One morning Irma Grese woke up, as we all will eventually, on the day she was to die. She was 21, a girl who had left school while still in her elementary years, had worked for some time on farms and then tried unsuccessfully to become a nurse. Finally she found employment as a guard at Birkenau and then Auschwitz concentration camps. Here she carried out her tasks with alacrity. When women ran and hid from the fatal selections of Dr Mengele, Irma would seek them out, beat them and return them for gassing.
And, as it often does, on a cold winters day, justice came marching loudly to the door of Irma’s cell. As the youngest, it was decided to hang her first so that she would not be upset by the sound of the traps opening as the other 11 prisoners were hanged the same morning. At 9.34 she walked to the centre of the execution chamber, apparently calm, and uttered only one word after the cap was pulled over her head, “Schnell.” Twenty minutes later she was pronounced dead and taken down for burial.
I can’t cry for Irma Grese; there are tears enough for the 6 million men, women and children who died before her. She was uneducated, unsophisticated, the child of a brutish time grown fully and fitfully into a brute. What can you expect from a pig but a grunt?
And yet, I sometimes think that Irma Grese is only the easy face of evil; her route to the gallows paved by something quite different. Five years earlier, in an old villa in a quiet residential street, 15 men sat down to a small conference not far from a nearby popular swimming beach. All of them held high positions in the government; nine of them had been awarded doctorates. Their names sound impressive yet also somehow benign – Dr Joseph Buhler, Dr Roland Freisler, Dr Gerhardt Klopfer, Dr Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger. Why, one of them, Dr Neuman, had studied law and economics at the universities of Freiberg, Leipzig and Halle.
These smart and energetic men sat down in Wannsee to plan the killing of the Jews of Europe. Their final solution was to create the momentum for other smart men to build railways and timetables and wire and huts and schedules of great logistical complexity. All to stop the heartbeats of innocent strangers.
Irma and the good scholars would have seen themselves as worlds apart and yet they were bound by a cruelty that neither ignorance nor education could dent.
I guess there is one thing you can say about education: it can make you smart but it can’t make you good.