Would it surprise you to learn that the Nazis had a conscience? It shouldn’t. Most people do. The murderers who shoot abortion doctors have a conscience – a mis-aimed one, but in their minds, they’re heroes saving babies. They are heroes, and we are monsters.
This is important to understand. Even people on the wrong side believe they are right.
Although it may be repugnant to conceive of mass murderers acting in accordance with an ethos that they believed vindicated their crimes, the historical record of the Third Reich suggests that indeed this was often the case.
Abortion clinic bombers, protestors, and murderers believe they are opposing a terrible moral wrong. They’re protecting innocent lives. Nazis believed they were protecting their ethnic community from corrupting influences. Not all of them, of course: some of the people at the top are really just in it for themselves. Some of the people involved follow along because they were told it’s the right thing to do, and they didn’t question their authorities too much. We’ll see that as we proceed through this book. We’ll recognize people and communities we know, disturbingly reflected in the ordinary Germans, in the Nazi party faithful, in the leadership and in the followers.
Claudia Koonz points out why we shouldn’t be shocked that the Nazis had a conscience, and that they were able to convince so many ordinary, decent people that they were morally right. Conscience, she says, has a second function: “It tells us to whom we shall and shall not do what. It structures our identity by separating those who deserve our concern from alien ‘others’ beyond the pale of our community.” And then she points out that the scriptures that form the foundation of our Jewish and Christian religions, the Greek philosophy that underpins our democracy, and the Enlightenment thought that guided our Founding Fathers all are filled with people they treat as “creatures without reason, bereft of fully human status.”
And then she shows us what Nazis thought of universal human rights: “Not every being with a human face is human.”
Our civilizations have always contained people we don’t consider people. In our vaunted Constitution, we even enshrined that thinking into the foundation of our law: slaves were a mere three-fifths of an actual person, and then only to give more power to their (fully) human owners. We demonize criminals, addicts, and sexual deviants even today. So we shouldn’t be so certain that the atrocities of the Third Reich couldn’t be committed here. We already other the humans we find distasteful. We, too, could be easily persuaded there’s only one solution. And we could be made to believe it’s the morally right one. In order to accept and help cause suffering and death on a massive scale, we would only have to be persuaded it’s all for a greater good.