Fifty Years Later
May 8, 1945 - May 8, 1995
Las Vegas Weekly
May 17, 1995
Exactly fifty years now after the end of World War
II, what can the Germans teach us? Grammatically simple, the question is dramatically
complex. It is fundamentally different from the question of what the French,
the Ethiopians, the Cherokees, or any other slice of humanity might teach us.
It is also fundamentally different from the question of what we can learn from
the Germans. It is, in any formulation, the fundamental question.
Fifty years after what the Germans often call "die
Stunde Null," the hour zero, May 8, 1945, or thereabout, depending on geography,
when Germany ceased to exist as we, or anyone, knew it, the question is more
fundamental and the answer more misunderstood than ever.
Practically every day of the past 12 years has been
the 50th anniversary of an event during the "Thousand-Year Reich" of Nazi Germany,
beginning with Hitler's seizure of power in 1933. The German penchant for historical
anniversaries, combined with the round number 50, a half century of denial and
tabu, the maturation of a new generation, a relatively sudden internalization
of democratic values, highly mature publications such as "Die Zeit" and "Der
Spiegel," and the German penchant for thorough theorizing, has given us 12 fascinating
years of inquiry into recent history, human responsibility, and the nature of
good and evil.
Half-way through this, the wall came down. For a while,
the excitement, and then the problems, of unification threatened to bury the
debates, but the question of the personal responsibility of the leaders and
followers of the communist dictatorship in former East Germany only added a
The treatment of human being by human being in Nazi
concentration camps was surely one of the darkest moments in human history.
There can also be no doubt, though it is often repressed, that the treatment
of these human beings was also by human beings. Most, though
not all, belonged to a subculture of European or world civilization called Germany,
but all were human beings. All were born with the same capacity to love, to
hate, to reason, to do good and to do evil as the rest of us. It is not just
the Germans who must examine this legacy.
Much is made of the contrast between the Germany of
Goethe and the Germany of Goebbels, of Herder and of Hitler, of Eichendorff
and of Eichmann, but this obscures both the question and the answer. In every
culture in every age there is greatness and meanness at the edges. When people
at one edge rather than the other become the leaders, it is always the fault
or the virtue of the rest of us in the middle.
The only thing more horrifying than the atrocities
themselves is the fact that the people in the middle who let it all happen were
so horribly normal. All they wanted were normal lives, to be left alone, to
keep their jobs, and to stay out of the way. Hannah Arendt, who covered the
war crimes trials, was so struck by this normality that she titled her seminal
work "The Banality of Evil." Even Adolf Eichmann, who was in charge of the Jewish
extermination, was shockingly normal. Just carrying out orders, he said, and
he seemed to mean it. In another time and place he might have been a dedicated
manager for General Motors and a coach of Little League.
Americans in charge of governing and investigating
Germany in the summer of 1945 initially thought that they would run into a great
deal of resistance from a people so long and deeply indoctrinated with Nazi
ideology. They were wrong. In fact, even card-carrying members of the party
explained that they joined only to be able to keep their jobs or positions and
lead "normal" lives. Many, of course, were lying. Many lied to join the party,
but many lied later about their reasons. In recent years we heard much the same
story from card-carrying members of the East German communist party. Such a
difficult life it was, first to convince everyone that you were such a good
Nazi, then that you didn't really mean it, next that you were such a good communist,
and then that you were only kidding about that, too!
The problem, of course, is not that no one stood up
to defend the Nazis after May 8, 1945, or the communists after November 9, 1989,
but that very few stood up anywhere, anytime, to defend anything.
There were a very few. Dietrich Bonhoeffer openly
criticized Hitler even long after it was clear what his fate would be. In 1943
he was transported to a concentration camp. Only days before Hitler took poison
in his bunker, fully aware that the war was lost, he ordered Bonhoeffer's execution.
Had Bonhoeffer lived he would have triumphed as a living monument to a rare
courage, a thought that revolted the Führer. A nation of Dietrich Bonhoeffers
would not have kept Hitler in power even 12 minutes.
Can it happen here? Yes, if we learn the wrong lesson.
Blaming everything on Hitler, who was truly evil, or on the Germans, who did
truly evil things, and setting them apart from the rest of humanity as specially
selected by the devil, is looking in the wrong direction. We like to point at
the Germans and the Germans often point at Hitler, but these are scapegoats,
for the real evil is inside every one of us. The superstitious projection of
deviltry upon other human beings is precisely what brought the Nazis to power
and the Jews to the camps. We fabricate both gods and devils so that we don't
have to be them ourselves.
The real scary part of all this is that Nazi Germany
may have only started a trend that continues to the end of the century and perhaps
far beyond. The Soviet Union, Uganda, Cambodia, Somalia, Bosnia, and many others
have found their own eager "Mitläufer." Why us? Why now?
The twentieth century will stand out from prior history
for three things. First, population. Although there are still far more ants
and cockroaches, the twentieth century was ours. It is no coincidence that you
and I are alive today. More than half of all humans who ever stood on two feet
are walking the planet now. There are more of us today than all of previous
Second, technology. Suddenly, humans can fly, walk
on the moon, and explore outer space. We have even controlled many of the microorganisms
that used to plague us, which partially explains the first item.
Third, mayhem. We have burned, gassed, bombed and
otherwise murdered and tortured more of our own kind than all of previous history
together. Of course, there are so many more of us today to get out of hand,
to pressure our senses, and to be our victims, and never before did we have
the technology to do it so efficiently.
Population, technology, and mayhem. Those of us who
will survive to, or be born into, the twenty-first century must now answer three
questions. How did we get here, how and why do these three things seem to fit
so well together, and what's next?
What's next may not even be "isolated" instances of
genocide, but globacide. All it takes is for normal industrial and post-industrial
people to resist interference with their normal, industrious lives, and, like
the Germans of the early '40s, pretend they don't see the consequences, even
while they seep through every crevice. We have tried brilliantly to outwit nature.
Now we must outwit ourselves.
Fifty years later, on May 8, 1995, on the eve of the
twenty-first century, there are still no horns, club feet, or tails. Just a
lot more power to destroy and a lot more people in the middle. Just a few hundred
million more people who just want to be left alone, keep their jobs, lead normal
lives, and stay out of the way.