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Friday, May 18, 2018

‘The Reader’–Can There Be Added Dimensions To Evil? And Can Anyone Be Truly Moral?

‘The Reader’, a movie starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, is a story about an Auschwitz prison guard who, rather than open the doors to the barn where transit Jewish prisoners were kept on their way to the concentration camp, let hundreds of them die in a consuming fire.  The Winslet character, Hannah Schmitz,  does not deny what she did, but states that to have opened the doors would have been a dereliction of duty, for she and the other guards had been charged with the transport of the prisoners no more no less.

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Schmitz, like all the other Nazis on trial at Nuremberg, said that she was only following orders; and that although she knew the final destination of the Jews under her responsibility were to be executed, she could not be held accountable for that finality, only her immediate actions.  The Nazis might be guilty and even morally repugnant; but she, sharing neither their mission nor philosophy and only a simple tram-conductor promoted to camp guard could not share the blame. Guilt is neither black nor white, but shaded by context, condition, and circumstance.

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Had she simply carried out her duties, accompanying the soon-to-die Jews to the ovens and assuring security, she might have been exempted from trial.  If there was any category of innocence, it surely was that of functionary.  Yet by her deliberate, considered, and unequivocal refusal to open the doors, she became a Nazi as reprehensible as Goering or Goebbels.

What are we to make of her conviction?  In the movie she is portrayed as an uneducated, apolitical, working class woman who accepted employment as a camp guard as a better-paying promotion, a chance to better herself and to move up within the German civil service.  While she could not have formally authorized the order to keep the doors locked – her illiteracy made it impossible – and should have been spared the long sentence she received as a member of a complicit group but not its leader, she certainly had a moral responsibility to free the prisoners from a certain and horrible death.

Did she deserve the long prison sentence meted out?  Was she legally guilty as charged? And, more importantly, was she morally responsible?

Suppose that Schmitz, while not a member of the Party, sympathized with the Nazis.  Jews incinerated in the burning barn was only an unplanned, serendipitous, and cost-saving anticipation of the Final Solution.  If, in her mind, Jews were to be exterminated without moral consequences, then what was the crime in letting them die before arrival at Auschwitz?

Suppose that she was neither a Party member nor a sympathizer, but a good German civil servant and citizen who understood the rules and authority of the State.  Following orders in a highly disciplined, authoritarian regime in a very obedient, respectful society, was normal and appropriate.  No one demanded moral loyalty, only official obedience.

Suppose that she was ‘an ordinary German’, one with neither partisanship nor philosophical understanding, without any particular animus or hatred for the Jews, but one who was dutiful, respectful, and obedient; whose orders were to control the prisoners and to prevent escape.  Was that enough to exonerate her from the burning?

In other words, how much morality can we expect from the led, the followers, the economically and socially powerless?  To have refused orders, explicit or implicit; to have risked one’s fragile career or even life, would have been indeed heroic.  Yet was such heroism even possible?   Neither Hannah Schmitz, her colleagues, nor the German people could possibly be held to a higher morality, one whose execution would mean certain death.  Most Germans, and most people, would have kept the doors shut.

Is lack of heroism a crime?

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen has written extensively about the complicity of ordinary Germans in the Nazi Holocaust.  They could not have been totally ignorant of Hitler’s plan, he argues, and despite the powerful machinery of the State could have rebuffed the Fuhrer when they first realized his intents and might have been able stop him.

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Once the complicit acceptance of Hitler and his grand designs became widespread if not universal, the incorporation of Nazi ideals within the normal life of German citizens became easy.  Not only did Germans no longer question Hitler or even think of revolt, they accepted him.  The environment enabled them to sleep easily.

Do such ordinary Germans deserve the opprobrium of Goldhagen?  Don’t we all fall prey to overwhelming majority opinion, cultural ethos, and peer pressure? Yet his contention that if ordinary Germans willingly, if complaisantly, joined the enabling environment, they were as guilty as those who perpetrated the atrocities of the State.  Difficult or not, Goldhagen contends, everyone has a moral responsibility to assess and admit the nature of the environment he wishes to enter, to take the consequences of entering, and suffer the opprobrium and physical risk of staying out.

‘The Reader’ adds an unwanted take to the argument.  How could an illiterate, unschooled woman of limited intelligence and ability possibly be convicted within the same context as Himmler or Eichmann? Are there not exonerating conditions, even within a Holocaust?

To judge Hannah Schmitz is to judge all of us.  Regardless of political affiliation, sentiment, or cultural conditioning,  do we not all have a moral responsibility to do right?  To assume so is to assume a universal understanding of right.  Condemning hundreds of people to a horrific death has no justifying interpretations.  There can be no doubt, no reflection, or no arriere pensee. Wrong is wrong.

Another movie, ‘The Lives of Others’, tells the story of life under the autocratic Communist East German regime under which everyone informed on everyone else.   The State was all-powerful, all-consuming, and in complete control. It took little persuasion or incentive to recruit informers.  Informing was a way of life.  Morals and ethics were dismissed in the struggle for survival.  The value of family was inestimable, beyond calculation. Why should one expect heroism from ‘ordinary Germans’?

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One easily concludes that the Holocaust was evil – not simply a familiar expression of autocratic power, but a deliberate, politically unnecessary act of human treason.  Genghis Khan, responsible for hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths on his way to geopolitical hegemony is given  free pass as was Pol Pot, Mao, and Stalin.  At least these dictators had  purpose.  Hitler could have won a war of European conquest without the annihilation of the Jews.  He is considered  evil because his slaughter could not be explained in geopolitical terms.

Can there possibly be any innocence under a regime of evil? Are there any exonerating or plausible excuses for the behavior of Hannah Schmitz?

Of course there can.  There are few heroes, and to condemn ‘ordinary’ Germans, Americans, or anyone else for failure to step up is wrong.  Universal and categorical condemnation of complicit Germans is to consign millions to an immoral Hell.  Are those who live peaceable lives under Hamas or Israel accountable for Middle East violence and death? Moreover does one has to prove one’s moral credentials to be absolved of guilt or complicity. Those Hamas supporters who stay at home, away from the border protests are either quiet supporters, actively complicit, or neutral; but must be calculated in the final moral accounting of the violence. Israelis, Iranians, North Koreans cannot be excluded from the calculus; but what values to ascribe to them?

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It is very easy and convenient to conclude quickly on matters of morality; but the truth is far more complex.  The rush to include even the most marginally implicate in an atmosphere of condemnation and political correctness is understandable but dangerous. Such judgments dispense far too easily with human weakness.  If we – morally wobbly and never sure but never dismissive – err on the wrong side of history, are we forever condemned?  While there may indeed be a spectrum of evil – and the dereliction of Hannah Schmitz certainly falls within critical range – should condemnation be universal, or should comparative judgment rule?

One hopes to never be in such a critical moral crisis because despite the stories of heroism and courage, few people are up to the mark.  Complaisance, submission, and complicity are the rule and not the exception.

America has become a very moralistic and doctrinaire society,  Shades of gray have been blackened in or whited out.  One must be on one side or the other.  Such polarity demands more of ordinary citizens than they were prepared for.  No one told then that they would ever have to put their principles on the line or their life for them.  Such choice is painful, unnecessary and unfair.

This does not mean that the categorically moral demote all others to an amoral, flabby center.  It only means that they should not expect martyrs.

Hannah Schmitz was not a bad person or a particularly immoral one.  She was just as human, frail, and indecisive as the rest of humanity; incapable of moral choice because her limited intelligence, narrow upbringing, and conservative codes of behavior never even allowed for he possibility.  She should not be judged.  Nor should any of the rest of us, accused of far less heinous crimes.

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