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Benjamin Ferencz and the Pursuit Of International Justice: “A true patriot will support his country when it is right but will have the courage to speak out when it’s wrong and try to set it right.”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last night I watched the biographical documentary of Benjamin Ferencz, who at the age of 27 served as the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg Einsatzgruppen Trials In 1947, on Netflix. The title is Prosecuting Evil: the Extraordinary World Of Ben Ferencz. It is well worth the time to watch. Ferencz is now 98 years old and has been a driving force in the prosecution of war crimes. Probably more than any other American took to heart the message of Justice Robert Jackson:

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

Ferencz, took, and still takes that seriously. He fought long and hard for the establishment of the International Criminal Court and delivered the closing argument in its first prosecution of a war criminal, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, for his use of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic Of the Congo, the Trial ended in 2006, with Dyilo’s conviction.

Ferencz was brought into the Nuremberg process because of his experience investigating Concentration Camps during and shortly after the war while still in the Army, by Colonel, Later General Telford Taylor, who was appointed to direct the 12 trials that followed the trial of the Major War Criminals. Ferencz discovered the evidence of the crimes of the Einsatzgruppen while doing investigations for Taylor, and he volunteered to take the lead in prosecuting the highest ranking of those killers. Taylor said:

“The laws of war do not apply only to the suspected criminals of vanquished nations. There is no moral or legal basis for immunizing victorious nations from scrutiny. The laws of war are not a one-way street.

Ferencz understood that, and ever since Nuremberg has been a consistent force in the conscience of the nation and international law. I had read about him many times, as well as the Einsatzgruppen Trials. As I watched the documentary about him, which included many interviews with him, I was amazed by how much he was like my history professor at California State University, Northridge, Dr. Helmut Haeussler in the pursuit of truth and justice, who served as an interpreter at Nuremberg and introduced me to victims of the Holocaust, people who survived Auschwitz.

Since that time, as a historian I have been devoted to telling the truth about the Holocaust and bearing witness, even as I confront Holocaust deniers, anti-semites, and Neo-Nazis.

Ferencz made history, and by his continued witness, and at the age of 98 still makes history and inspires men like me to want to make a difference after I retire from the Navy by bearing witness when all of the survivors are gone. Benjamin Ferencz never retired in his quest for justice. He noted:

“Nuremberg taught me that creating a world of tolerance and compassion would be a long and arduous task. And I also learned that if we did not devote ourselves to developing effective world law, the same cruel mentality that made the Holocaust possible might one day destroy the entire human race.”

I agree with him and no matter how long I live I will travel, research, write, and testify on behalf of the victims of the Holocaust and other genocides so that they won’t happen again.

Ferencz spoke out against the Invasion of Iraq in 2003, about American War Crimes in Vietnam, and in what we call The War on Terror. To be sure he labels those who attacked us in 2001 as War Criminals based on the Nuremberg statutes, but he has also been critical of the United States.

Ferencz said: “A true patriot will support his country when it is right but will have the courage to speak out when it’s wrong and try to set it right.”

I want to devote the remaining part of my life to making sure that the truth is told and such events of mass murder never happen again. I will do my best to live according to his ethos, as well as that of Robert Jackson,

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, holocaust, laws and legislation, Military, national security, nazi germany, war crimes, War on Terrorism

“So It Goes” Reading, Writing, and MRI Results

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: ““I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in.”

I kind of do that, except ever since I hurt my knees, instead of my pocket I carry them in a replica German WWII medical aid bag. It was either do that or get a Murse, had to hold a bunch of stuff in one hand when walking with a crutch because of bad knees. I got the MRI results back on my right knee today. I had the MRI done late last Monday night. It took almost nine months since I hurt it to get the MRI. Instead I received a round of physical therapy, followed by referral to Sports Medicine for various forms of injection therapy. Cortisone shots, Platelet Rich Plasma, and Gel injections, before the Sports Medicine Doctor said that all my treatments were basically for arthritis and had failed, admitting that something else was going on. “So it goes.”

Since last August I told every doctor that examined me that I knew that I had arthritis in the knee but it had never interfered with my life until I had my fall down the stairs last August. I knee then that I had injured it. The MRI showed much more damage than the arthritis, which was bad, basically forming bone spurs in a knee that had no cartilage left, with other damage. The surgeon who ordered it was the one who did my arthroscopic surgery on my left knee. He explained that about the only surgical option was knee replacement. I kind of figured that months ago. “So it goes.”

So Monday I go back to my aquatic physical therapy and I am doing to start going the local recreation center which has an indoor heated pool with a track in it in order to strengthen myself before any surgery. I see the bone and joint surgeon after physical therapy Monday morning. Hopefully I will get the surgery scheduled to replace the knee. “So it goes.”

But all that is a lead up to my May Reading Rainbow.

Like Robert Louis Stevenson I always carry at least one book to read, and one to write in. The only thing the one I write in is my iPad. I kind of have to, I can barely read my own writing so this is the better option. But as far as my reading has gone I have been reading up a storm over the past month, and am continuing to do more. Over the past couple of months I have read Justice Michael Musmanno’s The Eichmann Kommandos which was about the Einsatzgruppen Trials; John Meacham’s The Soul Of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels; Doris Kearns Godwin’s Leadership In Turbulent Times; Anthony Beevor’s The Battle Of Arnhem: The Deadliest Airborne Operation Of World War II; My Old Professor Helmut Haeussler’s book General Wilhelm Groener and the Imperial German Army; Terrance Petty’s Enemy of the People: The Untold Story Of the Journalists who Opposed Hitler; and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. “So it goes.”

I also re-read Raul Hilberg’s Perpetraters, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945, and Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. I am currently reading Christopher Browning’s Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave Labor Camp, and Joshua Greene’s Justice at Dachau: The Trials Of an American Prosecutor.

I keep books in my aid bag to read during the waiting times at doctors appointments, waiting in military pharmacies and anywhere else I can find a moment to read, and of course the iPad is there for when the muse strikes. Samuel Johnson noted:

“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve

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Roughing it Out While Reading

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today was nothing but a series of medical appointments, physical therapy and surgery follow-ups followed by going to Gordon Biersch and watching Athletico Madrid defeat Juventus in the first stage of the Champions League Round Of 16.

As far as the medical surgery follow up appointments went I’m not doing too badly. The surgeon who did the arthroscopic surgery as well as the physical therapists were happy with how the left knee is doing. Evidently all the pain, popping, and swelling are normal, but I was able to get my knee to flex to 103 degrees, which according to the Dr. and Physical Therapist is very good for this stage of recovery. However, the Platelet Rich Plasma treatment wasn’t so effective so the surgeon has begun a course of three treatments of injecting gel into my knee. This is supposed to work as a lubricant and shock absorber where the meniscus and other cartilage has degenerated. Today was the first treatment. I hope it works because the next step is knee replacement surgery.

But anyway, I have continued to do a lot of reading, so far this month I have read Max Hastings “Bomber Command,” Madeline Albright’s “Fascism: A Warning,” Mark Perry’s “Grant and Twain: A Friendship that Changed America,” and Humphrey Cobb’s World War I anti-War novel “Paths Of Glory” which later became a film produced and directed by Stanley Kramer by the same name starring Kirk Douglas in one of his first major roles.

As of now I am reading four books, a couple that I am almost already finished reading. I am almost done with Charles Lockwood’s “Tragedy at Honda” which is about the greatest peacetime disaster in the history of the U.S. Navy, Colin Woodard’s “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America; Tom Segev’s “Soldiers Of Evil: The Commandants Of the Nazi Concentration Camps,” and the book of my primary undergraduate-professor, Dr. Helmut Haeussler, “General Wilhelm Groener and the Imperial German Army.”

I won’t go into detail tonight on any of them, I will toward the end of the month.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Civilization is Tissue Thin: The Uncomfortable Necessity of Understanding Evil

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

I think one of our problems is that we want to believe that evil is simply done be evil people. That is why when we see a Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or the monsters of the so-called Islamic State, we are often strangely comforted. This is often  because we can point to a single person with a wicked ideology and say “they are evil,” all the while forgetting that they are, or were, like us, also human. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminds us of the folly of that type of thinking:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

A few years ago I took a break from my Gettysburg studies and writing and dusted off an old academic paper dealing with the one of the more uncomfortable aspects of the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews. I did that because I felt that I needed to reexamine the nature of evil in the modern world. Since that time I have gone back, done more study, more writing, and made more visits to locations of Nazi evil. I will be doing more of that in the next few weeks as we go back to Germany for an eighteen day visit.

When I ponder the evil committed by supposedly civilized men and women of Germany, I realize that they are little different than others who share the culture of the West. These people were the products of a culture of learning, and of science. They were part of a culture formed by the Christian tradition, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, the age of Reason. As I pondered this I came to remember something said by the late Iris Chang, “civilization is tissue thin.”

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Lynching in the American South

That series of articles about the Einsatzgruppen dealt with the ordinary men, and the bureaucratic systems that implemented an ideology so twisted and evil that it is unimaginable to most people. In fact even in the Nazi system the majority of the genocide was not committed in the death camps, but up close and personal by men standing over pits with pistols, rifles, and machine guns.

While most people in the United States know a little about the Holocaust, most do not fully comprehend how devilish and insidious the crimes of the Nazis were. More frightening is the fact that in a 2015 survey 46% of people worldwide have never heard of the Holocaust, and of the 54% who are aware of it some 32% think it is a myth or has been greatly exaggerated. The numbers will only get worse as we become farther removed from these events and the survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators die off. The same is true for other genocidal acts.

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

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

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Einsatzgruppen and Ordungspolizei in Russia

Since then I have continued to read and study. I lived in Germany for over four years, and made many other visits, during which I went to a number of Concentration Camp sites. I visited the rebuilt synagogue in Worms which had been destroyed during the infamous Kristallnacht, and other museums and Holocaust memorial sites in Germany. I visited the Zeppelin field, the site of Hitler’s massive Nazi Party rallies in Nuremburg, as well as the graveyards which contain the victims of other Nazi crimes, including the Nacht und Nebel or night and fog actions, where people simply disappeared and were murdered by the Gestapo.

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

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

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Nankingnanking_massacre_1

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

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

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Soviet Mass Killings in Ukraine

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

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The Killing Fields

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

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

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

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

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The Islamic State

There are many other such events that we could note; the American decimation and genocide committed against native American tribes that spanned close to two centuries, the 1915 Turkish genocide of Armenians, the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the Serbian atrocities in Bosnia and Kosovo, the Chinese Communist “Great Leap Forward,” the actions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the more recent but seldom discussed action of the Myanmar government and military against its Rohingya Muslim minority.

                        Rwandan Genocide 

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

It is even more important now with the rise of fascist, nationalist, and racist regimes around the world. Even in the United States these demons of the past, racism, nationalism, and fascism have come out into the open as those who believe in them have become emboldened by the words of President Trump and members of his administration.

In fact in trying to clean up his inaction after the violence committed by neo-Nazis and KKK sympathizers in Charlottesville the President first equated the Nazis and Klansmen with the people that they attacked and under pressure made a speech condemning the Nazis and Klansmen. According to Bob Woodward, when a Fox News correspondent said that was an admission that he was almost an admission that he was wrong.” The President exploded at Rob Porter, the aide who convinced him to make the speech: “That was the biggest fucking mistake I’ve made,” the President told Porter. “You never make those concessions. You never apologize. I didn’t do anything wrong in the first place. Why look weak?” A few days later the President returned to the subject and again made the argument of moral equivalence.

Coupled with so many of the President’s words and policies directed against Blacks, Mexicans and Central Americans, Arabs, Africans, and others; as well as his attacks on the First Amendment and his praise and defense of cold blooded dictators around the world one has to take it more seriously.

This is not an issue that simply lurks in the past, it is a very real part of the present. Historian Timothy Snyder wrote:

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

 

Yes, these are terribly uncomfortable subjects, but we cannot allow this generation to allow them to be forgotten, lest they be repeated. That is why that I must continue to write about them and do my best to make sure that they are not forgotten as we cannot afford to let them happen again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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At the Dock of Justice: Nuremberg at 70

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

On October 1st 1946, twenty-one Nazi leaders waited in the dock in Saal 6oo (Courtroom 600) at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg to hear the pronouncement of the verdict and their sentences on the charges of war crimes.

Just a week ago during our most recent trip to Germany I stood next to that same defendant’s dock where Hermann Goering and twenty other men sat, and then rose to hear the verdicts of the Tribunal. Goering and ten compatriots, Governor General of Poland, Dr. Hans Frank, Minister of the Interior and Reich Protector of Bohemia-Moravia Dr.Wilhelm Frick, General Alfred Jodl, SS General and head Reichs Main Sucurity Office Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Regional Leader of Thuringia, and head of Slave Labor programs, Fritz Sauckel,  Dr. Arthur Seyess-Inquart, Reichskommissar of occupied Netherlands, and Julius Streicher, Gauleiter of Franconia and publisher of the Nazi propaganda paper, Der Sturmer. Party Secretary Martin Bormann was sentenced to death in abstentia as the Allies believed that he may had escaped Berlin after Hitler’s death. It has since been discovered that he died in the attempt.

Others were sentenced to varying prison terms. Grand Admiral Karl Donitz, 10 years, Minister of Economics, Dr. Walter Funk, life in prison, Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess, life in prison, Foreign Minister, Baron Konstantin von Neurath, 15 years, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, life in prison, Head of the Hitler Youth, and Gauleiter of Vienna, Baldur von Schirach, 20 years, Armaments Minister, Albert Speer, 20 years in prison.

Three men were acquitted: Hans Fritzsche of the Propaganda Ministry, Dr. Hjalmar Schlacht pre-war head of the Reichsbank, and Economics Minister, Franz von Papen, and Vice Chancellor, Ambassador to Austria and later Turkey.

Robert Ley, head of the Reich Labor Front was not tried as he committed suicide in his cell the day following his indictment. Neither was Gustave Krupp, C.E.O. of the Krupp industrial firm and armaments manufacturer who was too sick to go to trial.

Following the trials of the major war criminals, eleven more trials were held, including the Doctor’s Trial, a General’s Trial, also known as the Hostage Trial, and the Einsatzgruppen Trial.

To stand in that room where such evidence was presented and powerful testimony given was humbling. To see where learned men, powerful, and even respected men, who had so willingly sacrificed any trace of personal honor and morality, men who aided and abetted a regime which committed the most heinous crimes committed by a civilized “Christian” nation in history left me silent. I have studied these trials since I was in college over 35 years ago. My primary professor, Dr. Helmut Haeussler was an interpreter at the trials.

Since that time I have continued to study them and today as I see the rise of Right Wing movements in Europe, as well as the United States, movements which have at their core many of the same beliefs and principles held by Hitler, the Nazi Party, and the men who stood trial at Nuremberg I find myself frightened.

This is especially so in the United States where Donald Trump has made repeated policy statements limiting civil rights and freedom of speech, limiting the role of the courts, curtailing freedom of the press, favoring one religion above others, curtailing the legal and civil rights of whole groups of people, expelling millions of people, banning whole groups of other people entry into the country, promising to rid the government of his opponents, to fire military leaders who disagree with him in mass, to commit the military to use methods that are condemned as war crimes, war crimes such as were prosecuted by the United States and her Allies at Nuremberg.

To make matters more frightening, many of Trump’s supporters see no problem with this and are often shown on video threatening opponents, advocating even more extreme and violent measures than Trump himself. They justify their proposed polices by saying that these measures are to “protect the country,” and to Make America Great Again.”

But at what price?

In Judgement at Nuremberg, the film version of the Judges’ Trial, Spencer Tracy played Judge Dan Heywood. In the scene at which the verdicts were read, he gave this speech, some of which echoed the words of Justice Robert Jackson’s final statement at the major war crimes trial:

“Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and the death of millions by the Government of which he was a part. Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe.

But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”

A nation is what it stands for. The ideals that have marked the American experiment have never been perfectly practiced by the United States, but they are still the hallmark of the last and greatest hope of civilization. They are the ideals which lead people around the world to want to become Americans, they are the ideals which sustain us. But what Trump and his followers say is that they are not important, and in fact should be limited or abrogated entirely. But this is the way of expediency, and the end of the American experiment.

Standing beside the dock at Nuremberg I was humbled by the fact that I was where such history had been made, and at the same time I was frightened for my country and the world.

I will be spending some time this week to write about the trials, as well as the visit to Dachau that I made on this trip.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Indifference: the Epitome of All Evil

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This week we finished our first class of the year at the Staff College where I teach. In my ethics elective we touched on a number of very difficult subjects, my students gave presentations about the American internment of Japanese Americans in World War Two, the War with Mexico, where the United States according to Ulysses Grant was “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation;” as well as several other deeply uncomfortable subjects which due to our academic non-attribution policy I do not even mention here.

The class was probably the best that I have taught in my two years at the college, the students were amazing, and all showed a tremendous capacity for wrestling with difficult subjects and were capable of deep self-reflection, something that should encourage anyone when they think about the future of our military leadership. Our final class was spend watching a very disconcerting movie called Conspiracy which is about the Wansee Conference which coordinated the Nazi Final Solution against the Jews. It is actually one of the most terrifying movies I have ever seen, mainly because it deals government officials meeting in a very businesslike fashion to condemn millions to death around a conference table while eating the finest food and drink.

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

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

Last week I took a break from my Gettysburg text and dusted off an old academic paper dealing with the one of the more uncomfortable aspects of the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews. I did that because I felt that I needed to reexamine the nature of evil in the modern world.

When I ponder the evil committed by supposedly civilized men and women of Germany, I realize that they are little different than others who share the culture of the West. These people were the products of a culture of learning, and of science. They were part of a culture formed by the Christian tradition, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, the age of Reason. As I pondered this I came to remember something said by the late Iris Chang, “civilization is tissue thin.”

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

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

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

Since then I have continued to read and study. I lived in Germany for over four years, and made many other visits, during which I went to a number of Concentration Camp sites. I visited the rebuilt synagogue in Worms which had been destroyed during the infamous Kristallnacht, and other museums and Holocaust memorial sites in Germany. I visited the Zeppelin field, the site of Hitler’s massive Nazi Party rallies in Nuremburg, as well as the graveyards which contain the victims of other Nazi crimes, including the Nacht und Nebel or night and fog actions, where people simply disappeared and were murdered by the Gestapo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What we call civilization, to use the words of Iris Chang, is tissue thin; and I believe that the indifference of so many people, especially those of great power and influence to crimes against humanity, to the suffering of people, epitomizes the evil of our day even more than the overt acts of the terrorists and governments committing them. 

That is why we must never forget these terrible events of history, and that part of human nature, and in a sense part of every one of us, that makes them so easy to repeat. That is why we must periodically take the time to remember and reflect on the Holocaust, other genocides and crimes against humanity.

Yes, these are terribly uncomfortable subjects, but we cannot allow this generation to allow them to be forgotten, lest they be repeated. Nor can we allow ourselves to be indifferent to them.

That is why that I must continue to write and teach.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

2 Comments

Filed under ethics, History, nazi germany, News and current events

Civilization Is Tissue Thin: Holocaust & Genocide as Warning

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The Rape of Nanking

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

Last week I took a break from my Gettysburg text and dusted off an old academic paper dealing with the one of the more uncomfortable aspects of the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews. I did that because I felt that I needed to reexamine the nature of evil in the modern world. 

When I ponder the evil committed by supposedly civilized men and women of Germany, I realize that they are little different than others who share the culture of the West. These people were the products of a culture of learning, and of science. They were part of a culture formed by the Christian tradition, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, the age of Reason. As I pondered this I came to remember something said by the late Iris Chang, “civilization is tissue thin.”

Omaha_courthouse_lynching

Lynching in the American South

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

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

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

mass killing einsatzgruppen

Einsatzgruppen

Since then I have continued to read and study. I lived in Germany for over four years, and made many other visits, during which I went to a number of Concentration Camp sites. I visited the rebuilt synagogue in Worms which had been destroyed during the infamous Kristallnacht, and other museums and Holocaust memorial sites in Germany. I visited the Zeppelin field, the site of Hitler’s massive Nazi Party rallies in Nuremburg, as well as the graveyards which contain the victims of other Nazi crimes, including the Nacht und Nebel or night and fog actions, where people simply disappeared and were murdered by the Gestapo. 

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

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

nankino-masakra-1

Nanking

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

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

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Soviet Genocide in Ukraine

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

CambodiaExhibitMassgrave-x1

The Killing Fields

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

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

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

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

isis3-840x550

The Islamic State

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

5 Comments

Filed under crime, History, Political Commentary