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Authoritarians and How Youth Like Sophie Scholl Will Save Us from Ourselves

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

As President Trump continues to take revenge on his opponents and threaten others following his acquittal, making threats toward others, including at the Justice Department, State Department, and the Department of Defense, we cannot dismiss these actions as politics as usual. This has never happened in America, at least not until now.

In fact, no American President, has behaved in such a manner. One, Andrew Jackson successfully defied the Supreme Court, in order to remove the Cherokee Nation and put them on the Trail of Tears, James K. Polk who launched an illegal and immoral war against Mexico, an act that the future President Ulysses Grant, then a young Army Lieutenant decried:  “I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”

Then there was James Buchanan who unsuccessfully attempted to overturn the law and Constitution during the Lecompton Constitution crisis, only to be stopped by the actions of Senator Stephen A. Douglas, John Tyler, at that point a former President joined the Confederacy, Andrew Johnson who pardoned hundreds of Confederate traitors, including war criminals, and worked against the the 14th Amendment, defied Congress, was impeached and acquitted by one bought vote. Likewise, Woodrow Wilson who led the great racist purge of the military and civil service in 1915, Richard Nixon whose crimes are too many too mention, and such that even a majority of his party led by Barry Goldwater told him to resign or be convicted in his impeachment trial, approached the authoritarianism, of Trump, and the treats of violence he and his supports make to opponents.  I could mention more, but you get the idea. We live in dangerous times and need to heed the words of British Historian and military theorist B. H. Liddell-Hart wrote about in his book Why Don’t we Learn From History: 

They soon begin to rid themselves of their chief helpers, “discovering” that those who brought about the new order have suddenly become traitors to it.

They suppress criticism on one pretext or another and punish anyone who mentions facts which, however true, are unfavourable to their policy.

They enlist religion on their side, if possible, or, if its leaders are not compliant, foster a new kind of religion subservient to their ends.

They spend public money lavishly on material works of a striking kind, in compensation for the freedom of spirit and thought of which they have robbed the public.

They manipulate the currency to make the economic position of the state appear better than it is in reality.

They ultimately make war on some other state as a means of diverting attention from internal conditions and allowing discontent to explode outward.

They use the rallying cry of patriotism as a means of riveting the chains of their personal authority more firmly on the people.

They expand the superstructure of the state while undermining its foundations by breeding sycophants at the expense of self-respecting collaborators, by appealing to the popular taste for the grandiose and sensational instead of true values, and by fostering a romantic instead of a realistic view, thus ensuring the ultimate collapse, under their successors if not themselves, of what they have created.

This political confidence trick, itself a familiar string of tricks, has been repeated all down the ages. Yet it rarely fails to take in a fresh generation.

But I digress, that was simply an introduction.

Seventy-seven years ago a young German woman was under the interrogation of the Munich Gestapo, before being tried and convicted of treason for distributing a series of anti-Nazi leaflets by the Nazi Volksgericht or “People’s Court” under the direction of the notorious Judge Roland Freisler who gained further infamy in his show trials of those suspected of participating in or supporting the July 20th Bomb Plot against Hitler.

The woman was Sophie Scholl, a student at the University of Munich she was just 22 years old. Her story and the story of the resistance group that she was at the center of is remarkable for the moral clarity that she and her friends displayed in an era where most people were willing to look the other way, if not unreservedly served Hitler’s Third Reich.

She and those who like her resisited Hitler’s Third Reich at the height of its power are worthwhile examples for those who resisit President Trump here. Russia’s Putin, and so many other authoritarian leaders in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The precious truth is that Freedom must be defended from those who use patriotism as a prop, and racism as the raison d’etre of their political, social, and foreign policy of their regimes.


The story of Sophie and the White Rose is a remarkable story because stories like this are often buried by the propaganda machines of totalitarian regimes; but the shock of what these young people did was so great that the Nazi propaganda machine had to publicly confront it with the goal of instilling such fear that no one else’s would dare repeat it. What politicians, generals, and others could not do to shake the Nazi regime a handful of university students accomplished.

There are a number of monuments scattered around Munich to the White Rose movement, but the most remarkable is the monument in front of the university where they studied and where they distributed their leaflets.  Facsimiles of their publications and letters are part of the pavement, looking as if they have been dropped on the ground for someone to pick up.

Scholl, as well as her friends were students, some who in the course of their time of study who had been drafted into the Wehrmacht as medics, serving on the Russian front before returning to the University. There were five of them, Sophie, Willi Graf, Alexander Schmorrel, Hans Scholl, and Christoph Probst, plus one of their professors, Professor Dr. Kurt Huber who began a resistance cell that focused on telling the truth about the crimes of the Nazi regime, and the lies of Hitler.

Telling the truth in a dictatorship is dangerous and although Sophie and her companions could have remained silent they had consciences that were guided by reason and human rights, as well as by their Christian faith, a faith which remained despite their aversion to the institutional church for its complicity with the Nazis. As she stood before Freisler and the Volksgericht she was recorded as saying:

“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.”

Too many people lacked the courage to speak as Sophie did in her day as all too many do today. It is far easier to take the path of least resistance. Laurence Rees in his history of Auschwitz wrote:

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

Sophie and her circle of friends in the White Rose chose how courageous people behave in such abominable conditions. They published a series of six leaflets which they printed themselves and distributed around the university, the city, and to like minded people in a number of other cities. They asked those who got them to make as many copies as they could and distribute them. They were in the process of drafting a seventh when Scholl was spotted distributing them at the university by a maintenance man who was a member of the Nazi Party. She and her friends were arrested on February 21st 1943 by the notorious Nazi People’s Court under the direction of Roland Freisler on the 22nd, and executed by beheading at Munich’s Stadelheim Prison on the 23rd.


The members of the White Rose were bold and defiant in the face of evil, of course those that have that kind of courage usually have short life expectancies in a totalitarian state, but they did not back down. Their pamphlets and graffiti criticizing Hitler garnered the attention of the Gestapo and when they were caught they were brutally tortured, but none backed down.

Their criticisms of Hitler and his Third Reich were hard hitting. Since all of the students had spent much of their childhood teenage years in Nazi organizations which were designed to make loyal little Nazis, their resistance came as a shock to many. All were children who could have easily due to their family background taken the easy road, but chose the more honorable and dangerous road.


Their pamphlets are striking, and each focused on a different part or aspect of the Nazi regime. In their first leaflet they wrote:

“Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be governed without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct.” They urged their readers “Therefore every individual, conscious of his responsibility as a member of Christian and Western civilization, must defend himself as best he can at this late hour, he must work against the scourges of mankind, against fascism and any similar system of totalitarianism.” And to “Offer passive resistance – resistance – wherever you may be, forestall the spread of this atheistic war machine before it is too late, before the last cities, like Cologne, have been reduced to rubble, and before the nation’s last young man has given his blood on some battlefield for the hubris of a sub-human. Do not forget that every people deserves the regime it is willing to endure!”

Such was their beginning, but they went on to attack the Nazi, leaders, the Nazi system, and especially the silence of their countrymen over the extermination of the Jews and Polish intellectuals. They asked in the second leaflet:

“Why do German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes, crimes so unworthy of the human race? Hardly anyone thinks about that. It is accepted as fact and put out of mind. The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals; they give them the opportunity to carry on their depredations; and of course they do so…. For through his apathetic behavior he gives these evil men the opportunity to act as they do; he tolerates this “government” which has taken upon itself such an infinitely great burden of guilt; indeed, he himself is to blame for the fact that it came about at all! Each man wants to be exonerated of a guilt of this kind, each one continues on his way with the most placid, the calmest conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!”

In each of the letters they asked their readers to offer some form of resistance to Hitler and the Nazi State but urged passive resistance, but in the third missive they went into more detail, including something that anyone who thinks that they are loyal to their country need to appreciate:

“The meaning and the goal of passive resistance is to topple National Socialism, and in this struggle we must not recoil from any course, any action, whatever its nature. At all points we must oppose National Socialism, wherever it is open to attack. We must soon bring this monster of a state to an end. A victory of fascist Germany in this war would have immeasurable, frightful consequences. The military victory over Bolshevism dare not become the primary concern of the Germans. The defeat of the Nazis must unconditionally be the first order of business… And now every convinced opponent of National Socialism must ask himself how he can fight against the present “state” in the most effective way, how he can strike it the most telling blows. Through passive resistance, without a doubt…”

Eventually their tracts became more biting, and in fourth the metaphysical linking Hitler to Satan and Anti-Christ.


They wrote:

“Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war, and when he blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed…. I ask you, you as a Christian wrestling for the preservation of your greatest treasure, whether you hesitate, whether you incline toward intrigue, calculation, or procrastination in the hope that someone else will raise his arm in your defence? Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler.”

In the fifth leaflet they spoke of where the Nazi war effort would end and the responsibility of not only Hitler but the German people for it:

“It has become a mathematical certainty that Hitler is leading the German people into the abyss. Hitler cannot win the war; he can only prolong it. The guilt of Hitler and his minions goes beyond all measure. Retribution comes closer and closer. But what are the German people doing? They will not see and will not listen. Blindly they follow their seducers into ruin. Victory at any price! is inscribed on their banner. “I will fight to the last man,” says Hitler-but in the meantime the war has already been lost…. Do not believe that Germany’s welfare is linked to the victory of national Socialism for good or ill. A criminal regime cannot achieve a German victory. Separate yourselves in time from everything connected with National Socialism. In the aftermath a terrible but just judgment will be meted out to those who stayed in hiding, who were cowardly and hesitant.”

In the aftermath of the disaster at Stalingrad they published their sixth and last issue before being caught. In it they urged Germans to fight against the Nazi Party and regime, and confronted the way that since its inception Hitler and the Party corrupted the meaning of honor and freedom:

“Freedom and honor! For ten long years Hitler and his coadjutor have manhandled, squeezed, twisted, and debased these two splendid German words to the point of nausea, as only dilettantes can, casting the highest values of a nation before swine. They have sufficiently demonstrated in the ten years of destruction of all material and intellectual freedom, of all moral substance among the German people, what they understand by freedom and honor. The frightful bloodbath has opened the eyes of even the stupidest German – it is a slaughter which they arranged in the name of “freedom and honor of the German nation” throughout Europe, and which they daily start anew.”

Just over two weeks later they were caught and in Freisler’s People’s Court convicted and executed. During their trial, if it can be called that, Freisler and others expressed their shock that young Germans could commit treason. Sophie had no problem confronting her accusers:

Her last words before going to the guillotine were unapologetic: “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?” On the back of the order condemning her to death she wrote the word Freedom.


There are leaders in many nations today intent on destroying freedom and in many places the people and the country’d institutions fall in behind them, usually by painting pictures of threats so imminent that people willingly trade real freedom for a false security. It is a dangerous world and all of us must be alert to changes in society and question what comes out of the mouths of leaders, and even more so their true believer followers.

Sophie Scholl and her companions understood the risk, but they got their message heard at the highest level of government, and most were killed. But their example of courage and belief in freedom and human rights is still stronger that they mightiest despot, and unlike their mighty yet evil rulers, they are the ones that Germany remembers.

Last year I visited her grave in Munich’s Friedhof at Perlacher Forst, it is humble but gravesite, but it is obviously a place of remembrance and pilgrimage. When I go o Munich this year I will again make my pilgrimage to places where she and the White Rose used non-violent protest to speak truth about the Hitler regime when most of the population, knowing the truth did nothing to resist.

I think that there is a lesson for us as well, and I think that it is a lesson that many of our young people will understand that better than their elders, especially in the age of President Trump.  That my friends gives me hope for the future, young people like Sophie Scholl might be all that stands in the way of the destruction of our Republic.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under authoritarian government, civil rights, crime, ethics, faith, film, History, laws and legislation, leadership, movies, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary, racism, US Presidents, war crimes, White nationalism

Somebody Had to Make a Start: Sophie Scholl, the White Rose, and Modern Resistance

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have written about Sophie Scholl and the White Rose resistance against Hitler before, in fact I will continue to do so because the United States is heading down the same personality cult driven authoritarianism as the Third Reich. In 1942 through her execution at the hands of Roland Freisler’s Volksgericht (People’s Court) on February 22nd 1943, the 22 year old German university student dared to speak out, and. tell the truth, despite having no political or military power of her own. All she and her friends had was a belief in freedom, and that in order to have that freedom one had to resist the Hitler regime.

Last night I re-watched the German film Sophie Scholl, the Final Days. The film is important. It details the final days of the White Rose resistance. The film details how Sophie and her brother Hans were caught while attempting to distribute their Sixth Leaflet by a Gestapo informant at the University of Munich in February 1943, the interrogations of Sophie by Gestapo Investigator Robert Mohr and her eventual trial and and execution with her brother Hans and friend Christoph Probst on February 22nd 1943.

Over the past few years I have gone to Munich, and in doing so visited a number of the places where Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and other members of the resistance worked to write and distribute six pamphlets exposing the crimes of the Nazi regime. Many of which are shown in the film. I also visited her grave on one occasion in September 2018.

On several occasions I visited the Sophie Scholl-White Rose Museum at the University Of Munich, where she and her friends were students. While distributing the sixth pamphlet, Sophie and Hans were caught when a maintenance man at Munich University spotted them and reported them to the Gestapo. To stand in the place where she threw the last copies of that letter into the atrium of the University entrance was humbling. I wonder if I could have done it. Write such materials, certainly, distribute them, for sure, but to take the chance that someone might see me as I did it, I don’t know.

I find that the the German language film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days is a powerful portrayal of her last days. Whenever I watch the film I find that it is an intensely emotional experience. It was shot on location in places that I have walked, so it resonates in real time as I watch the freedoms that the United States was founded on being attacked in real time right now. I wonder how long it will be until the Constitution is turned upon its head and the law and the courts are turned into accomplices of terror.

Now that the Senate has failed in its constitutional duties in the impeachment trial of President Trump, he and his allies have began their campaign of revenge. The GOP Senate has effectively given Trump a license to do as he pleases regardless of the Constitution or the law, and he and his allies have already began their campaign to silence, intimidate, and punish opponents in ways never seen in the United States. In the Third Riech, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and many other authoritarian states yes, but never here, but I digress…

I think the scenes in the film that were the most powerful to me were those that depicted the interrogation of Sophie by the Gestapo investigator Robert Mohr. He was a Nazi, but he is was also a professional police officer and investigator, devoted to the law, a law which though the words had not been changed since before Hitler’s assumption of power, had been commandeered by the Nazis to prescribe loyalty to the Hitler regime above all. The real Robert Mohr survived the war and lived until 1977. Was Mohr Evil? I doubt it. He was simply doing his job as the law dictated without asking questions. Believe me, there are many Americans in law enforcement and the military who would do no differently. I know, because there was a time that I would have done no differently than Mohr.

By the end of the film, like always, I was in tears, especially in the scene just before her execution her parents are allowed to visit her, and her father tells her that he is proud of her. Try as I might I couldn’t see my mother doing that for me, my late father yes, but my mother no, not at least until recently.

When in 2009 I visited them shortly after my father had been placed in a nursing home and I was in a state of emotional and spiteful collapse after my return from Iraq, I objected to her agreement with the Fox News pundits our their portrayal of the war and she called me a coward. I had spent seven months in Al Anbar Province with American advisors and our Iraqi allies, being exposed to constant danger and being shot at on several occasions. At that time she would have been a perfect and obedient servant of the Third Reich, I cannot say that now.

But if things continue as they are with the Trump Administration, as a career officer returned broken from way, who public ally wrote and spoke his opinions,  I would have probably shared the fate of men like Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, Major General Henning von Tresckow, Lieutenant Colonel Mertz Von Quirnheim, and the other anti-Hitler plotters of the July 20th bomb plot. My writings alone will condemn me, even though I cannot imagine being a part of a plot to assassinate anyone.

In their trial Hans Scholl, though berated by the President of the People’s Court, Judge Roland Freisler told him: I have served on the Eastern Front, as have many others here, but you haven’t. That is my feeling toward those who combat veterans who object to nationalist propaganda being disguised and patriotism by people who have never spent a day in uniform much less who have never put on a uniform, or even fewer who have served in harms way.

Honestly, in our current day I fear for freedom in this land, and I must always do my best to speak the truth. That might mean making waves or enemies, Lord knows how many supposed friends have condemned my political and religious beliefs because they do not reflect the the ideology of the supposedly Evangelical Christian America First followers of our current President, not to mention those who decide that they cannot speak up simply because they do not want to make waves in order to survive though they know in their hearts that their actions betray their faith and life.

Sophie wrote:

“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.”

Though Sophie, Hans, and a number of their friends were executed and others imprisoned, their message got out. Smuggled out of Germany the sixth pamphlet was reprinted in the millions and dropped by the Royal Air Force and American Army Air Force over Germany. That leaflet said:

For us there is but one slogan: fight against the party! Get out of the party organisation, which are used to keep our mouths sealed and hold us in political bondage! Get out of the lecture rooms of the SS corporals and sergeants and the party bootlickers! We want genuine learning and real freedom of opinion. No threat can terrorise us, not even the shutting down of the institutions of higher learning. This is the struggle of each and every one of us for our future, our freedom, and our honour under a regime conscious of its moral responsibility…

Fellow Fighters in the Resistance!

Shaken and broken, our people behold the loss of the men of Stalingrad. Three hundred and thirty thousand German men have been senselessly and irresponsibly driven to death and destruction by the inspired strategy of our World War I Private First Class. Fuhrer, we thank you!

The German people are in ferment. Will we continue to entrust the fate of our armies to a dilettante? Do we want to sacrifice the rest of German youth to the base ambitions of a Party clique? No, never! The day of reckoning has come – the reckoning of German youth with the most abominable tyrant our people have ever been forced to endure. In the name of German youth we demand restitution by Adolf Hitler’s state of our personal freedom, the most precious treasure we have, out of which he has swindled us in the most miserable way.

We grew up in a state in which all free expression of opinion is unscrupulously suppressed. The Hitler Youth, the SA, the SS have tried to drug us, to revolutionise us, to regiment us in the most promising young years of our lives. “Philosophical training” is the name given to the despicable method by which our budding intellectual development is muffled in a fog of empty phrases. A system of selection of leaders at once unimaginably devilish and narrow-minded trains up its future party bigwigs in the “Castles of the Knightly Order” to become Godless, impudent, and conscienceless exploiters and executioners – blind, stupid hangers-on of the Fuhrer. We “Intellectual Workers” are the ones who should put obstacles in the path of this caste of overlords. Soldiers at the front are regimented like schoolboys by student leaders and trainees for the post of Gauleiter, and the lewd jokes of the Gauleiters insult the honour of the women students. German women students at the university in Munich have given a dignified reply to the besmirching of their honour, and German students have defended the women in the universities and have stood firm…. That is a beginning of the struggle for our free self-determination – without which intellectual and spiritual values cannot be created. We thank the brave comrades, both men and women, who have set us brilliant examples.

For us there is but one slogan: fight against the party! Get out of the party organisation, which are used to keep our mouths sealed and hold us in political bondage! Get out of the lecture rooms of the SS corporals and sergeants and the party bootlickers! We want genuine learning and real freedom of opinion. No threat can terrorise us, not even the shutting down of the institutions of higher learning. This is the struggle of each and every one of us for our future, our freedom, and our honour under a regime conscious of its moral responsibility.

Freedom and honour! For ten long years Hitler and his coadjutor have manhandled, squeezed, twisted, and debased these two splendid German words to the point of nausea, as only dilettantes can, casting the highest values of a nation before swine. They have sufficiently demonstrated in the ten years of destruction of all material and intellectual freedom, of all moral substance among the German people, what they understand by freedom and honour. The frightful bloodbath has opened the eyes of even the stupidest German – it is a slaughter which they arranged in the name of “freedom and honour of the German nation” throughout Europe, and which they daily start anew. The name of Germany is dishonoured for all time if German youth does not finally rise, take revenge, and atone, smash its tormentors, and set up a new Europe of the spirit. Students! The German people look to us. As in 1813 the people expected us to shake off the Napoleonic yoke, so in 1943 they look to us to break the National Socialist terror through the power of the spirit. Beresina and Stalingrad are burning in the East. The dead of Stalingrad implore us to take action. “Up, up, my people, let smoke and flame be our sign!”

Our people stand ready to rebel against the Nationals Socialist enslavement of Europe in a fervent new breakthrough of freedom and honour.

Honestly, I do not know how many Americans today regardless of their political party who would if faced with the possibly imprisonment and death of speaking out against the anti-American, illegal, and unconstitutional actions of the Trump Administration, or for that matter any administration. Sophie said “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.”

Freedom matters, as does truth. There is no excuse for the Christian to stay silent in the face of evil. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak.”

Never forget that resistance is never futile. If anyone thinks this is simply a political screed against President Trump, it is not. It goes to the heart of my faith as a Christian, something that I believe speaking about is still protected under the First Amendment.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“The Day of Reckoning Has Come” Stalingrad and the White Rose: The Sixth Pamphlet

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Shortly after the disaster at Stalingrad, the White Rose Resistance issued what would be their last pamphlet. In disturbing it, Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans would be arrested after being spotted by by a Gestapo informer af the University of Munich. They and their co-conspirators would be tried by the extra judicial Volksgericht headed by the notorious Nazi Judge Roland Freisler.

The pamphlet read:

Fellow Fighters in the Resistance!
*
Shaken and broken, our people behold the loss of the men of Stalingrad. Three hundred and thirty thousand German men have been senselessly and irresponsibly driven to death and destruction by the inspired strategy of our World War I Private First Class. Fuhrer, we thank you!
*
The German people are in ferment. Will we continue to entrust the fate of our armies to a dilettante? Do we want to sacrifice the rest of German youth to the base ambitions of a Party clique? No, never! The day of reckoning has come – the reckoning of German youth with the most abominable tyrant our people have ever been forced to endure. In the name of German youth we demand restitution by Adolf Hitler’s state of our personal freedom, the most precious treasure we have, out of which he has swindled us in the most miserable way.
*
We grew up in a state in which all free expression of opinion is unscrupulously suppressed. The Hitler Youth, the SA, the SS have tried to drug us, to revolutionize us, to regiment us in the most promising young years of our lives. “Philosophical training” is the name given to the despicable method by which our budding intellectual development is muffled in a fog of empty phrases. A system of selection of leaders at once unimaginably devilish and narrow-minded trains up its future party bigwigs in the “Castles of the Knightly Order” to become Godless, impudent, and conscienceless exploiters and executioners – blind, stupid hangers-on of the Fuhrer. We “Intellectual Workers” are the ones who should put obstacles in the path of this caste of overlords.

Soldiers at the front are regimented like schoolboys by student leaders and trainees for the post of Gauleiter, and the lewd jokes of the Gauleiters insult the honor of the women students. German women students at the university in Munich have given a dignified reply to the besmirching of their honor, and German students have defended the women in the universities and have stood firm….  That is a beginning of the struggle for our free self-determination – without which intellectual and spiritual values cannot be created. We thank the brave comrades, both men and women, who have set us brilliant examples. 
*
For us there is but one slogan: fight against the party! Get out of the party organization, which are used to keep our mouths sealed and hold us in political bondage! Get out of the lecture rooms of the SS corporals and sergeants and the party bootlickers! We want genuine learning and real freedom of opinion. No threat can terrorize us, not even the shutting down of the institutions of higher learning. This is the struggle of each and every one of us for our future, our freedom, and our honor under a regime conscious of its moral responsibility. 
*
Freedom and honor! For ten long years Hitler and his coadjutor have manhandled, squeezed, twisted, and debased these two splendid German words to the point of nausea, as only dilettantes can, casting the highest values of a nation before swine. They have sufficiently demonstrated in the ten years of destruction of all material and intellectual freedom, of all moral substance among the German people, what they understand by freedom and honor. The frightful bloodbath has opened the eyes of even the stupidest German – it is a slaughter which they arranged in the name of “freedom and honor of the German nation” throughout Europe, and which they daily start anew.

The name of Germany is dishonored for all time if German youth does not finally rise, take revenge, and atone, smash its tormentors, and set up a new Europe of the spirit. Students! The German people look to us. As in 1813 the people expected us to shake off the Napoleonic yoke, so in 1943 they look to us to break the National Socialist terror through the power of the spirit. Beresina and Stalingrad are burning in the East. The dead of Stalingrad implore us to take action.  “Up, up, my people, let smoke and flame be our sign!”
*
Our people stand ready to rebel against the Nationals Socialist enslavement of Europe in a fervent new breakthrough of freedom and honor.”

The necessity for the citizens of evil regimes not to turn a blind eye to their acts matters. Sometimes “My Country, Right or Wrong” is not an appropriate response to the actions of the government. However, I am not sure if anyone ever learns from history, especially when their country is the guilty party. The great British Military Historian and Theorist B. H. Liddell-Hart wrote:

“What is of value in “England” and “America” and worth defending is its tradition of freedom, the guarantee of its vitality. Our civilization, like the Greek, has, for all its blundering way, taught the value of freedom, of criticism of authority, and of harmonising this with order. Anyone who urges a different system, for efficiency’s sake, is betraying the vital tradition.”

Sophie Scholl and the White Rose were exceptions to the general attitude that a government cannot be criticized in times of crisis, national emergency, or war. They had been resisting long before Stalingrad, and this pamphlet coming on the heels of the calls of Nazi leaders to redouble war efforts is remarkable. They had no power but the pen, and though they were caught and many executed, their message was heard.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Wannsee at 78 Years: Monsters do Exist

conspiracy

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last night I wrote about the Wannsee Conference yesterday. The references were more from films based on history than documents themselves. This is different, it uses the words of perpetrators, victims, and bystanders to deal with the conference at the Villa overlooking the lake in the south Berlin district of Wannsee.

Primo Levi 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.” 

Seventy-eight years ago today a group of 15 relatively common men of various German government, police, and party agencies sat around a table and discussed the implementation of what is called the Final Solution. The meeting was chaired by SS Lieutenant General Reinhard Heydrich, who had been charged with the task of solving Germany’s “Jewish Problem” shortly after the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Hermann Goering, the number two man in the Nazi Reich sent Heydrich the following message:

Berlin, July 31st 1941

To: Gruppenfuhrer Heydrich

Supplementing the task assigned to you by the decree of January 24th 1939, to solve the Jewish problem by means of evacuation and emigration in the best possible way by according to present conditions, I hereby charge you to carry out preparations as regards organizational, financial, and material matters for a total solution (Gesamtlosung) of the Jewish question in all the territories of Europe under German occupation.

Where the competency of other organizations touches on this matter, the organizations are to collaborate. 

I charge you further to submit to me as soon as possible a general plan of the administrative material and financial measures necessary for the carrying out the desired final solution (Endlosung) of the Jewish question.”

Goering

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Heydrich

When Goering wrote Heydrich, the head of the Reichssiecherhiethauptampt (RSHA) or Reich Security Main Office, in July 1941 it seemed that Nazi victory in Europe was all but assured. Goering’s words were businesslike. Early measures taken by Heydrich to rid Germany and annexed Austria had been reasonably successful to rid those areas of their Jews through emigration and evacuation. These were not benign measures, people were forced to leave their homes, businesses, communities, and had most of their belongings taken from them in order to leave the Reich, and subjected to much violence and segregation.

However with the occupation of most of Europe following the Nazi military success and the looming occupation and subjugation of the Soviet Union the process of giving the Jews a chance to emigrate to lands outside Nazi control had come to an end. In fact the Nazis occupied the countries that may Jews had found refuge.

Less than six months after he received the directive from Goering, on January 20th 1942 Heydrich summoned representatives from various Reich agencies were called for what turned out to be a brief, two hour meeting which decided the fate of the Jews. The meeting was originally scheduled for early December 1941, but the combination of the Soviet counteroffensive at Moscow and the German declaration of war against the United States following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but was deflated for just over a month until the situation on the Eastern Front had been stabilized.

The meeting was held at an estate located in the southern suburbs of Berlin, called Wansee. Organized by Heydrich’s deputy Adolph Eichmann, involved Heydrich, Eichmann and 13 mid level representatives from various economic, governmental, justice and police entities.

At the conference Heydrich established his authority through Goering’s directive to overcome the bureaucratic and personal attempts of various attendees to take control of the Final Solution process. Despite objections from some attendees who favored sterilization and the use of Jews in the war armaments industries, Heydrich made it clear that the Final Solution would be a campaign of extermination. He was quite clear:

“Approximately 11 million Jews will be involved…in large single sex labor columns, Jews fit to work will work their way eastward constructing roads. Doubtless the large majority will be eliminated through natural causes. Any final remnant that survives will doubtlessly consist of the most resistant elements. They will have to be dealt with appropriately, because otherwise by natural selection, they would form the germ cell of a new Jewish revival.”

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The Nazi leadership decided that its race war against the Jews needed to forge ahead. Within days of Wansee the orders went out and SS commanders at various concentration camps began devising more efficient means to exterminate Jews and other “sub-humans.” It was a matter of pride and efficiency for them. As Rudolph Hoess the Commandant of Auschwitz said at Nuremberg “the camp commandant at Treblinka told me that he had liquidated 80,000 in the course of one half year. He was principally concerned with liquidating all the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. He used monoxide gas, and I did not think that his methods were very efficient. So when I set up the extermination building at Auschwitz, I used Zyclon B….” Hoess estimated that some 2.5 million people were exterminated at Auschwitz at rates as high as 10,000 a day.

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Einsatzgruppen in Action

Before the Conference took place, four Einsatzgruppen followed each of the German Army Groups and systematically began to massacre the Jews of every city and village which German soldiers captured. The Einsatzgruppen, Ordungspolizei battalions, Army Security Divisions and locally recruited units in fewer than six months, killed over a million and a half Soviet Jews, and the slaughter would continue unabated until the dying days of the Reich. One of the participants at the conference, the SS Major and commander of Einsatzkommando in Latvia, had been in charge of exterminating over 30,000 Jews, before the meeting was organized.

When the Nazis began their attack into the Soviet Union, Heinrich Himmler, Heydrich’s friend and superior told a gathering of senior SS leaders:

“I also want to mention a very difficult subject before you here, completely openly. It should be discussed among us, and yet, nevertheless, we will never speak about it in public…I am talking about the “Jewish evacuation” the extermination of the Jewish people.” 

It is One of the things that is easily said. “The Jewish people is being exterminated,” every Party member will tell you, “perfectly clear, it’s part of our plans, we’re eliminating the Jews, exterminating them, ha!, a small matter.” 

But then along they all come, all the decent upright Germans and each has his decent Jew. They all say: the others are all swine, but here is a first class Jew. And none of them has seen it, has endured it. Most of you will know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, or when there are 500 or 1000. And to have seen this through, and –with the exception of human weaknesses– to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned….”

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Himmler and his entourage 

Whether the words are those of Goering, Heydrich, Hoess or Himmler, there is a certain businesslike banality to them. But these men, and many others like them orchestrated a campaign of genocide and race hatred unmatched in history. Yes, there have been other genocides, the Turks killing the Armenians during the First World War and the Hutu and Tutsi slaughter in Rwanda but neither they or the politically motivated campaigns of mass slaughter conducted by the Soviets, the Chinese Communists and the Khamer Rouge killing fields can match the systematized extermination campaign waged by the Nazis against the Jews.

The truly terrifying thing about the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust to me is that most of the men at Wannsee; as well as the men that commanded the Concentration camps and the Einsatzgruppen were very ordinary men who simply believed that they were doing their jobs.

They are all a very fascinating group of men to study. Very few could be described as psychopathic killers by nature. They were lawyers, doctors, career police officials, businessmen, and bureaucrats who carried out an extermination campaign that killed by their own numbers between 5.5 and 6 million Jews, not to mention others deemed to be subhuman including the handicapped, the mentally ill, homosexuals, and other non-Jewish minorities like the Gypsies not to mention the wide variety of those considered political enemies. But it was the Jews that bore the most tragic fate.

arbeitmachtfrei

It is something that we must never forget.When it comes to Wannsee, the men there had few qualms about what they were doing. Most of those who opposed Heydrich did so because he was centralizing the power of action against the Jews in his Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) and subordinating the the other Reich ministries to it. But by the end of the conference all of the participants had agreed to Heydrich’s terms. Some did what they could afterwards to use their Bureaucratic abilities to prevent some of the protocols from being fully implemented, while others did all they could to implement it.

After the war it meant the difference between life and death for the attendees, except Heydrich who was killed by Czech partisans a few months after the Wannsee Conference, SS Major Rudolph Lange, who died fighting the Red Army toward, the end of the war, Martin Luther Unter Staatssekretär of the Foreign ministry who died of a heart attack, in a concentration camp after opposing Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in 1945; Roland Freisler who represented the Ministry of Justice who died in early 1945 during a bombing attack on Berlin while serving as the head of Hitler’s extrajudicial People’s Court, and Gauleiter and Staatssekretär Alfred Meyer who committed suicide near the Weser River in May 1945. A few of the rest received the death penalty, but most received relatively brief prison sentences, and some lived to old age. In the end, only one, Friedrich Kritzinger showed remorse for his and his country’s actions during Nazi rule.

One man of fifteen. I wonder if the same ratio applies to the officials of the governments of evil, repressive, authoritarian regimes. Possibly even the one emerging in the United States.

I will leave it at that.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Study the Past, Fight, and Live for the Future: Advice Entering the 4th Year of Trump

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Friends at Padre Steve’s World

I tend to become somewhat reflective as the New Year approaches. I am reminded of Peter Benchley, who wrote, “The past always seems better when you look back on it than it did at the time. And the present never looks as good as it will in the future.” Likewise, St Augustine of Hippo once asked “How can the past and future be, when the past no longer is, and the future is not yet?”

Augustine’s question is interesting, but I think that his question is flawed. I think that the past lives in the present much more than we would like to think and that our future, though unwritten can unfold in a multitude of ways and possibilities.

Many of us live in the past as if it were today. We, individually and collectively, as individuals and nations live in the past and look to it much more fondly than when it was our present. I think that historian Will Durant possibly said it the best: “The past is not dead. Indeed, it is often not even past.”

As a historian myself I value the past and seek answers and wisdom from it to use in the present because what we do in the present does, for better or worse defines our future. Confucius said “study the past if you would define the future.” He was quite wise, he said to study the past, did he did not say to live in it.

That is something that I have been learning for over 20 years now when my Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor, used a Star Trek Next Generation metaphor from the episode A Matter Of Time in order to teach me how my past was influencing the way I was living my life.In the episode a shadowy visitor who claimed to be from the future refuses to help the crew of the Enterprise save an endangered world, claiming that if he were to help them, that his “history – would unfold in a way other than it already has.”

Finally, after other all other possibilities were exhausted, Captain Picard was forced to make a decision and confronted the visitor, who as it turned out to be a thief from the past, using time travel to collect technology to enrich himself by bringing it back in time. Picard makes a comment which I think is pertinent in a time like ours.

“A person’s life, their future, hinges on each of a thousand choices. Living is making choices! Now, you ask me to believe that if I make a choice other than the one that appears in your history books, then your past will be irrevocably altered. Well… you know, Professor, perhaps I don’t give a damn about your past, because your past is my future, and as far as I’m concerned, it hasn’t been written yet!”

When my supervisor told me that my past did not have to be my future, it opened a door of life and faith that I had never experienced before and which showed me that life was to be boldly lived in the present. While it meant a lot then, it means more now for the past according to William Shakespeare “is prologue.”

We cannot help being influenced by the past. We should indeed learn from it, but we cannot remain in it or try to return to it. Kierkegaard said that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Since I am a Christian, at least by profession, my faith in that future is in the God who is eternal, the God of love. Victor Hugo in Les Miserables said “Love is the only future God offers.” That is the future that I want to envision.

Unfortunently there are many people who claim the same Christian faith that I claim who attempt to return to an imaginary past and to try to legislate that past onto others who do not share their beliefs, if necessarily using the police powers of the state to do so. Such is neither honest because it attempts to enforce a mythologized past on others, nor Christian, because ultimately the Christian hope is focused on the yet to be realized future and not the past, it has nothing to do with establishing some kind of theocratic Christian state that denies rights and a future to all but like minded Christians.

Living is making choices and the future hinges on thousands of them. Many of these choices we make automatically without thought simply because we have always done them that way, or because that is how it was done in the past. However, if we want to break the cycle, if we want to live in and envision that future of the God of love then we have to live in the present though the past lives in us.

T.S. Elliot penned this verse:

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

The coming year promises to be challenging, and the tensions between those who want to return to the past, especially the predominantly Christian cult  devoted to President Trump and making America great again and those who believe in an inclusive hope and future for all will be on full display.

As for me, I choose the path of Picard; because my future, and our future, hasn’t been written yet. Likewise I cannot surrender to those who want to return us to a mythologized past that never existed in history, except in authoritarian States. But the Trump Cult, led by those in elected or appointed office at every level of government are attempting to create an authoritarian state, appealing to a mythological past to write the future. If that is the future they imagine, and want to legislate, I will fight.

I am reminded of the words of the late British military historian B.H. Liddell-Hart who wrote in his final book Why Don’t We Learn From History, wrote something that is quite descriptive of the actions of President Trump and his Cult.

“We learn from history that self-made despotic rulers follow a standard pattern. In gaining power: They exploit, consciously or unconsciously, a state of popular dissatisfaction with the existing regime or of hostility between different sections of the people. They attack the existing regime violently and combine their appeal to discontent with unlimited promises (which, if successful, they fulfil only to a limited extent). They claim that they want absolute power for only a short time (but “find” subsequently that the time to relinquish it never comes). They excite popular sympathy by presenting the picture of a conspiracy against them and use this as a lever to gain a firmer hold at some crucial stage.” 

My choice in our time is to resist, and to fight for a future that includes everyone.  I close with the words of Sophie Scholl, a leader of the anti-Nazi White Rose resistance:

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.

Such a course is not safe because the fact is, that too many ordinary people who have sold their souls to the Cult of Trump and who would if given the choice, would, just like the janitor at Munich University who identified and turned Sophie and her brother to the Gestapo and death at the hands of Roland Freisler and the extra-judicial Volksgericht (People’s Court).

So, until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Patriotism or Treason? Rule of Law of Law of the Tyrny of One.

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Well, after a brief divergence into the Battle of the Bulge I am back to the letters of Sophie Scholl and the Anti-Nazi White Rose Resistance movement. The members of White Rose were University students, professors, and medical students, many had served on the Russian Front, some like Sophie and her brother were Lutheran Christians, others were Catholic or Orthodox Christians, and still others whose beliefs are not known. Yet they resisted a totalitarian dictatorship built upon lies, violence, and racism.

They are an interesting group, because they believed in non-violent resistance and speaking the uncomfortable truth. They had no political or military power, but they had the power of the truth, which they spoke openly, knowing that such resistance could lead to their deaths. For many, including Sophie this would mean exactly that. At the same time they were willing to encourage violent acts against the tyrannical rule of their nation.

Their writings are full of references to Ancient Greek, Roman, and Chinese philosophers, as well as the Christian and Jewish scriptures. I have already share the first two letters of the White Rose. This is the third, written at the end of 1942.

The principles and truths of these letters are timeless. They are every bit as important today as when they were written. The problem is that most people want the past to remain in the past, even as its ghosts reveal themselves in the actions of political leaders in the present.

Once again I give credit to the scholars of the Holocaust Education Archive Research Team for their translation of this letter. This is something that cannot be forgotten, and regardless of whom these evils are deployed against ”

So until tomorrow, I leave you with the third letter of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

The Third Leaflet

Salus publica suprema lex ( “The welfare of the people shall be the supreme law”) Cicero 

All ideal forms of government are utopias. A state cannot be constructed on a purely theoretical basis; rather, it must grow and ripen in the way an individual human being matures. But we must not forget that at the starting point of every civilization the state was already there in rudimentary form. The family is as old as man himself, and out of this initial bond man, endowed with reason, created for himself a state founded on justice, whose highest law was the common good. The state should exist as a parallel to the divine order, and the highest of all utopias, the civitas dei, is the model which in the end it should approximate. Here we will not pass judgment on the many possible forms of the state – democracy, constitutional monarchy, and so on. But one matter needs to be brought out clearly and unambiguously. Every individual human being has a claim to a useful and just state, a state which secures freedom of the individual as well as the good of the whole. For, according to God’s will, man is intended to pursue his natural goal, his earthly happiness, in self-reliance and self-chosen activity, freely and independently within the community of life and work of the nation.

But our present “state” is the dictatorship of evil. “Oh, we’ve known that for a long time,” I hear you object, “and it isn’t necessary to bring that to our attention again.” But, I ask you, if you know that, why do you not bestir yourselves, why do you allow these men who are in power to rob you step by step, openly and in secret, of one domain of your rights after another, until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanized state system presided over by criminals and drunks? Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right – or rather, your moral duty – to eliminate this system? But id a man no longer can summon the strength to demand his right, then it is absolutely certain that he will perish. We would deserve to be dispersed through the earth like dust before the wind if we do not muster our powers at this late hour and finally find the courage which up to now we have lacked. Do not hide your cowardice behind a cloak of expediency, for with every new day that you hesitate, failing to oppose this offspring of Hell, your guilt, as in a parabolic curve, grows higher and higher. Many, perhaps most, of the readers of these leaflets do not see clearly how they can practice an effective opposition. They do not see any avenues open to them. We want to try to show them that everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of this system. It is not possible through solitary withdrawal, in the manner of embittered hermits, to prepare the ground for the overturn of this “government” or bring about the revolution at the earliest possible moment. No, it can be done only by the cooperation of many convinced, energetic people – people who are agreed as to the means they must use to attain their goal. We have no great number of choices as to these means. The only one available is passive resistance.

The meaning and the goal of passive resistance is to topple National Socialism, and in this struggle we must not recoil from any course, any action, whatever its nature. At all points we must oppose National Socialism, wherever it is open to attack. We must soon bring this monster of a state to an end. A victory of fascist Germany in this war would have immeasurable, frightful consequences. The military victory over Bolshevism dare not become the primary concern of the Germans. The defeat of the Nazis must unconditionally be the first order of business, the greater necessity of this latter requirement will be discussed in one of our forthcoming leaflets.

And now every convinced opponent of National Socialism must ask himself how he can fight against the present “state” in the most effective way, how he can strike it the most telling blows. Through passive resistance, without a doubt. We cannot provide each man with the blueprint for his acts, we can only suggest them ingeneral terms, and he will find the way of achieving this end:

Sabotage in armament plants and war industries, sabotage at all gatherings, rallies, public ceremonies, and organizations of the National Socialist Party. Obstruction of the smooth functioning of the war machine (a machine for war that goes on solely to shore up and perpetuate the National Socialist Party and its dictatorship).

Sabotage in all the areas of science and scholarship which further the continuation of the war – whether in universities, technical schools, laboratories, research institutes, or technical bureaus. Sabotage in all cultural institutions which could potentially enhance the “prestige” of the fascists among the people. Sabotage in all branches of the arts which have even the slightest dependence on National Socialism or render it service.

Sabotage in all publications, all newspapers, that are in the pay of the “government” and that defend its ideology and aid in disseminating the brown lie. Do not give a penny to public drives (even when they are conducted under the pretense of charity). For this is only a disguise. In reality the proceeds aid neither the Red Cross nor the needy. The government does not need this money; it is not financially interested in these money drives. After all, the presses run continuously to manufacture any desired amount of paper currency. But the populace must be kept constantly under tension, the pressure of the bit must not be allowed to slacken! Do not contribute to the collections of metal, textiles, and the like. Try to convince all your acquaintances, including those in the lower social classes, of the senselessness of continuing, of the hopelessness of this war; of our spiritual and economic enslavement at the hands of the National Socialists; of the destruction of all moral  and religious values; and urge them to passive resistance!

Aristotle, Politics: “… and further, it is part [of the nature of tyranny] to strive to see to it that nothing is kept hidden of that which any subject says or does, but that everywhere he will be spied upon, … and further, to set man against the privileged and the wealthy. Also it is part of these tyrannical measures, to keep the subjects poor, in order to pay the guards and soldiers, and so that they will be occupied with earning their livelihood and will have neither leisure nor opportunity to engage in conspiratorial acts…. Further, [to levy] such taxes on income as were imposed in Syracuse, for under Dionysius the citizens gladly paid out their whole fortunes in taxes within five years. Also, the tyrant is inclined constantly.

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A Cautionary Tale for Military Leaders that Give Obedience to a Tyrant: the Story of Erwin Rommel, the Legendary Desert Fox

 

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just over 75 years ago in Ulm Germany a car pulled up to the residence of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. In the car was the driver and two Generals dispatched by Hitler.  Rommel was recuperating following being severely wounded in an air attack in Normandy on July 17th 1944.

Rommel had been awarded the Pour le Merite, sometimes known as the Blue Max, Imperial Germany’s highest award for valor in the First World War. He was never an official member of the Nazi Party, but like many Germans he believed Hitler’s promises and propaganda. As Hitler really ose to power he like many others was carried away by early Nazi successes, the bloodless conquests of the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and the spectacle of the Olympics.

He was also an opportunist. With the rise of the Nazis came the expansion of the German military. Rommel was already well known due to his exploits as a platoon and company commander during the First World War in France, Romania, and Italy. In Italy he captured an entire Italian infantry division during the Battle of Mount Cosna, which was part of the Caporetto in October 1917. His company of 150 troops, exploited terrain and weather to surprise and capture 9,000 soldiers and 81 artillery pieces at the cost of 6 men killed and 30 wounded. Rommel used infiltration tactics, flanking maneuvers, and even disobeyed the orders of his superiors during the battle. Less than two weeks later at Langarone using the same tactics, his company surprised the 1st Italian Infantry which thinking it surrounded by superior forces surrendered to Rommel. For these actions Rommel was awarded the coveted Blue Max. 

Rommel was retained in the 100,000 man Reichswehr, but he had refused to attend the course that would have made him part of the elite General Staff. As such he was not assigned to the critical billets that would normally lead to high command. Instead he served in company command and as an instructor at the Infantry School in Dresden. While assigned to the school he wrote a manual of infantry tactics and training based on his experience. The book, Infantrie Greift an, or Infantry Attacks is still considered a classic book on infantry tactics and leadership, and was highly influential in his rise to high command. He was promoted to Major after serving 14 years as a Captain in 1932. In October 1933 he was assigned to command the 3rd Jaeger Battalion of the 17th Infantry Regiment where he first met Hitler when the latter reviewed his troops on an inspection visit.

Rommel, like many officers was caught in the thrall of Hitler. His wife, Lucy was caught up in the moment and was an avid Hitler supporter. Rommel was never a Nazi party member, but that did not keep him from supporting the overtly nationalist and militarist actions of the Hitler regime. In 1935 he was assigned to the Military Academy at Potsdam where as a Lieutenant Colonel he published Infantrie Greift an. In 1937 Hitler appointed Rommel as the liaison officer from the War Ministry to the Hitler Youth. Rommel clashed with the head of the Hitler Jugend, Baldur von Schirach and twiced proposed removing the organization from the Party to the War Ministry.

The conflict resulted in Rommel being quietly reposted from that assignment, promoted to Colonel and assigned to command the former Austrian Theresian Military Academy  in Wiener Neustadt. He was then selected by Hitler to command the Führer-Begleit-Battalion (Escort battalion) which served as the force protection unit for Hitler’s headquarters during the Polish campaign.

Following that campaign, Rommel, now a Major General was appointed to command the newly formed 7th Panzer Division which he commanded with great distinction during the Battle of France, 1940. When the campaign ended the division was placed in reserve where it readied to become part of the planned invasion of Britain, Operation Sea Lion. When that operation was postponed due to the defeat of the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain, and Mussolini’s Italian army in North Africa was routed by the small British Western Desert Force, Rommel was assigned to command the Deutsches Afrika Korps, composed of the 5th Light Division, which would soon be re-designated as the 21st Panzer Division and the 15th Panzer Division.

Over the next two years in North Africa built a reputation as an energetic and often risk taking commander who fought against long odds in a campaign which his own high command gave little support. The isolation of North Africa and its purely military significance in supporting a weak ally made it a different war from the concurrent, racially driven German invasion of the Soviet Union. Fighting the British and later the Americans, Rommel built a reputation of being a noble and chivalrous opponent. Unlike most of Europe and especially in Russian there was little to no influence of the SS in theater and the Jewish population of Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria suffered little under Nazi occupation, which many North African Jews attributed to Rommel.

During the North African campaign Rommel soared to the heights of international fame due to his exploits. The Nazi Propaganda Minister, Josef Goebbels sent one of his aides, Lieutenant Alfred Berndt to serve on Rommel’s Staff.  Berndt sent reports to the Propaganda Ministry which became the staple of Nazi propaganda to build Rommel into a German hero. Despite serving in a remote theater and commanding a relatively small number of troops, Rommel became the poster child for Goebbels’s propaganda machine. He was revered by the German people, and at the same time despised by many of his Army contemporaries and superiors.

His fame also earned the resentment of many fellow officers who because he was not an officer of the General Staff regarded him with jealous envy and distain. Even so, Rommel was a soldier’s soldier. He believed in sharing in the suffering of his troops. He once said: 

“Be an example to your men in your duty and in private life. Never spare yourself, and let the troops see that you don’t in your endurance of fatigue and privation. Always be tactful and well-mannered, and teach your subordinates to be the same. Avoid excessive sharpness or harshness of voice, which usually indicates the man who has shortcomings of his own to hide.”

Rommel basked in the praise of Hitler but as time wore on in Africa he became disillusioned by the course of the war, and while maintaining faith in Hitler, he openly despised many of the Nazi elite and his own High Command. While in Africa, Rommel was promoted to Field Marshal but denied the troops and supplies that he needed to successfully hold out in Africa. He opposed efforts to send more troops to Africa and recommended withdrawing his German and Italian soldiers before the Allies closed the door on withdraw across the Mediterranean.

As his troops were being chewed to pieces at El Alamein he requested permission to withdraw to the west. The request was refused and Hitler issued and order to stand in place and not withdraw. Rommel’s words are revealing for a man who had previously trusted Hitler and taken every opportunity from the dictator to advance his career.

“The order demanded the impossible. Even the most devoted soldier can be killed by a bomb. In spite of our unvarnished situation reports, it was apparently still not realized at the Fuehrer’s H.Q. how matters really stood in Africa.  Arms, petrol, and aircraft could have helped us, but not orders. We were completely stunned, and for the first time during the Africa campaign I did not know what to do. A kind of apathy took hold of us as we issued orders for the existing positions to be held on instructions from highest authority. I forced myself to this action, as I had always demanded unconditional obedience from others and, consequently, wished to apply the principle to myself. Had I known what was to come I should have acted differently, because from that time on, we had continually to circumvent orders from the Fuehrer or Duce in order to save the army from destruction. But this first instance of interference by higher authority in the tactical conduct of the African war came as a considerable shock.”

Like most other officers Rommel had served the Hitler regime as it spread its dark pall over Europe without protest. Yet, unlike so many other officers when he suffered a crisis in conscience about the Nazi leadership and their policies, he refused to obey orders that he knew were both illegal and immoral, and then risked his life by joining the conspiracy to kill Hitler.bundesarchiv_bild_146-1991-031-25a_nordafrika_vor_tobruk_rommel

It was at El Alamein that Rommel discovered the emptiness of Hitler’s promises as the troops of the Afrika Corps found themselves subjected to constant privation from lack of supply, air support and reinforcements. As commander of the Afrika Corps and later the Panzer Armee Afrika he and his troops achieved amazing success against an enemy that was always better supplied, equipped and which always had air and sea superiority. Battling the British as well as the political machinations of Mussolini and Germany’s Italian Allies as well as opponents in the German government such as Hermann Goering, Rommel saw his troops crushed under the press of the British as well as the Americans who landed in French North Africa. Eventually, sick and worn out, Rommel was sent back to Germany to recuperate.

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Rommel had a sense of honor and humanity that many other German generals lacked. He refused to allow anti-Jewish measures in areas occupied by German troops in North Africa, ensuring that the approximately 425,000 Jews living in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco were spared the fate of the Holocaust. He refused to execute Jewish POWs, including members of the Jewish Battalion serving with the British 8th Army. Likewise, Rommel refused to follow the notorious “commando order.” In June of 1944 he protested the massacre of the people of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane by units of the 2nd SS Panzer Division directly to Hitler and asked for the authority to punish those responsible, but was refused.

After his return from Africa, Rommel’s honest and open assessments of the chances of the Germans winning the war made him persona non grata in Berlin and Berchtesgaden. He was posted to France in early 1944 according to some accounts he became a part of the plot to end the war and overthrow Hitler. Rommel’s Chief of Staff at OB West, General Hans Speidel, was a key man in the conspiracy and Rommel had contacts with a number of key conspirators. There are arguments about Rommel’s connections and activities in regard to the anti-Hitler plot among respected historians.

When the invasion came Rommel was away from Normandy visiting his wife. On learning of the invasion he sped back to Normandy. When he arrived he fought a desperate battle against the Allied forces. His outnumbered forces were under constant assault from the land, sea and air received paltry reinforcements compared to the Allies. Even so, German troops inflicted many local defeats and exacted a heavy price in allied blood in Normandy but were ground to dust. Even so, many American and British infantry regiments suffered 100% casualties but remained in action because of a continuous stream of replacements. Rommel urged Hitler and the High Command to withdraw German forces from Normandy before the allies broke through his front. By doing so he found that he was now considered a defeatist.

If Rommel had joined the plot to topple Hitler, he did not stop working to defend Germany against the coming Allied invasion. He believed that the war was lost if his forces failed to repel the Allies on the beaches of France, and he worked feverishly to bolster the beach fortifications. He recommended that the Panzer Divisions be deployed near the coast where they could immediately counterattack Allied invasion forces while they were still vulnerable. But his advice was not taken. He was given command of the Army Group but was not given control of most of the Panzer Divisions, which Hitler kept under his direct control. Neither did he approve of an assassination attempt but realizing that his front was about to collapse he was in favor of independent peace negotiations with the Allies on the Western Front.

Many commanders in the west, including Waffen SS commanders were in agreement Rommel was severely wounded in an air attack on his vehicle by a just days before the attempt on Hitler’s life. Hitler survived the attempted assassination and exacted a terrible revenge on anyone connected with the plot. Show trials and public hangings of officers who had served valiantly at the front were common. Thousands were killed and thousands more imprisoned. Many of those arrested, imprisoned, or killed, were those who knew Rommel’s views on ending the war.

Various conspirator’s testimony exposed Rommel as part of the plot. Leading Nazis, including Martin Bormann, and Heinrich Himmler urged Hitler to deal with Rommel. Likewise, some in the High Command, including Heinz Guderian turned upon Rommel. After a secret hearing it was recommended by the “Court of Military Honor” that Rommel be expelled from the military and tried by the “People’s Court” of Judge Roland Freisler. During the purge that followed the attempt on Hitler’s life, many noted German military commanders were hauled before this court and humiliated by Freisler before they were sent to their deaths. Freisler, a fanatic Nazi judge was a participant at the infamous Wannsee Conference which planned the details of the Final Solution was killed when his courtroom was bombed in February 1945.

On 27 September, Martin Bormann submitted to Hitler a memorandum which claimed that “the late General Stülpnagel, Colonel von Hofacker, Kluge’s nephew who has been executed, Lieutenant Colonel Rathgens, and several … living defendants have testified that Field Marshal Rommel was perfectly in the picture about the assassination plan and has promised to be at the disposal of the New Government.”

Rommel’s fate was sealed, but because of his fame and popularity in Germany Hitler decided to offer Rommel a choice of being tried by the People’s Court or committing suicide. Goebbels who had spent so much time building up the Rommel legend, turned against him. The latter with an offer to ensure his family’s safety, which he would not guarantee if Rommel choose to defend himself in open court. Hitler dispatched Generals Wilhelm Burgdorf and Ernst Maisel from Berlin to personally deliver the message. Burgdorf was the last Army Chief of Staff and killed himself following Hitler’s suicide.

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Rommel suspected that he would be identified and killed and told that to his friends and family in the days leading up to the arrival of Generals Wilhelm Burgorf and Ernst Maisel from OKW with the ultimatum. They met with Rommel for a short time before giving him the opportunity to say goodbye to his family. Rommel told them of his choice and left his home for the last time. 15 minutes later the Generals called his wife to say that he had died of a heart attack. Rommel was given a state funeral and the German people were lied to about his cause of his death.

Winston Churchill wrote of Rommel:

“He also deserves our respect because, although a loyal German soldier he came to hate Hitler and all his works, and took part in the conspiracy to rescue Germany by displacing the maniac and tyrant. For this, he paid the forfeit of his life. In the sombre wars of modern democracy, chivalry finds no place … Still, I do not regret or retract the tribute I paid to Rommel, unfashionable though it was judged.”

Rommel was just 52 years old when he died. I find in the story of Rommel some commonality in my own life. Before Rommel went to Africa he believed that Germany would win the war, during his command there he discovered that what he believed was lies and that Hitler had little regard for him or his troops.

Rommel is a complex character. His attitudes towards Hitler waxed and waned. He was no Nazi. He conducted his battles in an honorable manner and displayed much chivalry towards his opponents. His views on race were not at all Nazi like. In North Africa he faced down a White South African commander who did not want to be imprisoned with his Black troops. Rommel told the officer: “For me, soldiers are all equal. Those black people wore your same uniform, fought on your side, and so you will be in the same jail.”

But from the beginning he willingly served Hitler’s regime and basked in the fame that he enjoyed due to Goebbels’s propaganda machine. At the same time while he was according to the Chief of the German Navy in the West, Admiral Friedrich Ruge, as well as his Rommel’s letters to his wife, indicated that Rommel’s mood fluctuated wildly regarding Hitler: while he showed disgust towards the atrocities and disappointment towards the overall military and strategic situation, he was overjoyed to welcome a visit or praise from Hitler, only to return to depression the next day when faced with reality.

The example of Erwin Rommel is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a brilliant and honorable man comes under the spell of a demagogue. Rommel believed Hitler and blindly followed him until he ran into the hard face of reality in Africa at which point he had the moral courage to do the right thing, but many others didn’t.

Sadly there are otherwise honorable men and women in the current United States military that blindly support a delusional madman who happens to be the President: a man who promises to order soldiers to commit war crimes, who threatens to jail political opponents, who condemns whole races of people and religions, who incites violence against his opponents, a man who has no respect for the courts, the law, or the Constitution to which they are sworn to defend.

But I think that we also have to remember the men like Rommel who though not a true believer in the Nazi cause and polices, not only willingly served the Reich, but basked in the adulation lavished on him by friends and foes alike.

To me this is not about partisan politics but something that is bigger than politics, bigger than temporary political advantage, bigger than any single political issue, for which in our country, at least for the moment, that there are many ways to express dissent which were not available to most Germans of Rommel’s era. It is about the Constitution, the rule of law, and the foundational principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Personally, as a historian I cannot understand the blind obedience in the face of the evidence; but then I blindly followed President George Bush into the ill-advised and criminal invasion of Iraq. It was in the desert of Iraq’s Al Anbar Province that I had my own revelation that the man I supported had led the country into a war that could not be won. Like Rommel at El Alamein, it opened my eyes to things that I had never seen before.

Now, in light of President Trump’s immoral, unconstitutional, and foolhardy policies and decisions I wonder why so few high ranking military officers, active or retired have the courage to oppose them. Surely, some must, like Rommel, Ludwig Beck, Henning Von Tresckow, Erich von Witzleben, Hans Oster, Claus von Stauffenberg and others like them realize the abyss that the President is leading the nation to, and far to few are willing to tell the truth when most needed. It took far more courage for the German officers to oppose Hitler than it does American officers to tell the truth about Trump’s policies. Maybe we have become so insulated from political realities that we make excuses for ourselves, and our actions.

Maybe we as officers need to remember the works of General Ludwig Beck:

“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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