- The Irish Banning of Elie Aron Cohen’s Human Behaviour in the Concentration Camp (1954)
Two historical phenomena that might appear to have a logical connection—anti-Semitism and political sympathy with Nazi Germany—do not in the Irish instance harmonize so predictably. Several reasons could be advanced, including the very small number of Jews living in Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s. A second reason—the persistence of anti-British feeling after the Irish Free State was established in 1922—all too easily morphed into the pseudoequation of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” There were, of course, moments when the two phenomena lined up neatly, but these rarely occurred within a framework of any cultural significance.
In August 1954 the London firm of Cassell published The Scourge of the Swastika: A Short History of Nazi War Crimes by Lord Russell of Liverpool, who had been involved as a lawyer in the Nuremberg trials. Despite connections with the legal and military establishment, the author had been subject to considerable pressure from the British government to desist from publication. Instead, he chose to resign from his post as assistant judge advocate general. Whatever Russell’s motives in writing may have been, the clumsy effort at suppression gave the book added publicity, not least because it indicated the lengths Britain might go to in reshaping history for Cold War purposes. At stake, in the government’s view, was German rearmament.
Two months later, the Irish Censorship Board banned a book on a related theme. This was Elie Cohen’s Human Behaviour in the Concentration Camp, originally published in Dutch and then in English translation. The two books differ in several ways. Russell had been an official legal adviser in the British zone of defeated Germany; Cohen had been an inmate of Auschwitz and other camps. Russell was mainly concerned with the responsibility of Wehrmacht personnel for war crimes, Cohen with the treatment of prisoners by their SS captors. Though the lawyer enshrined a sensationalist element in the title of his book (and some readers thought the photos [End Page 318] voyeuristic), in contrast Elie Cohen’s almost technical representation of his subject matter accurately matched the scientific and objective nature of his inquiry, despite his own agonizing involvement in the sufferings recorded. Cohen was Jewish (needless to say) and, at the time of his arrest, a medical doctor, a general practitioner. After the war, he sought to understand both the victims and perpetrators of concentration-camp behavior through Freudian psychology.
The book first appeared as a Ph.D. dissertation from the University of Utrecht. In keeping with continental practice, Het Duitse Concentratiekamp; een Medishe en Psychologische Studie was published in 1952 as a small, commercially available edition by the Amsterdam house of H. J. Paris. When translated by M. H. Braaksma for publication first in 1953 by W. W. Norton of New York, and then in 1954 by Jonathan Cape of London, the title dropped whatever emotive shimmer the term “Duitse” (German) had in the original, emphasizing instead the universal human dimension. Given these qualities, the question necessarily arises: why did the Irish state choose to prohibit its citizens from reading the book?
Some recapitulation of Irish censorship history is unavoidable.1 First, it should be noted that the legislation made no allowance for piecemeal censorship of books—requiring a paragraph to be removed here, or an epithet modified there—but provided only for a total exclusion of a publication in its entirety from sale or distribution in the state.2 In practice, the vast majority of the examined books originated outside the republic (usually in England) and were thus beyond Irish intervention in the business of preparation by publisher or printer. Therefore the board implemented a simple Yes/No judgment in each case. In turn, a phrase, sentence, or clutch of pages could be cited as evidence justifying total prohibition of a lengthy book, however atypical the excerpt might be in the work as a whole. Unlike its somewhat less ugly sister, the Irish Film Censor’s Office, it dealt in absolutes of a minuscule quality.3
The board that banned Cohen’s book...