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“If These Trees Could Talk” A Visit to Buchenwald

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We are beginning to wind up our trip to Germany staying with our friends Linda and Holger near Karlsruhe. As do so I am beginning to catch up on writing about some of the places that we have been to and things that we have experienced.

Last Saturday while driving from Wittenberg to Eisenach to meet our friends Gottfried and Hannelore we stopped at Buchenwald, a notorious Concentration Camp located on the Ettersburg hill and the Buchenwald Forrest near Weimar. The area is beautiful and serene, it is hard to imagine the evil that took place here. The deaths of over 50,000 people who died from being executed by hanging or with a shot to the base of the neck, being worked to death, starved, maltreated, and being used as Guinea Pigs for medical experiments cannot be removed by the scenery in the local area.

If you visit Buchenwald you will be surprised at how vast the camp is. The area most visited is the main camp, but two others adjoin it, though the visible markers are less numerous or obvious than at the main camp. Unless you have more than a couple of hours you cannot do it all. Had I had the time I would have liked to walk the entire perimeter, which you can do, but due to our schedule I could only spend about an hour and a half there.

At the gate there is an inscription which must be read from the inside of the camp. It states Jedem das Seine or to each their own, which the SS interpreted to mean that the Master Race had the right to humiliate and destroy all others.

Buchenwald was opened in 1937 as a place where the Nazi regime could imprison political prisoners as well as members of what they called untermenschen or sub-human. The former included Communists, Socialists, other political opponents, of course Jews, as well as people deemed “asocial” which could mean almost anything. Repeat offenders and habitual criminals, Roma and Sinti, Homosexuals, Freemasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the mentally, and the mentally or physically disabled. As the Nazi occupation of Europe grew to encompass most of the continent the list expanded to include the former as well as political, military, social, religious and intellectual leaders of those countries, and anyone else deemed a threat the Reich.

But Buchenwald was not a Death Camp. It had no gas chambers and those executed were killed up close and personal with a bullet to the base of the neck, being hanged in some manner, and in a few cases of Catholic clergy, crucified upside down. Yet it was a place of horror. General Dwight Eisenhower wrote after visiting the Ohrdorf sub-camp of Buchenwald subsequent to its liberation wrote:

The same day [April 12, 1945] I saw my first horror camp. It was near the town of Gotha. I have never felt able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency. Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however that I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock.

Eisenhower was so moved that he ordered that the best reporters and newsmen come and record what he had seen. He did not want the horrors to be denied by history. He wrote:

I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that `the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.’ Some members of the visiting party were unable to through the ordeal. I not only did so but as soon as I returned to Patton’s headquarters that evening I sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures. I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.

One of those reporters was Edward R. Murrow who broadcast his visit to Buchenwald:

There surged around me an evil-smelling stink, men and boys reached out to touch me. They were in rags and the remnants of uniforms. Death already had marked many of them, but they were smiling with their eyes. I looked out over the mass of men to the green fields beyond, where well-fed Germans were ploughing….

[I] asked to see one of the barracks. It happened to be occupied by Czechoslovaks. When I entered, men crowded around, tried to lift me to their shoulders. They were too weak. Many of them could not get out of bed. I was told that this building had once stabled 80 horses. There were 1200 men in it, five to a bunk. The stink was beyond all description.

They called the doctor. We inspected his records. There were only names in the little black book — nothing more — nothing about who had been where, what he had done or hoped. Behind the names of those who had died, there was a cross. I counted them. They totaled 242 — 242 out of 1200, in one month.

As we walked out into the courtyard, a man fell dead. Two others, they must have been over 60, were crawling toward the latrine. I saw it, but will not describe it.

In another part of the camp they showed me the children, hundreds of them. Some were only 6 years old. One rolled up his sleeves, showed me his number. It was tattooed on his arm. B-6030, it was. The others showed me their numbers. They will carry them till they die. An elderly man standing beside me said: “The children — enemies of the state!” I could see their ribs through their thin shirts….

We went to the hospital. It was full. The doctor told me that 200 had died the day before. I asked the cause of death. He shrugged and said: “tuberculosis, starvation, fatigue and there are many who have no desire to live. It is very difficult.” He pulled back the blanket from a man’s feet to show me how swollen they were. The man was dead. Most of the patients could not move.

I asked to see the kitchen. It was clean. The German in charge….showed me the daily ration. One piece of brown bread about as thick as your thumb, on top of it a piece of margarine as big as three sticks of chewing gum. That, and a little stew, was what they received every 24 hours. He had a chart on the wall. Very complicated it was. There were little red tabs scattered through it. He said that was to indicate each 10 men who died. He had to account for the rations and he added: “We’re very efficient here.”

We proceeded to the small courtyard. The wall adjoined what had been a stable or garage. We entered. It was floored with concrete. There were two rows of bodies stacked up like cordwood. They were thin and very white. Some of the bodies were terribly bruised; though there seemed to be little flesh to bruise. Some had been shot through the head, but they bled but little.

I arrived at the conclusion that all that was mortal of more than 500 men and boys lay there in two neat piles. There was a German trailer, which must have contained another 50, but it wasn’t possible to count them. The clothing was piled in a heap against the wall. It appeared that most of the men and boys had died of starvation; they had not been executed.

But the manner of death seemed unimportant. Murder had been done at Buchenwald. God alone knows how many men and boys have died there during the last 12 years. Thursday, I was told that there were more than 20,000 in the camp. There had been as many as 60,000. Where are they now?

I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words.

If I have offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I’m not in the least sorry….

Allied prisoners of war, especially Russians and Poles were brought to Buchenwald. While many Red Army POWs were assigned to the work camps, thousands of other Soviet POWs were summarily executed upon their arrival and thus were never registered as inmates and are not counted in the official German numbers of those who died at the Camp.

In one of the more unusual instances, 168 Allied aviators from the United States, Britain, Canada, and other Commonwealth nations were transported to Buchenwald by the SS from France in August 1944. Normally such prisoners were the responsibility of the Luftwaffe. The men arrived at Buchenwald and remained for two months in the same conditions as the other inmates. During that time three died. The Luftwaffe found out about the prisoners and had them transferred to Stalag Luft III, a regular POW Camp in Silesia from which the legendary Great Escape had been made in March 1944.

One of the Canadians wrote of their arrival at Buchenwald:

As we got close to the camp and saw what was inside… a terrible, terrible fear and horror entered our hearts. We thought, what is this? Where are we going? Why are we here? And as you got closer to the camp and started to enter [it] and saw these human skeletons walking around—old men, young men, boys, just skin and bone, we thought, what are we getting into?

As for me the the cruelty of the SS to their inmates is horrible enough, but I think for me it was the larger scale use of the camp and it’s inmates for medical experiments by physicians that affected me the most. I have Robert Jay Lifton’s book The Nazi Doctors, but to see where and stand where these practitioners of evil did their work was difficult. Lifton wrote:

In all fundamentalisms, and they are usually religious or political, there is the sense of profound threat to what are considered fundamental beliefs and symbols, and a compensatory invocation of a sacred text (the Bible, the Koran, Mein Kampf) as a literal guide to every form of action. History stops so that murderous therapy can be applied. While medicine does not provide the sacred text, one can revert to ancient practices of shamans, witch doctors, and tricksters who could be expected to kill in order to heal. For physicians as well as charismatic spiritual physicians, there is a release from Hippocratic restraint.

Hundreds of inmates were injected with Typhus in order to test treatments for the disease. To test balms which could help victims of incendiary bombs, prisoners were exposed to White Phosphorus which caused massive and incredibly painful burns in order to test the treatments. Many other experiments were conducted by the SS Doctors of Buchenwald.

Almost all of the prisoners at Buchenwald and its sub-Camps were used as slave laborers for German industrial plants and armaments plants. The sub- Camp at Mittelbau-Dora (Nordhausen) which became independent from Buchenwald in 1944 was a key production facility for the V-1 and V-2 rockets. Under the direction of SS Gruppenführer Oswald Pohl and the Verwaltung und Wirtschaft Hauptamt, the Administrative and Economics Main Office, Fritz Sauckel, General Plenipotentiary for Labour Deployment who oversaw the efforts to bring extra laborers to the Reich, and Armaments Minister Albert Speer.

Buchenwald is both historical reality that cannot be denied, as well as an everlasting reminder of the capacity of supposedly advanced human beings can do to others. Man’s capacity for evil is limitless and Buchenwald is one of the great reminders of it.

As I listen to and read the opinions of many American supporters of President Trump I believe that such evil could happen again, this time in my country and at the hands of my countrymen. Honestly, I don’t think that most of these people are really evil. I think that most are simply deluded by years of propaganda put forth by the politicians, pundits, and preachers of the political right who play upon their fears of being displaced economically and socially by minorities, women, foreigners, and others deemed less deserving of having a chance to live the American Dream. In their fear they would excuse the actions of a government that would run Buchenwald and the other components of the Concentration Camp system, not only for punishing political opponents, but also using that system to exploit victims for economic gain without any consideration of them as human beings.

This is something that we have to remember now more than ever. For at least a few months the American President who is an admirer of everything authoritarian now controls all three branches of the Federal Government. With such power at his disposal, a compliant executive branch, a subservient legislative branch, and a Supreme Court in the hands of Right Wing ideologues it would be incredibly easy to pass something like the Reichstag Fire Decree or the Enabling Act giving the President unlimited power.

Historian Timothy Snyder wrote these words not even two years ago.

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.

I do not want to sound like an alarmist but I am beginning to doubt that the institutions so well designed by our Founders to withstand assaults on the Constitution by one or two branches of government can survive this. There is no going back from what has happened over the past few weeks and we will be very fortunate if our institutions survive in the manner that our Founders intended. The outward structure may survive, but the heart of those institutions will be destroyed, even if the Democrats regain control of the House and Senate.

Tomorrow we travel to Munich to spend the night before flying home Monday. Our trip has allowed me to me more reflective about the current American crisis without being immersed in it on a minute to minute basis.

I expect to post something from Munich so until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Price of Resistance: Remembering the Men of Operation Valkyrie

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Three days ago in Berlin I visits the memorial to the men of the German resistance movement who attempted to remove Hitler from power a number of times, and then resorted to attempted assassination. Their final attempt occurred on July 20th 1944. The building from which they attempted to seize power was the headquarters of the German Army, the Oberkommando des Heeres, located on Bendlerstraße.

I am not going to retell the story of those men. I have written about the event and some of the men a number of times. Among them at the headquarters were Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who had planted the bomb, General Ludwig Beck, General Friedrich Olbricht, Lieutenant Colonel Merz von Quirnheim, and Stauffenberg’s aide, Lieutenant Werner Von Haeften. All were captured by Wehrmacht Guard forces commanded by Major Remer when it was clear that Hitler was still alive.

Beck was given the opportunity to kill himself but failed and was shot where he lay while Stauffenberg, Olbricht, Quirnheim, and Haeften were tried by a drumhead Court convened by General Friedrich Fromm and executed in the square in the middle of the complex. Fromm had known about the plot but had refused to commit himself to it. When it was clear that Hitler was alive he overcompensated and had them executed to cover up his involvement. This did not save him, he was arrested soon after, tried by the Volksgericht headed by Roland Freisler, and executed in 1945.

I stood in that square where they were executed and I was moved. They paid paid the ultimate price for their act of resistance and I wonder if Americans who claim to be resisters would be willing to pay that price if that was the only remaining option.

Other plotters not in Berlin or at the Bendlerstrasse complex were either arrested and later executed, or committed suicide. One of those men, General Henning von Tresckow said the following shortly before his death:

The whole world will vilify us now, but I am still totally convinced that we did the right thing. Hitler is the archenemy not only of Germany but of the world. When, in few hours’ time, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify what I did in the struggle against Hitler. God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if just ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope that for our sake God will not destroy Germany. None of us can bewail his own death; those who consented to join our circle put on the robe of Nessus. A human being’s moral integrity begins when he is prepared to sacrifice his life for his convictions.

In the United States we still have the option of elections and for the moment most of our institutions are still holding out against a lawless administration. How long that will remain I do not know. Every day that I wake up without discovering that the United States has not experienced its Reichstag Fire moment I am relieved and say a prayer of thanks; but I worry, especially after a chapel member and strong supporter of President Trump tried to get me tried by Court Martial for a sermon in my chapel. I had to hire a lawyer to fight the charges during the preliminary investigation.

Thankfully, I was exonerated and did not have to face a trial because what the man had said was a bold faced lie. Despite that, the comments of some people who said I did not do what I was accused of doing were still quite harrowing in how they portrayed me and my beliefs. It was as if I was a caricature of a raving leftist. The fact is that I do not blindly follow any political party line. I have been a military officer and chaplain for almost all of my adult life, I have served under six Presidents and there are none who I agreed with on every issue, but my oath is to the Constitution, not any President or party despite my current party affiliation.

On some issues I am very liberal or progressive, and others quite conservative, but in each case I try my best to base those positions with my Christian faith, as well as my belief in the great proposition of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal…” and my belief that Abraham Lincoln was correct when he said in the Gettysburg Address “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

However, history shows that when authoritarian leaders seize power that most people, even opponents find a way to make peace with the regime. This is a fair question to ask of anyone.

A hashtag, tweet, or Facebook like or dislike does not define integrity or strength of character, it is what they do in the crisis when the personal costs are factored in. I have already experienced that to a degree, and I know what I will do because I have already had to do it. Yet most people have not hit that point, and honestly I pray that they never do.

Many of the men who acted on July 20th 1944 did so knowing that if they failed in their attempt that they would die and that their families too would be condemned. Of course they no longer had the opportunity that Americans today have to vote or to speak out publicly. They and their country had sacrificed that when sat silently when Hitler dismantled the Republic and the opposition parties, with the exception of the Social Democrats, voted themselves out of existence and allowed Hitler to rule as a dictator. Likewise, many Social Democrats and Communists converted to the NDSAP or minded their own business and looked the other way after the Nazis seized power. The same was true of most German Conservatives.

The German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was a part of the plot, but who had been arrested earlier through his association with leaders of the resistance in the German military intelligence service, wrote:

“If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”

The men of the German resistance tried and failed more than once to stop Hitler. They were not perfect men, but in the end they made a stand that they knew would cost them, their family members, and their friends dearly.

I wonder if we would have the courage to do it should the institutions of the Republic fail and Trump or any other would be authoritarian leader of any party gain absolute power. By and large the leaders of the GOP, even those who fought his nomination and warned about the danger he posed, have already surrendered to Trump. The most notable is Senator Lindsey Graham.

Stauffenberg was right about men like Graham and the GOP leadership when he made this observation about most German military leaders and government officials:

“You cannot expect people who have broken their spine once or twice to stand up straight when a new decision has to be made.”

Likewise I wonder about the many people that claim to be resisters when the cost is still relatively low. Will they stand when their social or economic status, career, family, or lives are in danger? As I said earlier it is a fair question. People are people no matter what and history too often shows that even resisters often find ways to adjust to authoritarian governments.

Tresckow said:

It is almost certain that we will fail. But how will future history judge the German people, if not even a handful of men had the courage to put an end to that criminal?

There are many lessons to be learned in this. Will we learn them?

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“Open the Gates…” Berlin’s Neue Synagogue on Oranienburg Straße

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We are spending our last night in Berlin after a rather quiet day which included a visit with Dr. Rink, the Bishop of the German Evangelische military chaplain service. We spent an our and a half with his and his chief spokesman at his office. I should have gotten some pictures of us and the offices but forgot because it was such an interesting visit. We will be leaving in the morning which is a holiday, the Tag der Deutschen Einheit, or day of German Unity which celebrates the official reunification of Germany in 1990. The preparations here are quite extensive with much of the area around the Brandenburger Tor and Reichstag blocked off for events and an already large police presence.

This afternoon I took a walk around the district that our hotel, the Hotel Dietrich Bonhoeffer Haus is located. Not far from it is Berlin’s Neue Synagogue, the restored frontal portion of a building dedicated in 1866 by Berlin’s Jewish community. Among those present at the dedication was Otto Von Bismarck, the the Minister President of Prussia prior to the Unification of Germany in 1870.

It was a massive structure that could hold over 3000 worshippers and its Moorish architecture and resemblance to the Alhambra in the Spanish city of Grenada. It was one of the first large buildings to be of iron construction. It is a beautiful structure with its great golden dome topped by a Star of David flanked by two smaller domes.

In addition to its place as a center of worship it was a center of Berlin’s largely assimilated and liberal Jewish community. Berlin was the center of the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah in Germany, and Prussian Jews enjoyed full citizenship and civil rights going back to 1850. The movement emphasized secularism and equality. Prominent Jewish citizens included Albert Einstein, as well as theater and film director Max Reinhardt; composer, music theorist, writer, and painter Arnold Schoenberg, composer Kurt Weill, who is famous for his song Mac the Knife which was popularized in the United States first by Louis Armstrong and then Bobby Darin; and painter Max Liebermann, who was President of the Prussian Academy of Arts until the Nazi takeover in 1933. Additionally, Louis (Lazarus) Lewendowski the highly acclaimed liturgical composer and musician who put his imprint on much Jewish liturgical music used around the world today.

It was used for public concerts and it hand an organ and a mixed choir thanks to Lewendowski, making it a part of a distinctly western and liberal strain of Judaism. In 1929, Einstein performed a renowned violin concert in it.

When the Nazis seized power in 1933 the repression of Berlin’s Jewish community began. Jews lost their citizenship, their employment in the Civil Service and military, membership in professional organizations, and suffered many other humiliations and persecution. As a result many Jews left Germany. Einstein, Schoenberg, Reinhardt, and Weill all fled to the United States. Liebermann died of a heart attack in 1935. He lived near the Brandenburger Tor and reported said as Nazi Stormtroopers marched through it celebrating their takeover of the government: “Ich kann gar nicht soviel fressen, wie ich kotzen möchte.” (“I could not possibly eat as much as I would like to throw up.”)

Despite Nazi repression the Synagogue continued to operate and became a center for Jewish relief efforts. It was one of the few synagogues spared destruction during the Kristallnacht terror organized by Joseph Goebbels on November 9th 1938. A group of Nazis broke into the synagogue, vandalized the Torah scrolls, and attempted to set fire to the building. A Berlin Police Lieutenant named Wilhelm Krützfeld took action and ordered the mob to disperse because the building was a protected historical building. To make his point he drew his pistol and threatened the vandals. His actions allowed the Feuerwehr to arrive and ensured that the building was not burned. Krützfeld reported his actions and only received a verbal reprimand from the Nazi Police President Graf Helldorf who had played a major role in the organization of Kristallnacht. Krützfeld and members of his precinct also helped Jews with identity papers and warned them of Gestapo raids. He was transferred in 1940 and because he could no longer serve the Nazi state requested retirement due to health reasons in 1943. Following the war in 1945 he returned to active police service and died in 1953. his superior, Helldorf, became a part of the anti-Hitler conspiracy and was condemned to death by Roland Freisler and the Volksgericht in 1944.

The synagogue remained active until 1940 when it was ordered closed and taken over by the Wehrmacht which desecrated it and turned it into a warehouse for uniform supplies. It was badly damaged by allied air raids during the war and the main sanctuary was burned out and heavily damaged. The Ruins of the main sanctuary and the main dome were demolished in 1955 with the Jewish community meeting next door to the ruin.

In 1988 on the 50th year anniversary of Kristallnacht the process to restore it as a Jewish cultural center began and it reopened in 1993. The restoration only comprised the front section of the building, but in 1995 the Reformed Jewish community of Berlin was reestablished in it. Today it functions as a synagogue, a cultural center, and a museum.

If you come to Berlin you need to see it.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“Safe?! From What?” A Visit to the Grave of Sophie Scholl

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Our visit to Munich today was relatively quiet. We went to breakfast and then since Judy’s knees were not up to a lot of long walks or standing took our rental car out to see a couple of places that we haven’t been. We went to the grave of the anti-Nazi martyr Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and friend Christoph Probst who were executed in February 1943 for publishing anti-Hitler, Nazi, and war pamphlets. Following that we went to the BMW Museum and BMW World.

I will write about the latter later, but tonight I will write about a visit to the Friedhof at Perlacher Forst in Munich where Sophie Scholl is buried.

The cemetery is adjacent to the Stadelheim Prison where she was held before her trial and executed on February 22nd 1943. I have written about her and the White Rose resistance movement before. Last year I visited the White Rose Museum and study center at the Ludwig Maximillians University of Munich but last year I didn’t get the chance to make a pilgrimage to her gravesite. I made it a priority this year.

We parked on the street outside Stadelheim, which is still an active prison surrounded by tall walls and guard towers. While Judy waited with the car I walked to the cemetery and then to the gravesite which is on the opposite side of the cemetery from the main entrance. It is a very peaceful place, with many trees and the sections cordoned off by carefully trimmed grapevines.

When I reached the gravesite I paused, and remained for about ten minutes contemplating the cost of real resistance to tyranny. She and her companions had no political, military, or economic power. They were students, and a number had served as medics on the Eastern Front before resuming their studies.

Unlike the men who launched Operation Valkyrie 17 months later they had no connections to any kind of power: they were not part of the movement of German conservatives and militarists who initially supported Hitler and then had second thoughts. When Hitler came to power they were children. They resisted because they found what was happening to go beyond any sense of ethics, morality, or in some cases, like Sophie, their Christian faith.

At her trial she told the notorious President of the Nazi People’s Court, Roland Freisler:

Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.

While I was their I tried to imagine her courage as she testified to the truth and went to her death. The woman who shared Sophie’s cell wrote of her final words before going to her execution:

How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?

Many people today are being faced with the same questions that Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and friends, including Christoph Probst who was executed the same day had to make. Thankfully, for the most part the future imitators of Hitler have not yet seized full power in Europe or the United States, but it wouldn’t take much for that to happen. Too many people, and not just conservatives, would be willing to sacrifice freedom in the name of security if a major war, terrorist attack, or natural disaster that threatened their well being and/or their economic or social status occurred.

In such a situation, how many people would allow their government to oppress and terrorize people that they distrusted due to their race, ethnicity, or religion? I think that the numbers are a lot higher than we would want to admit. The preservation or self and wealth is often more of a motivation than faith, or the rights and liberties of others.

During the Nazi era many non-Nazis supported the Nazi programs because they thought that they benefited them. The same is true in any authoritarian State regardless of the ideology that it subscribes and its people hold dear.

Sophie said:

The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.

So until tomorrow from Munich,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Reflecting on Life and Those deemed Unworthy of Life: A Visit to the Hadamar T4 Euthanasia Center


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In a couple of weeks my wife Judy and I will be traveling to Germany for a time of relaxation, study, and visits with German friends. I will be writing about those events as they occur. But as we get closer to going I began to reflect on our visit to Germany last year. At the end of that visit while visiting our friends Gottfried and Hannelore I took a trip with Gottfried to the T4 Euthanasia Center memorial at Hadamar which is about 12 miles from where they live.

Hadamar had been a mental hospital for decades before it was chosen as one of six places where an euthanasia program ordered by Hitler was to be conducted. Hitler ordered the program on September 1st 1939, the same day his forces invaded Poland.

Between 1941 and 1945 over 15,000 people, deemed to be “life unworthy of life” were murdered at Hadamar. The victims were killed in a bus garage where they were killed with carbon monoxide gas, the gas chamber, or by lethal injection or intentional overdoses of barbiturates while laying in bed at night. The gas chambers at Hadamar ceased operations at the end of 1941 and were removed, making the killings in the next stages “up close and personal” killings done by medical professionals. The specialists that operated them were transferred to run the death camps in German occupied Poland.


Those killed at Hadamar included men, women, and children deemed to have diseases, handicaps, or mental illnesses that kept them from being a useful part of the German economy, or a drain on society. Likewise, there were many people brought to Hadamar to be sterilized so they could never reproduce. The orders for this action came from Hitler himself and were based on what were in the early 20th Century very popular expressions of Social Darwinism which were not isolated to Germany. Sadly, there were those who expressed the same thoughts and conducted medical experiments and sterilization short of euthanasia in many Western countries, including the United States.

The victims included the handicapped, the mentally ill, those born with Down’s Syndrome or other neurological diseases, Jews, people with long term illnesses, children, people determined to be asocial, and during the war soldiers, including those of the Waffen SS who were determined to have mental illness, including what we would now call PTSD which made them unfit for active service.

The relatives of those killed received notification from the authorities that their son, daughter, sister, or brother had died of natural causes, certified by the doctors who had decided that they should die. Unlike the extermination camps in the East, or the concentration camps, the killing in Hadamar and the other T4 centers was conducted by medical personnel. Most of the up close and personal killing using lethal injection or barbiturates were conducted by nurses under the direction of physicians. When the first phase, that which used carbon monoxide gas in the bus garage was ended, many of the personnel involved were transferred to help run the extermination camps including Treblinka, Soribor, and Auschwitz in the east. Their service at Hadamar was little more than a training ground for their future employment.

I will write more about the T4 Program and Hadamar at another time. That being said I have to admit that the visit was chilling. In addition to being a memorial, with historical classes, seminars, and tours being offered, the campus is used for many other activities, including medical and educational programs. Likewise, unlike places like Dachau, which are not particularly scenic locations, Hadamar, located in rural Hessen is a place that one could never imagine mass murder ever have taken place. It is a beautiful and peaceful location, so the crimes that happened there, although numerically small compared to other camps are unimaginable.

Afterwards Gottfried and I talked and went back to his house. I went on a walk to the town hall, or the Rathaus to see the towns memorial to the Jews who lived there before the war and then I took a walk in the surrounding area and went back to the Jewish cemetery which I had visited last night as the grave stones could not be read in the dark. Those which were still legible were written in Hebrew and or German and most dated to the 1800s and early 1900s. As I mentioned last night the Jews who remained in Loehnberg were forced to sell their houses and belongings and were sent to the extermination centers. At least one survived and she helped dedicate the memorial at the Rathaus in 1991. One thing that I do like about Germany is that the majority of the people now have the opinion that the crimes of their parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents generations need to be remembered, and the victims, and not the perpetrators be honored. I wish it was that way in the United States where we honor too many of the men who brought genocide to the Native American tribes, or enslaved African Americans and considered both the be less than human.

As I walked through the forests and meadows surrounding Loehnberg after my visit to Hadamar, as well as my visits to Dachau, the White Rose Memorial and museum at the University of Munich, and the National Socialist Documentation Center in Munich I did a lot of thinking. I wondered about people who could excuse such terrible crimes in the name of love of country, or even worse because they really believed that God thought that their country and race mattered more than others. I began to think about Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism in the light of what happened in Germany, a people who believed for close to 80 years that God intended them to dominate Europe and even the world. Many of theological writings of the times in Germany and the United States.

Honestly, I think that there are a lot of people in the United States who call themselves “Pro Life” because they are anti-abortion or against birth control that would have no problem with the methods of the Nazis at Hadamar so long as those methods either brought them a profit, political power, or were used against people that they thought were less than human. Since lot of these people, mostly self-identified Evangelical and Catholic Christians frequently are in lockstep with President Trump, and cheer him on as he identifies those that he believes to be less than human or unworthy of existence in the United States, I have no doubt that they would either approve and justify such actions or turn their backs on the victims.

When I ponder than it sends a cold chill down my spine, because they are our neighbors, co-workers, and we rub shoulders with them every day.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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

Genocide in the Name of God: a Universal Truth About True Believers

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Seventy-nine years ago the members of Heinrich Himmler’s Einsatzgruppen were following the German Army into Poland. These forces were intended to do one thing, to eliminate any Poles capable of resisting the Reich and to round up and kill Jews. The sad thing is that while the Genocide committed by the Nazis is in a league of its own, the propensity for others to write about, urge, and promote genocidal practices is not unique.

One of the most troubling aspects of genocide is the degree to which people will go to rationalize and justify it, especially if it is supposedly commanded by their “God.” This includes people who exalt their human leader’s pronouncements to that of a god.

Eric Hoffer wrote:

“The impression somehow prevails that the true believer, particularly the religious individual, is a humble person. The truth is the surrendering and humbling of the self breed pride and arrogance. The true believer is apt to see himself as one of the chosen, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a prince disguised in meekness, who is destined to inherit the earth and the kingdom of heaven too. He who is not of his faith is evil; he who will not listen will perish.”

Thus, today’s article is difficult to write. I realize that some people will be offended because to those that cannot see the nuance that any criticism of their beliefs is akin to an attack on God. That is not my intent at all, there are too many people of faith in all religions who work against the extremists who claim to speak evil in the name of their God. Likewise I am not  attempting by any stretch of the imagination to broad brush or demonize people of faith. That being said, there are people of every faith and ideology who are capable of planning and committing genocide.

Yes there are extremists, but there are also many ordinary people who obey without questioning, and if ordered by a high enough authority will commit unspeakable acts. As Primo Levi noted, “Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are…the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.”

But my purpose today, in fact the sole intent of this article is to point out some of the questions and issues that people of faith need to ask when they faced with the killing of innocents or defenseless people in the name of God, or of a political leader. The fact that the Trump administration has already began rounding up people including American citizens and separating them from their families in what amount to concentration camps. (And yes, I do know the difference between a concentration camp like Dachau and a death camp like Treblinka, or Auschwitz so don’t even go there Mr. Trump Cultist.) But the fact is that once you go down the path that the Trump administration has elected to trod there is not much more to overcome before the killing begins.

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.”

Thus, one only has to look at history and the words or actions of people who live among us to realize that the seeds of genocide are always being sown by those who find others less than human. The men and women who sow the seeds of future genocide can do so in the name of their God, their religion, their religious or secular political ideological, or their views on the superiority of their race. The Nazis provide us a road map of the twisted logic used by the perpetrators of such actions, but they are not alone in history, and people like them exist today, some peddling their hatred in the name of God and religion, but not always.

When one reads the speeches, the after action reports, and the post-war testimony of those who orchestrated and conducted the worst terror of the Nazi regime against the Jews and others that they considered to be less than human, or in the case of the handicapped and the mentally ill, “life unworthy of life” they are stunning, and troubling.

During his Posen speech of October 1943 SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler was quite clear about the aims of the Nazis, and their goals regarding the Jews and other Untermenschen (Sub humans) including infants and children. Himmler said:

“We came to the question: what to do with the women and children? I decided to find a clear solution here as well. I did not consider myself justified to exterminate the men – that is, to kill them or have them killed – and allow the avengers of our sons and grandsons in the form of their children to grow up. The difficult decision had to be taken to make this people disappear from the earth…”

One would think that killing babies, any babies, but in the particular case Jewish babies to prevent them from growing up to avenge the deaths of their parents would be repulsive, especially to Jews. For most Jews it is, but like every religion Judaism has its share of extremists. One of them is the controversial Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, the dean of the Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva near Nablus in Israel. In a chapter in his book Torat ha-Melekh [The King’s Teaching] entitled “Deliberate harm to innocents,” which provides numerous justifications to kill gentiles, even babies, Shapira wrote:

“In any situation in which a non-Jew’s presence endangers Jewish lives, the non-Jew may be killed even if he is a righteous Gentile and not at all guilty for the situation that has been created… Hindrances—babies are found many times in this situation. They block the way to rescue by their presence and do so completely by force. Nevertheless, they may be killed because their presence aids murder. There is justification for killing babies if it is clear that they will grow up to harm us, and in such a situation they may be harmed deliberately, and not only during combat with adults.”

The Rabbi’s followers have engaged in frequent violence against Palestinians and Jews who do not hold his radical views. In 2006 he was detained for questioning after writing an article in which he said that all Palestinian males from age 13 and up should be killed or expelled from the West Bank. The rabbi condemns any moderation by the Israeli Defense Forces, and he criticizes Israel’s legal system and judiciary when its rulings conflict with his uncompromising views. To be sure his book was condemned by other Rabbis, especially of the Reformed School, but some Orthodox Rabbis supported it.

Those views are not unlike the stated views of the leaders of the so-called Islamic State when it comes to the killing of non-believers. In that organization’s 2013 Declaration of War those leaders stated:

“If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be. Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling. Both of them are disbelievers. Both of them are considered to be waging war [the civilian by belonging to a state waging war against the Muslims]. Both of their blood and wealth is legal for you to destroy, for blood does not become illegal or legal to spill by the clothes being worn.”

Many Imam’s and Mufti’s around the world and in the Middle East have issued Fatwah’s against the Islamic State and condemned its teachings. But many of these clerics, who often represent their tribal or government leaders, are considered to be disbelievers and “defenders of Israel” by the Islamic State. As such, many Moslem clerics, and large numbers the vast oppressed masses of impoverished, and often disenfranchised Arab Moslems are attracted to that ideology, especially that directed against the Jews, who are seen as the ultimate enemy.

There are Christians too that find theological justification for killing children, and their reasons are chillingly like those of Himmler: The author of an article on the blog Rational Christianity wrote:

“Why were the children killed, if they weren’t guilty? Apparently, they were considered as morally neutral, since they weren’t yet old enough to be held accountable or to have done much right or wrong. While not as corrupt as their parents, they were part of the society that was judged, and shared its earthly (though not its eternal) fate.”

Another author, a man named Wayne Jackson of Apologetics Press writes of the children of the Canaanites, “Would it not have been infinitely worse, in view of eternity, had these children grown to maturity and adopted the same pagan practices as their parents?”

William Lane Craig, a frequent apologist wrote in the Reasonable faith website a comment that sounds like it could have come from the lips of Himmler in dealing with the effect of the mass murders of Jews and others on the troops of the Einsatzgruppen. Craig wrote:

“So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgment. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life. So who is wronged? Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalising effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.”

However, Craig has no qualms about what the Israelites did, simply because the genocide was commanded by God.

If one substitutes “Hitler” for “God” one sees a similar rationalization used members of the Einsatzgruppen. Colonel Walter Blume, a Police Colonel at Vitebsk who tried to “care” for his troops during a mass execution of Jews. He wrote:

“If I am now asked about my inner attitude which I then held, I can only say that it was absolutely split. On the one hand there was the strict order of my superior… and as a soldier I had to obey. On the other hand I considered the execution of this order cruel and humanly impossible. My very presence at this execution convinced me of this in a final manner. I still know that I wanted to make the situation easier for my men who were certainly moved by the same feelings. When ten men were shot there was always a pause until the next had been brought in. During these pauses I let my men sit down and rest and I joined them. I still know what I said exactly the following words to them at this time: “As much as it is no job for German men and soldiers to shoot defenseless people but the Fuhrer has ordered these shootings because he is convinced that these men would otherwise shoot at us as partisans or would shoot our comrades and our women and children were to be protected if we undertake these executions. This we would have to remember when we carry out this order.” Furthermore, I tried talking about neutral subjects to make the difficult spiritual situation easier and to overcome it.”

That is the troubling issue for me. Genocide is genocide and evil, no matter who commands it. We can try to wiggle around and avoid the subject by saying that whatever God we have is above normal law, or that our secular leader’s commands are above the law, but we cannot escape the fact that genocide is immoral and an immutable evil; even if we do it in the name of our God.

I think that is the problem that I have with people who follow their leaders down the path to genocide, even those who they believe are speaking for God. Likewise, I am very much concerned when people seem to care more about the emotional and spiritual effects of mass murders on the perpetrators than on the victims.

But then, the victims are dead and have no one left to speak for them.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil rights, ethics, faith, History, holocaust, national security, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

Hitler Invades Poland, 79 Years Later: Race, Lebensraum, and the Rape of Europe

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Seventy-nine years ago today the German Wehrmacht on the orders of Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. It began the European phase of the Second World War and by the time the war was over Europe would be devastated, Hitler would be dead, and the world changed.

Hitler, who had concluded a deal with Stalin’s Soviet Union did not believe that Britain or France would do any more than to conclude a peace after he finished Poland. Though France and Britain could have caused havoc and maybe even ended the war had they even attempted a serious campaign against Germany in September 1939, they did not. Hitler’s gamble which gave great concern to his Generals paid off. Poland was defeated, and with his pact with Stalin in place, Hitler was able to turn his attention to the West.

Hitler’s biographer, the late German historian Joachim Fest wrote:

In spite of all expenditures in the preceding years Germany was armed only, for the war that Hitler launched on September 1, not for the war of September 3. The army did consist of 102 divisions, but only half of these were active and battle-ready. The state of its training left much to be desired. The navy was distinctly inferior to the British and even to the French fleets; not even the strength permissible under the Anglo-German Naval Treaty of 1935 had been attained. Shortly after the Western declarations of war reached Berlin, Grand Admiral Raeder declared tersely that the German fleet, or rather “the little that is finished or will be finished in time, can only go down fighting honorably.” The air force alone was stronger than the forces of the enemy; it had 3,298 planes at its disposal. On the other hand, the ammunition supply had been half consumed by the end of the Polish campaign, so that the war could not have been actively continued for even three or four weeks. At Nuremberg, General Jodi called the existing reserves at the outbreak of the war “literally ridiculous.” Troop equipment also amounted to considerably less than the four-month stock that the High Command of the army had demanded. Even a small-scale attack from the West in the fall of 1939 would probably have brought about Germany’s defeat and the end of the war, military experts have concluded.

But Hitler’s war went far beyond a typical military invasion, occupation and revision of borders or exploitation of economic resources. Hitler’s invasion of Poland was his first movement to achieve Lebensraum “living space” in the East. It was also a racial war where the less than human inhabitants of that space, especially the Jews would be expelled from their homes, driven into ghettos, and eventually exterminated. In Poland the victims included the Polish intelligentsia, professors, priests, military officers, government officials, nobility; anyone who might be able to lead a revolt.

By invading Poland Hitler had abandoned politics which had served him so well against, party rivals, domestic opponents, and later European and World leaders. After Poland Hitler rejected political options and pressed forward with war. Fest wrote:

One of the striking aspects of his behavior is the stubborn, peculiarly blind impatience with which he pressed forward into the conflict. That impatience was curiously at odds with the hesitancy and vacillations that had preceded earlier decisions of his. When, in the last days of August, Göring pleaded with him not to push the gamble too far, he replied heatedly that throughout his life he had always played vabanque. And though this metaphor was accurate for the matter at hand, it hardly described the wary, circumspect style with which he had proceeded in the past. We must go further back, almost to the early, prepolitical phase of his career, to find the link with the abruptness of his conduct during the summer of 1939, with its reminders of old provocations and daredevil risks. There is, in fact, every indication that during these months Hitler was throwing aside more than tried and tested tactics, that he was giving up a policy in which he had excelled for fifteen years and in which for a while he had outstripped all antagonists. It was as if he were at last tired of having to adapt himself to circumstances, tired of the eternal talking, dissimulation, and diplomatic wirepulling, and were again seeking “a great, universally understandable, liberating action.”

Hitler having brought about the destruction of Europe died by his own hand in his bunker having determined that the German people were not worthy of him. The conflict which he bathed in the mythological understandings of Wagner and Paganism was also an eschatological war. Race and Lebensraum overrode all sense of ethics, morality, and even diplomacy that might lead to long term alliances with partners that shared shared mutual interests. Instead, Hitler’s most base instincts, hatred, and the racist desire to establish his mythological Aryan Race as the overlords of Poland, and the. Of every other conquered nation put him in a league of his own.

Fest wrote:

Morally, too, he now crossed the boundary that made the war irrevocable. In the same conversation he demanded the repression of any sign “that a Polish intelligentsia is coming forward as a class of leaders. The country is to continue under a low standard of living; we want to draw only labor forces from it.” Territory that went far beyond the borders of 1914 was incorporated into the Reich. The remainder was set up as a general government under the administration of Hans Frank; one part was subjected to a ruthless process of Germanization, the other to an unprecedented campaign of enslavement and annihilation. And while the commandos, the Einsatzgruppen, commenced their reign of terror, arresting, resettling, expelling, and liquidating—so that one German army officer wrote in a horrified letter of a “band of murderers, robbers and plunderers”—Hans Frank extolled the “epoch of the East” that was now beginning for Germany, a period, as he described it in his own peculiar brand of bombastic jargon, “of the most tremendous reshaping of colonizing and resettlement implementation.”

Diplomacy has no place in eschatology. Interestingly, the same day he signed an order for a euthanasia program directed against the weakest members of his own German nation. In his worldview the handicapped, the mentally ill, and others with any kind of disability were life unworthy of life. They were a drain on society.

Anyway, this is enough for the night. I shall refrain from an comparisons with the current American President or the authoritarian and racist leaders taking power in parts of Europe.

The ghosts of the past seldom remain there and often return with a vengeance when awakened by the same forces that unleashed them then.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, History, nazi germany, Political Commentary, world war two in europe