Tag Archives: human nature

Civilization is Tissue Thin: The Uncomfortable Necessity of Understanding Evil

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

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Lynching in the American South

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

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

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

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

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Einsatzgruppen and Ordungspolizei in Russia

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

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

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

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Nankingnanking_massacre_1

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

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

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Soviet Mass Killings in Ukraine

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

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The Killing Fields

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

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

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

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

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The Islamic State

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

                        Rwandan Genocide 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

The Fragility of Human Behavior in the Crisis: When Civil Liberties End, Tyranny Begins

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In 1989 Donald Trump wrote in a full page advertisement in the New York Daily News“civil liberties end when an attack on our safety begins.” He said that in relation to the Central Park Five, five teenagers who were falsely accused and convicted of the rape of a jogger in Central Park. In 2002 after the real assailant confessed and his crime verified by DNA evidence. Despite the reality Mr. Trump has continued to speak to that issue and claim that the five falsely convicted and imprisoned men are guilty.

Mr Trump repeated expressed his anger that they did not receive the death penalty, something that by the way is not part of the law in any state. Since becoming President the Mr Trump has suggested all sorts of extrajudicial and unconstitutional remedies to crime. Today he suggested doing that to gun owners who could be considered potential mass murderers. He told a group of Congressmen and Senators, as well as his own Vice President Mike Pence: “You could do exactly what you’re saying, but take the guns first, go through due process second.”

Now personally I don’t think that’s such a bad idea, but it still is unconstitutional. Earlier in the week the President proposed the death penalty to all convicted drug dealers. Again, no love for drug dealers but the President doesn’t get to impose sentences, but the President praised the extermination methods that Philippine President Duterte uses not just to kill suspected drug dealers but political opponents and members of the press. Of course the President has long suggested the political opponents should be jailed and the Press is an “an enemy of the people.” 

As I have written over the past few days in discussing the Reichstag Fire I am very concerned that as the walls close in on the Trump Presidency, that as the Muller investigation implicates more and more of his advisors and quite possibly family members, that as members of his administration like Hope Hicks admit that they lied for him, that the danger to our Republic only rises. I am afraid that there will be a Reichstag Fire moment that will allow the President to through already existing Executive orders and laws to scrap constitutional liberties and establish an authoritarian state. It’s not so much that he has to be popular to do so, the fact is that under threat of attack that most Americans will surrender liberty for the illusion of security. That was demonstrated in 2002 when the Patriot Act, an act so revoltingly un-American and totalitarian in its implications was passed overwhelmingly by both houses of Congress with hardly any resistance.

That is what concerns me. Should a war break out, should there be a major terrorist attack, or anything that severely disrupts the country the mechanisms are in place for the President to declare the situation extraordinary and to take power. The thing is that no President has acted in such a way, but President Trump has repeatedly suggested violating the Constitution and praised foreign leaders like Dutarte, Putin, and Erdogan, men who all use such circumstances and laws to their advantage.

Timothy Snyder wrote:

“For tyrants, the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission. For us, the lesson is that our natural fear and grief must not enable the destruction of our institutions. Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, precisely when it seems most difficult to do so. After the Reichstag fire, Hannah Arendt wrote that “I was no longer of the opinion that one can simply be a bystander.”

Of course Mr Trump has a hard core of loyal supporters who in his words would remain loyal to him “even if he shot someone on 5th Avenue.” Some are actually quite frightening, but in truth I am more frightened by the vast number of people in this country of every part of the political spectrum cannot tell the difference between fact and fiction or true and false, people how simply go along with the flow, especially in times of crisis.  Hannah Arendt, who saw the Nazi takeover of Germany in the beginning wrote:

“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.”

In a world such as the one that we live today it is those who simply go with the flow or are easily persuaded into accepting what in normal times they would not accept because the times are exceptional, or in a crisis believe what they are told and regardless of what happens to fellow citizens or neighbors turn their backs on injustice. Most are totally ordinary and unremarkable and are no different than so many others who committed terrible crimes against humanity and too part in genocide.

British Historian Laurence Rees wrote:

“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.” 

When people feel that a crisis makes a situation exceptional to the point that normal codes of conduct, social mores, laws, and ethics are Christopher Browning wrote in his book Ordinary Men:

“I fear that we live in a world in which war and racism are ubiquitous, in which the powers of government mobilization and legitimization are powerful and increasing, in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratization, and in which the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. In such a world, I fear, modern governments that wish to commit mass murder will seldom fail in their efforts for being unable to induce “ordinary men” to become their “willing executioners.” 

My question is: when the crisis finally comes, what will Americans do?

I want to be hopeful. I am not a fatalist. I believe that we can all given the opportunity rise to greatness and defend our Constitution, civil liberties, and embody the principles of the Declaration of Independence. It has happened before. But that being said human history, especially the history of the past century shows us that more often than not that most people do not rise to the occasion. 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.”

In our time that is the most important consideration.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

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

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

Civilization Is Tissue Thin: Holocaust & Genocide as Warning

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The Rape of Nanking

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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Lynching in the American South

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

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

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

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Einsatzgruppen

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

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

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

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Nanking

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

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

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Soviet Genocide in Ukraine

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

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The Killing Fields

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

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

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

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

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The Islamic State

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under crime, History, Political Commentary

The Unspeakable Taboo: Evil, Genocide & Human Nature

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is the final section of the article that I have been posting over the last six days.

The material in this article that I have spread over the past six days is often troubling. At least it is to me because while I earnestly want to believe that humanity is essentially good, I cannot get around the fact that people in every clime and place throughout history often choose to either participate in, or to ignore evil committed against when it is in their own self-interest.  I can see into the darkness and I can understand it.

Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “And this is the forbidden truth, the unspeakable taboo – that evil is not always repellent but frequently attractive; that it has the power to make of us not simply victims, as nature and accident do, but active accomplices.” That is one of the things that makes the Holocaust, but even more so, the actions of those murdered millions of people up close and personal as members of the Einsatzgruppen, the Police battalions, the Romanian Army, or the locally recruited Eastern European militias.

While this of itself is troubling, the fact that many high ranking military and civilian officials in Germany, and some of their allied countries knew about it, and even if they disapproved did nothing to try to stop it. But even more damning is the fact that many other nations, including the United States knew what was happening and before the war would not accept Jewish immigrants who were being forced to leave Germany and Austria, and then during the war did little or nothing to attempt to stop the mass killings in the extermination camps. The fact is that people are people and most of the actors in this ghastly drama were much like us. That is what makes the period so troubling.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Otto Ohlendorf at the Einsatzgruppen Trial

The German war against Poland and the Soviet Union was heavily dependent on the racist ideology of Adolf Hitler. He was the true spirit behind the atrocities committed by his nation as one Nazi leader noted in Russia, “Here too the Führer is the moving spirit of a radical solution in both word and deed.” 187Hitler saw the war in the East as “the chance to stamp out everything that stands against us.” 188Belief in Germany’s right to Lebensraum, was predicated on increasing the standard of living for Germans even if it meant destroying others to do it. The need for food security was one of Hitler’s biggest concerns, and he believed that need would be provided by the conquest of the Soviet Union and the exploitation of the breadbasket of the Ukraine. Hitler’s quest for unlimited natural resources to sustain his Thousand Year Reich and his belief in the racial superiority of the German Volk were combined with his belief in the necessity to settle the Jewish problem. These ideological and economic beliefs provided a fertile ground for Hitler’s followers.

But it was German military doctrine, especially its anti-partisan doctrine and plans for total warfare which allowed Hitler to realize so many of his goals. Without the Army’s support and compliance Hitler could never have succeeded. The post-war and early Cold War myth that the German military had no knowledge of and were not involved in the Holocaust committed against the Jews and others has been shattered as more and more records, correspondence, and testimony emerge.

It is now quite clear that many officers in the Wehrmacht were in agreement with Hitler’s ideology of racial war, including men who have been idolized by military historians and history buffs who marvel at their planning skills and operational precision, but ignore the uncomfortable truth that many either participated in or meekly acquiesced to Hitler’s agenda.

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Alfred Jodl

These men, like so many in Germany were products of their culture. They were immersed in cultural prejudices against Jews and Slavs. When we examine the long traditions of racist ideology, coupled with military doctrine, the “Prussian and in later German military must be regarded as a significant part of the ideological background of the Second World War.189 General Walther Von Reichenau’s orders to his troops at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa are revealing in this regard, “The most important goal of the campaign against Jewish-Bolshevism is the complete destruction of its grip on power and the elimination of the Asian influence from our European cultural sphere.” 190 Reichenau’s superior, Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt appeared to agree with von Reichenau’s orders, but wanted to keep the hands of the Army clean of the actual dirty work of the mass killings. Rundstedt had no problem with the “use the partisan threat as excuse for persecuting Jews, so long as the dirty work was largely left to SS Einsatzgruppen.” 191

On the whole the Army command…on the whole acquiesced in the extermination of the Jews, or at least closed its eyes to what was happening.” 192 This is absolutely true, but that being said, and as guilty as many of the Generals were, there are factors involved that if are honest might have influenced us to make the same choices as them if we stood in their shoes. This is not an excuse, it is reality and it is borne out by history. The sad truth is that most people act in accordance with their self-interest, especially their economic well-being and social status. We accommodate evil when it serves our needs, especially if we do not actually have to do the dirty work. Their actions show the truth of Primo Levi’s comment “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”

Die feierliche Vereidigung der Reichswehr auf den neuen Reichspräsidenten Adolf Hitler auf dem Kasernenhof der Wachtruppe in Berlin 1934 Offiziere und Mannschaften leisten den feierlichen Eid durcherheben der rechten Hand. Die Reichswehr trägt Trauerflor für den verstorbenen Reichspräsidenten.

Officers and men of the Reichswehr take the Oath to Hitler in 1934 following the death of President Hindenburg

Had the Generals had been more forceful in their opposition, they would have most likely been opposed by the highly Nazified youth that made up the bulk of their Army, especially many of the junior officers, NCOs and enlisted men. Likewise there was the matter of their oath and this is something that many Americans do not understand. During the Kaiser Reich German officers swore an oath to the Kaiser, during Weimar that was changed to the Constitution, when Hitler took power and assumed both the Presidency and Chancellorship following the death of President von Hindenburg, the officer corps swore a new oath, that to Hitler as President and Chancellor. While many saw the danger, almost all officers took the oath, in a sense it was a throwback to the old way of doing things in the Kaiser Reich, and most officers hated the Republic. To them the oath embodied their honor, to break it was to dishonor themselves and their family. When war came it became more than that, to break the oath was considered treason. General Alfred Jodl told American Army psychologist Gustave Gilbert at Nuremberg that “In war the moral pressure of obedience and the stigma of high treason are pretty hard to get around.” 193

Jodl’s superior Keitel stated his helplessness before Hitler saying to Gilbert “What could I do? There were only 3 possibilities: (a) refusal to follow orders, which naturally meant death; (b) resign my post, or (c) commit suicide. I was on the point of resigning my post 3 times, but Hitler made it clear that he considered my resignation in time of war the same as desertion. What could I do?” 194 This was obviously an after the fact excuse by Keitel who had been present in Hitler’s headquarters since the beginning and had witnessed the explosive General Heinz Guderian explode in rage against Hitler in 1945. Following that violent outburst in which Guderian and Hitler engaged in a lengthy heated argument in which those present thought would come to blows and the enraged dictator and general shouted at each other and were held back from contact by others in the conference room. Instead of arrest or imprisonment Hitler ordered Guderian to take extended sick leave and never accosted him afterwards.

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Reinhard Heydrich

Himmler, Heydrich, Eichmann and other SS leaders fanatically executed Hitler’s policies and were aided by the civil administration, including the leaders of the Reichsbank, and the proponents of long term economic plans. Genocide was to bring the Reich “long term economic gains and trading advantages” and was seen as a way of “financing the war debt without burdening the German taxpayer.” 195

The willing participation of Army commanders is hard to get around. Otto Ohlendorf, commander of Einsatzgruppe D testified at the Einsatzgruppe Trial that Einsatzgruppen reported all of their tasks to the army commanders, and that together, they and the army agreed on the time, place, and possible support of the troops for any particular “liquidation action[s].” 196

Some individuals did attempt to resist the most brutal aspects of the Nazi campaign against the Jews, but few had the fortitude to make more than half-hearted attempts. Wilhelm Kube, the Reichskommissar for White Russia, himself a fanatical Nazi and a virulent anti-Semite was shocked at the mass murders of the Jews taking place in his region. He called them “unworthy of the German cause and damaging to the German reputation.” During his administration Kube would later attempt to spare Jews by employing skilled Jews in war industries, however, Kube’s efforts were “defeated by Himmler’s zealots.” 197

Army officers who objected to the killing of Jews, like Blaskowitz and Külcher in Poland were relieved of command or were reassigned. Others like Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb took their protests to Hitler. Such protests were readily dismissed and those who made them usually took no further action. Leeb was told by Hitler to “in so many words told to mind his own business.” Leeb later stated, “the only thing to do is to hold oneself at a distance.” 198 Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, who had burned the notorious Commando Order in front of his staff in North Africa could not bring himself to believe that Hitler was to blame. While commanding Army Group B in France Rommel heard of the crimes being committed against the Jews and others through information provided by Blaskowitz, and members of his own staff who had served in Russia. But Rommel, who became part of the plot of overthrow Hitler, was then still in the thrall of the Fuhrer and blamed the crimes “on Hitler’s subordinates, not Hitler himself.” 199

Of the men mentioned in this article who survived the war, only four, Wilhelm Keitel, Alfred Jodl, Otto Ohlendorf and Adolf Eichmann paid for their crimes with their lives Keitel and Jodl were found guilty in the major War Crimes Trials at Nuremberg. Ohlendorf at the Einsatzgruppen trial, while Eichmann was caught by the Israelis, tried, convicted and put to death in 1962. Blaskowitz committed suicide while being tried with thirteen other generals during the final Nuremberg trial, that of the generals. Of those eleven were convicted and none served out their full sentence.

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Hitler with Jodl

Hitler’s ideology permeated German military campaigns and administration of the areas conquered by his armies. No branch of the German military, police or civil administration in occupied Poland or Russia was exempt guiltless in the crimes committed by the Nazi regime. It is a chilling warning of the consequences awaiting any nation that allows it to become caught up in hate-filled political, racial or even religious ideologies which dehumanizes opponents and of the tragedy that awaits them and the world. In Germany the internal and external checks that govern the moral behavior of the nation and individuals failed. Caught up in the Nazi system, the Germans, especially the police and military abandoned the norms of international law, morality and decency, banally committing crimes which still reverberate today and which were seen in the ethnic cleansing actions in the former Yugoslavia, and now throughout much of the Middle East.

In light of the fact that there is a growing food shortage in the world which will only get worse due to a factors including the global rise in population, the shrinking of the amount land which can be farmed due to climate change.  There are many other factors as well which could such a situation could bring about another Holocaust.  In such a case leaders will decide that the lands and resources of less developed people are theirs for the taking in order to maintain the standards of living of their people, and that the indigenous people who they will victimize are less than human and thus have no rights. The terminology used by them will be very neutral and full of euphemisms which will allow many people to maintain the illusion that any evil carried out is for the good. Politicians, pundits and preachers will talk of problems, and of solutions, and in trying to find a resolution yearn for a conclusive solution, a final solution.

arbiet macht frei

I return to the quote from the movie Judgment at Nuremberg which I included in the first section of this article because it is worth repeating and all too true:

“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….”

That quote might be applied to many of the people who participated in this genocide. Sadly, the fact is that in truth we are not really all that much different than the victims, the perpetrators and the bystanders who lived and died in the Holocaust, and similarly every other act of genocide.

History serves as a guide and a warning. We must always be alert and we must always when the truly difficult times come, in the midst of crisis, not to take the easy path and denude ourselves into the commission of such crimes.

Notes

187 Ibid. Bracher. The German Dictatorship p.430

188 Ibid. Megargee War of Annihilation p.65

189 Ibid. Wette. The Wehrmacht p.293

190 Ibid. Wette. The Wehrmacht p.97

191 Messenger, Charles. The Last Prussian A Biography of Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt 1875-1953 Brassey’s London, 1991 p148

192 Ibid. Bracher The German Dictatorship pp.430-431

193 Gilbert, Gustave Nuremberg Diary DaCapo Press 1995 copyright G.M. Gilbert 1947 p.290

194 Ibid. Gilbert p.26

195 Ibid. Aly and Heim Architects of Annihilation p.242

196 Ibid. Hebert p.92

197 Ibid. Padfield Himmler pp.341-342

198 Ibid. Megargee War of Annihilation p.97

199 Fraser, David. Knight’s Cross: A Life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel Harper Perennial, New York 1995, first published by Harper Collins in Britain, 1993. p.536

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