In an e-mail correspondence, Willie van Peer pointed out to me that although the idea circulates that people who worked in Auschwitz were educated and read literature, Steiner's assertion was made without evidence. Van Peer thinks it highly unlikely that camp workers at Auschwitz read Goethe and Rilke.
Following this correspondence, and to think more deeply on this issue, I re-read Christopher Browning's (1992) Ordinary men, on Battalion 101 of the German Order Police, who formed killing squads in Poland, and of whom more is known than of Auschwitz workers. Most of Browning’s research was based on judicial interrogations of 125 of the 486 men in the battalion. At least some of the battalion’s 11 officers achieved high school education. The rank and file were recruited mostly from the working-class in Hamburg. Their average age was 39, and almost none of them had—apart from vocational training—any education beyond age 15. In 1942, two and a half years after recruitment, it became their job to massacre Jews in Polish towns and villages. Browning compares these men with those of Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment (now described in a 2007 book), in which men were recruited from an advertisement in a local newspaper and randomly assigned to be either guards or prisoners in a simulated prison. There were 70 male volunteers. Men with psychiatric disorders and histories of crime or drugs were excluded, and 24—all college students—were selected as the most stable and psychologically healthy, to be included. Zimbardo was unable to predict from personality testing which of these would behave in particular ways.
Among both the Order Police and the guards in the prison simulation, some 80% acted as their roles required, and a substantial proportion became brutal and enjoyed their newfound power. (In the prison simulation about a third of the guards constantly invented new forms of cruel harassment.) In the Order Police, some 10% to 20% refused to take part in shootings and, comparably, in the prison experiment two of the eleven guards behaved with consideration to the prisoners.
Epidemiological evidence indicates that some 5.8% of men have the psychiatric disorder of anti-social personality, victims generally of genetic vulnerability and abusive parenting, disposed towards life-long interpersonal violence (see e.g. Oatley, Keltner & Jenkins, 2006). But among ordinary men, it remains unclear why some become brutal when put in positions of power. And, although George Steiner said "we know," we are actually entirely lacking in empirical evidence on whether experience of literature affects people who enter societal roles such as the police that require coercion by force.
There are now well-informed historical accounts of how Germany adopted Nazism (e.g. Evans, 2004). Before 1939, the journalist Sebastian Haffner (1940) had perceived that core Nazis were not so much proponents of a political program, but more men of a certain personality type (which today we would call anti-social personality disorder). In one of the world's first well-orchestrated campaigns to use the new media of radio and film, Nazi propaganda persuaded many to see Hitler not as a criminal but as a good person who would lead their country to greatness. Apart from propensity to violence, nationalism, and anti-Semitism, Nazism was marked by hostility to humanitarian values in education. From 1933 onwards, the Nazis replaced the idea of self-betterment through education and reading by practices designed to induce as many as possible into willing conformity, and to coerce the unwilling remainder by justified fear.
Christopher Browning (1992). Ordinary men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the final solution in Poland. New York: HarperCollins.
Richard Evans (2004). The coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin.
Sebastian Haffner (1940). Germany Jekyll and Hyde: A contemporary account of Nazi Germany. London: Secker & Warburg (reissued, 2008, Abacus).
Keith Oatley, Dacher Keltner & Jennifer Jenkins (2006). Understanding emotions, second edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
George Steiner (1967). Language and silence: Essays 1958-1966. London: Faber.
Philip Zimbardo (2007). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York: Random House.