Atomized and Alienated
Atomized and Alienated: The Place of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen in Hannah Arendt’s Totalitarian Model
In Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt outlines the fundamental qualities that characterize and allow the rise of a totalitarian regime. From the outset, the atomization of the masses, and their subsequent alienation provide the foundation for the construction of the regime. This atomization and alienation find subtle, but powerful expression in Tadeusz Borowski’s This way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. In his stories of Auschwitz, Borowski offers an insight into the Nazi concentration camp, and in doing so, he depicts the manipulation of the captives into assuming the role of the oppressor towards their fellow oppressed. The use of captives to work for the S.S. in maintaining the camp’s efficiency demonstrates the levels of confusion, alienation, and atomization possible under a totalitarian regime.
Fear through terror serves as an expedient means of achieving atomization in order to maintain the totalitarian state. Arendt describes the atomization in Soviet society by referring to the purges and the effect they have on society:
The consequence of the simple and ingenious device of “guilt by association” is that as soon as a man is accused, his former friends are transformed immediately into his bitterest enemies; in order to save their own skins, they volunteer information and rush in with denunciations to corroborate the nonexistent evidence against him; this obviously is the only way to prove their own trustworthiness. (Arendt 21)
A similar situation is depicted in Borowski’s writings in the sense that captives were convinced by fear, and the threat of their own deaths, into enforcing the will of their captors. “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” and “A Day at Harmenz” depict two symptoms of the fear-induced isolation and alienation exhibited by the prisoners: a loathing for their fellows, especially those whom the captives escort to their deaths, and a strange loyalty to their captors.
The institution of the “Canada” provided those who would be guilty by association with a means of improving their current situation—they would help escort new arrivals to the gas in exchange for access to food and clothing. While collecting and herding for the S.S., the Canada develop a distaste, even a hatred for the people on the transports:
‘…I don’t know why, but I am furious, simply furious with these people—furious because I must be here because of them. I feel no pity. I am not sorry they’re going to the gas chamber. Damn them all.’ (Borowski 40)
The narrator’s friend Henri replies that it is the work, the inhuman conditions they must face that drives him to such loathing. Henri calls it rebellion, but the fact that it is directed toward the people on the transports, and not toward the true oppressors, the Nazis, indicates the level of dementia created by the conditions that surround them—forced labor and death.
The difficulty of the labor and the constant fear of death mirror the terror that can be utilized to establish totalitarianism. The people are terrorized into isolation. In the camps, as long as they are not among the dead, they consider themselves lucky and feel grateful. Unfortunately, the purge here is one from which no one escapes. Even this fact, however, does not prevent the hatred and eventual atomization caused by the dehumanizing conditions. The narrator in “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” works ceaselessly throughout the day, and eventually collapses from exhaustion and from the fear of the corpse that startles him:
Suddenly I see the camp as a haven of peace. It is true, other may be dying, but one is somehow still alive, one has enough food, enough strength to work …. (Borowski 48)
Finally, the stress and pressures of the camp succeed in convincing the narrator to think himself content, so long as he is alive. He has lost ties to his fellow captives; the working conditions have convinced him that the camp affords peace and security. Security lies within the walls built by his captors. This strange perception of the captors is echoed in “A Day at Harmenz.”
“A Day at Harmenz” presents a situation where the cruelty of one captive toward another, in the service of the captors, becomes evident. The S.S. employ prisoners to help the camp run smoothly—they oversee workers and even dole out punishments for infractions. This loyalty to the S.S. exemplifies the atomization created in a totalitarian state. Arendt states that “[t]otalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals” (Arendt 21). Here we find an example of such an organization of the atomized:
‘And isn’t it true that you killed your own people? And that you hanged them on the post for every bit of stolen margarine or bread?’…
‘It is true,’ he said darkly. ‘And it is also true that in Poznan I personally hanged my other son, and not by the arms, but by the neck. He stole bread.’ (Borowski 54)
The man, Becker, who was in charge of the other workers, displays the same cruelty exhibited by the S.S.. He punishes his own people, his own son, just as severely as the S.S. without remorse. The dehumanizing conditions of his situation have led him to the state of mind in which he sympathizes with his captors.
Because of the hardship experienced in the camps, the captives look to better their own position—to stay alive one more day; to find a way to be useful to the S.S.. This eventually results in an alienation so complete that Becker can utter a phrase such as “‘Yes, yes, the dirty dogs! They should be finished off, every last one of them’” (Borowski 60). This phrase encapsulates the hatred of the captives and the loyalty to the captors created in the terror of the camps. Borowski illustrates what Arendt argues: the concentration camps run smoothly because of the organization of the atomized masses provided by terror.