Are There No Repentant Nazis?

I’m a good way through the required reading for the Holocaust fellowship that’s coming up the week after next. I’ve managed to make it through some dry political theory as well as some heart-wrenching stories, and I’m hoping that my subconscious is up to the task of processing some of the images these stories leave me with; if not, I’ll be having some pretty terrible dreams in the near future.

As I read and think and learn about this period in history, I find myself coming back to the same question that nearly everyone who studies the Holocaust (this, or any other, I would imagine) comes to: how did people allow this to happen?  What inspired such blind hatred for one group of people toward another?

I understand that that era wasn’t all black. Thousands and thousands of people risked their lives – and the lives of their families and neighbors – to rescue the persecuted.  That part doesn’t surprise me, really; I have a very strong belief that people are innately good and, when faced with situations that require compassion and goodness, many will provide those things at great personal risk.

No, what I don’t understand is that, with one exception – that being Oskar Schindler – none of the literature I’ve EVER been exposed to has ever indicated that any of those people operated within the mechanisms of the Nazi party.  Only one Nazi ever, to my (admittedly limited) knowledge, expressed remorse over his actions during the war and, right up until the war was over, Albert Speer seemed a model Nazi.  Is it true that the party was so efficient and homogeneous that they had nearly 100% compliance and belief from the rank-and-file?

Why are there no accounts of Nazis defecting when they learned about what their party had in mind for millions of people (again, that I’m aware of – if you know of some, send me in that direction, please)?  Why are there no accounts of SS men who went mad after being ordered to shoot a child in the street or of soldiers committing suicide rather than accepting a post at a death camp?  Where were the former-soldiers-turned-activists who campaigned against this sort of thing ever happening again?  I recognize that the political climate in Nazi Germany didn’t allow for that kind of freedom of speech, but the political climate was very different after the war and those voices could have been heard.

Were the Nazis so good at what they did that they managed to silence the very basic human instinct toward compassion in all their soldiers?  What was it about the social, political, and humanitarian climate during the 20s, 30s, and 40s that turned off people’s humanity?

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40 Comments

Filed under compassion and cooperation, frustrations, Holocaust fellowship, Learning

40 responses to “Are There No Repentant Nazis?

  1. You bring up a number of good points; I susupect the notion of conservatism has much to with with this. In my European history course, I teach that though Hitler was evil, he was in many ways a product of his culture; we spend time looking at some of the German literature and listening to music from the likes of Wagner and the hate seen; many people feared social progress if it meant allowing those of different races to share in the state’s progress.

    We have to some extent moved past that here today; however when those of us with open liberal views do not contest the actions of those who are willing to suppress the rights of individuals, we allow evil to exist.

    I recall those who saw what Hitler wanted to do an attempted to warn the German people. For example, the Munich Press would run articles dipicting Hitler as a mad man. The problem with many was that of economics; he did get them out of a depression. We know what Hitler did to those at the press once in power.

    The 20s and 30s here were not good for many people. With men like Wilson talking about democracy but not acting on it here at home always drove me crazy.

  2. Ed, I would LOVE to talk to you about this stuff in person. I don’t know how much of the fellowship is going to focus on history and how much will focus on individual experiences of that history – of course, I’ll know more after the course.

    I understand that all it takes for evil to thrive is that good people do nothing, but I’m having a terrible time believing that Nazis could so stuff their humanity that they didn’t suffer as a consequence of their individual behavior. Was the Nazi somehow resistant to PTSD?

  3. Emma

    One sentence that you wrote really struck me: “Why are there no accounts of Nazis defecting when they learned about what their party had in mind for millions of people?” As far as I know (and, like yours, my knowledge of the topic is more general than in-depth), there aren’t too many accounts of German *civilians* defecting, or even resisting on a large scale. I think the real point is what a diabolical coup of propaganda it was for Hitler and the Nazi party to so dehumanize an entire race (or, on the other hand, to so glorify their own race) to the point where murder became acceptable, even approved of.

    By the way, a few years ago I read a great book called “The Good Old Days;” (ISBN 1568521332). It was a collection of diaries, photos, and memories from German officers and soldiers who participated in the death squads and concentrations camps in Poland and Russia. It was fascinating to read how normal they felt their lives to be.

    • Pat Neibergall

      That last sentence says it all. …’how normal they felt their lives to be.’ Genocide was normalized.

  4. I am trying to think of a phrase other than “mob mentality” to describe why people didn’t defect (just because that phrase seems to have lost so much of its meaning and impact). But the same thing happened in Rwanda and is happening in the Sudan. Some people, like Anne Franke, like to believe that people are basically good. From what I have seen, read, and heard, I do not believe that is true.

    On a strictly pragmatic note, what do we want people to do in that situation? What can they do? Stand up and do what is morally right at the expense of their lives or their families lives? Is there anything in a moral victory if in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t even amount to a drop in a bucket? I wonder. It would be interesting to pose this question to your students to see what they think. Heck, I don’t even know what I think about it yet. I’d like to think that I would do something, anything, but I just don’t know.

    When we see a woman being hit by her boyfriend, do we say anything? When we see a child being spanked by his parent, do we say or do anything? Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t. Put that on a mass scale and who really knows how people will react.

    Seemingly easy question with no easy answers.

  5. Seems as though a machine as large as the 3rd Reich only left room for grass roots movements. There were so many individuals helping on a tiny basis. Inside the machine how could you really help anyone? They weren’t just going to punish you if you defied them but everyone with whom you’d ever been associated. You save one person and 10 members of your family die.

    I don’t, of course, think it’s that simple. I also think that stories about someone who was a Nazi and changed their stripes would be hard for people to listen to. Once you get to “I was a Nazi an…” people stop listening or sympathizing. Plus with Nuremburg what would they be held liable for and who might hurt them for telling what they knew.

    Look at the micro culture of any high school and I don’t think it’s terribly surprising that people are easily swept up in a movement. I’d love to hear a story of someone working from the inside, though.

  6. At the end of The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom talks about being asked for forgiveness by one of the guards who was in charge of her back in one of the camps.

  7. drtombibey

    mrschili,

    It is unreal isn’t it? My Dad was over there in WW II, and he said the thing that struck him as the biggest paradox was how bright the Nazis were about things technical to be so wrong about thier cause. Dad is a smart guy, and I don’t think he ever understood it, either.

    It disturbs me that people want to re-write Holocaust history. It should never be forgotten.

    Dr. B

  8. There is at least a fictional depiction of a Nazi going a bit crazy in the face of the atrocities. In the movie Life is Beautiful, the doctor that Guido waits tables for later shows up in the camps that Guido is in. They had a history of solving each other’s riddle, but this time the doctor seems completely disturbed by the riddle he is trying to solve–he clearly shows signs of mental illness. Who know if things like this actually happened? I’m so baffled how such evil could exist.

  9. Aaron marks

    There were plenty of Nazi’s that chalanged authority however the goverment had set up a police force to deal with such disenters I think you have heard of them they were called the gestapo many Germans (as well as others) who chose to chalange the status quo ended up in the death camps right along with the Jews, Gypies ect. I have a question for you, What have you done to help black people from being opresed? Did u do anything to stop them from being hurded into unclean and over populated project buildings? Have you sheltered a black man “wanted” for selling dope? Did you do anything to stop relocation of black people from these over crouded project houses to god knows where? Have you done anything about “enemy combatats” held with out a trial? are you any differnt? Would realy and Honestly stand up if this happened? If a police officer just bashed in your neighbors door and hauled them off to jail would you try and stop them? think about it realalisticly it happend over a period of 10 years slowly that by the time jews were being murdered in mass a World War was going on and death and destrution was every where so a little bit more didn’t make a difference to the comon people who where just trying to survie on the rations that they had

  10. Three things, Aaron; first of all, spell check, please. It’s hard to take someone seriously when their comment is as error-ridden as yours. Second of all, I heartily disagree that “a little bit more didn’t make a difference to the common people.” Everyone has their personal lines, and there is a very big difference between the death and destruction brought about by war and the death and destruction brought about by a government against its own people. Third of all, you don’t know me. You have no idea what kind of person I am or what I would or would not do in a given situation. I work very hard to make my corner of the world a better, safer, more accepting place. I am a teacher and a parent and a citizen of my community, and I take those responsibilities very seriously. Is it my job to save the world? No; but I am mindful that I have an obligation to do what I can, and I DO.

  11. Aaron, you bring up a good point, how far would each of us go in our everyday lives to stand up for the person next to us? I often wonder that myself but I try to stand up for the right thing every day even in a quiet way.

    If you’ve been reading around here for a while you’ll know that Chili made an effort to create a safer and more welcoming environment at the college where she’s been working by creating and maintaining a Gay Straight Alliance group. The group has gotten wonderful response and really made a difference to the students involved as well, I think, as to some staff and faculty.

    I’m pretty sure this isn’t the point you were trying to make, Aaron, but I can’t quite decipher what you were working on so I figure we’re better off accentuating the positive. It’s an important question to put to ourselves frequently so I think we should open it up to all commenters. What WOULD you do, Aaron and everybody else, to help the person next to you who is being oppressed? Have you ever helped someone being racially profiled or being harassed in a hate crime? Do you support organizations that are helping these sorts of people? What about women, helping any of them out of an oppressive economic cycle?

    I have to say I’m having a hard time coming up with a good example of something I’ve done on a personal level to make things better. I do work with organizations that try to help and in my last job I was able to try to get help to individuals all over the world in dire social and economic straits but I have no idea how successful I was. My most guilty failures from living here in NYC are the times I’ve seen children yanked and spanked and belittled and not been able to stand up to their parents.

    What about everybody else? Got anything good to balance out my shortcomings?

  12. Aaron,

    As a black man I will say that your approach to this matter is not productive. Go back and read what the post is about; it is not about me nor the blogger; it is about the nature of man and the evil things people have done and continue to do. The fact that the author of this blog is willing to protest against such attitudes by writing this post is a great deal.

  13. Aaron,

    I applaud Chili’s courage and generosity by providing a forum for people of, perhaps, dissenting opinions to discuss important issues. We show our appreciation for this forum by conducting ourselves in a respectful way even if we’re worked up about an issue. I encourage you, if you choose to frequent her blog in the future, to adopt the same respectful attitude. Opinions are welcome here as long as they are expressed thoughtfully.

    I also would suggest rereading her post because I believe you’ve misread it. She was not questioning why neighbors and the average citizen didn’t protest or do something to stop the madness. Her post was questioning why so many military men in the Nazi party seemed to follow Hitler blindly and willingly. I think it is a very valid and important question.

    I also think that your questions have some validity and it’s always good to ask ourselves if we’re doing what we can to help others. The fact is, pretty much everyone failed the people who were victims of the holocaust and that’s an important thing to remember if we’re ever going to stop such things from happening. However, your questions do not exactly invite an intelligent exchange of opinions and ideas because they come across as very combative and miss the topic of the post.

    I invite you to take some time to read other posts because I know you’ll come to realize that Mrs. Chili is very intelligent, articulate, and cares immensely for people. She also welcomes people who have different opinions as long as they’re expressed respectfully.

  14. Bo

    Dude, all issues aside: that twisted, tortured, malformed, borderline nonsensical pile of monkey shit is on the Internet forever with your name on it. If it’s really as bad as that coming straight from your keyboard, then take two minutes and clean it up before you send it.

  15. “Why are there no accounts of SS men who went mad after being ordered to shoot a child in the street or of soldiers committing suicide rather than accepting a post at a death camp?”

    There were.

    The Einsatzgruppen had major psychological problems, and probably 20% developed what we would today classify as full-fledged PTSD. Many committed suicide rather than kill again. Many could only carry out their orders
    while drunk. Many developed physical tremors and severe anxiety. They had nightmares – one man awoke firing his gun at the ceiling after a nightmare.
    More than once the Jews that were rounded up for the firing squads were released because the men were reluctant to shoot and their officers refused to force them through the trauma yet again. They were not psychopaths. They suffered for what they did.

    Himmler himself had hallucinations of people he killed, according to the head SS doctor (this is a strong sign of PTSD). He confessed he could hardly stand to watch the killing.

    Psychological breakdowns in the Einsatzgruppen led to use of the gas chambers, to increase the psychological distance between killer and killed and spare the killers the trauma of an intimate kill.

    This is all from: Rachel MacNair, _Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress:
    The Psychological Consequences of Killing.”

    • Russell Kline

      Respectfully, The question does concern THEN, but NOW.
      Pointing to the Nazis’ use of gas to “increase the psychological distance” only serves to further the inquiry-WHERE ARE THE REPENTANT NAZIS???

  16. I’m late on this, but I wonder how much the general German response – deep apology, grief, and shame – has prevented there being a focus specifically on the remorse of the actual perpetrators, and how much they may have been internally silenced in the aftermath of the end of the war? And how many former Nazi foot soldiers just disappeared into the wood work, taking up “regular” lives and never speaking of it again?

    It seems to me that it’s possible all of Germany grieved so deeply for what happened that there was no room for the remorse of the perpetrators, especially when remorse can sometimes be seen as more healing to the remorseful person than the person wronged.

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  18. Christine

    Dearest readers my French mother and th thousand of people are still alive because on several occasions german soldiers uP to the ranks of captain refused to kill or raze towns even after they were ordered with severe consequences. Both of my parents lived through world war II my mother is working on a book to disclose these facts. Hopefully it will be published. In one instance the french resistance killed a close relative of Hitler. as he lay dying he ordered the death of everyone thank god that order was not followed. That is only one incident. Human beings are weak
    And evil usually they follow the mass

  19. Christine

    Dearest readers my French mother and thousand of people are still alive because on several occasions german soldiers uP to the ranks of captain refused to kill or raze towns even after they were ordered with severe consequences. Both of my parents lived through world war II my mother is working on a book to disclose these facts. Hopefully it will be published. In one instance the french resistance killed a close relative of Hitler. as he lay dying he ordered the death of everyone thank god that order was not followed. That is only one incident. Human beings are weak
    And evil usually they follow the mass

  20. J.T.

    Rudolf Hoss seemed repentant. I mean there is no way to know his sincerity but he did say

    “My conscience compels me to make the following declaration. In the solitude of my prison cell I have come to the bitter recognition that I have sinned gravely against humanity. As Commandant of Auschwitz I was responsible for carrying out part of the cruel plans of the ‘Third Reich’ for human destruction. In so doing I have inflicted terrible wounds on humanity. I caused unspeakable suffering for the Polish people in particular. I am to pay for this with my life. May the Lord God forgive one day what I have done.”

    It sounds fairly sincere, because he clearly wasn’t trying to weasel his way out of execution.

  21. Matt Murphy

    Similar to how few repentant Muslims there are for their crimes. The world is too politically correct to stand up to them because they are ‘brown’. We now stand up to all ignorant white people but an ignorant person of another color can say anything. These Muslims are just like Hitler.

  22. Russell Kline

    Sadly, the truth is just what you have uncovered. To this day I know (Ex?) Nazis who justify the difference between 2 million or 4 million Jewish murders.. I have been told many times by these “mensch” that this discrepancy is due to Jewish math!!?!
    Acceptance of the existence of Evil is half the battle. I have NEVER personally met a repentant Nazi. I hear Oskar Schindler is the one exception.

    • Pat Neibergall

      Schindler didn’t go into it to help anybody but to improve his profits. It was the golden hand that resulted in good. I would like to think that as he got into it, he desired to do good. He did get recognizion as a Righteous Gentile.

  23. HJS

    Actually, there were repentent Nazis. There was the case of a ss doctor at Auschwitz who is listed among the Righteous of Nations. He risked his life to save Jews from the gas chamber. When Auschwitz was evacuated, he handed his pistol over to a jewish inmate to give him a better chance at survival. Also, there was the case of a ss lieutenant who found out what was happening at the gas chambers and he tried to inform the swedish and vatican embassies in Germany on what was happening in the concentration camps. while the overwhelming majority of nazis went along with the party line, there were a few courageous individuals who said no to the madness.

  24. Azjan

    Sad, that with all the replies, only two names come up. What about the soldiers who carried out massacres, and after the war, lived out their lives working every day. Were THEY ever remorseful? Did their Christian faith never reach into their hearts to make them horrified at their own actions? The continued denial of the everyday killer of Jews, and there were thousands, in every country, who went through every small town, killing, is really astounding. You would think there would be hundreds of soldiers/nazis who, after the war faced what they had done and were horrified. But this does not seem to be the case.

    • HJS

      Actually there were more. there were numerous cases of soldiers who refused to carry out the orders to shoot civilians. There are also cases of soldiers using their military offices to shelter Jews. The vast majority of Germans went along with the Nazi plans, but there are many who also refused to go along. It is easy for us to be smug and look back at the Germans and paint them with a broad brush. However, in doing so, you are making the same mistake the Germans did. People are individuals and how we react in such a situation we won’t know until we are placed in such a situation.

      here is a list of additional names of Germans who were honored with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

      Adolph Althoff

      B
      Albert Battel
      Gitta Bauer

      C
      Hans Georg Calmeyer

      D
      Alfred Delp
      Hans von Dohnanyi
      Heinz Drossel
      Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz

      G
      Elsa Gindler
      Hermann Friedrich Graebe
      Karl Gröger

      G cont.
      Anneliese Groscurth
      Georg Groscurth

      H
      Wilhelm Hammann
      Robert Havemann
      Joseph Höffner
      Wilm Hosenfeld

      L
      Bernhard Lichtenberg
      Max Liedtke
      Kurt Lingens
      Gertrud Luckner

      M
      Hermann Maas

      M cont.
      Maria von Maltzan

      P
      Karl Plagge

      S
      Emilie Schindler
      Oskar Schindler
      Gustav Schröder
      Fritz Strassmann

      T
      Edwin Tietjens

      W
      Armin T. Wegner
      Otto Weidt

    • Pat Neibergall

      A woman I know of the era and country who recently lost her husband to cancer said, ‘I don’t care what they say, that war affected him. His stomach was destroyed by ulcers.’ Besides sympathizing with her in her time of loss, I found this comment very interesting. Who are the ‘they’? In her view were the ulcers caused at the time or from years of remorse? I wonder if those involved, following orders, in those horrors are living with a stoicism of not breaking ranks even now and if that is being counted for merit. There seems to be a rigorous refusal of any recognition of post traumatic syndrome.

  25. Anonymous

    did you forget col. von stoufenburg? and his assasination attempt at the wolfs lair.?

  26. emma

    I think the story of August Landmesser helps shed a little on the reality of what was happening within Germany and why there are so few accounts of those who tried to resist. They were outnumbered, intimidated and often conscripted into the war, where more often then not they perished. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/blogpost/post/august-landmesser-shipyard-worker-in-hamburg-refused-to-perform-nazi-salute-photo/2012/02/07/gIQA1ZzExQ_blog.html?tid=pm_national_pop

    • Pat Neibergall

      And yet even recent documentaries show unrepentent Nazi veterans. And should the interveiwer sound aghast, the answer is something like, ‘Well, I’m sorry but to us they were just vermin.’ and sometimes, ‘I’d do the same today.’ My question is are there NO repentent Nazis? Those who didn’t agree at the time likely are dead. What about the ones who were Nazis and survived. Are there any who are repentent?

  27. Anonymous

    Some generals even tried to kill him in 1944, but failed. I also think that Goebbels would do anything to hide repenting demonstrations from the SS and Wehrmacht.

    • Pat Neibergall

      I believe that is very likely. My husband was in the Canadian Armed Forces during WWii and he saw that captured German soldiers were quite different when an officer was put in with them.

  28. Victor

    There must have been. I saw a documentary called Forgiving Dr. Mengle where an SS Officer, then aged, talks to one of the victims and more or less gets somewhat of an apology out of him. It’s a very complicated question to examine. Why do things like this happen? Hell, look at the current civil rights issue plaguing America today: gay marriage. I just read an article where Kansas proposed a discrimination bill towards LGBT people where people were allowed to turn down members of this community if their beliefs came into conflict.

    Another story I like to think about when thinking about his issue is The Reader, the film and novella. I think the novella’s argument is a good summation as to the why: lack of education. I think that’s why people do what they do. They lack perspective. Ignorance is a dangerous thing.

    But, then again, I suppose it’s human nature. People can end up doing anything. It’s quite fascinating as to why. How could a person allow themselves to commit such atrocities?

  29. Is it really so hard to understand? The Nazi culture ingrained the notion that hatred of Jews was normal, that they did not count as human beings.

    Great effort was made to ensure that the public were convinced (and would not dare to question) that the official view was that of the majority. There was something wrong with you if you dared question the established norm, much as anyone today who looks at pictures of aborted babies and dares to object, saying: “Hang on a minute, these are clearly people!” is vilified as some kind of crank.

    If you can read about partial birth abortion and view the pictures and NOT see that it is pure evil at work then you are already experiencing the deadened conscience and conformity which accompanies expediency.

    We vilify the Nazis as the lowest the human race has to offer when in reality we are not far behind as a society and closer than we think to the very people we revile.

  30. Mich

    I am writing a paper on one of the questions you asked, “Why are there no accounts of Nazis defecting when they learned about what their party had in mind for millions of people?” I had no idea others were wondering the same thing. Can we talk more?

  31. Sure, Mitch, though I’m not sure what I can offer you in terms of your research. What would you like to talk about?

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