The Nazi Conscience: Introduction

We do ourselves a disservice in the way we talk about atrocities. When I was in school, genocide and totalitarianism were taught as things that happened “long ago” or “far away” (or both). Dictators, we piously pretended, could never rise to power here in America: our robust systems of checks and balances, plus red-blooded freedom-loving citizens, would never allow it. Genocide was presented as something done by very different people than us. Of course Americans would never ever do that! (Never mind what happened to indigenous Americans, that was all war and disease and totally different because reasons.)

Atrocities committed by white people were considered aberrations. Something extraordinary must have caused them to happen. My teachers were very uncomfortable trying to explain the Holocaust. They had to turn the Germans into people strangely hypnotized by an exceptionally evil man. The whole thing was a regrettable freak occurrence. Ordinary Germans weren’t really involved – it was those monsters in the SS. They didn’t actually know the extent of what was happening until after the war, when the camps were liberated. Ordinary people could never do such things, would never condone such things.

Only, they could. And did.

We are not well served by the way history is taught in America. The national myths pounded into our brains are adept at covering up our bloody hands. We did bad things in the past, but it was a different time. We did bad things in the past, but they weren’t that bad. We did bad things in the past, but we fixed them and everything’s fine now. We did bad things in the past, but that was just a few bad apples. We did bad things in the past, but those other people did things that were so much worse, and so we are good and noble. Let us talk about how good and noble and just we are, and how because we are good and noble and just, we fixed the bad things, and liberated the oppressed, and are the best in the world. By no means let us talk about the bad things we are still doing. We are good people, and good people don’t commit atrocities.

Only, they do. We are. And these myths we’ve told ourselves prevent us from seeing that.

We believe that nothing like the rise of Hitler and the horrors of the Holocaust could happen here in America. And because we believe that, we refuse to see the parallels between us and the Germans in the early 20th century. Because we refuse to tell ourselves the truth, we have left systems in place that arose from oppression, and rely on oppression, and those systems have now been utilized by a fascist con man and his white supremacist friends and followers to seize power. Because we refused to be honest with ourselves, admit we are just as fallible and racist and prone to do terrible things as those infamous others, we let the conditions here breed the kinds of beliefs necessary to make people think a bigoted blowhard is just the man this country needs to make it great again.

And now we’re in a situation where survivors and historians of Nazi Germany are experiencing a horrible deja vu.

We like to believe, perhaps need to believe, that only monsters can commit atrocities, and because we don’t see a monster when we look in the mirror, we’re fine.

The Germans who allowed – often helped – the Nazis seize power didn’t see monsters in the mirror, either.

It’s time we understood the conditions and conscience that allow atrocities to be committed. It’s time we faced the fact that ordinary people with, if not full awareness, then at least enough of an idea of the situation to know that something is catastrophically amiss, still allow and enable terrible wrongs to be done. It’s past time we realized the monsters are just people who thought they had good reasons for what they did.

So we’re going to start with Claudia Koonz’s The Nazi Conscience. We’ll find it uncomfortably familiar. Americans are saying things now eerily like what Germans said then. Their leaders knew how to play to their prejudices, as ours do, and get them to accept an outrage at a time until they were ready for the extremes – as we’re seeing now.

Reading this book is hard. There’s no real distance between us and them, no illusion that they were monsters without a conscience, something we could never be. But we need to understand the humanity of the perpetrators and enablers so that we can try to stop what happened to them from happening to us. We must realize that of course it can happen here.

It already is.

Image is the cover of The Nazi Conscience. It shows a brown-uniformed man digging while a man in traditional German folk costume holds a pole that has a swastika banner on it.
We’ll start with the Prologue and Chapter 1 next Sunday. If you want to read along, you can pick up an inexpensive used copy at Amazon. Buying through that link also supports my blogging, so thank you!

The Nazi Conscience: Introduction

2 thoughts on “The Nazi Conscience: Introduction

  1. 1

    (I use the word “crazy” a lot here, but I’m trying to sum up a media mindset built around the stereotype, not trying to “other” people with actual mental illnesses.)

    I remember when the Heaven’s Gate suicides happened. The media immediately became saturated with pictures of the cult’s leader, Marshall Applewhite. And they were all the same kind of picture. Applewhite, wide-eyed, mouth slightly opened, muscles a little taunt, generally with his hands raised. The very image of a “crazy” person. Check out his Wikipedia page for an example. There it is, staring at you, a veritable icon of insanity.

    I remember being shocked when I actually saw a snippet of the video most of those pictures were taken from, the group’s initiation tape (readily available on YouTube these days). He was… normal. All the pictures the media used were taken not of his resting face, like a “normal” person’s would be, but of him in the midst of speaking a word: mouth open, muscles tensed, do it at the right time and you get those wide, “crazy” eyes. It’s a simple technique that can be used to add that needed touch of theatrical “madness” to anyone’s face.

    And every single media outlet I had any experience with was selling me the same image.

    The more I thought about it, the more it became clear, they weren’t just picking this image at random. It was the image that told the story they wanted to tell. Here is a crazy person. Us normal people don’t have to worry about falling for charismatic cult leaders, because they look crazy. See how crazy he looks? We would never fall for that. Everyone in his cult must have been crazy not to see how crazy he was. We’re safe. We don’t know anyone who looks crazy like that, so the people we know aren’t dangerous. We don’t have to think about what drove these people to join the group, about the underlying parts of the human psyche that led to mass suicide in the name of faith. We don’t have to think about that because the answer is “they’re all crazy” and we’re done here. No need to self-analyze; no need to think about YOUR religion. It’s not crazy, see? Nobody who looks like that!

    And we moved on. On to be shocked the next time some “obviously crazy” cult leader managed to gather so many people under his banner.

    I heard the echoes of Applewhite’s picture every time the media described some perpetrator as a “lone wolf”. There are no patterns here, ladies and gentlemen. There is nothing that could have been done to see this coming. Again.

    We want our villains to wear black hats. Words like “evil” and “insane” are just ways to make the perpetrators seem alien, different, and distant from our own mindset. They aren’t like us. We would never fall for an obviously crazy person spouting wild ideas that make no sense! And so assured, we can vote for Trump.

    I’ve never forgotten the picture of Marshall Applewhite. I’ve never let myself forget how even unretouched images from “respectable” news sources can be used to bias and mislead. It was one of the formative events in my becoming more skeptical of the world. And of myself.

  2. rq

    I’m looking forward to your reviews of this book. Maybe I should read it, too, because there’s a certain leaning in this country, too, that it might be good to take note of before I’m mired in too deep to realize that yes, I’m really that complicit. (Well, the complicit part is probably inevitable in some ways anyway… but there’s a lot to say about that.)

    (Also I have some books for your other post requesting books, but I keep misplacing the list and also I’m lazy but ♥ to you, I’ll send you some cat photos instead.)

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