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Yes Men and No Men: Hermann Goering and Johannes Steinhoff in the Age of Trump

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am posting a slightly updated version on an article that I have published before because I think it is even more relevant following how President Trump has treated, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, and Mattis’s recommendation of Air Force General David Goldfein to be the next Chairman Of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All are decorated combat commanders, had been under enemy fire, and all are scholars capable of self-reflection. All stand for a different type of military than that Trump admires, they are not yes men, nor Trump’s Generals. That is why Goldfein was rejected by Trump, why Mattis and McMaster both resigned, and were replaced by men that Trump sees as yes men, the same as with the replacement of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, FBI Director James Comey, and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, by people thought to be loyal to the President, most of whom are totally unqualified for their office but whose personal loyalty to the President, not the Constitution, is unquestionable.

At Nuremberg, Hermann Goering was asked by Gustave Gilbert as to “why he and the others had been such abject “yes men,” Goering replied: “Please show me a ‘no man’ in Germany who is not six feet under the ground today.” Goering, who was exceptionally intelligent and talented subordinated himself to Hitler and while not completely correct in regards to the fate of all the “no men” did understand the principle of unconditional personal loyalty to his leader, which makes the actions of men like Johannes Steinhoff much more remarkable.

A few months back I did some research on the anti-Nazi resistors, which caused me to go back are re-read a book by World War II German Luftwaffe ace Johannes Steinhoff, which I believe should be requires reading for any military officer or public servant in the Trump era.

Steinhoff was unlike many of the German officers who wrote memoirs following the war, memoirs that historian Williamson Murray wrote “fell generally into two categories; generals writing in the genre of “if the fuhrer had only listened to me!” and fighter pilots or tank busters writing about their heroics against the productive flood from America or the primitively masses of the Soviet Union.”

Steinhoff’s book, The Final Hours: The Luftwaffe Plot Against Goering should be essential reading for any currently serving officer, diplomat, Federal law enforcement, intelligence, or Department of Justice official  as the Trump administration becomes more established and capricious.

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General Johannes Steinhof (above) as a Bundeswehr and NATO officer, showing his burns and before his crash (below)

steinhoff WW II

In his books, Steinhoff does something that you do not see authors do in most military or political memoirs, he actually does serious self reflection on his role in supporting an evil regime. In his introduction to his book The Final Hours the legendary fighter ace who was horribly disfigured when his Me-262 jet fighter crashed and burned two weeks prior to the end of the war wrote:

“In recalling these events, which had been long buried in my memory, it has not been my intention to make excuses. Our unconditional self-sacrifice in the service of the Third Reich is too well documented for that….

So it is because of what is happening today—with freedom threatened in virtually every respect by its own abuse—that I offer this contribution, in the form of an episode in which I was myself involved, to the history of the soldier in the twentieth century. Soldiers have always, in every century of their existence, been victims of the ruthless misuse of power; indeed, given the opportunity, they have joined in the power game themselves. But it fell to our own century to accomplish, with the aid of a whole technology of mass extermination, the most atrocious massacres in the history of mankind. This fact alone makes pacifism a philosophy worthy of respect, and I have a great deal of sympathy with those who profess it. 

The figure of the soldier in all his manifestations is thus symptomatic of the century now nearing its close, and it is to the history of that figure that I wish to contribute by describing what happened to me. I have tried to show what it is possible to do to men, how insidiously they can be manipulated by education, how they can be hoisted onto a pedestal as “heroes,” how they can be so corrupted as even to enjoy the experience—and how they can be dropped and denounced as mutineers when they discover that they have scruples. The complete lack of scruples that such treatment implies is peculiar to rulers who believe that the problems of their own and other peoples can be solved by imposing, through the use of military force, peace on their, the rulers’, terms—in our case a pax germanica, but the second Latin word is readily interchangeable.” from “The Final Hours: The Luftwaffe Plot Against Goring (Aviation Classics)” by Johannes Steinhoff

Since I am a historian and and a career military officer with service in the Iraq War, a war that was illegal and unjust by all measure I can understand Steinhof’s words. Because much of my undergraduate and graduate work focused on German history, particularly that of Imperial Germany after the unification, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi Reich, I draw a lot of lessons from the period. I also understand how people in this country can fall for the same kind of vitriolic propaganda that the Germans of that era did. I can understand because for years I fell for the lies and propaganda being put out by the politicians, pundits and preachers of the American political right.

In fact I wrote about an incident that happened to me in my own chapel where a dedicated Trump supporter attempted to have me charged with Conduct Unbecoming an Officer and Contempt for the President.  He did this because I used biblical preaching backed by sound theology and history to condemn the President’s comparison of immigrants of darker skin colors as “animals” and an “infestation.” I compared those words with the way Hitler and other totalitarian leaders used such terminology to dehumanize their victims. As I mentioned I was completely cleared by the preliminary inquiry but it sends a chill through my spine.

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A picture of me (on left) in Iraq 2007 with my assistant and bodyguard RP1 Nelson Lebron

One of those lessons is that in times of crisis, that people, no matter what their race, culture, religious belief system, educational, or economic background are still human. Humanity is the one constant in all of history, our prejudices are often ingrained in us during childhood and reinforced by the words of politicians, pundits, and preachers. In times of stress, crisis, and societal change or upheaval even good people, moral people, people of great intellectual, scientific abilities can fall prey to demagogues who preach hate and blame others, usually racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, as well as civil libertarians who champion the rights of those minorities for the problems of the nation.

Shrewd politicians, preachers, and pundits do this well. They demonize the target group or population and then let the hatred of their disaffected followers flow. The leaders need that disaffected and angry base in order to rise to power; such was how Hitler, Stalin, and so many other despots gained power. They took advantage of a climate of fear, and found others to blame. For Hitler it was the Jews, Slavs, Socialists and Communists; while for Stalin it was various groups like the Ukrainians, or the Poles who were the devil to be feared and destroyed. Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin wrote:

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

But that being said, there are a lot of people who from childhood believe the lies about others without question. In good times such people continue on with life as normal, but in crisis those hatreds and prejudices come to the fore. Rudolf Höss, the notorious sociopath who commanded Auschwitz told American Army psychologist Gustave Gilbert about his reaction when ordered to turn the camp into an extermination center. He said that the order “fitted in with all that had been preached to me for years,” and “at the same time I didn’t think of it as propaganda, but as something one just had to believe.” 

Eugene Davidson in his book on the Nuremberg Trials wrote:

“Every society has in it at all times negative, criminal, sadistic, asocial forces. What holds them in check more than law and police is the consensus of the society – a general belief that despite everything wrong and stupid and muddleheaded in politics, the state is a going concern that will somehow make its way into the future.” (Davidson, The Trial of the Germans p.581)

But when things do not go well, when people do not feel that things will be okay, that the future will be better, and that they have a purpose they look for answers. However, they tend to find their answers in the rantings of demagogues, race baiters, conspiracy theorists, and others who they would tend to dismiss out of hand in good times. In Germany it was the loss of the First World War, the humiliation of Versailles and the economic chaos and social change of the Weimar period which allowed Hitler to gain an audience, then a following, then political power. The demagogues played to what was already in the hearts and minds of the disaffected masses, without that fertile soil, the rantings of Hitler and his propagandists would have never succeeded. Albert Speer wrote:

“As I see it today, Hitler and Goebbels were in fact molded by the mob itself, guided by its yearnings and its daydreams. Of course, Goebbels and Hitler knew how to penetrate through to the instincts of their audiences; but in the deeper sense they derived their whole existence from these audiences. Certainly the masses roared to the beat set by Hitler’s and Goebbels’ baton; yet they were not the true conductors. The mob determined the theme. To compensate for misery, insecurity, unemployment, and hopelessness, this anonymous assemblage wallowed for hours at a time in obsessions, savagery and license. The personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy was replaced by a frenzy that demanded victims. By lashing out at their opponents and vilifying the Jews, they gave expression and direction to fierce primal passions.”

In a sense a similar thing has happened in the United States which has experienced a series of wars beginning with Vietnam, the shock of the 9-11-2001 attacks, the economic crash of 2007 and 2008 which devastated the savings, home ownership, and investments of many Americans while at the same time benefiting the banking and brokerage houses whose government assisted policies brought about the crash. Of course there are other issues, many religious conservatives hate the progress made by the Women’s and Gay Rights movements, and their leaders play to their fears in apocalyptic terms. I could go on, but I am sure that my readers can identify other issues which demagogues and others use to spread fear and hate to further their goals. The fact is that without the the fertile soil that lays in the hearts of their most fervent followers they would never have a following.

In Weimar Germany hate mongers like Julius Streicher and propagandist Josef Goebbels stuck a chord with disenchanted people who felt that they had lost their country. They were fearful, angry, and desired a leader who would “make Germany great again.” Hitler and his Nazi media sycophants played to that fear, and took advantage of their anger at the existing order. Davidson wrote such people “exist everywhere and in a sick society they can flourish.” 

For decades the way has been prepared for true extremists to take advantage of the fears and doubts of people as modern American versions of Streicher and Goebbels have been at work for years. Rush Limbaugh was a modern pioneer of this in the United States, and he has been joined by so many who are even more extreme in their rantings that it is hard to name them all. Likewise, whole media corporations especially Fox News, websites, and political networks spread such fear every minute of the day, claiming that they, and they alone are real Americans. They actively support politicians who condemn, and sometimes even threaten people who oppose them, and all the while claim that “make America great again.”

When I was younger I devoured that propaganda, despite all of my learning I followed the rantings of men who I realize today are propagandists who promote the basest of lies, and hatred, often in the name of God. I was changed when I was at war, and when I returned home from Iraq in 2008 I realized through hard experience that I had been lied to, and that as a result that thousands of my brothers and sisters were dead, and tens of thousands shattered in body, mind, and spirit. Likewise I saw the massive destruction levied on Iraq and realized how terrible war really is. That was my epiphany, that is what it took to see how much I had been lied to, and it called me to question everything else that I had so willingly believed, things which had been fed to me by years of indoctrination in church, through the media, and by politicians who I believed were truly Christian. I can understand now how Martin Niemoller felt after the Nazi seizure of power when he said, “I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.”

There was a time that I hated people who espouse the views that I hold today, the views that I write about so often here on this site. I can remember how angry I would get as I listened to the propaganda being put out by Limbaugh, Hannity, the Fox News Channel and all of the others that I listened to every time that I had the chance. But when I changed after Iraq, I felt the sting of that hatred in very real ways. I remember the day I was called by my bishop in my former church, who told me that I had to leave because my views on women, gays, and Moslems were to use his words were now “too liberal.” After that, many men who I considered to be the best of friends turned their backs on me, some in the most bitter and vindictive of ways.

But I realize now that what they did was because I had in a sense left the cult, and had to be ostracized. I can understand that now, because when I was under the spell I too turned my back on people who had fallen out of favor, or people who had rejected the tenants of the church or the political movement, and those are things that I can never undo. But at the time it made sense, it fitted in with all I had been taught for decades, as Albert Speer wrote of Hitler, “One seldom recognizes the devil when he is putting his hand on your shoulder.”

What happened to Steinhoff’s generation is threatening to happen again, in our country, an authoritarian movement is threatening to destroy our democracy and republic. In it soldiers are esteemed, until they realize what is going on and speak out, but by then it is usually too late. I am understanding that fact more and more every day, and having had people troll this blog and call me a traitor and worse, I understand just a bit of what happened to Steinhoff and his fellow officers when they protested to the highest levels what was happening to Germany in early 1945.

In 1944 he and other fighter pilots were subjected to a political indoctrination session and realized that in the Nazi state loyalty and doctrinal purity to Naziism was more important than either combat service or competence. He wrote:

“Now, however, we realized to our horror that a group of officers had decided, after five years of war, to conduct a purge among the troops with the object of eliminating all those “whose past life and present conduct were not consonant with the National-Socialist type” and who did not “stand firm on National-Socialist principles.” We sat there petrified, but some of those present appeared hugely to enjoy the ensuing discussion of what they called “National-Socialist guidelines.” Perhaps, though, for many it was simply an attempt to escape into a less concrete area of discussion than the desperate military situation—and then there was the added satisfaction of being able to censure others. Fanaticism took the place of hopelessness, and phrases like “faith in the Führer,” “rootedness in National-Socialist ideology,” and “irreproachability of character” fell without hesitation from people’s lips. The Luftwaffe leadership, it was said, must be “combed” from top to bottom, and then someone even came out with the “National-Socialist soul…”

We will soon know how military professionals react to being labeled as traitors. President Trump and his followers have been demonizing the personnel of the nation’s intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic communities since before the election. The President lambasts critics of any station on his Twitter feed which results in them receiving death threats from his followers. I expect that when Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks his mind and tells the truth that we will find out.

Personally I expect that when he does that Trump and his most strident supporters will label him as a traitor for doing so. Like a religious cult they have no capacity to tolerate dissent, loyalty to the man will supersede loyalty to the country or the Constitution. When that happens it will be interesting to see the throngs of people in the military and outside of it who make the choice to throw one of the most courageous, selfless, and intellectual soldiers ever produced by our nation under the bus.

Their’s will be a conscious decision. My opinion is that the Constitution and the country will always come first. I wanted to give the President the benefit of the doubt and prayed that he world do the right thing for the country. But I was wrong. I am concerned because of his past and current behavior that his only loyalty is to himself. General Ludwig Beck, who resigned rather than obey Hitler’s order to invade Czechoslovakia in 1938 and died in the anti-Hitler coup attempt in 1944 said:

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

I have no doubt that General Mattis understands that and will courageously speak his mind, even if he is condemned for doing so. Sadly I have many doubts about other leaders: be they military, political, business, or religious. There are many people who will sell their souls for their personal advancement, the advancement of their agenda, or an increase in their bottom line. It is after all human nature.

But the question is: will we see true men and women of courage who will stand when it appears there is no chance of success? As Atticus Finch said in To Kill a Mockingbird: “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” 

That will be what is demanded in the coming months and years.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, leadership, Military, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

”For Hate is Strong and Mocks the Song Of Peace on Earth Goodwill to Men” Henry Wordsworth Longfellow and Christmas 2018


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I could be writing about the travails being inflicted on the country and the world by President Donald Trump, but I do enough of that. Christmas is coming and even when I don’t explicitly write about Teump, the message of the season stands against him and against all that he stands.

Looking at the news of the week; the resignation on principle by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the abandonment of the Kurds in Syria to the Turks, Russia, as ISIS, the crashing stock markets, and the completely preventable partial government shutdown brought about President Trump and his most fanatical followers, it is easy to despair. Frankly, there are many times that I do, and Inhave to remember how people before us went through great trials and tribulations.

The great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned these words of hope on Christmas Day, 1863:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Christmas is coming and I feel that Longfellow’s words are as pertinent today as when he first penned them. The thought of what is to come in the next few years, in the United States and in many other liberal democracies bodes ill for our future as authoritarian and often xenophobic leaders rise to power. The world that we grew up is is passing away, and what comes in its place, a dystopian world where hope will be a rare commodity beckons.

Longfellow’s words became the heart of the song I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.  I have heard it a number of times in the past few days and each time it really touches me.

The song has been recorded in a number of versions by different artists over the years. However, the words of the song go back to the American Civil War. It began as a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day 1863 following the serious wounding of his son Charles, a Lieutenant in the Union Army at the Battle of New Hope Church, and the death of his wife in a fire two years before. Longfellow had much to despair about, but he maintained a faith in God, as well as the founding principles of the United States.

His words are haunting. Probably because they demonstrate the profound tension that lies at the heart of the Incarnation, which is the heart of Christmas and the Christian faith. the tension, played out so well in the song is the existence of a message of peace and reconciliation in a world where war and hatred of many kinds rip human beings apart coupled with the tragic inability of Christendom, especially American Conservative Evangelicalism to even come close to the message of Christmas.

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along th’ unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

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The reality of this is seen in the third verse. It is a verse that echoes throughout history and seems to be true even today, in fact it seems to be the most real as we deal with war, hatred, terrorism, killing in the name of God, and political fratricide.

And in despair I bowed my head

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

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The interesting part about the songs as opposed to the poem is that they omit three of Longfellow’s verses that admittedly in a reunited country would not help record sales. Those verses speak to the heart of the Civil War.

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,

A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

But Longfellow hears in the bells something more powerful. It is the message of Christmas and the incarnation. The message that justice and peace will finally embrace.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till ringing, singing on its way

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

The song has been recorded many times by many artists. I like the version sung by Frank Sinatra, which the music was composed by Johnny Marks, composer of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Another earlier version composed by John Baptiste Calkin has been recorded by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash among others.

 

 

As wars rage in the Middle East, tensions rise in Asia, Africa and even Eastern Europe while the Unholy Trinity of Politicians, Pundits and Preachers, led by the American President rage as we go into another, and even more perilous year with the possibility of nuclear war more probably than not, people still look for hope.

Longfellow, who lost so much in a short time in the midst of a terrible Civil War, reminds us that in such times, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.”

In a time like this when the world led by the American President seems to be hurtling into the abyss, it is important to remember Longfellow’s words and the message of Christ and the Incarnation. The child born as an outcast in a manger would die as a criminal, crucified by an occupying power with the full support of the leaders of the occupied country. As the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” 

Yes, the wrong shall fail, and the right prevail, but it in the age of Trump it will certainly involve much travail. As for the travail, it is just beginning.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, civil war, faith, Foreign Policy, History, middle east, music, Political Commentary

The Consequences of Having Scruples: Johannes Steinhoff and Government Service in the Trump Era

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have written a lot about the dehumanization of people and genocide, and some of the things that create a climate where such events take place, and how political and religious leaders stir the primal passions of otherwise good, decent and law abiding citizens. I wrote yesterday about some of my favorite resistance figures in history. It will be a multi-part series. I think the next in the series will deal with White and African American abolitionists in the ante-Bellum period and the American Civil War.

But that being said writing about the anti-Nazi resistors caused me to go back are re-read a book by World War II German Luftwaffe ace Johannes Steinhoff.

Steinhoff was unlike many of the German officers who wrote memoirs following the war, memoirs that historian Williamson Murray wrote “fell generally into two categories; generals writing in the genre of “if the fuhrer had only listened to me!” and fighter pilots or tank busters writing about their heroics against the productive flood from America or the primitively masses of the Soviet Union.”

Steinhoff’s book, The Final Hours: The Luftwaffe Plot Against Goering should be essential reading for any currently serving officer, diplomat, Federal law enforcement, intelligence, or Department of Justice official  as the Trump administration becomes more established and capricious.

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General Johannes Steinhof (above) as a Bundeswehr and NATO officer, showing his burns and before his crash (below)

steinhoff WW II

In his books, Steinhoff does something that you do not see authors do in most military or political memoirs, he actually does serious self reflection on his role in supporting an evil regime. In his introduction to his book The Final Hours the legendary fighter ace who was horribly disfigured when his Me-262 jet fighter crashed and burned two weeks prior to the end of the war wrote:

“In recalling these events, which had been long buried in my memory, it has not been my intention to make excuses. Our unconditional self-sacrifice in the service of the Third Reich is too well documented for that….

So it is because of what is happening today—with freedom threatened in virtually every respect by its own abuse—that I offer this contribution, in the form of an episode in which I was myself involved, to the history of the soldier in the twentieth century. Soldiers have always, in every century of their existence, been victims of the ruthless misuse of power; indeed, given the opportunity, they have joined in the power game themselves. But it fell to our own century to accomplish, with the aid of a whole technology of mass extermination, the most atrocious massacres in the history of mankind. This fact alone makes pacifism a philosophy worthy of respect, and I have a great deal of sympathy with those who profess it. 

The figure of the soldier in all his manifestations is thus symptomatic of the century now nearing its close, and it is to the history of that figure that I wish to contribute by describing what happened to me. I have tried to show what it is possible to do to men, how insidiously they can be manipulated by education, how they can be hoisted onto a pedestal as “heroes,” how they can be so corrupted as even to enjoy the experience—and how they can be dropped and denounced as mutineers when they discover that they have scruples. The complete lack of scruples that such treatment implies is peculiar to rulers who believe that the problems of their own and other peoples can be solved by imposing, through the use of military force, peace on their, the rulers’, terms—in our case a pax germanica, but the second Latin word is readily interchangeable.” from “The Final Hours: The Luftwaffe Plot Against Goring (Aviation Classics)” by Johannes Steinhoff

Since I am a historian and and a career military officer with service in the Iraq War, a war that was illegal and unjust by all measure I can understand Steinhof’s words. Because much of my undergraduate and graduate work focused on German history, particularly that of Imperial Germany after the unification, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi Reich, I draw a lot of lessons from the period. I also understand how people in this country can fall for the same kind of vitriolic propaganda that the Germans of that era did. I can understand because for years I fell for the lies and propaganda being put out by the politicians, pundits and preachers of the American political right.

In fact I wrote about an incident that happened to me in my own chapel where a dedicated Trump supporter attempted to have me charged with Conduct Unbecoming an Officer and Contempt for the President.  He did this because I used biblical preaching backed by sound theology and history to condemn the President’s comparison of immigrants of darker skin colors as “animals” and an “infestation.” I compared those words with the way Hitler and other totalitarian leaders used such terminology to dehumanize their victims. As I mentioned I was completely cleared by the preliminary inquiry but it sends a chill through my spine.

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A picture of me (on left) in Iraq 2007 with my assistant and bodyguard RP1 Nelson Lebron

One of those lessons is that in times of crisis, that people, no matter what their race, culture, religious belief system, educational, or economic background are still human. Humanity is the one constant in all of history, our prejudices are often ingrained in us during childhood and reinforced by the words of politicians, pundits, and preachers. In times of stress, crisis, and societal change or upheaval even good people, moral people, people of great intellectual, scientific abilities can fall prey to demagogues who preach hate and blame others, usually racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, as well as civil libertarians who champion the rights of those minorities for the problems of the nation.

Shrewd politicians, preachers, and pundits do this well. They demonize the target group or population and then let the hatred of their disaffected followers flow. The leaders need that disaffected and angry base in order to rise to power; such was how Hitler, Stalin, and so many other despots gained power. They took advantage of a climate of fear, and found others to blame. For Hitler it was the Jews, Slavs, Socialists and Communists; while for Stalin it was various groups like the Ukrainians, or the Poles who were the devil to be feared and destroyed. Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin wrote:

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

But that being said, there are a lot of people who from childhood believe the lies about others without question. In good times such people continue on with life as normal, but in crisis those hatreds and prejudices come to the fore. Rudolf Höss, the notorious sociopath who commanded Auschwitz told American Army psychologist Gustave Gilbert about his reaction when ordered to turn the camp into an extermination center. He said that the order “fitted in with all that had been preached to me for years,” and “at the same time I didn’t think of it as propaganda, but as something one just had to believe.” 

Eugene Davidson in his book on the Nuremberg Trials wrote:

“Every society has in it at all times negative, criminal, sadistic, asocial forces. What holds them in check more than law and police is the consensus of the society – a general belief that despite everything wrong and stupid and muddleheaded in politics, the state is a going concern that will somehow make its way into the future.” (Davidson, The Trial of the Germans p.581)

But when things do not go well, when people do not feel that things will be okay, that the future will be better, and that they have a purpose they look for answers. However, they tend to find their answers in the rantings of demagogues, race baiters, conspiracy theorists, and others who they would tend to dismiss out of hand in good times. In Germany it was the loss of the First World War, the humiliation of Versailles and the economic chaos and social change of the Weimar period which allowed Hitler to gain an audience, then a following, then political power. The demagogues played to what was already in the hearts and minds of the disaffected masses, without that fertile soil, the rantings of Hitler and his propagandists would have never succeeded. Albert Speer wrote:

“As I see it today, Hitler and Goebbels were in fact molded by the mob itself, guided by its yearnings and its daydreams. Of course, Goebbels and Hitler knew how to penetrate through to the instincts of their audiences; but in the deeper sense they derived their whole existence from these audiences. Certainly the masses roared to the beat set by Hitler’s and Goebbels’ baton; yet they were not the true conductors. The mob determined the theme. To compensate for misery, insecurity, unemployment, and hopelessness, this anonymous assemblage wallowed for hours at a time in obsessions, savagery and license. The personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy was replaced by a frenzy that demanded victims. By lashing out at their opponents and vilifying the Jews, they gave expression and direction to fierce primal passions.”

In a sense a similar thing has happened in the United States which has experienced a series of wars beginning with Vietnam, the shock of the 9-11-2001 attacks, the economic crash of 2007 and 2008 which devastated the savings, home ownership, and investments of many Americans while at the same time benefiting the banking and brokerage houses whose government assisted policies brought about the crash. Of course there are other issues, many religious conservatives hate the progress made by the Women’s and Gay Rights movements, and their leaders play to their fears in apocalyptic terms. I could go on, but I am sure that my readers can identify other issues which demagogues and others use to spread fear and hate to further their goals. The fact is that without the the fertile soil that lays in the hearts of their most fervent followers they would never have a following.

In Weimar Germany hate mongers like Julius Streicher and propagandist Josef Goebbels stuck a chord with disenchanted people who felt that they had lost their country. They were fearful, angry, and desired a leader who would “make Germany great again.” Hitler and his Nazi media sycophants played to that fear, and took advantage of their anger at the existing order. Davidson wrote such people “exist everywhere and in a sick society they can flourish.” 

For decades the way has been prepared for true extremists to take advantage of the fears and doubts of people as modern American versions of Streicher and Goebbels have been at work for years. Rush Limbaugh was a modern pioneer of this in the United States, and he has been joined by so many who are even more extreme in their rantings that it is hard to name them all. Likewise, whole media corporations especially Fox News, websites, and political networks spread such fear every minute of the day, claiming that they, and they alone are real Americans. They actively support politicians who condemn, and sometimes even threaten people who oppose them, and all the while claim that “make America great again.”

When I was younger I devoured that propaganda, despite all of my learning I followed the rantings of men who I realize today are propagandists who promote the basest of lies, and hatred, often in the name of God. I was changed when I was at war, and when I returned home from Iraq in 2008 I realized through hard experience that I had been lied to, and that as a result that thousands of my brothers and sisters were dead, and tens of thousands shattered in body, mind, and spirit. Likewise I saw the massive destruction levied on Iraq and realized how terrible war really is. That was my epiphany, that is what it took to see how much I had been lied to, and it called me to question everything else that I had so willingly believed, things which had been fed to me by years of indoctrination in church, through the media, and by politicians who I believed were truly Christian. I can understand now how Martin Niemoller felt after the Nazi seizure of power when he said, “I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.”

There was a time that I hated people who espouse the views that I hold today, the views that I write about so often here on this site. I can remember how angry I would get as I listened to the propaganda being put out by Limbaugh, Hannity, the Fox News Channel and all of the others that I listened to every time that I had the chance. But when I changed after Iraq, I felt the sting of that hatred in very real ways. I remember the day I was called by my bishop in my former church, who told me that I had to leave because my views on women, gays, and Moslems were to use his words were now “too liberal.” After that, many men who I considered to be the best of friends turned their backs on me, some in the most bitter and vindictive of ways.

But I realize now that what they did was because I had in a sense left the cult, and had to be ostracized. I can understand that now, because when I was under the spell I too turned my back on people who had fallen out of favor, or people who had rejected the tenants of the church or the political movement, and those are things that I can never undo. But at the time it made sense, it fitted in with all I had been taught for decades, as Albert Speer wrote of Hitler, “One seldom recognizes the devil when he is putting his hand on your shoulder.”

What happened to Steinhoff’s generation is threatening to happen again, in our country, an authoritarian movement is threatening to destroy our democracy and republic. In it soldiers are esteemed, until they realize what is going on and speak out, but by then it is usually too late. I am understanding that fact more and more every day, and having had people troll this blog and call me a traitor and worse, I understand just a bit of what happened to Steinhoff and his fellow officers when they protested to the highest levels what was happening to Germany in early 1945.

In 1944 he and other fighter pilots were subjected to a political indoctrination session and realized that in the Nazi state loyalty and doctrinal purity to Naziism was more important than either combat service or competence. He wrote:

“Now, however, we realized to our horror that a group of officers had decided, after five years of war, to conduct a purge among the troops with the object of eliminating all those “whose past life and present conduct were not consonant with the National-Socialist type” and who did not “stand firm on National-Socialist principles.” We sat there petrified, but some of those present appeared hugely to enjoy the ensuing discussion of what they called “National-Socialist guidelines.” Perhaps, though, for many it was simply an attempt to escape into a less concrete area of discussion than the desperate military situation—and then there was the added satisfaction of being able to censure others. Fanaticism took the place of hopelessness, and phrases like “faith in the Führer,” “rootedness in National-Socialist ideology,” and “irreproachability of character” fell without hesitation from people’s lips. The Luftwaffe leadership, it was said, must be “combed” from top to bottom, and then someone even came out with the “National-Socialist soul…”

We will soon know how military professionals react to being labeled as traitors. President Trump and his followers have been demonizing the personnel of the nation’s intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic communities since before the election. The President lambasts critics of any station on his Twitter feed which results in them receiving death threats from his followers. I expect that when Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks his mind and tells the truth that we will find out.

Personally I expect that when he does that Trump and his most strident supporters will label him as a traitor for doing so. Like a religious cult they have no capacity to tolerate dissent, loyalty to the man will supersede loyalty to the country or the Constitution. When that happens it will be interesting to see the throngs of people in the military and outside of it who make the choice to throw one of the most courageous, selfless, and intellectual soldiers ever produced by our nation under the bus.

Their’s will be a conscious decision. My opinion is that the Constitution and the country will always come first. I wanted to give the President the benefit of the doubt and prayed that he world do the right thing for the country. But I was wrong. I am concerned because of his past and current behavior that his only loyalty is to himself. General Ludwig Beck, who resigned rather than obey Hitler’s order to invade Czechoslovakia in 1938 and died in the anti-Hitler coup attempt in 1944 said:

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

I have no doubt that General Mattis understands that and will courageously speak his mind, even if he is condemned for doing so. Sadly I have many doubts about other leaders: be they military, political, business, or religious. There are many people who will sell their souls for their personal advancement, the advancement of their agenda, or an increase in their bottom line. It is after all human nature.

But the question is: will we see true men and women of courage who will stand when it appears there is no chance of success? As Atticus Finch said in To Kill a Mockingbird: “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” 

That will be what is demanded in the coming months and years.

Peace

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under civil rights, faith, History, leadership, Military, nazi germany, News and current events

The Problem of Scruples

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have written a lot about the dehumanization of people and genocide, and some of the things that create a climate where such events take place, and how political and religious leaders stir the primal passions of otherwise good, decent and law abiding citizens. I have written much over the course of the past year my fears of what is going on in our country, especially in regard to the unabashed lies, falsehoods, and violence being sanctioned and even promoted by President Donald Trump.

Back in 2015 I read a book by World War II German Luftwaffe ace Johannes Steinhoff. Steinhoff was unlike many of the German officers who wrote memoirs following the war, memoirs that historian Williamson Murray wrote “fell generally into two categories; generals writing in the genre of “if the fuhrer had only listened to me!” and fighter pilots or tank busters writing about their heroics against the productive flood from America or the primitively masses of the Soviet Union.” His book, The Final Hours: The Luftwaffe Plot Against Goering should be essential reading for any currently serving officer.

steinhoff6General Johannes Steinhof (above) as a Bundeswehr and NATO officer, showing his burns and before his crash (below)

steinhoff WW IIIn his books, Steinhoff does something that you do not see authors do in most military or political memoirs, he actually does serious self reflection on his role in supporting an evil regime. In his introduction to his book The Final Hours the legendary fighter ace who was horribly disfigured when his Me-262 jet fighter crashed and burned two weeks prior to the end of the war wrote:

“In recalling these events, which had been long buried in my memory, it has not been my intention to make excuses. Our unconditional self-sacrifice in the service of the Third Reich is too well documented for that….

So it is because of what is happening today—with freedom threatened in virtually every respect by its own abuse—that I offer this contribution, in the form of an episode in which I was myself involved, to the history of the soldier in the twentieth century. Soldiers have always, in every century of their existence, been victims of the ruthless misuse of power; indeed, given the opportunity, they have joined in the power game themselves. But it fell to our own century to accomplish, with the aid of a whole technology of mass extermination, the most atrocious massacres in the history of mankind. This fact alone makes pacifism a philosophy worthy of respect, and I have a great deal of sympathy with those who profess it. 

The figure of the soldier in all his manifestations is thus symptomatic of the century now nearing its close, and it is to the history of that figure that I wish to contribute by describing what happened to me. I have tried to show what it is possible to do to men, how insidiously they can be manipulated by education, how they can be hoisted onto a pedestal as “heroes,” how they can be so corrupted as even to enjoy the experience—and how they can be dropped and denounced as mutineers when they discover that they have scruples. The complete lack of scruples that such treatment implies is peculiar to rulers who believe that the problems of their own and other peoples can be solved by imposing, through the use of military force, peace on their, the rulers’, terms—in our case a pax germanica, but the second Latin word is readily interchangeable.” from “The Final Hours: The Luftwaffe Plot Against Goring (Aviation Classics)” by Johannes Steinhoff

Since I am a historian and and a career military officer with service in the Iraq War, a war that was illegal and unjust by all measure I can understand Steinhof’s words. Because much of my undergraduate and graduate work focused on German history, particularly that of Imperial Germany after the unification, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi Reich, I draw a lot of lessons from the period. I also understand how people in this country can fall for the same kind of vitriolic propaganda that the Germans of that era did. I can understand because for years I fell for the lies and propaganda being put out by the politicians, pundits and preachers of the American political right.

10665323_10154041610267059_5277331492232210946_nA picture of me (on left) in Iraq 2007 with my assistant and bodyguard RP1 Nelson Lebron

One of those lessons is that in times of crisis, that people, no matter what their race, culture, religious belief system, educational, or economic background are still human. Humanity is the one constant in all of history, our prejudices are often ingrained in us during childhood and reinforced by the words of politicians, pundits, and preachers. In times of stress, crisis, and societal change or upheaval even good people, moral people, people of great intellectual, scientific abilities can fall prey to demagogues who preach hate and blame others, usually racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, as well as civil libertarians who champion the rights of those minorities for the problems of the nation.

Shrewd politicians, preachers, and pundits do this well. They demonize the target group or population and then let the hatred of their disaffected followers flow. The leaders need that disaffected and angry base in order to rise to power; such was how Hitler, Stalin, and so many other despots gained power. They took advantage of a climate of fear, and found others to blame. For Hitler it was the Jews, Slavs, Socialists and Communists; while for Stalin it was various groups like the Ukrainians, or the Poles who were the devil to be feared and destroyed. Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin wrote:

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

But that being said, there are a lot of people who from childhood believe the lies about others without question. In good times such people continue on with life as normal, but in crisis those hatreds and prejudices come to the fore. Rudolf Höss, the notorious sociopath who commanded Auschwitz told American Army psychologist Gustave Gilbert about his reaction when ordered to turn the camp into an extermination center. He said that the order “fitted in with all that had been preached to me for years,” and “at the same time I didn’t think of it as propaganda, but as something one just had to believe.” 

Eugene Davidson in his book on the Nuremberg Trials wrote:

“Every society has in it at all times negative, criminal, sadistic, asocial forces. What holds them in check more than law and police is the consensus of the society – a general belief that despite everything wrong and stupid and muddleheaded in politics, the state is a going concern that will somehow make its way into the future.” (Davidson, The Trial of the Germans p.581)

But when things do not go well, when people do not feel that things will be okay, that the future will be better, and that they have a purpose they look for answers. However, they tend to find their answers in the rantings of demagogues, race baiters, conspiracy theorists, and others who they would tend to dismiss out of hand in good times. In Germany it was the loss of the First World War, the humiliation of Versailles and the economic chaos and social change of the Weimar period which allowed Hitler to gain an audience, then a following, then political power. The demagogues played to what was already in the hearts and minds of the disaffected masses, without that fertile soil, the rantings of Hitler and his propagandists would have never succeeded. Albert Speer wrote:

“As I see it today, Hitler and Goebbels were in fact molded by the mob itself, guided by its yearnings and its daydreams. Of course, Goebbels and Hitler knew how to penetrate through to the instincts of their audiences; but in the deeper sense they derived their whole existence from these audiences. Certainly the masses roared to the beat set by Hitler’s and Goebbels’ baton; yet they were not the true conductors. The mob determined the theme. To compensate for misery, insecurity, unemployment, and hopelessness, this anonymous assemblage wallowed for hours at a time in obsessions, savagery and license. The personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy was replaced by a frenzy that demanded victims. By lashing out at their opponents and vilifying the Jews, they gave expression and direction to fierce primal passions.”

In a sense a similar thing has happened in the United States which has experienced a series of wars beginning with Vietnam, the shock of the 9-11-2001 attacks, the economic crash of 2007 and 2008 which devastated the savings, home ownership, and investments of many Americans while at the same time benefiting the banking and brokerage houses whose government assisted policies brought about the crash. Of course there are other issues, many religious conservatives hate the progress made by the Women’s and Gay Rights movements, and their leaders play to their fears in apocalyptic terms. I could go on, but I am sure that my readers can identify other issues which demagogues and others use to spread fear and hate to further their goals. The fact is that without the the fertile soil that lays in the hearts of their most fervent followers they would never have a following.

In Weimar Germany hate mongers like Julius Streicher and propagandist Josef Goebbels stuck a chord with disenchanted people who felt that they had lost their country. They were fearful, angry, and desired a leader who would “make Germany great again.” Hitler and his Nazi media sycophants played to that fear, and took advantage of their anger at the existing order. Davidson wrote such people “exist everywhere and in a sick society they can flourish.” 

For decades the way has been prepared for true extremists to take advantage of the fears and doubts of people as modern American versions of Streicher and Goebbels have been at work for years. Rush Limbaugh was a modern pioneer of this in the United States, and he has been joined by so many who are even more extreme in their rantings that it is hard to name them all. Likewise, whole media corporations, websites, and political networks spread such fear every minute of the day, claiming that they, and they alone are real Americans. They actively support politicians who condemn, and sometimes even threaten people who oppose them, and all the while claim that “make America great again.”

When I was younger I devoured that propaganda, despite all of my learning I followed the rantings of men who I realize today are propagandists who promote the basest of lies, and hatred, often in the name of God. I was changed when I was at war, and when I returned home from Iraq in 2008 I realized through hard experience that I had been lied to, and that as a result that thousands of my brothers and sisters were dead, and tens of thousands shattered in body, mind, and spirit. Likewise I saw the massive destruction levied on Iraq and realized how terrible war really is. That was my epiphany, that is what it took to see how much I had been lied to, and it called me to question everything else that I had so willingly believed, things which had been fed to me by years of indoctrination in church, through the media, and by politicians who I believed were truly Christian. I can understand now how Martin Niemoller felt after the Nazi seizure of power when he said, “I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.”

There was a time that I hated people who espouse the views that I hold today, the views that I write about so often here on this site. I can remember how angry I would get as I listened to the propaganda being put out by Limbaugh, Hannity, the Fox News Channel and all of the others that I listened to every time that I had the chance. But when I changed after Iraq, I felt the sting of that hatred in very real ways. I remember the day I was called by my bishop in my former church, who told me that I had to leave because my views on women, gays, and Moslems were to use his words were now “too liberal.” After that, many men who I considered to be the best of friends turned their backs on me, some in the most bitter and vindictive of ways.

But I realize now that what they did was because I had in a sense left the cult, and had to be ostracized. I can understand that now, because when I was under the spell I too turned my back on people who had fallen out of favor, or people who had rejected the tenants of the church or the political movement, and those are things that I can never undo. But at the time it made sense, it fitted in with all I had been taught for decades, as Albert Speer wrote of Hitler, “One seldom recognizes the devil when he is putting his hand on your shoulder.”

What happened to Steinhoff’s generation is threatening to happen again, in our country, an authoritarian movement is threatening to destroy our democracy and republic. In it soldiers are esteemed, until they realize what is going on and speak out, but by then it is usually too late. I am understanding that fact more and more every day, and having had people troll this blog and call me a traitor and worse, I understand just a bit of what happened to Steinhoff and his fellow officers when they protested to the highest levels what was happening to Germany in early 1945.

I don’t know when it will happen, but sometime I expect that know we will how military professionals react to being labeled as traitors. President Trump and his followers have been demonizing the personnel of the nation’s intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic communities since before the election and have increased that since his inauguration, especially against the FBI and Justice Department. In fact those attacks by the President and his sycophants have become much more shrill as the Mueller probe turns more and more Trump associates into witnesses against him.

The President has lambasted his critics on his Twitter feed which occasionally results in them receiving death threats from his followers.  Like a religious cult they have no capacity to tolerate dissent, loyalty to the man will supersede loyalty to the country or the Constitution. When that happens to a senior military officer, or perhaps even Secretary of Defense Mattis, it will be interesting to see the legion of people in the military and outside of it who support the President make the choice to impugn and punish men and women who have spent their lives in defense of their country.

Their’s will be a conscious decision. My opinion is that the Constitution and the country will always come first. When he was elected and inaugurated I gave the President Elect the benefit of the doubt and honestly prayed that he would do the right thing for the country, but since then I have become much more concerned for the country and the world because of his behavior before and since his inauguration has demonstrated that his only loyalty is to himself. General Ludwig Beck, who resigned rather than obey Hitler’s order to invade Czechoslovakia in 1938 and died in the anti-Hitler coup attempt in 1944 said:

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

I have no doubt that many military officers and Secretary of Defense Mattis understand that and will courageously speak his mind, even if he is condemned for doing so. Sadly I have many doubts about other leaders: military, political, business, or religious. There are many people who will sell their souls for their personal advancement, the advancement of their agenda, or an increase in their bottom line. It is after all human nature.

But the question is: will we see true men and women of courage who will stand when it appears there is no chance of success? As Atticus Finch said in To Kill a Mockingbird: “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” 

That will be what is demanded in the coming months as tensions in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe continue to escalate.

Peace

Padre Steve+

4 Comments

Filed under ethics, History, Military, national security, News and current events, Political Commentary

A Useful Nostrum Against Despair: History and Future

edward-vii-funeral

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In two days we will have a new President. While his supporters see great things in his Presidency, many others, not just in this country do not. We can try to deduce how President Trump will govern in a number of ways, but the best is through the lens of the past. I am a historian and I am not hopeful of what the future has in store for us, but given that I will not give in to despair. Barbara Tuchman whose books covered many of greatest eras of change and crisis in world history wrote these words:

“The story and study of the past, both recent and distant, will not reveal the future, but it flashes beacon lights along the way and it is a useful nostrum against despair.”

That being said given my study of history and my observations of our soon to be President I am not optimistic. Many people more learned and informed than I have written volumes about what they think will happen in the coming weeks and months. I have read a lot of those analysis and most give me cause for concern. My one hope is that the in spite of his past, including his recent statements, that President Trump will listen to men like soon to be Secretary of defense James Mattis, who alone among our leaders I believe can stand up to Trump’s most unreasonable and problematic actions in regard to NATO, Russia, and China. He actually may be the man who will save the nation from disaster if President Trump makes good on his promises and threats worldwide.

Of course I hope things never reach that point and that some modicum of sanity will possess the President as well as Congress. Likewise I hope that our institutions will be able to survive.

Even so I expect that when President Trump departs the Capital building for the White House that our world will be irrevocably changed. Tuchman wrote of the gathering of leaders at the death of King Edward VII in 1910 in words that I think could easily be modified to 2017 Washington DC.

“The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”

I believe that the world that we knew is never going to be the same. While I have no idea how our future will play out, I still look to the light of the past to keep from despair.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under History, News and current events, Political Commentary

The Problem with Having Scruples when Rulers Don’t: A Warning from General Johannes Steinhoff 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have written a lot about the dehumanization of people and genocide, and some of the things that create a climate where such events take place, and how political and religious leaders stir the primal passions of otherwise good, decent and law abiding citizens. I wrote yesterday how I am afraid of what is going on in our country, especially in regard to the violence being sanctioned and even promoted by President Elect Donald Trump.

Last spring I read a book by World War II German Luftwaffe ace Johannes Steinhoff. Steinhoff was unlike many of the German officers who wrote memoirs following the war, memoirs that historian Williamson Murray wrote “fell generally into two categories; generals writing in the genre of “if the fuhrer had only listened to me!” and fighter pilots or tank busters writing about their heroics against the productive flood from America or the primitively masses of the Soviet Union.” His book, The Final Hours: The Luftwaffe Plot Against Goering should be essential reading for any currently serving officer.

steinhoff6

General Johannes Steinhof (above) as a Bundeswehr and NATO officer, showing his burns and before his crash (below)

steinhoff WW II

In his books, Steinhoff does something that you do not see authors do in most military or political memoirs, he actually does serious self reflection on his role in supporting an evil regime. In his introduction to his book The Final Hours the legendary fighter ace who was horribly disfigured when his Me-262 jet fighter crashed and burned two weeks prior to the end of the war wrote:

“In recalling these events, which had been long buried in my memory, it has not been my intention to make excuses. Our unconditional self-sacrifice in the service of the Third Reich is too well documented for that….

So it is because of what is happening today—with freedom threatened in virtually every respect by its own abuse—that I offer this contribution, in the form of an episode in which I was myself involved, to the history of the soldier in the twentieth century. Soldiers have always, in every century of their existence, been victims of the ruthless misuse of power; indeed, given the opportunity, they have joined in the power game themselves. But it fell to our own century to accomplish, with the aid of a whole technology of mass extermination, the most atrocious massacres in the history of mankind. This fact alone makes pacifism a philosophy worthy of respect, and I have a great deal of sympathy with those who profess it. 

The figure of the soldier in all his manifestations is thus symptomatic of the century now nearing its close, and it is to the history of that figure that I wish to contribute by describing what happened to me. I have tried to show what it is possible to do to men, how insidiously they can be manipulated by education, how they can be hoisted onto a pedestal as “heroes,” how they can be so corrupted as even to enjoy the experience—and how they can be dropped and denounced as mutineers when they discover that they have scruples. The complete lack of scruples that such treatment implies is peculiar to rulers who believe that the problems of their own and other peoples can be solved by imposing, through the use of military force, peace on their, the rulers’, terms—in our case a pax germanica, but the second Latin word is readily interchangeable.” from “The Final Hours: The Luftwaffe Plot Against Goring (Aviation Classics)” by Johannes Steinhoff

Since I am a historian and and a career military officer with service in the Iraq War, a war that was illegal and unjust by all measure I can understand Steinhof’s words. Because much of my undergraduate and graduate work focused on German history, particularly that of Imperial Germany after the unification, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi Reich, I draw a lot of lessons from the period. I also understand how people in this country can fall for the same kind of vitriolic propaganda that the Germans of that era did. I can understand because for years I fell for the lies and propaganda being put out by the politicians, pundits and preachers of the American political right.

10665323_10154041610267059_5277331492232210946_n

A picture of me (on left) in Iraq 2007 with my assistant and bodyguard RP1 Nelson Lebron

One of those lessons is that in times of crisis, that people, no matter what their race, culture, religious belief system, educational, or economic background are still human. Humanity is the one constant in all of history, our prejudices are often ingrained in us during childhood and reinforced by the words of politicians, pundits, and preachers. In times of stress, crisis, and societal change or upheaval even good people, moral people, people of great intellectual, scientific abilities can fall prey to demagogues who preach hate and blame others, usually racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, as well as civil libertarians who champion the rights of those minorities for the problems of the nation.

Shrewd politicians, preachers, and pundits do this well. They demonize the target group or population and then let the hatred of their disaffected followers flow. The leaders need that disaffected and angry base in order to rise to power; such was how Hitler, Stalin, and so many other despots gained power. They took advantage of a climate of fear, and found others to blame. For Hitler it was the Jews, Slavs, Socialists and Communists; while for Stalin it was various groups like the Ukrainians, or the Poles who were the devil to be feared and destroyed. Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin wrote:

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

But that being said, there are a lot of people who from childhood believe the lies about others without question. In good times such people continue on with life as normal, but in crisis those hatreds and prejudices come to the fore. Rudolf Höss, the notorious sociopath who commanded Auschwitz told American Army psychologist Gustave Gilbert about his reaction when ordered to turn the camp into an extermination center. He said that the order “fitted in with all that had been preached to me for years,” and “at the same time I didn’t think of it as propaganda, but as something one just had to believe.” 

Eugene Davidson in his book on the Nuremberg Trials wrote:

“Every society has in it at all times negative, criminal, sadistic, asocial forces. What holds them in check more than law and police is the consensus of the society – a general belief that despite everything wrong and stupid and muddleheaded in politics, the state is a going concern that will somehow make its way into the future.” (Davidson, The Trial of the Germans p.581)

But when things do not go well, when people do not feel that things will be okay, that the future will be better, and that they have a purpose they look for answers. However, they tend to find their answers in the rantings of demagogues, race baiters, conspiracy theorists, and others who they would tend to dismiss out of hand in good times. In Germany it was the loss of the First World War, the humiliation of Versailles and the economic chaos and social change of the Weimar period which allowed Hitler to gain an audience, then a following, then political power. The demagogues played to what was already in the hearts and minds of the disaffected masses, without that fertile soil, the rantings of Hitler and his propagandists would have never succeeded. Albert Speer wrote:

“As I see it today, Hitler and Goebbels were in fact molded by the mob itself, guided by its yearnings and its daydreams. Of course, Goebbels and Hitler knew how to penetrate through to the instincts of their audiences; but in the deeper sense they derived their whole existence from these audiences. Certainly the masses roared to the beat set by Hitler’s and Goebbels’ baton; yet they were not the true conductors. The mob determined the theme. To compensate for misery, insecurity, unemployment, and hopelessness, this anonymous assemblage wallowed for hours at a time in obsessions, savagery and license. The personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy was replaced by a frenzy that demanded victims. By lashing out at their opponents and vilifying the Jews, they gave expression and direction to fierce primal passions.”

In a sense a similar thing has happened in the United States which has experienced a series of wars beginning with Vietnam, the shock of the 9-11-2001 attacks, the economic crash of 2007 and 2008 which devastated the savings, home ownership, and investments of many Americans while at the same time benefiting the banking and brokerage houses whose government assisted policies brought about the crash. Of course there are other issues, many religious conservatives hate the progress made by the Women’s and Gay Rights movements, and their leaders play to their fears in apocalyptic terms. I could go on, but I am sure that my readers can identify other issues which demagogues and others use to spread fear and hate to further their goals. The fact is that without the the fertile soil that lays in the hearts of their most fervent followers they would never have a following.

In Weimar Germany hate mongers like Julius Streicher and propagandist Josef Goebbels stuck a chord with disenchanted people who felt that they had lost their country. They were fearful, angry, and desired a leader who would “make Germany great again.” Hitler and his Nazi media sycophants played to that fear, and took advantage of their anger at the existing order. Davidson wrote such people “exist everywhere and in a sick society they can flourish.” 

For decades the way has been prepared for true extremists to take advantage of the fears and doubts of people as modern American versions of Streicher and Goebbels have been at work for years. Rush Limbaugh was a modern pioneer of this in the United States, and he has been joined by so many who are even more extreme in their rantings that it is hard to name them all. Likewise, whole media corporations, websites, and political networks spread such fear every minute of the day, claiming that they, and they alone are real Americans. They actively support politicians who condemn, and sometimes even threaten people who oppose them, and all the while claim that “make America great again.”

When I was younger I devoured that propaganda, despite all of my learning I followed the rantings of men who I realize today are propagandists who promote the basest of lies, and hatred, often in the name of God. I was changed when I was at war, and when I returned home from Iraq in 2008 I realized through hard experience that I had been lied to, and that as a result that thousands of my brothers and sisters were dead, and tens of thousands shattered in body, mind, and spirit. Likewise I saw the massive destruction levied on Iraq and realized how terrible war really is. That was my epiphany, that is what it took to see how much I had been lied to, and it called me to question everything else that I had so willingly believed, things which had been fed to me by years of indoctrination in church, through the media, and by politicians who I believed were truly Christian. I can understand now how Martin Niemoller felt after the Nazi seizure of power when he said, “I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.”

There was a time that I hated people who espouse the views that I hold today, the views that I write about so often here on this site. I can remember how angry I would get as I listened to the propaganda being put out by Limbaugh, Hannity, the Fox News Channel and all of the others that I listened to every time that I had the chance. But when I changed after Iraq, I felt the sting of that hatred in very real ways. I remember the day I was called by my bishop in my former church, who told me that I had to leave because my views on women, gays, and Moslems were to use his words were now “too liberal.” After that, many men who I considered to be the best of friends turned their backs on me, some in the most bitter and vindictive of ways.

But I realize now that what they did was because I had in a sense left the cult, and had to be ostracized. I can understand that now, because when I was under the spell I too turned my back on people who had fallen out of favor, or people who had rejected the tenants of the church or the political movement, and those are things that I can never undo. But at the time it made sense, it fitted in with all I had been taught for decades, as Albert Speer wrote of Hitler, “One seldom recognizes the devil when he is putting his hand on your shoulder.”

What happened to Steinhoff’s generation is threatening to happen again, in our country, an authoritarian movement is threatening to destroy our democracy and republic. In it soldiers are esteemed, until they realize what is going on and speak out, but by then it is usually too late. I am understanding that fact more and more every day, and having had people troll this blog and call me a traitor and worse, I understand just a bit of what happened to Steinhoff and his fellow officers when they protested to the highest levels what was happening to Germany in early 1945.

We will soon know how military professionals react to being labeled as traitors. President Elect Trump and his followers have been demonizing the personnel of the nation’s intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic communities since before the election. The President Elect lambasts critics of any station on his Twitter feed which results in them receiving death threats from his followers. I expect that when presumptive Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks his mind and tells the truth that we will find out. Personally I expect that when he does that Trump and his most strident supporters will label him as a traitor for doing so. Like a religious cult they have no capacity to tolerate dissent, loyalty to the man will supersede loyalty to the country or the Constitution. When that happens it will be interesting to see the throngs of people in the military and outside of it who make the choice to throw one of the most courageous, selfless, and intellectual soldiers ever produced by our nation under the bus.

Their’s will be a conscious decision. My opinion is that the Constitution and the country will always come first. I want to give the President Elect the benefit of the doubt and do honestly pray that he will do the right thing for the country, but I am concerned because of his past and current behavior that his only loyalty is to himself. General Ludwig Beck, who resigned rather than obey Hitler’s order to invade Czechoslovakia in 1938 and died in the anti-Hitler coup attempt in 1944 said:

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

I have no doubt that General Mattis understands that and will courageously speak his mind, even if he is condemned for doing so. Sadly I have many doubts about other leaders: be they military, political, business, or religious. There are many people who will sell their souls for their personal advancement, the advancement of their agenda, or an increase in their bottom line. It is after all human nature. 

But the question is: will we see true men and women of courage who will stand when it appears there is no chance of success? As Atticus Finch said in To Kill a Mockingbird: “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” 

That will be what is demanded in the coming months and years. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Be Clear in Your Mind: The Lesson of 9-11’s Aftermath

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have been reflecting about the attacks of September 11th 2001 and their aftermath, and today a final post on that subject for now. The great German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote, “No one starts a war-or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so-without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” Sadly, the leaders of nations seldom heed his sage advice.

Nations and peoples who suffer devastating attacks often respond out of deep anger and emotion, and many times. The United States did so after 9-11-2001, and while the initial response to attempt to kill Osama Bin Laden and destroy Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was considered justified by most of the world, what that war, and the subsequent war invasion of Iraq became can be best described as best ill-advised and at worst criminal. After over fourteen years of war, these wars are by no means over, and I have to use the words of T.E. Lawrence to describe the situation, “We have not reached the limit of our military commitments…”

The great Greek Historian Thucydides wrote words which pretty much describe how we got to where we are in this war without end:

“Think, too, of the great part that is played by the unpredictable in war: think of it now, before you are actually committed to war. The longer a war lasts, the more things tend to depend on accidents. Neither you nor we can see into them: we have to abide their outcome in the dark. And when people are entering upon a war they do things the wrong way round. Action comes first, and it is only when they have already suffered that they begin to think.”

Likewise, we, and I don’t just mean the former Bush administration, but many others today who think that war is always the first and best option. We forget the words of Winston Churchill who, despite his many blunders in both World Wars wrote:

“Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events…. Always remember, however sure you are that you could easily win, that there would not be a war if the other man did not think he also had a chance.”

The imperial hubris of our actions following 9-11-2001, most notably the invasion of Iraq have opened the gates of Hell in the Middle East and it will take a lot, and not just military power to contain them. Let’s face it, as much as we don’t like to admit it, General James Mattis was right when he said, “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over. We may think it over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.”

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What is next, I do not know; but if history teaches us anything, people, especially the leaders of nations don’t learn from it. Barbara Tuchman said it so well:

When information is relayed to policy-makers, they respond in terms of what is already inside their heads and consequently make policy less to fit the facts than to fit the notions and intentions formed out of the mental baggage that has accumulated in their minds since childhood.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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