Tag Archives: authoritarianism

“Most Evil is Done by People who Never Make up Their Minds to be Good or Evil.”

rolfeFriends of Padre Steve’s World,

I read and write a lot about Weimar and Nazi Germany as well as the Holocaust. They were the focus of my undergraduate major working under Dr. Helmut Heussler who served as a translator and interrogator at Nuremberg while I was a student at California State University at Northridge and later in my Masters of Arts in Military History. I read the documents, the histories, the narratives, and the reports both in English and German. I study the perpetrators, the victims, and yes the bystanders as well and there is not enough time in one man’s life to read all of them, but I will try.

Likewise I visit the sites where things happened in Germany, and every time that I make a trip to those places I learn more and believe me it is not comfortable.  When I visited the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg I saw a picture of Dr. Heussler doing his work. Back then he was very young and it would be a number of years before he finished college and went on to his doctorate. When I saw his picture I remembered just how important he was in opening my eyes to the dark side of humanity; even those people that are not truly evil; those like most of us who exist between the shades of gray between sainthood and the devil.

The histories, the documents, the narratives paint a dark picture of humanity and the fallibility of people. The portrait that they paint a disturbing picture of the true nature of what is in all of us. When I look at the pictures and see the films I can see that the lessons of that time have not been learned. Dr. Timothy Snyder wrote:

“The world is now changing, reviving fears that were familiar in Hitler’s time, and to which Hitler responded. The history of the Holocaust is not over. Its precedent is eternal, and its lessons have not yet been learned.”

In the age where men who admire tyrants and authoritarians like Trump, Putin, Farage, Erdrogan, Assad, and so many others it is important that we try to learn the lessons lest we fall into the same trap as our ancestors and become perpetrators, victims, or bystanders. The fact is that totalitarian regimes and events like the Holocaust are all too common in human history. Yehuda Bauer wrote:

“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.”

The fact is that there are very few true saints and likewise very few truly evil people. Quite obviously Adolf Hitler and many of his associates fell in the latter category. The rest of us, and for that matter most of the people on all sides during from the Nazi seizure of power until the Gotterdammerung of the Third Reich in in the flames of Berlin in 1945 fell somewhere in the gray area between the truly evil and the saints and truthfully all of us given the right conditions are capable of becoming perpetrators, victims, or the worst, bystanders who turn their backs on evil because it doesn’t seem to affect us; but it does.

Admittedly this is a dark subject and as I always reminded my students “the one constant in history are fallible human beings.” 

During our recent blizzard and snow event my wife Judy was away, so one of the nights that I was alone I re-watched the film Judgment at Nuremberg. The film is profoundly disturbing not only because of the subjects that it deals with but also when we look at the great uncertainty time that we live and how similar it is to the world of the late 1920s and early 1930s. In one of the more disturbing scenes of the film, Maximillian Schell, who played Hans Rolfe, the defense counsel for Ernst Janning, played by Burt Lancaster gives a summation in the final defense of his client who has already admitted his guilt which is remarkable because he tells the truth about the guilt of everyone.

Rolfe’s summation of his defense following his client’s admission of guilt is damning. It is something that almost all of us do. It is how we look at the atrocities of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, the willful starvation of millions by criminal regimes; and then stand by saying little or nothing and doing nothing, sometimes even supporting the leaders or the regimes that commit these actions.

So please, no matter what your political point of view, take the time to watch clip or the whole film, and read the transcript of Schell’s speech below. It’s far easier than trying to do all the reading, study, and research that I have done.

“Your Honor, it is my duty to defend Ernst Janning, and yet Ernst Janning has said he is guilty. There’s no doubt, he feels his guilt. He made a great error in going along with the Nazi movement, hoping it would be good for his country. But, if he is to be found guilty, there are others who also went along, who also must be found guilty. Ernst Janning said, “We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.” Why did we succeed, Your Honor? What about the rest of the world? Did it not know the intentions of the Third Reich? Did it not hear the words of Hitler’s broadcast all over the world? Did it not read his intentions in Mein Kampf, published in every corner of the world? Where’s the responsibility of the Soviet Union, who signed in 1939 the pact with Hitler, enabled him to make war? Are we not to find Russia guilty? Where’s the responsibility of the Vatican, who signed in 1933 the Concordat with Hitler, giving him his first tremendous prestige? Are we not to find the Vatican guilty? Where’s the responsibility of the world leader, Winston Churchill, who said in an open letter to the London Times in 1938 – 1938! Your Honor – “were England to suffer national disaster should pray to God to send a man of the strength of mind and will of an Adolf Hitler!” Are we not to find Winston Churchill guilty? Where is the responsibility of those American industrialists, who helped Hitler to rebuild his armaments and profited by that rebuilding? Are we not to find the American industrialists guilty? No, Your Honor. No! Germany alone is not guilty: The whole world is as responsible for Hitler’s Germany. It is an easy thing to condemn one man in the dock. It is easy to condemn the German people to speak of the basic flaw in the German character that allowed Hitler to rise to power and at the same time positively ignore the basic flaw of character that made the Russians sign pacts with him, Winston Churchill praise him, American industrialists profit by him! Ernst Janning said he is guilty. If he is, Ernst Janning’s guilt is the world’s guilt – no more and no less.”

Sadly, little has changed in the character of humanity. If we do or say nothing, if we support those who do such things, if we close our eyes and pretend that it is not our problem, then we too are the guilty party.  As Hannah Arendt wrote: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, film, History, holocaust, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary

The Blatant Power Grab of Trump the Authoritarian

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The meaning of President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey is rapidly becoming apparent to all but the most ideologically blinded Trump partisan. In response to a growing investigation by the FBI that he could not control, the President opted to go nuclear in a sense by removing Comey who coincidently had just days before requested more money in order to expand the investigation of Russian interference in the American elections and by necessity investigate all the members of Trump’s inner circle with Moscow connections. The idea that Comey’s investigation was closing in on Trump and his inner circle ands that Comey, despite undermining the campaign of Hillary Clinton had no personal loyalty to Trump sent shivers through the spine of Trump and his aides and caused Trump to rage against Comey in the days leading up to the firing.

Trump’s ham-fisted attempt to play this off as his response to reports from the Justice Department have already been proven to be lies. But Trump does not seem to really care. He knows that he never had a mandate from a majority of the American people and that his popularity is the lowest of any president at this point in their administration. Instead of trying to do the things that would help him gain a mandate and the approval of the voters he is moving into the realm of the authoritarian who must seize the instruments of state power, especially national policing agencies like the Justice Department, the FBI, and the Department Homeland Security by removing potential adversaries in them and filling them with loyalists. But Rump does not care how bad this looks, because he does not care. Russian chess master and dissident Gary Kasparov noted yesterday:

As if to emphasize how little he cares about optics, Trump followed up the Comey firing by meeting with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador at the White House the very next day. American media was blocked from attending, but Russian photographers were there to capture the three men’s beaming smiles. Trump looked in his element, no doubt boasting about flexing his power the way Putin might.

I’m sure they have much else to talk about. Trump would love to turn the FBI into a personal security and intelligence force to use against his enemies, the way Putin uses the FSB in Russia and abroad.

The good thing is that Trump has the attention span of a gnat and the intellectual curiously of a sloth when it comes to understanding and working within the Constitutional system of the United States. This has meant that he has left many presidentially appointed positions throughout the Federal Government unfilled. Call it laziness or incompetence, it does not help him and hopefully will undermine his efforts to wrest even more power in order to protect and enrich himself and his allies.

Even so, for an authoritarian the most important agencies to control are those which control law enforcement, not even the military, for the military is of little use in domestic politics, but police agencies are of great value. This is why Hitler focused his efforts on controlling the state security apparatus of the Interior Ministry, the Prussian Interior Ministry, and the Police, especially the Secret Police when he took power. It is the same reason that Stalin relied of the predecessor of the KGB, the NKVD as the instrument of his Communist Party and military purges, his campaigns of starvation in the Ukraine and Belarus, and ethnic cleansing throughout the various Soviets.

For a paranoid authoritarian leader who views any opposition as a potential threat and any opponent an enemy, the instruments of state security are the most important. To do this he, like all authoritarians must cultivate chaos and present themselves as the only solution to maintain order emphasizing the supposedly exceptional nature of the times. This is seen in the President’s flood of executive orders in which he tells Federal agencies exactly what laws he wants enforced and those that he does not.

We have not seen the end of President Trump’s attempts to gain more power though extraordinary means and to eliminate opposition to his policies within the government. As he feels more threatened expect this trend to accelerate. If he cannot get what he wants expect him to leave a path of destruction in his wake, that is the way of the authoritarian. Our watchword must be vigilance, and those who occupy positions within the bureaucracy must uphold their duties to the Constitution and the country over their political affiliation, and this is doubly true for the Republican members of Congress who will either roll over and surrender their constitutional obligations to allow Trump more power, or must stand on principle for the Constitution if the Republic is to survive. Many people are afraid and adopting the cynicism and attitude of inevitability necessary for Trump the authoritarian to succeed. Timothy Snyder righty noted:

For us, the lesson is that our natural fear and grief must not enable the destruction of our institutions. Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, precisely when it seems most difficult to do so.”

Those serving in the military during times like these also need to remember and heed the words of General Ludwig Beck who resigned his office rather than to lead an attack on Czechoslovakia, and who would die in the attempt to overthrow Hitler in 1944:

“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.” 

Likewise Congress and law enforcement must investigate because it is their duty under the Constitution. Kasparov noted: 

If the rule of law and the separation of powers are to mean anything in the U.S., an independent investigation into Trump’s Russia ties and his finances is more critical now than ever. It won’t be easy, but it’s only going to get harder. Trump will keep finding new ways to accrue power — and he won’t care at all how bad it looks:

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Resisting Authortarianism: Part One


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight, like last night I am posting another thought from B.H. Liddell-Hart’s book Why don’t We Learn from History? 

The book is worth the read for anyone, even though it is written by a military historian and theorist. Liddell-Hart had a keen understanding of the limitations of Democracy, but recognized the inherent evil of the totalitarian or authoritarian state, and such leaders. Thus, when we see a democratically elected leader rapidly move toward authoritarianism, attempting to silence political and press critics, accused the acting head of the Department of Justice of “betrayal,” and attacking the institutions of justice that oppose him, while praising foreign despots, we should be concerned for our liberty. 

Liddell-Hart wrote something very profound that we should all think about: 

What is of value in “England” and “America” and worth defending is its tradition of freedom, the guarantee of its vitality. Our civilization, like the Greek, has, for all its blundering way, taught the value of freedom, of criticism of authority, and of harmonising this with order. Anyone who urges a different system, for efficiency’s sake, is betraying the vital tradition.

He noted:

It is man’s power of thought which has generated the current of human progress through the ages. Thus the thinking man must be against authoritarianism in any form, because it shows its fear of thoughts which do not suit momentary authority.

The power of thought, the unending quest for truth, the questioning of authorities who claim absolute power, are all essential to maintaining human freedom. However, freedom cannot be defended if its defenders have either forgotten how to think critically, or never learned to at all. The latter should be concerning as for years the emphasis of education has been to train people for a job with specific but narrow skills, while critical thinking, based in reason, science, history, philosophy, literature, and the arts has taken a back seat. Giles Lauren who wrote the preface to the latest edition of Why don’t We Learn from History? wrote:

Education, no longer liberal, has largely become a question of training in a skill for gain rather than teaching us how to think so as to find our own way. ‘It is strange how people assume that no training is needed in the pursuit of truth.’ We must learn to test and judge the information that comes before us. After all: ‘Whoever habitually suppresses the truth … will produce a deformity from the womb of his thought.’

This my friends is not comfortable, and neither should it be. But the truth is that most people actually fear truth because it is uncomfortable. Liddell-Hart wrote:

We learn from history that in every age and every clime the majority of people have resented what seems in retrospect to have been purely matter-of-fact comment on their institutions. We learn too that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance. Always the tendency continues to be shocked by natural comment and to hold certain things too “sacred” to think about.

I am watching people, many of them good people, decent people, even brilliant people either openly support the move toward authoritarianism, or remain silent, even when they recognize the truth. In such times it is important to seek the truth, and proclaim the truth, even if it unpopular, and unpleasant. This means that we also have to look inside ourselves, and be honest because we all have the capacity to believe the lie and not to recognize the distinction between fact and fiction. Hannah Arendt wrote in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism:

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction ( i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false ( i.e ., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

I will continue this tomorrow. Have a great night and sleep well.

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

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