The totenkopf

According to Wikipedia, skulls and bones were long used to mark the entrances to Spanish cemeteries (campo santo). The practice, dating back many centuries, led to the symbol eventually becoming associated with the concept of death – not a big leap there, it has to be said. And Skull and crossbones are used and have been used by many military organisations over the years (most popularly to denote Pirate ships, in the style of Long John Silver – the Jolly Roger).

However, I watched a programme on TV the other night about Nazism and the SS in which I was knocked sideways upon spotting this image of SS chiefs having fun in down time at Auchwitz.


I have commented before on the hideous atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Second World War and received a barrage of abuse from the Holocaust deniers, most notably on this post which has taken on a bit of a life of its own.

I honestly hadn’t noticed before that this was a part of the SS uniform with its own name – The Totenkopf, and it has been widely used elsewhere in military insignia

However, the context of its use among the killing factories of Auschwitz and the symbolism of the skull and cross bones in this context was, for me, a very powerful symbol of the Natzi’s complete and utter disregard for life. I wonder if any of them felt any sense of the appropriateness of the symbolism (it’s so tempting to say irony, only it’s not ironic) that stared out at their victims, just above their murderers’ eyes, as they faced the short walk to their death?

Incidentally, I am reading quite an interesting book on the psychology and mechanisms of decision making by two esteemed academics from the University of Chicago, called Nudge. It is allegedly taking political decision-making by storm.


In one section the authors use the rise of Nazism to dramatise their thinking – they refer to the findings of another academic, Asch, who studied how Nazism had been possible. His theory demonstrates how easy it is for a bandwagon effect to occur and so-called “pluralistic Ignorance” to set in. He argues that people do things not because they like or subscribe to a practice but because they think that most other people like it and the natural response is to conform.

It’s not “following orders” which was the staple SS defence in the post war trials, but a subconscious need to conform. “If Herr Schnitzel is murdering innocent Jews then it must be OK and I’ll do it too.”


3 thoughts on “The totenkopf

  1. There’s actually a film out there, called Conspiracy, with Kenneth Branagh and other stars, that is quite good that is a bit about your second subject there. The thing is, during much of the war, they didn’t really know what to do with all these people they felt were inferior. The film is about the 5 hour meeting in which the Nazis “figured out” what to do with their “problem”. It’s chilling, but also very good. The trailer is here:


  2. Looks like an interesting film. My only criticism (from the trailer) is that using English speaking actors might lose some of the impact. Branagh is so classically English that it’s quite hard to envisage him in the role…


  3. I agree, though I think that in some ways, having to read subtitles might actually *lessen* the impact, potentially. Subtitles tend to cause a slight sense of detachment, generally. At least, that’s what I learned while a film student.


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