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From Ordinary Men to Willing Executioners: Holocaust Remembrance 2018

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We live in troubling times and I believe that we are at a point in world history where the not so distant specter of a horrifying past is is rising before our eyes and all too many people cannot see it.

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. On that day seventy-three years ago the Soviet Red Army liberated the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, the centerpiece of the Nazi Death Camp machine. To be sure, in his panic to save his neck Heinrich Himmler had started in the Fall of 1944 began to switch from his tactic of extermination to using the Jews as bargaining chips., but by then most of the Jews under Nazi control were dead. Those that remained, emaciated and dying by the thousands to starvation, and unchecked disease, as they were marched in ghastly conditions to camps deeper inside Nazi controlled areas.

About this time last year two things happened in the United States that caused me to shake my head and wonder if we are becoming a place that will turn its eyes away from current atrocities, genocide, ethnic and religious cleansing, and walk away. Likewise they were events the presaged even worse.

Last year President Trump issued a proclamation to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day, a statement that did not mention the Jews. How one remembers the Holocaust without mentioning the Jews is beyond me, but some of the President’s advisers, including the now fired and disgraced Steve Bannon, are closely connected to the self-proclaimed Alt-Right, a movement of white supremacists and neo-Nazis looking for respectability. The second thing the President did was to issue an Executive Order halting the immigration of refugees from certain Muslim majority countries, and to cap the number entering. I’m not going to go into details about that but it is not the first time that the United States stopped refugees from entering the country on national security grounds, as in the 1930s and 1940s one of the reasons used to keep German Jewish refugees out of the country was exactly that, they might be Nazi spies and saboteurs.

But since those early days the President, members of his administration, members of Congress, and his supporters in the Right Wing media have increased the rhetoric of racism and race hatred. In addition to Muslims who has often insinuated are terrorists, or sympathetic to terrorists, the President has defamed and dehumanized whole classes of other immigrants, those from Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean as being from “Shithole countries.” Likewise, after Charlottesville, the President stated that neo-Nazis and White Supremacists are “very good people” and even though his son-in-law and daughter are Orthodox Jews he has frequently disparaged Jews in public and private.  Of course as so often is the case much of what the President is saying being sold under the label of Patriotism. Hannah Arendt wrote:

“The antisemites who called themselves patriots introduced that new species of national feeling which consists primarily in a complete whitewash of one’s own people and a sweeping condemnation of all others.”

The present day reminds us that this is a day that we should never forget. The horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime, all in the name of “race purity” and the extermination of the Jews and others deemed by the Nazis to be “sub-human” or untermenschen is something that is hard for most to imagine.

A couple of years ago I read Bettina Stangneth’s book, Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer. While I am very well informed and educated on the lives, writings, actions, and statements of many of the Nazi war criminals, this new book on Eichmann is the most troubling that I have ever read. In particular it is the accounts of his writings and interviews with other pro-Nazi, or former Nazis in Argentina, particularly the Sassen Interviews, which span hundreds of hours of tape and thousands of pages of transcripts.

I am a Christian, a gentile, and a historian, as well as a nearly thirty-seven year military who served alongside our advisors and the Iraqis who fought alongside of us. I have lived in Germany, read, speak and write German and have many friends in that country, including members of the German military, retired and active duty.  My study and association with Holocaust survivors goes back to my college days at California State University Northridge when as an undergraduate history major I spent much of my time studying Germany from the first unification and the Kaiser Reich, the First World War, Versailles, Weimar and the Hitler Regime. My professor, Dr. Helmut Heussler, whose family left Germany in the late 1920s, served in the U.S. Army in World War II and was an interrogator at Nuremberg. I took a number of classes from Dr. Heussler, including Hitler’s Germany and the Holocaust. In the latter I had the chance to meet Holocaust survivor Mel Mermelstein, who was later played by Leonard Nimoy in the TV movie Never Forget. 

Since my college days I have continued to read and study, and to get a second Masters Degree in History in which much of my work dealt with the Nazi regime. I have visited the sites of former concentration camps including Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. I have been to the sites of the Nazi Party rallies in Nuremberg, the courtroom where the Nuremberg Trails were conducted and to the T4 Euthanasia complex at Hadmar. One day, God willing I will get to Auschwitz and some of the other sites.

The Nazis had begun their persecution of the Jews shortly after Hitler took power in 1933. Later in the year the Enabling Act gave Hitler and his henchmen the legal means to begin their persecution of the Jews and others. These were followed by the Nuremberg Laws and other laws that targeted the Jews. Persecution increased throughout the 1930s, and sadly most countries refused to accommodate increased Jewish immigration. Then came Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, when on 9-10 November 1938, a series of orchestrated attacks on Jewish businesses, Synagogues, institutions and individuals. On that night close to 200 synagogues, 7000 Jewish businesses and 29 major department stores were destroyed or damaged. Over 30,000 Jews, mostly men, were arrested and sent to concentration camps, 91 people were killed outright, and several thousand died in the aftermath.

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When the Nazis invaded Poland, its Jews were rounded up and placed into ghettos where many died of starvation and abuse even before the ghettos were liquidated and the people who lived in them were deported to the extermination camps. In 1941 as the German military seemed to be assured of victory in the Soviet Union the Nazis decided to exterminate the Jews of Europe. In the Soviet Union 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. Over a million and a half Soviet Jews were killed by the Einsatzgruppen, Ordungspolizei battalions, Army Security Divisions and locally recruited units.

At the Wansee Conference of January 20th 1942 the specifics of the “Final Solution” were mapped out by Himmler’s number two man, SS General Reinhard Heydrich. What followed is beyond the comprehension of most people, but the perpetrators were for the most part men and women who were terrifyingly normal.

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

When you read their writings, listen to them when they were interviewed, or watch footage of them during or after the war, you find that they had absolutely no empathy for their victims. When confronted about the evil that they engineered they invariably blamed their victims, just as many like them do today.

Most of the men who coordinated the massive effort to exterminate the Jews of Europe following the Wansee Conference of January 20th 1942 approached their jobs dispassionately. This was a common attitude among the civil service, military and police officials that oversaw the Holocaust. They simply did their jobs and followed the law, and for most of them, their victims meant nothing.

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Hungarian Jews being sent to Extermination Camps

Adolf Eichmann summed up the attitude of many when he said regarding his work to deport hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in in just a few weeks during the fall of 1944, “Whether they were bank directors or mental cases, the people who were loaded on those trains meant nothing to me.” Speaking to Willem Sassen in 1957 Eichmann reveled in that accomplishment, “It was an achievement that was never matched before or since.” Eichmann also enjoyed leading his victims on, pretending that he might listen, and they might change his mind. Eichmann was proud of what he did. He told his staff, “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”

Hannah Arendt wrote of Eichmann:

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

This was what made the Holocaust committed against the Jews of Europe by Nazi Germany a phenomenon different than other genocides. Many of the perpetrators were not driven by centuries old hate as in the Balkans, tribal blood lust as occurred in Rwanda, or the products of Soviet Communism or Communist Chines Maoist regimes, but a profoundly racial ideology.

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It was the racial ideology of the Nazis which deemed the Jews and other non-Aryans to be sub-human. That ideology undergirded the German treatment of the Jews, and the conduct of the war, especially in the East. But the execution of the plan required the bureaucratic, administrative, technical and legal skills brought to the table by ordinary men. These were men who sought promotion, advancement, and economic security for their families. Individually many would have never killed, but they ran the rail networks, the factories, the banking and finance industries and supported the war effort, most not thinking much about the evil that they abetted or if they did finding a way, be it social, scientific, religious, patriotic, legal or simply in the name of efficiency.

Survivors of Auschwitz

That is what makes the evil committed by them so terrifying. It is the product of “normal” people in an advanced Western nation. Make no bones about it, their actions were evil. They aided and abetted the genocide of the Jews, the disabled, other “sub-human” races, particularly Slavs, as well as those that they deemed less than suitable. Sadly, human beings, even Americans have that same capacity to commit genocide.

I think that the most chilling thing about the Holocaust was that the greatest atrocities were committed by ordinary men, sometimes well educated, decent family men. These were men who simply executed orders and often went home at night. Arendt wrote that “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” She was right, there was an ordinariness to the evil perpetrated by the Nazis, at the same time there are those who consciously decide to participate in evil.

It is important that we do not forget the Holocaust. It is also important to recognize that the instruments of that horror were on the whole “ordinary” men who as they saw it were simply doing their job. It is something that everyone needs to remember. Bettina Stangneth wrote “Systematic mass murder is not just the sum of isolated instances of sadism but the result of a political thinking that is perverted from the ground up.”

So many of the perpetrators saw nothing wrong in what they were doing, in fact at his trial in Jerusalem Eichmann said, “To sum it all up, I must say that I regret nothing.”

The men and women who committed these crimes believed that their victims were less than human and like so many people even today, they had no empathy. Gustave Gilbert, an American Army Psychologist at the major War Criminal Trials at Nuremberg said it so well: “Evil is the absence of empathy.”

Today we have to be very careful. Christopher Browning wrote in his book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Holocaust in Poland:

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

In such a world it is all too important that we never forget, especially now when we could be watching it begin all over again.

I’ll write more on this tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Shutdown is Temporarily Over but Not the Danger: the Emperor Has No Clothes

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The Shutdown is over much sooner than I expected it to be. I predicted that it would be long and bad, and for the moment I am wrong, but the temporary spending bill is just that and nobody really knows on February 8th when this agreement expires.

There are a lot of questions but at least the Democrats got the Republican House to approve a six year extension for the CHIP act which funds healthcare for children and the GOP House had fought for months. It did not however address the Dreamers although Mitch McConnell has promised that the DREAM Act will be addressed and voted on by the Senate before the next shutdown deadline. That may happen in the Senate but McConnell neither controls Paul Ryan’s House which is dead set against it not to mention President Trump.

Now the President was for a really big and loving solution to the DREAM Act until he wasn’t so only God, Jerry Falwell Jr., and maybe Franklin Graham know for sure know for sure. Of course whether they do or not really doesn’t matter until they speak with Stephen Miller and John Kelly who seem to acting as Trump’s brain in the absence of Sloppy Steve Bannon; after all after he was for it last time they told him that he was against it. I’m surprised that the President hasn’t branded Flip Flops with his name yet.

There are some very troubling things that came out of this episode. First it didn’t have to happen and that is not the Democrat’s fault, they have never been fans of shutting down the government and the proof is in the deal that Chuck Schumer thought he made with the President last Friday and the quickness in them agreeing to this continuing resolution despite the uncertainty of what will happen next.

That has pissed off a lot of progressive Democrats who are pressing for the Dreamers. Honestly I wished they had pushed harder for it but I do understand the long game in this. If McConnell honors his words and a decent majority, in the Senate approves the measure then it goes to Ryan and his Omega House caucus of bullies. The thing is that most Americans by a wide margin think that the Dreamers should be put on a path to full citizenship and if the Omegas don’t fail to do it then the next shutdown belongs to them. If they do agree to it and Trump vetoes it then it belongs even more to him. Of course the rabid immigration hawks would support them it doesn’t end well. Of course I could be wrong, I was wrong last week to a degree and I still don’t trust the President, nor McConnell, nor Ryan.

I was impressed that the Democrats did grow a spine last week and despite the crowing of the most convinced Trumpers and the anger of most disillusioned Democrats this was not a loss for the Democrats. Their willingness to negotiate followed by their stand to bring on the shutdown exposed Trump the “dealmaker” as an empty suit for all the world to see, bluster aside he was a non-player in this despite his tweets.

The danger not is that the emperor has been shown to have no clothes and that is profoundly disturbing when dealing with the current world crises. Neither our allies or our enemies will believe a word that he says and when something really bad happens he is going to have to find a way to show his manhood, and that will likely end in terrible wars, possibly nuclear. The same could prove true regarding the economy. No-matter what happens domestically in the wake of this shutdown, the next one could be worse and Trump’s now completely exposed weakness might well lead to disaster.

I admit that not every is going to agree with me. I may be a progressive and I have my idealism, but I am also a realist. The Democrats don’t have a majority and they only way to get it back is to help the GOP sink itself.

“As Sun Tzu wrote:“Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.” 

If the Democrats win in November, even a temporary loss on the Dreamers doesn’t matter. So anyway, until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

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Shaking My Head

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Over the past day or so the news out of Washington D.C. becomes ever more surreal and I I really don’t know what to say that hasn’t been said by others more eloquently than I could ever hope to do. That being said I really think that our country is heading for a major constitutional, political, military, and possibly economic crisis as the President continues to melt down as he has on Twitter with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, as well as former advisors, most recently Stephen Bannon, the Jabba The Hutt like advisor who left the White House last year and since has been campaigning for candidates revolting against the old line mainstream GOP. Even after he left the White House Bannon was reportedly in frequent contact with the President until the Roy Moore debacle in Alabama.

Now in a new book Bannon has been quoted regarding Donald Trump Jr., and Jared Kushner’s contacts with Russian agents in Trump Tower in 2016 and suggested that the President had to know about it. He even labeled the meeting as “traitorous.” In response the President went on yet another Twitter tirade attacking Bannon. The whole incident reminded me of two monkeys flinging feces at each other. This was in the wake of the President having a dick waving contest with the North Korean dictator regarding who had the bigger nuclear button even as Lil’ Kim and the Norks scored diplomatic points by providing an opportunity for South Korea to attempt to deescalate the crisis.

I’m sorry but no matter what the President’s flacks on Fox News are saying, the man is not stable and his actions are endangering the country, the Constitution, and the office of the Presidency itself. If it was just him I might think that this is just an unfortunate blip in our history, but there are close to 30-35% of the population who are absolutely and unreservedly loyal to the President. They are the people that the President said during the campaign would support him even if he “shot someone on 5th Avenue.” Likewise there are the Republicans in Congress, including some who at one time were called “Never Trumpers” who even when they criticize the President still remain obedient to his demands on legislation.

I just cannot believe what I am seeing and unlike many I have been predicting this crisis since before the election even as I hoped and prayed that the President would grow into the office. Likewise when I see some of the fawning comments of old friends and military comrades about the President and their condemnation of any opponents of him on various social media sites I shake my head because they should know better.

The President’s actions, his words, and yes his Tweets are going to either destroy his Presidency or the country, maybe both; and that should be concerning to both Trump’s supporters and opponents.

I was actually surprised to see Bannon’s words in print and the quotes from the book publicized on Bannon’s Breitbart site. To me it looks like Bannon and Trump are about to go to war with each other, a prospect that is going to terrify the GOP rebels Bannon has supported who still want the blessing of Trump. These things are going to get really interesting and one wonders if Bannon might have cut a deal with Special Prosecutor Bob Mueller. Regardless of the motives of either man this is not going to end well for the country or the Presidency.

Anyway, it is late and I am prevented from going to work in the morning due to blizzard conditions which means that I will be catching up on housework while adoring two of our three Papillon (Izzy and Pierre) dogs while my wife and our other Papillon, Minnie wait for an opportunity to return home having taken a friend back to her home out of state following a Christmas and New Years visit. Izzy still loves the snow, and Pierre in his first real winter has decided that it is definitely not for him.

So until the next time,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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A Road Built by Hate and Paved with Indifference

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Once again just a short thought for today but one that I hope will resonate with my readers. Historian Ian Kershaw wrote: “The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference.”

The longer that I live the more that I understand how this happens. Today, as there were in 1930s and 1940s Nazi Germany, there are all too many hate-filled ideologues who desire to destroy or subjugate entire races and ethnic groups, or members of different religions or political ideologies. In the United States they have free reign to do speak and write freely about their goals and for many years we have regarded most of them as fringe characters who had no chance of ever enacting anything that they proposed. Many of these were and continue to be the most vocal supporters of President Trump, and see in him a man who will help them accomplish their desires as no President has done before. One of them, Steve Bannon serves as his chief policy adviser and strategist, and there are no shortage of civil rights opponents and proponents of a police state in his cabinet, including his Attorney General.

The sad thing is despite the myriad of actions taken by the Trump administration, its abuses of power, its probable connections to a hostile power, its attempts to shut down law enforcement probes of the Russia connections, its unabashed attempts to silence the press and all other opponents, and its nearly uncountable number of lies and distortions that it makes on a daily basis; that the vast majority of Congressional Republicans nor his followers seem to care. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of opposition, but among his followers and the great number of people in the middle who prefer not to get involved there is little real opposition; moral, religious, ethical, or political to anything that he says or does, mostly because they do not understand how it effects them or their liberties, nor how toxic it is to the nation. It seems to me that they are not only apathetic to the abuses of power, but have no empathy towards the people that they are directed against.

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For the Trump supporters this is not a problem. He represents a chance for them to recover their greatness, just as Hitler did for many of his followers in the 1930s, including those who joined the Party late. One of the greatest film monologues that illustrated this phenomenon is that of Burt Lancaster in his portrayal of a Nazi judge who is on trial in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg. His comments remind me so much of what I see among many Trump supporters today:

“There was a fever over the land. A fever of disgrace, of indignity, of hunger. We had a democracy, yes, but it was torn by elements within. Above all, there was fear. Fear of today, fear of tomorrow, fear of our neighbors, and fear of ourselves. Only when you understand that – can you understand what Hitler meant to us. Because he said to us: ‘Lift your heads! Be proud to be German! There are devils among us. Communists, Liberals, Jews, Gypsies! Once these devils will be destroyed, your misery will be destroyed.’ It was the old, old story of the sacrificial lamb. What about those of us who knew better? We who knew the words were lies and worse than lies? Why did we sit silent? Why did we take part? Because we loved our country! What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase. It is only a stage we are going through. It will be discarded sooner or later. Hitler himself will be discarded… sooner or later. The country is in danger. We will march out of the shadows. We will go forward. Forward is the great password. And history tells how well we succeeded, your honor. We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The very elements of hate and power about Hitler that mesmerized Germany, mesmerized the world! We found ourselves with sudden powerful allies. Things that had been denied to us as a democracy were open to us now. The world said ‘go ahead, take it, take it! Take Sudetenland, take the Rhineland – remilitarize it – take all of Austria, take it! And then one day we looked around and found that we were in an even more terrible danger. The ritual began in this courtoom swept over the land like a raging, roaring disease. What was going to be a passing phase had become the way of life. Your honor, I was content to sit silent during this trial. I was content to tend my roses. I was even content to let counsel try to save my name, until I realized that in order to save it, he would have to raise the specter again. You have seen him do it – he has done it here in this courtroom. He has suggested that the Third Reich worked for the benefit of people. He has suggested that we sterilized men for the welfare of the country. He has suggested that perhaps the old Jew did sleep with the sixteen year old girl, after all. Once more it is being done for love of country. It is not easy to tell the truth; but if there is to be any salvation for Germany, we who know our guilt must admit it… whatever the pain and humiliation.”

While we have not reached the point that the Third Reich did between 1933 and 1938, it would not take much for us to get there. We misjudge ourselves if we belief that such things cannot happen here, as 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.”

Reinhold Niebuhr, the great American theologian noted: “Ultimately evil is done not so much by evil people, but by good people who do not know themselves and who do not probe deeply.”

We should heed their warnings before we cross that precipice and head into the abyss.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Groundhog Day and Nazi Comparisons

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today was Groundhog day and Punxsutawney Phil has promised us another six weeks of winter. Since is was sixty degrees today with partly cloudy skies and light winds, I say let it continue. But that’s not really really what I’m writing about today, though historically it seems that we are in an era that seems like the movie Groundhog Day, except we aren’t repeating yesterday every day, but we are seeing history unfold in a similar way to an era that we would rather consign to to musty history books about the Third Reich.

Today, two friends shared an article of a blogger condemning those who are comparing the actions of President Trump to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. He started his article “I’m no expert but…” and then went on to minimize what people are saying about Trump, comparing them to others on the right and left who have made comparisons of their political opponents with Hitler. I agree that there are people, plenty of them on the right and left who have compared their political opponents to Hitler, and if Donald Trump was a normal president I would say that such comparisons would be unfounded, but in my humble opinion, they are not.

I am a historian, as one of my colleagues told me yesterday, a “historian masquerading as a chaplain, and that’s not a bad thing.” My chief area of study in my undergraduate days was in German history, particularly the period of the end of Imperial Germany, the German civil war, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi era. The same was true with my second master’s degree in Military History, and much of my church history studies in seminary. I have written on a number of aspects of the subject, it is included in the Military Ethics class that I teach, and I would dare say that I am an expert in the subject and that I do not make comparisons to the Nazi era, or its leaders, to American political leaders lightly.

In fact, until the rise of Donald Trump, I have never had cause to compare the words, methods, or actions of any American President or serious presidential candidate to the Nazis. Any such comparisons, even to Richard Nixon, would be to unfounded hyperbole and ludicrous. I do know that there are people on the political left and right who have compared their political opponents to the Nazis or even Adolf Hitler himself, and as a serious historian I find their accusations to demean the historical importance of the period, especially in view of the great evil of the Nazis, especially in regard to the Holocaust.

Likewise when I see someone write a lengthy blog about these comparisons and begin it with “I’m not an expert but…” I am offended because it demeans the work of serious people, real experts, and equates them with ignorance. The man cited many of the differences between Germany of 1933 and the United States of 2016. There are differences, significant differences, but they do not disqualify comparisons between the periods, or between Herr Hitler and Mr. Trump. Those comparisons are in matters of substance, psychology, language, sociological, and political trends.

In 2001 the United States, which had just gone a divisive election which was decided in the Supreme Court was attacked. The shock to the country was immense, the attack was followed by prolonged wars and a massive economic crisis followed by the election of a President who was African American, an event which brought out some of the worst and most open racism I have ever seen in my life. In 1918, Germany lost a war, had its system of government fall, and was enveloped in a civil war punctuated with being saddled with the full blame for the war that they lost, and were ruled not by the Kaiser, not by conservatives, or nationalists, but by Socialists, something that many could not abide. As such, the Socialists were saddled with the blame for a war started by nationalists, and the myth of the Stab in the Back was used to explain the defeat of the German armies.

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The Stab in the Back

In both situations, the politics of the countries became exceptionally divisive, and over time the political center began to dissolve. In both instances, populist movements of the right and left stamped out the center, compromise was off the table. In both 1933 and 2016, the politician who took power represented a minority of the electorate, and neither had ever held any elected office. They were both demagogues who found convenient internal racial and religious scapegoats, and foreign powers to blame for the woes of the country. Neither Trump, nor Hitler was ever given a chance of gaining power, until they achieved it.

Both took advantage of the struggles of people who had not done well during the economic downturns, played on longstanding prejudices, exploited the weakness of the major political parties, coopted the fears of religious people who felt that they were not being considered. They were also supported by people of means, who were quite well off and willing to take their chances with a leader who could deliver people who would otherwise reject them. The similarities, while not exact go on and on.

But even more, when it comes down to the person of President Trump, honestly he cannot be compared to Adolf Hitler himself. Hitler was much more subtle and much more clever, although both were narcissists, both had no real friends and treated people as commodities, both demonstrated a need to be loved, and fear of rejection, as well as a compulsive need to demean, degrade, and bully any opponents, but Trump is but a cheap copy of Hitler.

It is interesting that the President’s first wife, who by the way supported his run for president, said that Trump kept copies of Mein Kampf and Hitler’s speeches by his bedside. During his campaign he frequently praised dictators and even quoted Mussolini in a tweet. His repeated use of the term “America First” is a throwback to an American movement that supported Hitler and his aggression in Europe up until Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States a few days later. If you look at the structure of his speeches during the campaign, they are laden with phrases used by the German dictator, and their structure is similar, albeit without Hitler’s mesmerizing prose. I have seen him speak in person, and watched the anger that he incites in his followers. I watched his inauguration speech several times, and read it again and again and I was struck by the similarity in tenor to many of Hitler’s speeches. If I was not so well acquainted with Hitler’s speeches, and his books, I would never dare to make the comparisons, it would not only be unwise, but also terribly wrong to make such a comparison based on a personal or ideological dislike, based on raw emotion and ignorance of the subject.

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He has surrounded himself with advisors who openly support fascist methods, and use propaganda techniques which mimic Hitler and his propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels. Like Hitler, once in power President Trump has used his office to demonize his opponents and rule by executive decree, effectively marginalizing the legislature and to defy and eviscerate the courts. In one important difference since Trump took power of a superpower, he did not have to wait years like Hitler in order to build up a military to threaten his neighbors and defy international institutions.

I could go on and on, but if there was any other historical comparison that I could use instead of the Nazi comparison, I would. But let me qualify that statement. Trump is not Hitler and he has not at least yet, acted on his most radical statements concerning deportations of millions of people, discrimination based on race or religion, banning all opposition, and curtailing freedom of speech, although he and his advisors constantly threaten the press and anyone who voices the slightest opposition to them, including simply pointing out their repeated lies. Nor has he embarked on any new wars, though his words and the words of Steve Bannon, his closest advisor, threaten war with China, Iran, Mexico, and are destroying the bonds that we have with our longest and closest allies.  On the National Security Council the President has sidelined his military chiefs and replaced them with the ideologue Bannon. The sad thing about the last part was this was exactly how Hitler treated his military chiefs. They were called in to carry out orders, not to give sane advice, and he undercut them whenever he needed. In both cases many of their followers tolerated no criticism of their leader, often resorting to threats of violence or actual physical violence to suppress their opponents. In both cases their leaders not only tolerated such behavior, but encouraged it.

Hitler is dead, his Reich defeated, but his ideas are still around and can be seen in the current right-wing nationalist movements masquerading as populists in Europe and the United States. What happened in Germany in the 1930s  can happen again. Thus it is better to sound an early warning using facts and reason to hopefully ensure that it doesn’t happen. Such warnings should not be taken for granted, too many people and political leaders, not only in Germany, but around the world, took Hitler for granted believing that he could be controlled and that his radical ideas were hyperbole and would never be acted on. They were wrong. As a result the world, and Germany itself paid a massive price in human life for ignoring the danger until it was too late.

Again I don’t make such comparisons lightly, and in a relatively short article like this I cannot go into the detail with all the citations, though I have the material at hand to do so, I haven’t the time to write a book about it, though I’m sure that I could. I have three books that I am currently working on, all dealing with the American Civil War, one of which is getting to the point that I am trying hard to complete it and get it to a publisher in the next month or two, so I really don’t want to start another book. But I think that this weekend I will provide my readers a list of references on the Third Reich as well as totalitarianism, that if read critically, and thoughtfully, would be of great help to understanding our own time.

If you want you can look at some of my articles on this site dealing with mass movements, and totalitarianism, especially those that are based on the writings of Eric Hoffer or Hannah Arendt. They are helpful to understanding the political, ideological, and emotional aspects of how people like Hitler and Trump gain power, and why people are willing to through out reason, logic, ethics, and even faith, to support them.

So anyway, until the weekend, have a great day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

P.S. I did watch the movie Groundhog Day last night. It is one of my traditions.

 

 

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Holocaust Remembrance 2017: “Most evil is done by People who never make up their minds to be Good or Evil”

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I normally don’t post twice in a day but this I thought was important, for I believe that we are at a point in world history where the not so distant specter of a horrifying past is is rising before our eyes and all too many people cannot see it.

Friday, January 27th 2017 was Holocaust Remembrance Day. On that day seventy-two years ago the Soviet Red Army liberated the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, the centerpiece of the Nazi Death Camp machine. To be sure, in his panic to save his neck, in late 1944 Heinrich Himmler had begun to switch from his tactic of extermination to using the Jews as bargaining chips., but by then most of the Jews under Nazi control were dead. Those that remained, emaciated and dying by the thousands to starvation, and unchecked disease, as they were marched in ghastly conditions to camps deeper inside Nazi controlled areas.

On Friday two things happened in the United States that caused me to shake my head and wonder if we are becoming a place that will turn its eyes away from current atrocities, genocide, ethnic and religious cleansing, and walk away. President Trump issued a proclamation to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day, a statement that did not mention the Jews. How one remembers the Holocaust without mentioning the Jews is beyond me, but some of the President’s closest advisers, including Steve Bannon, are closely connected to the self-proclaimed Alt-Right, a movement of white supremacists and neo-Nazis looking for respectability. The second thing the President did was to issue an Executive Order halting the immigration of refugees from certain Muslim majority countries, and to cap the number entering. I’m not going to go into details about that but it is not the first time that the United States stopped refugees from entering the country on national security grounds, as in the 1930s and 1940s one of the reasons used to keep German Jewish refugees out of the country was exactly that, they might be Nazi spies and saboteurs, but I digress…

However, this is a day that we should never forget. The horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime, all in the name of “race purity” and the extermination of the Jews and others deemed by the Nazis to be “sub-human” or untermenschen is something that is hard for most to imagine. Last year about this time I finished reading Bettina Stangneth’s book, Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer. While I am very well informed and educated on the lives, writings, actions, and statements of many of the Nazi war criminals, this new book on Eichmann is the most troubling that I have ever read. In particular it is the accounts of his writings and interviews with other pro-Nazi, or former Nazis in Argentina, particularly the Sassen Interviews, which span hundreds of hours of tape and thousands of pages of transcripts.

I am a Christian, a gentile, and a historian, as well as a thirty-five year military who served alongside our advisors and the Iraqis who fought alongside of us. I have lived in Germany, read, speak and write German and have many friends in that country, including members of the German military, retired and active duty.  My study and association with Holocaust survivors goes back to my college days at California State University Northridge when as an undergraduate history major I spent much of my time studying Germany from the first unification and the Kaiser Reich, the First World War, Versailles, Weimar and the Hitler Regime. My professor, Dr. Helmut Heussler, whose family left Germany in the late 1920s, served in the U.S. Army in World War II and was an interrogator at Nuremberg. I took a number of classes from Dr. Heussler, including Hitler’s Germany and the Holocaust. In the latter I had the chance to meet Holocaust survivor Mel Mermelstein, who was later played by Leonard Nimoy in the TV movie Never Forget. 

Since my college days I have continued to read and study, and to get a second Masters Degree in History in which much of my work dealt with the Nazi regime. I have visited the sites of former concentration camps including Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. I have been to the sites of the Nazi Party rallies in Nuremberg, as well as to the courtroom where the Nuremberg Trails were conducted. One day, God willing I will get to Auschwitz.

The Nazis had begun their persecution of the Jews shortly after Hitler took power in 1933. Later in the year the Enabling Act gave Hitler and his henchmen the legal means to begin their persecution of the Jews and others. These were followed by the Nuremberg Laws and other laws that targeted the Jews. Persecution increased throughout the 1930s, and sadly most countries refused to accommodate increased Jewish immigration. Then came Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, when on 9-10 November 1938, a series of orchestrated attacks on Jewish businesses, Synagogues, institutions and individuals. On that night close to 200 synagogues, 7000 Jewish businesses and 29 major department stores were destroyed or damaged. Over 30,000 Jews, mostly men, were arrested and sent to concentration camps, 91 people were killed outright, and several thousand died in the aftermath.

mass killing einsatzgruppen

When the Nazis invaded Poland, its Jews were rounded up and placed into ghettos where many died of starvation and abuse even before the ghettos were liquidated and the people who lived in them were deported to the extermination camps. In 1941 as the German military seemed to be assured of victory in the Soviet Union the Nazis decided to exterminate the Jews of Europe. In the Soviet Union 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. Over a million and a half Soviet Jews were killed by the Einsatzgruppen, Ordungspolizei battalions, Army Security Divisions and locally recruited units.

At the Wansee Conference of January 20th 1942 the specifics of the “Final Solution” were mapped out by Himmler’s number two man, SS General Reinhard Heydrich. What followed is beyond the comprehension of most people, but the perpetrators were for the most part men and women who were terrifyingly normal.

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

When you read their writings, listen to them when they were interviewed, or watch footage of them during or after the war, you find that they had absolutely no empathy for their victims. When confronted about the evil that they engineered they invariably blamed their victims, just as many like them do today.

Most of the men who coordinated the massive effort to exterminate the Jews of Europe following the Wansee Conference of January 20th 1942 approached their jobs dispassionately. This was a common attitude among the civil service, military and police officials that oversaw the Holocaust. They simply did their jobs and followed the law, and for most of them, their victims meant nothing.

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Hungarian Jews being sent to Extermination Camps

Adolf Eichmann summed up the attitude of many when he said regarding his work to deport hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in in just a few weeks during the fall of 1944, “Whether they were bank directors or mental cases, the people who were loaded on those trains meant nothing to me.” Speaking to Willem Sassen in 1957 Eichmann reveled in that accomplishment, “It was an achievement that was never matched before or since.” Eichmann also enjoyed leading his victims on, pretending that he might listen, and they might change his mind. Eichmann was proud of what he did. He told his staff, “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”

Hannah Arendt wrote of Eichmann:

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

This was what made the Holocaust committed against the Jews of Europe by Nazi Germany a phenomenon different than other genocides. Many of the perpetrators were not driven by centuries old hate as in the Balkans, tribal blood lust as occurred in Rwanda, or the products of Soviet Communism or Communist Chines Maoist regimes.

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It was the racial ideology of the Nazis which deemed the Jews and other non-Aryans to be sub-human. That ideology undergirded the German treatment of the Jews, and the conduct of the war, especially in the East. But the execution of the plan required the bureaucratic, administrative, technical and legal skills brought to the table by ordinary men. Men who sought promotion, advancement and economic security for their families. Individually many would have never killed, but in their positions they ran the rail network, the factories, the banking and finance industries and supported the war effort, most not thinking much about the evil that they abetted or if they did finding a way, be it social, scientific, religious, patriotic, legal or simply in the name of efficiency.

Survivors of Auschwitz

That is what makes the evil committed by them so terrifying. It is the product of “normal” people in an advanced Western nation. Make no bones about it, their actions were evil. They aided and abetted the genocide of the Jews, the disabled, other “sub-human” races, particularly Slavs, as well as those that they deemed less than suitable.

I think that the most chilling thing about the Holocaust was that the greatest atrocities were committed by ordinary men, sometimes well educated, decent family men. These were men who simply executed orders and often went home at night. Arendt wrote that “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” She was right, there was an ordinariness to the evil perpetrated by the Nazis, at the same time there are those who consciously decide to participate in evil.

It is important that we do not forget the Holocaust. It is also important to recognize that the instruments of that horror were on the whole “ordinary” men who as they saw it were simply doing their job. It is something that everyone needs to remember. Bettina Stangneth wrote “Systematic mass murder is not just the sum of isolated instances of sadism but the result of a political thinking that is perverted from the ground up.”

So many of the perpetrators saw nothing wrong in what they were doing, in fact at his trial in Jerusalem Eichmann said, “To sum it all up, I must say that I regret nothing.”

They believed that their victims were less than human and like so many people even today, they had no empathy. Gustave Gilbert, an American Army Psychologist at the major War Criminal Trials at Nuremberg said it so well: “Evil is the absence of empathy.”

It is important that we never forget, especially now when we could be watching it begin all over again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The “Unshackled” Trump Turns Against the GOP

Ayn Rand, Russian-born American novelist, is shown in Manhattan with the Grand Central Terminal building in background in 1962. (AP Photo)

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

With his poll numbers in freefall and dozens of GOP leaders fleeing his toxic fascism, Donald Trump has gone on the attack. Trump bragged that he is now “unshackled” from the GOP and yes while he is attacking Hillary Clinton and threatening in a typical banana republic fascist dictator sort of way that he is going to jail her if he is elected, even more importantly he is now gone nuclear on the GOP and the firestorm has just begun. His attacks against any and all GOP leaders who oppose him or are critical of him are creating a scorched earth situation which will scar the GOP and it is largely the fault of GOP leaders for creating the moral and ideological toxic waste dump from which he emerged. Today, after a firestorm of tweets directed at Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, in which he tweeted: Our very weak and ineffective leader, Paul Ryan, had a bad conference call where his members went wild at his disloyalty. Trump tweeted:

Disloyal R’s are far more difficult than Crooked Hillary. They come at you from all sides. They don’t know how to win – I will teach them!

It is the beginning of the end for the GOP and I have been predicting this for almost a year, often using the comparison of the meltdown that happened to the Democratic Party between 1858 and 1860. The bitterness and divisiveness of that collapse kept the Democrats out of the White House for 25 years and the trend would not be fully reversed until Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932.

But even so there was something very different about that collapse than what is happening today in the GOP. In 1858-1860 the meltdown was centered on the expansion of slavery into the new territories, and Northern Democrats who were in favor of allowing the Southern States to keep their slaves were opposed to slavery’s expansion. That divide blew up in 1858 and 1859 with the attempt of Southerners to get Kansas admitted into the Union as a Slave State when the vast majority of Kansans opposed slavery. Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, a man who most people expected to win the Presidency in 1860, led the opposition and fought his fellow Democrat, President James Buchanan to the bitter end to stop the attempt and in the process infuriated Southern Democrats so much that they would not support him and ran a Southern Democratic ticket against him in 1860. The result was that Abraham Lincoln won the election with a plurality of the vote. When the South seceded Douglas rallied Northern Democrats around the Union as Southern Democrats led their States into the Confederacy.

If you are interested you can see the first article that I wrote about it here:

When Political Parties Implode: The Battle over the Lecompton Constitution and its Relevance Today

I later revised and expanded that article into a five part series in March of this year.

But as I said, today’s situation in the GOP is different. It is not about policy. It is about a cult of personality centered on a Presidential nominee who demands absolute loyalty to himself and tolerates no dissent. It is about a man and a cult that sees no problem in trashing the Constitution, of banning reporters and news organizations that it disagrees with from their rallies, a leader and a cult that has no problem using physical violence against opponents, a leader and a cult that revels in xenophobia, which has hijacked the Christian faith, which supports the actions of a Russian leader who has relentlessly worked to subvert the United States and its allies, a man who brags about his ability to avoid paying taxes, who mocks the disabled, calls POWs and wounded warriors “losers”, demeans the military and its leadership at every opportunity, and views women as objects who should be sexually assaulted. I’m sorry, the man and his cult are deplorable. Conservative columnist George Will described the vapid world of Trump’s supporters in a column that was published yesterday. He noted:

“Trump is a marvelously efficient acid bath, stripping away his supporters’ surfaces, exposing their skeletal essences. Consider Mike Pence, a favorite of what Republicans devoutly praise as America’s “faith community.” Some of its representatives, their crucifixes glittering in the television lights, are still earnestly explaining the urgency of giving to Trump, who agreed that his daughter is “a piece of ass,” the task of improving America’s coarsened culture.” 

To watch Pence, Pat Robertson, Robert Jefferess and other right wing religious hacks masquerading as ministers praise and defend Trump after his comments about assaulting women was to watch the old guard of the Religious Right throw themselves into the abyss. No wonder people are fleeing the church.

It is about a man who based on his actions as a businessman which crushed investors as well small business owners, who sues anyone that attempts to expose him, as well as his threats as a politician against his opponents, including those in his own party would be quickly establish himself as a dictator if elected. Sadly, it seems that many of his supporters want just that.

So now the Civil War in the GOP that I predicted months ago is erupting in full view of all. It is going to be a disaster for the party, a party that I belonged to for 32 years. I left the GOP in 2008 after I returned from Iraq, but that does not mean that I don’t have a certain amount of grief in watching the unfolding disaster. While it is too early to say what the final result will be, it is not too early to say that this will have a major impact in American politics and quite possibly hand the Democrats the reins of government for decades, but this is the fault of the GOP. For decades its leaders have basked in the support of unprincipled ideologues, talk radio hosts, and unscrupulous Christian religious leaders who have done nothing but sown the wind of hatred and division and now are reaping the whirlwind. As I said at the top, they created the moral and ideological toxic waste dump from which Trump emerged and they will have to own the result.

There are some who are now speculating that Trump is no longer trying to win the election and has ulterior motives. I have seen a number of commentators who think that he is going to use this to attempt to build a new media empire with the help of Breitbart’s Steve Bannon and former Fox News chief Roger Ailes. But I think that there is another good possibility, the possibility that Trump will take his supporters, especially frustrated Tea Party and Religious Right types and form a new party built around him. If that happens I believe that the rump of what is left of the GOP will struggle to survive after the election.

The GOP Civil War has broken out and while Trump’s supporters in Breitbart say that he has already won it, the fact is there is only one thing that is for certain, for the GOP there will be no winners.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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