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Wannsee: The Men, Their Mission, and the Implications Today

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Reinhard Heydrich

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great American philosopher, Eric Hoffer once wrote, “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.”

Hatred is an amazing emotion. In the final scene of the movie Conspiracy which is about the Wansee Conference, at which fifteen officials of the Nazi government met to coordinate what became the Holocaust, the “Final Solution” of what the Nazis called, “the Jewish problem.” The movie is troubling because the men in the room were well-educated, high to mid-level officials from a variety of agencies who were called together to ensure that their respective agencies worked together.

At beginning of the movie, Kenneth Branagh who plays SS Lieutenant General Reinhard Heydrich describes the “problem to be solved”

“To begin, we have a storage problem in Germany with these Jews…. The laws enacted at Nuremberg, and we should drink a toast to Dr. Stuckart for devising them….They established the fundamental legality for the creation of a Jew-free society, a Jew-free economy for the world to see. And we, indeed, have eliminated the Jew from our national life. Now, more than that, the Jew himself must be physically eradicated from our living space…

Then, in acquiring Poland, we acquired two and a half million more. By last July, we were met with a new situation, we would, in very short order, be acquiring some five million Jews as we conquered Russia. The dimensions of this problem have magnified astoundingly. Five million…

At that time, last July, confronting this new situation, Reichsmarshal Goering prepared a directive, you have a copy. The operative words, if you’ll permit me to read:

“I hereby charge you with making all preparations.in regard to organizational and financial matters for bringing about a complete solution of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe.”

Now, for that, I read the cleansing of the entire continent of Europe.…in the second paragraph: “Wherever other governmental agencies

are involved these are to cooperate with you.” I hope. So on, so on… “as necessary for the accomplishment of the desired solution of the Jewish question.” This is our mandate, all of us.

Donald Trump has talked about expelling and deporting over 11 million Mexicans and other South or Central Americans from this country. True, many are here illegally, but at the same time most are working and paying taxes, doing the things that many Americans consider themselves too good to do. He has mentioned similar things in regard to Muslims, as well as banning any Muslim from coming to the country. He has talked about going along with the desire of the Christian Right to roll back the hard earned rights of Homosexuals, and he has no regard for African Americans and their rights, with the possible exception of Ben Carson, but I digress…

At the close of the meeting the decision to exterminate the Jews was agreed to by the assembled officials who pledged to work with each other, once they had been told of how the logistics of the operation would take place. Not all were happy, some were shocked, but all rolled over and agreed to cooperate with Heydrich.

At the end of the movie Heydrich is asked to share an allegorical story that one of the less enthusiastic conference participants, Reich Chancellery State Secretary, Dr. Wilhelm Kritzinger, told him about hatred of the Jews. Heydrich recalled the story to SS Major General Heinrich Müller and SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann.ueller and SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann:

“Yes, he told me a story about a man he’d known all his life, a boyhood friend. This man hated his father. Loved his mother fiercely. The mother was devoted to him……but the father beat him, demeaned him, disinherited him. Anyway, this boy grew to manhood and was still in his 30s when the mother died…this mother who had nurtured and protected him.She died. The man stood as they lowered her casket and tried to cry…but no tears came. The man’s father lived to old age, died when the son was in his 50s. At the father’s funeral, much to his son’s surprise…he could not control his tears. He was wailing, sobbing. He was apparently inconsolable. Lost, even. That was the story Kritzinger told me.

Eichmann said, “I don’t understand.”

Heydrich answered: “No? The man had been driven his whole life by hatred of his father. When the mother died, that was a loss. When the father died…when the hate had lost its object…then the man’s life was empty. Over.

Eichmann replied: “Interesting. That was Kritzinger’s warning. What? That we should not hate the Israelites?”

To which Heydrich said, “No, that it should not so fill our lives…that when they are gone, we have nothing left to live for. So says the story. I will not miss them”

I used to show the film as the final class in the ethics elective that I taught at the Joint Forces Staff College. After the film was over it never failed that at least one of the students would bring up pertinent comments about hate in our current political climate. Again I cannot go into details, but I can assure you that the conversation was always subdued and sobering. I think that all of us left better for it, for such men and women know that there is a Rubicon that cannot be crossed. In the troubling times that we live, that gives me some comfort.

The story is pertinent when one looks at what Donald Trump is doing right now. I really have to wonder how deep hatred such as his runs in this country, because unlike love, hatred is easy to conjure up. It is kind of like what you need to build a fire; fuel, oxygen and heat. To generate hatred on a massive scale all you need is a disaffected populace, a convenient target, and an agent to ignite the mixture.

Shrewd politicians, preachers, and pundits do this well. Donald Trump is showing himself to be a master of this. He, and others like him, and not just American politicians, pundits or preachers, mind you, demonize the target group or population and then let the hatred of their disaffected followers flow.

Leaders who are consumed with hate need a disaffected and angry base in order to rise to power; such was how Hitler, Stalin, and so many other despots gained power. They took advantage of a climate of fear, and found others to blame. For Hitler it was the Jews; while for Stalin it was various groups like the Ukrainians, or the Poles who were the devil to be feared and destroyed. For Trump it is Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, liberals, and sometimes, even Jews.

Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin wrote:

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

Snyder is quite correct, demonizing a people and making them some kind of “other”, “they”, or “them”, is a wonderful way to blame a group of people for the ills of society. It is also a good way to deflect the blame for the corporate failures of societies and governments onto a convenient scapegoat; and to blame others for the personal failures and petty jealousies of the people doing the demonizing. It also allows people to abandon ethics and the simple notion of the Golden Rule an engage in genocide.

Mass movements and their leaders; of which Trump is such a leader, are masters of hatred and demonizing any opponents. The technique Trump is using is not at all new, it has been used from antiquity but has become much more dangerous in the modern era with the spread of instant communications technology. History shows us all too clearly how it has happened and how easily it can happen again. Witch hunts, slavery and Jim Crow, the extermination of the Native Americans which inspired Hitler in his campaign of genocide and the Holocaust; the Soviet gulags and ethnic cleansings, the Rape of Nanking, the Chinese Communist “Cultural Revolution” the Rwandan genocide, Srebrenica, the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, and the current crimes against humanity of the so called Islamic State. Sadly, the list can go on and on.

All of these events simply required the elements of a disaffected population, a devil or scapegoat to blame, and a leader or leaders to ignite the volatile mixture; fuel, oxygen and heat. Hoffer was quite correct that “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” The really successful leaders of such movements understand this. For Hitler it was the Jews and other untermenschen; for American Southerners after the Civil it was the Blacks and their white supporters. For the American “Know Nothings” of the 1840s and 1850s it was immigrants, especially Irish and Germans who were Catholic; for Stalin it was non-Russian ethnic minorities. For the leaders of the Islamic State, it is Jews, Shi’ite Moslems, less than “faithful” Sunnis, Christians and well for that matter anyone who does not line up one hundred percent with them on every issue. The examples are so plentiful to support this fact that it is almost overwhelming.

The problem is that when any society, or government begins to label or stigmatize a race, religion, ethnicity, sexual preference, or political ideology, and then in the process demonize those people to the point that they become less than human we have reached a tipping point. We reach the point where we are just one crisis away from all of those crimes against humanity that we believe that we are no longer capable of doing. But sadly, we human beings are not nearly as evolved as we think and I think that the tipping point in the United States may be far closer than we could ever imagine.

I really do not think that we are too far from some tipping point where the politicians, pundits and preachers; especially those of the political right and the media whores who are more concerned about market share than truth, decide that their “devils” must be exterminated. Of course when they will do they will claim a higher moral, religious, or racial, purpose; or perhaps use the language of Manifest Destiny, the Lost Cause, or the Stab in the Back or some other historical myth that suffices to justify their actions.

In response to Trump and those who stoke the same kind of fear and hatred, I wonder just how many men that there are like Heydrich, who would execute the orders of someone like Trump that there are in our country this very minute. I shudder to think of it, and when I do, I am reminded of the closing words of Spencer Tracy when he pronounces judgement on the Nazi judges in the film Judgment at Nuremberg:

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

I do hope that we follow a saner and less horrifying path, despite the election and past three years of the Trump Administration. I cannot abandon hope, nor can I be one that turns his eyes away from actions that range from separating immigrant and refugee families and placing children in cages on our southern border; assassinating members of nations that we are not at war with, regardless of how bad they are, while pardoning members of our military who were judged to be war criminals under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Of course that does not even mention how the President has undermined the institutions and laws of our country.

But I cannot lose hope or give up. In the words of Major General Henning von Tresckow, who died following multiple attempts to rid Germany of Hitler:

“We have to show the world that not all of us are like him. Otherwise, this will always be Hitler’s Germany.”

For me I am not comparing Trump to Hitler, but I believe he will be just as deadly to the United States as Hitler was to Germany. It all comes down to character, and as different as our President or the former Nazi Fuhrer are, neither had, or in the case of President Trump, have any character, nor did or do their enablers, and supporters; they are the perpetrators. Of course we know the victims, but then there are those  who decide to look the other way, the bystanders who prefer survival to freedom. As Yehuda Bauer wrote:

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

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The First Rule: Above All Thou Shall Not Be a Bystander

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.

Two years ado we have watched as a rabid Trump supported sent pipe bombs to a dozen men and women who the President has personally attacked in speeches, interviews, or on his Twitter account. We have watched as a White man gun down two Black senior citizens in a Louisville, Kentucky Kroger store after failing to gain access into a Black Baptist Church. Last year have watched as a hate filled anti-Semite kill eleven Jews, mostly senior citizens in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Likewise we watch as the President turns a caravan of Honduran refugees, mostly women and children, nearly 1,000 miles from the US border into a terrorist caravan full of MS-13 and ISIS killers, something that he reprises at nearly every rally that he headlines.

The President has blamed the intended victims for the actions of a very real terrorist who happened to be one of his most stalwart supporters. He ignored the racially motivated murder of Black senior citizens. He made jokes about having a “bad hair day” within hours of the massacre at Tree of Life on his way to a political rally where he again excoriated the press and his political opponents blaming them for the violent acts of his supporters or men who have fully bought in to the President’s racial conspiracy theories.

Many people wonder how this can happen, but it happens all too easily. 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.

Primo Levi, an Italian Jew who survived Auschwitz wrote, “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.” 

The excuse of just following orders has been shown to be no excuse. Men and women who follow such orders under a thin veneer of technical legality will be condemned by history. The men of the Wehrmacht who gave logistic, communication, and security support to the Einsatzgruppen that were committing genocide in the Soviet Union were as guilty as the trigger pullers.

Genocide begins when those who know better turn their backs on crimes committed against a few. The last lines of the classic film Judgement at Nuremberg are illuminating when it comes to understanding men and women who do just that. In the film, Burt Lancaster playin the convicted Nazi judge Janning asks Judge Heywood played by Spencer Tracy to visit him. In that closing scene Janning implored Heywood to understand that he never believed that things would go so far.

Ernst Janning: “Judge Haywood… the reason I asked you to come: Those people, those millions of people… I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it, You must believe it!”

Judge Dan Haywood: “Herr Janning, it “came to that” the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”

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 History, holocaust, laws and legislation, leadership, nazi germany, Political Commentary

“The First Duty of Every Officer is to the Truth”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Most of my readers know that in addition to being a Priest and Navy Chaplain that I am a historian and have taught both ethics and Gettysburg as a faculty member at a Staff College. Many of the men and women that I taught will lead our military as commanders, planners and staff officers. I stay in contact with a number of my former students, including two from South Korea. Now I still write even as I lead the staff at one of the Navy’s largest and most active Chapel programs.

Since I figure that this will be my last duty station before I retire my goal is to help guide those who work with me to success in the military and set them up for success when they leave the military. They are a great group, I could not ask for better and when I have a bad day or seem to be off in some way I have given them permission to ask how I am doing and to ask me hard questions. I give them permission to tell me the truth. A lot of leaders won’t do that, but I try to be transparent and honest with them because I know that they have my back and we do a pretty good job at caring for people and doing the right thing.

As such my first duty, whether it is in teaching, writing or in ministry is to the truth. In fact I quoted Captain Jean Luc Picard, played by Sir Patrick Stewart in Star Trek the Next Generation: “the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth, historical truth or personnel truth…” I am not a Starfleet Officer but as an officer nonetheless I have always believed that the truth matters, but sadly I, like so many of us have turned the other way and not spoken out. But the older I get the more I realize that I cannot be silent about subjects that at one time I turned a blind eye to because they were uncomfortable, unpopular or might hurt my career either in the church or in the military.

I have been writing a lot over the past few months about subjects that many people are controversial and as such many people are uncomfortable with those topics. Whether the issue is civil rights, racism, Gay rights and marriage equality, voting rights, religious freedom and religious intolerance, and even xenophobia, or the connection of symbols such as the Confederate Battle Flag to a heritage that goes to a hatred that extends far beyond the battlefields of the Civil War; I am speaking out. Now I am fully aware of that many of these subjects are controversial. I have been asked in comments on this site and on my various social media accounts, particularly Facebook, why I keep bringing up the uncomfortable past. But I have to, I have a duty to the truth and as Oscar Wilde noted “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

The late Howard Zinn, a brilliant historian whose work at one time I discounted, said: “But I suppose the most revolutionary act one can engage in is… to tell the truth.” Who would think that telling the truth could or would be a revolutionary act? However, when one lives in a society where the truth is bent, run over and shredded by politicians, preachers and pundits, what I call the Trinity of Evil; when state school boards whitewash history and force their religious views on children in public schools; where corporations and advertisers use the most crass means to deceive customers; and where established science is not met with denial under the guise of “skepticism;” telling the truth is a revolutionary affair.

The honest truth is that I never expected to be a revolutionary in terms of what so much of society, especially the conservative Christian movement that I spent much of my life in expects. Truthfully, upholding tradition, and for that matter defending myth, is much easier when backed by the certitude of an unbending theology and political is much easier than asking the hard questions. Barbara Tuchman once wrote: “The reality of a question is inevitably more complicated than we would like to suppose.” I guess that is why so many people would rather be content with myth than to ask the really hard questions; be they about history, religion, and science or for that matter anything. One of the must uncomfortable things to admit is that truth is always evolving as we learn more, it is dynamic, not static and to attempt to force people to live by the “truth” of our ancestors is disingenuous, dishonest and denies the reality of the universe that we live. Thomas Jefferson recognized this and wrote:

“I know also, that 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 disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and 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.” 

So why do I write? I write so that we never forget or push aside the great evils that human beings are capable of committing: The Holocaust, slavery and Jim Crow, the extermination of Native Americans by the millions in the name of God and Manifest Destiny, the enslavement, exploitation, and sometimes the extermination of whole peoples by colonialism; the witch trials, the religious wars of the Reformation, the Inquisition, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Stalin’s purges, the Tuskegee experiments, the Japanese barbarity in the Rape of Nanking and other places in Asia, the Srebrenica genocide and the Rwandan genocide, just to name a few.

All too often the perpetrators of those events and their descendants as all too willing to last the past lie dormant. But at what cost do we do so? Do we sacrifice justice on the altar of prosperity and peace; do we sacrifice uncomfortable truth in order to remain undisturbed and comforted by myth? Do we condemn our descendants to live under the myths of our ancestors? Would we sacrifice the truth and justice in order to ensure obedience? Howard Zinn correctly observed, “Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.”

President John F Kennedy spoke these words at Yale in 1962: “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

Personally I would rather ask the questions and confront the past so we might have a better future, because though I am a realist, I also believe in my heart that humanity is capable of overcoming hatred, prejudice and ignorance. The problem is that times get difficult those attitudes can overcome our better nature. As Spencer Tracy’s character in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg said:

“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.”

That my friends, is why I write: for justice, truth, and the value of a single human life.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, faith, film, History, News and current events, 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

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

Truth, Justice, and the Value of a Single Human Life: What Americans Should Stand For

img_0333-1

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday I wrote about a segment of the classic film Judgment at Nuremberg. Today I am following that up with another, albeit, short post regarding one of the most riveting monologues in film from the same film. Since yesterday was also Holocaust Remembrance Day it is appropriate to take the time, and never forget, for while we may not want to admit it, as human beings we are capable of the same inhumanity.

The segment, in which Spencer Tracy plays the role of Chief Judge Dan Heywood gives his verdict is one of the most telling sequences in cinema regarding what it is to be an American. I always show it in the first session of my military ethics class at the Staff College and since the majority of my students have never seen the film, it usually leaves them in silence. So I am just going to leave it with you to watch, read, and contemplate. Who are we, and what do we stand for?

This is especially true when the President, politicians of the majority party in the legislature, pundits, and politically minded preachers make no bones that they have every intent of persecuting those who are of certain races, religions, or political beliefs that they abhor, often using the most scurrilous charges, and outright lies in order to demonize them, dehumanize them, and  open the door for normal, decent, and even brilliant people to justify government sponsored cruelty and injustice that defies the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and the Constitution itself.

Please, watch the video and read the text. Ponder it in your heart, because it speaks to something that is not a historical aberration, not just a dramatic film, but something that affects the human condition and is present right here and right now in our own country.

“The trial conducted before this Tribunal began over eight months ago. The record of evidence is more than ten thousand pages long, and final arguments of counsel have been concluded.

Simple murders and atrocities do not constitute the gravamen of the charges in this indictment. Rather, the charge is that of conscious participation in a nationwide, government organized system of cruelty and injustice in violation of every moral and legal principle known to all civilized nations. The Tribunal has carefully studied the record and found therein abundant evidence to support beyond a reasonable doubt the charges against these defendants.

Heir Rolfe, in his very skillful defense, has asserted that there are others who must share the ultimate responsibility for what happened here in Germany. There is truth in this. The real complaining party at the bar in this courtroom is civilization. But the Tribunal does say that the men in the dock are responsible for their actions, men who sat in black robes in judgment on other men, men who took part in the enactment of laws and decrees, the purpose of which was the extermination of humans beings, men who in executive positions actively participated in the enforcement of these laws — illegal even under German law. The principle of criminal law in every civilized society has this in common: Any person who sways another to commit murder, any person who furnishes the lethal weapon for the purpose of the crime, any person who is an accessory to the crime — is guilty.

Heir Rolfe further asserts that the defendant, Janning, was an extraordinary jurist and acted in what he thought was the best interest of this country. There is truth in this also. 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 at through 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.”

Think about it…

Have a great weekend.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The First Duty: Speaking Truth in “Post-Truth” Trump Era

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

For me the past month has been one of constant amazement. I am not speeaking about politics, but what matters more than any political ideology, the very idea of truth. Because of this I write using history and as best as I can objective and indisputable fact as my guide.

Most of my readers know that in addition to being a Priest and Navy Chaplain that I am a historian and teach both ethics and about Gettysburg as a faculty member at a Staff College. Many of the men and women that I teach will lead our military as commanders, planners and staff officers. I will transfer in the spring but even so, as a chaplain, officer, and educator I cannot be silent.

Thus it is my first duty, whether it is in teaching, writing or in ministry is to the truth, politicans and pundits be damned to hell. I believe the words spoken by Captain Jean Luc Picard, played by Sir Patrick Stewart in Star Trek the Next Generation: “the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth, historical truth or personnel truth…”

I am not a Starfleet Officer, but a Navy officer and I have always believed that the truth matters, but sadly, I, like so many of us have turned the other way and not spoken out too many times in my life. That changed during my combat tor in Iraq, and now the older I get the more I realize that I cannot be silent about subjects that at one time I turned a blind eye to because they were uncomfortable, unpopular or might hurt my career either in the church or in the military, so when I see people in power and who are close to power saying that truth and objective fact no longer matters I become fearful, because I know that the path that denying facts and truth leads.

Throughout the campaign Trump and his campaign surrogates not only twisted truth, but lied so many times that fact checkers could hardly keep up with their untruths. After the election, Trump surroget Scottie Nell Hughes told Diane Rehm of NRP: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts,” she continued,“Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up.”

Her words, as well as those of former Trump campaign director and CNN talking head, Corey Lewindowski, and Newt Gingrinch have maintained that truth does not matter, only what people believe does. The fact that so many of Trump’s supporters don’t seem to care about facts, bodes ill for our country.

As such I have continued to write about subjects that many people are controversial and as such many people are uncomfortable with those topics. Whether the issue is civil rights, racism, Gay rights and marriage equality, voting rights, religious freedom and religious intolerance, and even xenophobia, or the connection of symbols such as the Confederate Battle Flag to a heritage that goes to a hatred that extends far beyond the battlefields of the Civil War; I am speaking out.

I am fully aware of that many of these subjects are controversial and are now targeted by Trump’s supporters, Congressional Repiublicans, and GOP legislators in every state. I have been asked in comments on this site and on my various social media accounts, particularly Facebook, why I keep bringing up the uncomfortable past. But I have to, I have a duty to the truth, and as Oscar Wilde noted “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

The late Howard Zinn, a brilliant historian whose work at one time I discounted, said: “But I suppose the most revolutionary act one can engage in is… to tell the truth.” Who would think that telling the truth could or would be a revolutionary act? However, when one lives in a society where the truth is bent, run over and shredded by politicians, preachers and pundits, what I call the Trinity of Evil; when state school boards whitewash history and force their religious views on children in public schools; where corporations and advertisers use the most crass means to deceive customers; and where established science is not met with denial under the guise of “skepticism;” telling the truth is a revolutionary affair.

In 1943, George Orwell, wrote about the Spanish Civil War how the German and Italian propaganda about it had been accepted without question by most people in westren democracies. His words echo my feelings about the incoming administration:

“This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history. How will the history of the Spanish war be written? If Franco remains in power his nominees will write the history books, and (to stick to my chosen point) that Russian army which never existed will become historical fact, and schoolchildren will learn about it generations hence. But suppose Fascism is finally defeated and some kind of democratic government restored in Spain in the fairly near future; even then, how is the history of the war to be written? What kind of records will Franco have left behind him? Suppose even that the records kept on the Government side are recoverable — even so, how is a true history of the war to be written? For, as I have pointed out already, the Government, also dealt extensively in lies. From the anti-Fascist angle one could write a broadly truthful history of the war, but it would be a partisan history, unreliable on every minor point. Yet, after all, some kind of history will be written, and after those who actually remember the war are dead, it will be universally accepted. So for all practical purposes the lie will have become truth. 

In spite of everything going on I will continue to speak the truth, which will likely will be called radical, revolutionary, and unpatriotic. That has happened over the past few years and I expect that it will happen on a more frequent basis, but I do not want the lie to become truth.

The honest truth is that I never expected to be a revolutionary in terms of defending civil rights. Truthfully, believing what authority figures, be they political, or religious say is much easier than asking the hard questions. Barbara Tuchman once wrote: “The reality of a question is inevitably more complicated than we would like to suppose.” I guess that is why so many people would rather be content with obvious lies than to ask the really hard questions; be they about history, religion, and science or for that matter anything. One of the must uncomfortable things to admit is that truth is always evolving as we learn more, it is dynamic, not static and to attempt to force people to live by the “truth” of our ancestors is disingenuous, dishonest and denies the reality of the universe that we live. Thomas Jefferson recognized this and wrote:

“I know also, that 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 disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and 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.” 

So why I continue to write? I will write so that we never forget or push aside the great evils that human beings are capable of committing: The Holocaust, slavery and Jim Crow, the extermination of Native Americans by the millions in the name of God and Manifest Destiny, the enslavement, exploitation, and sometimes the extermination of whole peoples by colonialism; the witch trials, the religious wars of the Reformation, the Inquisition, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Stalin’s purges, the Tuskegee experiments, the Japanese barbarity in the Rape of Nanking and other places in Asia, the Srebrenica genocide and the Rwandan genocide, the inhumanity of the so-called Islamic State, just to name a few; and add to that whatever happens in the next few years that will be aided and abbetted by men and women who overthrow democracy by the democratic process, using people’s fear to establish authoritatian or totalitarian states.

All too often the perpetrators of those events and their descendants as all too willing to last the past lie dormant and allow present wrongs to persist and look the other way.

But at what cost do we do so? Do we sacrifice justice on the altar of prosperity and peace; do we sacrifice uncomfortable truth in order to remain undisturbed and comforted by myth? Do we condemn our descendants to live under the myths of our ancestors? Would we sacrifice the truth and justice in order to ensure obedience? Howard Zinn correctly observed, “Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.”

President John F. Kennedy spoke these words at Yale in 1962: “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

Personally I would rather ask the questions and confront the past so we might have a better future, because though I am a realist, I also believe in my heart that humanity is capable of overcoming hatred, prejudice and ignorance. The problem is that times get difficult those attitudes can overcome our better nature. As Spencer Tracy’s character in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg said:

“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.”

That my friends, is why I write: for justice, truth, and the value of a single human life, even if that means being considered unpatriotic.

Peace

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