A Baker from Dresden

I returned home to Friedrichshafen on the train from central Germany last Sunday. My wife, daughter, and I had second class tickets on the slow train—which meant a lot of stops. On the second stop, an elderly man got on the train, and asked if he could sit across from me. Sure, I grunted. I liked him, but still had some hopes of escaping a conversation and not revealing my horrible American accent. Alas, my shyness was not to be rewarded. He started talking about how uncomfortable the benches were these days. Screwing up my courage, I said something to the effect that at least they weren’t as uncomfortable as in the past. Covering for my language deficiencies, my German wife piped in that she remembered when the benches were made of wood.

This got him going, and I found myself straining to listen over the rumble of the train. He was a retired baker, it seemed, who had left East Germany in 1954 to come to the West. He was pleasant, and knowing that my wife was also listening (and could translate what I missed later), encouraged him to continue by smiling, making eye contact, and muttering the occasional “Ja.” More of his story came out, of leaving the East, the problems of Communism, and the blessings of life in the West. Just the sort of thing you expect to hear from refugees, even long after they have fled their home.

At some point along the way, he asked us a question, and I let my wife answer again. But then inevitably, she interjected that we were from the United States, and that I was American.

“Ah an Ami, I did not know. Here I was rattling away in German and you do not know what I was saying.” He seemed embarrassed by the situation, and I felt a momentary flush of pride, realizing that I had actually passed as a German for over ten minutes, and probably eight or nine short sentences.

“No, no, it’s ok, the Ami understands some German,” my wise wife added helpfully (gee thanks Dagmar).

“Ah, the Amis! Did you know I am from Dresden in East Germany? And on February 13-15, 1945, the British fire-bombed Dresden. And then the next day the American planes came in over the river at about 40 meters and used their machine guns to shoot the people running away?”

My cover blown, I indicated that yes, I knew about the fire-bombing of Dresden. But he said it all in a friendly way, so I asked him to continue with his story. My wife interjected that many Americans know about Dresden from having read Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

He had never heard of Slaughterhouse Five, and asked what it was about, and my wife told him about Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and his crazy little book about the Dresden fire-bombing. My daughter Kirsten, who read Slaughterhouse Five in English class last year at Bear River High School, in the meantime got out a bag of gummy bears, and offered him some. He took them appreciatively.

He matter-of-factly repeated seeing the American planes strafe the civilian populations up and down the river Elbe. The Baker explained that he was born in 1936 and nine years old at the time, old enough to remember. He also said that the official German statistics that 30,000 civilian dead in the fire-bombing are bogus. He pointed out that there were millions refugees in Dresden at the time, and their deaths were not accounted for.* But he had to go. He thanked us for the conversation, and we thanked him, and he left the train.

Kirsten rides the bus to school every day here in Friedrichshafen. Quite often older men get on the bus; she thinks that there must be a retirement home on the bus line. A few of the old men end up talking to no one in particular. But she says the story is always the same: they talk about war and bombing. Perhaps they are survivors of the bombings of Friedrichshafen, or maybe they are just repeating stories they have heard from others. Friedrichshafen was heavily bombed by the Allies in World War II—the Germans built aircraft here, as well as some of the V-2 rockets which struck England in the last years of the war.

It is almost 63 years since Dresden and Friedrichshafen were bombed, and World War II ended. Wars last a long time, don’t they? I still occasionally meet American World War II veterans, though not so much anymore. After all, to be a World War II veteran, you need to have been born before about 1927, which makes them at least 80 years old today. Also, I rarely take public transportation in the Untied States, and so do not meet strangers as often. And I never meet war witnesses who were nine-year-old civilians. After all, the United States was not affected the same way as Germany, Poland, France, or the other countries where the battles were fought.

I wonder if people riding on street-cars in 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia, have similar experiences? Sixty-three years after the Civil War did Yankees visiting from New York have conversations with the children who remembered Sherman’s march, and former slaves who survived that War? Were there old people sitting on Atlanta’s street cars talking to no one in particular about Sherman’s march through Georgia? I guess also that this means that 63 years after the “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad in 2003, that is in 2066, some “Ami” will be riding public transport in Iraq and will hear tales of that event too.

In my Population class two years ago, we discussed the final pension payment made by the Department of Veterans Affairs made to a Civil War widow—it happened in 2003, 138 years after the Civil War ended. Wars last a long time, don’t they?


*I checked the baker’s memories against internet sources. The received wisdom is that…the charges of American strafing are controversial, meaning some say yes, and some say it didn’t happen. In terms of casualties the actual body count was about 30,000 dead. This represents all the actual bodies found between 1945, and about 1966. This of course is a very conservative estimate, since it does not include anyone incinerated in the fire storm, died after fleeing, or who was buried elsewhere for whatever reason. The consensus number of refugees in Dresden at the time of the is about 200,000 who had fled the advancing Soviet armies moving in from the east. All this is besides the point for this essay, which is about memories of war, and how it structures relationships 63 years later.


Originally posted at Ethnography.com January 25, 2008

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

Mirror Neurons and the Looking Glass Self: The Neural Sciences meet Sociology

Why do neural scientists need expensive MRI machines to “see” what classical sociologists Charles Horton Cooley and George Herbert Mead saw by simply looking into the eyes of children?  This is the subject of my recent article “Of Mirror Neurons and the Looking Glass Self” published in Perspectives on Science.

The Mirror Neuron is a hot thing today in the neural sciences.  The Mirror Neuron hypothesis postulates that a person watching another person do something, imagines that the other person is doing.  How do the neural scientists know this?  Because they can watch it on expensive MRI machines which show that blood flows to the same part of the brain in the person who acts, and the person who observes the person acting.  Pretty cool observation isn’t it?  In fact it is so cool that some people who know about such things are predicting a Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine for the scientists who first developed this line of research in the 1980s and 1990s.

I’m all for Nobel Prizes all around; but it is just too bad that they guys who first observed The Looking Glass Self, Charles Horton Cooley, and George Herbert Mead can’t share in it.  Using the same metaphor of the mirror, they described the Looking Glass Self beginning in 1902.  Cooley’s research subject was his two year old daughter who he simply watched, without a machine, sensors, or anything else.  He just watched her eyes, and saw how she evaluated the response of others, and then acted and reacted based on her interpretations of social action.  Funny thing of course is that he was able to reach very similar conclusions as the neural scientists did—they even used the same metaphor of the mirror/looking glass.

What Cooley saw in 1902 was that the two year old “perfect little actress,” mirroring the thoughts and actions she observed.  He went on to note that it was through this became a social being who developed a sense of “self” which comprehended the nature of the “I” and the “you.”  Over 100 years of social psychology has productively taken advantage of this basic observation to come up with idea popularized by Erving Goffman that “all the world’s a stage,” and that all social humans exist in a reflective world of Looking Glasses and Mirrors (Now that I think of it, isn’t this also the metaphor used by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland?).

Anyway, my critique of the Mirror Neuron hypothesis after years of rejections, harsh reviews, and the other wonders of the peer review process is now available in Perspectives on Science for those of you able to get behind the paywall. The rest of you can access a pre-publication version on my Academia.edu account here.  I of course hope that every sociologist and anthropologist will read it.  I like to believe that it is an effective challenge to the philosophical positivism that dominates the biological scientists with their reductions of society to genes, neurons, hormones, and other biological phenomenon.

Hey, I’m even hopeful that our more positivistic friends over in the biological sciences will take a look, and offer further critique.

(Originally posted at Ethnography.com, May 2014).

Fellowship (Gemeinschaft) by Franz Kafka (1909)

Fellowship (Gemeinschaft)


by Franz Kafka



We are five friends, one day we came out of a house one after the other, first one came and placed himself beside the gate, then the second came, or rather he glided through the gate like a little ball of quicksilver, and placed himself near the first one, then came the third, then the fourth, then the fifth. Finally we all stood in a row. People began to notice us, they pointed at us and said: Those five just came out of that house.

Since then we have been living together, it would be a peaceful life if it weren’t for a sixth one continually trying to interfere. He doesn’t do us any harm, but he annoys us, and that is harm enough; why does he intrude when he is not wanted? We don’t know him and don’t want him to join us.

There was a time, of course, when the five of us did not know one another, either, and it could be said that we still don’t know one another, but what is possible and can be tolerated by the five of us is not possible and cannot be tolerated with this sixth one. In any case, we are five and don’t want to be six. And what is the point of this continual being together anyhow? It is also pointless for the five of us, but here we are together and will remain together; a new combination, however, we do not want, just because of our experiences.

But how is one to make all this clear to the sixth one? Long explanations would almost amount to accepting him in our circle, so we prefer not to explain and not to accept him. No matter how he pouts his lips we push him away with our elbows, but however much we push him away, back he comes.

The above is fast-becoming my favorite text for teaching about the German concept of Gemeinschaft. The concept is fundamental to the sociology of classical sociologists Fedinand Toennies, and Max Weber; both based their sociology on the German concept of Gemeinschaft.

Gemeinschaft is a social group or identity rooted in a sense of belongingness. Members of a Gemeinschaft share personal loyalties to each other because of who they are. They have an “origin story,” share a present, and by implication will share a future together. Families and marital couples are a Gemeinschaft. But so are college fraternities and sororities, doctors guilds, nurses associations, lawyers’ bar associations, fellow citizens, militaries make up their own Gemeinschaft within a larger society. The academic Gemeinschaft dominate universities, college graduate have such respect each others degrees, and political groups do so too. For that matter, it applies to ethnic and linguistic groups as well. The point being that loyalty and privilege is on the basis of inherited or earned rights. Thus when you understand that someone is a member of your group, you offer them a special type of fellowship out of loyalty and mutual obligation, just like the five friends, who did not need a sixth., and do not need to justify why they do not want the sixth.  It just is.

These are the groups in which we as human thrive.  But on the basis of Gemeinschaft we also exclude.

Gemeinschaft is in contrast to the German Gesellschaft, which is a instrumental relationship for which there is no loyalty or future obligation. The market transaction is the most obvious type of Gesellschaft relationship, where you sell your goods, labor, or anything else for hard cold cash in the anonymous marketplace. Money is the nexus, not loyalty or human connection, and once the transaction is complete you have no responsibility to each other.  This type of relationship is the most common one we undertake in the modern world, as we sell our own labor, and buy the labor of others in order to survive, respecting only the lure of cold hard cash.  The classic example of a Gesellschaft-type relationship is the hired killer described by Max Weber. You pay, the killer kills, and the next time you see each other on the street, you ignore each other. Classic Gesellschaft.

And unlike with Gemeinschaft, the Gesellschaft does not need to exclude, except when you do not have money. Thus in the Gemeinschaft, only when there is loyalty and privilege, is there exclusion. Not everyone can be a member of the Gemeinschaft, and in fact the point of a Gemeinschaft is that there is someone who is not part of your group. And of course the point of having a group is that someone else is not part of your group. To be an insider you need an outsider. Which is the Kafkaesque point that the ever-cheerful Franz Kafka made about the nature of the “Fellowship” which is Gemeinschaft.


Kafka, Franz (1909) “Fellowship.”  https://adwilkin.wikispaces.com/file/view/Fellowship.pdf   translated by Tania and James Stern, from Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, edited by Nahum N. Glazer.  Random House, 1946.

Waters, Tony and Dagmar Waters, translators and editors (2015 in press). Chapter 4 “Classes, Staende, Parties” in  Weber’s Rationality and Modern Society.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.