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“You Went Along With it All…” A Warning to Those Who Claim “Gott Mit Uns” in Terms of Nationalism and Criminal Wars

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One of the more sobering war movies that I have ever watched is the film Stalingrad. Released in 1993 it is the story of four soldiers of a platoon of soldiers of the 336th Pioneer Battalion. The Pioneers were the equivalent of American Combat Engineers. It is a sobering film to watch. In a way it is much like the film Platoon. Director Joseph Vilsmaier made the battle and the human suffering come alive with realism. There is no happy ending and there are few if any heroes. The men see, protest, are punished, and then are ordered to participate in war crimes.

The battle of Stalingrad was one of the turning points of the Second World War, over a million Russian, German, Romanian, and Italian Soldiers died in the battle. Of the 260,000 soldiers of the German Sixth Army which led the attack in Stalingrad and then were surrounded by the Soviet counter-offensive, very few survived. Some escaped because they were evacuated by transport planes, but most perished. Of the approximately 91,000 German soldiers that surrendered only about 6,000 returned home.

I’ll write about that battle again around Christmas and on the anniversary of its surrender at the end of January, but there are two sequences of dialogue that stood out to me. The first is at the beginning of the battle where a German Chaplain exhorts the soldier to fight against the “Godless Bolsheviks” because the Germans believed in God and the officially Atheistic Soviet Union and its people did not. In his exhortation the Chaplain calls attentional the belt buckles worn by every soldier in the Wehrmacht, which were embossed with the words Gott mit Uns, or God is with us.

In light of President Trump first pardoning and then appearing with convicted war criminals at a campaign dinner, I have a hard time believing that God can be with a nation which with each passing day becomes less and less free, and where the Church by and large has fallen in line with a lawless and Godless President, a man who sincerely believes that as President he is above the law and that his words trump the law, even the laws of God.

Likewise, in the reports released today, American Administrations, not just Trump’s, but the Bush and Obama administrations as well as the Defense Department have been lying about the Afghanistan campaign for years; claiming success while the reality on the ground was far different. If we had a public that actually cared about the truth, as well as the troops, this scandal would burn as bright as the release of the Pentagon Papers during Vietnam.

I am a a military Chaplain. I have been one since 1992, and the older I get the more distrustful I am of men who place a veneer of region over the most ungodly and unjust wars. For me that was frightening because I do know from experience that the temptation to do such things when in uniform is all too great, but how can anyone exhort people to acts of criminality in the name of God? I know that it is done far too often and I hate to admit I personally know, or know of American military chaplains who would say the same thing as the German Chaplain depicted in the film. Back in the Cold War while serving as an officer before I became a Chaplain I used to talk about the Godless Communists.

The second question is also difficult. I have been in the military for about thirty-seven plus years. Truthfully I am a dinosaur. I am the second most senior and the oldest sailor on my base. I have served during the Cold War as a company commander, was mobilized as a chaplain to support the Bosnia operation in 1996, I have served in the Korean DMZ, at sea during Operation Enduring Freedom and Southern Watch, and with American advisors to the Iraqi Army, Police, and Border troops in Al Anbar Province. I have seen too much of war but even though I could retire from the military today I still believe that I am called to serve and care for the men and women who will go into harm’s way.

That being said those who have read my writings on this site for years know just how anti-war I have become and why this dialogue hits so hard. Some of the members of the platoon are accused of cowardice and sent to a penal company in order to redeem themselves. The commander of the unit, a Captain who hold the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross is confronted by one of the men.

Otto: You know we don’t stand a chance. Why not surrender?

Captain Hermann Musk: You know what would happen if we do.

Otto: Do we deserve any better?

Captain Hermann Musk: Otto, I’m not a Nazi.

Otto: No, you’re worse. Lousy officers. You went along with it all, even though you knew who was in charge.

That is something that bothers me even today. I wonder about the men who go along with wars which cannot be classified as anything other than war crimes based on the precedents set by Americans at Nuremberg, and I am not without my own guilt. In 2003 I had my own misgivings about the invasion of Iraq, but I wholeheartedly supported it and volunteered to go there.

I was all too much like the German Captain. I went along with it despite my doubts. As a voter I could have cast my vote for John Kerry in 2004, but I didn’t. Instead I supported a President who launched a war of aggression that by every definition fits the charges leveled against the leaders of the Nazi state at Nuremberg. When I was in Iraq I saw things that changed me and I have written in much detail about them on this site, but I supported that initial invasion.

Now as a nation we are in a place where a man who openly advocates breaking the Geneva and Hague Conventions, supports the use of torture, and who both beats the drums of war, to the extent of appointing one of the most strident proponents of the invasion of Iraq as his National Security Advisor, before firing him a year later.

Likewise, the President holds the professional military, and State Department in contempt appears to be angling for war in the Middle East against Iran even as he excuses the criminal actions of Saudi Arabia in Yemen and against American residents, as was demonstrated in his wholehearted defense of Saudis after one of their officers killed three American military personnel at Pensacola Naval Air Station on Friday.

I have no doubt that unless something changes that a terrible war is coming and that our President will be a catalyst for it. But for the next eight and a half months before I retire, I will remain in the military to care for the sailors, soldiers, marines, and airmen who will have to go to war and perhaps fight and die.

The thought haunts me and makes it hard for me to sleep at night and I do my best to speak up and be truthful in fulfillment of my priestly vows and my oath of office. Today, unlike my younger years; one thing for me is true: I will never tell any military member that God is with us in the sense that all too many Christian nationalists have done in the past.

I don’t actually think that I ever said the words “God is with us” in regards to advocating war in my career as a Chaplain, but I am sure that my words, and public prayers could have been interpreted in that way when I was younger, especially in the traumatic days after September 11th, 2001.

Likewise, I did go along with the war in Iraq even though I understood what it meant! and what the men and women who engineered it wanted when they took us to war. Sadly, I trusted my leaders too much, especially when Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke before the United Nations to prove the case against Iraq just before the invasion.

Supreme Justice Robert Jackson, who served as the Chief American Prosecutor at Nuremberg stated in the London Agreement:

“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

Now we live in a world where nationalism, ethnic, racial, and religious hatred are rising, and our own President seems to be abandoning the democratic and pluralistic ideas of or founders, while praising and tacitly supporting authoritarian and Fascist rulers around the world. Honestly, I dread what may befall us if he remains in power, or if someone worse follows him, backed of course by those who believe that God is with them. They of course are the true believers and as Eric Hoffer wrote:

“The impression somehow prevails that the true believer, particularly the religious individual, is a humble person. The truth is the surrendering and humbling of the self bred pride and arrogance. The true believer is apt to see himself as one of the chosen, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a prince disguised in meekness, who is destined to inherit the earth and the kingdom of heaven too. He who is not of his faith is evil; he who will not listen will perish.”

Most of the German troops at Stalingrad marched into that battle believing a similar creed. I would dare say that many, if not most of the Trump followers, inside and outside the military believe the same. A recent poll conducted of the military indicated that the military is divided in terms of Trump. Younger white and more junior officers, as well as enlisted personnel support Trump, while Well educated and experienced senior officers, women, and minorities Of both officer and enlisted ranks do not. That is not a good situation, years of right wing propaganda have had a huge effect on many in the military. It took my experience in Iraq to cure me of nearly two decades of exposure to it.

The question today, is will we do the same. I cannot. I have to echo the words of German General Henning von Tresckow, one of the men who died in the conspiracy to kill Hitler wrote a number of observations of his time that are quite applicable to our own:

“I cannot understand how people can still call themselves Christians and not be furious adversaries of Hitler’s regime.” And “We have to show the world that not all of us are like him. Otherwise, this will always be Hitler’s Germany.”

Personally, I cannot abide this being forever regarded as Trump’s America. So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, ethics, faith, film, germany, History, Military, national security, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary, Religion, war crimes, War on Terrorism, world war two in europe

Civilization Is Tissue Thin Because of the Evil Directed and Committed by Sociopaths, People Without Empathy: Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, and War Crimes, then and Now, How Do You Choose to Burn?

 

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The Rape of Nanking

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”

This week I finished a series of articles on American Associate Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson’s opening and closing arguments at Nuremberg, followed by one last night asking the question “Who Were the Victims? Does Anyone Care? The Holocaust and War Crimes Today.” For me the article was difficult to write because I have served in wars that under the rules of the International War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg and the subsequent U.S. trials in the same courtroom could be rule as wars of aggression, and in which American servicemen and women committed crimes that can easily be classified as war crimes, and even crimes against humanity. Likewise I have taught military ethics at Major American military Staff College.

I think one of our problems is that we want to believe that evil is simply done be evil people. That is why when we see a Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or the monsters of the so-called Islamic State, we are often strangely comforted. This is often  because we can point to a single person with a wicked ideology and say “they are evil,” all the while forgetting that they are, or were, like us, also human. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminds us of the folly of that type of thinking, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

A few years ago I took a break from my Gettysburg text and dusted off an old academic paper dealing with the one of the more uncomfortable aspects of the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews. I did that because I felt that I needed to reexamine the nature of evil in the modern world. Doing that brought me to do much more study of war crimes and the Holocaust. Since then I have visited Nazi Concentration Camps, Euthanasia Centers, the Wannsee House, where the coordination of the Final Solution was conducted, as well as memorials to the German resistance at the Bendlerstraße headquarters from which the attempt to kill Hitler on July 20th 1944 was launched; the Sophie Scholl and White Rose Resistance Memorial and Museum in Munich, and the National Socialist Documentation Center, also in Munich.

As I wrote my articles I have been binge reading books about the Japanese War Crimes from the “China Incident” to the end of the Second World War. I started those at the behest of a reader of this blog. While I knew the wave tops of those crimes and was vaguely familiar with the Tokyo Trial I was not as well informed about the complexity of those crimes and the participation of Japanese officials at every level of government in them.

That leads me to today, not long after the American President pardoned convicted war criminals and the fired his own Secretary of the Navy to keep one of those men from losing his SEAL Trident at a peer review conducted by other SEALS.

When I ponder the evil committed by supposedly civilized men and women of Germany and Japan in the Second World War, as well as other war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide committed by other nations and people’s, I realize that they are little different than others who share the culture of the West. These people were the products of a culture of learning, and of science. They were part of a culture formed by the Christian tradition, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, the age of Reason. As I pondered this I came to remember something said by the late Iris Chang, “civilization is tissue thin.”

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Lynching in the American South

My original series of articles several years ago which dealt with the Nazi Eunsatzgruppen dealt with the ordinary men, and the bureaucratic systems that implemented an ideology so twisted and evil that it is unimaginable to most people. While most people in the United States know a little about the Holocaust, most do not fully comprehend how devilish and insidious the crimes of the Nazis were. More frightening is the fact that 46% of people worldwide have never heard of the Holocaust, and of the 54% who are aware some 32% think it is a myth or has been greatly exaggerated. That was about five years ago. I will have to take a look at the current numbers, but I believe that the numbers wills only get worse as younger people are far more likely to believe that the Holocaust is a myth or or exaggerated.

We typically know about the extermination camps like Auschwitz, but the lesser known dark side of the Holocaust, perhaps the scariest part, is the story of the men of the Einsatzgruppen. The Einsatzgruppen and affiliated units, including those of the Wehrmacht, the Waffen SS, the mobilized battalions of the Order Police, and locally recruited units, rounded up massive numbers of people and killed them up close and personal. In all these units murdered over two million people, about 1.3 million of whom were Jews.

My study of the Holocaust began in college as an undergraduate. My primary professor at California State University at Northridge, Dr. Helmut Haeussler had been an interpreter and interrogator at the Nuremberg trials. I was able to take a number of lecture classes from him a large amount of research and independent study courses in a year of graduate work while finishing my Army ROTC program at UCLA. It was an immersion in the history, sociology, and the psychology of evil, during which I was able to meet and talk with Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.

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Einsatzgruppen

Since then I have continued to read and study. I lived in Germany for over four years, and made many other visits, during which I went to a number of Concentration Camp sites. I visited the rebuilt synagogue in Worms which had been destroyed during the infamous Kristallnacht, and other museums and Holocaust memorial sites in Germany. I visited the Zeppelin field, the site of Hitler’s massive Nazi Party rallies in Nuremburg, as well as the graveyards which contain the victims of other Nazi crimes, including the Nacht und Nebel or night and fog actions, where people simply disappeared and were murdered by the Gestapo. When I think about the men and women who were the perpetrators of those crimes as well as those who were bystanders, who knew about those crimes and did nothing to stop them I am reminded of Captain Gustave Gilbert, an American Psychologist who interviewed and got to know the major German War Criminals at Nuremberg. Gilbert wrote:

“In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trails 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”

For me, those visits were sobering, maybe even more so because I understood exactly what happened in those sites. These are uncomfortable places to visit, and I can understand why many people would not want to visit them, or even study them.

The darkness that they remind us of  is a part of our human condition. Traces of the evil on display in those places is present in every human being. Frankly, most people cannot bear looking into that abyss, for fear that they might be swallowed by it.

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Nanking

I can understand that and I have to admit that it is hard to do so. I am a historian as well as a clinician with much experience dealing with death and trauma. With my training I do a pretty good job of keeping my emotional distance to maintain objectivity when confronted with evil. However, it is hard for me not to have some emotional reaction when visiting these places, or reading about the events and people, and in writing about them.

Likewise, I am very troubled by the growing lack or awareness or denial of the Holocaust. It is very hard for me not to have a virulent reaction when I see books and websites dedicated to Holocaust denial, or that minimize other well documented genocides, and crimes against humanity.

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Soviet Genocide in Ukraine

My sensitivity to human suffering and the terrible indifference of people in this country to it was greatly increased by my experience of war, and my post-war struggles with PTSD, depression, anxiety, which at points left me very close to committing suicide. A non-chaplain friend, a now retired Navy Command Master Chief Petty Officer that I served with at EOD Group Two remarked that I am a tremendously empathic person, and that I have a large capacity to feel the pain and suffering of others. This capacity for empathy and the ability to feel the suffering of others is part of who I am. It is a good thing, but it makes my work studying and writing about the Holocaust, other genocides, crimes against humanity, and subjects like American slavery, racism, and Jim Crow a sometimes difficult and often very emotionally consuming task. This sometimes leaves me even more sleepless and anxious than normal; especially when I see the indifference of so many people to the suffering of others today.

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The Killing Fields

It is that indifference which motivates me to write; because if these events are not recalled and retold, they, like any part of history will be ignored and then forgotten. The statistics bear this out. There are people today, who say that we should stop talking about these events, that they are old news, and they cannot happen again; but history tells us different, and not just the Holocaust, but indeed every genocide. Then there are those who shamelessly use the Holocaust imagery to spread fear among their followers even as they openly demonize minority groups and religions as the Nazis did to the Jews.

I have to agree with Elie Wiesel who said, “Indifference to me, is the epitome of all evil.”

The late Iris Chang, who wrote The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II wrote something that is pertinent to almost every modern episode of genocide, or other crime against humanity. It is the ability of leaders, be they political, military, or religious to convince people to rationalize actions that they normally would find repulsive.

“After reading several file cabinets’ worth of documents on Japanese war crimes as well as accounts of ancient atrocities from the pantheon of world history, I would have to conclude that Japan’s behavior during World War II was less a product of dangerous people than of a dangerous government, in a vulnerable culture, in dangerous times, able to sell dangerous rationalizations to those whose human instincts told them otherwise.”

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The Islamic State

What we call civilization, to use the words of Iris Chang, is tissue thin. That is why we must never forget these terrible events of history, and that part of human nature, and in a sense part of every one of us, that makes them so easy to repeat. That is why we must periodically take the time to remember and reflect on the Holocaust, other genocides and crimes against humanity. Historian Timothy Snyder in his book On Tyranny 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.”


Sophie Scholl, the 22 year old leader of the White Rose resistance movement in Nazi Germany I think gives those who still retain a sense of empathy, ethics, and self-decency a plumb-line of what the real issues are.

Sophie wrote:

“The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.”

Yes, these are terribly uncomfortable subjects, but we cannot allow this generation to allow them to be forgotten, lest they be repeated. That is why that I must continue to write about them.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Heap Of Swords Piled as Delicately as Jackstraws: One Cannot Be Pulled Out Without Moving the Others: The Middle East 2019

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been watching the events unfolding in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East with a fair amount of apprehension. Seldom has a region been so similar to Barbara Tuchman’s words in her epic work The Guns Of August:

Europe was a heap of swords piled as delicately as jackstraws; one could not be pulled out without moving the others.

Armed to the teeth the militaries of Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Israel, vast numbers of powerful Sunni and Shia militias: the Islamic State, Hezbollah, Houthi, and so many more, scattered from Yemen, to Lebanon, Iraq, Gaza, and Syria, not to mention the vast power of the United States, its now somewhat recalcitrant allies, as well as elements of Russian, Turkish, and even Chinese military power prowl the region on the land, sea and air.

Ancient hatreds and rivalries, Sunni versus Shia, Persian versus Arab, Muslim versus Christian, Jew versus Muslim, Turk versus Arab, and even Christian versus Jew. Ancient hatreds that go beyond mere religious quarrels; not to say that wars of religion have been some of the most bloody and malevolent in history.

These ancient hatreds and rivalries have been aided directly by the United States and Europe following the World Wars. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, the triumph of the British Indian Office over the British Foreign Ministry which allowed the House Of Saud to conquer most of the Arabian Peninsula and drive out the House Of Faisal Hussein which were relegated to Jordan and Iraq after helping the British defeat the Ottoman Turks in the Middle East.

I fear that the President Trump’s unjustified and highly questionable support of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman bin Saud, who ordered the murder of an Saudi Arabian Journalist and resident of the United States, Jamal  Khashoggi, and for who all purposes seems to be of a business partner of, than the President of the United States.

T.E. Lawrence wrote during the early phases of the British occupation of Mesopotamia (Iraq) less than two years after the war:

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.”

Lawrence’s words could be applied to the United States since 1990 and thereafter, especially beginning in 2003 during the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Now we have a President threatening to go to war by Tweet with Iran at the behest and on the word of his Saudi business partner without consulting Congress. At least the administration’s Of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton worked within the confines of the United Nations and Congressional authorizations before committing the military in Harm’s way. Even George W. Bush when rebuffed by the U.N. in Iraq, got Congressional authorization for his actions, but we now have a President threatening a major war that could result in catastrophic harm to the world, including the men and women of the U.S. Military, by tweet.

Please don’t get me wrong. I no longer trust the words of any of the players involved, including the Iranians, Saudis, Israelis, Turks, Russians, and everyone else involved, and yes, even the Trump administration. What is scary is that many of Trump’s most ardent supporters are all in favor or bringing on the apocalypse.

I fear that war is coming, and there are too many players with swords in the pile to avoid it. Including an impulsive, unstable, habitual liar. Even if he doesn’t want war he may well lead us into it. Let the reader understand.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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“Fanaticism and Ignorance is Forever Busy” The Scopes Monkey Trial at 94Years, and Inherit the Wind

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

“As long as the prerequisite for that shining paradise is ignorance, bigotry and hate, I say the hell with it.” Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) Inherit the Wind

Tomorrow is the 84th Anniversary of the beginning of what became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial which was dramatized in the 1960 film Inherit the Wind. I really do believe that it is well worth watching, especially when a charlatan like Donald Trump, a man with no Christian virtues whatsoever stokes up the hopes of conservative Christians by catering to his base of Conservative Christians who hang on his every word, like a cult, believing that he, through the police power of the state will Christianity great again.

Of course the Christianity that Trump and his followers refers to is not that of Jesus, but that of Constantine and every other strongman who has used the Christians and the church to achieve earthly power and to crush any opposition. Noted televangelists have come to Trump’s side, many like John Hagee saying that Christians that God will punish Christians, that vote against Trump. That is why this film is still so pertinent.

It is fascinating that a play and film set about an incident that actually occurred in the 1920s remains so timeless. It is hard to believe that 90 years after the trial and over 50 years after the movie that our society would still be debating the issue in the movie and that legislatures and school boards are still attempting to pass religious doctrine off as science.

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It is a film about what is commonly called the “Scopes Monkey Trial” which was litigated in July of 1925 and featured an epic battle between populist three time Presidential Candidate and former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan and famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow. The film is not completely historically accurate. It was adapted from a play by the same name. It came out following the hysteria of the McCarthy Era, when people were condemned and blacklisted for their freedom of speech, association; frequently on the basis of false testimony against them. However, the film captures the blind hatred of religious bigots the willingly ignorant who object to any belief or theory that threatens their superior position in society.

The trial was brought about after the passage of the Butler Act in Tennessee. It was an act that made it a criminal offense to teach evolution in any publicly funded school. The act stipulated:

“That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”

The author of the act was Tennessee State Representative John W. Butler, a farmer and the head of the World Christian Fundamentals Association an interdenominational organization dedicated to a “New Protestantism” based on the Pre-Millennial interpretation of Bible prophecy.

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Butler was heavily influenced by William Jennings Bryant who with his followers had gotten legislation banning evolution in 15 states. H.L. Mencken commented that over the years of his public life that Bryant, who had been a progressive advocate had “transformed himself” into some “sort of Fundamentalist Pope.”

Butler was opposed to the teaching of evolution and the act passed the house by a vote of 75-1. No public hearings had been held on it and no debate proffered.

Butler’s legislation did face some opposition in the State Senate. However it passed there on a vote of 24-6 after the famous Fundamentalist evangelist Billy Sunday preached as series of revival meetings to incite public opinion in favor of the bill. Sunday’s message was clear, he preached that “Education today is chained to the Devil’s throne” and praised Butler and the House for their “action against that God forsaken gang of evolutionary cutthroats.” The bill was signed into law by Governor Austin Peay, but Peay expected little to come of it.

The American Civil Liberties Union put the law to the test using high school biology teacher John Scopes who was charged with breaking the law. The trial ended up becoming less about the guilt or innocence of Scopes or even the constitutionality of the law, but rather as the field where the conflict between religious and social issues and faith versus intellectualism was fought. Butler, the man who legislated the law on religious grounds covered it as a correspondent.

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Mencken wrote of the trial:

“The Scopes trial, from the start, has been carried on in a manner exactly fitted to the anti- evolution law and the simian imbecility under it. There hasn’t been the slightest pretense to decorum. The rustic judge, a candidate for re-election, has postured the yokels like a clown in a ten-cent side show, and almost every word he has uttered has been an undisguised appeal to their prejudices and superstitions. The chief prosecuting attorney, beginning like a competent lawyer and a man of self-respect, ended like a convert at a Billy Sunday revival. It fell to him, finally, to make a clear and astounding statement of theory of justice prevailing under fundamentalism. What he said, in brief, was that a man accused of infidelity had no rights whatever under Tennessee law…”

It was an epic event covered by news outlets across the nation and the atmosphere in the town outside the courthouse was circus like, something that the movie depicts very well. The defense was not allowed to produce Scientists as witnesses, even to the chagrin of Butler who despite his opposition to evolutionary theory felt that it was not fair. When all was said and done Scopes had been convicted and a fine of $100 assessed, which was overturned on appeal. Bryan died a week after the trial and of the 15 states with similar legislation to Butler passed them into law.

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The film is based on the play of the same name written in 1950 by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. It was written during the height of the McCarthy Era and opened in 1955. The first film version starring Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow), Frederic March as Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan), Gene Kelly as E.K. Hornbeck (H.L. Mencken) while Dick York played Bertram Cates (John Scopes). Lawrence and Lee invented some fictional characters including Reverend Brown played by Claude Akins.

The film directed by Stanley Kramer captures the raw emotions of the trial, the participants and the spectators who came from near and far. The depiction of the angry mob of Christians is terrifying to watch. In the film they sing:

“We’ll hang Bertram Cates to a sour apple tree, we’ll hang Bertram Cates to a sour apple tree, we’ll hang Bertram Cates to a sour apple tree. Our God is marching on! Glory Glory Hallelujah! Glory Glory Hallelujah! Glory Gory Hallelujah! His truth is marching on. We’ll hang Henry Drummond to a sour apple tree, we’ll hang Henry Drummond to a sour apple tree, we’ll hang Henry Drummond to a sour apple tree, our God is marching on.”

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March’s depiction of Matthew Harrison Brady is riveting. The Brady of the film does not do justice to other parts of Bryan’s life. Bryan, outside his fight against evolution was ahead of his time in many ways. Earlier in his career he had pressed for Universal Suffrage, fought against war and labored against the social Darwinism of the banks, business and the Robber Barons. However the loss of three Presidential elections left him bitter and it is believed that he saw the trial as an opportunity to regain the limelight and perhaps build a base to again run for President. This speech by Brady is a fair characterization of Bryan’s beliefs:

“I have been to their cities and I have seen the altars upon which they sacrifice the futures of their children to the gods of science. And what are their rewards? Confusion and self-destruction. New ways to kill each other in wars. I tell you gentlemen the way of science is the way of darkness.”

The problem with the Bryant of the Scopes Trial was that he was a caricature of his former self, he played to the crowds. The trial played to the worst parts of his character and that shows in the movie depiction. Some Christians find this an unfair portrayal and even call it a lie, however even though March’s portrayal is fictional it does fit the spirit of the trial which is captured in the writings of many of the contemporary commentators of the trial. Mencken wrote of the real Bryan: It is a tragedy, indeed, to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon.

 

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Another of those commentators, Marcet Haldeman-Julius wrote of the real Bryan:

“As he sat there in the court room, day after day, silent, fanning, fanning, his face set I was appalled by the hardness, the malice in it. No one who has watched the fanatical light in those hard, glittering black eyes of Bryan’s can doubt but that he believes both in a heaven and in a hell. At the same time the cruel lines of his thin, tight-pressed mouth proclaim, it seems to me, that he would stop at nothing to attain his own ends. It is anything but a weak face–Bryan’s. But it is a face from which one could expect neither understanding nor pity. My own opinion is that he is sincere enough in his religion. Also that in it is included the doctrine Paul so frankly taught–that a lie told for the glory of God is justified…”

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But I think that the real drama and tension in the film comes from Spencer Tracy in his portrayal of Drummond. This speech is taken almost verbatim from the trial:

“Can’t you understand? That if you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools? And tomorrow you may make it a crime to read about it. And soon you may ban books and newspapers. And then you may turn Catholic against Protestant, and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the mind of man. If you can do one, you can do the other. Because fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding. And soon, your Honor, with banners flying and with drums beating we’ll be marching backward, BACKWARD, through the glorious ages of that Sixteenth Century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind!”

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I think that this speech is the real crux of the tension that we face even now. Legislators in a number of States have enacted laws of much the same kind of spirit as Butler and defended them with the same kind of fire as Bryan. Civil libertarians, especially secular ones bring up the same issues as Darrow did. I am a Christian and a Priest and my thinking about this is much like that espoused by Drummond in the movie.

So the film may be a fictional depiction of the Scopes Trial, but it is a film that I think that people would do well to watch. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me or the issues that I agree with brought up by the character of Henry Drummond. However, I think that everyone should watch the film and come to their own conclusions as well as to ask themselves how their particular ethic, whether secular or religious informs them in how they deal with this issue and so many others that divide us today.

Bryant’s death, coming a few days after the trial was nowhere as near as dramatic as the death scene in the movie, sometimes fiction makes the story a bit more entertaining.

But the film also gives a warning to cynics like Mencken. After Brady’s death and the trials end there is a fascinating dialogue between Drummond (Darrow) and Hornbeck (Mencken). It is worth watching:

Henry Drummond : My God, don’t you understand the meaning of what happened here today?

E. K. Hornbeck : What happened here has no meaning…

Henry Drummond : YOU have no meaning! You’re like a ghost pointing an empty sleeve and smirking at everything people feel or want or struggle for! I pity you.

E. K. Hornbeck : You pity me?

Henry Drummond : Isn’t there anything? What touches you, what warms you? Every man has a dream. What do you dream about? What… what do you need? You don’t need anything, do you? People, love, an idea, just to cling to? You poor slob! You’re all alone. When you go to your grave, there won’t be anybody to pull the grass up over your head. Nobody to mourn you. Nobody to give a damn. You’re all alone.

E. K. Hornbeck : You’re wrong, Henry. You’ll be there. You’re the type. Who else would defend my right to be lonely?

I just know when I watch it, that it could have been in the news this week, only with a different cast of characters. My concern is that there is a very loud minority that wants to inflict its particular religious view on everyone and use the public treasure to do it. The attitude of many of these people is much like the characters from the actual Scopes Trial including their view that pushes both demonizes those they oppose and their desire to regulate the secular opposition to the sidelines.

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I know that the same accusation is made by religious people of secularists, however I have seen the results of religious wars in Iraq and the Balkans, and from history. Those conflicts and the brutality of religious people in them give me great pause when I see religious and political leaders here suggest curtailing the civil liberties and even using the law against those that they oppose. As Drummond asked in the movie: “Must men go to jail because they find themselves at odds with a self-appointed prophet?”

That is why this film and that trial are still so important, for the very practice of liberty and protection of the First Amendment.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Shame at Panmunjom

Like no President Ever: Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Like most of you I was greeted this morning by the images of President Trump crossing a few feet in North Korea to meet with North Korean Dictator Kim Jun Un for a photo op and promise that Lil’ Kim would resume negotiations on his nuclear program, the exact same thing he promised last year but hasn’t done.

The sad fact of the matter that the only reason that Trump got this far with Kim was that he has stopped condemning North Korean Human Rights abuses, Slave Labor Camps, political murders, and his support of Iranian missile and nuclear programs. These are things that every President since the North Korean attack on South Korea in 1950 have opposed. But if your overwhelming desire is not the security of the United States and its allies, but your personal aggrandizement means more than the country whose Constitution you swore to uphold and defend then it makes perfect sense. Sacrifice your allies, your country, and the founding principles of the country to make lovey-dovey with a brutal dictator for your ego, and nothing else matters.

During his visit across the border his new Press Secretary was physically assaulted by North Korean Secret Police while attempting to get American reporters to the scene of the event. Don’t expect that he will offer her any words or comfort or support. She was behaving as an official who expected freedom of the press to be observed when it came to visits of the President to foreign countries. I don’t expect her to have a long tour as Press Secretary.

I have served under six Presidents of both parties. Had I not listened to my parents this would be my seventh, but I enlisted at the time that I was also eligible to enter the advanced program of Army ROTC. However, it was the Iranian hostage crisis and the failure of the attempt to rescue to hostages that led me to throw my hat into the ring and volunteer to serve. Now I serve under a President who is threatening to go to war with Iran, while supporting Iran’s primary ally in its quest for ICBMs and nuclear weapons. To me this makes no sense. North Korea is an existential threat to South Korea, and to the security of North East Asia. Should it continue its ICBM development, which I have no doubt that it is, it will become a major threat to the Continental United States.

But for President Trump this doesn’t seem to matter. He hasn’t met or heard of a dictator or authoritarian despot that he doesn’t support. Putin, Kim, Erdogan of Turkey, Orban Of Hungary, and the Central American dictators whose policies are creating the crisis on our souther border.

The fact is that President Trump is willfully ignorant of American History, and political norms, as well as the history Of the Twentieth Century in General. He doesn’t seem to understand that his words and auctions have meaning, and that being President is not just about pleasing his Cult-like supports, but to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. For me that is inexcusable, and for him to step across the North Korean Border without confronting the North Korean record on Human Rights, its illegal development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and the murder of American student Otto Warmbier is inexcusable, regardless of his political party. If President Obama had acted similarly I would have a similar opinion to render. For me this isn’t about politics or party, but American ideals.

President Trump is a man without principle and he is using his office for personal and political gain, as well as retribution against anyone he has wronged or that oppose his policies. Trump is an existential threat to the American political, economic, and social system that have given us a political and diplomatic stability, and prosperity unknown in history, not that things like that matter to Trump and his Cult.

Honestly, I wish I could have believed that President Trump would have stood for American values and not just policies that could only benefit his bottom line, but that is indeed the case, and that strikes me in the heart as a betrayal of the American tradition and the principles of the Declaration of Independence. I hate that, and that matters have come to this. To see an American President defending and protecting some of the worst violators of human rights, political freedoms, and democracy is disheartening to me.

For that I cannot remain silent. I think of the words of Major General Henning Von Tresckow:

“We have to show the world that not all of us are like him. Otherwise, this will always be Hitler’s Germany.”

In my paraphrase: We have to show the world world that we are not like him. Otherwise this will always be Trump’s America.

Sadly, I believe that we have crossed the Rubicon to dictatorship, Trump will find a way to remain in power no matter what the election, the Congress, or the courts say. We will all end up being damned for it.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“It Was All About Diverting…” The Relevance Of Milton Mayer’s “They Thought They Were Free” Today

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am tired and pretty worn out and attempting to use this weekend to recuperate as I get ready for more medical appointments, physical therapy, and hopes that I will get a way forward with my pain ridden knees. Because of that I am doing some new reading, and simply reposting an older article that I think is pertinent.

The article tonight is a chapter from Milton Mayer’s “They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945.” Mayer was a visiting professor at the University of Frankfurt in the 1950s and lived in a small Hessian town near the city. The book is about the relationships that he built with ten ordinary citizens in the town and how they lived under Nazism and how most saw little wrong with it in the end.

The book is well worth the read and very timely when one compares the attitudes of the men who became Mayer’s friends and many people in the United States today. The last few chapters of the book are a reflection of the author’s opinions of the future of Germany at the time of his writing and he was mistaken on how the Germans would eventually become a society that embraced democracy and rejected authoritarianism (at the time he felt that it was very possible that democracy would fail in Germany,) they do not take away anything from the heart of the book and its message about how people adjust to authoritarian rule.

One chapter in particular struck me, it was a conversion that Mayer had with a colleague at the University who also reflected what it was like to live in the Third Reich and how in doing so he compromised himself and lost the opportunity to resist when resistance might have changed the course of events as Germany proceeded down the road to dictatorship and destruction. The chapter is particularly painful to read as the man understood that he should have known better but didn’t recognize the warning signs of the gradual nature of how life was changing with each new law or dictate from the Fuhrer.

In reading the chapter I see parallels in American society today. There are the Trump loyalists, many of who openly call for restrictions of liberty and crushing opposition to the President’s policies using extra-constitutional means including violence. Many are quite extreme while others, persuaded by years of right-wing talk radio, politically charged sermons by their pastors, and the daily dose of Fox News believe everything said by the President even when confronted by facts. Then there are Trump’s opponents, but many of the opponents are divided and cannot get along with each other. Some of these opponents actually helped Trump into office by circulating the Russian anti-Clinton conspiracy theories and falsehoods throughout the campaign. Each of these groups probably composes about 25-30% of the electorate each. The remaining segment are the people who simply go with the flow because life is too busy and crisis laden to get too deeply enmeshed in the political debate, and many have become so cynical that they see no difference in either side and are much more concerned about making it in a still uncertain economy.

So I invite you to read this and draw your own conclusions. Have a great day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Chapter 13: But Then It Was Too Late

“What no one seemed to notice,” said a colleague of mine, a philologist, “was the ever widening gap, after 1933, between the government and the people. Just think how very wide this gap was to begin with, here in Germany. And it became always wider. You know, it doesn’t make people close to their government to be told that this is a people’s government, a true democracy, or to be enrolled in civilian defense, or even to vote. All this has little, really nothing, to do with knowing one is governing.

“What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could not understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it.

“This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter.

“You will understand me when I say that my Middle High German was my life. It was all I cared about. I was a scholar, a specialist. Then, suddenly, I was plunged into all the new activity, as the university was drawn into the new situation; meetings, conferences, interviews, ceremonies, and, above all, papers to be filled out, reports, bibliographies, lists, questionnaires. And on top of that were the demands in the community, the things in which one had to, was ‘expected to’ participate that had not been there or had not been important before. It was all rigmarole, of course, but it consumed all one’s energies, coming on top of the work one really wanted to do. You can see how easy it was, then, not to think about fundamental things. One had no time.”

“Those,” I said, “are the words of my friend the baker. ‘One had no time to think. There was so much going on.’”

“Your friend the baker was right,” said my colleague. “The dictatorship, and the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway. I do not speak of your ‘little men,’ your baker and so on; I speak of my colleagues and myself, learned men, mind you. Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There was no need to. Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about—we were decent people—and kept us so busy with continuous changes and ‘crises’ and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the ‘national enemies,’ without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who wants to think?

“To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it—please try to believe me—unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

“How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men? Frankly, I do not know. I do not see, even now. Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice—‘Resist the beginnings’ and ‘Consider the end.’ But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One must foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men? Things might have. And everyone counts on that might.

“Your ‘little men,’ your Nazi friends, were not against National Socialism in principle. Men like me, who were, are the greater offenders, not because we knew better (that would be too much to say) but because we sensed better. Pastor Niemöller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing; and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something—but then it was too late.”

“Yes,” I said.

“You see,” my colleague went on, “one doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even talk, alone; you don’t want to ‘go out of your way to make trouble.’ Why not?—Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.

“Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows. Outside, in the streets, in the general community, ‘everyone’ is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none. You know, in France or Italy there would be slogans against the government painted on walls and fences; in Germany, outside the great cities, perhaps, there is not even this. In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, ‘It’s not so bad’ or ‘You’re seeing things’ or ‘You’re an alarmist.’

“And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can’t prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don’t know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end? On the one hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic. You are left with your close friends, who are, naturally, people who have always thought as you have.

“But your friends are fewer now. Some have drifted off somewhere or submerged themselves in their work. You no longer see as many as you did at meetings or gatherings. Informal groups become smaller; attendance drops off in little organizations, and the organizations themselves wither. Now, in small gatherings of your oldest friends, you feel that you are talking to yourselves, that you are isolated from the reality of things. This weakens your confidence still further and serves as a further deterrent to—to what? It is clearer all the time that, if you are going to do anything, you must make an occasion to do it, and then you are obviously a troublemaker. So you wait, and you wait.

“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.

“And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jewish swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in—your nation, your people—is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God. The system itself could not have intended this in the beginning, but in order to sustain itself it was compelled to go all the way.

“You have gone almost all the way yourself. Life is a continuing process, a flow, not a succession of acts and events at all. It has flowed to a new level, carrying you with it, without any effort on your part. On this new level you live, you have been living more comfortably every day, with new morals, new principles. You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things that your father, even in Germany, could not have imagined.

“Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

“What then? You must then shoot yourself. A few did. Or ‘adjust’ your principles. Many tried, and some, I suppose, succeeded; not I, however. Or learn to live the rest of your life with your shame. This last is the nearest there is, under the circumstances, to heroism: shame. Many Germans became this poor kind of hero, many more, I think, than the world knows or cares to know.”

I said nothing. I thought of nothing to say.

“I can tell you,” my colleague went on, “of a man in Leipzig, a judge. He was not a Nazi, except nominally, but he certainly wasn’t an anti-Nazi. He was just—a judge. In ’42 or ’43, early ’43, I think it was, a Jew was tried before him in a case involving, but only incidentally, relations with an ‘Aryan’ woman. This was ‘race injury,’ something the Party was especially anxious to punish. In the case at bar, however, the judge had the power to convict the man of a ‘nonracial’ offense and send him to an ordinary prison for a very long term, thus saving him from Party ‘processing’ which would have meant concentration camp or, more probably, deportation and death. But the man was innocent of the ‘nonracial’ charge, in the judge’s opinion, and so, as an honorable judge, he acquitted him. Of course, the Party seized the Jew as soon as he left the courtroom.”

“And the judge?”

“Yes, the judge. He could not get the case off his conscience—a case, mind you, in which he had acquitted an innocent man. He thought that he should have convicted him and saved him from the Party, but how could he have convicted an innocent man? The thing preyed on him more and more, and he had to talk about it, first to his family, then to his friends, and then to acquaintances. (That’s how I heard about it.) After the ’44 Putsch they arrested him. After that, I don’t know.”

I said nothing.

“Once the war began,” my colleague continued, “resistance, protest, criticism, complaint, all carried with them a multiplied likelihood of the greatest punishment. Mere lack of enthusiasm, or failure to show it in public, was ‘defeatism.’ You assumed that there were lists of those who would be ‘dealt with’ later, after the victory. Goebbels was very clever here, too. He continually promised a ‘victory orgy’ to ‘take care of’ those who thought that their ‘treasonable attitude’ had escaped notice. And he meant it; that was not just propaganda. And that was enough to put an end to all uncertainty.

“Once the war began, the government could do anything ‘necessary’ to win it; so it was with the ‘final solution of the Jewish problem,’ which the Nazis always talked about but never dared undertake, not even the Nazis, until war and its ‘necessities’ gave them the knowledge that they could get away with it. The people abroad who thought that war against Hitler would help the Jews were wrong. And the people in Germany who, once the war had begun, still thought of complaining, protesting, resisting, were betting on Germany’s losing the war. It was a long bet. Not many made it.”

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 166-73 of They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 by Milton Mayer, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1955, 1966 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

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Ordinary Men and Genocide: Massacre at Babi Yar

babi yar

Massacre at Babi Yar

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Anyone who follows my writing know I write a lot about the Holocaust and the war crimes perpetuated by the Nazi State. I began studying this as an undergraduate and graduate level history student at California State University at Northridge under Dr. Helmut Heussler, who served as a wartime interrogator for the 82nd Airborne Division during the Second World War and then as an interpreter at the Major War Crime trials at Nuremberg.  I studied under him for three years dealing with the end of Imperial Germany, the German Civil War, the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era. He gave me a lot of freedom to explore and research the subject and allowed me to do that research in undergraduate and graduate level independent study projects. I continued that study personally as well as during seminary and my second Master’s Degree in Military History.

Since I read, speak and write German well and can often pass myself off as German in Germany because of my lack of an American accent when speaking the language. I speak German with a blend of a Bavarian and Hessen dialect and that helps when I visit various Holocaust sites, museums, and research centers in Germany. I will be doing some of that again this fall when I make another trip to Munich, Hessen, and Baden-Wurttemberg. About a year ago I spent five hours at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. contemplating things that I mostly already knew while exploring details of the Holocaust that made it more real and personal.

As part of my academic work at the Joint Forces Staff College I taught military ethics as related to the Just War Theory. In the class on jus post bellum or justice after war I dealt with the implication of participating in war crimes. It is a serious subject and in the class I attempted to make my students, all relatively senior officers from the United States and allied nations as uncomfortable as possible. I used a number of examples from the major war crimes trials at Nuremberg as well as the Generals Trial and I used the film Conspiracy, which is about the Wannsee Conference where mostly mid-level officers and bureaucrats hashed out the coordination of the Endlosung or Final Solution to what Nazis euphemistically called “the Jewish Question.” 

When I was teaching there I would go through previous notes and research to teach my students. Whenever I did this I felt a tenseness and revulsion for the actions of those that ordered, committed or condoned these crimes; many of whom were like me, professional military officers, historians, and theologians. So I realize how easily it is for normal, rational, and even basically decent people to succumb to either participating in or turning a blind eye to crimes against others, even on a massive scale.  In fact the bigger those crimes are they seem easier for some people to dismiss, because the victims cease be human, and simply a statistic. Sadly, Josef Stalin probably got human nature right when he said “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” That comment causes great revulsion in my soul, but I have to admit it seems to be the way that many people deal with such great crimes.

September 29th 2018 was the 77th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre. It was committed by members of the SS Einsatzgruppen C near Kiev shortly after the German Army captured that city. 33,771 Jews were exterminated by the members of Sonderkommando 4b of Einsatzgruppen C as well as members of a number of Ordungspolizei, police battalions supported by the logistics and protection of the German Army. About 10,000 others, mainly Communist Officials and Gypsies were rounded up and killed in the same operation. The victims were stripped of all of their belongings taken to a ravine and shot. It was the second largest killing action by the various Einsatzgruppen in the war. The killings were done up close and personal. The men who conducted the operation either believed that the people that they were killing were sub-human, or did not have the courage to stand up and say no.

These issues are still with us and as I watch the rise of Right Wing and other Fascist movements in Russia, Europe, and the United States I get very concerned. But even more concerning are the large number of people who are content to dismiss their threats and violence, often because while too respectable to utter their words themselves they secretly condone their race hatred. Hannah Arendt made the comment that “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Of course these are uncomfortable subjects. When I tell friends of the places that I have visited and studies I have done quite a few openly tell me that they find the subject so uncomfortable hat they could not visit those places. These friends span the political spectrum, just as did the people who said nothing or willingly followed orders to commit genocide in Nazi Germany.

We like to say that the Nazis were different than us or others. To some extent this is true, but the real truth is that most of the Christian Western European countries, and I include the United States have also committed gross crimes against humanity against peoples that we believed were less than human and not afforded human rights or protections. In the movie Judgement at Nuremberg Spencer Tracy makes a comment that should send chills through any of us. He spoke concerning one of the judges on trial, “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….”

What happened at Babi Yar is just one example of how civilized people can get can commit great atrocities in the name of ideology and race, and it does not stand alone. The tragic fact is that it really doesn’t take much to condition people to go commit such crimes; just teach people from childhood that people of certain races or religions are less than human. Then subjugate them to incessant propaganda and then turn them loose using the pretext that they are killing terrorists, insurgents, or other enemies of the state. Dr 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.”

The coming series of articles deal with the ideological as well as military reasons that brought about Babi Yar and so many other atrocities committed by the Nazis during the campaigns in Poland and the Soviet Union. I will probably intersperse other articles as the need arises but there will be five more sections to this series.

By the way, if you haven’t noticed over the past two years anti-Semitic incidents have skyrocketed in the United States. The attacks on two synagogues in the United States have been attacked by neo-Nazis in the past six months is just the beginning. Thousands of other incidents have taken place, physical attacks, harassment, and vandalism of synagogues, Jewish schools, and cemeteries.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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