The Commandant by Rudolph Hoess (Book Review)

Photo of Rudolf Hoess
Photo of Rudolf Hoess
Photo of Rudolf Hoess, the infamous commander of Auschwitz, and the author of this book.

Rudolph Hoess was the SS Commandant over the concentration camp at Auschwitz during World War II. Under his direction well over a million would die (Eichmann claimed 2.5 million!). These were not primarily enemy combatants but civilians – men, women, and children (primarily Jews).

Hoess wrote about his time at Auschwitz, not only what he did but how he thought and felt. This particular edition entitled The Commandant has been edited by Jurg Amann for length and clarity. It is a small volume of only 111 pages.

I found it highly disturbing, anxiety inducing, stomach churning – in other words, just what is needed. It is a prophylactic against future genocides, may God save us. It is an inducement to action in the present against ongoing genocides, God help us.

“But I must admit openly that the gassings had a calming effect on me…Up to this point it was not clear to me, nor to Eichmann, how the killing of the expected masses was to be done. Perhaps by gas? But how, and what kind of gas….Now I was at ease.”
– Rudolph Hoess, pg. 70.

Let me digress for a moment and speak as an American Christian. I suspect that someday when God reveals to us the true nature of the good and evil which we have done in our lives we will find that our apathy stands far above and beyond so many of the sins we endeavor so faithfully to avoid today.

Further, I suspect that our myopic dedication to these rote sins is an endeavor to distract our consciences from the true nature of our own selfishness.

Lord, save me from my apathy. From my righteous indignation over the sins of others that I use to assuage my burning conscience.

Stay Informed: Why College Tuition Has Increased So Much

Frustrated Student

A topic which has garnered significant attention in recent years – and especially during the presidential campaigns – is the significant increases in college tuition and the consequent backbreaking increases in student debt.

Doug Webber (Temple University) has written an interesting analysis of the cause(s) of this situation for FiveThirtyEight (aka, Nate Silvers & co.).

The overarching message is that there is no single cause of the tuition boom. The reason for rising costs differs based on the type of institution and the state it’s in, and even varies over time. But, at least among public institutions, the dominant factor has been a steady decrease in support for higher education on the part of state legislatures.”

Prior to reading this article my uninformed pseudo-opinion was that the bulk of cost increases came from unnecessary spending. This analysis, however, forces me to rethink that viewpoint.

That said in my (humble? I hope!) opinion, there may still be room for some navel-gazing within higher ed. There are three areas that come to mind:

  1. Reducing expenditures on buildings, especially in instances where existing buildings are sufficient, or where the architecture is unnecessarily elaborate.1I tend toward pragmatism, as opposed to the aesthetic – so judge the validity of this comment as you may. I’m simply saying that I think most students would prefer lower tuition over highly vaulted ceilings (which result in a significant uptick in heating/cooling costs on an indefinite basis; in addition to the extra cost in construction).
  2. Reducing expenditures on unnecessary services, especially in cases where the educational value is questionable and/or the value in recruiting students is minimal.2e.g., While I consider it important to maintain functional, clean, and quality gym equipment – the latest and greatest gadgets may not be necessary. Another example might be televisions. I’m not saying not to have them in the residence halls or in the gyms, but I do think that generally they are an unnecessary expense that causes detriment to students. e.g., Many guys I know (including myself) will be drawn to focus on a TV no matter what is on (even if it is extremely uninteresting) and this causes a deterioration in the quality of conversation that can occur and the ability to study/think. As such, I’d suggest they be in recreational areas but avoided in most other areas.
  3. Utilizing and contributing to open source systems, such as those available from the Kuali Foundation. The prices of higher ed software is often high while the quality of the software is low.

This said, I realize that the potential cost savings I have mentioned above will not make a huge dent in student tuitions…and I would even go so far as to say that I’m not entirely sure the money should go to tuition decreases.

In many cases the faculty and staff of an educational institution are poorly compensated. This can be a social justice issue, which by its very nature should be corrected. It also has indirect negative effects on both the institution and the students. If faculty/staff need to work second jobs to survive, this reduces their availability to the institution and to the students. Tired faculty/staff result in decreased classroom lecture quality, decreased opportunities for personal interactions with students, and increase the more base aspects of our natures (e.g., temper, apathy, etc.).

I’d love to know what you think!

The Leaders We Deserved by Alvin S. Felzenberg (Book Review)

History has the potential to be our tutor in humility. I will not claim any excellence in humility, but I will say that what humility I have is in large part due to reading history.

The Leaders We Deserved by Alvin S. Felzenberg is one of the better historical tutors as it exposes to us not only the lives and actions of our leaders but also the times, controversies, and cultures in which they led.

History can be dull and dry – because the writing makes it so, or the topics are mundane, or because we fail to see what it has to teach us. Yet history can also be exciting and insightful – history teaches us truths like:

  1. Those we judge today as scoundrels or imbeciles are oftentimes our heroes of yesterday.
  2. What seems the only way, the right way, frequently proves the wrong way with the passing of time.
  3. We are greater and worse than those who came before us – leaving us to consider, will we search out the sins of our generation and forsake them or will future generations look back at us in dismay?
  4. We repeat our past with variations. We are not the first to face such a dilemma, nor are we likely to be the last.
  5. People operate within a personal and cultural milieu; their actions are heavily weighted by their experiences and a little more listening, a little more grace, can go a long way towards understanding and appreciating the other.

Lets look at a few examples and I will share some of the lessons I learn from these historical truths:

  1. Anti-immigrant sentiment is not a new phenomenon. John Adams supported and enforced the Alien and Sedition Acts which specifically targeted immigrants. (pg. 258)
    1. Lesson: Anti-immigrant movements are not a new phenomena nor should one dismiss such movements as intellectually crippled, for great minds have supported them.
    2. Question for Consideration: Who were anti-immigration policies focused on? (Hint: Those who now proclaim themselves proudly and truly American were oftentimes the very individuals opposed in the past, e.g. the Irish)
  2. Nor is suppression of freedom of speech a new phenomenon – as John Adams used one of the laws in the Alien and Sedition acts to suppress political opponents. (pg. 258)
    1. Lesson: Freedom of speech has been threatened by great leaders in the past; it is not a new threat, nor does it being threatened mean that we are imminently facing its extinction.1Not that I am suggesting we should stop fighting for freedom of speech or be aghast at attempts to deny it, only that in historical context our doomsday predictions are usually not fulfilled.
    2. Question: Who else in American history has constrained the rights of American citizens? (Hint: Abraham Lincoln suspended habeus corpus; under FDR during WWII we placed over 160,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps)
  3. Under Andrew Jackson we were the perpetrators of horrific acts of human rights violations as we manhandled Native Americans.2Some balk at the idea of the United States mistreating Native Americans, insisting this was brought on by their own misbehavior. Even if we were to grant this premise, we would still have committed many acts of atrocious violence against Native American civilians. Sixty thousand Native Americans died traveling the Trail of Tears! (pg. 263) It may also be worth noting that this horrific behavior was opposed by individuals such as American hero, Davy Crockett. (pg. 264) (pg. 261)
    1. Lesson: While we should oppose human rights violations around the world, we should not pretend that we are above such abuses.
    2. Question: What other atrocious acts have been committed under the authority of the United States? (Hint: Look for our purposeful infection of individuals in Latin America with a horrible disease, we are talking 20th century; also some of the regimes we have supported despite their genocidal human rights violations)
  4. Ulysses S. Grant fought for African American civil rights but his endeavors were not lasting enough to offset the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan, which violently enforced segregation and subjugation. It was with 700,000 Southern African American voters that Grant won the election; but, fast forward a short time into the future and African American civil rights would again be suppressed – including the right to vote. (pg. 278)
    1. Lesson: Americans allowed slavery to endure for a lengthy period of our history and when it was ended there was hope of a new equality, but we failed to protect those who were vulnerable and ensure that might didn’t make right…it was our inaction that allowed subjugation of our fellow members of humanity to continue on.
    2. Question: What other sorts of racism surfaced later in American history? Have we seen any recently? (Hint: Look for riots not just in Southern states but Northern as well – I’m looking at you, New Jersey, for one)
  5. There is something to be learned from Ulysses S. Grant whom Felzenberg notes as the only president “to apologize in his farewell message for his personal and policy failings.” (pg. 285)
    1. Lesson: It requires a deeper dive into U.S. Grant’s personality and circumstances to determine whether this apology came from a healthy place and whether it is something to be imitated by others. At first glance, though, we behold a refreshing humility for one of our elected leaders – the ability to admit one’s own incompetence.
    2. Question: What other American leaders have apologized for their actions? What is true about the character of these individuals as opposed to those who refused to apologize or did so in a belittling manner? (Hint: John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan may be a good start)
  6. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt America placed into concentration camps (and thereby abandoned the constitutional rights of) 120,000 Japanese Americans (60%+ were American citizens). (pg. 314)
    1. Lesson: Even if our cause is right we are capable of making grave mistakes that permanently and negatively affect the lives of others.
    2. Question: Have we placed other individuals into concentration camps or otherwise significantly curtailed their liberties? (Hint: Look into the historical treatment of the mentally ill and of those who were ill with HIV/AIDS)
  7. John F. Kennedy, in some ways an astute and successful leader in foreign affairs badly bungled the American-backed invasion of Cuba (pg. 355), and his numerous dalliances with the opposite gender could have been disastrous for national security. (pg. 356).
    1. Lesson: As we consider who will be most careful with our national security it is important to remember that heroes of the past had their great weaknesses as well.
    2. Question: How was John F. Kennedy’s health while in office? (Hint: Look into the consequences of his wartime injuries [WWII] and how this was handled and hidden during his time in office)

What historical books have you read? What lessons have you learned from specific historical events? What questions have historical events raised for you?