Fifty Years Later

May 8, 1945 - May 8, 1995

Chuck Gardner

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 new twist.

    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 history together.

    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.