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Repeating Historical Myths: The Trump Administration and the “Stab in the Back”

stab-in-the-back

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In light of the many flagrant lies, historical myths and conspiracy theories being floated by President Trump and his supporters  is always appropriate to look at examples of the power of those myths in the lives of nations and their influence on citizens.

It is true that some myths can be positive and inspiring so long as they remain recognized as myth. But myths which are believed as truth lead to conspiracy theories, false accusations and the demonization of others. The vast majority of the time this is done for the purpose of inciting hatred against political, social or religious opponents, or to justify indefensible polices at home or abroad.

Myths also can be used to perpetuate false beliefs about other countries that influence policy decisions, including the decision to go to war that ultimately doom those that believe them. There are many times in history where leaders of nations and peoples embrace myths about their history even when historical, biographical and archeological evidence points to an entirely different record.  Myths are powerful in the way that they inspire and motivate people. They can provide a cultural continuity as a people celebrates the key events and people that shaped their past, even if they are not entirely true.  At the same time myths can be dangerous when they cause leaders and people to make bad choices and actually become destructive.

A good example of this is the Stab in the Back myth that began after the armistice that ended the First World War, as well as the false beliefs held by Hitler and other Nazi leaders about the United States.

Just two days ago President Trump’s Chief Economic Advisor Larry Kudlow accused Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of “stabbing President Trump in the back” following the G7 meeting in Quebec. The choice of words was not only unfortunate but buttresses every action that the President has taken to delegitimatize faithful allies and partners since long before his inauguration.  In doing so he embraced an infamous term used so often by the Nazis and others on the German right following the defeat of Germany in the First World War.

After the war the belief that the German Army was not defeated but was betrayed by the German people, especially those of the political left.  Like all myths there was an element of truth in the “stab in the back” myth, there were revolts against the Monarchy of Kaiser Wilhelm II and even mutiny on elements of the German High Seas Fleet and Army units stationed in Germany. However the crisis had been brought about by General Ludendorff who until the last month of the war refused to tell the truth about the gravity of Germany’s position to those in the German government.

So when everything came crashing down in late October and early November 1918 the debacle came as a surprise to most Germans.  The myth arose because the truth had not been told by Ludendorff who was arguably the most powerful figure in Germany from 1916-1918.  In the looming crisis which included Ludendorff’s collapse and relief, General Wilhelm Groener presented the facts to the Kaiser and insisted on his abdication.  The Republic that was proclaimed on the 9th of November was saddled with the defeat and endured revolution, civil war and threats from the extreme left and right.  When it signed the Treaty of Versailles it accepted the sole responsibility of Germany for the war and its damages. Ordered to dismantle its military, cede territory that had not been lost in battle and pay massive reparations the legend of the “stab in the back” gained widespread acceptance in Germany.

Hitler always believed that the defeat of Germany in the First World War was due to the efforts of internal enemies of the German Reich on the home front and not due to the fact that the German army was collapsing, the U-Boat campaign had failed, and the Navy’s High Seas Fleet was hopelessly outnumbered and incapable of defeating the Royal Navy and breaking the blockade that was strangling Germany.

The Stab in the Back was a fundamental belief of Hitler and was expressed in his writings, speeches and actions.  The internal enemies of Germany for Hitler included the Jews, as well as the Socialists and Communists who he believed were at the heart of the collapse on the home front.  Gerhard Weinberg believes that the effect of this misguided belief on Hitler’s actions has “generally been ignored” by historians. (Germany, Hitler and World War II p. 196)

Hitler believed that those people and groups that perpetrated the “stab in the back” were “beguiled by the by the promises of President Wilson” (World in the Balance p.92) in his 14 Points.  Thus for him Americans were in part responsible for undermining the German home front, something that he would not allow to happen again.  In fact Hitler characterization of Wilson’s effect on the German people in speaking about South Tyrol.  It is representative of his belief about not only the loss of that region but the war: “South Tyrol was lost by those who, from within Germany, caused attrition at the front, and by the contamination of German thinking with the sham declarations of Woodrow Wilson.” (Hitler’s Second Book p.221)

While others will note Hitler’s lack of respect for the potential power of the United States, no other author that I am familiar with links Hitler’s actions and the reaction of the German political, military and diplomatic elites to the entry of the United States into the war to the underlying belief in the “stab in the back.”   Likewise Hitler had little regard for the military abilities or potential of the United States. Albert Speer notes that Hitler believed “the Americans had not played a very prominent role in the war of 1914-1918,” and that “they would certainly not withstand a great trial by fire, for their fighting qualities were low.” (Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs by Albert Speer p.121)

Hitler not only dismissed the capabilities of the Americans but also emphasized the distance that they were from Germany and saw no reason to fear the United States when “he anticipated major victories on the Eastern Front.” (Germany Hitler and World War II p.92)   Hitler’s attitude was reflected by the majority of the military high command and high Nazi officials. Ribbentrop believed that the Americans would be unable to wage war if it broke out “as they would never get their armies across the Atlantic.” (History of the German General Staff, Walter Goerlitz, p.408).  General Walter Warlimont notes the “ecstasy of rejoicing” found at Hitler’s headquarters after Pearl Harbor and the fact that the he and Jodl at OKW caught by surprise by Hitler’s declaration of war. (Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-1945 pp.207-209) Kenneth Macksey notes Warlimont’s comments about Hitler’s beliefs; that Hitler “tended to dismiss American fighting qualities and industrial capability,” and that Hitler “regarded anyone who tried to show him such information [about growing American strength] as defeatist.”(Why the Germans Lose at War, Kenneth Macksey, p.153.)

Others like Field Marshal Erwin Rommel record the disregard of senior Nazis toward American capabilities in weaponry.  Quoting Goering who when Rommel discussed 40mm anti-aircraft guns on aircraft that were devastating his armored forces Goering replied “That’s impossible. The Americans only know how to make razor blades.” (The Rommel Papers edited by B.H. Liddell-Hart p.295) Rommel was one of the few German commanders who recognized the folly of Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States noting that “By declaring war on America, we had brought the entire American industrial potential into the service of Allied war production. We in Africa knew all about the quality of its achievements.” (The Rommel Papers p.296)

When one also takes into account the general disrespect of the German military for the fighting qualities of American soldiers though often with good reason (see Russell Weigley’s books Eisenhower’s Lieutenants and The American Way of War) one sees how the myth impacted German thought.  This is evidenced by the disparaging comments of the pre-war German military attaché to the United States; General Boeticher, on the American military, national character and capability. (See World in the Balance pp. 61-62)

The overall negative view held by many Germans in regard to the military and industrial power and potential of the United States reinforced other parts of the myth. Such false beliefs served to bolster belief in the stab-in-the back theory as certainly the Americans could not have played any important role in the German defeat save Wilson’s alleged demoralization of the German population.  This was true not only of Hitler, but by most of his retinue and the military, diplomatic and industrial leadership of the Reich. Hitler’s ultimate belief shaped by the stab-in-the back and reinforced by his racial views which held the United States to be an inferior mongrel people. This led him to disregard the impact that the United States could have in the war and ultimately influenced his decision to declare war on the United States, a decision that would be a key factor in the ultimate defeat of Germany.

Myth can have positive value, but myth which becomes toxic can and often does lead to tragic consequences. All societies have some degree of myth in relationship to their history including the United States.  The myths are not all the same, various subgroups within the society create their own myth surrounding historic events. The danger is that those myths can supplant reason in the minds of political, military, media and religious figures and lead those people into taking actions that work to their own detriment or even destruction.

Today the President leads the way in promoting lies patently false myths in the name of his personal greatness which he shrouds himself while conflating that with making America great again all the while endangering the country. He has been promoting conspiracy theories for nearly a decade and has never stopped doing so or offered an apology for those words.

It is the duty of historians, philosophers and others in the society to ensure that myth does not override reality to the point that it moves policy both domestic and foreign in a manner that is ultimately detrimental to the nation.  The lesson of history demonstrated by myths surrounding the German defeat and role of the United States in that defeat shows just how myth can drive a nation to irrational, evil and ultimately tragic actions not only for that nation and its people, but for the world.

Sadly, it appears that the United States led by President Trump is following the path of Hitler’s Germany in terms of how it views the world and treats other nations and history will not be kind to us.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary, world war one

When History Rhymes: Know Nothings, Klansmen, “Shitholes” and Trump

 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Long before President Trump was elected President and uttered the words Shithole countries” in slandering the people of Haiti as well as African nations I wrote about his penchant for obvious racist terminology and tactics which I trace back to a movement long before he was ever thought of, in fact to a time when his German immigrant ancestors were scorned and hated because of their ethnicity. That being said his grandfather made a small fortune in the Pacific Northwest and the Klondike Gold Rush mostly catering to prospectors and women of ill-repute. Like many immigrants the man was incredibly successful; he made a fortune and returned to Germany where he was discovered was thrown out of the country because the Kingdom of Bavaria believed that he had gone to America to of all things, to avoid military service. The fact that he didn’t have to get a doctor to say he had heel spurs to avoid conscription makes him far more admirable than his grandson. But I digress…

I wrote the following back in July of 2016 simply because the Trump family story happened to coincide with the subject of my draft book “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”: Race, Religion, Ideology, and Politics in the Civil War Era. It just happens to be that the Donald’s father, Fred happened to get arrested during a march of the Ku Klux Klan in New York in 1927 while dressed as a Klansman.

Back then the blowback from friends, including a woman who was one of the bridesmaids at our wedding was so intense that I never want to go through it again. It really is amazing when one makes a credible claim that a candidate for the Presidency is a racist and have long time friends castigate you and condemn you for telling the truth.

But once again I digress but the irony of the current President going after immigrants and defending Klansmen while calling the countries of many current immigrants is far too rich to ignore. But the sad truth is that racism is still to common and is being given voice by the President of the United States in ways that haven’t been seen since the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall noted:

“I wish I could say that racism and prejudice were only distant memories. We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust…We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.” 

So anyway, here is what I wrote back them.

Enjoy,

Peace

Padre Steve+

Mark Twain reportedly said that “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” One can see that in the nomination of Donald Trump as the nominee of the Republican Part for President. Eleven months ago I wrote an article called Trump and the Return of the Know Nothings. At the time few people gave him little chance of becoming the Republican nominee, and now he is the nominee and for all practical purposes owns the GOP.

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Trump’s xenophobic views on immigration charged the debate in the Republican Party during the primaries, and his positions which were fringe positions of most Republicans for decades became the mainstream, just as the same issue did during the 1840s and 1850s. So this is not a new phenomenon, and even over the past few decades the debate has come and gone, but it has returned with a vengeance as Donald Trump made immigration, or rather a virulent anti-immigration platform the centerpiece of his campaign. Trump’s focus on the issue forced other Republican candidates to scramble in order to find a position close enough to Trump’s without completely throwing away the vote of immigrants who they will need to win in many states; if they are to have any hope of winning back the presidency in 2016. But they failed. Trump outmaneuvered them at every point, and in the end Trump’s strongest opponent, Senator Ted Cruz went into the witch’s cauldron of the Republican National Convention not to endorse Trump but to stand on principle and in the process destroy his politic career and maybe endanger his life.

But Trump’s positionresonated with parts of the Republican base, and by appealing to their anger and frustration he has built a solid core of support which loyally supported him in a campaign that featured so many blunders and heneous comments that in a normal election cycle his campaign would not have survived past the Southern Super Tuesday. But he did, and if on the  takes the time to read Trump’s speeches and the reactions to them by his supporters it becomes apparent that Trump has tapped into that vast reservoir of nativism that has always been a part of the American body-politic.


As I said, such attitudes and movements are nothing new. Anti-immigrant movements in the United States go back to our earliest days, ever since the first Irish Catholics showed up in the northeast in the late 1790s and early 1800s. Met with scorn and treated as criminals the Irish Catholics had to work hard to gain any kind of acceptance in Protestant America. But immigrants continued to come, seeking the freedom promised in the Declaration of Independence.

Many White American Protestants viewed Irish, German and other European immigrants to the Unites States in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s as interlopers who were attempting to take over the country. The immigrants were regarded as poor, uneducated, uncouth, and immoral, and in the case of Catholic immigrants as representatives and foot soldiers of a hostile government, the Vatican, headed by the Pope and the bishops. Those who opposed immigration formed a movement that was aimed at forbidding immigrants from being granted full rights, especially the rights of citizenship and voting. The fear was pervasive. Many Northern Whites were afraid that immigrants would take their jobs, since like slaves in the South, the new immigrants were a source of cheap labor.

Northern Protestant church leaders and ministers were some of the most vocal anti-immigrant voices and their words were echoed by politicians and in the press. The movement grew and used government action, the courts and violence to oppress the Irish and Germans who were the most frequent targets of their hate. The movement eventually became known as the “Know Nothing” movement.

Know Nothing leaders were not content to simply discuss their agenda in the forum of ideas and political discourse, they often used mob-violence and intimidation to keep Catholics away from the ballot box. Mobs of nativist Know Nothings sometimes numbering in the hundreds or even the thousands attacked immigrants in what they called “Paddy hunts,” Paddy being a slur for the Irish. To combat immigrants who might want to exercise their right to vote, the Know Nothings deployed gangs like the New York’s Bowery Boys and Baltimore’s Plug Uglies. They also deployed their own paramilitary organization to intimidate immigrants on Election Day. This group, known as the Wide Awakes was especially prone to use violence and physical intimidation in pursuit of their goals. The Nativist paramilitaries also provided security for anti-immigrant preachers from angry immigrants who might try to disrupt their “prayer” meetings.

Know Nothing’s and other Nativist organizations, organized mass meetings throughout the country which were attended by thousands of men. The meetings were often led by prominent Protestant ministers who were rich in their use of preaching and prayer to rile up their audiences. The meetings often ended with physical attacks and other violence against German or Irish immigrants and sometimes with the burning of the local Catholic Church. They also provided security for preachers from angry immigrants who might try to disrupt nativist prayer meetings.


Bloody Monday, Louisville 1855

The violence was widespread and reached its peak in the mid-1850s.

Monday, August 6, 1855 was Election Day in Louisville, Kentucky. To prevent German and Irish Catholics from voting, Know Nothing mobs took to the street and launched a violent attack on immigrants as well as their churches and businesses. Known now as “Black Monday” the Nativists burned Armbruster’s Brewery, they rolled cannons to the doors of the St. Martin of Tours Church, the Cathedral of the Assumption and Saint Patrick’s Church, which they then were searched for arms. The private dwellings and the businesses of immigrants were looted. A neighborhood known as “Quinn’s Row” was burned with the inhabitants barricaded inside. At least 22 persons were killed in the violence and many more were injured. In Baltimore the 1856, 1857, and 1858 elections were all marred by violence perpetrated by Nativist mobs. In Maine, Know Nothing followers tarred and feathered a Catholic priest and burned down a Catholic church.

The Know Nothings did not merely seek to disenfranchise immigrants through violence alone, they were more sophisticated than that. They knew that to be successful they had to change the law. Then, as now, a new immigrant had to live in the United States for five years before becoming eligible to become a naturalized of the United States. The Know nothings felt that this was too short of time and their party platform in the 1856 election had this as one of the party planks:

A change in the laws of naturalization, making a continued residence of twenty-one years, of all not heretofore provided for, an indispensable requisite for citizenship hereafter, and excluding all paupers, and persons convicted of crime, from landing upon our shores; but no interference with the vested rights of foreigners.

The rational of the Know Nothings for the 21 year wait was that if a baby born in the United States had to wait until it was 21 years old he could vote, that immigrants were being permitted to “jump the line” and vote sooner than native-born Americans. But really what the Know Nothings wanted to was to destroy the ability of immigrant communities to use the ballot box. In many localities and some states Know Nothing majorities took power. The Massachusetts legislature, which was dominated by Know Nothings, passed a law barring immigrants from voting for two additional years after they became United States citizens.

The 1856 platform Know Nothing Party was synopsized by a Know Nothing supporter:

(1) Repeal of all Naturalization Laws.

(2) None but Americans for office.

(3) A pure American Common School system.

(4) War to the hilt, on political Romanism.

(5) Opposition to the formation of Military Companies, composed of Foreigners.

(6) The advocacy of a sound, healthy and safe Nationality.

(7) Hostility to all Papal influences, when brought to bear against the Republic.

(8) American Constitutions & American sentiments.

(9) More stringent & effective Emigration Laws.

(10) The amplest protection to Protestant Interests.

(11) The doctrines of the revered Washington.

(12) The sending back of all foreign paupers.

(13) Formation of societies to protect American interests.

(14) Eternal enmity to all those who attempt to carry out the principles of a foreign Church or State.

(15) Our Country, our whole Country, and nothing but our Country.

(16) Finally,-American Laws, and American Legislation, and Death to all foreign influences, whether in high places or low

In addition to their violent acts, the use of the courts and political intimidation the Know Nothings waged a culture war against immigrants. Latin mottoes on courthouses were replaced by English translations. Actions were taken to remove immigrants who had become naturalized citizens from public offices and civil service jobs as well as to use the government to persecute Catholic churches. In Philadelphia, all naturalized citizens on the police force were fired, including non-Catholics who has supported Catholic politicians, and in Boston, a special board was set up to investigate the sex lives of nuns and other supposed crimes of the Catholic church.


In the political upheaval of the 1850s Nativists tried to find homes in the different political parties. Some Know Nothings who were abolitionists became part of the new Republican Party, and Abraham Lincoln condemned them in harsh terms. He wrote his friend Joshua Speed about the hypocrisy that they displayed by supposedly being against the oppression of blacks while willing to oppress immigrants:

“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”

As an organized movement, the Know Nothings died out by the early 1860s, migrating to different parties and causes. In the North many became part of the pro-slavery Copperhead movement, which opposed Lincoln on emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment. In the post-war South the anti-Catholic parts of the Nativist movement found a home in the Ku Klux Klan and other white terrorist organizations which also used racist and nativist propaganda to perpetuate violence, and disenfranchise emancipated blacks in the decades following the end of the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction. The Nativist and anti-immigrant sentiments have periodically found a home in different parts of the country and the electorate. Violence was used against Chinese, Japanese and Filipino immigrants on the West Coast, against Mexicans in the Southwest, Italians, Slavs, Eastern Europeans and Jews in the Northeast.

Sadly it seems that the Know Nothing is being turned against others today. I find it strange that there are a host of people, mostly on the political right that are doing their best in their local communities, state legislatures and even Congress to roll back civil liberties for various groups of people. There is a certain amount of xenophobia in regard to immigrants of all types, especially those with darker skin white Americans, but some of the worst is reserved for Arabs and other Middle-Easterners, even Arab Christians who are presumed as all Middle Easterners are to be Moslem terrorists, even those who have been here decades and hold respectable places in their communities.

But immigrants are not alone, there seems to be in some states a systematized attempt to disenfranchise the one group of people that has almost always born the brunt of legal and illegal discrimination, African Americans.

Likewise there have been numerous attempts to roll back the rights of women, especially working women; the use of the legislature by religious conservatives to place limits on the reproductive rights of women, holding them to the standard of a religion that they do not practice. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling for Marriage Equality in Obergfell v. Hodges there still are numerous attempts to curb any civil rights, including the right to marriage or civil unions of the LGBT community.


As I said, this is nothing new, that hatred and intolerance of some toward anyone who is different than them, who they deem to be a threat is easily exploited by politicians, pundits and preachers, none of whom care for anything but their prosperity, ideology, religion, or cause. While I would not call them a new incarnation of the Know Nothings, I have to notice the similarities in their message and the way that they push their agenda. As for those among them who claim the mantle of Christ and call themselves Christians I am troubled, because I know that when religion is entwined with political movements that are based in repressing or oppressing others that it does not end well. As Brian Cox who played Herman Goering in the television miniseries Nuremberg told the American Army psychologist Captain Gustave Gilbert played by Matt Craven “The segregation laws in your country and the anti-Semitic laws in mine, are they not just a difference of degree?

That difference of degree does matter, and there have been and still could be times when the frustration and anger of people, especially religious people can be whipped into a frenzy of violence and government sanctioned oppression by unscrupulous politicians, preachers and pundits. History is replete with examples of how it can happen. When I think of this I am reminded of the close of Spencer Tracy’s remarks in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg:

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.”

So for today I will leave it there. I probably will return to the similarities between the Know Nothings and Trump, but not this moment. I actually do have a life and want to write about other things. But that being said, there are times when history rhymes, and this is one of them.

So have a wonderful day.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil rights, ethics, faith, History, News and current events, Political Commentary

The Problem of Scruples

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eugene Davidson in his book on the Nuremberg Trials wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

Trump and “Total Solutions” 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

On this day in 1941 it appeared to Hitler and his henchmen that the Wehrmacht would soon defeat Stalin’s Red Army and Complete Hitler’s conquest of the European continent. In the cold blooded calculations of the Nazis it was time to begin the planning to settle their accounts with the Jews. On that day, seventy-six years ago Herman Goering, acting on the orders of Adolf Hilter sent the following order to Reinhard Heydrich, the head of Himmler’s Sicherheitsdienst and the Reichssicherheitshauptamt or Reichs Security Main Office: 

Berlin, July 31st 1941

To: Gruppenfuhrer Heydrich

Supplementing the task assigned to you by the decree of January 24th 1939, to solve the Jewish problem by means of evacuation and emigration in the best possible way by according to present conditions, I hereby charge you to carry out preparations as regards organizational, financial, and material matters for a total solution (Gesamtlosung) of the Jewish question in all the territories of Europe under German occupation.

Where the competency of other organizations touches on this matter, the organizations are to collaborate. 

I charge you further to submit to me as soon as possible a general plan of the administrative material and financial measures necessary for the carrying out the desired final solution (Endlosung) of the Jewish question.”

Goering

That order set the stage for the completion of a program of mass killing that had already began as Heydrich’s Einsatzgruppen followed the Wehrmacht into the Soviet Union killing hundreds of thousands of Jews up close and personal. The order would eventually form the basis of the final solution which would be fully implemented as policy after the Wansee Conference of January 20th 1942 and Heydrich’s killing by Czech commandos not long afterward. During that time men who had previously unblemished records of service sacrificed their sacred honor to carry out Hitler’s decrees, while many more remained as silent witnesses of their evil deeds. 

The German program of genocide was replicated by Stalin against Jews and other non-Russians of the Societ Union, without the Nazi’s racial bloodlust. 

Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin wrote something that we should be concerned with today as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin each work to secure their greatness on the lives of others deemed to be their enemies: 

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

So far only Putin has used a policy of mass murder to achieve his goals, but if actions follow words, then President Trump will not be far behind his Russian tutor in tyranny. The President has already named who he blames for his failures: liberals, Democrats, blacks, LGBTQ people, Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants, Muslims, women, the news media, educators, scientists, and more recently the former GOP mainstream headed by Senators John McCain, Susan Collins, Lisa, Murkowski, and his former chief of staff Reince Priebus. 

In the past few days I know of a number of politically liberal military officers, all junior chaplains, whose conservative chaplain superiors are threatening their careers and freedom to voice their faith online, simply because they and their churches stand against Trump’s latest attack on transgender military personnel. This, despite the fact that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has said that as of now there is no change in policy towards transgender personnel and the fact that chaplains may faithfully stand by and proclaim their churches or religions teachings, even if they conflict with the views of those in power. 

My question is simple: If the President continues threatening American citizens, will he finally decide that his opponents need to be liquidated to achieve his goals? In light of the President’s words and tirades against his opponents, which grow increasingly more violent on a daily basis, this is a fair, if still hypothetical question. But even so, since he, and many of his supporters openly speak of using violence against their opposition, and voice their admiration for Putin, Turkey’s Erdogin, and other dictators, it must be asked especially when a Fox News host, Jesse Watters, even said “A lot of people wish President Trump was a dictator…” 

A dictator? If I recall correctly our founders warned of us of this day as they debated the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

I just wonder, if the President were to give such orders, just who in his administration or among its allies will be the modern Goering and Heydrich? Who will be the men, or women, who given the chance would order, coordinate, and maybe even kill for the President to set the stage whatever final solution he is attempting to achieve. I wonder who will write the order after Trump tweets it, and who will sell their souls to execute it. Honestly, I don’t know who will eventually do that. All I know is that I take my lead from General Ludwig Beck who resigned his office rather than lead an invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and who gave up his life in the attempt to overthrow Hitler in July of 1944: 

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

I do hope others will do the same if the President issues orders that are illegal, unconstitutional, or go against American values or international law. There was a time that I could not imagine that happening, but with every passing day of the Trump presidency I become less sure of that. 

Likewise, I wonder who will get the blame for the catastrophes unleashed by our President, but based on his past actions and current words, there is one person that will not accept any blame, and that is the President. He never has in done so in any private, public, or political venue. 

So in the midst of this I am reminded of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and I must ask the question he did: 

“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, and straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?”

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

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Filed under ethics, History, holocaust, laws and legislation, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary, Religion

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

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

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

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

steinhoff6

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

steinhoff WW II

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

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

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

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

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

10665323_10154041610267059_5277331492232210946_n

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

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

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

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

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

Eugene Davidson in his book on the Nuremberg Trials wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, holocaust, leadership, Military, News and current events, Political Commentary

Reflections on Indoctrination & Personal Responsibility

IMG_1931

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

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

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

steinhoff6

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

steinhoff WW II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eugene Davidson in his book on the Nuremberg Trials wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow we will know more about our nation’s slide into the abyss if authoritarianism as Donald Trump continues his unrelenting march to the GOP nomination. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

Never Forget: The Undeniable Evidence

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have been writing about the Holocaust and genocide for most of the last week. This is in large part due to teaching my ethics elective at the Staff College during which time we examined the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. 

 In doing so I decided to re-watchthe movie Nuremberg which is about the trial of the major Nazi War Criminals. That trial exposed to the world the evil of the Nazi regime. Massive amounts of documentary evidence were introduced, much from the precise records kept by the Nazis themselves. It may be hard to believe, but those who ordered and directed these crimes were proud of what they did, believing that they were doing the world a favor, but it was not something that they felt that they could speak too openly about. Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and the German police told SS leaders that the Jews were a bacillus that had to be eradicated. At Posen on October 4th 1943 Himmler reminded the senior leaders of the SS of their “duty” in this regard. That speech, with its English and German transcripts can be found here:

The audio of Himmler’s remarks is chilling, as are the written and photographic evidence compiled by the Nazis themselves. The meticulous nature of the Nazis in documenting what they did would be used against their surviving leaders. The Allied troops who marched into Germany and the countries that the Nazis occupied were stunned at what they found the massive amounts of documents, photos, and films, the meticulous records and the human evidence that the Nazis could not hide; the victims of Nazi inhumanity in the liberated concentration camps. Nazi Armaments Minister, Albert Speer wrote of the evidence presented during the trial:

“For many months the documents and testimonies accumulated…. It was horrible, and only could have been borne because our nerves became more blunted from session to session. To this day photographs, documents, and orders keep coming back to me. They were so monstrous that they seemed unbelievable, and yet none of the defendants doubted their genuineness.” (Speer, Inside the Third Reich p.513)

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Among the most devastating evidence shown at Nuremberg was a film shot by Allied film crews as they liberated the camps. If a picture speaks a thousand words, the film speaks millions. The scene was described by John and Ann Tusa in their book The Nuremberg Trial:

“There was to be an even stronger reaction that afternoon when the prosecution showed a film to the court of the concentration camps as they had been found by the advancing Allies…. No one who ever saw it in court ever forgot it. A view recorded: ‘The impression we get is an endless river of white bodies flowing across the screen, bodies with ribs sticking through their chests, with pipe-stem legs and battered skulls and eyeless faces and grotesque thin arms reaching for the sky… On the screen there is no end to the bodies, tumbling bodies and bodies in mounds and single bodies with holes between the eyes and bodies being shoved over cliffs into common graves and bodies pushed like dirt by giant bulldozers, and bodies that are not bodies that are not bodies at all but charred bits of bone and flesh lying upon a crematory grate made of bits of steel rail laid upon blackened wood ties.” (Tusa, The Nuremberg Trial location 2563 of 8828 Amazon Kindle edition)

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Bergen Belsen

The film left those in the courtroom in stunned silence, the judges left and the chief judge, Sir Geoffrey Lawrence “had not even managed to speak the usual formal words of adjournment.” Even some of the Nazi leaders who were on trial were shocked by what they saw, but few took any responsibility. Many denied knowing anything about the camps of the crimes, some were shocked, and even cried, but most shifted blame to others. Herman Goering told Gustave Gilbert “Everyone was laughing with me and then they showed that awful film and it just spoiled everything.” But one defendant, Hans Frank, the Governor General of occupied Poland told Gilbert, “Don’t let everyone tell you that they had no idea. Everyone sensed that there was something terribly wrong… even if we did not the details. They just didn’t want to know all the details.” (Tusa, The Nuremberg Trial, location 2576) When the trial was concluded and the defendants made their closing statements, most condemned the killings, but only Speer admitted having some share of responsibility for them, the others all denied their own share of responsibility.

I think that it is important for people to watch the film. It is not easy to do, but if we are to ensure that such things never happen again, we have to show it, and we have to educate those who have no contact with, or no direct knowledge of these crimes. There are few survivors left to tell the tale, it is for us the living to ensure that these crimes never happen again.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under crime, History, nazi germany, world war two in europe