ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands…
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
My longtime readers know that I write about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany a lot. Likewise I also write about other historical events and periods where the worst of humanity is on display. This is not because I am negative or due to some morbid fascination with such events, but because as a historian I see them as a warning because the one constant in history is humanity. While history may not repeat itself, it does as Mark Twain noted, often rhyme, the fact is that human nature and human beings have tended to act similarly to their ancestors more often than not during times of social, economic, or political upheaval distress and crisis.
Timothy Snyder notes that “The European history of the twentieth century shows that societies can break, democracies fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands…”
I tell my students this all the time whether I am teaching ethics or history. Economic theories, technology, and so many other ways in which we do life change, but ultimately human nature remains pretty constant. So when I write about these topics it is with that in mind. Historian Gerhard Weinberg wrote:
“It’s very, very important for people to get a sense of what the potentialities of people really are, what the dangers of ignorance can be. It is in this context, that a supposedly advanced society risks descending into the sewer, that the Holocaust is a warning to people who think of themselves as an advanced, modern society.”
Ignorance of history, ignorance of reality, and denial of facts are deadly to the individual and fatal to the society that allows itself to become ignorant and to believe in an illusion of knowledge based on myth and unreality. This deadly illusion based on ignorance and knowledge that is not knowledge allows people and societies to embrace deadly ideologies without thinking. When that happens ordinary people, law abiding people, people who go to church, can commit great atrocities or stand by in silent agreement.
When I hear people who support some of most inhuman of President Trump’s policies makes statements about “I can’t wait for the liberal genocide to begin,” or tell Jews and Muslims to leave the country, who talk of racial and ethnic minorities as if they were less than human than I do in fact worry that it can happen here. When I see Mosques burned, synagogues defaced with Nazi graffiti, Jewish centers targeted by callers making bomb threats, churches of ethnic and minority congregations vandalized, LGBTQ people being discriminated against and sometimes physically attacked, I know it can happen here.
When I see these things happening I am reminded of Spencer Tracy’s monologue at the end of the film Judgment at Nuremberg. The words are chilling because they are so true. Despots and dictators, and authoritarian leaders, cannot commit great acts of violence without a part of the population that is willing to carry out their orders and the majority who for whatever reason acquiesce and stand by silently.
“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…”
We cannot allow ourselves to live in ignorance and pretend that these things cannot happen here. To do this we have to have to go to a dark place. We have to decide to understand what brings people to commit such actions. We have to understand what allows people to stand by and say nothing. We have to understand what goes through the mind or those who make the conscious choice to know nothing when the evidence stares them in the face, and those who feign ignorance to attempt to keep a clean conscience. Burt Lancaster’s character in Judgment at Nuremberg remarked:
“My counsel says we were not aware of the extermination of the millions. He would give you the excuse: We were only aware of the extermination of the hundreds. Does that make us any the less guilty? Maybe we didn’t know the details. But if we didn’t know, it was because we didn’t want to know.”
It is one thing to empathize with the victims of past genocides and crimes against humanity. It is easy to say never again; but it is not possible to prevent them without going to the dark place of trying to understand the perpetrators and bystanders. As Timothy Snyder notes:
“It is easy to sanctify policies or identities by the deaths of victims. It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander.”
I will continue this tomorrow, until then,