Vogelschiss. Birdshit. A German politician used this word recently to describe the National Socialist regime which ruled Germany from 1933 to 1945. He was looking for a new perspective, one which would reduce the Nazi dictatorship to proportion in a thousand years of mostly successful German history. Elections were in the offing, and he may have felt that he needed attention. Because I am reluctant to give him any, he will be referred to here as Mr. Bird, leaving out the second syllable.
Granted, not only Germans have grown tired of seeing their great culture almost completely overshadowed by the moral horror of the Nazis. Despite the host of luminaries which Germany has given the world, many of whom are of arguably positive aspect, it is still the grotesque Hitler who tops the lists of the best known Germans. At the same time, the terrible events of Hitler’s ascendency have not yet departed from living memory.
As I write, a one-time SS volunteer, now aged 94 and relying on a wheelchair, is being called to account for many hundreds of deaths at the concentration camp in Stutthof, near Danzig, where he had been deployed as a guard. Stutthof was the place of death of over 60,000 Jews and other persecuted persons. It was also the location of a contemptible experiment by a well-known professor of medicine who wanted to turn the bodies of dead prisoners into soap. At his trial in Münster, this former SS man is disclaiming all knowledge of or involvement in anything, except for what guards everywhere are supposed to do.
We have heard this before. It is, in fact, the tenor of the German national conversation about the Nazis since 1945. If criminal atrocities were committed, and it isn’t always so clear that there were, it was all done by a small clique of high-level Nazis. Nobody else did anything, saw anything or knew anything. These claims were made, and still are, with complete sincerity, in spite of clear evidence to the contrary.
The best characters do not utter such nonsense. In some cases, however, they resort to more subtle forms of denial. An example is Richard von Weizsäcker, who had seen military service in the Ukraine, where the Nazis behaved with particular brutality. In 1984, after a successful career in business and politics, Weizsäcker became President of the Federal Republic of Germany. He was not a criminal desperate to hide his guilt. Nor was he a Nazi sympathiser. His efforts to shoulder the burden of the past were probably more honest than most.
On May 8, 1985, the 40th anniversary of the German capitulation and the end of the war in Europe, Weizsäcker gave a speech to the German parliament in which he urged a change to the culture of remembering. Referring to the deportion of the Jews in Germany, which began at the end of 1941, he asserted that knowledge of the matter had been unavoidable. Any German willing to know must have known. There could be no collective guilt, because guilt was an individual matter, and tied to unique life circumstances, but there was collective responsibility, not least on future generations, to prevent such a moral calamity from ever recurring.
It was a fine speech, in many respects. But there were a number of things that Weizsäcker did not say. One of them is that the capacity for knowledge already implies responsibility. Hence, in the case of the ill-treatment of the Jews, there was greater and more widespread guilt among the Germans than the appeal to ‘unique life circumstances’ might suggest. This looming shadow irritated some of Weizsäcker’s contemporaries, who wrote to him to point out that they themselves had always been willing to know what was going on, and still they had not known. After all, the policy behind the deportations had been kept secret by the regime. Weizsäcker’s response was to say that he believed them, because he had to. Evidently, the new culture of remembering was not likely to be more rigorous, or more truthful, than what had gone before.
In his memoirs, which appeared in 1997, Weizsäcker argues that under the Nazis, knowledge of the atrocities against the Jews was not available in such a way that their systematic nature could have been recognised. Yet, as he admits, a friend and fellow-officer, Axel von dem Bussche, had witnessed just such an atrocity, by chance, it seems, and had told him about it. This took place at Dubno in the Ukraine in October 1942, when some 3000 Jewish men, women and children were massacred by the SS. On returning to his regiment, the distraught von dem Bussche had sought the company of his peers to discuss the meaning of what he had seen. He concluded that it was a crime of such enormity that a Prussian officer could consider himself not to be bound any further by his oath of loyalty. Von dem Bussche spent the rest of the war trying to find ways to assassinate Hitler.
What did Richard von Weizsäcker not know, if he knew that a massacre had just been perpetrated against Jews? Genocide, his memoirs claim, was beyond the power of most Germans to grasp; it was unimaginable, and therefore could not be known. But he allows that there were rumours which pointed unmistakeably towards the unimaginable, even if there was no direct proof. More to the point, Hitler’s speeches, whose content was known to him, had not made a secret of the ultimate fate envisaged for Jews.
It is rather hard to believe that something could be unimaginable, and unknowable, when it had been imagined publicly, in the starkest terms, by Hitler, and there were signs and portents everywhere, even eyewitness accounts, that the imagined was being made real.
In these acts of remembering, it appears, the devil is in the detail. Or in the avoidance of detail. The sheer horror of the industrial-style murder of over six million Jews, and of the unspeakable mentality behind it, overshadows the more fundamental question of how the inceptional forms of ill-treatment, those that began early on, in daily life, before the eyes of everyone, and paved the way for what followed, could have taken hold.
The only conclusion one can come to is that Weizsäcker, like so many others, had been well aware of the extreme moral repugnance of the Nazi regime, but he had stopped himself from drawing the necessary conclusions. That is to say, Weizsäcker always knew, but he permitted himself not to have known, after the fact, because he had proved unable for the meaning of knowing. There is a word for this: complicity. There is no point in trying to explain it away.
The power of evil had taken hold of German society from top to bottom, reaching into the moral life of the Churches, the civil service, the professions and the different forms of cultural expression, turning them away from their primary purpose, not enough, perhaps, to provoke much opposition, not initially, but enough to ensure that the difference between right and wrong, as manifested, imperfectly, in the familiar social codes, could be obscured, and the troubled conscience could be lulled, or bullied, into compliance.
Are we any better today? Far from it. Genocide did not end with the Nazis. Nor has the courage of one’s conscience become any easier to find.
But the truth, too, remains: no evil can succeed if people refuse to tolerate it.
Back now to Mr. Bird. The crimes of the Nazi dictatorship were enabled by the tolerance of many whose consciences were troubled, but who still chose to go along with everything. Have the lessons of that moral shipwreck truly been learned? If Mr. Bird believes so, he has taken the first step on the road to perdition – his own and everyone else’s. He has decided that he does not want to know.