Richard Rhodes ’59 faces a burden as a historian and scholar.
Speaking to an audience of about 40 students at the Pierson College Master’s House yesterday afternoon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author discussed his upcoming book, “Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust.”
“I don’t think anybody researches the Holocaust without going through secondary trauma. You have nightmares,” he said.
Rhodes, an author of 19 books who was invited to speak as an Arnold Wolfers fellow of Pierson College, explained his new book as an attempt to apply knowledge gained from his earlier work to the field of Holocaust research.
“My last book was a report on the work of an American criminologist who wanted to try and understand how people become physically violent,” Rhodes said.
The book, “Why They Kill,” examined criminologist Lonnie Athens’ theory of violent socialization in the lives of rapists and murderers. According to the Athens model, all physically violent criminals have undergone a four-stage acculturation process, in which they have learned to use violence as a means of achieving their goals.
Rhodes said his latest book applies this Athens model to the Holocaust by examining the background and actions of the SS soldiers who carried out the firing squad executions of Jews during the early part of World War II.
His book paints an uncommon picture of the men whose job it was to exterminate the Jewish populations of Eastern Europe.
“There were breakdowns, there was crying, there was drunkenness,” he said.
Rhodes said that many SS soldiers who participated in the firing squad executions found it difficult to carry out their orders. Rations of schnapps were always presented to shooters, and many officers engaged in violent coaching to persuade their men to execute non-combatants, he said.
“There was a great deal of talking to the men, telling them it wasn’t their responsibility,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes said the trauma suffered by the SS soldiers reflects the lack of any process of violent socialization in their lives. He said the death camps used later in the Holocaust were developed in response.
“Where did the modern death camps come from? They were invented to reduce trauma to the perpetrator,” he said.
Scott McNab ’02 said Rhodes’ conclusion that the Nazi death camps were designed to diffuse responsibility was “painfully and frighteningly intelligent.”
McNab said he came to hear Rhodes speak because of his reputation as a scholar and because of the controversy surrounding recent Holocaust scholarship.
“It sounded like he was challenging the standard scholarship,” McNab said. “That’s an intriguing thing to do academically, so I was interested to hear what he had to say.”
Pierson Master Harvey Goldblatt said he arranged for Rhodes to speak not only because of the importance of Holocaust scholarship, but because of the potential consequences of Rhodes’ research on violence in light of current international events.
“He’s also a remarkable and an inspired writer, and I admire his thought process,” Goldblatt said.
Rhodes said he does not believe the Athens model provides an all-encompassing explanation, but that it goes a long way to illuminate the psychology of the SS soldiers who carried out the atrocities of World War II.
“If you want to understand the historical process, then that is where you have to look,” he said.