Originally posted: Tuesday, February 24, 2009Her performance in The Reader won Kate Winslet an Oscar. She plays a concentration camp guard on trial for war crimes. I've been doing a lot of reading this past year about the Third Reich, including Peter Levenda's Unholy Alliance and The Hitler Book, edited by Mathias Uhl. While I recommend Levenda's book wholeheartedly (I'm currently reading Sinister Forces), The Hitler Book really seemed to capture more of the zeitgeist of the Third Reich. I also recommend The Goebbels Experiment, a documentary available through Netflix.
One cannot resist the temptation of comparing those times with the times in which we live. For example, the burning of Reichstag as a prelude for war shares certain harmonies with the lead up to war in Iraq in 2002-2003, and George Bush's conflation of Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, and the destruction of the World Trade Center. It also shares similarities with Emperor Nero's burning of Rome and his subsequent blaming of the Christians for the arson.
And while the Patriot Act, the bobble-heads on Fox News calling any dissent unAmerican, etc. and the ilk on talk radio and internet, had a chilling effect on free speech, this was still a Western Democracy. That was not the case when the first concentration camps were built in 1935-36.
Germany had become a totalitarian dictatorship in June, 1934 when Hitler purged his political enemies by murdering 85 of them, including Kurt von Schleicher, former Chancellor of Germany. This would have been on par of say, Richard Nixon ordering the assassination of ex-President Eisenhower. Though the dissemination of news was not nearly as fluid as it exists today, the German hierarchy could not keep the news secret. But the lie told was that the murdered, led by Ernst Rohm, were planning a coup. This event is also known as The Night of Long Knives, Operation Hummingbird, and "the so-called Rohm-Putsch."
It was a turning point for Germany and the German government. It did more than solidify Hitler's power base, it confirmed Hitler as de jure, the sole highest judge of the German people, and above the law. All law was vested in the personal fiat of Adolf Hitler. Extra-constitutional courts and executions would become commonplace thereafter.
This was when The Fuhrerprinzip became the whole of the law in German society. After the war, at Nuremberg, defendants tried unsuccessfully to use the existence of the leader principle as a mitigating factor, or even an outright defense. It was denied by the tribunals, under the rationale that soldiers are not obliged to obey illegal orders. Under the Fuherprinzip, however, it was argued that there was no such thing as an illegal order, that any order that came from your leader was legal. The tribunals responded that officers should have used their moral consciences as their guides.
While I certainly don't excuse their conduct, nor do I weep at their executions, the defendants had a point that was lost. The Third Reich was not a democracy. No dissent was tolerated. Dissent was punishable by death, and this was frequently proven. Sophie Scholl, of the White Rose movement, was guillotined for passing out innocuous mimeographs questioning the policies of the Third Reich--nothing more.
After 1934 no resistance to Hitler was possible on the individual level, and all who attempted it were murdered. The Hitler book reveals how bloodthirsty Hitler was, and illustrates his pathology--his compartmentalization of the suffering of his victims. He was a true psychopath, no doubt about it. He was the Gordian Knot of the German People. I don't think it's rational to expect someone to make a choice between one's own death, or the death of another (even many, many others), and hold them accountable for not choosing the former!
All that said, we must remember that Hitler didn't almost destroy the world by himself. There were a host of fellow travelers eager for the bloodbath and the victory, and they share Hitler's guilt and culpability. Those at Nuremberg enthusiastically supported Nazi programs and policies, it was just and meet that they should be executed for their crimes. But for the individual German? I'm not so sure how much suffering they needed to experience to atone. In any event, most of those who were alive at the time, are alive no longer. Time is justice.