Tag Archives: dachau

Charité at War and the Nazi Doctors

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In my studies of the Third Reich and the Holocaust I have read a number of volumes dealing with Nazi medicine, eugenics, human experimentation, and the murder of those deemed “life unworthy of life.” I recently finished The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code: Human Rights in Human Experimentation, edited by George Annas and Michael Gordon, and previously read The Nazi Doctors by Robert J. Lifton, The Nazi War on Cancer, by Robert Proctor, the Nuremberg transcripts of the Doctors Trial, Hitler’s American Model: the United States and the Making Of Nazi Race Law, by James Whitman, The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism by Stefan Kühl and visits to Dachau, Buchenwald, and the Hadamar T-4 Euthanasia Center.

In my career I have served as a member, or the head of ethics committees at major civilian and military medical centers. As such I have also had to read and study much about medicine, disease, and medical ethics. Much of my hospital time was done in ICUs and dealing with end of life matters, consulting with physicians and nursing staff. So I don’t take the subjects involved lightly, and I found the German television series Charité at War, which is available on Netflix to be fascinating.

My life has been deeply involved with history, Ministry, Medicine, and Ethics for decades. The series which is set in Berlin’s Charité hospital, a leading research center and major medical center is so interesting. It shows how even the most decent and idealistic people can be compromised in a medical system of an authoritarian and racist state.

The characters in the series are all based on real people. They are not composites, or factionalized versions. They include the true believers like SS Colonel and Psychiatrist Max de Crinis, who helped write the euthanasia laws of the Reich and used his position as Professor Of Psychiatry at Charité to turn wounded soldiers over to Court Martial as deserters, and to persecute homosexuals. He took cyanide to escape capture by the Soviets. Then there was Doctor and Professor Ferdinand der Sauerbruch, Professor Of Surgery at Charité who walked a thin line but publicly opposed the T-4 Euthanasia program and attempted to protect members of the German resistance. Sauerbach remained at the hospital treating patients until the Red Army captured it. He was known for his work with, tuberculosis, prosthetics, and the diagnosis of Graves Disease. He died in 1951. Then there was Professor Artur Waldhäusen, a pediatrician who became head of pediatrics at Charité who attempted to have his own daughter sent to a Euthanasia center, only to be found out by his wife who saved her daughter with the help of her brother. But of all the characters was the nurse Christel, who was so devoted to the Nazi message that she turned over nurses, physicians, and patients who she deemed traitorous to Professor de Crinis and the Gestapo, including Hans Dohnanyi, Brother in law of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The series is interesting because it shows ordinary people, even brilliant people can compromise their ethics and reputations serving an unjust regime. Some of these medical professionals were completely utilitarian in their ethics and had no empathy for those that they treated or sent to their deaths. Sadly, they are no different from people today. Bureaucrats, Physicians, Nurses, and yes even ministers can surrender their ethics, faith, and simple human decency, even those who claim to be Pro-life to serve regimes which are bent on the extermination of life unworthy of life and those that they consider to be subhuman.

The series Charité at War is as brilliant as it is disturbing. I recommend it highly.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

P.S. We had a wonderful anniversary. Thank you for all the kind words.

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The Founding Of Dachau, the Model Concentration Camp

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

On March 20th 1933, barely a month and a half after the Nazi takeover of the German government and three days before the passage of the Enabling Act the Police President Of Munich, SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler ordered the establishment of the Dachau Concentration Camp. He appointed SS Standartenführer Hilmar Wäckerle as Commandant and the first 200 political prisoners from Munich’s Stadelheim prison arrived at Dachau on March 22nd.

Wäckerle’s brief tenure as Commandant was marked by extraordinary brutality on the part of his staff, so much so that charges were brought against him by the Munich courts which resulted in his relief by SS Gruppenführer Theodore Eicke in July 1933. Eicke would establish the regulations which governed all the later Concentration Camps, and make Dachau the model camp for all others.

Theodore Eiche

Theodore Eicke

Among the later SS killers of the Holocaust who served at Dachau were Adolf Eichmann, and the Commandant of Auschwitz, Rüdolf Höss. It became a training ground for other Concentration Camp commanders and staff. Others would become leaders in the Waffen SS and the Einsatzgruppen death squads.

The announcement of Dachau’s Opening was reported by the German press in this release:

On Wednesday the first concentration camp is to be opened in Dachau with an accommodation for 5000 people. ‘All Communists and—where necessary—Reichsbanner and Social Democratic functionaries who endanger state security are to be concentrated here, as in the long run it is not possible to keep individual functionaries in the state prisons without overburdening these prisons, and on the other hand these people cannot be released because attempts have shown that they persist in their efforts to agitate and organize as soon as they are released.

Dachau began as a political prisoner camp for the Nazis to imprison Socialists, Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Jews, and other dissidents. It wasn’t a “death camp” designed to exterminate people even though tens of thousands of people died or were executed there. It was designed to terrorize, dehumanize, and destroy the souls of its inmates. It was a place of inhuman medical experiments, a place of terror, and the administrative center of a network of over 30 large and 100 small sub-Camps which were used as sources of slave labor for the German armaments industry. But one has to remember that the SS was not simply an instrument of terror, but an institution devoted to profit. Prisoners were valued in what their lives equated in profits. A prisoner was valued in what he or her could produce versus the expenses of keeping them alive for a period of 6 to 12 months. Under Himmler and his assistant for production and profits, Obergrüppenfuhrer Oswold Pöhl the Concentration Camps, as well as the death camps became centers of profit for the SS in collaboration with German industrial concerns and industries owned by the SS itself.

I have been to Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Flossenburg, and Buchenwald. I have also been to the T4 Euthanasia Center at Hadamar. To walk through these places where human beings subjected other people to the most inhuman of conditions, punishments, and torture brings the reality of the Holocaust into stark reality. The great evil committed by the Nazis in these places have made them hallowed ground.

Sadly, the way things are going in this country under the Trump Regime, and so many similar regimes around the world there will probably many more places of hallowed ground, ground hallowed by the victims of tyranny.

Never forget.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Anti-Semitism: Not Just One Prejudice Among Others

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I had lunch with a local Rabbi today who I have gotten to know over the past year at a number of diversity celebrations at the headquarters of the Navy Exchange Command, or NEXCOM. I always love taking part I their events because they are not perfunctory, the are occasions of learning, and building community from a diverse workforce. I have taken part in many diversity events in military and civilian settings, but by far NEXCOM, its leadership and people make the events worth going to and being part of, but I digress.

I met the Rabbi at a couple of these events where we offered prayers or spoke. We have become friends and he has invited me to speak at his synagogue during Holocaust Remembrance week,  and invited me to an ecumenical ministers gathering that takes place monthly. I think that I am in the process of finding a spiritual community that I can really be part of when I retire from the Navy. It’s actually something that I have needed for a long time but haven’t found, until now. But again I digress…

We were talking about the various types of anti-Semitism which appear to be growing more strident, public, and vocal than the past. Likewise we discussed how it has not only grown roots in the political Right, but also in the political left., most noticeably in Britain’s Labour party, but also among elements of the American Left. This is troubling because the vast majority of American Jews  tend to be affiliated with the Democratic Party, and much more socially progressive than many other Americans, including guarding the civil rights of other minority groups, including religious minorities.

Despite that there is a long history of prejudice, discrimination, and even violence against Jews since the founding of the United States, the Know Nothings, the KKK, other White Nationalist groups, pre World War II American Fascists and Nazis, and the original America First Crowd. 

We have to be honest; there have been other genocides, including those perpetuated over centuries by the British Colonists and their American descendants against Native Americans, and the inhabitants of El Norte, the northern states of the Republic of Mexico. Likewise, the Nazis perpetuated other mass killings and would have continued their genocidal practices against the Jews and others had they not been defeated.

The late Christopher Hitchens wrote something with which I completely agree. He wrote:

“We should not at all allow ourselves to forget the millions of non-Jewish citizens of Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, and other Slav territories who were also massacred. But for me the salient fact remains that anti-Semitism was the regnant, essential, organizing principle of all the other National Socialist race theories. It is thus not to be thought of as just one prejudice among many.” 

If this is what it means to make America Great again then we are deep trouble.  Historian Timothy Snyder wrote: “When exactly was the “again” in the president’s slogan “Make America great again”? Hint: It is the same “again” that we find in “Never again.”

Can someone disagree with the policies of the government of Israel and not be anti-Semitic? Of course, vast numbers of American Jews do just that, but in doing so one cannot subscribe or perpetuate the hate filled myths and conspiracy theories of The Protocols Of the Elders Of Zion, or any other brazenly anti-Semeitc and anti-Jewish works that have been used for centuries to demonize Jews, nor can one subscribe to ahistorical Holocaust Denial theories and their authors. Nor can one elevate and mythologize the Nazi Waffen SS as mere elite soldiers fighting for their country. Many were true believers in the Nazi racial theories, and they carried them out, at the front, behind the lines with the Einsatzgruppen, and in alleged anti-partisan operations where hundreds or thousands of kills were claimed but few weapons ever seized, and this was not just on the Eastern Front.

The fact that anti-semitism is arising from the depths of the abyss should not surprise us, but for the President Of the United States, some of his closest advisors, the head of the British Labour Party, and a host of European political parties espouse overt anti-semitism in their party platforms and praise their ancestors who committed genocide is particularly disturbing.

It is with a great deal of humility that I will assume the pulpit in my friends synagogue on April 27th, and speak to his congregation and their guests about the necessity of revisiting the places where these crimes against humanity occurred because it won’t be long until the last perpetrators, victims, and bystanders who witnessed the crimes committed by the Einsatzgruppen, in the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Soribor, Belzec, Treblinka, the Labor murder Camps of Maulthausen, Nordhausen, Begen-Belsen, Buchenwald, and Flossenberg, the political prison of Dachau, and the T-4 Euthanasia centers like Hardheim, Sonnesnstein, and Hadmar where disabled infants, children, adults, as well as the mentally ill were sent to their deaths, murders that were carried out by physicians and nurses.

Likewise one cannot forget the courtrooms, such as the one in Nuremberg which before it was taken over by the Allies at the end of the war saw some of the greatest abuses of justice known to humankind by adjudicated. Nor, can one leave out the room at the Wannsee House in an affluent suburb of Berlin where represenatives  of every major depart of the German Government and Nazi Party gathered to discuss the implementation of what euphemistically was known as The Final Solution Of the Jewish Problem. One learns at Wannsee that language can easily be used to disguise genocide and mass murder.

Timothy Snyder wrote something that we should not forget. We as Americans are not unique, we are as prone to moral cowardice and selling the lives of others in the cheap as any nation on earth. So we must remember that what happened in Europe could just as easily happen here. He wrote:

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

That is what we need to ask and act upon today. The danger is upon us, and as 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.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

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Preparing for Another Trip to Germany

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Later this week we will be flying to Germany for what has seemingly become an annual pilgrimage. While there we will be seeing friends as well as enjoying the Oktoberfest in Munich, seeing historical places, and exploring towns where Judy’s ancestors came from in the Rheinland-Pfalz, Baden-Württemberg, and the Alsace in France.

While in Munich I plan to again visit Dachau and the Sophie Scholl museum at Munich University and hopefully a number of other sites. I have a ticket for a soccer match between Bayern-München and Augsburg at Allianz area.

Outside of Munich it looks like we will visit the Flossenbürg and Buchenwald Concentration Camps Southwest of Berlin. We will stay in Wittenberg where Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation, and the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach where Luther was hidden after his defense and excommunication before the Imperial Diet at Worms. In his ten months of hiding he translated the New Testament from Greek into German.

We will visit friends in Berlin. It will be our first visit to the city since November of 1986, before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It will be interesting to see the redone Reichstag, walk under the Brandenburger Tor, as well as see the the Berlin Monument to the Holocaust, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, the Bendlerstrasse Museum to the German anti-Nazi resistance, the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, and the Wannsee House.

From Berlin we will stay with friends near Karlsruhe one the Rhein River near the French Border for a few days before returning to Munich for our flight home.

I’ll be writing and posting about those things and more in the coming weeks, but for now I will wish you a good night.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Guard Your Soul Lest You Forget: the Relevance Of the Holocaust Today

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I took a few days of leave for the first time in months so that Judy and I could visit friends in the Washington D.C. area. Since Wednesday ended with me being called back in to work to deal with the workplace suicide of a young sailor stationed at one of the units on our base it was needed.

It is nice because the expectations that we have of each other are simply to enjoy the time together without expecting them to entertain us. Judy does crafts with Melissa, all of us talk, sometimes we play card games or watch television or a movies while our seven combined Papillon dogs hang out and play.

So yesterday I drove over to the nearest Metro station and went down to the Holocaust Museum. Since I study the Weimar and Nazi period, the Holocaust and the war crimes trials this was important. In Germany I have been to the Dachau and Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camps, the T4 Euthanasia Program Center at Hadamar, the Palace Of Justice in Nuremberg where the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials (as well as the Nazi era Nuremberg laws) were prosecuted, the Sophie Scholl White Rose Museum, and the Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism; this was important. I will be continuing to visit Holocaust sites in Germany when I go there this Fall, but I finally was able to stake out the time to visit the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

The museum is important and despite having been to places shown in it and knowing more about the Nazi regime and the Holocaust than the vast majority of Americans, I found myself overwhelmed at times as I walked slowly through the exhibits. Many I recognized, knew about, or had been to, but that did not make them any less emotionally difficult to see. But there were others that drove home why this museum is so important in our day and time.

I think that the one that hit me the hardest was the pictorial Tower of Faces from the Polish shtetl of Ejszyszki. That town was home to some 4,000 Jews and the pictures had been taken over the preceding decade by local photographers. They were pictures of everyday family and community life; men, women, children at work, at play, at rest. Worshipping, working, studying, the old and the young, the well off and the poor, the religious and those not as religious at all phase of life captured in photos for eternity. For 3500 of them their lives ended on September 21st 1941 when the Nazis rounded up the Jews at their Synagogues on the eve of Yom Kippur and executed them by firing squad in mass graves at the town’s Christian and Jewish cemeteries. Only 29 of those who survived that day lived through the war. That Jewish community had existed for 900 years and was exterminated in a matter of hours.

I looked at those pictures and I could not get over all of those innocent lives cut short. Each face was the picture of an individual or individuals, families, friends, schoolmates. They were not abstract numbers or statistics but real flesh and blood people like you and me. They had hopes and dreams, but because they were Jews they were exterminated, like nearly six million other Jews who also were real people with hopes and dreams that would be destroyed by the Nazi racial war. Of course the Nazis targeted others, but none with the relentless anti-Semitic racial hatred propagated by Nazi ideology. Thus they condoned and executed by people who would have ordinarily have been considered upstanding and moral citizens. The late Christopher Hitchens wrote:

“We should not at all allow ourselves to forget the millions of non-Jewish citizens of Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, and other Slav territories who were also massacred. But for me the salient fact remains that anti-Semitism was the regnant, essential, organizing principle of all the other National Socialist race theories. It is thus not to be thought of as just one prejudice among many.” 

But then this is not abnormal as the great American theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: “Ultimately evil is done not so much by evil people, but by good people who do not know themselves and who do not probe deeply.”

The problem is that what happened during the Holocaust and to the people of the shtetl of Ejszyszki is not just an aberration, it is all too much a part of human nature; even that of people who call themselves Christians like those who exterminated the Jewish people of Ejszyszki. It is not simply an artifact of history that we can ignore. It can happen again and if we are not careful it will happen again. The spirit of the ideology that allowed normal law abiding people to massacre millions of people, either up close and personal like at Ejszyszki or in death factories like Soribor, Treblinka, Belzec, and Auschwitz is still alive today in Russia, Europe, and even in the United States. Of course it exists elsewhere in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. But I think that it is most frightening when it exists in the nations which claim to be inheritors of Christian civilization or the enlightenment, especially among the people who claim the words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Honesty when I see the President of the United States and his most devoted followers follow the script of the Nazis and other race supremacists I get concerned and I remember the words of historian Yehuda Bauer:

“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.”

As for people who might be neighbors, coworkers or even friends today who for whatever reason either support, dismiss, or ignore the peril of the racial, ideological, and religious animus of the modern authoritarians and anti-Semites I can only recall the words of Yale historian Dr. Timothy Snyder who wrote:

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

Today I truly believe that under President Trump that the United States is just a Reichstag Fire moment from entering a phase of history when not only Trump supporters, but even some Trump opponents would do nothing in a crisis and either become willing participants in tyranny, bystanders to it or victims of it. As I walked through the museum and remembered all of my visits to Holocaust and other sites in Germany I realized again that it can happen again.

When I finished with most of my visit I went to the Hall of Remembrance and sat for a long time in silence, a silence that made me realize again just how easy it would be to happen again and the choices that all of us if it happens in our time will have to make.

I’ll leave you with the warning of Yehuda Bauer:

“Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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From Ordinary Men to Willing Executioners: Holocaust Remembrance 2018

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We live in troubling times and I believe that we are at a point in world history where the not so distant specter of a horrifying past is is rising before our eyes and all too many people cannot see it.

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. On that day seventy-three years ago the Soviet Red Army liberated the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, the centerpiece of the Nazi Death Camp machine. To be sure, in his panic to save his neck Heinrich Himmler had started in the Fall of 1944 began to switch from his tactic of extermination to using the Jews as bargaining chips., but by then most of the Jews under Nazi control were dead. Those that remained, emaciated and dying by the thousands to starvation, and unchecked disease, as they were marched in ghastly conditions to camps deeper inside Nazi controlled areas.

About this time last year two things happened in the United States that caused me to shake my head and wonder if we are becoming a place that will turn its eyes away from current atrocities, genocide, ethnic and religious cleansing, and walk away. Likewise they were events the presaged even worse.

Last year President Trump issued a proclamation to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day, a statement that did not mention the Jews. How one remembers the Holocaust without mentioning the Jews is beyond me, but some of the President’s advisers, including the now fired and disgraced Steve Bannon, are closely connected to the self-proclaimed Alt-Right, a movement of white supremacists and neo-Nazis looking for respectability. The second thing the President did was to issue an Executive Order halting the immigration of refugees from certain Muslim majority countries, and to cap the number entering. I’m not going to go into details about that but it is not the first time that the United States stopped refugees from entering the country on national security grounds, as in the 1930s and 1940s one of the reasons used to keep German Jewish refugees out of the country was exactly that, they might be Nazi spies and saboteurs.

But since those early days the President, members of his administration, members of Congress, and his supporters in the Right Wing media have increased the rhetoric of racism and race hatred. In addition to Muslims who has often insinuated are terrorists, or sympathetic to terrorists, the President has defamed and dehumanized whole classes of other immigrants, those from Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean as being from “Shithole countries.” Likewise, after Charlottesville, the President stated that neo-Nazis and White Supremacists are “very good people” and even though his son-in-law and daughter are Orthodox Jews he has frequently disparaged Jews in public and private.  Of course as so often is the case much of what the President is saying being sold under the label of Patriotism. Hannah Arendt wrote:

“The antisemites who called themselves patriots introduced that new species of national feeling which consists primarily in a complete whitewash of one’s own people and a sweeping condemnation of all others.”

The present day reminds us that this is a day that we should never forget. The horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime, all in the name of “race purity” and the extermination of the Jews and others deemed by the Nazis to be “sub-human” or untermenschen is something that is hard for most to imagine.

A couple of years ago I read Bettina Stangneth’s book, Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer. While I am very well informed and educated on the lives, writings, actions, and statements of many of the Nazi war criminals, this new book on Eichmann is the most troubling that I have ever read. In particular it is the accounts of his writings and interviews with other pro-Nazi, or former Nazis in Argentina, particularly the Sassen Interviews, which span hundreds of hours of tape and thousands of pages of transcripts.

I am a Christian, a gentile, and a historian, as well as a nearly thirty-seven year military who served alongside our advisors and the Iraqis who fought alongside of us. I have lived in Germany, read, speak and write German and have many friends in that country, including members of the German military, retired and active duty.  My study and association with Holocaust survivors goes back to my college days at California State University Northridge when as an undergraduate history major I spent much of my time studying Germany from the first unification and the Kaiser Reich, the First World War, Versailles, Weimar and the Hitler Regime. My professor, Dr. Helmut Heussler, whose family left Germany in the late 1920s, served in the U.S. Army in World War II and was an interrogator at Nuremberg. I took a number of classes from Dr. Heussler, including Hitler’s Germany and the Holocaust. In the latter I had the chance to meet Holocaust survivor Mel Mermelstein, who was later played by Leonard Nimoy in the TV movie Never Forget. 

Since my college days I have continued to read and study, and to get a second Masters Degree in History in which much of my work dealt with the Nazi regime. I have visited the sites of former concentration camps including Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. I have been to the sites of the Nazi Party rallies in Nuremberg, the courtroom where the Nuremberg Trails were conducted and to the T4 Euthanasia complex at Hadmar. One day, God willing I will get to Auschwitz and some of the other sites.

The Nazis had begun their persecution of the Jews shortly after Hitler took power in 1933. Later in the year the Enabling Act gave Hitler and his henchmen the legal means to begin their persecution of the Jews and others. These were followed by the Nuremberg Laws and other laws that targeted the Jews. Persecution increased throughout the 1930s, and sadly most countries refused to accommodate increased Jewish immigration. Then came Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, when on 9-10 November 1938, a series of orchestrated attacks on Jewish businesses, Synagogues, institutions and individuals. On that night close to 200 synagogues, 7000 Jewish businesses and 29 major department stores were destroyed or damaged. Over 30,000 Jews, mostly men, were arrested and sent to concentration camps, 91 people were killed outright, and several thousand died in the aftermath.

mass killing einsatzgruppen

When the Nazis invaded Poland, its Jews were rounded up and placed into ghettos where many died of starvation and abuse even before the ghettos were liquidated and the people who lived in them were deported to the extermination camps. In 1941 as the German military seemed to be assured of victory in the Soviet Union the Nazis decided to exterminate the Jews of Europe. In the Soviet Union four Einsatzgruppen followed each of the German Army Groups and systematically began to massacre the Jews of every city and village which German soldiers captured. Over a million and a half Soviet Jews were killed by the Einsatzgruppen, Ordungspolizei battalions, Army Security Divisions and locally recruited units.

At the Wansee Conference of January 20th 1942 the specifics of the “Final Solution” were mapped out by Himmler’s number two man, SS General Reinhard Heydrich. What followed is beyond the comprehension of most people, but the perpetrators were for the most part men and women who were terrifyingly normal.

The truly terrifying thing about the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust to me is that most of the men at Wansee, men that commanded the Concentration camps and the Einsatzgruppen were very ordinary men who simply believed that they were doing their jobs. Very few could be described as psychopathic killers by nature. They were lawyers, doctors, career police officials, businessmen, and bureaucrats who carried out an extermination campaign that killed by their own numbers between 5.5 and 6 million Jews, not to mention others deemed to be subhuman including the handicapped, the mentally ill, homosexuals, and other non-Jewish minorities like the Gypsies not to mention the wide variety of those considered political enemies. But it was the Jews that bore the most tragic fate.

When you read their writings, listen to them when they were interviewed, or watch footage of them during or after the war, you find that they had absolutely no empathy for their victims. When confronted about the evil that they engineered they invariably blamed their victims, just as many like them do today.

Most of the men 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, and for most of them, their victims meant nothing.

ChildrenBirkenau

Hungarian Jews being sent to Extermination Camps

Adolf Eichmann summed up the attitude of many when he said regarding his work to deport hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in in just a few weeks during the fall of 1944, “Whether they were bank directors or mental cases, the people who were loaded on those trains meant nothing to me.” Speaking to Willem Sassen in 1957 Eichmann reveled in that accomplishment, “It was an achievement that was never matched before or since.” Eichmann also enjoyed leading his victims on, pretending that he might listen, and they might change his mind. Eichmann was proud of what he did. He told his staff, “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”

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, but a profoundly racial ideology.

dachaumorgue1945

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. These were men who sought promotion, advancement, and economic security for their families. Individually many would have never killed, but they ran the rail networks, 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.

Survivors of Auschwitz

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. Sadly, human beings, even Americans have that same capacity to commit genocide.

I think that the most chilling thing about the Holocaust was that the greatest atrocities were committed by ordinary men, sometimes well educated, decent family men. These were men who simply executed orders and often went home at night. Arendt wrote that “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” She was right, there was an ordinariness to the evil perpetrated by the Nazis, at the same time there are those who consciously decide to participate in evil.

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. Bettina Stangneth wrote “Systematic mass murder is not just the sum of isolated instances of sadism but the result of a political thinking that is perverted from the ground up.”

So many of the perpetrators saw nothing wrong in what they were doing, in fact at his trial in Jerusalem Eichmann said, “To sum it all up, I must say that I regret nothing.”

The men and women who committed these crimes believed that their victims were less than human and like so many people even today, they had no empathy. Gustave Gilbert, an American Army Psychologist at the major War Criminal Trials at Nuremberg said it so well: “Evil is the absence of empathy.”

Today we have to be very careful. Christopher Browning wrote in his book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Holocaust in Poland:

“I fear that we live in a world in which war and racism are ubiquitous, in which the powers of government mobilization and legitimization are powerful and increasing, in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratization, and in which the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. In such a world, I fear, modern governments that wish to commit mass murder will seldom fail in their efforts for being unable to induce “ordinary men” to become their “willing executioners.” 

In such a world it is all too important that we never forget, especially now when we could be watching it begin all over again.

I’ll write more on this tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

The Path of Remembrance: A Visit to Dachau

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Holocaust survivor 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 picture that you see above is the memorial to the Unknown Prisoner at Dachau. The words: “Den Toten zur Ehr, den Lebenden zur Mahnung” [To Honor the Dead, to Warn the Living] are engraved at its base.

Yesterday, Munich time, I took short excursion to Dachau in order to visit the Concentration Camp. I have been to Dachau a number of times beginning back in 1996. For me as a historian of the period the trip is both for learning and for meditation, for beyond its historical significance this is a holy place, a place made holy by the blood of tens of thousands of victims of one of the most evil regimes in history. The crimes committed by the staff of Totenkopfverbande SS guards from it’s inception were intended to terrorize and dehumanize the inmates who included political prisoners, religious objectors, Jews, and homosexuals. They were not there because they were convicted of any crimes, in fact many had actually been exonerated by courts, or had served what ever sentence they had been convicted of, but upon release were picked up by the SS and taken to Dachau.

Prisoners were told on arrival:

Here you are, and you’re not in a sanatorium! You’ll have got that already. Anyone who hasn’t grasped that will soon be made to. You can rely on that . . . You’re not prison inmates here, serving a sentence imposed by the courts, you’re just ‘prisoners’ pure and simple, and if you don’t know what that means, you’ll soon find out. You’re dishonourable and defenceless! You’re without rights! Your fate is a slave’s fate! Amen.

In the Camp they were subject to punishment for even the most minor or perceived infractions, beatings, whippings, and other punishments were meted out by guards who themselves were punished if they showed any mercy or human kindness to a prisoner. “While an offender sentenced to a term in prison knew when he was going to get out, release for the concentration camp inmate was determined by the whim of a quarterly review board, and could be delayed by the malice of any of the SS guards.”

Theodore Eicke, the commandant who systematized the Concentration Camp system created a world that his subordinate, and the later Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess described:

“It was Eicke’s intention that his SS-men, by means of continuous instruction and suitable orders concerning the dangerous criminality of the inmates, should be made basically ill-disposed towards the prisoners. They were to ‘treat them rough’, and to root out once and for all any sympathy they might feel for them. By such means, he succeeded in engendering in simple-natured men a hatred and antipathy for the prisoners which an outsider will find hard to imagine.”

Even a brutal man like Hoess found the brutality hard to watch, he recalled the “malicious evil-minded, basically bad, brutal, inferior, common creatures’ amongst the guards, who compensated for their sense of inferiority by venting their anger on the prisoners. The atmosphere of hatred was total.”

In the twelve years of its existence the staff of Dachau, through mistreatment, execution by bullet, gallows, through being used as subjects in grotesque medical experiments, by “execution by work,” or untreated illness and disease, murdered 41,566 prisoners. The point to be remembered is that despite this incredible number of murders that Dachau was not an extermination camp.

I took the S-Bahn from Munich-East to Dachau, a trip of about 30 minutes. While there I read the chapter in Richard Evans book Third Reich in Power that described the establishment and operations of Dachau and the other early Concentration Camps, from which all of the quotes above this are from. When I got off the train I had a choice of taking a bus to the camp or walking to it via the path known as the Weg des Erinnerns or Path of Remembrance. I chose the walk which was about two miles. Along it there were markers with parts of the history of Dachau and what the prisoners experienced from getting off a train to getting to the camp. The path winds through the town along the street now named Friedenstrasse, (Peace Street) and through John F. Kennedy Platz.

As I neared the camp the signs pointed out the SS Training School and housing for the SS guards. Then it left the paved road and went onto a trail which was uncovered in 2004. This trail is named Strasse der KZ – Opfer, or the Street of the Concentration Camp Victims, or perhaps better translated, “Sacrificial Victims” which was the path that the prisoners took from the SS barracks to the camp itself. It ended at the Hauptwache, the main guardhouse which also functioned as the entrance to the camp.

I went through the wrought iron gate with the cynical words Arbeit Mach Frei, work makes you free in the center of it. On entering to the right is the camp’s administration and headquarters building which now serves as a museum. Since I spent a lot of time at the museum last year I went left which took me down the western perimeter of the camp with its barbed wire fences and guard tower with the foundations of the camps prisoner barracks to my right.

Eventually I reached the location of the execution grounds and the crematorium. I had been there in 1996 but the weather was so cold and damp that I didn’t stay long and I have never found the pictures that I took then. Today I spent more time there, for it is truly the holy place in the camp. Even though there were a good number of people there, including a tour group, it was very quiet. I heard very few words as I walked the area. The first thing I did was to walk the execution grounds around the crematorium. In front of the building the former location of the camp gallows was marked. Behind the building was a memorial with a Star of David crowned with a Menorah and a marker to the thousands of unknown victims. Walking to the right of it down a gravel path that winds through a small grove of trees along the camp wall there were other markers to where the ashes of those murdered were unceremoniously deposited between 1933 and 1945.

But perhaps the most chilling marker was at the place where SS guards executed prisoners up close and personal with a pistol shot to the nape of the neck. The wall behind where they knelt still stands a long with the blood ditch. After that I walked to the crematorium. At the south end there is the delousing station. The camp was designed with a gas chamber for which there is no credible information of it ever being used. Instead, prisoners who were no longer fit for work were either given lethal injections in the infirmary, sent to extermination camps, or the former T4 Euthanasia site in Hardheim.

Had it been used the the procedure would have been much like the other camps where the unknowing prisoners walked in their camp uniforms which were then removed so they could go into a waiting area before they entered the “shower” or as it is marked over the entrance, the Brausbad. At Dachau this cynically named room was the a gas chamber that was designed to hold up to 150 prisoners. Once they were in the chamber the specially constructed doors which would make the chamber airtight were shut. Then SS men on the roof would release canisters of Zyklon-B gas into it. Within minutes the prisoners were dead, their bodies showing their final agony as many tried to escape the chamber. This was common at other camps as well as in the extermination camps.

Once the executioners had determined that the prisoners were dead and the gas was evacuated from the chamber, other prisoners would enter to remove the bodies to another waiting room, in which the bodies were staged before they were taken to the four chamber crematorium for cremation. Their ashes were then deposited in the areas nearby. At the end of the building another waiting room contained bodies of other prisoners who had been executed by pistol, or died of beatings, whippings, or disease.

The walk through those areas of the camp as well as the walk up the Path of Remembrance brought me close to tears at many points as I imagined what it must have been like. I was in a somber mood when I left that area and walked past the Russian Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish religious shines along the north edge of the camp. I think that the Jewish one was the most poignant to me. Across it were the words of Psalm 9:21 in German, and as one walks down into it a hole at the top off the monument’s roof allows light to stream into the darkness.

Finishing that I walked down the eastern wall and fence, once again noticing the guard towers, but about halfway down I turned right and walked over to the center street between the rows of prisoner barracks, the street known as Appelallee where the prisoners were assembled multiple times per day for head count and inspection purposes. As I walked down that street which is now lined with trees and markers denoting which prisoner block was at each spot I could almost see the images of the emaciated prisoners falling out for inspection and their brutal guards.

Finally I arrived back at the area in front of the headquarters building which due to a recent commemoration was decorated with wreaths from the German government, the State of Bavaria, Israel, Romania, and other nations. The words Never Again were prominently displayed. As I walked out of the camp I saw a dedication in English, German, French, and Russian which said:

May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 and 1945 because they resisted Naziism – help to unite the living for the defense of peace, and freedom and in respect for their fellow man.

I left the camp and decided to take the bus back to the train station where twenty minutes later I was back on a S-Bahn train to Munich.

You may wonder why I took the time to go into such detail about this walk. The answer is the same that I choose to walk civil war battlefields, it is to being to try to understand what the people there were seeing and experiencing. Of course there were the prisoners who were so savagely treated by their jailers. Then there were the bystanders, the citizens of Dachau and other German cities who watched as Jews, political enemies, and others were marched to the camp, which was not a secret installation. Finally, there were the perpetrators, very few of whom were punished for their actions.

But another reason is that the survivors, be they victims, perpetrators, or bystanders are rapidly passing away. Soon none will be left. When that happens it is up to us the living to ensure that this is not forgotten and that those murdered at Dachau, the other Concentration Camps, the extermination camps, and those killed by the murder squads that went from one end of Europe to the other in a systematic attempt to wipe every Jew that they could find off of the face of the earth. Yes, there were other victims, but the Nazi crusade against the Jews knew no boundaries, physical or time included. Unlike every other genocide it extended beyond national borders, or time; it was an eschatological crusade that by the will of Hitler was limited by only one factor, the complete military defeat that was inflicted on Nazi Germany by those who she attacked.

Finally, the story must be told because there are those who either claim it didn’t happen, or are tired of talking about it. In Germany those include leaders of the new-Nazi AfD (Alternative for Germany) Party. In the United States, Britain, and other nations there are members of many new-Nazi and Alt-Right groups who desire very much the same thing, but if decent people decide not to speak out, if we remain silent, there is nothing anywhere that will keep these ideological descendants of Hitler from beginning it again, if not to the Jews, to other despised racial, religious, ethnic, or ideological groups. We live in a world where demagogues take advantage of people’s legitimate anxieties and deeply ingrained prejudices to stir up ungodly anger and hatred in order to both gain new followers and to incite those followers to a campaign of violence.

Doctor Timothy Snyder wrote:

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

Today among other things I will visit sites associated with Sophie Scholl. She was a young Christian college student who led the opposition group the White Rose, which during 1941-1943 attempted to tell the truth about what the Nazis were doing. They were found out, and most after trial were beheaded in Munich. There is a small marker to her and the group just about a block from the hotel on the wall of a building. Her grave is in a cemetery less than a mile from the hotel.

The one thing about Germany as opposed to other nations, including Japan in China, Korea, and much of Asia, Russia and the mass exterminations of Stalin’s time, Belgium in the Congo, Britain in many of its colonies, much of Eastern Europe, Turkey, and yes, even the United States has faced its responsibility to remember the victims of their most evil and lawless government. If only other nations would take such deliberate steps to acknowledge their crimes. It may have taken over a generation for that to become a part of Germany’s being and part of their moral voice today. In Germany the monuments stand not to the perpetrators, but to the victims. An they are not just monuments, dedicated to memory, but the German words Denkmal and gedenkstatte contain the German word for think, meaning that they are not just there for people to remember a mythological past, but rather to be a part of the now living the history of those days for the living to ponder and to serve as a warning that it can happen again.

In a world where nothing is guaranteed and where those who deny or minimize the Holocaust attempt to find legitimacy and to silence good people I have to speak up. I cannot allow myself to become a bystander and let it all happen again, not to the Jews or anyone else.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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