Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


How Schindler Used the List

Posted on | January 28, 2017 | No Comments

When Schindler’s List (1993) was released, I was living in Wellington, New Zealand. But I caught the film during the winter holidays in Hawaii. When I got back to Wellington, I read the book Schindler’s Ark and wrote this article for the city’s newspaper in anticipation of the movie’s NZ premiere in March. It appeared in The Evening Post on March 8, 1994. In it, I examine the political ideology and technology used by the Nazis.


Schindler’s List (1993), Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed movie on the Holocaust, premieres in Wellington on Friday. Dr Anthony Pennings backgrounds the reasons for the programme of mass genocide.

The cinematic adaption of Thomas Keneally’s 1982 novel, Schindler’s Ark by Steven Speilberg has won international acclaim as one of the best movies of the year. The story of Oskar Schindler credits the Austrian-born industrialist with saving over 1200 Jews from almost certain slaughter in Nazi death camps during the Second World War. By employing them as slave labour in his factories, he was able to harbour them from the mass genocide programme conducted throughout the German-occupied territories.

Although excellent narratives about Oskar Schindler, the book and movie lack adequate descriptions of why and how the Nazis conducted their murders. Not that any justification can be given for the killing of nearly six million Jews, but the popular stories are lacking in the historical background needed to come to grips with the horrible actions of the Nazis. The rationales behind the Nazi extermination programme against the Jews are not as obscure as some people would think, though often hard to hear for our enlightened, liberal ears. The belief in “humanity” and the equality of races, although predominant in our time, is a rather new idea with a weak historical foundation.

One the strongest challenges to the enlightenment period that advanced these ideas was the German Nationalist Socialist movement, a parochial, tribal movement based on the belief of their racial superiority. The Nazis believed that the Germans embodied the Aryan bloodlines, which gave them privileged access to a type of spiritual plane or electrical force that could make them living gods.

They sought to destroy communism, democracy, industrial capitalism, and other forces that supposedly threatened their Aryan bloodlines and sought the rule of wise priest-kings who were imbued with mystical power.

They believed that any dilution of their gene pool through mixing with “lower races” would lock them out of their Garden of Eden. This deeply held mystical paganism was strengthened by the teachings of Darwinism and the pseudo-science of Eugenics, which emerged in the late 19th century. These new beliefs gave the Nazis the rationalisation, however misguided, to their fears of mixing with outsiders.

The Nazis believed the Jewish race was the chief threat to the Germanic people. This belief can be traced back to the writings of Martin Luther, who was the first best-selling book author not only and sparked the Protestant Reformation but left a lasting anti-Semitic legacy with his later writings. According to Luther, Jews were second only to the devil in their capacity for evil.

The later Nazis also used metaphorical devices to denigrate the Jews, such as in the Eternal Jew. This film clip interspersed images of ghetto Jews with footage of rat hordes to suggest Jews were unsanitary and less than human.

Using a vast network of radio relays and loudspeakers dispersed throughout German cities, Adolph Hitler was able to preach his xenophobic version of the Jewish threat to millions of Germans. He argued that the ultimate goal of the Jew was world domination, and the Jewish doctrine of Marxism, in particular, would mean the end of governance by the “aristocratic principle of nature,” the only hope for the German-Aryan bloodlines. Parliamentarism, the press, and the trade union movement were other conspiratorial techniques of the Jews who would ultimately face the Aryan in a worldwide apocalyptic battle.

The Nazi Volkdom (the merging of race politics with the machinery of the State) became committed to eliminating the Jews (and other “sub-races” such as the Slavs) as a matter of national policy. Hitler’s elite warrior class, the black-uniformed SS (Schutzstaffel, or Defence Corps) became the main instrument for carrying out the Race and Resettlement Act, their euphemism for the extermination process.

Headed by Heinrich Himmler, this new group took charge of the secret police (the infamous Gestapo) and the concentration camps which were being built to hold political prisoners and other “anti-Reich” elements such as Bolsheviks and Freemasons. Pledged to give their lives to the Fuhrer, this treacherous and highly indoctrinated Teutonic brotherhood carried out the Holocaust orders.

Two groups, in particular, conducted most of the killings: the Tofenkopfverbande, which bore the chilling death head insignia on its label; and the Einsatzgruppen, a special police force whose tactics even shocked many of the German generals. They combined precise military training and a high level of technocratic competence towards their ideal of a German racial utopia. Unfortunately, the cost would be the lives of several million Jews from Western Europe, 1.7 million from the Soviet Union and the incredible figure of three million from Poland, where most of the Schindler’s List story takes place.

What is so extraordinary about the Nazi Pogrom is that the full force of modernity, with its technologies of chemical production, engineering design, information management, and logistical transport, were brought together under the management of a highly indoctrinated, or at least compliant, professional class. Bureaucratic and scientific advances were marshaled with incredible indeterminacy to carry out the ghastly killings.

The SS spread over the occupied territories to co-ordinate the corralling and transporting of Jews. From small villages, medium-sized cities, industrial centres, and other locations around Europe and the Soviet Union, millions of Jewish families were set into motion.

At first, the Jews were sent to ghettos in the large cities or to industrial factories and other sites of slave labour. As the war progressed, however, the “resettlement” process took priority. Competition arose between the Army and the SS over the use of the railroads, but the Army’s need for supplies, reinforcements and sometimes retreat were secondary to the ideological satisfaction of the Final Solution.

Even the war effort’s need for skilled labour gave way to Himmler and the SS who, with Hitler’s blessing, only increased their extermination efforts as the prospects for winning the war dimmed. Trains flowed day and night with human cargo destined for the death camps at Auschwitz (2,000,000 estimated killed), Belzec (600,000), Chelmo (340,000), Majdanek (1,380,000), Sobibor (250,000) and Treblinka (800,000).

As a scholar of communications, I have been deeply influenced by Cambridge professor Jack Goody, whose Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society (1986) has helped me understand some of the crucial relationships between information technology and the politics of modern life.

Innovators in bureaucracy and population technology, the Germans were leaders in the use of telegraph and teletype communications to control their national administrators and armies. By the turn of the century, the Germans had transformed British “political arithmetic” into “statistics” (state-istics), numerical techniques in the service of State and population administration. They used the tabulating machines and punch cards designed for the US census to identify and control the population. These techniques were taken up by the SS in their management of the Final Solution.

From its first spoken word, “Name?” Schindler’s List investigates the political technology used in the Holocaust. The use of the census was an integral part of the process, as it allowed the Nazis to round up Jews and start the continual process of selecting who would be eligible for work, who would be transported to a concentration camp, and who would be killed. Everyone was assigned a number that was tattooed on their arms. Every number had an associated punch card. Every name needed to be accounted for, registered and given a position.

The list is ancient political technology, which Spielberg chose as a major motif. It is linked to the film’s narrative in a meaningful way, so that it reinforces some of the main themes, such as the bureaucratic momentum of the Nazi machine.  A striking example is shown when Schindler’s trusted accountant (Itzhak Stern, played by Ben Kingsley), forgets to bring his working papers one day and winds up on a train awaiting deportation to an extermination camp. Schindler rushes down to the station to intervene but is told nothing can be done as Stern is now on the list to be transported. Schindler can only get an exemption after he convinces the SS officer that he has the influence to have the officer sent to the Russian Front within weeks.

The list and its physical counterpart, the line, figure prominently throughout the film as mediums of control and efficiency. The line is a particularly brutal and yet effective political technology. It renders people passive and orderly. Disrupting or attempting to escape its smooth, linear surface is an invitation for punishment or death, as many Jews discover.

However, the list also becomes a technology of resistance and escape. With the Russian advancing, Schindler’s factory must yield to the Final Solution. He bribes enough Nazi officials, however, to transport 1200 of his Jews to a new location near his hometown of Zwittau in Austria. From within the Nazi bureaucratic maze, Schindler’s list emerges as a ticket to freedom for the Jews. The list is a manifest for getting on the train to Schindler’s new factory. Getting on this list is a matter of life and death.

For Keneally, it is a modern-day Noah’s Ark. As he writes in Schindler’s Ark about the legends that developed around Schindler’s list: “The list is an absolute good. This list is life.”

It is difficult to say whether Schindler’s List has a happy ending. Spielberg is much harder on Schindler than Keneally. Whereas the latter credits him with an early transformation, the movie-maker waits until nearly the end to acknowledge his attempts to put the welfare of the Jews in front of his own self-interest. He invokes a Talmud equation which is inscribed on the ring offered as a gift to Schindler from the Jews he saved: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”

Schindler is overcome with grief at the end as he calculates the lives he could have saved with the money he wasted. Ultimately, we left with this moral balance sheet.

Dr Anthony J Pennings is a political scientist and a lecturer in communications studies at Victoria University. He is not Jewish but his parents lived under Nazi occupation in the Netherlands, a country that had 75 percent of its Jewish population shipped to Nazi concentration camps. 

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2017, Jan 28). How Schindler Used the List.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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