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Wansee, Problem Solvers & Trump

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Reinhard Heydrich

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great American philosopher, Eric Hoffer once wrote, “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.”

Hatred is an amazing emotion. In the final scene of the movie Conspiracy which is about the Wansee Conference, at which fifteen officials of the Nazi government met to coordinate what became the Holocaust, the “Final Solution” of what the Nazis called, “the Jewish problem.” The movie is troubling because the men in the room were well-educated, high to mid-level officials from a variety of agencies who were called together to ensure that their respective agencies worked together.

At beginning of the movie, Kenneth Branagh who plays SS Lieutenant General Reinhard Heydrich describes the “problem to be solved”

“To begin, we have a storage problem in Germany with these Jews…. The laws enacted at Nuremberg, and we should drink a toast to Dr. Stuckart for devising them….They established the fundamental legality for the creation of a Jew-free society, a Jew-free economy for the world to see. And we, indeed, have eliminated the Jew from our national life. Now, more than that, the Jew himself must be physically eradicated from our living space…

Then, in acquiring Poland, we acquired two and a half million more. By last July,
we were met with a new situation, we would, in very short order, be acquiring some five million Jews as we conquered Russia. The dimensions of this problem
have magnified astoundingly. Five million…

At that time, last July, confronting this new situation, Reichsmarshal Goering
prepared a directive, you have a copy. The operative words, if you’ll permit me to read:
“I hereby charge you with making all preparations.in regard to organizational
and financial matters for bringing about a complete solution of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe.”

Now, for that, I read the cleansing of the entire continent of Europe.

…in the second paragraph: “Wherever other governmental agencies
are involved these are to cooperate with you.” I hope. So on, so on… “as necessary for the accomplishment of the desired solution of the Jewish question.” This is our mandate, all of us.

Donald Trump has talked about expelling and deporting over 11 million Mexicans and other South or Central Americans from this country. True, many are here illegally, but at the same time most are working and paying taxes, doing the things that many Americans consider themselves too good to do. He has mentioned similar things in regard to Muslims, as well as banning any Muslim from coming to the country. He has talked about going along with the desire of the Christian Right to roll back the hard earned rights of Homosexuals, and he has no regard for African Americans and their rights, with the possible exception of Ben Carson, but I digress…

At the close of the meeting the decision to exterminate the Jews was agreed to by the assembled officials who pledged to work with each other, once they had been told of how the logistics of the operation would take place. Not all were happy, some were shocked, but all rolled over and agreed to cooperate with Heydrich.

At the end of the movie Heydrich is asked to share an allegorical story that one of the less enthusiastic conference participants, Reich Chancellery State Secretary, Dr. Wilhelm Kritzinger, told him about hatred of the Jews. Heydrich recalled the story to SS Major General Heinrich Mueller and SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann:

“Yes, he told me a story about a man he’d known all his life, a boyhood friend. This man hated his father. Loved his mother fiercely.
The mother was devoted to him……but the father beat him, demeaned him, disinherited him.
Anyway, this boy grew to manhood and was still in his 30s when the mother died…this mother who had nurtured and protected him.
She died. The man stood as they lowered her casket and tried to cry…but no tears came.
The man’s father lived to old age, died when the son was in his 50s.
At the father’s funeral, much to his son’s surprise…he could not control his tears. He was wailing, sobbing. He was apparently inconsolable. Lost, even.
That was the story Kritzinger told me.

Eichmann said, “I don’t understand.”

Heydrich answered: “No? The man had been driven his whole life by hatred of his father.
When the mother died, that was a loss. When the father died…when the hate had lost its object…then the man’s life was empty. Over.

Eichmann replied: “Interesting. That was Kritzinger’s warning. What? That we should not hate the Israelites?”

To which Heydrich said, “No, that it should not so fill our lives…that when they are gone, we have nothing left to live for. So says the story. I will not miss them”

After the film was over one of the students brought up who pertinent the comments about hate were in our current political climate. Again I cannot go into details, but I can assure you that the conversation was subdued and sobering. I think that all of us left better for it.

The story is pertinent when one looks at what Donald Trump is doing right now. I really have to wonder how deep hatred such as his runs in this country, because unlike love, hatred is easy to conjure up. It is kind of like what you need to build a fire; fuel, oxygen and heat. To generate hatred on a massive scale all you need is a disaffected populace, a convenient target, and an agent to ignite the mixture.

Shrewd politicians, preachers, and pundits do this well. Donald Trump is showing himself to be a master of this. He, and others like him, and not just American politicians, pundits or preachers, mind you, demonize the target group or population and then let the hatred of their disaffected followers flow.

Leaders who are consumed with hate need a disaffected and angry base in order to rise to power; such was how Hitler, Stalin, and so many other despots gained power. They took advantage of a climate of fear, and found others to blame. For Hitler it was the Jews; while for Stalin it was various groups like the Ukrainians, or the Poles who were the devil to be feared and destroyed. For Trump it is Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, liberals, and sometimes, even Jews.

Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin wrote:

“Dead human beings provided retrospective arguments for the rectitude of policy. Hitler and Stalin thus shared a certain politics of tyranny: they brought about catastrophes, blamed the enemy of their choice, and then used the death of millions to make the case that their policies were necessary or desirable. Each of them had a transformative utopia, a group to be blamed when its realization proved impossible, and then a policy of mass murder that could be proclaimed as a kind of ersatz victory.”

Snyder is quite correct, demonizing a people and making them some kind of “other”, “they”, or “them”, is a wonderful way to blame a group of people for the ills of society. It is also a good way to deflect the blame for the corporate failures of societies and governments onto a convenient scapegoat; and to blame others for the personal failures and petty jealousies of the people doing the demonizing. It also allows people to abandon ethics and the simple notion of the Golden Rule an engage in genocide.

Mass movements and their leaders; of which Trump is such a leader, are masters of hatred and demonizing any opponents. The technique Trump is using is not at all new, it has been used from antiquity but has become much more dangerous in the modern era with the spread of instant communications technology. History shows us all too clearly how it has happened and how easily it can happen again. Witch hunts, slavery and Jim Crow, the extermination of the Native Americans which inspired Hitler in his campaign of genocide and the Holocaust; the Soviet gulags and ethnic cleansings, the Rape of Nanking, the Chinese Communist “Cultural Revolution” the Rwandan genocide, Srebrenica, the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, and the current crimes against humanity of the so called Islamic State. Sadly, the list can go on and on.

All of these events simply required the elements of a disaffected population, a devil or scapegoat to blame, and a leader or leaders to ignite the volatile mixture; fuel, oxygen and heat. Hoffer was quite correct that “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” The really successful leaders of such movements understand this. For Hitler it was the Jews and other untermenschen; for American Southerners after the Civil it was the Blacks and their white supporters. For the American “Know Nothings” of the 1840s and 1850s it was immigrants, especially Irish and Germans who were Catholic; for Stalin it was non-Russian ethnic minorities. For the leaders of the Islamic State, it is Jews, Shi’ite Moslems, less than “faithful” Sunnis, Christians and well for that matter anyone who does not line up one hundred percent with them on every issue. The examples are so plentiful to support this fact that it is almost overwhelming.

The problem is that when any society, or government begins to label or stigmatize a race, religion, ethnicity, sexual preference, or political ideology, and then in the process demonize those people to the point that they become less than human we have reached a tipping point. We reach the point where we are just one crisis away from all of those crimes against humanity that we believe that we are no longer capable of doing. But sadly, we human beings are not nearly as evolved as we think and I think that the tipping point in the United States may be far closer than we could ever imagine.

I really do not think that we are too far from some tipping point where the politicians, pundits and preachers; especially those of the political right and the media whores who are more concerned about market share than truth, decide that their “devils” must be exterminated. Of course when they will do they will claim a higher moral, religious, or racial, purpose; or perhaps use the language of Manifest Destiny, the Lost Cause, or the Stab in the Back or some other historical myth that suffices to justify their actions.

In response to Trump and those who stoke the same kind of fear and hatred, I wonder just how many men that there are like Heydrich, who would execute the orders of someone like Trump that there are in our country this very minute. I shudder to think of it, and when I do, I am reminded of the closing words of Spencer Tracy when he pronounces judgement on the Nazi judges in the film Judgment at Nuremberg:

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. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”

I do hope that we follow a saner and less horrifying path. But I ask this question: If Trump or someone like him is elected, in this election or in a future election; who will be his problem solvers? I dread to think about the answer to that question.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Nuremberg: Marking the 67th Year of the Trials of Men Who Should Have Known Better

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“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” ― Hannah Arendt

The 20th of November is an important day. It is not one that most people think about but it is important. It was the day that the major war criminals of the Nazi Regime were put on trial at Nuremberg. That was the most dramatic of the trials, but later trials were held on those that ran parts of the Nazi regime, the senior and mid-level executioners of Nazi policy. Those men included civil servants, jurists, physicians, military and police officials especially leaders of the Einsatzgruppen.

I studied Weimar and Nazi Germany as well as the Holocaust under Dr. Helmut Heussler at California State University at Northridge as an undergraduate and in a year of graduate studies.  I also continued that study while in Seminary as well as in my Masters Degree in Military History. I was stationed in Germany several times, done an exchange tour with the German Army and my German friends say that I am fluent in German. I have been to Nuremberg, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. I have stood on the reviewing stand where Adolf Hitler preached to the multitudes of assembled party faithful on the Zepplinfeld in Nuremberg.

As such I am a realist about the unique horror of the Holocaust. I am a realist about people and how and the circumstances of the times brought ordinary people, men and women to either commit, support or simply turn their backs on the greatest atrocities ever committed by a “civilized” Western nation. A nation steeped in the traditions of Christendom and the Enlightenment.

As a Priest, Historian, Military Officer and Ethicist I often find that I return to my old books used in my various degree programs as well as  as the resources of museums and universities now available on the internet. I also watch films about the era. Not war films, films about the ordinary men that carried out these crimes either by pulling the trigger, pushing a button, signing an order or simply turning their backs and remaining silent. I think that is what makes them so compelling.

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Three of those films I watch at lest once a year, sometimes multiple times. One is Conspiracy starring Kenneth Branagh which is about the Wansee Conference where mid-level officials and bureaucrats met to has out details of the Final Solution. The second is Nuremberg starring Alec Baldwin and Christopher Plummer which is about the major war crimes trials. The last is the classic Judgement at Nuremberg starring Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster. It is that film that I have concentrated on today because it deals with men who executed the laws enacted by the Nazi regime, many of whom who before the Nazi seizure of power were perfectly respectable in their dealings with Jews and others that the Nazis would persecute.

That is the chilling thing about this period of history and these films. The show ordinary men who for a variety of reasons chose to violate their own conscience as well as the norms of what they knew was right. They did so often out of fear, fear of change, fear of others and even fear of themselves. The fact that otherwise decent people not only followed Hitler but willingly executed Nazi policies against their former neighbors, colleagues and friends is the most chilling aspect of all. I say this because the people are so ordinary yet perpetrated such evil.

In Judgement at Nuremberg Burt Lancaster plays a jurist who served the Nazi regime, a jurist who before the Nazis was considered to be one of the best legal minds not only in Germany but in Europe. In the film the character played by Lancaster, Ernst Janning discussed who he and others like him ended up doing what they did. It is a penetrating look at how people justified their actions.

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“There was a fever over the land. A fever of disgrace, of indignity, of hunger. We had a democracy, yes, but it was torn by elements within. Above all, there was fear. Fear of today, fear of tomorrow, fear of our neighbors, and fear of ourselves. Only when you understand that – can you understand what Hitler meant to us. Because he said to us: ‘Lift your heads! Be proud to be German! There are devils among us. Communists, Liberals, Jews, Gypsies! Once these devils will be destroyed, your misery will be destroyed.’. It was the old, old story of the sacrificial lamb. What about those of us who knew better? We who knew the words were lies and worse than lies? Why did we sit silent? Why did we take part? Because we loved our country! What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase. It is only a stage we are going through. It will be discarded sooner or later. Hitler himself will be discarded… sooner or later. The country is in danger. We will march out of the shadows. We will go forward. Forward is the great password. And history tells how well we succeeded, your honor. We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The very elements of hate and power about Hitler that mesmerized Germany, mesmerized the world! We found ourselves with sudden powerful allies. Things that had been denied to us as a democracy were open to us now…”

Hannah Arendt talked about the Banality of Evil in her treatment of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the mid-level officers who sent millions of people to their deaths. In describing Eichmann and other ordinary people Arendt said: “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

At the end of the movie Judgement at Nuremberg Spencer Tracy as Presiding Judge Dan Haywood concluded his sentencing remarks with this statement. It is perhaps one of the most powerful statement and something to remember as the Unholy Trinity of Politicians, Pundits and Preachers urge us to hate one another and those different than us. It is something that is especially needed in times of great societal stress as well as real and perceived dangers from without and within.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3BwK51YFgQ

“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. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”

This is an unsettling subject and people on the political right and left in this country are apt to compare their opponents to those that were tried at Nuremberg and those that led them. This has been an increasingly disturbing trend in the case of hyper-partisan Right Wing so called “Evangelical Christians” who blatantly demonize those who they hate and urge the use of the police powers of the state to enforce their political-religious agenda.

However it is possible that any party in society when divided by fear, hate and the desire for power can behave just as the industrialists, financiers, doctors, soldiers, jurists, civil servants, pastors and educators who oversaw those heinous crimes.

Those tried at Nuremberg were all people that should have known better, as should we.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Remembering the Holocaust: The Ordinary Men of Wansee and Two Hours that Doomed a Race

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“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.”  Primo Levi

Today was the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was on January 27th 1945 that the Nazi death camp called Auschwitz, in Poland was liberated by the Red Army.

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Auschwitz began as a work camp, notoriously harsh in its treatment of its prisoners but a work camp, picked because of its proximity to rail lines and isolation. By the summer of 1941 it was the largest camp in the Concentration Camp system. Within months the process of turning Auschwitz into a factory of mass murder began, quite accidentally when members of the camp staff discovered that a chemical used for the delousing of barracks known as Zyklon-B also worked on large animals, and therefore people.  It was tested on Russian and Polish POWs in September 1941.

As the Nazi desire for efficient extermination grew and early death factories showed their limitations and the “experiments” at Auschwitz resulted in it being selected as a death camp. The camp was expanded and its first gas chamber, the former camp morgue began its operations in February 1942. Other more massive chambers were built, chambers that could hold up to 2000 victims per cycle. By the time the operation was shut down in the weeks leading up to the camp’s liberation Rudolf Höss the Commandant of Auschwitz estimated that 2.5 million people, mostly Jews were exterminated in it. Höss boasted d that his camp could exterminate 10,000 people in a 24 hour period. Other estimates are lower, but still in the millions.

Höss, and other functionaries such Adolf Eichmann, who coordinated the massive effort to exterminate the Jews of Europe following the Wansee Conference of January 20th 1942 approached their jobs dispassionately. This was a common attitude among the civil service, military and police officials that oversaw the Holocaust. They simply did their jobs and followed the law.

Hannah Arendt wrote of Eichmann:

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

This was what made the Holocaust committed against the Jews of Europe by Nazi Germany a phenomenon different than other genocides. Many of the perpetrators were not driven by centuries old hate as in the Balkans, tribal blood lust as occurred in Rwanda, or the products of Soviet Communism or Communist Chines Maoist regimes.

It was the racial ideology of the Nazis which deemed the Jews and other non-Aryans to be sub-human. That ideology undergirded the German treatment of the Jews, and the conduct of the war, especially in the East. But the execution of the plan required the bureaucratic, administrative, technical and legal skills brought to the table by ordinary men. Men who sought promotion, advancement and economic security for their families. Individually many would have never killed, but in their positions they ran the rail network, the factories, the banking and finance industries and supported the war effort, most not thinking much about the evil that they abetted or if they did finding a way, be it social, scientific, religious, patriotic, legal or simply in the name of efficiency.

That is what makes the evil committed by them so terrifying. It is the product of “normal” people in an advanced Western nation. Make no bones about it, their actions were evil. They aided and abetted the genocide of the Jews, the disabled, other “sub-human” races, particularly Slavs, as well as those that they deemed less than suitable.

This evening I watched the movie Conspiracy which is about the two hour long Wansee Conference headed by Reinhard Heydrich and organized by Eichmann. That conference put the representatives of competing agencies, and in the case of the SS, agencies within agencies together and brought about their cooperation in the execution of the Final Solution.

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The film is chilling in the ordinariness of the men involved. civil servants, party officials, they were the men that did the day to day administration of the necessary functions of the Reich. Some were horrified at the potentiality of the effects of what Heydrich referred as “evacuations” entailed. They understood that it meant the extermination of the Jews. Some were concerned about the military and logistical aspects, others in how such actions squared with the German law, especially the Nuremberg Laws, while still others were concerned with diplomatic relations with Germany’s allies or occupied countries and some unnerved by the fact that it would be murder. But when the conference was done, all agreed and worked together and it only took two hours.

It is important that we do not forget the Holocaust. It is also important to recognize that the instruments of that horror were on the whole “ordinary” men who as they saw it were simply doing their job. It is something that everyone needs to remember.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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