Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Spiritual Battleground

It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn
 A big thanks to David Foster for bringing back to my attention Sebastian Haffner's book, Defying Hitler. David Foster gives a good review of the book here. Re-reading it a second time has given me a greater appreciation of it, most importantly for Haffner's understanding of the psychology of evil.

Haffner's book is interesting because it was written before the Second World War, before Germany had committed the bulk of its atrocities, and is remarkably prescient in understanding what Germany would become with the adoption of Nazism. His concern, however, was only obliquely with fate of his nation, rather, he tried to understand why Nazism was able to rise up in a country where the majority of its inhabitants found the ideology intolerable. Remember, only 36% of Germans actually voted for Hitler directly, the rest simply went along. In that regard, the book really shouldn't be called Defying Hitler, a more appropriate title would be Getting in Step or Toeing the Line.

Haffner recognises that the problem lay in the personal failure of Germans throughout the whole of social structure, especially in the upper echelons in society.

He illustrates this with the fate of the Kammergericht, the Prussian Supreme Court;
[Ed: After the Nazi's physically took over]It was strange to sit in the Kammergericht again, the same courtroom, the same seats, acting as if nothing had happened. The same ushers stood at the doors and ensured, as ever, that the dignity of the court was not disturbed. Even the judges were for the most part the same people. Of course, the Jewish judge was no longer there. He had not even been dismissed. He was an old gentleman and had served under the Kaiser, so he had been moved to an administrative position in some Amtsgerichtsrat (lower court). His position on the senate was taken by an open-faced, blond young Amtsgerichtsrat, with glowing cheeks, who did not seem to belong among the grave Kamniergerichtsrats. A Kammergerichtsrat is a general, an Amtsgerichtsrat a lieutenant colonel. It was whispered that in private the newcomer was something high up in the SS. He saluted with outstretched arm and a resounding "Heil Hitler!" The president of the senate and the other old gentlemen thereupon made a vague gestures with their right arms and murmured something inaudible. Previously they had chatted quietly and knowledgeably during the breakfast break in the deliberating room, discussing the events of the day, or professional gossip, the way old gentlemen do. That no longer happened. There was a deep, embarrassed silence while they ate their sandwiches.
The deliberations themselves were also often strange. The new member of the senate produced unheard-of points of law in a fresh, confident voice. We Referendars, who had just passed our exams, exchanged looks while he expounded. At last the president of the senate remarked with perfect politeness, "Colleague, could it be that you have overlooked paragraph 816 of the Civil Code?" At which the new high court judge looked embarrassed, like a candidate who has just slipped up in a viva, leafed through his copy of the Code, and then admitted lightly, "Oh yes. yes. Well, then it's just the other way around." Those were the triumphs of the older law.
There were, however, other cases--cases in which the newcomer did not back down but gave eloquent speeches, in a somewhat overloud voice, stating that here the paragraphs of the law must yield precedence; he would then instruct his co-judges that the meaning was mere important than the letter of the law. He would quote Hitler. Then, with the gesture of a romantic stage hero, he would insist on some untenable decision. It was piteous to observe the faces of the old Kanimergerichtsrats as this went on. They looked at their notes with an expression of indescribable dejection, while their fingers nervously twisted paper clip or a piece of blotting paper. They were used to failing candidates for the Assessor examination for spouting the kind of nonsense that was now being presented as the pinnacle of wisdom; but now this nonsense was backed by the full power of the state, by the threat of dismissal for lack of national reliability, loss of livelihood, the concentration camp . . . They coughed; they said, "Of course we agree with your opinion, but you will understand . . ." They begged for a little understanding for the Civil Code and tried to save what could be saved.
That was the Kammergericht in Berlin in April 1933. It was the same Kammergericht whose judges had stood up to Frederick the Great 150 years earlier and, faced with a cabinet decree, had preferred jail to changing a judgment they considered correct in the king's favor. [Ed]In Prussia every schoolchild knows the story of the miller of Potsdam, which, whether it is true or not, gives an indication of the court's reputation. The king wanted a windmill removed because it disturbed the view from his new palace of Sans Souci He offered to buy the mill. The miller refused, he wanted to keep his mill. The king threatened to dispossess the miller, whereupon the miller said, "Just so, Your Majesty, but there's still the Kammergericht in Berlin." To this day the mill can be seen next to the palace.
In 1933 the Kamrnergericht toed the line. No Frederick the Great was needed, not even Hitler himself had to intervene. All that was required was a few Amtsgerichtsrats [Ed: Nazi court appointees]with a deficient knowledge of the law.
Haffner here recognises that the Nazi's ascent was preceded by a change in Germany's "best and brightest." Whereas in the time of Frederick the Great the Judges of the Kammergericht were quite prepared to disobey the King, even with the real risk of imprisonment, death and torture, modern Germans were not prepared to go as far in upholding the good. Haffner describes the corruption of own father, a man who was educated in the best traditions of European civilisation. 
As I said, my father himself had retired long ago. He had no official powers anymore and could have done nothing to harm the Nazis, even if he had wanted to. It seemed as though he was out of the line of fire. But one day he, tool received an official letter. It contained a detailed questionnaire. "Under Clause X of the Law for the Re-establishment of the Civil Service, you are required to answer the following questions truthfully and in full . . . Under Clause Y, refusal to answer will entail loss of pension . . ."

There were a lot of questions. My father had to state which political parties, organizations, and associations he had ever belonged to in his life, he had to list his services to the nation, explain this and excuse that, and finally to sign a printed declaration that he "stood behind the government of national uprising without reservations In short, having served the state for forty-five years, he was required to humble himself again in order to continue to receive his well-earned pension.

My father stared silently at the questionnaire for a long time.

Next day I saw him seated at his desk, the form in front of him. He was staring past it.

"Are you going to fill it in?" I asked.

My father looked at the questionnaire, grimaced, and said nothing for a time. Then he asked, "Do you think I should?"


"I wonder what you and your mother would live on?" he said at last.

"I really don't know," he repeated after a while. "I don't even know," and he tried to smile, "how you will be able to go to Paris to write your thesis.

There was an uneasy silence. Then my father pushed the questionnaire aside, but he did not put it away.

It lay on his desk for several days. Then one afternoon as I entered the room I saw my father filling it in, slowly and laboriously, like a child writing a school essay. Half an hour later he out himself and took it to the mailbox before he could change his mind. He showed no outward change in his manner and spoke no more excitedly than usual, but it had nonetheless been too much for him. With people who are used to restraint in word and gesture, some part of the body is invariably affected by severe mental stress. Some have heart attacks in such cases. My father's weakness was his stomach. He had hardly sat down at his desk again when he jumped up and began to vomit convulsively. For two or three days he was unable to eat or keep down any food. It was the beginning of a hunger strike by his body which killed him cruelly and painfully two years later.
He sold his soul for a pension.

But it would be a mistake to think that this moral failure was German. The point about Haffner's work is that he illustrates that the failure was human, in that, in similar circumstances we could all see ourselves doing the same thing. And yet we mustn't. It's because it's the little "appeasements" and "compromises" that open the door to Hell.
We were pursued into the farthest corners of our private lives; in all areas of life there was rout, panic, and flight. No one could tell where it would end. At the same time we were called upon, not to surrender, but to renege. just a little pact with the devil-and you were no longer one of the captured quarry. Instead you were one of the victorious hunters.

That was the simplest and crudest temptation. Many succumbed to it. Later they often found that the price to be paid was higher than they had thought and that they were no match for the real Nazis. There are many thousands of them today in Germany, Nazis with a bad conscience. People who wear their Nazi badges like Macbeth wore his royal robes, who, in for a penny, in for a pound, now find their consciences shouldering one burden after another, who search in vain for a way out, drink and take sleeping pills, no longer dare to think, and do not know whether they should rather pray for the end of the Nazi era-their own era!-or dread it. When that end comes they will certainly not admit to having been the culprits. In the meantime, however, they are the nightmare of the world. It is impossible to assess what these people might still be capable of in their moral and psychological derangement. Their history has yet to be written.
[Ed: This was written in 1938, we all know how it ended and what these people were capable of doing in the end]

Our predicament in 1933 held many other temptations apart from this, the crudest; each was a source of madness and mental sickness for those who yielded. The devil has many nets, crude ones for crude souls, finer ones for finer souls.
Some men are seduced by power and yet others by the pension, either way, the seduction is ultimately poisonous. The important point is to resist. Haffner also recognised the societal importance of this failure to resist.
If you read ordinary history books…you get the impression that no more than a few dozen people have are involved…According to this view, the history of the present decade is a kind of chess game between Hitler, Mussolini, Chiang Kai-Shek, Roosevelt, Chamberlain, Daladier, and a number of other men whose names are on everybody’s lips. We anonymous others seem at best to be the objects of history, pawns in the chess game…It may seem a paradox, but it is none the less a simple truth, to say that on the contrary, the decisive historical events take place among us, the anonymous masses. The most powerful dictators, ministers, and generals are powerless against the simultaneous mass decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large…Decisions that influence the course of history arise out of the individual experiences of thousands or millions of individuals. [ED]
Conservative thinkers often put forward restitutive proposals for Western Civilisation based upon legislative changes. But as Haffner has shown us, no matter how illustrious or well designed the institutions, unless the men that give life to institution are good, the institution will fail. It's not a question about rationality. Haffner's father, like the judges of the Kammergericht, were some of the best educated men ever, educating them more would not have changed their course of action because what they lacked was not education but courage, or more specifically, fortitude*; a moral virtue.

That's why nothing gets fixed until morals begin to change. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God........

You know the rest.

*Fortitude is different from courage. Courage aims to overcome fear, but fortitude pushes through all obstacles such as sloth, indifference, boredom, despair and fear. It's a virtue which flows from the possession of caritas(charity). Both the Nazi's and Communists had courage in abundance, but they lacked the virtue of fortitude.