Tag Archives: Holocaust

Understanding the Actions Ordinary Men: Perpetrators of Genocide

Ordungspolizei Executing Jews in Poland

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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.”

I just finished re-reading Christopher Browning’s classic book on an often overlooked part of the Holocaust in Poland, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution  in Poland. As I read it I was reminded of Niebuhr’s words. The book details the actions of the men of a police unit that one would have expected to be the most unlikely perpetrators of violence and mass killing. Most of the unit’s men were not ardent Nazis or even party members, many were too old to have been drafted into the military, and most came of age long before the Nazis took control of the education system.  They were mostly from Hamburg, one of the least Nazified of all major German cities, and included was a contingent from Luxembourg, a country that was not part of Germany.

In their actions in Poland an estimated ten to twenty percent refused to take part in the mass killings of Jews. Unlike the people who manned the factory like death camps such as Treblinka and Auschwitz, these men killed their victims in an exceedingly personal manner. They stood at close range and fired pistol or rifle shots into the back of the skulls of their victims, who mostly were kneeling over pits or prostrate on the ground. The members of the unit killed a minimum of 38,000 Jews in this manner, and were instrumental in the deportations of about 45,000 more to the death camps. Very few were prosecuted for their crimes. Most went home, and some resumed successful careers in the police.

These men were very ordinary, and that is what makes what they did so troubling. One of the problems with human nature is that people in any time or place can participate in the very kinds of evil that the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 and other units like it did. We have to understand what allows normal people to take part in evil. As Timothy Snyder wrote in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin:

“It is easy to sanctify policies or identities by the deaths of victims. 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 never easy to examine and understand the actions of the perpetrators. To understand them is not to justify them, but to ensure that we do not become like them, as 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.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Fragile and Unpredictable: Auschwitz and Human Behavior in the Crisis

Auschwitz Staff at Play 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In his book Auschwitz: A New History, Laurence Rees noted something that is important about how human beings act in crisis. After interviewing many of perpetrators, victims, and bystanders who were at Auschwitz and other parts of the Nazi death machine he wrote this:

“…human behavior is fragile and unpredictable and often at the mercy of the situation. Every individual still, of course, has a choice as to how to behave, it’s just that for many people the situation is the key determinate in that choice.”

I think that it is a comment worth reflection. One of the things that Rees explored was how people who in one situation can be the best of neighbors, the most conscientious and ethical of businessmen, the most dedicated civil servants can seemingly become something totally different when placed in situations that test who they are.

Selecting those to Die 

This is one of the scary things about human nature itself, while there were many people who were sadistic and enjoyed the evil that they did, there were many more who could not decide to be good or evil, instead they went with the flow and took the path of least resistance. Hannah Arendt wrote of Adolf Eichmann, who was the instrument of destruction for much the Jewish population of Europe:

“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.” 

In times of great change, in times of crisis, in times of uncertainty demagogues manipulate people through fear, particularly fear of the other, both the other within their society, and those far away. When they do this they dehumanize people who seem different from us, be it in their race, color, religion, politics, gender, or sexual identity. When they succeed in doing this, it is the ordinary people who turn the other way, or collaborate in the persecution of the victims.

We are in a precarious situation and it would not take much for our nation to slide into a totalitarian dictatorship, and if the circumstance were right, if the crisis large enough, most people would probably surrender their freedom for the supposed security offered by a dictator. As Timothy Snyder wrote:

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

That is why we must not only understand history, but at the same time we must be determined to recognize how it informs us today, and how we can prevent such things from ever happening again.

That’s all for today,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Battling Holocaust Deniers one Day at a Time

Babi Yar

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have a policy on Holocaust denial on my site. If someone denies the Holocaust or tries to minimize it I delete their post. That might sound somewhat restrictive, but I will not give them the space on my site to posit their race hatred and justification of genocide in any way shape or form. It used to be that I would spar with them, but I realized that by doing so I gave them a sense of acceptability, and when some proceeded to make physical threats against me for opposing their ideas I realized that I couldn’t go down that road anymore.

That being said, every so often I get comments from Holocaust deniers, as well as Japanese deniers of the Rape of Nanking and other Japanese atrocities in Asia during the 1930s and World War II. The Japanese Nanking deniers are almost always Right Wing revisionists and hyper-nationalists who subscribe to the racial theory that the Chinese and other non-Japanese are less than human. But I’ve never had an American take issue with Nanking while almost all of my holocaust deniers are Americans who not only deny the Holocaust, but who subscribe to the most base and repulsive theories of anti-Semitism, and White Supremacy.

I had yet another one of those last week who ripped into me on the Nazi massacre of Ukrainian Jews at Babi Yar, in which over 33,771 Jews were marched out of Kiev and shot on the 29th and 30th of September 1941. There were 29 survivors who managed to escape the death pits by feigning and climbing out after dark. Massacres of more than 100,000 other people, mostly non-Jews continued until November. The number of Jews killed was documented by the Commander of the Sonderkommando 4a of Einsatzgruppe C which conducted the massacre. The Einsatzgruppe men were assisted by troops from two Police Battalions and Waffen SS troops with support from the Wehrmacht.  Both the records of the Einsatzgruppe and the testimony of SS men who took part is damning enough, yet my denier critic had the nerve to say “There was no such massacre – it is just another example of war time atrocity propaganda.”

I since he decided to leave his email address and website I decided to do a little investigation and found that he is full of these zingers and an avid supporter of President Trump. He plays fast and loose with the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust and claims that “It is currently illegal in many European nations to question the official or generally accepted account of the holocaust of European Jewry during the Second World War.” Of course that is not true, in fact in most of Europe the archives are open, the documents assessable, and the evidence undeniable. The problem is that the evidence is so great that any to deny it or attempt to revise it deserves both public ridicule and academic scorn. There are laws against Holocaust denial in many European countries precisely because it was such a horrific chapter in human history that it cannot be minimized or defended.

James Morcan in his book Debunking Holocaust Denial Theories wrote something very true that I am all too aware of: “Unfortunately, the historicity of the Holocaust has been undermined and chipped away at by the exact same sinister forces that created the genocide in the first place: racists, religious bigots and the most paranoid type of conspiracy theorists who, together, are uniting – often unwittingly – to form a new wave of anti-Semitism that will not willingly accept the obvious facts of the past. This chipping away (at the truth) began slowly and insidiously – much like the Holocaust itself – but sadly, and worryingly, it is gathering pace.” 

It is interesting to read through the man’s blog and see that his issue is not about anti-Semitism, as he is exceptionally anti-Semitic, nor is it about the killing of the Jews, just the number. It seems that he, like the other deniers can lessen the number that somehow it becomes more acceptable and over time forgettable. I will not open this site up to Holocaust deniers, but to its affirmers either.

The sad thing for us as a nation is that quite a few Holocaust deniers and affirmers have the ear of the President and people in his administration. This makes the topic all too relevant. As Marc Bloch wrote “we can truly understand the past only if we read it in light of the present.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Perpetrators and Bystanders

Jewish Men being Rounded Up in Baden with Citizens looking on  

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer wrote: “Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”  These words from his book Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945 serve as a warning to members of a society where various minority groups are being labeled as enemies of the state and often less than human.

I the past couple of days I have written about the need to try to understand people who in the past have committed genocide, mass murder, starvation, and other crimes against humanity. I did this not to give any basis whatsoever to justify their actions, but so that we might not think ourselves so different that we make the mistake of believing that we are not capable of such crimes, or looking on and allowing them to happen.

It is all too easy for it to happen. All that is needed is a population that has been conditioned by propaganda, based on historical myth, untruth, a prevailing climate of fear, and in which the threat of crisis, real or imagined, can delude even good, able, and even extraordinary people to commit crimes that if they were not real, would be incomprehensible to the mind. In such times decisions have to be made, difficult decisions, the decision to stand for what is right, even if the country’s leaders, and their most vocal followers threaten violence and the use of government force against those who dissent.

Being a perpetrator is one thing, but being a bystander is worse. As Hannah Arendt noted: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.

Until Tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Humanizing Inhuman Humanity

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In the movie Judgement at Nuremberg, Spencer Tracy’s character makes tis comment:

“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…”

This is true, and why I am continuing what I wrote yesterday today.

Yesterday I wrote about the dangers of ignoring what evils that people are capable of committing or standing by and let happen. For me it was a painful article to write as a historian and ethicist who knows history and can see the same kinds of attitudes that allowed the commission of vast and heinous crimes that beggar the imagination, being posted on social media, on blogs, and by political and religious leaders on a daily basis.

But I am sure that many if not most people seldom give what is happening a second look. Even people who read about the crimes of the Nazis, Stalin, or other genocidal regimes find the perpetrators to be beyond understanding, as if they were monsters, or had no human character. In a way that is comforting, because if they were somehow not like us, then we could never become like them.

But if we are to understand what happened Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, or any other place where mass murder and genocide were a daily occurrence, where dissenters, political opponents, and minorities were whisked off to prison, concentration camps, and gulags in the middle of the night, never to be seen or heard from again; we must understand the perpetrators as well as the bystanders who allowed things to happen.

If we fail to do this, if we yield to the temptation to deny the humanity of the perpetrators, to deny that they were human and had access to ethics and morality as we do is to as Timothy Snyder says, “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.”

Snyder argues that “To dismiss the Nazis or the Soviets as beyond human concern or historical understanding is to fall into their moral trap. The safer route is to realize that their motives for mass killing, however revolting to us, made sense to them…” They had a faith in their leaders or their ideology, they were devoted to their cause. In the case of the Germans, their “devotion and faith did not make them good…, but they do make them human, Like everyone else, they had access to ethical thinking, even if their own was dreadfully misguided.”

The danger that we face today is that when people in our country speak in the language of the Nazis or other totalitarians, when we see the acts committed against religious, ethnic and other minorities, when we hear the language of genocide being used, we tend to treat those doing such things as barbarians or animals, and not human beings like us, and we rob them of their humanity. If we do this we help set the conditions for what happened under Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and in so many other places to happen again.

Holocaust Historian Yehuda Bauer noted:

“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.” 

Until Tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Deadly Illusion: Ignorance, Myth, and Alternative Reality

ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands…

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

My longtime readers know that I write about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany a lot. Likewise I also write about other historical events and periods where the worst of humanity is on display. This is not because I am negative or due to some morbid fascination with such events, but because as a historian I see them as a warning because the one constant in history is humanity. While history may not repeat itself, it does as Mark Twain noted, often rhyme, the fact is that human nature and human beings have tended to act similarly to their ancestors more often than not during times of social, economic, or political upheaval distress and crisis.

Timothy Snyder notes that “The European history of the twentieth century shows that societies can break, democracies fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands…”

I tell my students this all the time whether I am teaching ethics or history. Economic theories, technology, and so many other ways in which we do life change, but ultimately human nature remains pretty constant. So when I write about these topics it is with that in mind. Historian Gerhard Weinberg wrote:

“It’s very, very important for people to get a sense of what the potentialities of people really are, what the dangers of ignorance can be. It is in this context, that a supposedly advanced society risks descending into the sewer, that the Holocaust is a warning to people who think of themselves as an advanced, modern society.”

Ignorance of history, ignorance of reality, and denial of facts are deadly to the individual and fatal to the society that allows itself to become ignorant and to believe in an illusion of knowledge based on myth and unreality. This deadly illusion based on ignorance and knowledge that is not knowledge allows people and societies to embrace deadly ideologies without thinking. When that happens ordinary people, law abiding people, people who go to church, can commit great atrocities or stand by in silent agreement.

When I hear people who support some of most inhuman of President Trump’s policies makes statements about “I can’t wait for the liberal genocide to begin,” or tell Jews and Muslims to leave the country, who talk of racial and ethnic minorities as if they were less than human than I do in fact worry that it can happen here. When I see Mosques burned, synagogues defaced with Nazi graffiti, Jewish centers targeted by callers making bomb threats, churches of ethnic and minority congregations vandalized, LGBTQ people being discriminated against and sometimes physically attacked, I know it can happen here.

When I see these things happening I am reminded of Spencer Tracy’s monologue at the end of the film Judgment at Nuremberg. The words are chilling because they are so true. Despots and dictators, and authoritarian leaders, cannot commit great acts of violence without a part of the population that is willing to carry out their orders and the majority who for whatever reason acquiesce and stand by silently.

“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…”

We cannot allow ourselves to live in ignorance and pretend that these things cannot happen here. To do this we have to have to go to a dark place. We have to decide to understand what brings people to commit such actions. We have to understand what allows people to stand by and say nothing. We have to understand what goes through the mind or those who make the conscious choice to know nothing when the evidence stares them in the face, and those who feign ignorance to attempt to keep a clean conscience. Burt Lancaster’s character in Judgment at Nuremberg remarked:

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

It is one thing to empathize with the victims of past genocides and crimes against humanity. It is easy to say never again; but it is not possible to prevent them without going to the dark place of trying to understand the perpetrators and bystanders. As Timothy Snyder notes:

“It is easy to sanctify policies or identities by the deaths of victims. 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.” 

I will continue this tomorrow, until then,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The World’s Guilt: The Flaw in Character that Allows us to Look the Other Way

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

rolfe

Today just a short follow up to my last few posts about the Holocaust and the other crimes of the Nazi state. A couple of those dealt with the film Judgment at Nuremberg. The film is profoundly disturbing when one looks at the time that we live. This is one of the more disturbing sections because in it, Maximillian Schell who played Hans Rolfe, the defense counsel for Burt Lancaster.

His summation of the defense following his client’s admission of guilt is damning. It is something that when we, and by we I mean people around the world, look at the atrocities of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, the willful starvation of millions by criminal regimes; and then stand by saying little or nothing and doing nothing, sometimes even supporting the regimes that commit these actions.

Please, no matter what your political point of view, take the time to watch the film, and read the transcript of Schell’s speech below:

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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