Wed Oct 17th, 2012 at 04:07:58 PM EST
I recently spent some time studying the Nazis. My library had a copy of A Century of Wisdom: Lessons form the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World's Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor by Caroline Stoessinger (NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2012 ISBN 978-0-8129-9281-6) and I picked it up. Reading it gave me an excuse to continue with two books on my reading list, Into That Darkness: From Mercy Killing to Mass Murder by Gitta Sereny (NY: McGraw-Hill, 1974 ISBN0-07-056290-3), an examination of Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka death camp, based upon hours of interviews with him in prison, and Crossing Hitler: The Man Who Put the Nazis on the Witness Stand by Benjamin Carter Hett (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008 ISBN 978-0-19-536988-5), the story of Hans Litten, the lawyer who subpoenaed Hitler and brought him to a German court in 1931.
These two particular passages from Sereny's interviews with Stangl reminded me of an incident in Sebastian Haffner's Defying Hitler, a posthumously published memoir finished in 1940 as Story of a German [Geschichte eines Deutschen] which explained to me something about bullies that I hadn't realized before.
Into That Darkness:
(232-233) What is the difference to you between hate, and a contempt which results in considering people as 'cargo'?
"It has nothing to do with hate. They were so weak; they allowed everything to happen - to be done to them. They were people with whom there was no common ground, no possibility of communication - that is how contempt is born. I could never understand how they could just give in as they did. Quite recently I read a book about lemmings, who every five or six years just wander into the sea and die; that made me think of Treblinka."
(101) "Why," I asked Stangl, "if they were going to kill them anyway, what was the point of all the humiliation, why the cruelty?"
"To condition those who actually had to carry out the policies," he said. "To make it possible for them to do what they did." And this, I believe, was true.
It should be noted that Jews revolted, escaped from, and damaged two extermination camps, first Stangl's own Treblinka and then, a few months later, Sobibor, and blew up the crematorium at Auschwitz. Also at Auschwitz, Roma and Sinta families fought back with clubs and improvised knives against Nazi machine guns when they learned they were to be gassed.
The incident Haffner experienced occurred after the June 1933 attack by Nazi SA troops on the socialist neighborhood of Copenick where they killed 100 people, arresting and torturing members of the Socialist and Communist parties (SPD and KPD), Reischbanner members, Jews, and union members. Here's how he remembers a conversation among the members of his law study group:
(213- 217) "It happened just after the murders in Copenick. Brock and Holz came to our meeting like murderers fresh from the deed. Not that they had taken part in the slaughter themselves, but it was obviously the topic of the day in their new circles. They had clearly convinced themselves that they were in some way accomplices. Into our civilized, middle-class atmosphere of cigarettes and coffee cups the two of them brought a strange, bloodred cloud of sweaty death.
"They started to speak of the matter immediately. It was from their graphic descriptions that we found out what had actually happened. The press had only contained hints and intimations.
"'Fantastic, what happened in Copenick yesterday, eh?' began Brock, and that was the tone of his narrative. He went into detail, explained how the women and children had been sent into a neighboring room before the men were shot point-blank with a revolver, bludgeoned with a truncheon, or stabbed with an SA dagger. Surprisingly, most of them had put up no resistance, and made sorry figures in their nightshirts. The bodies had been tipped into the river and many were still being washed ashore in the area today. His whole narrative was delivered with that brazen smile on his face which had recently become a stereotypical feature. He made no attempt to defend the actions, and obviously did not see much need to. He regarded them primarily as sensational.
"We found it all dreadful and shook our heads, which seemed to give him some satisfaction.
"'And you see no difficulty with your new party membership because of these things?' I remarked at last.
"Immediately he became defensive and his face took on a bold Mussolini expression. 'No, not at all,' he declared. 'Do you feel pity for these people? The man who shot first the day before yesterday knew that it would cost him his life, of course. It would have been bad form not to hang him. Incidentally, he has my respect. As for the others - shame on them. Why didn't they put up a fight? They were all longtime Social Democrats and members of the Eiserne Front [non-Communist leftist semimilitary group]. Why should they be lying in their beds in their nightshirts? They should have defended themselves and died decently. But they're a limp lot. I have no sympathy for them.'
"'I don't know,' I said slowly, 'whether I feel much pity for them, but what I do feel is an indescribable sense of disgust at people who go around heavily armed and slaughter defenseless victims.'
"'They should have defended themselves,' said Brock stubbornly. 'Then they wouldn't have been defenseless. That is a disgusting Marxist trick, being defenseless, when it gets serious.'
"At this point Holz intervened. 'I consider the whole thing a regrettable revolutionary excess,' he said, 'and between you and me, I expect the responsible officer to be disciplined. But I also think that it should not be overlooked that it was a Social Democrat who shot first. It is understandable, and in a certain sense even justified, that under these circumstances the SA takes, er, very energetic countermeasures.'"
In the midst of WWII, in exile in England, Haffner wrote:
(155) "We were not equal to the situation, even as victims. If you will allow me this generalization, it is one of the uncanny aspects of events in Germany that the deeds have no doers and the suffering has no martyrs. Everything takes place under a kind of anesthesia. Objectively dreadful deeds produce a thin, puny emotional response. Murders are committed like schoolboy pranks. Humiliation and moral decay are accepted like minor incidents. Even death under torture only produces the response 'Bad luck.'"
At some point, if and when I have the stomach to continue my studies in Nazism, I'll read Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts
, Sebastian Haffner's Meaning of Hitler
, and Gitta Sereny's book of essays on Germany before and after the Nazis, The Healing Wound
or, preferably, the English edition titled, The German Trauma
Adolf Eichmann said, "Now that I look back, I realize that a life predicated on being obedient and taking orders is a very comfortable life indeed. Living in such a way reduces to a minimum one's need to think."
I am trying to learn how to be most effectively disobedient.
First Day of Tyranny: Defying Hitler
First Day of Tyranny: A Handmaid's Tale
previously published at http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/10/13/1144157/-Bullies-Consider-Themselves-Victims?