Dr Jacob Bronowski (1908 – 1974) the wiki informs us, was
“a British mathematician and historian. He is best known for developing a humanistic approach to science, and as the presenter and writer of the thirteen part 1973 BBC television documentary series, and accompanying book, The Ascent of Man, which led to his regard as “one of the world’s most celebrated intellectuals”.”
This is the ending sequence of episode 11 of the series recorded at the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz in German occupied Poland. Around one million people were killed there between 1940 and 1945.
Bronowski was not speaking from a script. His words came straight from the emotions he felt. Note how he walks ankle deep into the pond and squats to pick up mud. Deeply symbolic. I include a transcript of his commentary.
There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit. The assertion of dogma that closes the mind and turns a nation, a civilization into a regiment of ghosts. Obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.
It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself.
This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance.
When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.
Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible.
In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell. “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ think it possible you may be mistaken.”
I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness.
We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.
To end this piece, here’s Bronowski talking about that visit to Auschwitz.
The Ascent of Man was completed in 1973, the above was recorded in 1974. Dr Bronowski died of a heart attack in East Hampton, NY, in Aug 1974. He was 66 years old.
This post is small but important part of an argument that I am building toward. For now, this is just the atrocities the Germans committed in the second world wars. The Japanese did their own. The Americans theirs. And the British theirs. It is sickening and sad.