June 16, 2012

Reflections on a Bestial Culture (IV): Ordinary Horrors, Everyday Murders

Part I: Reflections on a Bestial Culture, Ready and Eager for Slaughter

Part II: When the State Proclaims It Is Become Death

Part III: The Monsters in Our Midst

In the third part of this series, I offered my imagined version of a new history book which discussed events in Nazi Germany, focusing on the Nazis' consolidation and expansion of power in the pre-World War II period. My imagined book dealt with the extent to which knowledge of the Nazis' actions, including their systematic attacks on civil liberties in general -- and notably including details of Nazi brutality -- was available to the general public. The first sentence of my imagined history announced this general theme: "It perhaps astonishes us today, but newspapers often published accounts of these firebombings, raids and murders while the campaign of terror was still underway." The "gimmick" of my imaginary book was to replace Nazi justifications and explanations with those offered by U.S. officials, as detailed in the NYT article about Obama's "Kill List." I attempted to demonstrate the close parallels between Germans' acceptance of growing Nazi horrors and Americans' acceptance of our government's actions today.

As I wrote that imaginary history, I experienced what is one of a writer's greatest rewards, one experienced all too infrequently. Although I have read fairly extensively about the rise of the Nazis, I would hardly say that I am an expert on the subject. But I have thought a great deal about the general issues involved, and about the dynamics that explain why people in many historical periods and places have so blithely accepted the steps by which their society descends into hell. As I wrote that passage, details and examples from my reading and thinking over many years flooded my mind, and a significant problem was selecting those details that I considered most revealing. In addition, and this is the reward to which I referred, I had the unshakable and deeply felt conviction that the history I had created was unerringly right. I knew, certainly with regard to the general picture and often in connection with specific details, that this had to be the way it happened. I'll explain the reasons for my confidence in a future installment.

Soon after that post appeared, I received an email from Chris Floyd. He told me that, in what he (and subsequently I) considered a rather astonishing coincidence, he had just begun reading a book concerned with the subject of my imagined history: Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany. Although the book was first published ten years ago, Floyd had never read it before. Moreover -- and I swear this is the truth -- I had never heard of Gellately's book and knew nothing about it. In connection with my earlier essay, the Amazon description of the book is worth noting:
Debate still rages over how much ordinary Germans knew about the concentration camps and the Gestapo's activities during Hitler's reign. Now, in this well-documented and provocative volume, historian Robert Gellately argues that the majority of German citizens had quite a clear picture of the extent of Nazi atrocities, and continued to support the Reich to the bitter end.

Culling chilling evidence from primary news sources and citing dozens of case studies, Gellately shows how media reports and press stories were an essential dimension of Hitler's popular dictatorship. Indeed, a vast array of material on the concentration camps, the violent campaigns against social outsiders, and the Nazis' radical approaches to "law and order" was published in the media of the day, and was widely read by a highly literate population of Germans. Hitler, Gellately reveals, did not try to hide the existence of the Gestapo or of concentration camps. Nor did the Nazis try to cow the people into submission. Instead they set out to win converts by building on popular images, cherished ideals, and long-held phobias. And their efforts succeeded, Gellately concludes, for the Gestapo's monstrous success was due, in large part, to ordinary German citizens who singled out suspected "enemies" in their midst, reporting their suspicions and allegations freely and in a spirit of cooperation and patriotism.

Extensively documented, highly readable and illustrated with never-before-published photographs, Backing Hitler convincingly debunks the myth that Nazi atrocities were carried out in secret. From the rise of the Third Reich well into the final, desperate months of the war, the destruction of innocent lives was inextricably linked to the will of the German people.
Obviously, I ordered the book immediately, and I received it a couple of days ago. I'm still reading it,

I have already come across many passages in Gellately that are directly relevant to the themes of this series -- and that are disturbingly similar to the central idea behind my own imagined history. For example, from the Introduction (in all these excerpts, I have omitted the numerous footnotes and added emphasis):
I began research for this book by addressing one of the major questions that has been raised since 1945, when we became aware of the concentration camps, namely, 'what did they know and when did they know it?' Did the Germans know about the secret police and the camps, the persecutions, the murders, and so on, and did they go along? Germans have defended themselves by saying they were unaware of, or poorly informed about, the camps, and were surprised by the revelations at the war's end. There was close to general agreement among historians for a long time, that the Nazis deliberately and systematically hid what they were doing, so it was possible that ordinary people really did not know.

This book challenges these views. It shows that a vast array of material on the police and the camps and various discriminatory campaigns was published in the media of the day. In the 1930s the regime made sure the concentration camps were reported in the press, held them up for praise, and proudly let it be known that the men and women in the camps were confined without trial on the orders of the police. The regime boasted openly of its new system of 'police justice' by which the Secret Police (Gestapo) and the Criminal Police (Kripo) could decide for themselves what the law was, and send people to the camps at will. The Nazis celebrated the police in week-long annual festivals across the country, and proudly chalked up their many successes in the war on crime, immorality, and pornography. Far from clothing such practices in secrecy, the regime played them up in the press and lauded the modernity and superiority of the Nazi system over all others.

I make extensive use of newspapers in this book, but what about censorship? The novelist Christa Wolf indicated some years ago, that anyone in Nazi Germany who wanted to find out about the Gestapo, concentration camps, and the campaigns of discrimination and persecution, need only read the newspapers. Nazi Germany was in fact a modern mass media society, and for its day was in the vanguard of modernity. Germans were both highly literate and voracious readers of newspapers, and moreover Hitler's regime did everything possible to put a radio in every home, and used newsreels and movies to get across their messages. Movie-making was soon transformed into a system-friendly industry, and it proved remarkably easy to win over journalists. Even renowned middle-class and conservative newspapers demonstrated their agreement with Hitler's appointment or asked readers to give him a chance. Thereafter, the regime guided the press mainly by holding owners, editors, and journalists politically responsible for what they published. In time more formal methods, like press conferences and directives were used. Reporters and editors colluded with Hitler by virtue of what they wrote, and reached a point where they simply chose not to follow up leads about the murder of the Jews, and numerous other atrocities. Even when newspapers published death notices about the victims of euthanasia, reporters apparently made no enquiries.

Readers of the press in dictatorships do not read less because they know it is censored. If anything, they read more attentively because it is so important to figure out what is going on. The emphasis in the book, at any rate, is not what the Nazis wanted to keep out of the media, but what they wanted to put in, and how they crafted their stories to appeal to the minds and hearts of the German people.
I have emphasized that the NYT article represents the story the government wants to tell. That is the meaning of the fact that most of the article's content is derived from interviews with "three dozen of [Obama's] current and former advisers." Gellately finds great significance in "what [the Nazis] wanted to put in" the media; the same is true for us.

Horrifyingly enough, that is only the beginning of the similarities between the two situations (and this is only one brief passage from Gellately's book; I'm certain I will offer further excerpts in the future). The Nazis "proudly let it be known that the men and women in the camps were confined without trial on the orders of the police." Today, we can forget entirely confining "suspected terrorists" in jail or camps. The Times trumpets: "Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret 'nominations' process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical." The Times details how the U.S. government regularly murders individuals suspected of "terrorism," or of representing some unspecified "threat," on the basis of fragmentary and even non-existent evidence. The government, and Obama personally, simply orders their deaths. As I discussed in the preceding installment, most Americans have already been conditioned to hate "The Other," and "terrorists" -- even suspected "terrorists" -- are obviously the worst "Other" imaginable. Even if it were true that Obama "ended torture" (it emphatically is not, and even the ACLU enthusiastically fell for that bald-faced lie), these inherently bad and evil "Others" should be grateful for their summary executions, rather than being subjected to months or even years of brutalizing imprisonment.

The Times article tells us that the Obama administration systematically and regularly murders human beings whom we must regard as innocent if we are seriously concerned with evidence and proof. If most Germans reacted at all to the stories in the 1930s, it was with indifference or approving support. Most Americans react to a prominent story about the institutionalized murder of innocent human beings in the same way.

Furthermore, the Nazi regime "boasted openly of its new system of 'police justice' by which the Secret Police (Gestapo) and the Criminal Police (Kripo) could decide for themselves what the law was, and send people to the camps at will." The Times tells us:
That record, and Mr. Awlaki’s calls for more attacks, presented Mr. Obama with an urgent question: Could he order the targeted killing of an American citizen, in a country with which the United States was not at war, in secret and without the benefit of a trial?

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel prepared a lengthy memo justifying that extraordinary step, asserting that while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch
Thus do the President and his fellow murderers dispense with charges and trials altogether; relying on secret (non-existent and/or usually erroneous or extremely doubtful) evidence, which is evaluated in secret by means of secret standards, they "decide for themselves what the law" is. Once again, they part company from the Nazis, at least as far as the Nazis' actions in the first years of their rule are concerned: Obama and the other murderers today don't merely "send people to the camps at will." Instead, they kill them.

But of course, we tell ourselves, it could never happen here.

In my imaginary history in Part III of this series, I included Michael V. Hayden's statement that “the protection of innocent life was always a critical consideration," as well as John Brennan's claim that "the president, and I think all of us here, don’t like the fact that people have to die." Compare this approach to a passage from the first chapter of Gellately's book ("Turning Away from Weimar"):
In an interview on 14 March 1933, after he was appointed provisional head of the Munich Metropolitan Police, Himmler was asked if a purge of the police was in the offing. He answered that it was not, and said that henceforth it would be easier for them to do their duty. He was pleased that the police were functioning smoothly with the assistance of the SA and SS as deputy police, and together they were tracking down many Communists and other Marxists. House searches turned up numerous weapons, illegal printing presses, and large quantities of suspicious writings. He also offered one of the first justifications for the new concentration camps. The reasoning behind the camps was meant to appeal to traditional German social values, as well as antisemitism:
The state protects the life of all citizens. Unfortunately, it is only possible to provide such protection for certain individuals, and those involved have to be taken into protective custody under the direct protection of the police. The individuals involved, who are often of the Jewish faith, have through behaviour towards the national Germany, such as through offending nationalist feelings, and so on, made themselves so unloved among the people, that they would be exposed to the anger of the people unless the police stepped in.
Less than a week later, Himmler gave instructions to open a concentration camp at Dachau. In claiming that 'protective custody' was designed to protect individuals from the wrath of the mob, he made it easy for Germans to construct stories of their own in which supposedly endangered persons were picked up for their own good. Not only that, but according to Himmler 'often' the alleged culprits who outraged the national feelings of citizens were Jews, a statement which opened the possibility for citizens, even those who were not antisemitic, to conclude that it was good to have such 'enemies' off the streets. The comforting thought was that most prisoners in concentration camps were not at all like 'good citizens'.
Imagine for a moment that, in the aftermath of a significant terrorist attack or series of attacks within U.S. borders, the government announced, with numerous expressions of "deeply regrettable necessity" and how the government earnestly sought other alternatives but could find none that would assure public safety, that local police departments (with additional support from the U.S. military as required) would immediately begin rounding up "terrorists," "Muslims" and/or "Arabs," as well as those suspected of being terrorist sympathizers, and confining them in detention camps. Imagine that U.S. officials said, among other things, that taking such "enemies" or potential enemies off the streets was necessary "for their own good," as well as for the protection of the public.

On the basis of the principles and methods the government has already announced -- and which the government thoughtfully has conveyed to the public in great detail in the pages of the nation's leading newspaper -- the government would only be continuing the policies it has already implemented if it murdered all such potential "enemies." Surely confining them in detention camps is a far more modest and less brutal means of dealing with the continuing crisis, is it not? And since almost no one objects to the already implemented and publicized program of murder, who would protest? And what would most likely happen to such protesters in the atmosphere of hysteria following another attack?

There are still more similarities and parallels to be explored, and I will address them soon. But look over the above passages another time. Think about where we are along this route to hell -- where we are today.

Your blood should run cold.