Currently, I am living in Germany as a Fulbright scholar at Johannes Gutenberg University. During my time here, I have visited concentration camps, attempting to understand how an advance and civilized society, a culture which gave the world Beethoven, Luther and Klee, could also mechanize some of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century.
Rather than wrestling with evil, it becomes easier to simply dismiss Nazi concentration guards as monsters. Constructing monsters simplifies our visceral response. But even monsters pet dogs. It is so easy to characterize the abuser as inhuman, as lacking any sense of loving emotions. Simple binaries of good and evil makes inhumane those placed under the label of evil. Although I have no intentions of excusing oppressive and repressive acts committed by individuals seen as the monsters of our world, their monstrous acts are more a product of the dominant gaze they learned and internalized since childhood than any inherited characteristic. Those who commit great atrocities have a capacity to love. To that end, I plan to write about the “good” Nazi.
As I watch films and gaze at photos of daily life in Germany during the 1930s, I see anonymous individuals who loved their children, went to church, provided charity to the poor, respected their parents, and worked hard to provide a standard of living for their families. Such scenes are no different than photos of present day America. Both those now and then share the monotonous of the everyday. And yet … and yet, something oppressive is brewing amidst the everyday. We miss the obvious when we simply focus on the monsters chanting Sieg Heil. Nursing mothers, clergy, young boys and cookie-backing grandmas also extended their right arm to say “Heil Hitler.” I am left dumbfounded trying to understand how these “good” Nazis could support politicians who set in motion such devastating hatred.
As I walked through different exhibitions concerning the rise of Nazism, I am struck by the alternative facts presented by the then-establishment. I begin to notice a disturbing pattern. Jews are portrayed as having lots of problems. They were responsible for infecting Germany with drugs, crime and, yes, the rape of good Aryan women. They practiced a fake religion which hated good German Christians. They were sexual perverts. Free press was dismissed as providing false reporting. And only the Führer could solve their problems.
Hatred of the other is a powerful tool used by despots since the start of political structures. Hatred unites against a common enemy, a common enemy which is different, a common enemy which speaks a different language, practices a different religion, has a different orientation — a common enemy which, because they are not like us, must therefore be assumed to seek our destruction. What can lead these everyday people to such hatred? Fear. Fear of perceived lost of power, prestige or privilege? Fear of the world and the Other who also occupies the world?
We must remember that pre-Nazi Germany was in turmoil. The basic social contract that if one worked hard one can advance failed. The wealth gap between the richest and the poorest continued to widen. The middle class was on a downward trajectory. They felt forgotten by their political leaders as foreigners cut in line to receive entitlements. These good folks just needed good-paying jobs. But they also needed someone to blame for their situation. Rather than looking upward toward those who were profiting by their economic misery, they were given a target upon whom to redirect their anger — the “dirty” Jew.
I cannot help but wonder what would have been my response during the rise of Nazism if I was alive in Germany during that time. Probably, I would have considered Hitler to be a joke, a clown supported by ruffians at rallies, followers dismissed as a basket of deplorables. We are too civilized and Christianized a society to ever descend to the depths of genocidal madness. Such talks of looming dystopias are simply hyperboles. Rather than read the signs of the times, I might simply hum to myself “Everything is Awesome,” secure that I possess enough white privilege to shield me from the unfolding violence.
Maybe I would have been one of those arguing to give Hitler a chance. In spite of my hesitations, maybe he could shake things up for the better. And even though he had voiced anti-Semitic comments, I might have convinced myself he really didn’t mean it, but just said such horrible things to garner votes from his base. I would wonder how he could be bad if a large segment of church-going good folk supported him, when religious clergy and leaders portrayed him as God’s anointed. Besides, I’m not a Jew, and while I’m no extremist, some, I assume, are good people. Yes, I too could have become a “good” Nazi if I attempted to soften and make more palatable the Führer’s comments.
And yet, regardless of the justification claimed for voting for Hitler (or even refusing to vote because other candidates were insufficiently purest), I am no less complicit and responsible. Whenever hatred of the racial or ethnic Other and hatred of the religious Other, mixed with a strong dosage of misogynist and homophobic tendencies, are used to unite people behind a man promising to fix all our problems, I must stand against such evil. It matters not if I economically agree with his policies; it matters not if he commits to appoint individuals with whom I agree to high post in the government; it matters not if his policies may provide immediate benefits to me personally.
For in the final analysis, there is no such thing as a “good” Nazi; no matter how loving, or how Christian, or how patriotic one may be, any support of policies which brings death and destitution to a group that is Other to me renders me guilty of crimes against humanity — even if I am a nursing mother, clergy, a young boy or a cookie-backing grandma.