January 29, 2023

From Gerald R. Lucas

Inhumane Systems: “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen”

The power of literary discourse to shock us is on display in Tadeusz Borowski’s “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.” The power of the narrative is how it combines the banality of evil with the utter chaos and inhumanity that it enables and encourages. Borowski shows how the camps are run with a bureaucratic efficiency that establishes a hierarchy of inhumanity with the bueiness-like efficiency of the Nazi officers who reduce human beings to mere cattle for the abattoir and mere notations in an accountant’s ledger.

In re-reading gas today, I can’t help but see the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five policemen as a reflection of the psychology of fascism on display in “Gas.” Nichols, a black man, was savagely chased and beaten by five Black Memphis police officers as he was driving home on January 7, 2023, and he died three days later in the hospital. A video of the incident was released just days ago, and according to NPR:

“Gas” in the style of Zdzisław Beksiński // Midjourney 2023

Police killings of Black men seem to be a daily occurrence in the US, and precipitated the Black Lives Matter movement after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin in 2013. BLM became an international movement after the choking death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. The fact that Nichols’ murder happened by Black cops echoes the circumstances of “Gas.”[1]

The men, including the narrator, are part of a prisoner work crew who are required to separate new prisoners from the last vestiges of their humanity. These workers are from “Canada,” a privileged camp of prisoners who are allowed to collect food and clothing from the people going to the gas chambers in exchange for expediting that process. These men, too, will likely end up in the gas chambers at some point, but their position on the hierarchy gives them position above those condemned to an immediate death, thus making them a complicit part of the system. The narrator describes his first day of work, and he can barely hold it together in the hellscape he’s presented with. The work is so taxing, at one point the narrator asks the more experienced Henri, “are we good people?” He goes on to explain his question:

Henri answers, “The ramp exhausts you, you rebel—and the easiest way to relieve your hate is to turn against some­ one weaker. Why, I’d even call it healthy. It’s simple logic, compris?”[3] Indeed, hell imposes its own logic and hierarchy that has no room for morality and humanity in its bureaucratic efficiency. If these people are just numbers, cattle, lesser-than, one either joins them or or acts like another cog in the machine. In other words: the narrator and his fellows, though they are themselves prisoners, find they have a slight advantage in the Nazi hierarchy, and become complicit in its operation. After a time, Henri seems to suggest, you get used to it and are even able to separate the true outcomes of your actions by following orders—orders that separate you from the cattle going to slaughter.

The only way, it seems, for these men to deal with this inhuman situation is too become part of the inhumanity of the system which removes them from being the victims. Yet, the threat that they could become victims at any time motivates them to disregard any scruples that might still their hands or allow them to sympathize. Therefore, their rage at the untenable situation is not directed upwards toward their oppressors—they, too, are part of the system—or the abstract system itself—their inhumanity is directed toward those who most suffer because of the system.[4]

The banality of evil happens when otherwise good people are compelled to live or survive within an inhuman system. While they may not directly pull a trigger, their actions in supporting that system allow it to continue to victimize those at the bottom: the human cattle according to the camp administrators—black men according to the police. Just like the Nazi system could not be rehabilitated, perhaps, too, the system of policing in the US—a system born out of pacifying and controlling slaves—needs to be replaced.

Yes, five Black police officers beat a Black man to death; Borowski’s “Gas” helps us to understand the logic that leads to such atrocities.


  1. This might also go to explain why the US is a war zone—where predominantly white men decide that their only recourse for mitigating what they see as a challenge to their privilege in society is to kill people. Fortunately for them, those who support Christo-fascist movements will never willingly change gun laws. In other words: the continued terror of open gun laws supports the Right’s desire to keep the system as-is with the scales of opportunity forever in their favor. Just ask yourself: who most benefits from lax gun laws? Who is most hurt by them?
  2. Borowski, Tadeusz (1986) [1946]. "This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen". In Halpern, Daniel. The Art of the Tale. Translated by Vedder, Barbara. New York: Penguin. p. 116.
  3. Borowski 1986, p. 116.
  4. This is nothing new, of course, and helps to explain the Right’s propensity for blaming the victims for what they see as their own daily struggles again an inequitable system. This is a way to direct the rage of the ignorant away from the true causes of their oppression by redirecting it toward voiceless and already marginalized people, like women, immigrants, darker-skinned people, and the poor. Even democracy is under threat, as the Christo-fascist, white supremacist men call into question the validity of elections and seek instead to install strong men who look like them and who will not put up with alternative narratives into power. Fascism is a way to get these “woke” narratives back in the closet at the very least, or potentially locked away for good. Or worse.