Tag Archives: Helmut Heussler

Ordinary Men and Genocide: Introduction…

babi yar

Massacre at Babi Yar

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

September 29th 2017 was the 76th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre. It was committed by members of the SS Einsatzgruppen C near Kiev shortly after the German Army captured that city. 33,771 Jews were exterminated by the members of Sonderkommando 4b of Einsatzgruppen C as well as members of a number of Ordungspolizei, police battalions supported by the logistics and protection of the German Army. About 10,000 others, mainly Communist Officials and Gypsies were rounded up and killed in the same operation. The victims were stripped of all of their belongings taken to a ravine and shot. It was the second largest killing action by the various Einsatzgruppen in the war. The killings were done up close and personal. The men who conducted the operation either believed that the people that they were killing were sub-human, or did not have the courage to stand up and say no.

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

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

We like to say that the Nazis were different than us or others. To some extent this is true, but the real truth is that most of the Christian Western European countries, and I include the United States have also committed gross crimes against humanity against peoples that we believed were less than human and not afforded human rights or protections. In the movie Judgement at Nuremberg Spencer Tracy makes a comment that should send chills through any of us. He spoke concerning one of the judges on trial, “Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and the death of millions by the Government of which he was a part. Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe.But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination….”

Babi Yar is just one example of how civilized people can get can commit great atrocities in the name of ideology and race, and it does not stand alone. The tragic fact is that it really doesn’t take much to condition people to go commit such crimes; just teach people from childhood that people of certain races or religions are less than human. Then subjugate them to incessant propaganda and then turn them loose using the pretext that they are killing terrorists or insurgents. In the coming days I am posting in small sections an article that I wrote that deals with the ideological as well as military reasons that brought about Babi Yar and so many other atrocities committed by the Nazis during the campaigns in Poland and the Soviet Union.

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

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

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

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under ethics, faith, History, holocaust, Military, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary

A Worrisome Anniversary: The Reichstag Fire at 85 and it’s Relevance Today

 

riechstag fire
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

There are times that is terrifying to be a historian who has specialized in the study of tyrannical regimes especially on the anniversaries of significant events that changed the course of nations. One of those was the Reichstag Fire the 85th anniversary of which is tomorrow, February 27th. The fire was set by Marinus (Rinus) van der Lubbea Dutch Communist who was acting alone. Hitler, backed by the aging and doddering President Paul Von Hindenburg was given power to suspend constitutional rights indefinitely by acting under Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution through the Order of the President of the Reich for the Protection of People and State. I will discuss that tomorrow.

Ever since my undergraduate study working under Dr. Helmut Huessler at California State University Northridge I have studied the transition of society from democracy to dictatorship. While my studies then and ever since focused on the rise of National Socialism in Germany, the fact is that what happened in Germany was not unique, it is a part of the human condition and the people of any country can find themselves under the foot of a dictatorship if the conditions are right. I believe that conditions in the United States have never been more ripe for the establishment of an authoritarian regime, possibly even a dictatorship, than they are today.

When I read through the text of President Trump’s speech at CPAC and the response of the NRA to the massacre in Parkland Florida shuddered.  They were the words that an autocrat would use, and the vehemence of the CPAC crowd, which just a few years ago prided itself as being the intellectual bastion of conservatism. Speakers and panel members who dared to question the movement were heckled, jeered, and threatened. Mona Charen, a long time conservative who had worked for both William Buckley and Ronald Reagan, had to be escorted out by security officers concerned for her safety.

I realize that despite chaos that is engulfing the House of Trump; despite more and more of his advisors being indicted by the Muller investigation of the Trump campaign and family connections to Russia, the more I become more concerned that the unthinkable will happen and something will occur that will allow the President to seize power under the pretext of national security; most likely a war, or a major terrorist attack, using existing National Security Executive Orders dealing with the continuity of government functions as a result of catastrophic emergency. The latest of which is National Security and Homeland Security Presidential Directive (National Security Presidential Directive NSPD 51/Homeland Security Presidential Directive HSPD-20) of 4 May 2007 which defines a catastrophic emergency as “any incident, regardless of location, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the U.S. population, infrastructure, environment, economy, or government functions.”

I believe that if or when one or the other happen that the Trump regime will use it to suspend civil rights and liberties and maybe even suspend Congress and the courts in the name of security and under existing provisions. Sadly, I think that in such a case that very few people would resist such a takeover. Of course the 35% or so of people that would support him as he said, even if he shot someone on 5th Avenue would be at the forefront probably even using extrajudicial means to apprehend, persecute, or kill anyone suspected of disloyalty. But I also believe that many other people would follow all because they are afraid and desire security more than freedom.

Now the psychological preparation for such an event is not all Trump’s doing; for the last three decades many of those that now support him, especially the leaders of the Religious Right, Fox News, and radio and internet demagogues have prepared the ground for his rise.

Dr. Timothy Snyder, the historian from Yale has warned us in his book On Tyranny. He noted:

“Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. Modern tyranny is terror management. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that authoritarians exploit such events in order to consolidate power. The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of political parties, the suspension of freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. DO NOT FALL FOR IT.”

Human beings are the one constant in history, and human nature is very consistent when it comes to how we respond when under attack. One only has to think of the fear that followed the 9-11 attacks and the willingness of people to give the government vast new powers. Those included The Patriot Act and an authorization for the use of military force against Al Qaida which has not been updated or supplemented since 2001, and which has been used for operations around the world which are completely unconnected to the initial authorization.

I believe that the chances of such an event occurring have gone up exponentially.  Part of this is because the President and the Executive branch have not filled many critical ambassadorships, as well as thousands of key billets in the State Department, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security.

This is a very dangerous time and every day I wake up wondering if this will be the day that our Republic as we knew it dies. I do not know if this will be the result of a war a major terror attack, or even an unexpected financial crisis, but as things spiral out of control I cannot shake the feeling that we are going to have our Reichstag Fire moment, and that we will not rise to the challenge. Instead I think that most Americans will give up freedom in the name of security simply because that is human nature and has been demonstrated throughout history on every continent. James Madison noted:

“The means of defence against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.”

Now is a time that we must all be awake and aware of what is going on in our country and the world. The storm clouds are building and we most be cognizant of the times or be engulfed and overwhelmed when the unthinkable arrives. That may not be pleasant to contemplate, but it is necessary.

I would like to believe that I will be proven wrong and honestly I want to be proven wrong because I do not want our nation to have to endure war, terrorism, or the rule of a tyrannical despot backed by fanatical and heavily armed followers.

So, until tomorrow I wish you a good day,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under History, national security, nazi germany, Political Commentary

“I am Going to Tell the Truth”

Judgment.at.Nuremberg.1961.BRRip.mp4_snapshot_02.22.29_[2015.06.11_00.25.44]

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last night while Judy was out with her ceramics class last night friends I decided to re-watch the film Judgement at Nuremberg after having finished reading Deborah Lipstadt’s book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. The book is a damning look into the mentality and motivations of present day Holocaust Deniers. Even though her book was first published in 1993 her conclusions about the deniers, including a good number of men and women who support President Trump, are still spot on.

My first encounter with Holocaust Denial was when I was in college at California State University Northridge when in classes on German History, Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust taught by Professor Helmut Heussler I came to learn about the growing number of Holocaust deniers who were and still attempting to use academia, the First Amendment, and arguments of moral equivalence to deny and ultimately discredit the history and the reality of the Holocaust.

I was fortunate to study under Dr. Heussler. He was from Germany but his parents immigrated to the United States when he was a child. He served with the 82nd Airborne Division during the Second World War and after the war served as a translator at the Nuremberg Trials. In the class on the Holocaust he and I were the only gentiles and he brought in Mel Mermelstein to tell us about his experience at Auschwitz. Mermelstein who successfully challenged the Institute for Historical Review, the most notorious of the psuedo-academic Holocaust denial groups in court when that group offered a bounty of $50,000 to anyone who could prove the Holocaust happened. When the IHR refused to acknowledge the truth of the Holocaust and his testimony, Mermelstein sued and won his battle after I met him.

Lipstadt was sued for libel by Holocaust denier David Irving for her portrayal of hi in her book. He did this in Britain rather than the United States because in Britain the defendant in a lawsuit for libel must prove their innocence as opposed to the United States where the burden of proof is on the accuser. Despite this, Liptstadt won and Irving was shown to be exactly what he is, a Holocaust denying anti-Semite masquerading as a legitimate historian.

Now if Irving and the other Holocaust deniers like him had been consigned to the ash heap of history this would not be an issue; but the IHR, Irving, and many other anti-Semetic, White Supremacist, and neo-Nazi activists continue to push their history denying racist hatred around the Internet, the Right Wing media, and television. When confronted with facts, they play the victim and complain that their free-speech rights are under attack.

The climax of Judgment at Nuremberg occurs when the defendant, Judge Ernst Janning played by Burt Lancaster decides that he can no longer remain silent about the crimes of the Nazi regime that he served. His counsel, Hans Rolfe played by Maximillian Schell attempts to stop Janning from being heard, as does fellow defendant Emil Hahn, played by Werner Klemperer.

Ernst Janning:  I wish to testify about the Feldenstein case because it was the most significant trial of the period. It is important not only for the tribunal to understand it, but for the whole German people. But in order to understand it, one must understand the period in which it happened. There was a fever over the land, a fever of disgrace, of indignity, of hunger. We had a democracy, yes, but it was torn by elements within. Above all there was fear, fear of today, fear of tomorrow, fear of our neighbors, and fear of ourselves. Only when you understand that can you understand what Hitler meant to us, because he said to us: “Lift your heads. Be proud to be German. There are devils among us, communists, liberals, Jews, gypsies. Once these devils will be destroyed your misery will be destroyed.” It was the old, old story of the sacrificial lamb. What about those of us who knew better, we who knew the words were lies and worse than lies? Why did we sit silent? Why did we take part? Because we loved our country. What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase. It is only a stage we are going through. It will be discarded sooner or later. Hitler himself will be discarded – sooner or later. The country is in danger. We will march out of the shadows! We will go forward. FORWARD is the great password. And history tells how well we succeeded, Your Honor. We succeeded beyond out wildest dreams. The very elements of hate and power about Hitler that mesmerized Germany, mesmerized the world. We found ourselves with sudden powerful allies. Things that had been denied to us as a democracy were open to us now. The world said, “Go ahead. Take it. Take it! Take Sudetenland! Take the Rhineland! Re-militarize it! Take all of Austria! Take it!” And then, one day we looked around and found that we were in an even more terrible danger. The ritual begun in this courtroom swept over the land like a raging, roaring disease. What was going to be a “passing phase” had become the way of life. Your Honor, I was content to sit silent during this trial. I was content to tend my roses. I was even content to let counsel try to save my name, until I realized that in order to save it, he would have to raise the specter again. You have seen him do it. He has done it, here, in this courtroom. He has suggested that the Third Reich worked for the benefit of people. He has suggested that we sterilized men for the welfare of the country. He has suggested that perhaps the old Jew did sleep with the 16 year old girl after all. Once more, it is being done – for love of country. It is not easy to tell the truth. But if there is to be any salvation for Germany, we who know our guilt must admit it – whatever the pain and humiliation. I had reached my verdict on the Feldenstein case before I ever came into the courtroom. I would have found him guilty, whatever the evidence. It was not a trial at all. It was a sacrificial ritual in which Feldenstein, the Jew, was the helpless victim.

Hans Rolfe:  Your Honor, I must interrupt. The defendant is not aware of what he’s saying. He’s not aware of the implications!

Ernst Janning: I am aware. I am aware! My counsel would have you believe we were not aware of the concentration camps. Not aware. Where were we? Where were we when Hitler began shrieking his hate in Reichstag? Where were we when our neighbors were being dragged out in the middle of the night to Dachau? Where were we when every village in Germany has a railroad terminal where cattle cars were filled with children being carried out to their extermination! Where were we when they cried out in the night to us. Deaf, dumb, blind!

Hans Rolfe: Your Honor, I must protest!

Ernst Janning: My counsel says we were not aware of the extermination of the millions. He would give you the excuse: We were only aware of the extermination of the hundreds. Does that make us any the less guilty? Maybe we didn’t know the details. But if we didn’t know, it was because we didn’t want to know.

Emil Hahn: Traitor! Traitor!

Judge Dan Haygood: Order! Order! Order! Put that man back in his seat and keep him there.

Ernst Janning: I am going to tell them the truth. I am going to tell them the truth if the whole world conspires against it. I am going to tell them the truth about their Ministry of Justice. Werner Lammpe, an old man who cries into his Bible now, an old man who profited by the property expropriation of every man he sent to a concentration camp. Friedrich Hofstetter, the “good German” who knew how to take orders, who sent men before him to be sterilized like so many digits. Emil Hahn, the decayed, corrupt bigot, obsessed by the evil within himself. And Ernst Janning, worse than any of them because he knew what they were, and he went along with them. Ernst Janning: Who made his life excrement, because he walked with them.

In an era where the President of the United States calls political opponents and other critics “traitors” as did the fictional Emil Hahn call Ernst Janning the film as well as Lipstadt’s writings are of paramount importance. Deniers come in all types and deny too many events that are not in dispute. In this country we not only have the anti-Semetic Holocaust deniers, but those that deny that Slavery was the proximate cause of the American Civil War, that Jim Crow laws were meant to help African Americans, that the extermination of the Native American tribes and their confinement to reservations often hundreds or thousands of miles from their ancestral lands, and the removal of American citizens of Japanese descent to concentration camps in the American desert Southwest after the attack on Pearl Harbor were somehow just.

Likewise we are seeing a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe most of which is home grown; whose leaders like in Poland and Hungary who deny their own anti-semitism and  their ancestors participation in the Nazi genocide.

In the United States this is seen in the what is called the Alt Right and others who are not only anti-Semetic, but who in their false history and revisionism attack African Americans, Jews, Muslims, Asians, Mexican and other Central American immigrants in a manner far to similar to the propagandists of Nazi Germany to be ignored or brushed aside as mere aberrations. When the President and some of his senior advisors as well as members of congress and their media supporters promote anti-semetic and White Supremacist ideology they have to be confronted, unless like Ernst Janning we want our lives and reputations to be excrement because we walked with them.

I for one cannot do that.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

4 Comments

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

From Ordinary Men to Willing Executioners: Holocaust Remembrance 2018

1483285_10152114931522059_1612934841_n

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+

1 Comment

Filed under civil rights, ethics, History, holocaust, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary

“Most Evil is Done by People who Never Make up Their Minds to be Good or Evil.”

rolfeFriends of Padre Steve’s World,

I read and write a lot about Weimar and Nazi Germany as well as the Holocaust. They were the focus of my undergraduate major working under Dr. Helmut Heussler who served as a translator and interrogator at Nuremberg while I was a student at California State University at Northridge and later in my Masters of Arts in Military History. I read the documents, the histories, the narratives, and the reports both in English and German. I study the perpetrators, the victims, and yes the bystanders as well and there is not enough time in one man’s life to read all of them, but I will try.

Likewise I visit the sites where things happened in Germany, and every time that I make a trip to those places I learn more and believe me it is not comfortable.  When I visited the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg I saw a picture of Dr. Heussler doing his work. Back then he was very young and it would be a number of years before he finished college and went on to his doctorate. When I saw his picture I remembered just how important he was in opening my eyes to the dark side of humanity; even those people that are not truly evil; those like most of us who exist between the shades of gray between sainthood and the devil.

The histories, the documents, the narratives paint a dark picture of humanity and the fallibility of people. The portrait that they paint a disturbing picture of the true nature of what is in all of us. When I look at the pictures and see the films I can see that the lessons of that time have not been learned. Dr. Timothy Snyder wrote:

“The world is now changing, reviving fears that were familiar in Hitler’s time, and to which Hitler responded. The history of the Holocaust is not over. Its precedent is eternal, and its lessons have not yet been learned.”

In the age where men who admire tyrants and authoritarians like Trump, Putin, Farage, Erdrogan, Assad, and so many others it is important that we try to learn the lessons lest we fall into the same trap as our ancestors and become perpetrators, victims, or bystanders. The fact is that totalitarian regimes and events like the Holocaust are all too common in human history. Yehuda Bauer wrote:

“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.”

The fact is that there are very few true saints and likewise very few truly evil people. Quite obviously Adolf Hitler and many of his associates fell in the latter category. The rest of us, and for that matter most of the people on all sides during from the Nazi seizure of power until the Gotterdammerung of the Third Reich in in the flames of Berlin in 1945 fell somewhere in the gray area between the truly evil and the saints and truthfully all of us given the right conditions are capable of becoming perpetrators, victims, or the worst, bystanders who turn their backs on evil because it doesn’t seem to affect us; but it does.

Admittedly this is a dark subject and as I always reminded my students “the one constant in history are fallible human beings.” 

During our recent blizzard and snow event my wife Judy was away, so one of the nights that I was alone I re-watched the film Judgment at Nuremberg. The film is profoundly disturbing not only because of the subjects that it deals with but also when we look at the great uncertainty time that we live and how similar it is to the world of the late 1920s and early 1930s. In one of the more disturbing scenes of the film, Maximillian Schell, who played Hans Rolfe, the defense counsel for Ernst Janning, played by Burt Lancaster gives a summation in the final defense of his client who has already admitted his guilt which is remarkable because he tells the truth about the guilt of everyone.

Rolfe’s summation of his defense following his client’s admission of guilt is damning. It is something that almost all of us do. It is how we look at the atrocities of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, the willful starvation of millions by criminal regimes; and then stand by saying little or nothing and doing nothing, sometimes even supporting the leaders or the regimes that commit these actions.

So please, no matter what your political point of view, take the time to watch clip or the whole film, and read the transcript of Schell’s speech below. It’s far easier than trying to do all the reading, study, and research that I have done.

“Your Honor, it is my duty to defend Ernst Janning, and yet Ernst Janning has said he is guilty. There’s no doubt, he feels his guilt. He made a great error in going along with the Nazi movement, hoping it would be good for his country. But, if he is to be found guilty, there are others who also went along, who also must be found guilty. Ernst Janning said, “We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.” Why did we succeed, Your Honor? What about the rest of the world? Did it not know the intentions of the Third Reich? Did it not hear the words of Hitler’s broadcast all over the world? Did it not read his intentions in Mein Kampf, published in every corner of the world? Where’s the responsibility of the Soviet Union, who signed in 1939 the pact with Hitler, enabled him to make war? Are we not to find Russia guilty? Where’s the responsibility of the Vatican, who signed in 1933 the Concordat with Hitler, giving him his first tremendous prestige? Are we not to find the Vatican guilty? Where’s the responsibility of the world leader, Winston Churchill, who said in an open letter to the London Times in 1938 – 1938! Your Honor – “were England to suffer national disaster should pray to God to send a man of the strength of mind and will of an Adolf Hitler!” Are we not to find Winston Churchill guilty? Where is the responsibility of those American industrialists, who helped Hitler to rebuild his armaments and profited by that rebuilding? Are we not to find the American industrialists guilty? No, Your Honor. No! Germany alone is not guilty: The whole world is as responsible for Hitler’s Germany. It is an easy thing to condemn one man in the dock. It is easy to condemn the German people to speak of the basic flaw in the German character that allowed Hitler to rise to power and at the same time positively ignore the basic flaw of character that made the Russians sign pacts with him, Winston Churchill praise him, American industrialists profit by him! Ernst Janning said he is guilty. If he is, Ernst Janning’s guilt is the world’s guilt – no more and no less.”

Sadly, little has changed in the character of humanity. If we do or say nothing, if we support those who do such things, if we close our eyes and pretend that it is not our problem, then we too are the guilty party.  As Hannah Arendt wrote: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under ethics, film, History, holocaust, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary

When the Unthinkable Arrives


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

There are times that is terrifying to be a historian who has specialized in the study of tyrannical regimes. This is the case with me. Even since my undergraduate study working under Dr. Helmut Huessler at California State University Northridge I have studied the transition of society from democracy to dictatorship. While my studies then and ever since focused on the rise of National Socialism in Germany, the fact is that what happened in Germany was not unique, it is a part of the human condition and the people of any country can find themselves under the foot of a dictatorship if the conditions are right. I believe that conditions in the United States have never been more ripe for dictatorship than they are today. 

As chaos continues to engulf the House of Trump, as investigations regarding Trump’s relations with Russia gain steam, and as his poll numbers crash, I become more concerned that the unthinkable will happen and we will suddenly be in a major war or hit by a major terror attack. I believe that if or when one or the other happen that the Trump regime will use it to suspend civil rights and liberties and maybe even suspend Congress and the courts in the name of security. Sadly, I think that in such a case that very few people would resist. Of course the 35-40% of people that would support him as he said, even if he shot someone on 5th Avenue would be at the forefront, but many other people would follow all because they are afraid and desire security more than freedom. 

Now this is not all Trump’s doing as for the last three decades many of those that now support him, especially the leaders of the Religious Right, Fox News, and radio and internet demagogues have prepared the ground for his rise. 

Dr. Timothy Snyder, the historian from Yale has warned us in his book On Tyranny. He noted:

“Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. Modern tyranny is terror management. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that authoritarians exploit such events in order to consolidate power. The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of political parties, the suspension of freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. DO NOT FALL FOR IT.”

Human beings are the one constant in history, and human nature is very consistent when it comes to how we respond when under attack. One only has to think of the fear that followed the 9-11 attacks and the willingness of people to give the government vast new powers, including an authorization for the use of military for against Al Qaida which has not been updated or supplemented since 2001, despite the fact that many of the places our military are operating in today have nothing to do with Al Qaida. 

I believe that the chances of such a think happening have gone up exponentially since the President and the Executive branch have not filled many critical ambassadorships, as well as thousands of key billets in the State Department, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security. Likewise, despite all it’s bluster about strengthening the military nothing significant has occurred and will not occur because it cannot. This is because of the the policy of sequestration enacted by Congress in the 2011 Budget Control Act. Likewise, with its callous treatment of our allies and lack of concern about Russian interference in American elections, and in Europe the administration has weakened us at home and abroad. 

This is a very dangerous time and every day I wake up wondering if this will be the day that our Republic as we knew it dies. I do not know if this will be the result of a war with North Korea or Iran, or possibly a major terror attack, but as things spiral out of control I cannot shake the feeling that we are going to have our Reichstag Fire moment, and that we will not rise to the challenge. Instead I think that most Americans will give up freedom in the name of security simply because that is human nature and has been demonstrated throughout history on every continent. James Madison noted: 

“The means of defence against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.”

Now is a time that we must all be awake and aware of what is going on in our country and the world. The storm clouds are building and we most be cognizant of the times or be engulfed and overwhelmed when the unthinkable arrives. That may not be pleasant to contemplate, but it is necessary. 

I would like to believe that I will be proven wrong and honestly I want to be proven wrong because I do not want our nation to have to endure war, terrorism, and a tyrannical despotism. 

So, until tomorrow I wish you a good day,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under civil rights, History, national security, News and current events, Political Commentary