.

Let’s see what he had to say as the month went by in his role as a political speechifier, journalist, and academic:

Standing (unsuccessfully) on the German Democratic Party (DDP) list for the new German Parliamentary elections of January 1919, he made speeches proclaiming sentiments like:

We have this revolution to thank for the fact that we cannot send a single division against the Poles.  All we see I dirt, muck, dung, and horse-play—nothing else.  Liebkencht belongs in the madhouse and Rosa Luxemburg in the zoological gardens. (see Radkau 2009:507)

In other words Weber knew himself what it felt like to be a full-throated political hack.

It gets better though.   Justifying Germany’s war conduct in an essay “War Guilt” published in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine in January 1919, in which Weber blamed The Russians and Belgians for provoking World War I:

In the case of this war there is one, and only one power that desired it under all circumstances through its own will and, according to their political goals required: Russia…it never crossed [my] mind that a German invasion of Belgium [in 1914] was nothing but an innocent act on the part of the Germans…

Finally, at the end of the month on January 28, 1919, he was invited to give a speech, the long-winded “Politics as Vocation” by the Student Union of Munich University.  What did he have to say about politics?  He could no longer compare the now-assassinated “revolutionary of the street” Rosa Luxemburg to creatures in the zoo.  So he wrote something that echoes through the annals of social theory even today

 …in nine cases out of ten I was dealing with windbags who do not genuinely feel what they are talking o themselves but who are making themselves drunk on romantic sensations

This is of course the speech that has endured; it is part of “Politics as Vocation” which is considered to be one of the most important essays about the sociology of politics ever written, and which should be part of every liberal education in ways that the two other things cited here should not.

But talk about a participant observation as a research technique!  If anyone was to know about the how and why of political windbaggery, it was certainly Weber.  January 1919 was indeed Weber’s month!

 

Originally Posted at Ethnography.com in March 2014.