Tag Archives: Rational Christianity

Einsatzgruppen and Ordinary Men: Religion, Ideology, and True Believers, Now

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

this is a follow up to yesterday’s article about the Einsatzgruppen  and Ordungspolizei action in Poland from 1939 to early 1942, the period before Hitler and his minions made the decision to enact the Endlosung, the Final Solution to what they referred to in academic and clinical terms of the Jewish Problem. 

I cannot think for you, but the social and political climate of the United States and many other Western Democracies, what happened then is not simply an academic question that we can leave in the past, unless we are to submit ourselves to repeat that tragedy, that Holocaust. 

Eighty 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. I just finished reading Horst Bieshold’s Crying Hands: Eugenics and Deaf People in Nazi Germany, and I am currently reading Christopher Browning’s The Origins Of the Holocaust: The Evolution Of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939 – March 1942. 

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, unless we do. Never forget.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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