Friday, January 27, 2023

A Question For International Holocaust Remembrance Day : Can A 21st Century Holocaust Be Averted ?


Photo taken outside the Mauthausen Concentration Camp by Russian soldiers in May, 1945.
              Casing of  DVD documentary about Russian liberation of Auschwitz

"Evil takes place when human bonds are broken, when concrete relationships crumble for the sake of abstract identifications. When we divide the world into sheep and goats, into good and evil, the 'sheep' - the self-proclaimed good- have a tendency to subject the goats to the worst imaginable treatment. In doing so, the sheep's group identity is made stronger, something that forms the basis of new and better identification of 'goats'."  - Lars Sevendsen, 'A Philosophy of Evil'

Today, International Holocaust Remembrance Day-   established by the United Nations in 2005 - it behooves all of us to consider what if anything can be done to prevent an abomination like the Holocaust from ever occurring again. Lars Svendsen's book ('A Philosophy of Evil') is a good place to start because it shows the potential for idealistic evil exists within us all. 

Idealistic evil is that form which emerges when people stop thinking of others as human like themselves and instead put them into abstract brackets, especially of a non-human kind. The Nazis did it when they relegated the Jews in Europe to pests, e.g. rats, even making films to depict them that way. The Hutus in Rwanda did it to the Tutsis - of which they slaughtered over 800,000 -- by comparing them to "cockroaches." This was despite the fact no outside observer could ever find the slightest difference between members of the Hutu and Tutsi tribe, the 'sheep' in this case (the Hutus),  did bracket their opposition as predatory 'takers' and traitors. Unleashing a genocide was merely the next step.

In his trenchant book, Svendsen examines  the doings of Rudolph  Höss  (commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp), Adolf Eichmann and Lt. William Calley - comparing why they did the horrific things they did and noting in each case the common denominator was a failure to be conscious of their deeds or their significance- hence to take any responsibility for them.

For example, Höss, an SS-Obersturmbannführer,  in his autobiography - said he was not to blame and he was merely "following orders". Besides, he insisted, he did not actually herd the Jews into the gas chambers or throw in the Zyklon B gas crystals. He had effectively detached himself from the evil he spawned. Adolf Eichmann in his trial, after being captured by Israeli agents, made similar claims and offered that he was merely a mid-level bureaucrat  - again just following orders- assembling names of Jews into documents for transport. How could he be to blame?

Ditto with Lt. William Calley, who while he didn't participate in a holocaust on the scale of the extermination of the Jews, did participate in a mindless massacre of innocents. As Svendsen observes (p. 177):

"Take another famous example,  namely the massacre at My Lai on March 16, 1968. Lieutenant William L. Calley was commanding officer, and therefore was principally responsible for the massacre which lasted around an hour and a half.  In that time, 507 innocent people were murdered- among them 173 children and 76 infants. Calley alone killed 102 people. The official report read: '128 enemy resisters killed in battle'. For one thing it wasn't 128 killed but 507. For another they weren't 'killed in battle' but slaughtered while helpless. They weren't  'enemy resisters' in the sense of soldiers but ordinary civilians."

 The scene at My Lai, Vietnam after William L. Calley and his troops slaughtered hundreds of innocent civilians.

As Svendsen goes on to note (ibid.):

"In his own mind, Calley was simply following orders and doing what was expected of a good soldier. He couldn't believe his ears when he was accused of mass murder."

In other words, Calley was exactly like Adolf Eichmann in the sense that his "orders" trumped any charge he could have done anything wrong. Thoughts of what he was doing when he ordered the massacre of unarmed villagers went out the window as they did with Eichmann as he assembled 1,000 or 1 million more names for his transports to the gas chambers. Or  Rudolph Höss when he ordered his S.S. commandos to herd 1,000 more Jews into the gas chambers at Birkenau ("Auschwitz 2" the actual  death camp) . As in the case of Eichmann and Calley, Höss' orders from the 3rd Reich High Command trumped any need for him to really THINK of what the hell he was doing.  In each case, whether for Eichmann, Calley or Höss, conscious thought was the first casualty as the killers or killing masterminds were turned into automatons.

Svendsen's point is that none of these evils would have occurred, firstly, had the Jews not been reduced to vermin, and the Vietnamese not been reduced to "gooks". Because each group had been abstractly de-humanized they became 'goats' and hence fodder for extermination, whether in the mass form of the Nazi gas chambers, or in Calley's form of troops slaughtering an imaginary enemy (but real innocents) with their M16s.  As Svendsen noted, "they have said it was wrong to kill but they were in a war."

So war made it all right not to think about what you were doing, whether pulling a gas chamber lever or emptying your clip into a 6 -month old  "enemy" infant.

The saddest element, as Svendsen adds, was that the respective populations of the nations themselves were largely ignorant or in denial of the heinous deeds. The "good Germans" protested that they weren't the ones that committed the crimes, and they didn't know where the death camps were. Also, how could you expect them to help hide the Jews when the Gestapo had its eyes and ears all over?

In the case of Calley's supporters, Svendsen writes (p. 179):

"When Calley was condemned, the White House received 100,000 letters in one day alone, supporting William Calley.  'The Battle Hymn of Lieutenant William Calley'  sold a million copies in a week.  TIME conducted an extensive survey in 1970 where two thirds of Americans said they were not emotionally moved by the massacre, while eighty percent said it was wrong to indict him."

This itself is enough to make a sentient person vomit, including the fact not one of Calley's men saw that they'd done anything amiss. Again, "just following my orders". That one's own countrymen could be so desensitized to the evil committed (and in their country's name) as to be emotionally unaffected and to go so far as to support the perpetrator boggles the mind! But of course if those bodies were merely regarded as "gooks' you could understand why so many in the polls wouldn't give a damn. Hell, it wasn't THEIR kids or wives - say slaughtered by the Chinese. Besides they'd been brainwashed to believe ALL the "gooks" were the enemy (Viet Cong.) 

Svendsen's clear point is that so long as other people, other groups, mean nothing to us - in terms of putting them in abstract categories to hate - we will give no thought to their elimination. When we become unthinking supporters of idealistic evil, we become just as bad as those who perpetrated the evil, whether Rudolph Höss as he had 1.8 million gassed at Auschwitz, or Lt William Calley, as his band of warriors slaughtered 507 innocents at My Lai. 

While the scale of the Calley slaughter of  innocent Vietnamese pales beside the Reich Nazis' slaughter of Jews core lessons apply to both - as well as to the Rwanda genocide. That is, so long as specious popular support remains for these types of criminal mass murderers and their actions the potential for future holocausts exists.  It means, or implies, a blind spot to moral failure and evil exists within us all which can be charged at any time, say if the right fanatic gets into power and manages to pull the right cords. 

What Svendsen argues for - and I do as well - is that we must move beyond the nature of being mere puppets or automatons to become conscious of our acts and with whom we align. We also have to applaud those (like Snowden) who refused to follow orders, given that it is exactly the "order"  template that has repeatedly spawned the worst atrocities in the past 75 years-  whether on the small scale (My Lai) or the large (Auschwitz).

A sad commentary on just how little we have really evolved, but totally relevant to whether we can avert a 21st century holocaust.  As George Santayana put it: "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it."

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