German WWII Suffering
has long been forgotten, surpressed and ignored. I think this story is important to tell. As a Norwegian I know that the true story of what happened in Norway before, during and after the war is only in the last few years becomming clear. We have all been busy spinning heroes tales after the war. All the ugly inconvenient truth disturbing the perfect image of heroic resistance led by pure hearted heroes against the evil oppressor was swept under the rug.
One of the stories we told ourselves is that that somehow the rest of the world fought against this evil racist enemy, designating whole populations for destruction due to supposedly belonging to an inferior race. While in reality we were really just less racist. Anti-semitism was nothing unique to Nazi Germany. In Norway forced sterilization of gypsy was done without any Nazis ordering us to do it. Sami were forced to become Norwegian, and forget their culture and language.
Perhaps the most hypocritical behavior was our treatment of the children of Norwegian women and German soldiers in the post war years. These kids were treated as inferior humans just as the Nazis treated Jews and Slavic people.
I don’t mean to push some kind of moral relativism to say that Nazi Germany wasn’t that bad after all. Rather I think we do ourselves a great disservice, to paint our own history and actions in a too positive light. It easily projects the idea that we are somehow inherently good and incorruptable. If something similar to what happened in Germany to the Weimar republic happens in one of the self proclaimed “good guys” countries, we might not realize it until it is too late.
I often think of this exchange at the Nürenberg trials with Göring:
Göring: Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.
Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.
Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.
I happend to read the last part at random during George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in a book, without knowing the context. I didn’t know the quote was decades old and from a Nazi leader. Rather I thought it was a comment on contemporary events, most specifically George W. Bush. It resonated strongly with me then because watching American media from the outside and interacting with Americans at that time, it felt just like that. That the public was being wept up in a freenzy over the 911 attack. Any criticism of the Iraq invasion plans got denounced as unpatriotic, cowardly etc.
It brought a chill down my spine when I realized that it was a Nazi, Herman Göring, who had said it, and that it was not contemporary at all. Somehow he had put words to my own feelings about a war that would happen decades after he died, initiated by a democracy. And how ironic it was that an American like Gilbert had hinted at this trial that such a thing could not happen.
And in our present time with Donald Trump, I can’t help but wonder whether Germany of all things, is the country, with enough insight to the potential for darkness which lies in the human heart, will be the only one capable of standing up strong for western liberal democracy.
Now I don’t think Donald Trump has any aims for a surpressive dictatorship, and even if he did, I’d deem him too incompetent to pull it off. Rather I see it more as a forboding of how easily one could sleep walk into the wrong direction. If one incompetent president can to such degree disregard long held traditions and conventions for democratic rule, then what could a competent authoritarian accomplish in the future?
Yes. US institutions are relatively strong, but they are also totally unprepared and often based on tradition & the honor system.
Traditions are important. I was reminded of that from foreign observers, observing one of the Norwegian elections. While they were impressed by how clean it was, they also noted that it seemed to largely rely on trust. It wasn’t very well designed to protect against fraud. Democracy is built a lot more on trust and conventions that we think. People often seem to think that a liberal constitution somehow guarantees our liberties. Yet from what I’ve read e.g. that both the Russian and Chinese constitutions are supposed to gurantee wide rights to its citizens, not worse than a western democracy. Yet in practice that is far from the truth. Formal laws are perhaps less important than we think. After all Britain is a well established democracy despite being on paper a monarchy, having no constitution.