Massacre at Babi Yar
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Anyone who follows my writing know I write a lot about the Holocaust and the war crimes perpetuated by the Nazi State. I began studying this as an undergraduate and graduate level history student at California State University at Northridge under Dr. Helmut Heussler, who served as a wartime interrogator for the 82nd Airborne Division during the Second World War and then as an interpreter at the Major War Crime trials at Nuremberg. I studied under him for three years dealing with the end of Imperial Germany, the German Civil War, the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era. He gave me a lot of freedom to explore and research the subject and allowed me to do that research in undergraduate and graduate level independent study projects. I continued that study personally as well as during seminary and my second Master’s Degree in Military History.
Since I read, speak and write German well and can often pass myself off as German in Germany because of my lack of an American accent when speaking the language. I speak German with a blend of a Bavarian and Hessen dialect and that helps when I visit various Holocaust sites, museums, and research centers in Germany. I will be doing some of that again this fall when I make another trip to Munich, Hessen, and Baden-Wurttemberg. A few years ago I spent five hours at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. contemplating things that I mostly already knew while exploring details of the Holocaust that made it more real and personal.
As part of my academic work at the Joint Forces Staff College I taught military ethics as related to the Just War Theory. In the class on jus post bellum or justice after war I dealt with the implication of participating in war crimes. It is a serious subject and in the class I attempted to make my students, all relatively senior officers from the United States and allied nations as uncomfortable as possible. I used a number of examples from the major war crimes trials at Nuremberg as well as the Generals Trial and I used the film Conspiracy, which is about the Wannsee Conference where mostly mid-level officers and bureaucrats hashed out the coordination of the Endlosung or Final Solution to what Nazis euphemistically called “the Jewish Question.”
In the 1930s and 1940s the Nazis created the euphemism the Jewish Question in order to remove the aspect of humanity from their policy. It wasn’t about human beings, it was about people that they considered sub-human minority that they were able to demonize to expedite their elimination. the late Christopher Hitchens wrote:
“Die Judenfrage,’ it used to be called, even by Jews. ‘The Jewish Question.’ I find I quite like this interrogative formulation, since the question—as Gertrude Stein once famously if terminally put it—may be more absorbing than the answer. Of course one is flirting with calamity in phrasing things this way, as I learned in school when the Irish question was discussed by some masters as the Irish ‘problem.’ Again, the word ‘solution’ can be as neutral as the words ‘question’ or ‘problem,’ but once one has defined a people or a nation as such, the search for a resolution can become a yearning for the conclusive. Endlösung: the final solution.”
In Europe and the United States there are people in different governments, political parties, and fringe groups that are beginning to go mainstream, in some cases actually controlling governments after first having been elected into office destroy the institutions that safeguard democracy, oppress political opponents, shut down the free press, and determine that some racial, religious, or ethnic group is a question or problem. Questions need resolution, and problems need solutions.
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.”
Bauer’s words are truth.
When I was teaching at the Staff College I would go through previous notes and research to teach my students. Whenever I did this I felt a tenseness and revulsion for the actions of those that ordered, committed or condoned these crimes; many of whom were like me, professional military officers, historians, and theologians. So I realize how easily it is for normal, rational, and even basically decent people to succumb to either participating in or turning a blind eye to crimes against others, even on a massive scale. In fact the bigger those crimes are they seem easier for some people to dismiss, because the victims cease be human, and simply a statistic. Sadly, Josef Stalin probably got human nature right when he said “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”
That comment causes great revulsion in my soul. But I have to admit it seems to be the way that many people deal with such great crimes, or today when a pandemic that has killed over 60,000 Americans. Now people are demanding that the elderly, crippled, or people with chronic illnesses be sacrificed so they can go back to normal life. The terrifying fact is that many are White Nationalists, Neo-Nazis, and anti-government extremists being encouraged and funded by powerful families and organizations connected to the political right.
Today a heavily armed group of these people attempted to take over the capital building of Michigan and threaten legislatures, and the governor. Some of their fellow protestors blamed the Jews for the shutdown of businesses and stay at home orders. Some of the vigilantes stood screaming at police officers that stood blocking their way into the floor of the legislative chamber or into the governor’s office. On a stage outside two young girls danced, one wearing an ape like version of a mask representing African Americans. Police ended the attempt without violence, but what happens when such people start shooting. how far will they go? Who are the problems that they demand a solution?
September 29th 2019 was the 78th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre. It was committed by members of the SS Einsatzgruppen C near Kiev shortly after the German Army captured that city. 33,771 Jews were exterminated by the members of Sonderkommando 4b of Einsatzgruppen C as well as members of a number of Ordungspolizei, police battalions supported by the logistics and protection of the German Army. About 10,000 others, mainly Communist Officials and Gypsies were rounded up and killed in the same operation. The victims were stripped of all of their belongings taken to a ravine and shot. It was the largest killing action by the various Einsatzgruppen in the war. The killings were done up close and personal. The men who conducted the operation either believed that the people that they were killing were sub-human, or did not have the courage to stand up and say no.
These issues are still with us and as I watch the rise of Right Wing and other Fascist movements in Russia, Europe, and the United States I get very concerned. But even more concerning are the large number of people who are content to dismiss their threats and violence, often because while too respectable to utter their words themselves they secretly condone their race hatred. Hannah Arendt made the comment that “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”
Of course these are uncomfortable subjects. When I tell friends of the places that I have visited and studies I have done quite a few openly tell me that they find the subject so uncomfortable hat they could not visit those places. These friends span the political spectrum, just as did the people who said nothing or willingly followed orders to commit genocide in Nazi Germany.
We like to say that the Nazis were different than us or others. To some extent this is true, but the real truth is that most of the Christian Western European countries, and I include the United States have also committed gross crimes against humanity against peoples that we believed were less than human and not afforded human rights or protections.
In the movie Judgement at Nuremberg Spencer Tracy makes a comment that should send chills through any of us. He spoke concerning one of the judges on trial, “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….”
What happened at Babi Yar is just one example of how civilized people can get can commit great atrocities in the name of ideology and race, and it does not stand alone. The tragic fact is that it really doesn’t take much to condition people to go commit such crimes; just teach people from childhood that people of certain races or religions are less than human. Then subjugate them to incessant propaganda and then turn them loose using the pretext that they are killing terrorists, insurgents, or other enemies of the state. The same is true with adults who have gone through some kind of massive disruption in their lives, such are easy prey for propagandists who need people to support their call that nefarious others, are to blame for their problems, not the men or women they elected to govern. Dr 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.”
Today, in the midst of pandemics, racism, and anti-Semitism rising again we must understand why otherwise ordinary people do commit such crimes against their fellow human beings. Tomorrow begins Holocaust Remembrance Month in the United States. If there ever was a time to not just mouth the words Never Again but take action to prevent such atrocities from happening again.
So until tomorrow,