Hitler et al: Part 1 ~ Should Individual Citizens Be Held Responsible for Crimes Perpetrated by their Country’s Political Leaders?

by faithgibson on September 11, 2014

~ word count 1836 ~    

I started this post on WWII as a short introduction for the Letters of the Scattered Brotherhood, which is an anthology by clergy and other leaders of the Church of England.

It contains 104 ‘letters of the scattered brotherhood’ written during the pre-war period and WWII (1933 to 1945).

If interested, here’s a link to my Amazon.com book review of LSB.

However, my research into the topic of Hitler and the Nazi holocaust of WWII soon took on a life of its own, as it brought up the important question of whether:

  •  Individual citizens should be held responsible for the criminal actions of its country’s political leaders

And its evil twin:

  • Can the victims of these crimes be blamed for not resisting “enough” and if so, how would we ever be able to functionally define the circumstance of “enough”?

These two “big-blue-elephants” in the middle of the room are ideas we generally don’t want to acknowledge or talk about. This is especially true for Americans in the post-9-11 days of pre-emptive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, CIA ‘black-ops’ in the Middle Eastern countries that included the use of torture, and of course, Guantanamo Bay Detention Camps (Gitmo), where prisoners have been held for more than a decade without their right to habeas corpus and/or access to other Constitutional aspects of due process.

So was the German population itself responsible for ‘stopping’ Hitler?

Likewise, was the Jewish population of Europe responsible for ‘letting‘ itself be victimized by not “adequately” resisting?

From that perspective, what category would we put the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Something More to be Learned?

Beyond simple yes-no answers is, I believe, an even more interesting question: Is there something important to be gained from the very act of inquiring? Is it possible that learning more about why wars are started, how they are fought and the qualities of human nature — especially how the typical psychology of ‘ordinary’ citizens can be predictably manipulated by intrigue, cunning and skilled treachery sociopathic politicians who raised the idea of the ‘big lie’ as political strategy to a whole new level of despicable.

Might learning more about these issues provide “actionable intelligence” that would help steer us (i.e. humanity) away from the total insanity of industrialized warfare, while providing a measure of grace that might (just maybe) make a future world war less likely?

I certainly hope that’s the case. My research on WW I and WWII and the social and political experience of the German population during the intra-war years (1918 -1939) brought me face-to-face with the horrific realities of modern warfare and Hitler’s inexplicable crimes against humanity.

This year (2014) is the 100-year anniversary of WWI (also called the ‘Great War’), which was the perfect occasion for the History Channel to broadcast an astonishing amount of original film footage of events just prior to the declaration of war, and both old and newly-made documentaries addressing nearly every possible WWI-related topics.

In addition to news reports of the era, these documentaries covered far more than any one person actually wants to know, beginning with political personalities, European geography (rivers are a big deal when it comes to troop movements!), nationalism, weapon technologies, military generals, and their particular strategies, etc.

None the less, this was the first time that I came to deeply understand both the reasons for and the historical realities of WWI and its pivotal place in the events that lead up to WWII.

I began studying WWII by watching a 26-hour documentary series originally film just 8 years after the end of WWII. The filmmakers interviewed eye-witnesses to the events and personalities of WWII. In many instances, they had personal insider-knowledge of pivotal political and military Leaders that was extremely informative.

This included European civilians, soldiers from both sides, prisoners-of-war, concentration camp hostages and slave labors, the pitifully small number of death camp survivors (only two), German officers prosecuted for war crimes and two surviving members of Hitler’s personal staff, including his personal valet (male) and his private secretary (female). Both of them were present in the Berlin bunker during final days of the war and were eye-witnesses to Hitler and Eva Braun’s suicide and the murder-suicide pack of a Third Reich military commander who first shot his wife and all six of their young children, and then turned the gun on himself.

Given the miracle of  the History Channel, I also watch about dozen documentaries about different aspects and battlefronts of WWI, as well as another dozen specifically about Hitler, his early life, those that surrounded him after he became was appointed Chancellor (and then ‘appointed’ himself became dictator!), the “Night of the Long Knives”, and the high-ranking military officers that set policy and conducted the war strategy.  To drill down deeper on specific topics I surfed the internet and read a lot of Wikipedia articles (G*D bless Wikipedia!).

Returning to the question of collective guilt

The obvious question this raises is why the German population ‘allowed’  such carnage to be perpetrated on themselves and others?

My Mennonite great-grand father, whose ancestry traces back to Bern, Switzerland in 1521, only spoke high German, which has been the formal language of the “Old-order” Mennonite religion for centuries. My paternal grandfather was from a region in Poland that had been a part of Germany in the previous century, and again became German territory in subsequent ones.

This family history made the question of the German people’s  “character” personal as well as sociological. As a very small child, I was embarrassed by my German heritage, because I thought that Germans were where “germs” came from, which made “Germans” were responsible for the germs that made people get sick.

Before homes had televisions, movie theaters showed newsreels of world events before every feature film. Following WWII, these included film of American troops and officials touring the recently liberated concentration camps. Black and white newsreel footage included naked emaciated figures milling around, others too weak to stand were sitting or lying on the ground next to deep pits filled with grotesquely disfigured corpses. Against the stark backdrop of decrepit and unpainted wooden barracks, the camera zoomed in on huge piles of eyeglasses and children’s shoes.

These reports often included scenes of German civilians from near-by towns being forced to look at the horror that lay just outside their city limits, the inference being that they had willfully turned a blind-eye to the camps and what went on there.

These outrageous images were projected on a movie screen the size of a barn, which multiplied the shock of its content. As I type this account, these memories still emotionally vivid and still distressing. I was only 3 or 4, but it was enough to make me sure that I didn’t what anything to do with being German. As a skinny blue-eyed blonde child, I dreamed of becoming a dark-haired, brown-eyed Italian with a figure like the movie star Sophia Loren, so I could be as ‘un-German’ as possible.


  • 1. victimization?
  • 2. co-conspirator?
  • 3. able to take corrective action?

But frankly the issue of communal responsibility for the actions of one’s government goes far beyond any single time, place, nationality or political configuration. The question is crucial to the stability of civilized societies — what would set up a society to either become a victim of its own government or co-conspirators in a government organized around perpetrating crimes against humanity?

Equally crucial is the question of whether or not it is possible to systemize human knowledge and ingenuity to create a third option, one that can inoculate us against fear and allow us to become, as said many others including Mahatma Gandhi, part of the solution? That describes a state in which we are intellectually and socially able to take corrective action (political or otherwise) on behalf of oneself and society. Many of us believe that this is at the very core of and gift of democracy.

In the 1930s and 1940s there was no “Door #3”. Hitler’s first act as Chancellor was to politically eviscerate the German Free Republic and fire, incarcerate or kill all of its democratically elected officials.  As a result, Hitler and his henchmen perpetrated its crimes directly and in large number against its own population and many other ethnic and religious groups in addition to Jews, (see details in part 3), as well as perpetrating military aggression against the majority of sovereign European countries.

After careful study, I arrived at a conclusion that I think helps understand Nazi Germany from a factual basis, and explain how Hitler the Mad-Man successfully exerted his control over the German government and its military to achieve the absolute powers of a dictator. He then used his dictatorial power to put equally vicious individuals in charge of important government functions, the military, the Nazi Party and its Brown-Shirt militia (i.e. S.A),  the S.S., and the Gestapo.

Under his constant and obsessive micro-management, Hitler’s dictatorship institutionalized a reign of terror against its own people of historic proportions that masqueraded as legitimate powers of State. Saddam Hussein 24-year presidency of Iraq and the reign of terror by his Ba’ath party of sociopaths’ paled by comparison.

Applying this information to contemporary American Politics

The salient issue for Americans is the ethical questions of political dissent and whether such protects and civil disobedience are appropriate acts of patriotism or disloyalty and subversive behavior?

What is the duty of American citizens to protest when our own government behaves in ways that appear unethical or are clearly extra-judicial transgressions against other countries, groups or individuals (such as holding prisoners-of-war indefinitely without trial)?

Are Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden heroes or traitors for revealing what most American already assumed to be true — that much (but obviously not all) of what is stamped “Top Secret” by governments (our own and others) is to hide embarrassing bureaucratic blunders, bad judgement and/or manipulate the system to one’s personal, political or ecomonic advantage by hiding essential information from the public.

Is there a logical distinction between a true ‘freedom-fighters’ and terrorism masquerading as patriotism, or are such distinctions just the politically-expedient opinion of those in power at that moment?

Most of all, does it matter? Can we as individuals and politically-active citizen groups hold our government appropriately accountable for its actions and exert the crucial influence that would keep our democracy genuinely democratic? Of those three relationships between a citizen and his or her government — 1. victimization; 2. co-conspirator;  3. able to take corrective action — how do we make sure there always is a “Door #3”?

Or if things fell apart for us as they did for the German people during the intra-war years (1918-1939), when Germany was essentially a ‘failed state’ and our economy imploded and a bold but psychopathically-insane politician seized control of a weakened government, or our country was facing extreme destabilization on many fronts due to an ecological disaster (like rapidly rising sea levels), would we inevitably become as politically helpless as the vast majority of ordinary citizens living in Nazi Germany from 1931 to 1945?

Nobody can answer that question, but factual knowledge of Hitler, et al and a better understanding of why German society fractured from within at least reduces the likelihood of systematic evil happening again. As a human species, we will collectively decide if the many blessings of industry and technology and the powers of governments are to be used to help or used to hurt one another.

Peace to all

faith ^O^

ref: http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/riseofhitler/collapse.htm

Continue: Hitler: Part 2 ~ A Slow Motion Disaster in Three Acts ~ Overview & Act One


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