Episode 74 – “Deaths-Head Revisited”

Many Twilight Zone episodes provide fodder for philosophical reflection precisely because they invite us to exercise our concepts and attempt to apply them to possible cases and worlds where the strangeness of the circumstances makes doing so a real challenge, one which may have a philosophical payout. There are possible worlds, however, that don’t need to be invented, that are found by exercising our memory, rather than our imagination. Some historical events are so strange, so unusual, and so puzzling, that it is just as difficult to make sense of what actually happened in the real world as it can be to imagine what we would say about a possible world.  We can’t, however, reflect on the actual world, the historical past, without, at the same time, thinking about other possible worlds, and in particular,  how the actual world could have, or more pointedly, should have, been different. It is that exercise in reflection that takes place in “Deaths-Head Revisited,” an episode that first aired roughly a mere fifteen years after the end of World War II and the atrocities it revisits.

A Herr Schmidt returns first to the town of Dachau, in Bavaria, near Munich, after the war, and visits the infamous concentration camp, one of many that detained and exterminated Jews, gypsies, and others viewed as undesirables in Nazi Germany. But Herr Schmidt is here not to visit, but to recall his role as Kapitan Lutz, a former SS officer who ran the camp and order the torture and mass murder of its detainees. This premise is, of course, about as unrealistic as the portrayal of any monster or alien in any episode. It’s hardly plausible that an officer of the SS who made it out of Germany alive at the end of the war, and who then found refuge in South America, would risk a trip back to Germany, much less to a concentration camp. It is much more plausible, then, to take the portrayal of Herr Lutz’s travel as a trip of his conscience, and set of reflections on what he did and its moral status. As Serling says in his introduction, Dachau doesn’t just exist in Bavaria, but also “in one of the populated areas of the Twilight Zone,” in this case, in the imagination of Kapitan Lutze.

Could a former SS officer revisit Dachau in his imagination, recalling the things he had done, while retaining his equanimity, or would his reflection on his past actions bring their absolute wrongness into such powerful relief, that ultimately, even someone as monstrous as Herr Lutze would recoil from his own past behavior?  Perhaps the episode is only claiming that this could happen, and that the possibility that Lutze’s reflection could lead to his insanity is enough to demonstrate the that extreme immoral behavior is ultimately unsustainable, even for a Kapitan Lutze. If that’s the claim, it is a positive, even up-lifting one. Demonstrating that it is true, of course, would require much more heavy philosophical lifting.

If one sets out the basic historical facts, as this episode does, that 10 million people were tortured and killed in the camps, “burned in furnaces, shoveled into the earth,” then Becker, a re-imagined victim, serving as Lutze’s interlocutor,  these facts, these images, live on, in Lutze’s memory and that of others, and the attempt to deny responsibility for them by those who were and are responsible must fail.  Once Lutze begins to confront these facts, it becomes impossible for him to end his imaginary visit to Dachau. This is his form of insanity. He is now a prisoner of the very place he imprisoned and murdered others.

One line of ethical theorizing ties morality to rationality. Morally good behavior is the behavior of a rational agent. A properly reasoning self-interested agent would infer that certain forms of behavior further her self interest and certain forms of behavior hinder self interest. Actions falling into the first group are good, the second bad. Someone who who exhibits systematically  immoral behavior is irrational. This approach makes sense where individual actions don’t align with laws and customs within social groups and governments. But what do we say about mass immorality – is it mass irrationality?

Another approach to understanding morality in terms of rationality is to hold that it is irrational to have certain kinds of desires. Bernard Gert writes: “A rational man not only cannot desire evil, he must also desire to avoid it.” (Gert 1973, p. 49) This seems to help us understand Kapitan Lutze’s breakdown, until we cash out Gert’s conception of evil as “personal evil.” Clearly Kapitan Lutze has always sought to avoid his own pain, his own hunger, his own isolation. At the same time he sought to inflict pain, hunger, isolation, and more on countless others.

Lutze’s irrationality emerges from his reflection on the past, but not by the realization that his behavior was at odds with his self-interest. In fact, self-interest and adherence to Nazi principles and directives probably was motivated by self-interest. There’s something going on in his reflection that is not captured by the morality as rationality approach, even though Lutze’s descent into irrationality results from coming to grips with his immorality. Perhaps we can explain the former in terms of the latter, rather than the other way around.

Further Reading

Bernard Gert, The Moral Rules: A New Rational Foundation for Morality (Harper & Row, 1973)

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