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The Limits Of Obedience: The Lessons Of Ludwig Beck, Claus Von Stauffenberg, and Government Officials In Authoritarian Times

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

While we were in Berlin last year I visited the German Resistance Memorial Center. The museum is located in what was the headquarters of the German Army in World War One, the Weimar Republic, and during the Nazi Era. On July 20th 1944, German Army officers attempted to kill Adolf Hitler, overthrow the Nazi regime, and end the war. Sadly, they failed in their attempt and most of those involved were tried and executed for what their criminal government considered treason.

Of course by the law of their times their act was treasonous, but morally it was all that men and women committed to the rule of law and human rights could do.

One of the conspirators, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was well aware of how their actions would be categorized under current German law. The man who planted a bomb and attempted to assassinate and overthrow Hitler noted:

“I know that he who will act will go down in German history as a traitor; but he who can and does not, will be a traitor to his own conscience.” 

He was correct by the law of the times. All of the officers involved had all sworn a personal oath of obedience to Adolf Hitler as the Führer and Reichskanzler of Germany in 1934. At the time most of the men who swore that oath did not anticipate what would come. Many of the older officers had served in the Imperial Army and sworn an oath to the Kaiser and their dynasties of the lands where they entered service. That changed in 1918 when the Weimar Republic came into existence and military officers as well as civil servants swore an oath to the constitution rather than a person.

A year after Hitler came to power as Reichskanzler, President Hindenburg died. Hitler, seized the opportunity used the occasion to swear the military, as well as the civil service to a new oath. This oath was not to the Constitution, or to Office of thePresidency or Chancellor, but to him personally as the Führer and Reichskanzler.

Most officers and civil servants, even those uncomfortable with Hitler’s policies obeyed their oaths and simply stayed in their lanes and did their jobs, even when they had incontrovertible evidence of Nazi atrocities.

Yet there were others who for a number of reasons, in some cases noble, and in others pragmatic, or even base, decided to break the oath they had sworn to Hitler in 1934. Among these men was General Ludwig Beck. Beck noted:

“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.”

Beck also wrote something that is all to important to any military officer, intelligence and law enforcement officials, as well as diplomats in such times as we live today:

“Final decisions about the nation’s existence are at stake here; history will incriminate these leaders with bloodguilt if they do not act in accordance with their specialist political knowledge and conscience. Their soldierly obedience reaches its limit when their knowledge, their conscience, and their responsibility forbid carrying out an order.” 

With the rise of legally elected authoritarian rulers in Europe and the Americas should concern men and women who have sworn to uphold the constitutions of their countries. These leaders campaigning against democratic institutions, and upon gaining power purge those institutions of opponents and use them to solidify their own power. The veneer of democracy is maintained while the soul of it is crushed. Too often those charged with guarding it are willing participants in its death, soldiers, civil servants, judges, and legislators.

That is what Beck understood. He resigned his office as Chief of Staff of the German Army in 1938 over Hitler’s plan to invade Czechoslovakia, became a member of the anti-Hitler resistance and died in the failed attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20th 1944. He was a career Army officer and a conservative, but he realized that there are limits to obedience in the face of evil.

I fear that there are many men and women in nations whose democratic institutions are being subordinated to authoritarian rulers who will not rise to the occasion and allow those institutions and eventually their nations to perish. Sadly, that also includes those in the United States.

I will leave you with that thought for the evening.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“Safe from What?” A Warning from Sophie Scholl in the Age of Trump for Young People Of Ideals and Integrity

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today was one of those odd days. Evidently, my new BIPAP mask is working well, but my medicines to mitigate my dreams so they are not so violent or active has not yet kicked in. I got into my first deep REM/Overlap Sleep in more than a week. I slept, but the dreams and nightmares wore me out. I couldn’t go to work and had to wait for a contractor in the afternoon.

That being said, I thought that this old article from our visit to Munich last year worked very well considering the most recent actions of President Trump and his British Counterpart Boris Johnson. 

Now I am 59 years old. Many people of my generation and my parents generation elected these madmen. Those who will save us from tyranny have to be young people of ideals, integrity, and who believe in the founding principle of the Declaration of Independence, enhanced by the words of Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, who also believe in the protections of the Constitution. 

So I leave you with this for tonight. Please, read it and share it. 

Thank you,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Our visit to Munich today was relatively quiet. We went to breakfast and then since Judy’s knees were not up to a lot of long walks or standing took our rental car out to see a couple of places that we haven’t been. We went to the grave of the anti-Nazi martyr Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and friend Christoph Probst who were executed in February 1943 for publishing anti-Hitler, Nazi, and war pamphlets. Following that we went to the BMW Museum and BMW World.

I will write about the latter later, but tonight I will write about a visit to the Friedhof at Perlacher Forst in Munich where Sophie Scholl is buried.

The cemetery is adjacent to the Stadelheim Prison where she was held before her trial and executed on February 22nd 1943. I have written about her and the White Rose resistance movement before. Last year I visited the White Rose Museum and study center at the Ludwig Maximillians University of Munich but last year I didn’t get the chance to make a pilgrimage to her gravesite. I made it a priority this year.

We parked on the street outside Stadelheim, which is still an active prison surrounded by tall walls and guard towers. While Judy waited with the car I walked to the cemetery and then to the gravesite which is on the opposite side of the cemetery from the main entrance. It is a very peaceful place, with many trees and the sections cordoned off by carefully trimmed grapevines.

When I reached the gravesite I paused, and remained for about ten minutes contemplating the cost of real resistance to tyranny. She and her companions had no political, military, or economic power. They were students, and a number had served as medics on the Eastern Front before resuming their studies.

Unlike the men who launched Operation Valkyrie 17 months later they had no connections to any kind of power: they were not part of the movement of German conservatives and militarists who initially supported Hitler and then had second thoughts. When Hitler came to power they were children. They resisted because they found what was happening to go beyond any sense of ethics, morality, or in some cases, like Sophie, their Christian faith.

At her trial she told the notorious President of the Nazi People’s Court, Roland Freisler:

Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.

While I was their I tried to imagine her courage as she testified to the truth and went to her death. The woman who shared Sophie’s cell wrote of her final words before going to her execution:

How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?

Many people today are being faced with the same questions that Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and friends, including Christoph Probst who was executed the same day had to make. Thankfully, for the most part the future imitators of Hitler have not yet seized full power in Europe or the United States, but it wouldn’t take much for that to happen. Too many people, and not just conservatives, would be willing to sacrifice freedom in the name of security if a major war, terrorist attack, or natural disaster that threatened their well being and/or their economic or social status occurred.

In such a situation, how many people would allow their government to oppress and terrorize people that they distrusted due to their race, ethnicity, or religion? I think that the numbers are a lot higher than we would want to admit. The preservation or self and wealth is often more of a motivation than faith, or the rights and liberties of others.

During the Nazi era many non-Nazis supported the Nazi programs because they thought that they benefited them. The same is true in any authoritarian State regardless of the ideology that it subscribes and its people hold dear.

Sophie said:

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.

An addendum for tonight,

My question to you, and me is hers. If you think you are “safe,” you are only kidding yourself, no matter what your political or religious belief may be. Men like Trump and Johnson, Orban of Hungary, Erdogan or Turkey, Bolsonaro Of Brazil, Duterte of the Philippines, Putin of Russia, and Trump’s best friend, Kim Jun Un of North Korea have no real friends or allies. Their supporters, even the most loyal, are like those of Hitler and Stalin only are safe until they realize their mistaken trust in their leader.

It’s up to you young people. I’ll fight as long as I can, as will other older veterans and resisters. But the long term fight belongs to you. What way will you choose to burn?

Until tomorrow…

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Resistance is Not Futile: Remembering the Men and Women of the German Resistance and Operation Valkyrie

 The Courtyard at Bendlerstraße Where Von Stauffenberg and others Were Executed

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

July 20th holds many meanings and provides for inspiration for anyone who is human, with the exception of conspiracy theorists and deniers of history. Today we remember the 50th anniversary of the landing of the Landing Module Eagle of Apollo XI on the Moon. The success of the mission can be described as miraculous, a triumph of human achievement in an era of deep division. But twenty-five years to the day before the landing a few imperfect, yet courageous men and women dared to attempt the overthrow of Adolf Hitler and his genocidal Nazi regime.

Stauffenberg with Colonel Mertz von Quirnheim, another key Conspirator who was murdered with Stauffenberg when the Plot Failed 

The participants knew that if they failed they would be labeled as traitors, and they were right. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who planted a bomb at Hitler’s East Prussian Headquarters was quite correct when he noted:

“I know that he who will act will go down in German history as a traitor; but he who can and does not, will be a traitor to his own conscience.” 

Another conspirator, Major General Henning Von Tresckow was even more blunt about their prospects.

“It is almost certain that we will fail. But how will future history judge the German people, if not even a handful of men had the courage to put an end to that criminal?”

The plot failed, Hitler lived. Stauffenberg, Tresckow, many of their immediate associates died. Eventually, thousands of people, many of whom only were guilty of association. The purge and executions of those connected with the plot would continue to Hitler’s death.

In the days we live we are witnessing our President using the same words and terminology to describe anyone who opposes him. He disrespects the Constitution, and the instructions that were designed by our founders to prevent the rise of a tyrant. His words, actions, and policies tend toward both racism and fascism; and they foster violence. The steady rise in White Nationalist and neo-Nazi groups, that the President has not condemned, as well as the number of open White Nationalist and neo-Nazi men running for office at the local and state level as Republicans show that Trump is not a casual anomaly in the GOP. The President, like it or not, has become the voice of White Nationalism, and the far right. Republican moderates for the most part have acquiesced to the new order. Even long time supporters like former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, hardly a man considered liberal, were ruthlessly jettisoned by the President.

There are times that resistance seems almost hopeless. I was talking with one of my friends who is very discouraged about the situation. He is an idealist. I spent much of the evening trying to buck him up.

British Historian Laurence Rees wrote:

“human behavior is fragile and unpredictable and often at the mercy of the situation. Every individual still, of course, has a choice as to how to behave, it’s just that for many people the situation is the key determinate in that choice.” 

We have to put an end to the Trump regime at the ballot box, or should Congress fulfill its Constitutional duties and begin impeachment hearings, regardless of whether a conviction is attained, he and his supporters have made statements that he may not give up power without a physical fight, that of course would bring about a Constitutional crisis and maybe civil war.

His former attorney, Michael Cohen has said exactly that. Trump is destroying the hard work of Americans and our allies to build a better would, and in almost every country, Trump is destroying the image and moral leadership of the United States. Patriotism requires that those committed to the ideals, institutions, and the laws of the country must resist when those are threatened, from inside or outside the country, and if they resist an elected President who shows no regard for those ideals, institutions, and laws, they will be labeled traitors.  Tresckow said in his time:

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

Henning von Tresckow 

Those are import words, but just substitute the name Trump for Hitler. Tresckow was no socialist or liberal, but he believed in freedom. In fact he wrote regarding the Prussian political tradition and how it could be subverted to support evil:

“The idea of freedom can never be disassociated from real Prussia. The real Prussian spirit means a synthesis between restraint and freedom, between voluntary subordination and conscientious leadership, between pride in oneself and consideration for others, between rigor and compassion. Unless a balance is kept between these qualities, the Prussian spirit is in danger of degenerating into soulless routine and narrow-minded dogmatism.”

Truthfully that is a spirit much like the United States that which is engulfing the United States today, soulless routine and narrow minded dogmatism. The tension that exists in the key ideal of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, and the words of Trump and his supporters men who desire to rule by fiat and by extra-Constitutional means, cannot be more marked than it is today.

In the movie adaptation of the plot to kill Hitler Valkyrie: Tresckow is quoted:

“God promised Abraham that he would not destroy Sodom if he could find ten righteous men… I have a feeling that for Germany it may come down to one.”

To be sure, Trump is no Hitler, though his words sound more and more Hitlerian every day. I will not call the President a Nazi, though he has give tacit support to Neo-Nazi and White Supremacist groups and frequently engages in racist diatribes. He is certainly acting as any authoritarian leader would, and we have to heed the warning of Russian dissident Gary Kasparov:

“dictators & would be autocrats do not ask “Why?” when it comes to using power for their advantage. They ask “why not?”

To go back to the words of Tresckow in Valkyrie, in noting it may come down to the actions of one man or woman, my friends, that “one” may come down to you or me. We cannot sit silently by as more and more actions that would have been considered as criminal in any other era of United States are perpetrated by the President and his followers.

It was not until the late 1960s that most Germans considered the men who attempted to kill Hitler heroes and not traitors. Those who criticize, and work through legal and constitutional means to oppose Trump are already being labeled by him, his supporters, and the right wing media machine based at Fox News as enemies of the state, traitors, and mislabeled as Socialists and Communists; an old tactic of the American Right since the Russian Revolution. The truth doesn’t matter, it’s simply a way to stake rage against fellow citizens.

At this time we still have recourse to the law, elections, and our institutions. How long that remains is another matter. Once Hitler took absolute power, most Germans found ways to make their peace with his regime and turn a blind eye even to its crimes.

I don’t know if Trump will ever attain such absolute power, but it is possible. In which case the equation will change. If that happens risk of risk of resistance will be so high that many will go silent and just try to get along. Even without that kind of threat most Republicans have already done that.

Sophie Scholl and Members of the White Rose in Munich Near the Ost Bahnhof in 1942

That is the real danger, when people who know better acquiesce for their own safety. Sophie Scholl, a 22 year old student at the University of Munich was part of a resistance movement called The White Rose. She and her friends, students and professors embarked on writing pamphlets to distribute throughout Germany to tell the truth about the evils of the Nazi regime. She wrote about this danger:

“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.”

I have more to write on this but will close for the night.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Uncomfortable Legacy of Colonel General Ludwig Beck

“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.” Ludwig Beck

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-C13564,_Ludwig_BeckLudwig Beck  Bundesarchiv Foto

This is one of those uncomfortable posts to write partially because I know that some people will take it completely wrong or ascribe meaning to it that I do not intend. I by training am a military historian, probably better at that than I am theology.  One thing that fascinates me in the study of military history is the actions of men in the face of evil and the meetings of such people at the intersections of where military and government policy intersect.  It is a timeless theme. The bulk of my study until the past few years was the German Army, particularly that of the Weimar Republic and the Wehrmacht to include policies, leaders, political attitudes and behavior in war and peace. Thus it makes sense for me to look at Colonel General Ludwig Beck who held the post of Chief of the German General Staff during the early part of the Nazi era.

Ludwig Beck is one of those characters in military history that makes professional military officers uncomfortable.  Beck is not the perfect example of righteousness nor was he always correct in things that he supported.  As an artillery regiment commander he defended the rights of soldiers and officers to be Nazi Party members though he himself was not one.  He, like many military officers was a conservative military officer by nature and became Chief of Staff of the Wehrmacht in 1935 two years after Hitler’s ascension to power.  Taking office Beck was troubled by some Nazi policies but not by the need for Germany to expand to areas that it had once controlled, he opposed the plan to attack Czechoslovakia not because of any love for the Czech state which he desired to be eliminated, but rather it being a war that Germany could not win. He resigned from his position a Chief of Staff in 1938 when he could not persuade the rest of the General Staff to resign in protest over Hitler’s plan which he felt would be disastrous for Germany.  Had the western powers led by Neville Chamberlain not caved at Munich it is likely that the Germans would have suffered badly against the Czech army and fortifications and with the entry of France into the war would have suffered a defeat that would have ended the Hitler regime.  In fact German officers who saw the extent of Czech preparations on the frontier following the Munich deal were greatly relieved that they did not have to fight their way into the Czech state.

After his resignation Beck played a key role in the resistance movement. He was involved in the planning for a number of attempts on Hitler’s life. Yet it was his leadership in the July 20th 1944 attempt on the life of Hitler that ensured his place in history.  With Colonel Klaus Von Stauffenberg and others in the General Staff at the Front and in Germany he acted to avert further destruction in Europe and the certain destruction of Germany.  The plot, Operation Valkyrie was marred by poor execution and failed to kill Hitler of seize power but for a few hours. The planners had left too much to chance and once Hitler had restored communications the coup attempted ended swiftly.  Had the attempt succeeded Beck was in line to become either the leader of Germany or the Head of the Army.  Instead while being interrogated after his capture he took his own life depriving Nazi leaders of the ability to put him up for a public trial at which he would have been humiliated and then executed.  The Kasserne in Sonthofen where the Bundeswehr MP School and Staff School as well as NATO and EU military schools are located is named for him.  It is there, ironically a former Adolf Hitler School that his memory and sacrifice is honored by the nation which emerged from the rubble of World War Two.  He is honored in a small museum and with a plaque recognizing his sacrifice.

492Ludwig Beck Kasserne Sonthofen

The reason that General Beck makes many of us in uniform uncomfortable (and I do include myself) is that he recognized that senior officers, especially those in high command who help set and execute policy cannot isolate themselves in the purely military aspects of the operations.  Instead he believed that officers have a higher duty to the constitution and people and not just the military mission that they have been assigned.  When he realized that he could not stop Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia he resigned and worked in the obscurity of a small and often divided resistance movement against Hitler.  The bulk of the German high command, including many officers idolized in the United States did not recognize the higher duty. Many of these men were consummate professionals who did not support the evil of the Nazi regime and who conducted themselves honorably. Yet they effectively abetted its crimes by not opposing actions of their government that were against international law and morality as well as dangerous from purely a pragmatic military standpoint.

The problem is that military officers in any nation, including ours can face situations such as Beck faced.  A military’s character is demonstrated in how leaders deal with such situations.  Beck recognized the situation early, the bulk of his fellow officers did not recognize a problem until Germany was embroiled in a war that it could no longer win.  Even then most could not mount an opposition to Hitler because they did not want to be considered to be mutineers and violate their oath.  The potential to abet evil when military professionals bury their heads by planning and executing purely military aspects of a campaign is great.  If they ignore questionable policy or even policies that they know that have been judged by the international community to be illegal or immoral, such as torture of prisoners or waging wars of aggression against countries that have not attacked their nation they become complicit in their nations crimes.  This was the case with German Officers who may not have committed any personal crime and even tried to mitigate the evils of the Nazi regime were morally complicit in that evil.

In the United States the military shows its fidelity by remembering our oath to the Constitution and being faithful to it and the people that we serve.  As officers we represent all Americans and not just those of our political party, religious faith or social or economic interests, nor any political leader, faction or interest group within the nation. The Constitution, our military regulations, traditions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice are the standard by which we operate and by which we conduct ourselves and tools that protect us when policies or actions taken by the government or people within it violate those codes or international law.  The UCMJ makes it clear those officers who take part in, plan or a complicit in illegal actions in war are committing crimes.

When a nation become involved in wars which are non-traditional, revolutionary wars or insurgencies that barriers to professional conduct can be broken down. The Mai Lai massacre committed by 2LT William Calley’s platoon with the certain knowledge and maybe even approval of individuals in the chain of command is one example as were the uncontrolled chaos of prisoner abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib.

Times are difficult and we do not know what the future brings.  Stress in societies caused by economic conditions, natural disasters, lawlessness on the streets and divided and ineffective governments sometimes remove the moral restraints of the society and even affect the military.  One sees this in Weimar Germany as well as the 4th Republic in France which had to deal with post World War II economic difficulties, exacerbated by recriminations of political opponents for actions the others did during the war while France was occupied by Germany as well as the wars in Indo-China and Algeria which further divided the nation and the military.

It is in stressful and uncertain times that officers have to be men and women of principle who always uphold the highest traditions of their military as well as be the voice of conscience when governments, political parties, special interests or leaders begin to violate international norms in the conduct of war. Beck was not a perfect officer. He supported some of Hitler’s policies until after his resignation but like much of the resistance believed that the Nazi regime could only end up destroying Germany.  It is important to remember that like Ludwig Beck that officers do not need to sacrifice their honor to be faithful to their oath.

Peace, Steve+

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