This chapter begins with a brief history of conscience. Perhaps the most important line is this:
But, although every major culture honors the injunction to treat others as you hope they will treat you, the ideal often collapses in practice because the meaning of “others” is not always clear.
Who are the others we should treat as we wish to be treated? Koonz quotes Freud on the difficulty of loving strangers. And then she points out that “who deserves moral consideration” is defined either by religion or experts. In Nazi Germany, experts did the shaping.
The story of a Hitler Youth member is a klaxon, warning us what happens when those experts place a specific subset of others as enemies of the rest. He’d had the belief that the Jews were an immediate threat to Germany drummed into him. When his Jewish best friend was taken by the Gestapo, he didn’t protest. Despite knowing his friend was a good person and no threat to anyone, he “accepted deportation as just.”
And before we say it could never happen here, we must remember that it already has. We identified an enemy “other” (the Japanese citizens of our nation) and placed them into camps. Had we begun losing the war, had our experts stressed their supposed threat to us just a fraction more, we may have thought killing them would also be just.
That’s just one example in our own history. There are more. Some of them are worse. We have committed genocide. We have turned entire populations into slaves. We have discriminated against the descendants of those slaves, denying them equality while using their bodies for experiments against their will. This is not ancient history. Some of it is ongoing today. So do not attempt to comfort yourselves with the thought that we are better, that we would never let something so blatant as the Holocaust happen here. We absolutely would.
We must not allow it to keep happening.
We need to see how Jews were placed outside of the “German’s universe of moral obligation,” because we are letting it happen to minority groups here. We are perilously close to doing to Muslims what Germans did to Jews. And understanding how this happens – how a culture decides that an entire subset of people needs to be literally exterminated – will help us see what we are doing and stop it before we have gone too far.
Koonz identifies four assumptions that underlay the Nazi conscience:
- A belief that a people or ethnic group has “a life like that of an organism, marked by stages of birth, growth, expansion, decline, and death.
- “Every community develops the values appropriate to its nature and to the environment within which it evolved.” Nazis considered themselves superior to others and decried “the universalism of the ‘alien’ Enlightenment.” Tolerance was anathema to them. You can see echoes here today in the alt-right and so-called “dark enlightenment.”
- Because they believed themselves superior to non-Germans, they, as did other white folk, believed “it could be morally acceptable – especially in war – to extinguish ‘lower’ civilizations that stood in the way of ‘progress.'” It’s the same reasoning that led L. Frank Baum to declare it imperative that white people annihilate Native Americans.
- And, finally, the Nazis “upheld the right of a government to annul the legal protections of assimilated citizens on the basis of what the government defined as their ethnicity.” The ethnic group in question need no have done anything objectively wrong. Nor did they have to be unassimilated. Having a particular ethnicity was enough to condemn them, no matter how “German” they otherwise were.
It doesn’t take much to turn humans against an enemy, even if that enemy is a fiction. Next week, we’ll see how the Nazis began turning the German conscience against the Jews – and how they used America to do it.