Social Question

jfos's avatar

How much blame can you assign to WWII Nazis, and where is the line drawn between personal maliciousness and cooperation in order to not be persecuted?

Asked by jfos (7380points) November 17th, 2009
46 responses
“Great Question” (2points)

I noticed this article on BBC news this morning:

It concerns a 90 year old German SS officer and a charge of murdering 58 Jews during his service in World War II. Right away, I thought, “He deserves it for killing all those people”, but then I got to thinking…

If he didn’t obey his commanding officer, there is no doubt that he would have been shot by firing line or worse. How much blame can one cast on a person who has done “evil” things under the vastly intimidating command of another?

I don’t mean to argue that he should be forgiven since he was commanded to do so, I’m just trying to see how other people feel about this.

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CMaz's avatar

Following orders during war is one thing.
Human rights violations is another.

They knew that what they were doing was wrong.
Their actions went agents the Geneva Conventions.

One thing being a soldier following orders. Another, when you help with the architectural design.

dpworkin's avatar

Everyone dies. He could have chosen to die rather than to murder.

ragingloli's avatar

to be fair, the corresponding Geneva Convention on the treatment of civilians didn’t exist until 1949

CMaz's avatar

@ragingloli – Good point. :-)

But, still a human rights violation.

Their right to life, liberty and property; the right to due process of law; the right not to be subjected to torture or inhuman and degrading treatment. These are the main human rights that were violated by the Nazis.

JLeslie's avatar

The thing about killing Jews in the holocaust was they did not have weapons, they were many times just picked from a line or taken from their homes and shot. The Jews were not “organized” or fighting for a cause as soldiers. They just wanted to live their lives and be left alone. I can understand that it was difficult during those times to say no to a commanding officer. I wonder at times how many soldiers and German citizens fully agreed at the time with what was being done, and how many went along for fear of their own life? I think many were actually on board with the idea. Proud to serve their country and bought into what they were told.

nitemer's avatar

Today is the first day of the rest of our lives!

mowens's avatar

He’s 90. Let nature take it’s course.

OpryLeigh's avatar

A few months ago there was a series of programmes about the Nazi’s on the BBC. One of which focused on the amount of Nazi’s that were never brought to justice for their crimes. These men are now in the 90’s and they were able to interview some of them using under cover journalism. It was a real eye opener and (I don’t know whether I should be ashamed to say this or not) they did not come across as monsters. They even came across as “likeable” human beings.

Having seen that programme my opinion on what should be done with these old men is not as black and white as it once would have been and I find myself torn on this subject now.

On one hand I would love to see a bit of justice for the millions who suffered during the holocaust and when I think about what those people did suffer at that time it really saddens me but on the other hand I feel that court cases such as these are not going to be cheap, these men are, more than likely, harmless now and like @mowens said, nature will take it’s course sooner rather than later. Maybe the money that would be paid for these cases should be put towards prosecuting criminals that are far more dangerous to the world today.

Btw, I have no idea of how much court cases cost and where that money comes from, I am just assuming that it is tax payers money and not cheap. Please correct me if you know differently.

holden's avatar

@mowens to hell with that. Don’t his victims deserve some sort of restitution? Try the bastard.

mammal's avatar

Let’s focus the world’s attention on a few decrepid remnants of nasty but shortlived regime. What about the three million dead in Vietnam; combatants, non combatants, children, babies… Hundreds of thousands dead in Iraq, how many thousands of people dead, tortured, dissapeared in Latin American regimes propt up with US dollers and Hardware. Totally disproportionate and responses of sheer blind hatred by both Israel and America who dare lash back rather than subit to a Western world order. I suggest we focus more fully upon the contemporary war criminals.

dpworkin's avatar

@mammal That’s a thoughtless and vicious answer. I’m sorry three Flutherites saw fit to honor it. What a disappointment. It contains classic antisemitic ramblings coupled with a deliberate distortion of the events of 1941–1945. I am sure I cannot disabuse you of these horrid notions; anyone who thinks the way you do is beyond redemption; but I do hope the three people who gave tour answer “Great” status will reconsider how you have pandered to the worst in humanity.

RareDenver's avatar

Anyone seen the film or read the book The Reader? Kinda touches on similar issues, it was a better film than I expected plus Kate Winslet spends most of the first half naked ;-)

jfos's avatar

@pdworkin She makes a good point about the “sheer blind hatred” exhibited by Israel and America. It is quite an atrocity that Israel has been “allowed” to expand even a mile. And by “allowed” I mean haven’t been challenged by Western powers.

dpworkin's avatar

These are matters of political opinion, not expertise, and I do not have the energy to educate you or her. Perhaps someone else with more patience will explain the difference between being a small Democracy surrounded by monarchic and wealthy enemies on all sides, and a stateless people who have forgone the two-State solution that was offered to them more than once.

JLeslie's avatar

@jfos even some Israeli’s have a problem with Israeli’s going into territory that was not part of the original deal, not eveyone is blind. Many Americans also want an adherence to what had been agreed on in the past and even further want a two state solution regarding the Israeli’s and the Palestinians, so the Palestinians can have their own country. Israeli’s have tried for peace and have been willing to sign a peace treaty, but Palestinians in the past were not willing to give an inch.

Jayne's avatar

You’d be an idiot to think people can’t change. You’d be even more deluded to think that the Nazis on average were any worse to start with than the people you know and love. The influence of indoctrination, the social and political climate following WWI, and the threat of physical and social destruction, were extremely powerful forces in shaping the actions and thoughts of a very large portion of the German population. If the founding fathers of our country were around today, would you want to prosecute them for being bigoted slave owners? No, you and pretty much every American would heap respect upon them; after all, they were just a product of their times. When you call for justice, what exactly are you judging? Clearly not the actions themselves. The person behind the actions? How could you possibly go about doing that, and what could that possibly even mean? Now you might point out that every criminal is the product of influences out of their control, and therefore my argument implies that no one should be punished for their actions; and you’d be right, it does. What we should do is use the force of law to prevent and discourage people from hurting others; but there is no basis for punishment.

In this case, trying to hunt down former Nazis does nothing to prevent harm or make life better for anyone, it only seeks to punish. I’m not talking about real leaders of the Nazi party or its actions, because letting those people escape prosecution sends the message that there are no consequences, and that society has forgotten or ceased to care, and that does do harm. But when we’re talking about simple cogs in the Nazi machinery, forgoing prosecution only sends the message that we recognize, and hopefully are learning to beware of, the dangers of blind obedience as a society.

Vincentt's avatar

You don’t just become an SS officer.

ratboy's avatar

@ChazMaz: “Their right to life, liberty and property; the right to due process of law; the right not to be subjected to torture or inhuman and degrading treatment. These are the main human rights that were violated by the Nazis.”

Are we in the US not complicit in these very violations right now? How will future generations judge us?

Psychedelic_Zebra's avatar

I think that if you are going to discuss the history of WW2, you might want to actually read some history instead of just watching some passive imagery on the TV. Books don’t have background music, and we all know that music will sway our emotions. I suppose even the BBC has an agenda on the program mentioned. That said, I’ve read LOTS of history books about WW2. You can’t understand WW2 until you know about WW1. I make no excuses for the Nazis, or the Germans in that era, but until you have a very good idea what life was like in Europe during that time in history, I really don’t think you can judge the people who lived it. Oh you can try, but you are judging after the fact.

Some stuff I’ve learned from my history studies. Hitler was a runner in WW1. He was awarded a few medals for his bravery. Of the eight men in his unit, only two survived. You don’t run messages from trench to trench without risking life and limb.

After the first world war, Germany was punished by the powers of the Allies to repay restitution for the war. The fees were astronomical, and would have taken a very long time to pay off. Then the Depression hit, and the Allies were too concerned with their own problems to keep riding Germany’s ass for the restitution $$$.

Hitler came to power, riding on a wave that promised change and hope. He gave hope to a country mired in vast unemployment, and he, like many leaders from the past, found the perfect scapegoat. The Jews. Anti-Semitism was running high already in that time period, Hitler just capitalized on it.

Some military commanders expressed disgust at having to murder mass numbers of Jews, and before the gas furnaces and Zyklon B pesticide was used, the Jews were simply lined up alongside a hole and shot. Most military commanders complained about this, as the victims were unarmed, and they were supposed to be soldiers, not murderers. Hitler had those commanders removed, and many times, executed. Sometimes, the Jews were made to dig thier own graves before being shot. When the German leaders realized there weren’t enough bullets to fight a war and to kill Jews, they came up with other forms of mass murder.

They injected some mental patients with a powerful poison, and left them to die locked up in an institution.The Nazis sometimes used exhaust from running vehicles, and the rear wheels would be removed, the spinning axle was used to power something else as the carbon monoxide exhaust was piped into a killing chamber. They decided it was a waste of fuel that could be used to power the war machines. The Final Solution went through several stages before they decided that Zyklon B was the perfect murder weapon.

One last thing, when the Nazis came to power, the German population pretty much had no choice but to join the party. A German without Nazi status was as much a second class citizen as a Jew, a Gypsy, or a homosexual.

Pick up a history book and read it, read about BOTH world wars, and don’t let some passive entertainment on TV disguised as history tell you what to believe.

But hey, life is about choices, your results may vary.

OpryLeigh's avatar

@Psychedelic_Zebra GA. I would also like to add that for anyone in the UK or paying a visit to the UK I highly recommend a visit to the Holocaust exhibition at The War Museum in London. This was a real eye opener for me when I went in June this year.

JLeslie's avatar

@Psychedelic_Zebra You alluded to what I had wondered. That many Germans were on board with killing the Jews, it is not just some psychology experiment where average people follow orders, there was antisemitism already existing at the time. I understand that some felt they had no choice to save their own lives, but I think many were fine going along.

mowens's avatar

@holden I think you misunderstood what I meant. I mean, as punishment, we should let age take it’s course, without the comforts and medication that most receive.

Also, let me ask everyone somethings.

Would it have been ok for him to kill, if the Nazi’s threatened to torture his family too?

Let’s face it… it has been 60 years. A lot of the witnesses for things he has done are probably dead. Anyone that is alive, wouldn’t be able to recognize him. a face CHANGES over 60 years. Sure they could show a picture… but still, human memory is fallible.

mattbrowne's avatar

I have the impression that many people are not aware of the following:

Not all German WWII soldiers were Nazis.
Not all Nazis were German WWII soldiers.
There is a difference between the SS and German WWII soldiers.

People had to be hard core Nazis to become SS officers. They were not normal soldiers. Some SS officers before they got their promotion had to prove their seriousness. Some were handed a living cat and they had to twist the cat’s head and kill it in an instant. Later some SS officers who passed this “test” had to lead the so-called

in Eastern Europe which involved the shooting of thousands of Jewish men, women and children. A lot of brainwashing is required to get to this level of mental perversion and being able to kill a cat was just the beginning. People with a conscience and scruples did NOT become SS officers.

The ‘if he didn’t obey his commanding officer’ logic applies to normal German WWII soldiers. It does definitely not apply to the SS, the Gestapo and the perverts running camps like Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, Sobibor and so forth.

JLeslie's avatar

@mattbrowne there is a scene in the movie Valkyrie where news comes over the wire that Hitler is dead, and the women in the office who receive the message are shown to tear up. A relative of mine said, “I think many of the Germans were happy with what Hitler was doing, agreed with it.” These women depicted in the movie were not actually killing Jews and others who they felt dragged down society, probably could not, but were fine letting it happen. I do not mean I fault them for not standing up in protest, I mean they actually were ok with idea of ridding the country of people they deemed as bad for the country, and probably did not want to think about how it was happening. They were not put through the brainwashing of the military. Do you think the movie took a liberty that was not accurate, or that their were Germans, civilians and soldiers, who did feel superior to others and could easily turn a blind eye to the murders?

I do see how it can happen. I worry about this type of thing regarding Muslims. From what I have read parts of Europe are having trouble with Muslim immigrants and I have heard fears of a backlash.

RareDenver's avatar

@JLeslie I too am worried that Muslims in Europe are becoming the new Jews, the scapegoats everyone will use to blame their problems on and turn a blind eye when things get nasty.

ragingloli's avatar

It was always my understanding that most of the german population didn’t know that there was an extermination campaign against the jews.

RareDenver's avatar

@ragingloli I think what @JLeslie is getting at is that most of the population knew they were being rounded up and treated as sub-humans and taken out of the picture so to speak, admittedly most may not have known of the deliberate extermination program but they knew enough to know that what was happening was morally wrong.

ragingloli's avatar

Well, yes, I’ll grant you that.
Whether one finds it morally wrong depends on how much propaganda one is subjected to, of which there was a lot back then.
When it comes to those things, humans are sheep, they can easily be controlled in their actions and beliefs by application of propaganda. That is why for example a lot of americans, mainly on the right, are fine with alleged terrorists being treated like subhumans in Guantanamo.

JLeslie's avatar

I did not mean to pick on Germans, I want to be clear. We see this behavior throughout history, as @ragingloli pointed out we see it in Americans even now. I am just trying to understand the behavior. Wondering what the real truth is, I am not working from anger or blame. Stories of how the Danes protected their Jews and were able to smuggle them out across to Sweden (Sweden gets credit also for taking them in) was it because the leadership was against the Germans coming into the country and resisted letting them take any citizens of the country? Does it depend on the leaders, because the majority of us are sheep as someone mentioned above? Did it have to do with viewing the Jews as full citizens in Denmark, but not in other countries? My husbands family calls Jewish Mexicans “Jews” and Catholic Mexican’s “Mexican.” That was shocking to me. As an American I think of them all as Mexicans.

mattbrowne's avatar

@JLeslie – You are asking very complex questions. There are dozens of books written by historians and while most experts agree on many subjects, others are still being debated.

Let me start with a personal story. My mother was born in 1939 in Southern Germany. My grandparents were farmers. Only a few years earlier had they been able to buy their first radio. Several years before 1939 and the beginning of WWII my grandmother told my grandfather that there will be war when she listened to Hitler’s speeches on the radio. This man will be our downfall. She knew she could not repeat such a statement outside of their house. Too dangerous.

Have you ever heard Hitler speaking? One does not need to understand German to get the message. His tone of voice says it all. Many Germans were not happy with what Hitler was doing, but too many were. On March 5, 1933 there were the last free elections. Hitler’s party got 43.8% of the votes. Many Americans are surprised by this and a few are even under the impression Hitler had a vast majority behind him. By 1936 almost all opposition was crushed. Speaking out against Hitler meant risking your life. And most people are not born to be a hero.

So the woman in the movie represented the millions who believed in Hitler, but she doesn’t represent the millions who didn’t believe in him.

The majority of the population especially in the cities knew about the pogroms against the Jews and their so-called “resettlement”. A small minority even within the Nazi party knew about the actually extermination programs. Some higher-up Nazis had a hunch, but it wasn’t something that could be talked about. The diary of Alfred Speer is a good source to understand this issue.

dpworkin's avatar

Speer’s diary has been much criticized by historians as having been self-serving and written with the motive of mitigating damages. He is not a trustworthy source. It is also palpably untrue that only a minority knew about the exterminations. The signs and signals were unavoidable, and in the early days when they were practicing upon the inmates of mental hospitals, there was even some protest.

JLeslie's avatar

@mattbrowne @pdworkin Thank you both.

@mattbrowne The movie I mentioned of course is based on many soldiers and politicians who were plotting to kill Hitler, because they believed he was horrible and might be the downfall of the country. Some of the discussion within the movie was interesting, reminded me of what was said about Bush in terms how the world would view Germany, or America in Bush’s case.

mattbrowne's avatar

@pdworkin – Yes, I’m aware of this. Speer’s diary has to be read with extra care. But this doesn’t mean historians can learn something about the inner workings of this horrible Nazi machine from it. Especially if this matches with corroborative evidence from other sources. Recently I read Michael Shermer’s book including the part about debunking holocaust denial. It addresses the question who knew for sure what was going in in Auschwitz. It was a minority both in the general population and the Nazis, most historians agree. A majority would mean dozens of million of people. In fact it would have meant everyone, because at some point everyone would have heard about it, and not only in Germany, by the way.

And yes, many people knew that not only Jews were disappearing. Homosexuals and handicapped people among others.

JLeslie's avatar

@mattbrowne Do most German’s think it important to remember what happened, know the truth, or do they prefer to bury the past and not talk about it? Do your history books in school (I’m talking about jr or high school, not college level) dwell on how it happened, rather than the details of what happened once in full swing? In America I feel we dwell more about the camps, the trains, and and the gas chambers rather than how he gained power.

ragingloli's avatar

Been a while since school, but it was mostly about the politics. We did watch a documentary about the camps in class though. We also went to the cinema to watch The Pianist.

mattbrowne's avatar

@JLeslie – The vast majority of educated Germans think it’s very important. Many of the less educated people worry about other things and some don’t seem to grasp the significance of this dire warning from history. Only a small minority wants to bury it. This was different in the 50ies and 60ies because the trauma was too strong. It totally changed in the 70ies.

Yes, history books and the curriculum really dwell on how it happened, but also on all the other details. Almost nothing gets left out. When I was 14 or so I found it totally shocking when I realized the full magnitude. Same for my two children. In almost all schools, there’s at least one trip to a camp. I went to Dachau and Bergen-Belsen.

Understanding the ‘how it happened’ part is something that also has to go beyond high school. People have to read more books and think about it a lot harder. There are some simple answers like mistakes after World War I and the aftermath of the Great Depression. I think the answers are far more complex. We could talk about this for hours.

JLeslie's avatar

@ragingloli That sounds balanced. I could not watch the pianist all the way through.

mattbrowne's avatar

In the 70ies almost every class had to watch this movie:

It was part of the official curriculum. I felt sick for days. It’s as shocking as the Pianist, Schindler’s List or the Downfall.

JLeslie's avatar

For the most part I avoid these movies, because I don’t feel I need to be convinced anymore of how awful it was. I did see Schindler’s list after many said it was a great movie and does not dwell on the atrocities. The Pianist I came across one night on cable, never should have left the channel.

mattbrowne's avatar

Well, young people can learn about the awfulness from those movies. Older viewers can learn about the ‘how it happened’ and ‘how it worked’ parts. And we can all learn that a few individuals had the courage to challenge the system. Wilm Hosenfeld, a pious Catholic, was a captain of regular German Army. He did not have to pass the kill the cat test. He was ashamed of what some of his countrymen were doing.

Władysław Szpilman’s (the pianist) memoir after WWII mentioning Wilm Hosenfeld was soon suppressed by the Stalinist Polish authorities. The nationality of Wilm Hosenfeld had to be changed to Austrian. Something I find quite puzzling. Hitler was born in Austria and only later naturalized as a German.

nitemer's avatar

I wish we could all start putting the past behind us, promote peace and tranquility, education, health, and equality, universality, good morality, and above all unity of all. With all that in place, there will remain no room for wars and any form of monstrosities. Without any of them, hopes for such a day will never begin to form.

RareDenver's avatar

@mattbrowne I used to live about a mile from Bergen-Belsen.

JLeslie's avatar

@nitemer Do you mean you prefer to not discuss these things? I think understanding how Nazi Germany can happen helps us look out for warning signs when it might be happening somewhere else.

mattbrowne's avatar

Let’s not forget the good signs as well. The European Union development is a wonderful model how to promote peace and include everybody. A common vision has replaced the era of wars in Europe.

nitemer's avatar

@JLeslie It is and been and will happen everywhere no matter how much we try to demonstrate the ugliness of it. The fact remains that the only way of preventing these events is by building the foundation of our future generation on the ingredients that I mentioned. It is the only institution and requires the membership of every one of us for it to have any hope to succeed.

JLeslie's avatar

@mattbrowne I agree about the EU. I think the Europe will become very powerful.

@nitemer I agree with your point about unity and peace etc. I think both are true, to know history and to promote goodness.

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