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In Defying Hitler, Sebastion Haffner’s disturbing 1939 memoir chronicling the rise of Nazism, the author, a law candidate, describes the insidious day-to-day changes in attitudes, beliefs, politics, and prejudices that began, for Germans, the slow descent into a “trap of comradeship” in which this culture of cruelty flourished as many of them become “owned by it”.  “Comradeship” as the Nazis meant it, became a “narcotic” that the people were introduced to from the earliest age, through the Hitler Youth movement (Hitlerjugend), the SA, military service, and involvement with thousand of camps and clubs. In this way, it destroyed their sense of personal responsibility and became a means for the process of dehumanization:

‘It is even worse that comradeship relieves men of responsibility for their actions, before themselves, before God, before their conscience.  They do what their comrades do.  They have no choice.  They have no time for thought (except when they unfortunately wake up at night).  Their comrades are their conscience and give absolution for everything, provided that do what everybody else does.’

Haffner goes on to describe how this comradeship, in just a few weeks at camp, molded a group of intellectual, educated men into an “unthinking, indifferent, irresponsible mass” in which bigoted, derogatory, and hateful comments “were commonplace, went unanswered and set the intellectual tone.”  The Nazis used a variety of psychological stimulations and manipulations to this end, such as slogans, flags, uniforms, Sieg Heils, marching columns, banners, and songs, to help create a dangerous, mindless “group think.”  One of the most disturbing aspects of this comradeship was how the men in the camp began to behave as a collective entity, who “instinctively ignored or belittled anything that could disturb our collective self-satisfaction.  A German Reich in microcosm.”  This collectivity is the “and” in Arthur Eddington’s mathematical formula.  The bullies and the bystanders become a deadly combination that is more than the sum of its parts.

[…]

 

In all three genocides [Armenian, Jewish, Tutsi], it was found that if one person (or small group of dedicated people) refused to go along with the genocidaires, some others who were potential witnesses actually became witnesses, defenders, and/or resisters themselves.  This group readily admitted that if it were not for those who took the lead in desisting, they probably not would have had the courage to do so themselves.  In his research in “atrocity producing situations,” Robert J. Lifton came to the conclusion, “There’s no inherent human nature that requires us to kill or maim…  We have the potential for precisely that behaviour of the Nazis …or of some kind of more altruistic or cooperative behaviour,  We can go either way.  And I think that confronting these extreme situations is itself an act of hope because in doing that, we are implying and saying that there is an alternative.  We can do better. ”

 

‘It is immensely moving when a mature man [or woman] – no matter whether young or old in years- is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul.  He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere reaches a point where he says: “Here I stand; I can do no other.”  That is something genuinely human and moving.   [Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation]

-Barbara Coloroso.  Extraordinary Evil – A Brief History of Genocide.   pp. 85 – 87

 

Barbara Coloroso has done exemplary work in writing “Extraordinary Evil – A Brief History of Genocide”.   Second time around on this book, now going low and slow to really get down with the text and understand what she is saying.  I wanted to share some of the passages that resonated with me.

A Jewish officer in the US Army during World War II, Lieutenant Meyer Birnbaum wrote about a young Jewish boy he found near death in Ohrdruff, a concentration camp annexed to Buchenwald.  The young boy requested bread and then broke down sobbing as he spoke of his murdered family:

After about fifteen minuets of bitter sobbing, the sixteen-year-old boy suddenly looked at me and asked whether I could teach him how to do teshuvah [repent].  I was taken aback by his question and tried to comfort him.  “After the stretch in hell you’ve been through, you don’t need worry about doing teshuvah.  Your slate is clean.  Your slate is clean.  You’re alive, and you have to get a hold of yourself and stop worrying about doing teshuvah,” I told him.  But my words had no effect.  I could not convince him.  He kept insisting: “Ich vill tuhn teshuvah – I want to do teshuvahIch muz tuhn teshuva – I must do teshuvah.”

Finally, I asked him, “Why must you do teshuvah?” in the hope that talking would enable him to let go of some of the pain I saw in his eyes.  He pointed out the window and asked if I saw the gallows.  Satisfied that I did, he began his story:

“Two months ago one of the prisoners escaped…the camp commandant was furious about the escape and demanded to know the identify of the escaped prisoner.  No one could provide him with the information he was seeking… In his fury, the commandant decided to play a sadistic game with us.  He demanded that any pairs of brothers, or fathers and sons, step forward.  We were terrified of what he might do if we did not comply.  My father and I step forward.

They placed my father on a stool under those gallows and tied a noose around my father’s neck, the commandant cocked his Luger, placed it at my temple, and hissed, “If you or your father doesn’t tell me who escaped, you are going to kick that stool out from under your father.”  I looked at my father and told him, “Zorgst sich nit – Don’t worry, Tatte, I won’t do it.”  But my father answered me, “My son, you have to do it.  He’s got a gun to your head and he’s going to kill you if you don’t, and then he will kick the chair out from under me and we’ll both be gone.  This way at least there’s a chance you’ll survive.  But if you don’t, we’ll both be killed.”

Tatte, nein, ich vell dos nit tuhn – I will not do it.  Ich hab nit fargessen kibbud av – I didn’t forget kibbud av [honouring one’s father].”

Instead of being comforted by words, my father suddenly screamed at me: “You talk about kibbud av, I’m ordering you to kick that stool.  That is your father’s command.”

 

Nein, Tatte, nein – No, father, I won’t.

But my father only got angrier, know that if I didn’t obey he would see his son murdered in front of him.  “You talk about kibbud av v’eim [honouring one’s father and mother],” he shouted.  “This is your father’s last order to you.  Listen to me! Kick the chair!”

I was so frightened and confused hearing my father screaming at me that I kicked the chair and watched as my father’s neck snapped in the noose.

 

His story over, the boy looked at me… as my own tears flowed freely, and asked, “Now, you tell me.  Do I have to do teshuvah?”

 

Barbara Coloroso. Extraordinary Evil – A Brief History of Genocide. pp. 93 – 95.

 

 

Why do people commit evil?  How does one get from being an ordinary citizen to someone who oversees the genocide of their neighbours?   What are the psychological states that premeditate acts of violence on the personal and societal level?  Noga Arikha is a historian who has looked into the research on how we foment and propagate evil institutions and evil acts.

 

“This is what the neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried at the University of California, Los Angeles did with his article ‘Syndrome E’ (1997) in The Lancet. A syndrome is a group of biological symptoms that together constitute a clinical picture. And E stands for evil. With Syndrome E, Fried identified a cluster of 10 neuropsychological symptoms that are often present when evil acts are committed – when, as he puts it, ‘groups of previously nonviolent individuals’ turn ‘into repetitive killers of defenceless members of society’. The 10 neuropsychological symptoms are:

1. Repetition: the aggression is repeated compulsively.
2. Obsessive ideation: the perpetrators are obsessed with ideas that justify their aggression and underlie missions of ethnic cleansing, for instance that all Westerners, or all Muslims, or all Jews, or all Tutsis are evil.
3. Perseveration: circumstances have no impact on the perpetrator’s behaviour, who perseveres even if the action is self-destructive.
4. Diminished affective reactivity: the perpetrator has no emotional affect.
5. Hyperarousal: the elation experienced by the perpetrator is a high induced by repetition, and a function of the number of victims.
6. Intact language, memory and problem-solving skills: the syndrome has no impact on higher cognitive abilities.
7. Rapid habituation: the perpetrator becomes desensitised to the violence.
8. Compartmentalisation: the violence can take place in parallel to an ordinary, affectionate family life.
9. Environmental dependency: the context, especially identification with a group and obedience to an authority, determines what actions are possible.
10. Group contagion: belonging to the group enables the action, each member mapping his behaviour on the other. Fried’s assumption was that all these ways of behaving had underlying neurophysiological causes that were worth investigating.Note that the syndrome applies to those previously normal individuals who become able to kill. It excludes the wartime, sanctioned killing by and of military recruits that leads many soldiers to return home (if they ever do) with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); recognised psychopathologies such as sociopathic personality disorder that can lead someone to shoot schoolchildren; and crimes of passion or the sadistic pleasure in inflicting pain. When Hannah Arendt coined her expression ‘the banality of evil’ in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), she meant that the people responsible for actions that led to mass murder can be ordinary, obeying orders for banal reasons, such as not losing their jobs. The very notion of ordinariness was tested by social psychologists. In 1971, the prison experiment by the psychologist Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University played with this notion that ‘ordinary students’ could turn into abusive mock ‘prison guards’ – though it was largely unfounded, given evidence of flaws in the never-replicated experiment. Still, those afflicted with Syndrome E are indeed ordinary insofar as that they are not affected by any evident psychopathology. The historian Christopher Browning wrote of equally ‘ordinary men’ in the 1992 book of that name (referenced by Fried) who became Nazi soldiers. The soldier who killed my grandfather was very probably an ordinary man too.

Today, biology is a powerful explanatory force for much human behaviour, though it alone cannot account for horror. Much as the neurosciences are an exciting new tool for human self-understanding, they will not explain away our brutishness. Causal accounts of the destruction that humans inflict on each other are best provided by political history – not science, nor metaphysics. The past century alone is heavy with atrocities of unfathomable scale, albeit fathomable political genesis.”

I pondered the conclusions of this essay and am reminded of the work “Ordinary Men” by (also referenced in the essay) by Christopher R. Browning that describes the psychological and sociological contagions that bring out the evil that exists in all of us.  I’m struck by, even as I write, the tendency to pathologize evil as if it were disease that somehow takes root and manifests itself on ‘good people’.  This socially sanctioned frame, looking at the literature, is shockingly incorrect as the data points to the fact that we all possess the capacity to commit heinous acts of violence, even genocide, if the conditions are right.

Arikha states that “empathy is rarely universal” and that “Family belonging and social belonging are separate. When they meet, as happened in Bosnia and Rwanda when families turned on each other, the group identity prevails”.   Chilling statements such as these implode the ideas we carry around about common human decency and common human morality and empathy.  The story we tell ourselves, about ourselves, is bullshite and these bullshit assumptions are what we run ‘civilized’ society on.  I think this false narrative allows people to be repeated shocked and horrified when tales of wanton bloodshed and genocide hit the news – it is seen as a huge deviation from the norm.  Yet, if we look at humans, it isn’t a particular large leap from our observable behaviours.

We – ‘the good guys’ – ran a government sanctioned torture program.  Oh, certainly we had our legal pretzelese to mask and make torture palatable for the general public. Never the less, dodgy legal justifications do not nullify the social and psychological ramifications of one’s nation endorsing the institutional infliction of pain on others.  I think we are still seeing the negative effects of the torture revelations running through our western societies .

Essay’s like Arikha’s make me contemplate how much projection we engage in as a society to protect ourselves from the rather brutish reality of our societal and geo-poltical existence.

(*edited for early morning writing)

 

The Armenian genocide of 1915 happened.  Where you happen to live in the world determines if you would argue against the truth of this statement.  Robert Fisk, as usual, takes our past grim accounts and makes us see our blood stained history.

“The Nazis told their Jewish victims that they were going to be “resettled” in the east rather than gassed. They also tried to cover the traces of the gas chambers of Treblinka before the Red Army arrived. But the “double” instructions sent by Talat Pasha and his 1915 genociders demonstrate that the pretence of humanitarian resettlement was conceived even before the organised genocide began. Some of the young German officers who witnessed the killings of 1915 turned up 26 years later in the Soviet Union, overseeing the slaughter of Jews.

And here is one very short account (courtesy of the Turkish historian Akcam) of an Armenian witness to his people’s destruction, which could – if the identities and locations were changed to the Ukraine or Belarus – have been written during the Second World War: “In order to eliminate the last remaining Armenian deportees…between Aleppo and Deyr-i Zor [sic] who had managed to survive…Hakki Bey…evicted all the deportees along the Euphrates, starting from Aleppo… Close to 300 young men and boys…surviving in the camp Hamam were sent to the South in a special convoy… Solid reports about them arrived that they had been killed in Rakka [sic]… Elsewhere, we learned in no uncertain terms that in the area around Samiye, 300 children were thrown into a cave opening, gas was poured in and they were burned alive.”

So here’s the real hypocrisy of this story. The Israeli government, so outraged by Poland’s Jewish Holocaust denialism, refuses to recognise the Armenian Holocaust. Shimon Peres himself said that “we reject attempts to create a similarity between the [Jewish] Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. What the Armenians went through is a tragedy, but not genocide.”

The Americans, I should add – Trump included, of course – have been equally pathetic in their failure to acknowledge the Armenian truth. But oddly, not Poland.

For 13 years ago, the Polish parliament passed a bill which specifically referred to the “Armenian genocide”. The speaker of the Polish parliament, Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, said at the time that the Armenian genocide did indeed take place, that responsibility fell on the Turks, and that Turkish documents – though not yet those which Akcam has just revealed – “confirm” this.

So there you have it. Poland punishes anyone who speaks of Polish participation in the Jewish Holocaust, but accepts the Armenian Holocaust. Israel insists that all must acknowledge the Jewish Holocaust – and Poland’s peripheral guilt – but will not acknowledge the Armenian Holocaust.

Mercifully, Israeli scholars like Israel Charny do so. And mercifully, Turks like Taner Akcam agree. But how many times must the dead die all over again for nations to accept the facts of history?”

 

In a time where things are hyper sensationalized and denuded of any real meaning Remembrance Day has done remarkably well to maintain its somber demeanor and sense of decorum.  (I’m sure some budding capitalist is contemplating a remembrance day sale, just before being cuffed upside the head for being so vulgar)

I’d like to put forth the notion that we should change the focus of Remembrance Day; from the armed forces to the civilian populations that suffered the brunt of the casualties during  those special times where we leave our empathy and rationality at the door and engage in wholesale slaughter.

This is by no means a comprehensive listing of all civilian deaths due to war – just the low-lights that I could find.

World War I – 6.8 million civilian deaths.

World War II – 42 – 58 million civilian deaths.

Korean War – 2.8 million

Vietnam – 2.0 million

Nicaragua –  78,000 and counting due to landmines.

Iraq – 93,000 to 102,000 and rising.

Afghanistan – 32,000 and rising.

We should take this day to remember our humanity and to work toward understanding each other from across a table, not the barrels of guns.

We should remember those innocent victims of war, they certainly did not deserve their fate, yet war claimed them anyways.  We should remember the Armenian Holocaust, we should remember the Jewish Holocaust not only to remind us of depths of human depravity but to remember that tragic events such as these happened because ordinary people did not speak up and call out the injustice as it was beginning to happen.

It is our responsibility as human beings not to look and then turn away, but rather, we must face our ugly past to prevent an ugly future.

So, on this November 11th, I choose to remember our common humanity and weep for our losses due to the depredations of war and unrest.  I will remember that I will always have a choice whether or not to perpetuate evil, I will remember the past and hope I have the courage to make the right choice if faced with the grim situations that have marred our bloody history.

whitepoppy2

 

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