Tag Archives: the banality of evil

Nuremberg: Marking the 67th Year of the Trials of Men Who Should Have Known Better

nuremberg-trial

“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” ― Hannah Arendt

The 20th of November is an important day. It is not one that most people think about but it is important. It was the day that the major war criminals of the Nazi Regime were put on trial at Nuremberg. That was the most dramatic of the trials, but later trials were held on those that ran parts of the Nazi regime, the senior and mid-level executioners of Nazi policy. Those men included civil servants, jurists, physicians, military and police officials especially leaders of the Einsatzgruppen.

I studied Weimar and Nazi Germany as well as the Holocaust under Dr. Helmut Heussler at California State University at Northridge as an undergraduate and in a year of graduate studies.  I also continued that study while in Seminary as well as in my Masters Degree in Military History. I was stationed in Germany several times, done an exchange tour with the German Army and my German friends say that I am fluent in German. I have been to Nuremberg, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. I have stood on the reviewing stand where Adolf Hitler preached to the multitudes of assembled party faithful on the Zepplinfeld in Nuremberg.

As such I am a realist about the unique horror of the Holocaust. I am a realist about people and how and the circumstances of the times brought ordinary people, men and women to either commit, support or simply turn their backs on the greatest atrocities ever committed by a “civilized” Western nation. A nation steeped in the traditions of Christendom and the Enlightenment.

As a Priest, Historian, Military Officer and Ethicist I often find that I return to my old books used in my various degree programs as well as  as the resources of museums and universities now available on the internet. I also watch films about the era. Not war films, films about the ordinary men that carried out these crimes either by pulling the trigger, pushing a button, signing an order or simply turning their backs and remaining silent. I think that is what makes them so compelling.

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Three of those films I watch at lest once a year, sometimes multiple times. One is Conspiracy starring Kenneth Branagh which is about the Wansee Conference where mid-level officials and bureaucrats met to has out details of the Final Solution. The second is Nuremberg starring Alec Baldwin and Christopher Plummer which is about the major war crimes trials. The last is the classic Judgement at Nuremberg starring Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster. It is that film that I have concentrated on today because it deals with men who executed the laws enacted by the Nazi regime, many of whom who before the Nazi seizure of power were perfectly respectable in their dealings with Jews and others that the Nazis would persecute.

That is the chilling thing about this period of history and these films. The show ordinary men who for a variety of reasons chose to violate their own conscience as well as the norms of what they knew was right. They did so often out of fear, fear of change, fear of others and even fear of themselves. The fact that otherwise decent people not only followed Hitler but willingly executed Nazi policies against their former neighbors, colleagues and friends is the most chilling aspect of all. I say this because the people are so ordinary yet perpetrated such evil.

In Judgement at Nuremberg Burt Lancaster plays a jurist who served the Nazi regime, a jurist who before the Nazis was considered to be one of the best legal minds not only in Germany but in Europe. In the film the character played by Lancaster, Ernst Janning discussed who he and others like him ended up doing what they did. It is a penetrating look at how people justified their actions.

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“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…”

Hannah Arendt talked about the Banality of Evil in her treatment of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the mid-level officers who sent millions of people to their deaths. In describing Eichmann and other ordinary people Arendt said: “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.”

At the end of the movie Judgement at Nuremberg Spencer Tracy as Presiding Judge Dan Haywood concluded his sentencing remarks with this statement. It is perhaps one of the most powerful statement and something to remember as the Unholy Trinity of Politicians, Pundits and Preachers urge us to hate one another and those different than us. It is something that is especially needed in times of great societal stress as well as real and perceived dangers from without and within.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3BwK51YFgQ

“Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and the death of millions by the Government of which he was a part. Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe.

But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”

This is an unsettling subject and people on the political right and left in this country are apt to compare their opponents to those that were tried at Nuremberg and those that led them. This has been an increasingly disturbing trend in the case of hyper-partisan Right Wing so called “Evangelical Christians” who blatantly demonize those who they hate and urge the use of the police powers of the state to enforce their political-religious agenda.

However it is possible that any party in society when divided by fear, hate and the desire for power can behave just as the industrialists, financiers, doctors, soldiers, jurists, civil servants, pastors and educators who oversaw those heinous crimes.

Those tried at Nuremberg were all people that should have known better, as should we.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Bicycle Pants on Fire: The Banal Confession of Lance Armstrong

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“I didn’t invent the culture, but I didn’t try to stop the culture.” Lance Armstrong

I watched the Lance Armstrong interview online today. I did not watch it last night as we were out with friends. I found the interview to be fascinating and at the same time chilling. Oprah Winfrey did it well and in the process laid Lance Armstrong and his lies bare.

Cheating blood doping, the use of EPO and Testosterone were commonplace in competitive cycling. The were the norm, not the exception. At the same time they were also illegal and banned in the sport. Lance Armstrong was part of that world, even before his battle with cancer.

The use of the blood doping and other means of cheating had become so commonplace  that that it was banal, which the Oxford dictionary of the English Language defines as “so lacking in originality as to be obvious and boring.”

The chilling part for me was that I didn’t sense any remorse from Armstrong. He acknowledged the use of Testosterone, EPO and blood transfusions but his reasoning for them then, and his apology or confession now felt to me like I was watching someone with no remorse and someone who felt that since everyone else was doing it that there was really nothing wrong with doing it. Armstrong’s cheating was the norm for his era, but his subsequent campaign to intimidate and destroy those that would tell the truth took his actions in cheating to a different level than his competitors.

The most chilling segment of the interview with Armstrong for me was when Oprah asked Armstrong if the things that he did, the blood doping, EPO and Testosterone use “felt wrong.”

Oprah: “Was it a big deal to you? Did it feel wrong?” 

Armstrong: “No, scary.”

Oprah: “Did you feel bad about it?”

Armstrong: “No, even scarier.”

Oprah: “Did you feel any way that you were cheating?”

Armstrong: “No, scariest.”

Oprah: Did you feel in any way that you were cheating? You did not feel you were cheating taking banned drugs?

Armstrong: “At the time, no. I kept hearing I’m a drug cheat, I’m a cheat, I’m a cheater. I went in and just looked up the definition of cheat and the definition of cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don’t have. I didn’t view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.”

Armstrong’s answer to this and to how he used lawsuits and threats to attack those that told the truth were chilling. I wondered what someone like Armstrong would do in life and death situations or to advance himself where the stakes were more than simply an athletic career and I could not fathom that level of banality, that level of selling ones soul for that type of personal gain and the destruction of the lives and reputations of others.

Armstrong commented on what he called his ruthless will to win: “My ruthless desire to win at all costs served me well on the bike but the level it went to, for whatever reason, is a flaw. That desire, that attitude, that arrogance.”

To simply refer to this as a flaw to me is to minimize the issue. I really don’t think that Armstrong gets how deep this is. I know that all of us have feet of clay and that Armstrong is not the first athlete to cheat to win or to attempt to cover up his cheating. However his cover ups, denials and attacks on those that attempted to tell the truth went beyond the norm for a sports cheater.  He went out of his way to destroy others to protect his legacy. Had he not suffered the loss of his Tour de France titles, the loss of control of his Livestrong Foundation and been banned for life from the sport I doubt that he would have ever even come this close to coming clean.

The years of cheating, the years of cover up and the years of destroying those in his way have probably changed Armstrong. He admitted that he cheated before his fight with cancer but he noted that he didn’t become “ruthless” in that until after it. He did it for the myth, the myth that his cheating helped him create and he rationalized it in the same way that others have rationalized evil before him. Robert J Lifton wrote of the Nazi Doctors “In doing so – or in order to do so – the men themselves changed; and in carrying out their actions, they themselves were no longer banal.” Armstrong took cheating to a higher level and in doing so victimized others.

I know that Armstrong’s story and foundation have doing many good things. The fact is that the evil committed by Nazi doctors also benefitted science, but it was still evil. The cheating was the least of the issues here. His sport was corrupt to the core. Cheating was the norm. The greater issue his what Armstrong did for years to maintain the lie at the expense of others. His was not a victimless crime, and call it what it was, it is a crime to threaten, intimidate and use the courts to attack and punish those simply trying to tell the truth.

As it is there are people familiar with the case that believe that his statements to Oprah about not having cheated after 2005 are also a lie. Unfortunately, given his history of deceit and manipulation of the narrative I tend to believe them.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Those that Should Know Better: Judgement at Nuremberg

“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 sacrifical 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…”  Judge Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) in Judgement at Nuremberg

I am getting ready to do some serious writing over the coming months about what Hannah Arendt called “the Banality of Evil.” Banality is not a word often used now days. But it simply means trivial, uncreative or simply ordinary and unremarkable.  I have been pondering this for years and believe that history has to be continually learned and written about in order not to see it repeated.

I studied Weimar and Nazi Germany as well as the Holocaust under Dr. Helmut Haeussler at California State University at Northridge as an undergraduate and in a year of graduate studies.  I also continued that study while in Seminary as well as in my Masters Degree in Military History. I was stationed in Germany several times, done an exchange tour with the German Army and my German friends say that I am fluent in German. I have been to Nuremberg, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. I have stood on the reviewing stand where Adolf Hitler preached to the multitudes of assembled party faithful on the Zepplinfeld in Nuremberg.

As such I am a realist about the unique horror of the Holocaust. I am a realist about people and how and the circumstances of the times brought ordinary people, men and women to either commit, support or simply turn their backs on the greatest atrocities ever committed by a “civilized” Western nation. A nation steeped in the traditions of Christendom and the Enlightenment.

I have broken out many of my old books used in my various degree programs as well as  as the resources of museums and universities now available on the internet. I am also watching films about the era. Not war films, films about the ordinary men that carried out these crimes either by pulling the trigger, pushing a button, signing an order or simply turning their backs and remaining silent.

At the end of the movie Judgement at Nuremberg Spencer Tracy as the Presiding Judge Dan Haywood concluded his sentencing remarks with this statement. It is perhaps one of the most powerful statement and something to remember as the Unholy Trinity of Politicians, Pundits and Preachers urge us to hate one another and those different than us. It is something that is especially needed in times of great societal stress as well as real and perceived dangers from without and within.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3BwK51YFgQ

“Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and the death of millions by the Government of which he was a part. Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe.

But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”

This is an unsettling subject and people on the political right and left in this country are apt to compare their opponents to those that were tried at Nuremberg and those that led them. However it is possible that any party in society when divided by fear, hate and the desire for power can behave just as the industrialists, financiers, doctors, soldiers, jurists, civil servants, pastors and educators who oversaw those heinous crimes. People that should have known better.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Few Concerns Regarding Matters of Faith and Morality

“The fearful danger of the present time is that above the cry for authority, we forget that man stands alone before the ultimate authority, and that anyone who lays violent hands on man here, is infringing eternal laws, and taking upon himself superhuman authority, which will eventually crush him.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I think I feel a sermon coming on….

I am increasing appalled at the statements of Christians and those that they have allied themselves with in the political arena.  Mind you that almost all of these folks claim to be “pro-life” because they are anti-abortion. However just because someone is against abortion does not mean that they are necessarily pro-life.  They may be pro-life in the instance of abortion but if that is all then they are one dimensionally pro-life, which means that in many other areas they are pro-death.

Several examples I will note and they are so abominable, so un-Christian and so evil that they have to be called out. I am refraining from politics because this is a matter of faith and morals that have had to categorically oppose throughout our history, even when our Christian brothers and sisters are the perpetrators.

I the past couple of weeks alone we have seen bold faced immoral and distinctly un-Christian comments being made in full public view on television for all, even God to see.

First there were the cheers when Governor Rick Perry said that he never “loses sleep” over any of the 234 men and women that he has signed the death warrants of in Texas, not even worrying that some might have been innocent.  When Perry pronounced this authoritative statement “But in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed.” The cheers were raucous.  This despite the fact that the witness of the Christian Church before Constantine was universally against the use of capital punishment, evidently the fact that Jesus was unjustly crucified had some play in their beliefs.   But of course one the Church became part of the establishment that began to change and well we know how that worked out, if you disagreed with the Church the crime was also against the State and those who did not recant well enough were summarily executed, often with a clergyman pronouncing eternal damnation.

You would think that someone who is pro-life would at least reserve the ultimate justice to God, and at least wrestle with the implications of each death warrant that he signs.  The death penalty may be capital punishment but it is still temporal justice, God alone has the right of deciding “ultimate justice.” For anyone not to understand that shows a callous disregard for the earliest witnesses of the Christian faith and cannot in any way be considered to be “pro-life.”  Pope John Paul II in his Papal Encyclical “Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) said this

“Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfills the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated.

It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.

In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: ‘If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.'”

The Second little instance was when a question was asked of Ron Paul about what he would do if an uninsured 30 year old man suddenly slipped into a coma and needed care and people in the audience started yelling “Let him die, let him die!”  To be fair Ron Paul as a physician would treat the man, but the fact that people in the audience which was in large part drawn from Evangelicals shouted such epithets in a debate televised for the whole nation to see revealed a sentiment that was in no way pro-life or Christian.  In fact it reminded me of the shouts “crucify him, crucify him!”

The Third and last for tonight’s sermon, I do occasionally like the three point sermon, was prominent televangelist and one time Presidential Candidate Pat Robertson’s comment today on his show The 700 Club. Robertson gave this warm and cuddly advice to a man asking what to say to a friend who had started seeing someone else because his wife had Alzheimer’s Disease “I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her.” Citing the Gospel of Mark, Robertson continued “If you respect that vow, you say `til death do us part, this is a kind of death.”  That statement is neither pro-life nor pro-family, nor can it find any support in the Christian tradition, nowhere.

All of these statements that I have described show no respect for the human person and betray what Hannah Arendt called “the fearsome word-and-thought-defying banality of evil” because those that utter them do not believe that they are evil words or acts. The “banality of evil” was  a term she coined about Adolf Eichmann who made sure that the wheels of the Holocaust moved smoothly forward.  Of course Eichmann said in his defense that he didn’t have anything against the Jews, he even had Jewish friends, and it was just his job and that he had done nothing wrong because he acted within the law.

These expressed thoughts and sentiments of Rick Perry, Pat Robertson and those in the debate crowds that cheered for death show a terrible dark side to our supposedly “Christian” nation.  It is easy to use scripture to condemn abortionists as well as those that are considered sexually deviant or to condemn those of foreign creeds enemies, but when the questions are the treatment of the poor, the sick, the aliens among, the prisoners, or to the children of people that we see as enemies far away who just happen to be in the same tent as their woebegone parents who might or might not be terrorists when a drone launched Hellfire missile tears their bodies to shreds we scarcely see the moral, ethical and religious principles that are violated.

Bonhoeffer was indeed correct “that above the cry for authority, we forget that man stands alone before the ultimate authority, and that anyone who lays violent hands on man here, is infringing eternal laws, and taking upon himself superhuman authority, which will eventually crush him.”

Just some things to think about….

Peace

Padre Steve+

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