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Guard Your Soul Lest You Forget: the Relevance Of the Holocaust Today

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I took a few days of leave for the first time in months so that Judy and I could visit friends in the Washington D.C. area. Since Wednesday ended with me being called back in to work to deal with the workplace suicide of a young sailor stationed at one of the units on our base it was needed.

It is nice because the expectations that we have of each other are simply to enjoy the time together without expecting them to entertain us. Judy does crafts with Melissa, all of us talk, sometimes we play card games or watch television or a movies while our seven combined Papillon dogs hang out and play.

So yesterday I drove over to the nearest Metro station and went down to the Holocaust Museum. Since I study the Weimar and Nazi period, the Holocaust and the war crimes trials this was important. In Germany I have been to the Dachau and Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camps, the T4 Euthanasia Program Center at Hadamar, the Palace Of Justice in Nuremberg where the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials (as well as the Nazi era Nuremberg laws) were prosecuted, the Sophie Scholl White Rose Museum, and the Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism; this was important. I will be continuing to visit Holocaust sites in Germany when I go there this Fall, but I finally was able to stake out the time to visit the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

The museum is important and despite having been to places shown in it and knowing more about the Nazi regime and the Holocaust than the vast majority of Americans, I found myself overwhelmed at times as I walked slowly through the exhibits. Many I recognized, knew about, or had been to, but that did not make them any less emotionally difficult to see. But there were others that drove home why this museum is so important in our day and time.

I think that the one that hit me the hardest was the pictorial Tower of Faces from the Polish shtetl of Ejszyszki. That town was home to some 4,000 Jews and the pictures had been taken over the preceding decade by local photographers. They were pictures of everyday family and community life; men, women, children at work, at play, at rest. Worshipping, working, studying, the old and the young, the well off and the poor, the religious and those not as religious at all phase of life captured in photos for eternity. For 3500 of them their lives ended on September 21st 1941 when the Nazis rounded up the Jews at their Synagogues on the eve of Yom Kippur and executed them by firing squad in mass graves at the town’s Christian and Jewish cemeteries. Only 29 of those who survived that day lived through the war. That Jewish community had existed for 900 years and was exterminated in a matter of hours.

I looked at those pictures and I could not get over all of those innocent lives cut short. Each face was the picture of an individual or individuals, families, friends, schoolmates. They were not abstract numbers or statistics but real flesh and blood people like you and me. They had hopes and dreams, but because they were Jews they were exterminated, like nearly six million other Jews who also were real people with hopes and dreams that would be destroyed by the Nazi racial war. Of course the Nazis targeted others, but none with the relentless anti-Semitic racial hatred propagated by Nazi ideology. Thus they condoned and executed by people who would have ordinarily have been considered upstanding and moral citizens. The late Christopher Hitchens wrote:

“We should not at all allow ourselves to forget the millions of non-Jewish citizens of Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, and other Slav territories who were also massacred. But for me the salient fact remains that anti-Semitism was the regnant, essential, organizing principle of all the other National Socialist race theories. It is thus not to be thought of as just one prejudice among many.” 

But then this is not abnormal as the great American theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: “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.”

The problem is that what happened during the Holocaust and to the people of the shtetl of Ejszyszki is not just an aberration, it is all too much a part of human nature; even that of people who call themselves Christians like those who exterminated the Jewish people of Ejszyszki. It is not simply an artifact of history that we can ignore. It can happen again and if we are not careful it will happen again. The spirit of the ideology that allowed normal law abiding people to massacre millions of people, either up close and personal like at Ejszyszki or in death factories like Soribor, Treblinka, Belzec, and Auschwitz is still alive today in Russia, Europe, and even in the United States. Of course it exists elsewhere in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. But I think that it is most frightening when it exists in the nations which claim to be inheritors of Christian civilization or the enlightenment, especially among the people who claim the words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Honesty when I see the President of the United States and his most devoted followers follow the script of the Nazis and other race supremacists I get concerned and I remember the words of historian Yehuda Bauer:

“The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.”

As for people who might be neighbors, coworkers or even friends today who for whatever reason either support, dismiss, or ignore the peril of the racial, ideological, and religious animus of the modern authoritarians and anti-Semites I can only recall the words of Yale historian Dr. Timothy Snyder who 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.”

Today I truly believe that under President Trump that the United States is just a Reichstag Fire moment from entering a phase of history when not only Trump supporters, but even some Trump opponents would do nothing in a crisis and either become willing participants in tyranny, bystanders to it or victims of it. As I walked through the museum and remembered all of my visits to Holocaust and other sites in Germany I realized again that it can happen again.

When I finished with most of my visit I went to the Hall of Remembrance and sat for a long time in silence, a silence that made me realize again just how easy it would be to happen again and the choices that all of us if it happens in our time will have to make.

I’ll leave you with the warning of Yehuda Bauer:

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

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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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.

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, 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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