What can we learn about contemporary forms of systemic abuse from questions raised by case studies of the Holocaust, collaboration, and resistance in World War II?
This post previews questions covered in Volume #2 of my curriculum for social change agents, community developers, missional ministers, and church planters. Case studies from the Holocaust will be prominent in it, but I will also use other historical and contemporary case studies, and movies from various genres, to explore issues of recovery from abuse, advocacy and activism for those who currently have no voice to speak up for themselves, and rehabilitation and remediation for individuals and organizations that have perpetrated abuse.
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I read recently where an expert suggested that World War II, and especially what happened in Europe, was probably the most well-documented and analyzed period of world history ever.
Much continues to be researched and documented about the Holocaust aspects of that history, and resistance against the Nazi regime. My interests in this go back to the 1960s. I can remember hearing about the Eichmann trial, and reports about “Nazi hunters” looking for war criminals in South America, and reading about The White Rose student resistance movement in my sister’s high school German textbook. In the 1980s, I journeyed to Dachau, and also to Flossenbürg, where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned at the end of the war and executed April 9, 1945. (If opportunity allows, I may be journeying to the Auschwitz camp later this year.)
World War II, the Holocaust, and issues of capitulation and collaboration had been more tangential subjects. But recently they’ve become more central as I explore the dynamics of dystopias and tactics of authoritarian systems. I’ve been studying these topics more in depth the past five years, looking for parallels between what happened then to forms of systemic abuse that are still happening now – all part of my curriculum for ministries and for social transformation start-ups. Sitting atop my desk right now are stacks totally over 40 DVDs, carefully selected and collected for specific situations they highlight:
- Public dissent and underground movements against Hitler’s regime.
- Resistance by Germans and Jews and others, inside and outside the system; and inside the ghettoes, concentration camps, and death camps.
- Opposition or collaboration by those in occupied countries.
- Ignorance or denial of the Holocaust within the next generations.
- Nazi authoritarianism and the systematic destruction of culture.
- Interventions to rescue people, establishing memorials to prevent the need to rescue people in the future.
- Advocacy and activism from unexpected sources.
I’m finding many relevant case studies of individuals and institutions that bridge that era with everyday life today. They don’t supply us all the answers we seek, but they do help us sharpen our questions. And the kinds of questions that we wrestle with now regarding, say, spiritual abuse, are very similar to ones that have been voiced for over 70 years. Here are some of the questions I find these documentaries and dramatizations deal with:
How can two apparently ill-mannered artists be in similar situations, yet one responds to do something noble (like Varian Fry, whose efforts led to rescuing over 2,000 European Jews, including Marc Chagall and Hannah Arendt) and the other, something horrible (like musician Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, who promoted Hitler in the 1920s through early 1930s as his personal friend)?
How can two people of same age and gender draw opposite conclusions, where one absolutely “gets it” about evil right away and helps create an underground student resistance movement (like Sophie Scholl of The White Rose), but the other doesn’t though she realizes almost 60 years later that she was complicit in the Holocaust (like Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s final secretaries)?
In these two sets of cases, are there features of character or culture that lean these individuals in those particular directions? How could we find out? And if we knew that, how could we affect the future to lean people toward common ground for the common good, instead of perpetrating evil or protecting/promoting evil-doers?
Similarly, what can we discern and learn from comparing the state churches in Germany that capitulated to Nazism, versus the Confessing Church that publicly and privately resisted? What factors made for the differences in these institutions’ directions?
How should we treat people who collaborated with evil? What if they say later they change their view and understand now that they were in the wrong? How do figure out if that’s true, and how might that change our responses if they do?
What is the nature of evil – in/by individuals and institutions? How do we identify it in action, or investigate for it if it’s hidden or infused into the infrastructures of social organizations?
If your conscience is activated about your being inside an institution that perpetrates evil, what responsibilities do you have to fight against the machine? What’s required? What’s off limits? And why? Same set of questions, for when you’re outside the institution that’s perpetrating evil.
What’s the difference between advocacy and activism? Am I obligated morally/ethically to do both if I expect to do either?
If you aren’t doing what I’m doing to resist, does that mean you’re lazy, wrong, unrighteous, or just following different options? Or should we consider that each part makes an impact that needs to be composited together for a comprehensive front — even if it’s not exactly a united/unified front to confront evil?
What are differences between dissent, resistance, opposition, whistleblowing, advocacy, activism, etc.? Is that too nuanced? Not nuanced enough?
What happens in second and third generations if we fail to deal with the issues, or we fail to pass on a knowledge of the truth about the issues? What kinds of memorials and remembrances help us so we never forget?
What do people who supported evil “owe” society to make things right? Are they “redeemable” after what they’ve done as outright collaborators or as accomplices?
What all can/should be involved in “remediation”? Is it enough to apologize, or do items that were destroyed or stolen need to be restored? What are restitution and reparations about? How might remediation by an individual look different from being done by an institution?
Final thoughts: We can re-read those questions and substitute “spiritual abuse” or “endemic racism” or others forms of systemic abuse to see how relevant they are. So, if we are to prevent happening again the horrors of the past, we need to discern the roots, act on indicators that suggest the contributing factors and tactics are returning, and continue to remember. The evidences from a destructive past can be a guide to a more constructive future.
In light of those needs, here is a section of dialog near the end of the TNT mini-series, Nuremberg (2000), between Jewish psychologist at the Nuremberg trials, Dr. Gustave Gilbert, and Chief Prosecutor from the U.S., Justice Robert H. Jackson.
GILBERT. I went through my notes last night. I’ve spent all these months, trying to find a way inside their minds, hoping to understand how those people could commit such atrocities against my people. I believe there are a couple of factors that explain a lot of it.
First, Germany is a country where people do what they’re told. You obey your parents, teachers, clergymen, superior officers. You’re raised from childhood not to question authority. So, when Hitler comes to power, he has an entire nation that believes it’s perfectly natural to do whatever he says.
Second, propaganda. For years, Germans have been bombarded with ideas like: “Jews are not real human beings.” Or, “They’re a corruption of the race.” So, when the government says it’s permissible to deny Jews their rights – and then says it’s imperative to kill these inferior people – they comply … even if they’ve been your friends or neighbors.
JACKSON. Anything else?
GILBERT. I told you once that I was searching for the nature of evil. I think I’ve come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants – a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow man. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.
On this International Holocaust Remembrance Day, may our conscience continue to be softened and our compassion be strengthened in order to prevent the terrors of violent prejudice from taking root again.