Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
In the movie Judgement at Nuremberg, Spencer Tracy’s character makes tis comment:
“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…”
This is true, and why I am continuing what I wrote yesterday today.
Yesterday I wrote about the dangers of ignoring what evils that people are capable of committing or standing by and let happen. For me it was a painful article to write as a historian and ethicist who knows history and can see the same kinds of attitudes that allowed the commission of vast and heinous crimes that beggar the imagination, being posted on social media, on blogs, and by political and religious leaders on a daily basis.
But I am sure that many if not most people seldom give what is happening a second look. Even people who read about the crimes of the Nazis, Stalin, or other genocidal regimes find the perpetrators to be beyond understanding, as if they were monsters, or had no human character. In a way that is comforting, because if they were somehow not like us, then we could never become like them.
But if we are to understand what happened Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, or any other place where mass murder and genocide were a daily occurrence, where dissenters, political opponents, and minorities were whisked off to prison, concentration camps, and gulags in the middle of the night, never to be seen or heard from again; we must understand the perpetrators as well as the bystanders who allowed things to happen.
If we fail to do this, if we yield to the temptation to deny the humanity of the perpetrators, to deny that they were human and had access to ethics and morality as we do is to as Timothy Snyder says, “is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position. To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.”
Snyder argues that “To dismiss the Nazis or the Soviets as beyond human concern or historical understanding is to fall into their moral trap. The safer route is to realize that their motives for mass killing, however revolting to us, made sense to them…” They had a faith in their leaders or their ideology, they were devoted to their cause. In the case of the Germans, their “devotion and faith did not make them good…, but they do make them human, Like everyone else, they had access to ethical thinking, even if their own was dreadfully misguided.”
The danger that we face today is that when people in our country speak in the language of the Nazis or other totalitarians, when we see the acts committed against religious, ethnic and other minorities, when we hear the language of genocide being used, we tend to treat those doing such things as barbarians or animals, and not human beings like us, and we rob them of their humanity. If we do this we help set the conditions for what happened under Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and in so many other places to happen again.
Holocaust Historian Yehuda Bauer noted:
“The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.”