The Unspeakable Taboo: Evil, Genocide & Human Nature

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is the final section of the article that I have been posting over the last six days.

The material in this article that I have spread over the past six days is often troubling. At least it is to me because while I earnestly want to believe that humanity is essentially good, I cannot get around the fact that people in every clime and place throughout history often choose to either participate in, or to ignore evil committed against when it is in their own self-interest.  I can see into the darkness and I can understand it.

Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “And this is the forbidden truth, the unspeakable taboo – that evil is not always repellent but frequently attractive; that it has the power to make of us not simply victims, as nature and accident do, but active accomplices.” That is one of the things that makes the Holocaust, but even more so, the actions of those murdered millions of people up close and personal as members of the Einsatzgruppen, the Police battalions, the Romanian Army, or the locally recruited Eastern European militias.

While this of itself is troubling, the fact that many high ranking military and civilian officials in Germany, and some of their allied countries knew about it, and even if they disapproved did nothing to try to stop it. But even more damning is the fact that many other nations, including the United States knew what was happening and before the war would not accept Jewish immigrants who were being forced to leave Germany and Austria, and then during the war did little or nothing to attempt to stop the mass killings in the extermination camps. The fact is that people are people and most of the actors in this ghastly drama were much like us. That is what makes the period so troubling.

Peace

Padre Steve+

einsatzgruppen trial

Otto Ohlendorf at the Einsatzgruppen Trial

The German war against Poland and the Soviet Union was heavily dependent on the racist ideology of Adolf Hitler. He was the true spirit behind the atrocities committed by his nation as one Nazi leader noted in Russia, “Here too the Führer is the moving spirit of a radical solution in both word and deed.” 187Hitler saw the war in the East as “the chance to stamp out everything that stands against us.” 188Belief in Germany’s right to Lebensraum, was predicated on increasing the standard of living for Germans even if it meant destroying others to do it. The need for food security was one of Hitler’s biggest concerns, and he believed that need would be provided by the conquest of the Soviet Union and the exploitation of the breadbasket of the Ukraine. Hitler’s quest for unlimited natural resources to sustain his Thousand Year Reich and his belief in the racial superiority of the German Volk were combined with his belief in the necessity to settle the Jewish problem. These ideological and economic beliefs provided a fertile ground for Hitler’s followers.

But it was German military doctrine, especially its anti-partisan doctrine and plans for total warfare which allowed Hitler to realize so many of his goals. Without the Army’s support and compliance Hitler could never have succeeded. The post-war and early Cold War myth that the German military had no knowledge of and were not involved in the Holocaust committed against the Jews and others has been shattered as more and more records, correspondence, and testimony emerge.

It is now quite clear that many officers in the Wehrmacht were in agreement with Hitler’s ideology of racial war, including men who have been idolized by military historians and history buffs who marvel at their planning skills and operational precision, but ignore the uncomfortable truth that many either participated in or meekly acquiesced to Hitler’s agenda.

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Alfred Jodl

These men, like so many in Germany were products of their culture. They were immersed in cultural prejudices against Jews and Slavs. When we examine the long traditions of racist ideology, coupled with military doctrine, the “Prussian and in later German military must be regarded as a significant part of the ideological background of the Second World War.189 General Walther Von Reichenau’s orders to his troops at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa are revealing in this regard, “The most important goal of the campaign against Jewish-Bolshevism is the complete destruction of its grip on power and the elimination of the Asian influence from our European cultural sphere.” 190 Reichenau’s superior, Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt appeared to agree with von Reichenau’s orders, but wanted to keep the hands of the Army clean of the actual dirty work of the mass killings. Rundstedt had no problem with the “use the partisan threat as excuse for persecuting Jews, so long as the dirty work was largely left to SS Einsatzgruppen.” 191

On the whole the Army command…on the whole acquiesced in the extermination of the Jews, or at least closed its eyes to what was happening.” 192 This is absolutely true, but that being said, and as guilty as many of the Generals were, there are factors involved that if are honest might have influenced us to make the same choices as them if we stood in their shoes. This is not an excuse, it is reality and it is borne out by history. The sad truth is that most people act in accordance with their self-interest, especially their economic well-being and social status. We accommodate evil when it serves our needs, especially if we do not actually have to do the dirty work. Their actions show the truth of Primo Levi’s comment “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”

Die feierliche Vereidigung der Reichswehr auf den neuen Reichspräsidenten Adolf Hitler auf dem Kasernenhof der Wachtruppe in Berlin 1934 Offiziere und Mannschaften leisten den feierlichen Eid durcherheben der rechten Hand. Die Reichswehr trägt Trauerflor für den verstorbenen Reichspräsidenten.

Officers and men of the Reichswehr take the Oath to Hitler in 1934 following the death of President Hindenburg

Had the Generals had been more forceful in their opposition, they would have most likely been opposed by the highly Nazified youth that made up the bulk of their Army, especially many of the junior officers, NCOs and enlisted men. Likewise there was the matter of their oath and this is something that many Americans do not understand. During the Kaiser Reich German officers swore an oath to the Kaiser, during Weimar that was changed to the Constitution, when Hitler took power and assumed both the Presidency and Chancellorship following the death of President von Hindenburg, the officer corps swore a new oath, that to Hitler as President and Chancellor. While many saw the danger, almost all officers took the oath, in a sense it was a throwback to the old way of doing things in the Kaiser Reich, and most officers hated the Republic. To them the oath embodied their honor, to break it was to dishonor themselves and their family. When war came it became more than that, to break the oath was considered treason. General Alfred Jodl told American Army psychologist Gustave Gilbert at Nuremberg that “In war the moral pressure of obedience and the stigma of high treason are pretty hard to get around.” 193

Jodl’s superior Keitel stated his helplessness before Hitler saying to Gilbert “What could I do? There were only 3 possibilities: (a) refusal to follow orders, which naturally meant death; (b) resign my post, or (c) commit suicide. I was on the point of resigning my post 3 times, but Hitler made it clear that he considered my resignation in time of war the same as desertion. What could I do?” 194 This was obviously an after the fact excuse by Keitel who had been present in Hitler’s headquarters since the beginning and had witnessed the explosive General Heinz Guderian explode in rage against Hitler in 1945. Following that violent outburst in which Guderian and Hitler engaged in a lengthy heated argument in which those present thought would come to blows and the enraged dictator and general shouted at each other and were held back from contact by others in the conference room. Instead of arrest or imprisonment Hitler ordered Guderian to take extended sick leave and never accosted him afterwards.

heydrich

Reinhard Heydrich

Himmler, Heydrich, Eichmann and other SS leaders fanatically executed Hitler’s policies and were aided by the civil administration, including the leaders of the Reichsbank, and the proponents of long term economic plans. Genocide was to bring the Reich “long term economic gains and trading advantages” and was seen as a way of “financing the war debt without burdening the German taxpayer.” 195

The willing participation of Army commanders is hard to get around. Otto Ohlendorf, commander of Einsatzgruppe D testified at the Einsatzgruppe Trial that Einsatzgruppen reported all of their tasks to the army commanders, and that together, they and the army agreed on the time, place, and possible support of the troops for any particular “liquidation action[s].” 196

Some individuals did attempt to resist the most brutal aspects of the Nazi campaign against the Jews, but few had the fortitude to make more than half-hearted attempts. Wilhelm Kube, the Reichskommissar for White Russia, himself a fanatical Nazi and a virulent anti-Semite was shocked at the mass murders of the Jews taking place in his region. He called them “unworthy of the German cause and damaging to the German reputation.” During his administration Kube would later attempt to spare Jews by employing skilled Jews in war industries, however, Kube’s efforts were “defeated by Himmler’s zealots.” 197

Army officers who objected to the killing of Jews, like Blaskowitz and Külcher in Poland were relieved of command or were reassigned. Others like Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb took their protests to Hitler. Such protests were readily dismissed and those who made them usually took no further action. Leeb was told by Hitler to “in so many words told to mind his own business.” Leeb later stated, “the only thing to do is to hold oneself at a distance.” 198 Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, who had burned the notorious Commando Order in front of his staff in North Africa could not bring himself to believe that Hitler was to blame. While commanding Army Group B in France Rommel heard of the crimes being committed against the Jews and others through information provided by Blaskowitz, and members of his own staff who had served in Russia. But Rommel, who became part of the plot of overthrow Hitler, was then still in the thrall of the Fuhrer and blamed the crimes “on Hitler’s subordinates, not Hitler himself.” 199

Of the men mentioned in this article who survived the war, only four, Wilhelm Keitel, Alfred Jodl, Otto Ohlendorf and Adolf Eichmann paid for their crimes with their lives Keitel and Jodl were found guilty in the major War Crimes Trials at Nuremberg. Ohlendorf at the Einsatzgruppen trial, while Eichmann was caught by the Israelis, tried, convicted and put to death in 1962. Blaskowitz committed suicide while being tried with thirteen other generals during the final Nuremberg trial, that of the generals. Of those eleven were convicted and none served out their full sentence.

keitel-jodl-hitler

Hitler with Jodl

Hitler’s ideology permeated German military campaigns and administration of the areas conquered by his armies. No branch of the German military, police or civil administration in occupied Poland or Russia was exempt guiltless in the crimes committed by the Nazi regime. It is a chilling warning of the consequences awaiting any nation that allows it to become caught up in hate-filled political, racial or even religious ideologies which dehumanizes opponents and of the tragedy that awaits them and the world. In Germany the internal and external checks that govern the moral behavior of the nation and individuals failed. Caught up in the Nazi system, the Germans, especially the police and military abandoned the norms of international law, morality and decency, banally committing crimes which still reverberate today and which were seen in the ethnic cleansing actions in the former Yugoslavia, and now throughout much of the Middle East.

In light of the fact that there is a growing food shortage in the world which will only get worse due to a factors including the global rise in population, the shrinking of the amount land which can be farmed due to climate change.  There are many other factors as well which could such a situation could bring about another Holocaust.  In such a case leaders will decide that the lands and resources of less developed people are theirs for the taking in order to maintain the standards of living of their people, and that the indigenous people who they will victimize are less than human and thus have no rights. The terminology used by them will be very neutral and full of euphemisms which will allow many people to maintain the illusion that any evil carried out is for the good. Politicians, pundits and preachers will talk of problems, and of solutions, and in trying to find a resolution yearn for a conclusive solution, a final solution.

arbiet macht frei

I return to the quote from the movie Judgment at Nuremberg which I included in the first section of this article because it is worth repeating and all too true:

“Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and the death of millions by the Government of which he was a part. Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe. But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination….”

That quote might be applied to many of the people who participated in this genocide. Sadly, the fact is that in truth we are not really all that much different than the victims, the perpetrators and the bystanders who lived and died in the Holocaust, and similarly every other act of genocide.

History serves as a guide and a warning. We must always be alert and we must always when the truly difficult times come, in the midst of crisis, not to take the easy path and denude ourselves into the commission of such crimes.

Notes

187 Ibid. Bracher. The German Dictatorship p.430

188 Ibid. Megargee War of Annihilation p.65

189 Ibid. Wette. The Wehrmacht p.293

190 Ibid. Wette. The Wehrmacht p.97

191 Messenger, Charles. The Last Prussian A Biography of Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt 1875-1953 Brassey’s London, 1991 p148

192 Ibid. Bracher The German Dictatorship pp.430-431

193 Gilbert, Gustave Nuremberg Diary DaCapo Press 1995 copyright G.M. Gilbert 1947 p.290

194 Ibid. Gilbert p.26

195 Ibid. Aly and Heim Architects of Annihilation p.242

196 Ibid. Hebert p.92

197 Ibid. Padfield Himmler pp.341-342

198 Ibid. Megargee War of Annihilation p.97

199 Fraser, David. Knight’s Cross: A Life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel Harper Perennial, New York 1995, first published by Harper Collins in Britain, 1993. p.536

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Burleigh, Michael and Wippermann, Wolfgang. The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945 Cambridge University Press, New York NY and Cambridge UK 1991

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Di Nardo, Richard L. Germany and the Axis Powers: From Coalition to Collapse. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. 2005

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1 Comment

Filed under crime, History, laws and legislation, leadership, Military, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

One response to “The Unspeakable Taboo: Evil, Genocide & Human Nature

  1. mrmoteeye

    Recently reading Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay I have been mindful of the U.S.’s reluctance to take in Jewish refugees during the time leading up to our involvement in WWII. We still have this issue of rejecting refugees/immigrants, whether they be Syrian or youngsters from Guatemala. Chabon used this issue in another book of alternative sci-fi history, putting Jewish refugees in Alaska. We are not a welcoming nation if it involves the idea of largesse and sharing our resources. A blind eye to genocide seems easy.

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