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Holidays in Death Camps

The paradox of tragedy, one that has puzzled philosophers for over two millennia, is that people like to go to watch tragedies at the theatre – and tragedies are depressing.   How can one enjoy being miserable?

This weekend I went as a tourist around Sachsenhausen, a vast complex just outside Berlin.  Sachsenhausen was one of the earliest Nazi concentration camps and was used as a model for the construction of others.   It has several particular features and for various reasons is of unique historical interest (e.g. it was the place in which the Nazis undertook the mass counterfeiting of British currency) – but it shares with all the camps in being a site of benumbing, ineffable cruelty. 

This Sunday the camp was full of tourists wandering around alone with their audio guides or being led around in groups.  It takes 6/7 hours to absorb the mass of detail that has been collected, described and displayed.   Here were visitors devoting a precious day of their holidays – a period usually expected to be about fun and relaxation – to the deadening and dismal experience of learning about the  barbarism of mankind.  It is, if nothing else, a refutation of psychological hedonism – the theory that all action is about the pursuit of pleasure.

For a fascinating take on the paradox of tragedy, listen to Alex Neill’s interview at

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2 Comment on this post

  1. I am astonished! Of course, many visitors to Sachsenhausen weren’t there for pleasure but for edification. But what about morbid curiosity? Were a bunch of them like those in automobiles who crane their necks to see all they can of traffic accidents?

    In any case, here’s a hint for making money in Russia, offering tours of gulags and perhaps the basement of Lubyanka prison, or in China watching treatment of prisoners and executions of death sentences.

  2. I think watching tragedies can make one feel better about one’s own life – it least you know things could be worse. From an evolutionary perspective, it would be adaptive to the extent that tragedies serve as cautionary tales, and thus as a counterweight against wishful thinking. It can also sometimes feel like a more rewarding experience than, say, watching a comedy. We seem to have some kind of instinct telling us that we should not always just be trying to cheer ourselves up.

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