The Holocaust Museum And the Search for Truth

jesus_in_abu_ghraib

What keeps us from recognizing the truth when it’s staring us in the face? That’s the question that occurred to me as I visited the Holocaust Museum last week when I was in DC. The answer is complex. Dealing with its ramifications challenges us to remember what we learned in kindergarten and what many of us were taught in church.

Last week’s visit was my second time through the Holocaust Museum. Its four floors of display, film, recordings, and horrific material memorabilia are dedicated to keeping alive the nightmare of the systematic murder of millions of communists, socialists, Jews, trade union leaders, priests, ministers, nuns, homosexuals, gypsies, and disabled along with other “dysfunctionals” and enemies of the state.

This time Peggy and I along with our youngest son, Patrick (age 26) spent most of our time on the fourth floor. It details Hitler’s rise to power. How did the German people allow that to happen, I wondered? They were Europeans. They were “modern,” producers of great philosophers, theologians, poets, novelists, musicians, scientists, and industrialists. Even more puzzlingly, they were largely Christian living in a major birth-center of the Reformation.

And yet they allowed the prison-camp system to emerge. They allowed Hitler to declare war on the world. The majority claimed ignorance of the gassings and incinerations. But surely, no one was unaware of the vilification of the ovens’ victims. Hitler’s speeches were filled with denunciations of “Jewish madness.” The phrase not only reflected anti-Semitism, but was code for the political left inspired at its core by the Jewish Testament – those communists and socialists that Hitler (and the ruling classes across Europe and the United States) hated and feared more than anything else.

And when Hitler declared war on the world, good Christian Germans lined up to fight for God and country. As Elie Wiesel reminds us, Catholic prison guards gassed Jews during the week, and then went to confession on Saturday and received Holy Communion at Mass on Sunday.

Reviewing all of that in the Holocaust Museum made me uncomfortably aware that the specter of Adolf Hitler is stalking our world today. It actually pains me to say that this time the shadow is cast by the United States. As I write, the “Americans” have established the control of the world that Hitler sought. In effect, Hitler (or more accurately Hitlerism) won that Second Inter-capitalist War.

In fact, since 9/11 the U.S. has declared a Hitler-like war on the world. It recognizes no inhibiting law, and will brook no rival. Its law of the jungle prevails. The war’s enemy: the poor who demand a fair share of the resources located where they live. Acting as the Hessian armed force of multinational financial interests, the United States identifies, arrests, tortures, and eliminates those who insist that the oil, minerals, natural resources, and agricultural produce of their countries belongs to them and not to the foreign interests on whose behalf the United States polices the world.

Part of the police-world the “Americans” have established is unending war; another is the world-wide prison system like the one at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The prisons are entirely reminiscent of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Belsen, and Dachau, though government secrecy keeps us in the dark about the true extent of the clandestine hell-holes. They are centers of torture and degradation that beggar description. They are filled with Muslims, not with Jews. (Ironically Palestinian Jews are spearheading the attack on Muslims. It’s not for nothing that the Palestinians are called “the Jews’ Jews.”)

As for the unending war, according to the highly decorated ex-CIA agent John Stockwell, over the last 60 years, “The Third World War against the Poor” has claimed far more lives than the horrendously iconic figure of six million. In Vietnam alone more than 2 million Vietnamese were slaughtered. In Iraq, the figure of pointlessly butchered reaches beyond 1 million in a war of aggression which the U.N. terms the highest of international crimes.

And yet, our contemporaries, like the good Christians of Berlin and Cologne, are mostly in denial about the extent of the police state that has taken form especially since 9/11. Most deny (at least by their silence) the very existence of secret prisons, torture of suspects, the plain fact of political prisoners, death squads, and systemic cruelty.

Where does that denial come from? Where did it come from as Hitler rose to power? Part of the answer is that the process of take-over was gradual. It took years as Hitler advanced from army corporal, to political prisoner, to best-selling author of “Mein Kampf,” to Member of Parliament, to Chancellor, to dictator.

Similarly, the mission creep of the U.S. National Security State has been gradual as we’ve seen our government claim (and be granted by the judiciary) the right to spy on its citizens, search them without probable cause, imprison them without charge, torture them without limit, and ultimately kill them without trial. In the face of all that, like our German counterparts, most of us have stood dumbly by and have even applauded our oppressors as they expropriate us of our constitutionally guaranteed rights.

Another source of denial is the disruption that truth-telling causes in our own lives. As Paul Craig Roberts has recently pointed out, telling the truth disturbs career trajectories and can even disrupt family relationships. That makes fathers and mothers, ministers and priests, politicians and pundits close their eyes and moderate their speech. Roberts says,

“The power elite, especially the liberal elite, has always been willing to sacrifice integrity and truth for power, personal advancement, foundation grants, awards, tenured professorships, columns, book contracts, television appearances, generous lecture fees and social status. They know what they need to say. They know which ideology they have to serve. They know what lies must be told—the biggest being that they take moral stances on issues that aren’t safe and anodyne. They have been at this game a long time. And they will, should their careers require it, happily sell us out again.”

What to do about this state of affairs? For one we must learn to think critically. At the very least, that means applying daily to what we see and hear the “law of reciprocity.” It’s something even a child of seven can understand, though it seems beyond the capacities of our “leaders” to grasp.

One meaning of the law of reciprocity is that what is good for me is good for you; what is bad for you is bad for me. This means that if the U.S. would consider it unacceptable for Pakistanis to drone their enemies on “American” soil, it unacceptable to drone “American” enemies on Pakistani soil. If it’s wrong for Iranians to have nuclear weapons, it is also wrong for Israel or the United States to have them.

The law of reciprocity makes one wonder what the United States would do if a foreign drone so much as appeared unbidden in American airspace much less if it did its destructive work on the ground.

Besides observing the elements of what we were all taught in kindergarten, it would also help to heed what most of us have heard in church all our lives. That those German prison guards could do their crematorium work during the week and receive communion on Sundays seems somehow contradictory to the teachings of Jesus, don’t you think?

What about the guards at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, the soldiers in Fallujah or Haditha, or the drone pilots sitting at the consoles in their air-conditioned theaters? How are they different from the Germans we condemn?

Help me figure this one out. The question is disrupting my life.

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

20 thoughts on “The Holocaust Museum And the Search for Truth”

  1. Its not.

    What really makes me feel bad was that since my sons are such good video gamers I had actually entertained the thought that if they joined the miitary and “got a good job” thay they would not just be serving tbeir country but they would also be safe… if they were using their gaming skills for what used to be euphemised as “surgical bombing” and surely no one could fault remote reconnaisance against an enemy!!

    I really thought the point of all this tech was to not just spare our sons’ from harm

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    1. sorry… but to make sure air strikes or troops were targeting actual combatants instead of families with women children and aged.

      Seems from what.you are saying tbat instead of fighting against bodies of combatants like actul armies and real.military forces, instead we are fighting groups that are more like neighborhood watch! I pray that is inaccurate!! Because if it is correct, it is also paradoxically wrong!

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    2. Dear Kathy, Jeremy Scahill has just written a book on these “surgical strikes.” It was published yesterday. It’s called “Dirty Wars.” Monday and Tuesday Scahill was interviewed by Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now.” The interview makes clear how untargeted these drone strikes are. They are “automated death squads” and their targets are very vaguely identified. On today’s “Democracy Now” a victim of a targeted Yemeni village is interviewed at length. Highly recommended.

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    1. Point well-taken, Bill. thanks. I’d even go further and say that probably no non-elite Jews yelled “crucify him.” It was the Romans who executed Jesus. Certainly not all Germans were Nazis. Witness the resistance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemoller and the “Confessing Church.” Not all Jews support the oppression of Palestinians in the illegally occupied territories. Neither are all “Americans” supporters of the Cheney-Obama assassination programs.

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  2. Wow! This is powerful stuff. I’m not sure if I can agree with all of your statements but will at least check out the references you cite.

    One thing I can say is — this is the best brief description of the Holocaust that I have ever seen. I am so disgusted that the Jewish p.r. people continue to refer to “six million Jews,” deliberately omitting the other 7-12 million victims. You have properly mentioned other groups who were sent to concentration camps, tortured, starved, forced to labor long hours with no or little food and eventually gassed and cremated. There were two ethnic groups not specifically mentioned here: the Poles and the Russians who suffered enormous losses.

    Peace!

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  3. Mike…

    Your point about how truth-telling disrupts our lives resonates with me. As you suggest, the threat of such disruption is a key ingredient in our collective choice to be uncritical of reality. This conversation reminds me of our attempts to use Plato’s allegory of the cave to ignite similar dialogue among LASP students.

    Overall, I find your last several blog postings to be highly relevant. Thank you for investing your energy in stimulating meaningful reflection among readers.

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  4. “It details Hitler’s rise to power. How did the German people allow that to happen, I wondered? They were Europeans. They were “modern,” producers of great philosophers, theologians, poets, novelists, musicians, scientists, and industrialists. Even more puzzlingly, they were largely Christian living in a major birth-center of the Reformation.

    And yet they allowed the prison-camp system to emerge. They allowed Hitler to declare war on the world.”

    What is astonishing is that this idea that Germans allowed Hitler to come to power is taken for granted. Hitler was not voted in by a majority of German people
    What happened is that Hitler was finally made Chancellor by President Hindenburg in the hope of getting the country moving after Hitler’s party hindered process. ( much like filibusters are used by Republicans ) There had been several elections in the space of 3 years in which Germans were clear that they were no at all absolute in their support of the Nazi party, .
    After he was made chancellor he promptly sent his opposition to Dachau. He was then granted absolute power by those parliamentarians who remained. Hitler came to to power because of Germany’s leadership, not because of it’s people.
    There is also an assumption that the German people could have stopped the Nazi agenda. With those who might have provided leadership, fleeing the country, with those who might have been opposed to Hitler in fear of their own lives, with those who could not see though Hitler.. thankful that he brought the country from the brink…..how might they have done that? Further….how might they have done that while they were in the middle of a war and their own cities bombed to bits? How might those who remained, women and children: how might they have stopped the Holocaust with their men off to war? After all the extermination of the Jewish people was not ‘needed ‘ until after the Council of Evian in 1939, in which the whole world decided to refuse refuge to Jewish refugees.
    If the Geramn people are to be judged by those who are tourists and visitors to museums , it behooves those who write about it to be a little bit more informed of what the German story actually is.

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    1. Your words about Hitler are thought-provoking and well-taken. They make me question what I’ve read in more than one place about his 80% approval rating. George Bush had similar ratings at one time — even though he was appointed, not elected by actually counting votes. And yet the force of (Hitlerian) propaganda allowed “Americans” to support him in his war of aggression against Iraq. (Some still buy the Bush-Cheney claim that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11.) Are “Americans” responsible for the congresspeople they “elect,” but who vote against the wishes of 90% of the people (I’m thinking of gun control)? I’m not sure any government can ever speak of “absolute support.” Where does that leave us? Can one judge by the troops who agreed to fight in the war, or by the masses one can see assembled for Hitler’s speeches, or by those Catholic prison guards Wiesel references? When do a people become responsible for the crimes of their officials — or for not resisting them?

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  5. No need to help you figure it out, Mike. You are 100% correct in all you write in this blog. And I’d like to see more roasting of liberal hypocrisy as you do here.

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  6. To understand how Hitler came into power, you may find it useful to read old newsmagazines and newspapers from the 1920s-1930s. Berea College Library has many of the then-most-popular ones in the archives. Observers during the actual era saw things differently from the way they are often described in classrooms today.

    You’ll find items like the following, from TIME Magazine December 5, 1938: “Dr. Ley did not forget that he was addressing, among other German workers, many more or less devout Catholics, all of whom know that Pope Pius XI has taken the strongest stand against anti-Semitism and inferentially against Naziism (TIME, Aug. 14)…”

    Or this one, from NEWSWEEK, Aug. 22, 1938: “The Nazi party’s drive to rid German medical ranks of Jewish doctors has provoked angry complaints from unexpected quarters. Well-informed Germans arriving in London last week reported that the army high command had squawked lustily, pointing out that the armed forces’ medical divisions were already 40% undermanned and that a further shortage would cause grave risk in war. It’s now a good bet that the new campaign (as well as the drive to rid hospitals of Catholic-nun nurses) will be modified, at least in so far as it affects the army and navy…”

    Another EXCELLENT read, very much at odds with the “Willing Executioner” meme, is available through JSTOR. “The Conspiracy Against Hitler in the Twilight War” by Harold Deutsch describes one of several attempts by the German military to remove Hitler (who was disastrous to the German military even before he brought the rest of their nation to ruin.) Harold Deutsch was a history professor at the University of Minnesota. During his younger days Deutsch was in the “thick of things”, and met and talked first-person with many of the people he writes about in his history. Highly recommend these resources for helping to understand what was happening at the time.

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  7. If you’re interested in the role of Pope Pius XII, here are some descriptive paragraphs from U Minn’s book description:

    “This is the first detailed account in English of the German anti-Nazi plot of September 1939 – May 1940, a conspiracy which involved the services of Pope Pius XII as in intermediary. Much new information is presented, and the book puts the whole story of the German resistance movement in a clearer light than has been possible before.

    “Much of the account is based on the testimony of over fifty witnesses whom Professor Deutsch interviewed or interrogated, comprising virtually all the participants or observers who survived the period. He also had access to previously unavailable French and Belgian documents as well as to diaries and other private material.

    “As the author explains, there were four major rounds of opposition to the Hitler regime, the conspiracy described in this volume being the second. In many ways it was the round in which circumstances were the most favorable for success. High military quarters were the most fully committed, it was the only plan in which a foreign power at odds with Germany (Britain) took a supporting position, and it was the only instance in which a notable outside figure, Pius XII, made his good offices available as an intermediary.

    “The role of the Pope in this conspiracy has been known in a general way since 1946, but Professor Deutsch’s investigation is the first intensive study were at the core of the affair, Josef Muller, the Opposition agent who dealt with the Pope and who later became the Bavarian Minister of Justice, and Rev. Robert Leiber, S.F., the Pope’s confidential aide.”

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  8. Mike, my recent post has gone missing. Did you get to read it? I brought up questions about the nature of Paracuellos in the first months of the Spanish Civil War (a political mass murder under Republican leadership, probably on the advice of the Soviet advisor) as well as Katyn Forest (genocide of Polish leadership under Soviet occupation in 1940). These acts are part of the brutal history of the 1900s, but the names and events go unmentioned. Shouldn’t all parts of the truth be told — not just a lopsided piece of the whole? No wonder so many people are profoundly confused.

    Everyone needs to go to confession and do penance — not just the Germans, who took up that difficult task.

    As you quoted Paul Craig Roberts, above: “….telling the truth disturbs career trajectories and can even disrupt family relationships. That makes fathers and mothers, ministers and priests, politicians and pundits close their eyes and moderate their speech. Roberts says,

    “The power elite, especially the liberal elite, has always been willing to sacrifice integrity and truth for power, personal advancement, foundation grants, awards, tenured professorships, columns, book contracts, television appearances, generous lecture fees and social status. They know what they need to say. They know which ideology they have to serve. They know what lies must be told—the biggest being that they take moral stances on issues that aren’t safe and anodyne. They have been at this game a long time. And they will, should their careers require it, happily sell us out again.”

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  9. Here’s a New Yorker Magazine link about “Wild Bill” Donovan. It has some sidelights about German history also.

    Mike, if you took a survey of Berea College students, how many of them have awareness about the fate of some five thousand Germans who opposed Hitler… let alone Canaris? Students who attended Berea history classes did not seem to know that ANY Germans had opposed Hitler, let alone ones as high up as Canaris. Are you aware of the name of Canaris, and what happened to him?

    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2011/03/14/110314crbo_books_menand?currentPage=all

    “Generally, though, acts of sabotage or attempted assassination carried a dreadful price—and the worse the Nazis’ situation became, the more vicious the reprisals, especially against Germans suspected of disloyalty. The O.S.S., and other Allied intelligence services, encouraged (though did little more than encourage) resistance efforts inside Germany. None had any effect in shortening the war, and all had a terrible end for those involved. Hitler executed almost five thousand people after the failure of Operation Valkyrie, the July 20, 1944, assassination plot led by Claus von Stauffenberg. Allied intelligence had one great German asset, Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Abwehr, German military intelligence. Canaris was arrested after the July 20th plot, but he was not executed until the final days of the war. He was hanged with piano wire, to prolong the ordeal.

    “The main problem, though, was that the Allies did not really want a coup against Hitler to succeed, and they certainly did not want a negotiated peace with Germany. Roosevelt and Churchill, meeting in Casablanca in January, 1943, had committed their nations to “the total elimination of German and Japanese war power…..”

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