Tag Archives: Hadamar

Charité at War and the Nazi Doctors

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

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

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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

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Life Unworthy Of Life: The Rational of the Trump Budget

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In a previous era a government through its laws, decrees, and policies deemed certain people to be “life unworthy of life.” That government was the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler. The life that was unworthy of life included the physically and mentally handicapped or disabled, those with Downs Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Polio, and people with other neurological conditions. Likewise the mentally ill, those suffering clinical depression, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses were considered to be life unworthy of life. Even the deaf were included, and veterans suffering from what we would now call PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury. Also included were people labeled as “asocial” a very loose definition that could include almost any metal disorder or criminal act.

Tens of thousands were liquidated at the T-4 Euthanasia centers, most located in hospitals or sanitariums. Mostly gassed with carbon monoxide gas from the exhaust of trucks or Diesel engines, their remains were cremated. Others, especially children were either starved to death or given a lethal injection while they slept. The next of kin of each victim was sent a standard form letter telling them that their relative had died of influenza, typhus, or some other disease. They were given the option of paying for an urn that may or may not have contained the ashes of their loved ones for inurnment near their home town. If they could not afford it the ashes were disposed of in the cemetery where they were killed.

Despite the Nazis attempts to disguise their crime they could not be hidden, and after over 70,000 Germans were Euthanized the official T-4 Euthanasia program was ended in German. The gas chambers and cremation ovens and facilities were disassembled and sent east to Poland, where they and their experienced technicians became key components of the Holocaust of the Jews.

But the Euthanasia program didn’t stop, it simply moved eastward as the SS Einsatzgruppen killed the patients at every mental hospital, sanitarium, old folks home, or orphanage they came across. Inside Germany at the four T4 centers over 80,000 were gassed. At Hartheim in Austria a Party was held on the gassing of the 10,000th victim. Richard Evans wrote:

“At Hartheim the staff held a party to celebrate their ten-thousandth cremation, assembling in the crematorium around the naked body of a recently gassed victim, which was laid out on a stretcher and covered with flowers. One staff member dressed as a clergyman and performed a short ceremony, then beer was distributed to all present. Eventually no fewer than 20,000 were gassed at Hartheim, the same at Sonnenstein, 20,000 at Brandenburg and Bernburg, and another 20,000 at Grafeneck and Hadamar, making a total of 80,000 altogether.”

The tolls in Poland, the Baltic States, and the Soviet Union were much higher, but outside of the T4 program which “officially” ended in 1941.

Now in the United States the laws guaranteeing health care to people are being challenged, the Secretary of Education has removed funding from the Department’s funding request for the Special Olympics, programs for the physically and mentally disabled under the SSI are being cut to the bone, and even care for disabled veterans is being threatened as not being economical because none of them are economically valuable to an administration for which profit is the bottom line, and supposedly pro-life Christians have no problems in cutting such programs because many have bought into the materialistic Prosperity Gospel, whose fawning preachers have anointed President Trump if he were King Cyrus. Criticism of the President cannot be tolerated, and the sick, weak, weak, infirm, or mentally ill, who are not productive have no place in society. Inside the womb they are a political issue, outside the womb they might as well be dead if you listen to Trump’s clique of Reichsbishofs those who cannot produce for the economy should not eat, get medical care, or live. They are life unworthy of life.

You see, in the authoritarian world where an uninhibited and unhinged executive backed by profit minded billionaires, and equally greedy preachers, such lives; the old and infirm, the disabled, the mentally ill, the young but physically disabled, those with neurological issues, and birth defects stand in the way of profit, stand in the way of a “perfect” society. Such people may not advocate euthanasia per say, gas chambers, or firing squads, but starving them, depriving them of medical care, turning them out of care facilities knowing that their families lack the capability of caring for them, and if they have any capacity for work, work them until they die, so long as they Confess Christ before they die.

How do we know that life does not matter to them? One way is to note the many times that pharmaceutical corporations have increased the costs of previously inexpensive yet vital life saving medicines by thousands of dollars a dose all for profit with little to no pushback from the White House, or the FDA, much less the Senate GOP majority, or the Evangelical supporters of Trump.

Please understand, this dystopian future need not happen if people of any faith, or no faith at all make a stand against a twisted idea of dictatorship backed up by billionaires and corporate entities that suck billions of dollars from the taxpayer and pay almost nothing themselves. Of course they couldn’t do it on their own in not supported by a de facto State Media, and a cult like legion of followers who would follow Trump even if he shot someone on 5th Avenue. His words, not mine.

As I turn 59 today, this does bother me enough to speak out. As a senior military officer facing the end of his career and retirement amid multiple physical and emotional issues, it does matter. I keep two things in mind today. First is that of my own responsibility. In that I am reminded of the words of German General Ludwig Beck who wrote:

“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.”

And his compatriot, Major General Henning Von Tresckow stated: “We have to show the world that not all of us are like him. Otherwise, this will always be Hitler’s Germany.”

Historian Timothy Snyder reminds of a certain truth, which should we forget, as I imagine a large number of Trump supporters have:

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

Those all are hard truths to comprehend. As Americans we always presume that we are the good guys, when in fact many times we have acted in means contrary to the ideals of the Declaration as well as the Constitution, and other laws enacted by Congress. But our republic and its institutions are both resilient and fragile. History has proven this, we have even survived a civil war, but we may not survive an increasingly vindictive and unstable President, his compliant majority in the Senate, and the 35-40% of voters who are in effect no longer Republicans, but the Trump Cult which is largely buttressed by Conservative Evangelical Churches, and inspired by a President who uses force, legal, and extralegal alike to secure his rule.

We live in extraordinary times which call for extraordinary strength if our Republic is to continue in any form that resembles the intentions of the founders and their liberal enlightenment beliefs.

If we do not want to see the return of a full fledged government and industrial sponsored campaign to eradicate life unworthy of life, we have to fight. It is a fight that we did not chose, but if the Republic is to survive without becoming a criminal dictatorship we must speak up.

As Yehuda Bauer said: “Thou shall not be a perpetrator, thou shall not be a victim, and thou shall never, but never, be a bystander.”

The choice is ours.

Until tomorrow, or maybe later tonight,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Founding Of Dachau, the Model Concentration Camp

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

Theodore Eiche

Theodore Eicke

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never forget.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Reflecting on Life and Those deemed Unworthy of Life: A Visit to the Hadamar T4 Euthanasia Center


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In a couple of weeks my wife Judy and I will be traveling to Germany for a time of relaxation, study, and visits with German friends. I will be writing about those events as they occur. But as we get closer to going I began to reflect on our visit to Germany last year. At the end of that visit while visiting our friends Gottfried and Hannelore I took a trip with Gottfried to the T4 Euthanasia Center memorial at Hadamar which is about 12 miles from where they live.

Hadamar had been a mental hospital for decades before it was chosen as one of six places where an euthanasia program ordered by Hitler was to be conducted. Hitler ordered the program on September 1st 1939, the same day his forces invaded Poland.

Between 1941 and 1945 over 15,000 people, deemed to be “life unworthy of life” were murdered at Hadamar. The victims were killed in a bus garage where they were killed with carbon monoxide gas, the gas chamber, or by lethal injection or intentional overdoses of barbiturates while laying in bed at night. The gas chambers at Hadamar ceased operations at the end of 1941 and were removed, making the killings in the next stages “up close and personal” killings done by medical professionals. The specialists that operated them were transferred to run the death camps in German occupied Poland.


Those killed at Hadamar included men, women, and children deemed to have diseases, handicaps, or mental illnesses that kept them from being a useful part of the German economy, or a drain on society. Likewise, there were many people brought to Hadamar to be sterilized so they could never reproduce. The orders for this action came from Hitler himself and were based on what were in the early 20th Century very popular expressions of Social Darwinism which were not isolated to Germany. Sadly, there were those who expressed the same thoughts and conducted medical experiments and sterilization short of euthanasia in many Western countries, including the United States.

The victims included the handicapped, the mentally ill, those born with Down’s Syndrome or other neurological diseases, Jews, people with long term illnesses, children, people determined to be asocial, and during the war soldiers, including those of the Waffen SS who were determined to have mental illness, including what we would now call PTSD which made them unfit for active service.

The relatives of those killed received notification from the authorities that their son, daughter, sister, or brother had died of natural causes, certified by the doctors who had decided that they should die. Unlike the extermination camps in the East, or the concentration camps, the killing in Hadamar and the other T4 centers was conducted by medical personnel. Most of the up close and personal killing using lethal injection or barbiturates were conducted by nurses under the direction of physicians. When the first phase, that which used carbon monoxide gas in the bus garage was ended, many of the personnel involved were transferred to help run the extermination camps including Treblinka, Soribor, and Auschwitz in the east. Their service at Hadamar was little more than a training ground for their future employment.

I will write more about the T4 Program and Hadamar at another time. That being said I have to admit that the visit was chilling. In addition to being a memorial, with historical classes, seminars, and tours being offered, the campus is used for many other activities, including medical and educational programs. Likewise, unlike places like Dachau, which are not particularly scenic locations, Hadamar, located in rural Hessen is a place that one could never imagine mass murder ever have taken place. It is a beautiful and peaceful location, so the crimes that happened there, although numerically small compared to other camps are unimaginable.

Afterwards Gottfried and I talked and went back to his house. I went on a walk to the town hall, or the Rathaus to see the towns memorial to the Jews who lived there before the war and then I took a walk in the surrounding area and went back to the Jewish cemetery which I had visited last night as the grave stones could not be read in the dark. Those which were still legible were written in Hebrew and or German and most dated to the 1800s and early 1900s. As I mentioned last night the Jews who remained in Loehnberg were forced to sell their houses and belongings and were sent to the extermination centers. At least one survived and she helped dedicate the memorial at the Rathaus in 1991. One thing that I do like about Germany is that the majority of the people now have the opinion that the crimes of their parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents generations need to be remembered, and the victims, and not the perpetrators be honored. I wish it was that way in the United States where we honor too many of the men who brought genocide to the Native American tribes, or enslaved African Americans and considered both the be less than human.

As I walked through the forests and meadows surrounding Loehnberg after my visit to Hadamar, as well as my visits to Dachau, the White Rose Memorial and museum at the University of Munich, and the National Socialist Documentation Center in Munich I did a lot of thinking. I wondered about people who could excuse such terrible crimes in the name of love of country, or even worse because they really believed that God thought that their country and race mattered more than others. I began to think about Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism in the light of what happened in Germany, a people who believed for close to 80 years that God intended them to dominate Europe and even the world. Many of theological writings of the times in Germany and the United States.

Honestly, I think that there are a lot of people in the United States who call themselves “Pro Life” because they are anti-abortion or against birth control that would have no problem with the methods of the Nazis at Hadamar so long as those methods either brought them a profit, political power, or were used against people that they thought were less than human. Since lot of these people, mostly self-identified Evangelical and Catholic Christians frequently are in lockstep with President Trump, and cheer him on as he identifies those that he believes to be less than human or unworthy of existence in the United States, I have no doubt that they would either approve and justify such actions or turn their backs on the victims.

When I ponder than it sends a cold chill down my spine, because they are our neighbors, co-workers, and we rub shoulders with them every day.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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From Ordinary Men to Willing Executioners: Holocaust Remembrance 2018

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mass killing einsatzgruppen

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

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

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

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

Most of the men who coordinated the massive effort to exterminate the Jews of Europe following the Wansee Conference of January 20th 1942 approached their jobs dispassionately. This was a common attitude among the civil service, military and police officials that oversaw the Holocaust. They simply did their jobs and followed the law, and for most of them, their victims meant nothing.

ChildrenBirkenau

Hungarian Jews being sent to Extermination Camps

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

Hannah Arendt wrote of Eichmann:

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

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

dachaumorgue1945

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

Survivors of Auschwitz

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

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

It is important that we do not forget the Holocaust. It is also important to recognize that the instruments of that horror were on the whole “ordinary” men who as they saw it were simply doing their job. It is something that everyone needs to remember. Bettina Stangneth wrote “Systematic mass murder is not just the sum of isolated instances of sadism but the result of a political thinking that is perverted from the ground up.”

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll write more on this tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Life Unworthy of Life: a Visit to the T4 Euthanasia Center in Hadamar


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday was our last full day with our friends in Hessen before driving to Munich tomorrow so we can fly home on Thursday. It was a good day.

In the morning I went with our friend Gottfried to the T4 Euthanasia Center memorial at Hadamar which is about 12 miles from where he lives.

Hadamar had been a mental hospital for decades before it was chosen as one of six places where an euthanasia program ordered by Hitler was to be conducted.

Between 1941 and 1945 over 15,000 people, deemed to be “life unworthy of life” were murdered, either in a bus garage where they were killed with carbon monoxide gas, the gas chamber, or by lethal injection or intentional overdoses of barbiturates while laying in bed at night. The gas chambers at Hadamar ceased operations at the end of 1941 and were removed, making the killings in the next stages “up close and personal” killings done by medical professionals.


Those killed included men, women, and children deemed to have diseases, handicaps, or mental illnesses that kept them from being a useful part of the German economy, or a drain on society. Likewise, there were many people brought to Hadamar to be sterilized so they could never reproduce. The orders for this action came from Hitler himself and were based on what were in the early 20th Century very popular expressions of Social Darwinism which were not isolated to Germany. Sadly, there were those who expressed the same thoughts and conducted medical experiments and sterilization short of euthanasia in many Western countries, including the United States.

The victims included the handicapped, the mentally ill, those born with Down’s Syndrome or other neurological diseases, Jews, people with long term illnesses, children, people determined to be asocial, and during the war soldiers, including those of the Waffen SS who were determined to have mental illness, including what we would now call PTSD which made them unfit for active service.

The relatives of those killed received notification from the authorities that their son, daughter, sister, or brother had died of natural causes, certified by the doctors who had decided that they should die. Unlike the extermination camps in the East, or the concentration camps, the killing in Hadamar and the other T4 centers was conducted by medical personnel. Most of the up close and personal killing using lethal injection or barbiturates were conducted by nurses under the direction of physicians. When the first phase, that which used carbon monoxide gas in the bus garage was ended, many of the personnel involved were transferred to help run the extermination camps including Treblinka, Soribor, and Auschwitz in the east. Their service at Hadamar was little more than a training ground for their future employment.

I will write more about the T4 Program and Hadamar at another time. That being said I have to admit that the visit was chilling. In addition to being a memorial, with historical classes, seminars, and tours being offered, the campus is used for many other activities, including medical and educational programs. Likewise, unlike places like Dachau, which are not particularly scenic locations, Hadamar, located in rural Hessen is a place that one could never imagine mass murder ever have taken place. It is a beautiful and peaceful location, so the crimes that happened there, although numerically small compared to other camps are unimaginable.

Afterwards Gottfried and I talked and went back to his house. I went on a walk to the town hall, or the Rathaus to see the towns memorial to the Jews who lived there before the war and then I took a walk in the surrounding area and went back to the Jewish cemetery which I had visited last night as the grave stones could not be read in the dark. Those which were still legible were written in Hebrew and or German and most dated to the 1800s and early 1900s. As I mentioned last night the Jews who remained in Loehnberg were forced to sell their houses and belongings and were sent to the extermination centers. At least one survived and she helped dedicate the memorial at the Rathaus in 1991. One thing that I do like about Germany is that the majority of the people now have the opinion that the crimes of their parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents generations need to be remembered, and the victims, and not the perpetrators be honored. I wish it was that way in the United States where we honor too many of the men who brought genocide to the Native American tribes, or enslaved African Americans and considered both the be less than human.

As I walked through the forests and meadows surrounding Loehnberg after my visit to Hadamar yesterday, as well as Dachau, the White Rose Memorial and museum in Munich, and the National Socialist Documentation Center in Munich I did a lot of thinking. I wondered about people who could excuse such terrible crimes in the name of love of country, or even worse because they really believed that God thought that their country and race mattered more than others. I began to think about Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism in the light of what happened in Germany, a people who believed for close to 80 years that God intended them to dominate Europe and even the world. Many of theological writings of the times in Germany and the United States.

But anyway, tomorrow we fly home.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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