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America First and the Holocaust

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Before Donald Trump’s promise to Make America Great Again and govern by the principle America First there was a movement that proclaimed the message of America First. It was a movement that was led by men like Charles Lindbergh as well as many isolationist politicians, mostly Republicans. It advocated a policy favorable to Nazi Germany and fought against the immigration of any Jews to the United States from Germany or Nazi occupied Europe. Lindbergh blamed the Jews as well as the British, and the Roosevelt administration for the war more than he did Hitler, and this was in his Des Moines speech of September 11th 1941, after two years of war and Hitler’s ruthless war of conquest.

In that speech Lindbergh said:

“Instead of agitating for war the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way, for they will be among the first to feel its consequences. Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation. A few farsighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.”

That my friends is the root of the America First message. It was demonstrated in the Trump Press Secretary, Sean Spicer’s words in the immediate aftermath of the Syrian chemical attack on its own citizens in which Spicer said that Hitler had not even done that, ignoring the fact that Hitler’s henchmen had gassed millions of Jews. When he attempted to correct himself he only dug himself in deeper by talking about “Holocaust Centers.” While they did not use it against enemy soldiers, they used it against their own people first, beginning with the disabled, then the Jews, both German and those in countries that they overran. It was evident in the administration’s statement on Holocaust memorial day which did not mention the Jews. One only hope that the President when he speaks today about the Holocaust will be somewhat more clear about who the primary targets of Hitler’s Final Solution were. Yes, many millions were killed or starved to death by the Nazis, but it was the Jews who were the target of Hitler’s race hatred from the very beginning. 

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.” 

If this is what it means to make America Great again then we are deep trouble.  Historian Timothy Snyder wrote: “When exactly was the “again” in the president’s slogan “Make America great again”? Hint: It is the same “again” that we find in “Never again.”

I hope that the President will rid himself of this terrible America First ideology, for it has nothing to do with true patriotism or the ideals of those who founded our country. With that I will wish you a good day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Understanding the Actions Ordinary Men: Perpetrators of Genocide

Ordungspolizei Executing Jews in Poland

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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.”

I just finished re-reading Christopher Browning’s classic book on an often overlooked part of the Holocaust in Poland, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution  in Poland. As I read it I was reminded of Niebuhr’s words. The book details the actions of the men of a police unit that one would have expected to be the most unlikely perpetrators of violence and mass killing. Most of the unit’s men were not ardent Nazis or even party members, many were too old to have been drafted into the military, and most came of age long before the Nazis took control of the education system.  They were mostly from Hamburg, one of the least Nazified of all major German cities, and included was a contingent from Luxembourg, a country that was not part of Germany.

In their actions in Poland an estimated ten to twenty percent refused to take part in the mass killings of Jews. Unlike the people who manned the factory like death camps such as Treblinka and Auschwitz, these men killed their victims in an exceedingly personal manner. They stood at close range and fired pistol or rifle shots into the back of the skulls of their victims, who mostly were kneeling over pits or prostrate on the ground. The members of the unit killed a minimum of 38,000 Jews in this manner, and were instrumental in the deportations of about 45,000 more to the death camps. Very few were prosecuted for their crimes. Most went home, and some resumed successful careers in the police.

These men were very ordinary, and that is what makes what they did so troubling. One of the problems with human nature is that people in any time or place can participate in the very kinds of evil that the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 and other units like it did. We have to understand what allows normal people to take part in evil. As Timothy Snyder wrote in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin:

“It is easy to sanctify policies or identities by the deaths of victims. It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander.”

It is never easy to examine and understand the actions of the perpetrators. To understand them is not to justify them, but to ensure that we do not become like them, as Yehuda Bauer wrote:

“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.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Fragile and Unpredictable: Auschwitz and Human Behavior in the Crisis

Auschwitz Staff at Play 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In his book Auschwitz: A New History, Laurence Rees noted something that is important about how human beings act in crisis. After interviewing many of perpetrators, victims, and bystanders who were at Auschwitz and other parts of the Nazi death machine he wrote this:

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

I think that it is a comment worth reflection. One of the things that Rees explored was how people who in one situation can be the best of neighbors, the most conscientious and ethical of businessmen, the most dedicated civil servants can seemingly become something totally different when placed in situations that test who they are.

Selecting those to Die 

This is one of the scary things about human nature itself, while there were many people who were sadistic and enjoyed the evil that they did, there were many more who could not decide to be good or evil, instead they went with the flow and took the path of least resistance. Hannah Arendt wrote of Adolf Eichmann, who was the instrument of destruction for much the Jewish population of Europe:

“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.” 

In times of great change, in times of crisis, in times of uncertainty demagogues manipulate people through fear, particularly fear of the other, both the other within their society, and those far away. When they do this they dehumanize people who seem different from us, be it in their race, color, religion, politics, gender, or sexual identity. When they succeed in doing this, it is the ordinary people who turn the other way, or collaborate in the persecution of the victims.

We are in a precarious situation and it would not take much for our nation to slide into a totalitarian dictatorship, and if the circumstance were right, if the crisis large enough, most people would probably surrender their freedom for the supposed security offered by a dictator. 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.”

That is why we must not only understand history, but at the same time we must be determined to recognize how it informs us today, and how we can prevent such things from ever happening again.

That’s all for today,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Slipping into Totalitarianism?

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I did my taxes yesterday as across the nation tens of thousands of people protested President Trump’s refusal to release any of his tax returns as he prepares to make wide ranging changes to the U.S. Federal Tax Code which according to most analysts would benefit him. In response the President derided them on Twitter. Likewise, in response to lawsuits about his encouragement of violence at his campaign rallies, Trump stated that since he won the election that he is immune from any actions that any court might find him responsible. Even so many people seem not to care. Despite the fact that the administration lives in a “fact free” world where the President and his advisors can make up things with impunity and accuse anyone who disagrees with promoting “fake news” he is allowed by those who have the power to remove him to get away with it. But this is the normal path to power for any totalitarian.

In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt wrote:

“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

Those are not the words of a man interested in maintaining our Republic, its Constitution, or its laws; they are the words of an autocrat and a would be dictator. Sadly, despite the resistance of many people, I don’t think that anything will stop him from gaining that power. Our society is too atomized to come together in any meaningful way to stop him, and he and his closest supporters understand that fact. Despite his frequent mistakes, foul ups, and failures, he is given a pass by his supporters, as well as some in the media who think that firing a few missiles makes one presidential. His anemic approval rating doesn’t seem to concern him probably because his opposition, liberals and conservatives are so divided and distrustful of each other that they cannot come together to oppose him.

Yesterday, the people of Turkey voted to change their constitution to give President Erdrogen and his party nearly unlimited power, paving the way to a one party dictatorship. Even a few years ago most experts said that such an outcome was impossible. No one should assume that the American experiment of a democratic constitutional republic cannot be destroyed. All it takes is a significant part of the populace that is willing to give up its rights for promises of security and prosperity, which is also willing to grant the government extraordinary powers for it to happen. As Timothy Snyder wrote: “People who assure you that you can only gain security at the price of liberty usually want to deny you both.” So with each new crisis, domestic and foreign, many engineered by the Trump administration itself and its media enablers unsettles us, further divides us, and frightens us, know that we are sliding more steadily into a totalitarian world with very passing day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Humanizing Inhuman Humanity

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In the movie Judgement at Nuremberg, Spencer Tracy’s character makes tis comment:

“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…”

This is true, and why I am continuing what I wrote yesterday today.

Yesterday I wrote about the dangers of ignoring what evils that people are capable of committing or standing by and let happen. For me it was a painful article to write as a historian and ethicist who knows history and can see the same kinds of attitudes that allowed the commission of vast and heinous crimes that beggar the imagination, being posted on social media, on blogs, and by political and religious leaders on a daily basis.

But I am sure that many if not most people seldom give what is happening a second look. Even people who read about the crimes of the Nazis, Stalin, or other genocidal regimes find the perpetrators to be beyond understanding, as if they were monsters, or had no human character. In a way that is comforting, because if they were somehow not like us, then we could never become like them.

But if we are to understand what happened Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, or any other place where mass murder and genocide were a daily occurrence, where dissenters, political opponents, and minorities were whisked off to prison, concentration camps, and gulags in the middle of the night, never to be seen or heard from again; we must understand the perpetrators as well as the bystanders who allowed things to happen.

If we fail to do this, if we yield to the temptation to deny the humanity of the perpetrators, to deny that they were human and had access to ethics and morality as we do is to as Timothy Snyder says, “is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position. To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.”

Snyder argues that “To dismiss the Nazis or the Soviets as beyond human concern or historical understanding is to fall into their moral trap. The safer route is to realize that their motives for mass killing, however revolting to us, made sense to them…” They had a faith in their leaders or their ideology, they were devoted to their cause. In the case of the Germans, their “devotion and faith did not make them good…, but they do make them human, Like everyone else, they had access to ethical thinking, even if their own was dreadfully misguided.”

The danger that we face today is that when people in our country speak in the language of the Nazis or other totalitarians, when we see the acts committed against religious, ethnic and other minorities, when we hear the language of genocide being used, we tend to treat those doing such things as barbarians or animals, and not human beings like us, and we rob them of their humanity. If we do this we help set the conditions for what happened under Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and in so many other places to happen again.

Holocaust Historian Yehuda Bauer noted:

“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.” 

Until Tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Deadly Illusion: Ignorance, Myth, and Alternative Reality

ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands…

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

My longtime readers know that I write about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany a lot. Likewise I also write about other historical events and periods where the worst of humanity is on display. This is not because I am negative or due to some morbid fascination with such events, but because as a historian I see them as a warning because the one constant in history is humanity. While history may not repeat itself, it does as Mark Twain noted, often rhyme, the fact is that human nature and human beings have tended to act similarly to their ancestors more often than not during times of social, economic, or political upheaval distress and crisis.

Timothy Snyder notes that “The European history of the twentieth century shows that societies can break, democracies fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands…”

I tell my students this all the time whether I am teaching ethics or history. Economic theories, technology, and so many other ways in which we do life change, but ultimately human nature remains pretty constant. So when I write about these topics it is with that in mind. Historian Gerhard Weinberg wrote:

“It’s very, very important for people to get a sense of what the potentialities of people really are, what the dangers of ignorance can be. It is in this context, that a supposedly advanced society risks descending into the sewer, that the Holocaust is a warning to people who think of themselves as an advanced, modern society.”

Ignorance of history, ignorance of reality, and denial of facts are deadly to the individual and fatal to the society that allows itself to become ignorant and to believe in an illusion of knowledge based on myth and unreality. This deadly illusion based on ignorance and knowledge that is not knowledge allows people and societies to embrace deadly ideologies without thinking. When that happens ordinary people, law abiding people, people who go to church, can commit great atrocities or stand by in silent agreement.

When I hear people who support some of most inhuman of President Trump’s policies makes statements about “I can’t wait for the liberal genocide to begin,” or tell Jews and Muslims to leave the country, who talk of racial and ethnic minorities as if they were less than human than I do in fact worry that it can happen here. When I see Mosques burned, synagogues defaced with Nazi graffiti, Jewish centers targeted by callers making bomb threats, churches of ethnic and minority congregations vandalized, LGBTQ people being discriminated against and sometimes physically attacked, I know it can happen here.

When I see these things happening I am reminded of Spencer Tracy’s monologue at the end of the film Judgment at Nuremberg. The words are chilling because they are so true. Despots and dictators, and authoritarian leaders, cannot commit great acts of violence without a part of the population that is willing to carry out their orders and the majority who for whatever reason acquiesce and stand by silently.

“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…”

We cannot allow ourselves to live in ignorance and pretend that these things cannot happen here. To do this we have to have to go to a dark place. We have to decide to understand what brings people to commit such actions. We have to understand what allows people to stand by and say nothing. We have to understand what goes through the mind or those who make the conscious choice to know nothing when the evidence stares them in the face, and those who feign ignorance to attempt to keep a clean conscience. Burt Lancaster’s character in Judgment at Nuremberg remarked:

“My counsel says we were not aware of the extermination of the millions. He would give you the excuse: We were only aware of the extermination of the hundreds. Does that make us any the less guilty? Maybe we didn’t know the details. But if we didn’t know, it was because we didn’t want to know.”

It is one thing to empathize with the victims of past genocides and crimes against humanity. It is easy to say never again; but it is not possible to prevent them without going to the dark place of trying to understand the perpetrators and bystanders. As Timothy Snyder notes:

“It is easy to sanctify policies or identities by the deaths of victims. It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander.” 

I will continue this tomorrow, until then,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The New Freedom of the Mass Movement: “freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse.”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I was startled when I read the latest Quinnipac poll numbers regarding the views of Republican supporters of President Trump. According to the poll 81% agree with the President that “the media is the enemy of the American people” while 86% believe trust the President to tell the truth rather than the media. In a world where during the election campaign the President’s statements were proven factually incorrect about 87% of the time this is stunning. Facts no longer seem to matter to most of the Republican Party loyalists, who once prided themselves on their individualism but now take their pride in the mob mentality of the mass movement that is built around the personality of the President.

I began to think about this and my mind was drawn back to the words of American philosopher Eric Hoffer who wrote about mass movements. Hoffer wrote of the people who become subsumed in mass movements:

“There is also this: when we renounce the self and become part of a compact whole, we not only renounce personal advantage but are also rid of personal responsibility. There is no telling to what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts and the vague stirrings of decency that go with individual judgment. When we lose our individual independence in the corporateness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom—freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse.

President Trump has unleashed a new kind of freedom for his followers, a freedom from personal responsibility for their words and actions. This is a dangerous moment, for if our democracy does break, and the President and his supporters establish the authoritarian state that their words and actions seem to show that they aspire to, there will be little to restrain the base passion of those who have embraced the mass movement. This was shown true in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s as democracies flirted with, or in some cases embraced authoritarian rule with dreadful results. Timothy Snyder notes that “The European history of the twentieth century shows that societies can break, democracies fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands…”

This is not an over exaggeration or hyperbole, the signs of a coming authoritarian regime are everywhere, in the statements and actions of the administration, the acquiescence of the GOP majority in Congress, the actions of GOP dominated statehouse and legislatures, and in the words and actions of Trump supporters, from the most powerful to the most humble. Some of Trump’s supporters had a rally last week where Muslims, Jews, and immigrants were threatened and told to leave the country because it is a “Christian country,” called Senator John McCain a “Communist,” while an “Oath Keeper” told a reporter “I just want to let them know that I can’t wait for the liberal genocide to begin.” Other speakers, included a Congressman Anthony Kern added to the din. In a separate incident Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King called for a “purge” of leftists from government in a tweet so authoritarian sounding that it came right out of the Third Reich.

Obviously the people who are speaking in this manner are the more extreme proponents of Trump’s movement, but more concerning are the majority who are not saying anything in criticizing them, or him. In the face of evil, silence is tacit agreement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted: “It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people…”

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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