Tag Archives: History

The Nature Of Evil

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Thirty years ago when I was in seminary my Philosophy Of Religion Professor, Dr. Yandall Woodfin told our class that until we had death with the realities of evil, death, and suffering we had not yet done Christian theology. He was right, but I have not learned that by wrestling with theology per say, but rather human experience as recorded by history, especially my studies of the Holocaust, and American Slavery, as well as what the and as observed in my life as a trauma and surgery department chaplain in a number of large and medium sized hospitals, including Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.

Since that time I have witnessed hundreds of violent deaths. Most in the United States but some in Iraq. I have seen cruelty, committed by human beings that only can be described as evil. I have also spoken directly with men who killed in cold blood, including an assassination type hit on a man and his son who owed him fifty dollars. That man was a Navy Hospital Corpsmen with a wife and a child, his victims a couple of locals. When I looked in his eyes there was no feeling, it didn’t matter what he had did, he was a classic sociopath. He had no empathy for the men he killed or the devastation he left in the lives of his wife and child. The state he committed the murder in does have the death penalty, but he received two back to back life sentences. The Navy discharged him and that cut off my attempts to communicate with him.

But the question always comes back to the nature of evil itself, and the willing ignorance of many people of it. Having come face to face with this man and others like him, I have to agree with the comments of Captain and psychologist Gustave Gilbert about the Nazi War Criminals at Nuremberg:

“In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trails 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”

I have to admit that the amount of ignorance in the defense of evil that I see daily is simply mind blowing. It makes me shake my head. But then I cannot be surprised anymore. About two years ago I saw a poll in which nine percent of Americans said that holding White Supremacist or Neo-Nazi views and ideology was okay. 

Now nine percent doesn’t sound like a big number or anything to worry about until you extrapolate that percentage into the numbers of people who hold that view. Based on the population of the United States that nine percent equals about thirty million individuals. Now I’m sure that many of these patriotic Americans are not card carrying Klansmen or Nazis, but the fact that they would turn a blind eye to the evil of both in the name of some incomprehensible moral equivalence as did President Trump after Charlottesville is quite disturbing. Perhaps it is his example that enables them to be so open about their acceptance of evil. 

A while back on my Facebook page a friend of a friend commented on an article which discussed new research that indicates that the Nazis in their occupation of the Ukraine killed perhaps a half million more Jews than previously believed. That woman made the comment that there were others, and yes that is true. Had the Nazis won the war tens of millions more of the Jews as well as the Slavs who they referred to as Untermenschen or subhumans would have been killed, either directly or through a policy of intentional starvation. But make no bones about it, from the months that Hitler spent in Landsberg prison for his role in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 writing Mein Kampf until the end of the war as the Red Army closed in on his bunker in Berlin, the Jews above all were the object of his personal hatred. 

Close to six million Jews and millions of others were killed by the Nazis. Millions of Africans were enslaved in the United States and even after emancipation were by law treated as less than full citizens. Under Jim Crow they were discriminated against at every level of government including states that were neither a part of the Confederacy or not even States when the Civil War was fought, they were impressed as forced labor under the Black Codes and thousands were murdered, often in public by people who brought their children to watch Black men die. 

But these people were not just numbers. It’s all to easy to blur them into a mass of dehumanized humanity by talking about the millions, when every single one was a human being, yes, I believe created in the image of God. We have to see their faces and we have to recognize their essential humanity as men and women, children, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, husbands and wives, whose lives were in the case of the Jews obliterated as if they never existed, and others like African slaves who were simply property.

I explained that in quite a few fewer words and told her that she shouldn’t challenge me on the subject, which of course she did. So I went into more detail and shot her argument down in flames, to the cheers of other commentators on the post. When you have spent much of your academic life studying a subject it really gets old hearing people make excuse for evil by trying to minimize that evil, especially against the targeted people. 

It’s like Confederate apologists saying that the institution of slavery which enslaved millions of Africans was actually worse for White people. Yes it is true that many poor whites benefited little from slavery, but they were not bought and sold as chattel, sold away from their wives and children, whipped, and marched across country in chains to new owners, or yes even killed simply because they were not considered human beings but property. 

Sadly, as Dr. Timothy Snyder wrote “The history of the Holocaust is not over. Its precedent is eternal, and its lessons have not yet been learned.” 

So there are about 30 million Americans who believe that holding Nazi and White Supremacist beliefs is okay. A few years ago I would believed that the number was lower, but after seven months of living in Trump’s America I believe that it might be even higher than the poll indicated. I only say this based on the postings I see on various social media platforms, news comment pages, the proliferation of websites that cater to these beliefs, and the lack of real condemnation of such individuals by the majority of the GOP Senate and House majorities, and the outright defense of them by other GOP representatives at the Federal and State level. These people have not learned the lessons of the Holocaust, nor American slavery. 

Again I don’t believe that the majority of these people are real card carrying Nazis or Klansmen. Most would probably be considered great citizens: they work, they raise families, they go to church, and many would claim that they have “a Black or Jewish friend” so obviously they cannot be racists. But that being said they turn a blind eye to the evil of race hatred and White supremacy, and sometimes join in on social media meme wars where they mock the victims. But no matter what, not condemning the purveyors of White Supremacist or Neo-Nazi ideology, or by using the arguments of moral equivalence to minimize those crimes against humanity makes these people as complicit in the past, present, and future crimes of Naziism as if they were. 

They may be ordinary people, as seemingly normal as anyone else, but as Hannah Arendt noted about Adolf Eichmann and other Nazis who advanced the destruction of the Jews was that they were so normal. She wrote: 

“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.” 

That my friends is as true as the day she wrote it after Eichmann’s trial, as it is today, and why we must constantly educate people in every forum possible that it is all too easy to become either a perpetrator or evil or a bystander. As Snyder wrote: “It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander. It is tempting to say that a Nazi murderer is beyond the pale of understanding. …Yet to deny a human being his human character is to render ethics impossible. To yield to this temptation, to find other people inhuman, is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position. To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.” 

Since they were human beings the Nazis were not unique to history. In every era of history human beings have committed atrocities, many in the name of some kind of ethnic, religious, or nationalist ideology of supremacy that held other people to be less than human. That may sound harsh, but it is all too true based on 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.” 

In the movie Judgment at Nuremberg the judge played by Spencer Tracy noted something important about the defendants in the trial. His words need to be heard today as well:

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

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

It is high time that we learn that again and that we make up our minds to oppose the ideologies that made the Holocaust and Slavery possible. As Hannah Arendt observed: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

But then there are those who have no problem with it, sociopaths who have an extreme absence of empathy.

So until tomorrow, 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under crime, ER's and Trauma, ethics, faith, History, holocaust, Military, ministry, nazi germany, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

Silence in the Face Of Evil is Evil Itself

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the words “silence in the face of evil is evil itself.”

Today I blocked and deleted a former friend from a church I went to decades ago because of his attitude towards me and what I post on Facebook. I get tired of the hypocrisy of people who pretend to be patriotic when in fact they openly support a President who openly denies his oath when he said today that he would accept “dirt” on his political opponents from foreign sources.

This is a very difficult article to write because truthfully I believe that civility and mutual respect should be an ideal that we as Americans should not retreat from, as John F. Kennedy noted:

“So let us begin a new remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” 

I have written about that subject a number of times, the last being on November 22nd 2016 shortly after President Trump’s election and on the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. However, since that time I have seen the President lead a descent into depravity that I fully comprehended then, although I hoped for a different outcome. Trust me, as an American with a profound respect for the office of the President that is what I wanted, but it didn’t happen.

The fact is that the President has in his words, deeds, and tweets destroyed any hope of our political divide being healed, or of Americans of different viewpoints being able to reconcile their differences anytime in the foreseeable future. He stokes the hatred and division almost on an hourly basis, and of course his opponents having become wise to him are rolling up their sleeves and fighting back.

Too me that is an unfortunate situation that might become a tragedy for the United States and the world, as Abraham Lincoln noted “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” To GOP Congressman Steve King of Iowa the sight and sound of Trump’s opponents is like “Harpers Ferry” and what comes next will be “Fort Sumter.” Since King proudly displays the Confederate Battle Flag in his office I know exactly what side of this fight that he is on.

The fact is that he and many like him want bloodshed, they want Civil War, they want to remake the Union in a way that Jefferson Davis and his band of traitors failed to do. As a historian of the period with a book awaiting publication the fact is that in the end it comes down to the fact that King, many of the President’s supporters and quite probably the President himself are all White Supremacists. They want a full and complete return to White Man’s Rule and the subservience of all non-white races and non-Christian religions to it. They are the Know Nothings of the North and Slave Power Secessionists of the South rolled into one package of ignorance, incivility, and hatred.

I write often about comparisons of the attitudes and actions administration and its supporters to Nazi Germany, but truth be told there is a lot of dirty laundry in our own history that sheds light on Trump and his supporters.

The fact is that for nearly three decades the vast majority of Northerners were too polite to criticize the egregious actions of the Know Nothings in their midst or the Southern Slave Power Block that dominated the presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court for the three decades prior to the War of the Rebellion, also known as the American Civil War, or the War Between the States. Honestly, I think that the term ascribed to it by many Union Veterans in the Grand Army of the Republic after the war, the “War of the Rebellion” is the best.

Those opposed to the Know Nothings and Slave Power Block were condemned as being rude, impolite, and worse. Some were physical assaulted. In 1856 Senator Charles Sumner was attacked by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina on the floor of the Senate for his speech against the Kansas Nebraska Act. Sumner was beaten until he was unconscious and Brooks’ heavy cane which he used to conduct the attack broke. Brooks continued to beat Sumner aided by Representative Lawrence Keitt also of South Carolina who brandishing a pistol threatened Senators coming to his aid. Sumner has proclaimed no threats of violence but only spoken the truth about the Act and those that supported it. So much for civility and now.

The scurrilous and overtly violent threats against minorities and civil rights advocates by conservatives, especially White Christian conservatives have continued unabated since from the ante-Bellum South and the Know Nothing North, through the War of the Rebellion, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, to the modern day. Whole political campaigns including that of George H.W. Bush run by Lee Atwater turned on the demonization of African Americans. The same is true regarding the Republican revolution led by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, and again even more so from the time that Candidate Donald Trump descended to the lobby of Trump Tower in 2015 until now. The President proclaims that White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis are “very fine people.” 

The President and many of his followers including administration officials like Stephen Miller set the tone while Presidential spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders lies and denies the President’s words and vilifies anyone that dares to question her. So when she is asked to leave a restaurant, or when Miller or DHS Secretary Nielsen are shamed when trying to enter Mexican restaurants it makes makes my heart bleed. People who have no compassion, no sense of empathy and behave as sociopaths and then act the victim when the tables are turned only deserve scorn.

Their anti-immigrant and often blatantly racist tropes of the President, his administration, and his supporters on the Fox Propaganda Network, the Right Wing media, the Putrid Princes of the Captive Conservative Church, and his assorted sordid supporters should be condemned and opposed around the clock. If they are not then any of us who remain silent knowing the evil of these policies is as guilty as anyone that turned their backs on the Jews in Nazi Germany. The higher the office the greater the guilt and culpability.

That being said if had the chance to see any one of them in a public setting I would not resort to public shaming. I do not own a restaurant or business so I could not ask them to leave. However, that being said if any of them the President himself presented themselves to me at my chapel or any civilian church that I might be celebrating the Eucharist I would deny them communion which from a Christian point of view is “a fate worse than a fate worse than death.”

Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.” 

As for me I must tell the truth and protest against the violence and the arbitrary pride of power exhibited by the Trump administration and its supporters. I could not live with myself if I didn’t do so. Some might think this political and in some sense it is, but it is entirely based on my understanding of the Christian faith and the very premise of the founders of this country, that phrase in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among them being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

If need be I would die for that faith and that proposition and I will not be silent in the face of evil. I will live and die as a Christian who believes those sacred words of secular scripture found in the Declaration.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, ethics, faith, History, News and current events, Political Commentary

A Week Of Momentous Historical Events


D-Day, June 6th 1944

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am posting a small thought to begin the week. For those that do not know, the next several days are full of the anniversaries of many historical events which still reverberate to our time.

The Evacuation Of Dunkirk

On June 3rd 1940, the British finished the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and some French forces from Europe at Dunkirk, though defeated, the British action preserved the British Army and kept Britain in the war.


The Battle Of Midway 

From June 4th through June 6th 1942 a small American fleet defeated a much larger, more experienced and better equipped fleet at the Battle of Midway. The battle did not end the war, but it ensured that Japan never could win the war against the United States in the Pacific. It was a turning point. It has rightly been called an “Incredible Victory” as all the elements that make war what it is, the element of chance, the element of friction, and the  element of surprise all broke the American way. The Japanese leaders, and for that matter many if not the vast majority of their soldiers and sailors were full of hubris, believing themselves invincible they were decisively defeated.

Two Years later on June 6th 1944, Allied forces landed on the Normandy Peninsula of France to begin their long awaited attack on Nazi occupied Europe. The invasion, code named Operation Overlord did not end the war, but coupled with the Soviet offensive against the German Army Group Center which began just two weeks later, Operation Bagration, it was the beginning of the end for Hitler’s Germany.

Battle of Belleau Wood, 1918

Twenty-six years earlier U.S. Marines and Army soldiers turned back the Germans at the Battle of Belleau Wood near Chateau-Thierry France. The effort blocked a German drive on Paris, giving the Allies the time to begin a counter-offensive that would end the war.


Senator Robert F. Kennedy lays Mortally Wounded after being shot by Sirhan Sirhan 

But in addition to the battles other important events shook the world, in 1919 the Congress passed the 19th Amendment, which when ratified gave women the right to vote. In 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down by the assassin Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles after winning the Democratic Party primary. He would have been the odds on favorite to defeat Republican Richard Nixon in the general election. On June 8th 1789 James Madison introduced twelve amendments to the U. S. Constitution, of which ten were ratified by the states to become known as the Bill of Rights. 

On June 8th 1967, the USS Liberty, a surveillance ship, was attacked by Israeli ships and aircraft during the Six Day Warthe attack resulted in the death of 34 American sailors and the wounding of 171 more.

Of course there are numerous other events that took place at different times on these days, some which were very important, and others which are interesting but less important in terms of their historical impact. I’ll be writing about some of these events in the coming days.

Have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, Political Commentary, World War II at Sea, world war two in europe, world war two in the pacific

“To Be Ignorant of What Occurred Before…” The Willful Ignorance Of History

Statue-of-Cicero-Stock-Photo-rome

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been writing a lot about the Holocaust of late and as I was working on my latest book I came across a quote by British Historian Laurence Rees from his book “Auschwitz, a New History:

“Soon the last survivor and the last perpetrator from Auschwitz will have joined those murdered at the camp. There will be no one on this earth left alive who has a personal experience of the place. When that happens, there is a terrible danger that this history will merge into the distant past and just become one terrible event among many…. But that should not be allowed to happen.

We must judge behavior by the context of the times, and judged by the context of mid-twentieth century, sophisticated European culture, Auschwitz and the Nazis’ “Final Solution” represent the lowest act in all history. Through their crime, the Nazis brought into the world an awareness of what educated, technologically advanced human beings can do – as long as they possess a cold heart. Once allowed into the world, knowledge of what they did must not be unlearned. It lies there – ugly, inert, waiting to be discovered by each new generation. A warning for us, and for those who will come after. (Rees, Auschwitz p.299)

I have been reading about the declining number of students studying history, and the relative ignorance of Americans as a whole as to history, including the gross and willful ignorance of it by the President. As a historian that frightens me.

The great Roman philosopher and political theorist Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote, “History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquities.”

Those who follow my writings here on this site know that I am a historian and that much of what I write, even regarding current events, is framed by history and the stories of those who came before us. That is one of my driving passions, a passion for historical truth, and a passion to ensure that the past is not forgotten.

Cicero is an important figure in history. He resisted the moves toward the dictatorship of the Caesars and would die for his belief in the Republic. As such he inspired the founders of the United States, including Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Adams wrote of the Roman:

“As all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united than Cicero, his authority should have great weight.”

Sadly, it seems that our society, and even our education system is disconnecting itself from history. We have pretty much stopped teaching history in schools, and often what is taught is myth. As such we have become a society that through its ignorance of the past is ever repeating the worst aspects of our history. As a whole we are ignorant of our past, and that ignorance is demonstrated by many of our political, business, journalism, educational, and military leaders on a daily basis.

Cicero wrote “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”

Our lives must be woven together with those who came before us, without that sacred connection to the past, we endanger the future, and doom those who follow us. Cicero wrote, “The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.” Thus, it is for us the living to remember and never forget those who have gone before. That is why I write.

At some point I will write more on things that Cicero wrote and said, including political and social lessons that are as relevant today as when he wrote them, but as historian George Santayana noted: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I fear that the President and his sycophants in the GOP and his Cult like followers in their ignorance of history and willful disregard for the Constitution and our institutions will end in the kind of political disaster that brought an end to the Roman Republic.

These are perilous times and I am afraid that the lessons of Cicero, Santayana, and Rees have not been learned.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Psychology Of Dictatorship: Why Don’t We Learn From History?

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Another weekend, another attack on a synagogue, and another crazed rally in which the President again made wild swings directed at his opponents and admitted it was his “sick idea” to try to send detainees from the border to Sanctuary Cities. His words, his sick idea, even as his Attorney General hints that he will not submit to testifying to Congress on the Muller Report.

Normal American Presidents and their officials do not carry on this way. Dictators do, but not American Presidents, however it is part and parcel of everything that the President and his administration says or does. So tonight I am reposting something that I wrote a while back after reading British Military Historian Sir Basil Liddell-Hart’s little, but important book, “Why Don’t We Learn From History.”

NPG x25404; Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart by Howard Coster

B.H. Liddell-Hart

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have Read the short but poignant little but by the British military historian B.H. Liddell-Hart entitled Why Don’t We Learn from History, several times. The book was written in not long before his death in 1970 and it is good quite good. It deals with a number of issues, including the conflict between history and propaganda; or when faith, especially religious faith as treated as historic or scientific fact; and when propaganda or faith is preached as if it were history, if it were truth. In doing this he also contrasted democracy and lure of totalitarianism.

Liddell-Hart was a realist, especially about democracy and totalitarianism. He served on the Western Front in the First World War and was wounded in a German gas attack. Between the wars he was one of the theorists of armored warfare and the use of tanks in a combined arms force, and he was also quite observant of the trends toward totalitarianism in the late 1920s and 1930s.

Hart, like many others admitted the inefficiencies of democracy, however, he realized that it was far less dangerous than the “stupidity” of totalitarianism. In fact it was important for him to note just how this inefficient system was for freedom. He wrote:

“What is of value in “England” and “America” and worth defending is its tradition of freedom, the guarantee of its vitality. Our civilization, like the Greek, has, for all its blundering way, taught the value of freedom, of criticism of authority, and of harmonising this with order. Anyone who urges a different system, for efficiency’s sake, is betraying the vital tradition.”

There is much to ponder in his book and I will be posting some more of my thoughts on it, but when I looked at it again I was struck by just how much Liddell-Hart in his description of a despot described President Donald Trump through the his campaign and after his election and inauguration.

“We learn from history that self-made despotic rulers follow a standard pattern. In gaining power: They exploit, consciously or unconsciously, a state of popular dissatisfaction with the existing regime or of hostility between different sections of the people. They attack the existing regime violently and combine their appeal to discontent with unlimited promises (which, if successful, they fulfil only to a limited extent). They claim that they want absolute power for only a short time (but “find” subsequently that the time to relinquish it never comes). They excite popular sympathy by presenting the picture of a conspiracy against them and use this as a lever to gain a firmer hold at some crucial stage.” 

Once authoritarian, despotic, or dictatorial leaders gain power through the democratic process they seldom deviate from how they behave when seeking power. Liddell-Hart wrote:

“We learn from history that time does little to alter the psychology of dictatorship. The effect of power on the mind of the man who possesses it, especially when he has gained it by successful aggression, tends to be remarkably similar in every age and in every country.”

So please, take a breathe for a second and think about this in terms of President Trump and his actions during his first two weeks in office. Liddell-Hart noted that once a despot achieves power that their reign is marked by the following types of events:

“On gaining power:  They soon begin to rid themselves of their chief helpers, “discovering” that those who brought about the new order have suddenly become traitors to it. 

They suppress criticism on one pretext or another and punish anyone who mentions facts which, however true, are unfavourable to their policy. They enlist religion on their side, if possible, or, if its leaders are not compliant, foster a new kind of religion subservient to their ends. 

They spend public money lavishly on material works of a striking kind, in compensation for the freedom of spirit and thought of which they have robbed the public. 

They manipulate the currency to make the economic position of the state appear better than it is in reality. 

They ultimately make war on some other state as a means of diverting attention from internal conditions and allowing discontent to explode outward. 

They use the rallying cry of patriotism as a means of riveting the chains of their personal authority more firmly on the people. 

They expand the superstructure of the state while undermining its foundations by breeding sycophants at the expense of self-respecting collaborators, by appealing to the popular taste for the grandiose and sensational instead of true values, and by fostering a romantic instead of a realistic view, thus ensuring the ultimate collapse, under their successors if not themselves, of what they have created. 

This political confidence trick, itself a familiar string of tricks, has been repeated all down the ages. Yet it rarely fails to take in a fresh generation.”

Now pause for a moment. This is happening all over the world. It began again in Vladimir Putin’s Russia around 2010 and under a veneer of democratic “voting” Putin has become for all intents and purposes the dictator of Russia for as long as he desires. In Turkey Recip Erdogan has done the same thing, and it has also started in Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. In China President Xi managed to abrogate the Chinese Communist Constitution to become ruler for life.

In the United States Donald Trump has been in office for about 27 months. Look at how he is behaving. Read his words, examine his actions, and not just during his presidency but throughout his business career and his campaign for the presidency. Then look at how his followers take it all in.

Then, take the time to let Liddell-Hart’s words sink in.

This is something to think about.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Bearing Witness: My Mission

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The words on the polished stone in the hall of remembrance at the U.S. Holocaust Museum are as much as a somber warning as a command:

Only Guard Yourself and Guard Your Soul Carefully, Lest You Forget the Things Your Eyes Saw, Lest These Things Depart Your Heart All the Days Of Your Life, and You Shall Make Them Known to Your Children and to Your Children’s Children.

Last May I visited the United States Holocaust Museum. Since I study the Weimar and Nazi period, the Holocaust and the war crimes trials this was important. While in Germany I have been to the Dachau, Buchenwald, Flossenburg, and Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camps, the T4 Euthanasia Program Center at Hadamar, the Palace Of Justice in Nuremberg where the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials (as well as the Nazi era Nuremberg laws) were prosecuted, the Wannsee House where the Final Solution was implemented, the Memorials to the German Resistance in Berlin, the Sophie Scholl White Rose Museum, and the Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism; this visit, in the United States was important. I will be continuing to visit Holocaust sites in Germany when I go there this Fall, but last year I finally was able to stake out the time to visit the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today, more than at any time in his Presidency, I truly believe that under President Trump that the United States is just a Reichstag Fire moment the usurpation Of the Constitution and the beginning of a dictatorship. I believe that, the Muller Investigation and the Democratic Party House Majority notwithstanding, we entering a phase of history when not only Trump supporters, but even some Trump opponents would do nothing in a crisis and either become willing participants in tyranny, bystanders to it or victims of it. As I walked through the museum and remembered all of my visits to Holocaust and other sites in Germany I realized again that it can happen again.

When I finished with most of my visit I went to the Hall of Remembrance and sat for a long time in silence, a silence facing the words on that stone, and that made me realize again just how easy it would be to happen again, and the choices that all of us must make if it is not to happen again in our time.

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

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

I cannot be a bystander. This Saturday I will be speaking on the topic of bearing witness to the Holocaust as the last witnesses pass away and the Holocaust denial industry ramps up and gains supporters in the high reaches of governments around the world. It is entitled, Lest We Forget: Walk, Remember, and Bear Witness at Temple Israel in Norfolk. The premise is that In order to bear witness today the those who want to prevent genocide today need to study it, and then go to the places hallowed by the blood of the victims in order to internalize it and speak for those whose voices cry out from the grave, “never again!”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, holocaust, nazi germany, Political Commentary

We Could Use a Man (or Woman) Like Franklin Roosevelt Again

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

If I had to place myself on the political spectrum it would be in the area occupied by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I am definitely a liberal, I can no longer claim to be a conservative by any means of the imagination, but as a historian I am very careful in embracing the extremes of left, or right wing populism, the very things which are driving much of the political division in our country. In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt was wise enough to state:

“Say that civilization is a tree which, as it grows, continually produces rot and dead wood. The radical says: “Cut it down.” The conservative says: “Don’t touch it.” The liberal compromises: “Let’s prune, so that we lose neither the old trunk nor the new branches.” This campaign is waged to teach the country to march upon its appointed course, the way of change, in an orderly march, avoiding alike the revolution of radicalism and the revolution of conservatism.”

Of course there were quite a few conservatives and progressives of his time who loathes and attempted to obstruct, hamper, or defeat Roosevelt’s New Deal. But what many didn’t understand was that Roosevelt was willing to risk failure so long as he learned from it and succeeded in the end.

As Historian John Meacham wrote:

“Disappointed liberals lobbied the president to move more quickly on social and economic issues. “You’ll never be a good politician,” FDR once told Eleanor, who frequently presented such pleas to her husband. “You are too impatient.” At a White House meeting, Roosevelt parried a questioner with a lesson in practical politics. Lincoln, Roosevelt said, “was a sad man because he couldn’t get it all at once. And nobody can. Maybe you would make a much better President than I have. Maybe you will, someday. If you ever sit here, you will learn that you cannot, just by shouting from the housetops, get what you want all the time.” He sometimes turned to sports to make his point. “I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat,” Roosevelt remarked. “What I seek is the highest possible batting average.”

Likewise, Meacham noted:

“He argued that leadership, even his own, was imperfect. A wise public, Roosevelt believed, would give a well-meaning, forward-leaning president the benefit of the doubt. “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation,” Roosevelt said in 1932. “It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something…. We need enthusiasm, imagination and the ability to face facts, even unpleasant ones, bravely.”

The situation confronting Roosevelt is little different than we face today. There are political forces on the extreme left and right that have little regard for what has been accomplished in the American experiment, and who as Roosevelt noted either want to cut it down completely, or change nothing, as if two and a half-centuries have not passed. As Thomas Jefferson wrote:

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and Constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

Meacham noted of Roosevelt:

Sustained by this view of progress, Roosevelt urged the nation onward. “We shall strive for perfection,” Roosevelt said. “We shall not achieve it immediately—but we still shall strive. We may make mistakes—but they must never be mistakes which result from faintness of heart or abandonment of moral principle…. Our Constitution of 1787 was not a perfect instrument; it is not perfect yet. But it provided a firm base upon which all manner of men, of all races and colors and creeds, could build our solid structure of democracy.”

Abraham Lincoln understood this when in the Gettysburg Address he noted:

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Roosevelt understood, just as Lincoln did that our system, form, and institutions were under attack from many sides, thus we all must take increased devotion… that this nation, under, God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from thee earth.”

I am going to stop for now. I am about two-thirds of the way through Meacham’s book and about 1/3 of the way through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times, which looks at the lives, failures, and ultimate successes of the leadership styles of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Baines Johnson.

It seams that now regardless of what party or ideology we espouse, we want absolute doctrinal purity. Certainly that was not what our founders thought, nor men like Franklin Roosevelt. Our Republic can be destroyed by the radicalism of the Right and Left, but also the complacency of the Center, which by ignoring the the crisis engulfing the country only make the crisis worse. Hannah Arendt noted:

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

I am a liberal, a progressive, and a Democrat, but I am as much as of a realist as Franklin Roosevelt. Our Union is imperfect, but just because it is so it should not be cut down and destroyed, nor ignored and uncultivated by progress. The grafting of new branches onto the old stock is not a travesty, or a threat. It is the ideal that motivated the Founders was not that they were achieving perfection in the moment, but that they were planting ideals that would ultimately be universal. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among them being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Such thoughts are now part of the Constitutions of other countries and the United Nations. If we want to look into the imaginary future they are included as part of the Constitution of the United Federation of Planets.

We live in a nation whose past is far from perfect, a nation that has deviated from its foundational principles all too many times, that being said, Franklin Roosevelt, understood this as fact. He did not try to mythologize our past. He sought the best from that ancient trunk and grafted on, as Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt before him, as well as Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson did after him, ideas that expanded liberty for all, without which the radicals of the right or left fail to appreciate.

Roosevelt spoke during his nomination speech at the 1932 Democratic Party Convention:

“Wild radicalism has made few converts, and the greatest tribute that I can pay to my countrymen is that in these days of crushing want there persists an orderly and hopeful spirit on the part of the millions of our people who have suffered so much,” Roosevelt said. “To fail to offer them a new chance is not only to betray their hopes but to misunderstand their patience.

The forces of progress, Roosevelt believed, were not to cower or to lash out, but to engage. “To meet by reaction that danger of radicalism is to invite disaster,” he said. “Reaction is no barrier to the radical. It is a challenge, a provocation. The way to meet that danger is to offer a workable program of reconstruction, and the party to offer it is the party with clean hands.

He then introduced a crucial phrase: “I pledge you, I pledge myself,” FDR said, “to a New Deal for the American people.” The crisis was existential. “His impulse,” Winston Churchill wrote of FDR in the mid-1930s, “is one which makes toward the fuller life of the masses of the people in every land, and which, as it glows the brighter, may well eclipse both the lurid flames of German Nordic self-assertion and the baleful unnatural lights which are diffused from Soviet Russia.”

That is how I view the situation today. As far as it goes, those who consider themselves to be Democratic Socialists are little more than Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F Kennedy, or Lyndon Baines Johnson Democrats. They believe in the New Deal, Civil Rights, and the Great Society. They also believe in the realities of science and Climate Change and seek answers that work with our economic and scientific realities, like their predecessors they believe in the instruments of the future. In the past it was fossile fuels and nuclear power; now it is wind power, and solar energy, combined with the cleanest and most efficient forms of past energy. None of those ideas are radical, they are progressive, economically sound, job producing, and environmentally friendly policies that could help reverse the scourge of global warming, sea rise, and climate change.

Likewise, Franklin Roosevelt realized the dangers of Stalinist Communism and Hitlerian Fascism, which he saw as a threat to the United States in the 1930s, but in the short term he realized that the Nazi threat was the greatest threat, and allied with Britain, the Soviet Union, Free France, and China to defeat Germany first, Japan next, and then deal with the Soviet Union using the full power of the nation; Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic to achieve the overthrow of the Soviet Union. That did not happen until 1990, but when it did a plethora of Soviet dominated regimes fell in Eastern Europe. Since that time the Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations have surrendered many of those gains and allowed a New expansionist, Soviet Union, albeit without the Soviet Name to be reestablished in Russia under Vladimir Putin.

I won’t go into the other overseas threats, but he would recognize the danger of President Trump’s “America First” policy which is little different from the America Firsters of his era. He looked forward, they looked back. He looked at a world that might overwhelm the United States, the threats of Naziism, Fascism, and Stalinist Communism, and in spite of resistance from his own party and the Republican isolationists who adopted the America First ideology of men like Charles Lindberg which would have surrendered all of Europe, including Great Britain to the Nazis because it was nothing more than an intra-racial struggle and not one against inferior races. Even after Hitler overran Poland and Western Europe Lindberg argued:

“for leaving the Old World to its own devices. “Now that war has broken out again, we in America have a decision to make on which the destiny of our nation depends,” Lindbergh said, adding: “In making our decision, this point should be clear: these wars in Europe are not wars in which our civilization is defending itself against some Asiatic intruder. There is no Genghis Khan or Xerxes marching against our Western nations. This is not a question of banding together to defend the White race against foreign invasion. This is simply one more of those age-old quarrels within our own family of nations.”

Roosevelt knew that was nonsense. He worked patiently with congress on both sides of the aisle, building his case in spite of resistance until Hitler attacked Poland, and overran most of Western Europe, Roosevelt’s policy ideas were ratified into policy. When Japan attacked at Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the United States he was able to act.

Roosevelt brought the country together. He helped to maintain at disparate alliance between Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. It was courageous, as Meacham noted:

” A man of courage, Churchill appreciated it when he detected courage in others, and he had seen it, intimately, in Franklin Roosevelt. “It was a marvel that he bore up against it through all the many years of tumult and storm,” Churchill said of FDR’s paralysis. “Not one man in ten millions, stricken and crippled as he was, would have attempted to plunge into a life of physical and mental exertion and of hard, ceaseless political controversy. Not one in ten millions would have tried, not one in a generation would have succeeded, not only in entering this sphere, not only in acting vehemently in it, but in becoming indisputable master of the scene.”

We need a leader like Franklin Roosevelt now. Personally, I am not sure if any of the challengers to Donald Trump has the gravitas, courage, or determination to go where Roosevelt went. He was willing to risk failure, admit it and try again. I don’t know if our political culture, at least the political culture of the Democratic Party would allow it. The Republicans don’t seem to care as is obvious by their continued support of Donald Trump, and his policies which are nothing short of Lindberg’s America First campaign, Hitler’s racial politics, and American Jim Crow laws.

Roosevelt began the domestic and international policies that Donald Trump fights against on a daily basis. I don’t know what Democratic candidate that will be, but it has to someone has to fully embrace the Roosevelt legacy and push it to the future. As Roosevelt showed this has to me more than about sound bites; it has to be about truth, integrity, and the willingness to engage with and even at times compromise with domestic political rivals in order to preserve the Republic against all enemies, foreign and domestic. But none of the Democratic Party candidates have yet to show me that they have the moral, or physical courage of Roosevelt who battled polio which deprived him of much of his mobility and physical abilities when he was 39 years old. Maybe if Senator Tammy Duckworth would enter the race I might see a candidate with that kind of courage. If she would enter the race, win the nomination, and the presidency, she would be the first female, combat vet and wounded warrior to serve as president.

I would like that very much.

But, until tomorrow we have what we have.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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