It’s pretty obvious from their contemporary portrayal in movies like The Great Dictator, that most of Europe and the rest of the world didn’t realize how bad concentration camps were. When we did find out, most of the people who heard the descriptions or, even worse, saw the camps themselves, wanted to forget that such a thing ever happened. Even now, one of the things that most aids Holocaust deniers is that the camps were literally nearly unbelievably cruel. It’s so uncomfortable to bring up, some people just want to avoid the subject altogether. Rod Serling was not one of those people.
Serling clearly had a mad-on for intolerance in general, and for Hitler and Nazism in particular. He often wrote episodes that depict horrifying ends for people who judge based on race, as well as any who would sympathize with the Nazi ideal of the übermensch. He also clearly hated that television episodes were not sufficiently depicting the level of atrocities that had been committed not 20 years beforehand, choosing instead to try and overlook the cruel past. In response, Serling wrote “Deaths-Head Revisited.”
It begins with a man visiting the site of Dachau Concentration Camp. That man is Gunther Lutze (Oscar Beregi), its former commander, who relives the torment he inflicted upon the prisoners with a sick glee and a cold smile (really, Beregi pulls it off almost too well). As he prepares to leave, he runs into a former prisoner, who keeps asking Lutze about his actions. Lutze insists that he was just following orders.
More people emerge, also former prisoners, who put Lutze on trial for his crimes against humanity, and sentence him to experience everything that he put the prisoners through.
It is then that Lutze realizes that he personally killed all of the people trying him nearly two decades before, right before the US troops reached the camp. These are the ghosts of the victims. Lutze endures, in his mind, the tortures of a concentration camp: the hunger, the beatings, the inhumanity of the guards, the cold, the steel prison walls closing in. Quickly, he is driven insane, with his lead juror stating:
“This is not hatred. This is retribution. This is not revenge. This is justice. But this is only the beginning, Captain. Only the beginning. Your final judgment will come from God.”
At the time of this episode’s airing, the world was also witnessing the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was the person responsible for the logistics of setting up the concentration camp system. Eichmann’s defense was that he was just following orders. What’s worse is that, now, we know that the US was working to forgive and hide many Nazis from these international trials because we needed their expertise in helping to rebuild West Germany as our ally. That perhaps explains why the US wasn’t exactly thrilled with this episode’s airing, supposedly leading to Serling bribing people to put the show on as written, especially the end. At the end of the episode, after Lutze is brought to a psych hospital, the Doctor treating him asks “Dachau, why does it still stand? Why do we keep it standing?” Those questions were brought up by various groups during the Eichmann trial. Serling answers them, and I will add nothing to it:
“All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes – all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers. Something to dwell on and to remember, not only in the Twilight Zone but wherever men walk God’s Earth.”
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