" 'Mr. Wilson I've never so much as even seen a Nazi before.'
'You might without you actually realizing it. They look like other people and act like other people- when its to their benefit.' "
-Orson Wells, Date with Destiny
In the American mythos the Nazi is the ultimate monster. In every Indiana Jones movie, many spy movies, who could personify evil better than a Nazi? They are ugly, cold, inhumane, incapable of love. Their accents are harsh and barked. This exaggerated picture of a Nazi lurks in the back of Americans' minds and is entangled with their pictures of Germany and Germans. Its not uncommon to hear foreigners make Nazi jokes when the slightest mention of Germany is brought up.
What Americans at large don't know or understand is the national struggle of Germany to come to terms with their terrible history. Germany is not alone in having a history of genocide, America and many other nations have a legacy of unjustified slaughter of innocent people. But the Germans are perhaps most remembered for their bloody deeds. There are many reasons for this, the recentness of World War 2, the scope and efficiency of the genocide, but perhaps mostly because of the documentation. Genocides currently happen in Africa, but where are the newsreels? Is it because Germany and the Axis powers were a direct threat to western Europe and America that the images and stories are so widespread?
Ryan and I were discussing "The Reader" a brilliant book by Bernhard Schlink which has been made into a movie with Kate Winslett. The book skillfully illustrates a post-war Germany coming to terms with the previous generation's actions, or lack there of, during the war and holocaust. In one part the author discusses the sixties, which were for America and Britain a time of protests, drugs, and free love. In Germany the hippie movement culminated with young people demanding to know every grim detail of Germany's doings during Hitler's time. Some young people went as far as disowning their parents after discovering the truth. Bernhard Schlink deals brilliantly with the question "how can you love someone who has done something so evil?"
The main ethical problem seems to be "how could this have gone so far?" We can understand that there were a group of evil people who masterminded and enforced evil plans, and a small group of resistors, the good guys, but what about the general population? How could so many people be blind to the terrible suffering and death of so many people? Some claim they didn't know, and to an extent that seems likely. It was a shock to the world when the death camps were liberated, and its likely that the average citizen didn't know the full extent. But there were many signs. When Jews and other groups were marked, persecuted, run out of school and business, and then secreted away, it doesn't take a great leap to figure they were being killed. There are further implications for those living close to these camps. Many are located in Poland and other rural eastern, conquered countries, but Dachau, for example, is near the edge of a village. People must have seen it, seen the many going in, many more than could live in such a small enclosure. And in other camps we know the large ovens' smoke was visible for miles.
Once you realize that people are being slaughtered, you are morally obligated to act. As we discussed the book, Ryan argued that most people were in denial to avoid this action. I think that people living in such a dictator state probably kept their heads down to avoid losing them. With secret police and death camps nearby, speaking against the Nazis was certainly risking the lives of yourself and your family.
Ultimately we cannot know how much people knew or how complicit they were. It is not for us to judge. People are fond of saying "In that situation, I would've done X." But how can you really know? I don't think Germany is or was a place full of evil people. The Holocaust could've happened in any country, but the circumstances came together here. The preserved concentration camps are a powerful reminder of the evil that all humans are capable of, and how we must be vigilant against prejudice and hatred.
But in the process of remembering, it isn't fair to condemn the innocent. Our friend Heide complained (I'm paraphrasing here) "If I could chose my nationality, I would choose anything other than German, because of our history...the guilt of the Holocaust is on the head of every child born German." Nazism is part of German history, but that's not who Germans are. We must seperate the fact from fiction and see that even Nazis were ordinary people, albeit ordinary people who committed heinous acts. We must beware that we become so busy judging others that we become blind to the evil creeping in to our own culture.