by R.Lesnoix for The Saker blog
One can fault the British for many things but not for their sense of humour. Some time ago I saw a sketch by the comedy duo Mitchell and Webb. They played two German soldiers, sitting in a fortified position at the front, enjoying the relative quiet of the moment. They were dressed in SS uniforms. In that typically British roundabout way of starting an awkward conversation one of them begins to talk about their uniforms. He has noticed something odd, something off-kilter. Their uniforms have skulls on them. So he asks the other one why that would be. In the following discussion they try to come up with positive associations with skulls. They try to find a valid reason why their uniforms would have skulls on them. When they fail to do so and can only come up with negative associations the first one looks the other in the eye and asks hesitantly “Are we the bad guys?”
It’s a funny sketch partly because with our knowledge and morality of today the idea of two SS-men wondering if they are the bad guys is almost grotesque. Off course they are the bad guys. “How could they not have known they were the bad guys?” Many will have this thought flash through their minds in some way or other. It is generally posed as a rhetorical question as it’s so obvious it requires no further deliberation. That is a mistake though. It’s a very serious question. It needs exploring because it goes to the root of why good men are capable of doing, or supporting, great evil. So let’s explore it. Why didn’t the Germans consider themselves to be the bad guys?
Let’s start with the skulls. Putting skulls on uniforms wasn’t unique to the SS. It had a long tradition in the German army and before that in the Prussian army. It was used by the hussars for example on their hats. One likely reason the SS used it was to tap into this history, to present themselves not as something completely new but as a new way of continuing old German traditions or if you like as one of different ways they tried to legitimize themselves as part of German society. Keep this trick of trying to look like something you’re not in mind. Nor were the Germans the only ones to use it, nor was it a purely military thing. If the skulls alone denote ‘evil’ what does that say of the Skull and Bones society which has many of Americas elite, even former presidents, among its members? Skulls have had many symbolic meanings throughout human history. Judging historical use with a narrow contemporary view will lead to wrong conclusions. So no, the presence of skulls on their uniform was not a dead give-away of being ‘the’ bad guys. Unfortunately this simplistic view, especially judging the ‘other’ with ones own limited viewpoint, is commonplace. Point to one very specific aspect that is easily identifiable as ‘bad’ from your point of view, ignoring context, and presto. You have your bad guys. Given that we are conditioned to view the world in absolutes that also gives you your good guys. If one side is bad, the other must be good.
For Germans in the 1930’s it was far from obvious they were the bad guys. They had lost the first world war, a war they felt was forced upon them by other countries. They had requested an armistice, believed they were promised a fair settlement and were then betrayed at Versailles. Some, maybe most, believed that the war was not lost at the front by the army but back home by spineless politicians. Hadn’t the army defeated the Russians on the eastern front after all? Germany lost significant parts of what it considered to be its ‘Heimat’ permanently while other parts were occupied by the allies. The exorbitant reparations they were forced to pay drove the country into economic misery. In other words, Germans largely felt themselves to be the victims of injustice. They felt robbed, they felt threatened, they felt betrayed, they felt wronged. So when someone came along who helped make things right, off course they went along. The economy improved, unemployment went down, political stability returned, the army was strengthened, lost parts of the ‘Heimat’ were regained and a settlement with the Soviets was arranged. From their point of view these were good things, worthy achievements even if it came with rough edges. When world war two broke out, it’s also easy to imagine this was seen as a reaction of the western powers to the resurgence of Germany as a continental power. It was just a new phase in a centuries old political game. This time though, the manner in which the conflict played out was much, much darker as civilians became the target in very direct ways. I’ll leave the rest of what happened for what it is. You all know the story.
When it finally ended Germans were, collectively, blamed for the crimes and misdeeds of their government. For most of them these came as a shock. Some were in denial and refused to accept them as true. Most accepted them though, especially when the stories of the average soldiers who had served on the eastern front or as occupation troops became more widespread. Given what they had seen and done, the camps didn’t seem that farfetched. While some argued over the details of what happened there and over exact numbers, and some still do, there’s no doubt of the brutality and wide scale murder that took place. The treatment of ordinary Soviet citizens and Soviet prisoners of war alone are testament to the evil nature of the Nazi regime. Note that this does not mean that their opponents were pure as snow. Whatever the misdeeds and crimes committed by the allies and Soviets, these do not justify or excuse what the Germans did in any way. It did make it easier though to see them as the bad guys and by inference, themselves as the good guys.
The Germans argued they hadn’t known what had been going on, other Germans were to blame, ‘Wir haben es nicht gewusst’. But looking at the scale of what happened we wonder how they could not have known. There were plenty of signs, plenty of proof in plain sight, not to mention all the public rhetoric their leaders had used. How could they not realize what was happening? How could they not know the murderous nature of their state? The counterargument against the German people can be paraphrased as ‘you could have known and you should have known’ combined with ‘looking away from what is happening in order not to see it does not absolve you of guilt.’ And truth be told, after the war the German people did carry this guilt collectively. They did realize how wrong they had been. But they also struggled with the question of how this had crept up upon them. How could they have been so blind? Individuals who had always thought of themselves as good people had somehow been led astray and had become more than just bad guys, they had supported and facilitated evil. And that question is crucial. If it could happen to the Germans, it can happen to others too. As Herman Goring said, “you don’t need the support of a majority of the population, you only need about 5% of them behind you as long as it’s the right 5%.” Does that sound familiar to anyone?
It’s easy to point fingers at a few guilty individuals but ultimately it takes a state with all its trappings to commit atrocities on this scale. And it wasn’t just the Germans who got caught up in this. Just look at how easily and seamlessly local authorities in conquered countries cooperated with the occupation authorities. Local police enforced German policies without much resistance. They cooperated to combat resistance groups and to arrest whomever the Germans wanted. People tend to have a natural inclination to follow institutionalized authority without questioning its moral legitimacy. Its moral legitimacy is assumed as nearly all people consider themselves to be, individually and collectively, the good guys, irrespective of the specific collective used to identify with. Given that we all are members of different collectives at any given time, it’s easy to use, consciously or subconsciously, a collective whose moral authority is obvious to ourselves. We then confuse the self-image we have of our morality with the morality of the institutions that rule our daily life.
Many in the western world identify as Christians for example and the Christian creed and morality is beyond doubt for them. So it becomes easy to say to one self ‘as Christians we have the moral high ground so obviously we (our institutions/governments) are the good guys’. In the west we also consider ourselves to be democracies and we elevate this onto the highest of pedestals ‘we are democracies, the most righteous form of government and therefor we hold the moral high ground so obviously we (our institutions/governments) are the good guys’. Even more abstract is the notion that we, in the west, are ‘free’ and therefor have the moral authority over those countries where ‘the people’ are ‘not free’. We believe that gives us the moral high ground so obviously we (our institutions/governments) are the good guys. We have become moral Pavlov-dogs. Dangle a so-called noble cause in front of us and any action, any action, undertaken by us (our institutions/governments) instantly becomes justified no matter what the morality of that action itself actually is. We have killed, directly or indirectly, children not by the hundreds, not by the thousands, not by the tens of thousands but by the hundreds of thousands over the last few decades in order to make the world ‘free’ and ‘safe for democracy’. Somehow that’s okay with us. But when our own government tells us Assad killed some children with chemical weapons (cue Pavlov-reaction) no proof is required and we accept ‘something’ must be done. Why? Because we (our institutions/governments) are the good guys and we’ve been conditioned to think that the good guys don’t lie. Despite all the lies we’ve witnessed we still think of them as incidents, not as the rule. It’s always individuals that lied or did wrong. ‘Tony Blair lied the UK into the Iraq war’. No, everyone did. The whole system is corrupted, not just individuals in it. The system rules and changes the individuals, not the other way around. We justify our belief in our authorities by saying that if it wasn’t true ‘someone’ would speak up. Lies that big can’t hold up. But when people do speak up we ignore or ridicule them, calling them conspiracy nuts. And a suspiciously large number of them have car accidents, commit suicide, are on planes that crash, suddenly get cancer or are the victim of robberies gone wrong. The scale of our self-delusion is mind-boggling.
For the Germans during and before world war two a similar association took hold. They felt they had been wronged in many ways after the first world war and that as the victims of that war they were only trying to make right those wrongs. So to them the moral authority obviously belonged to them no matter what they (their institutions/government) did. They saw themselves as the good guys. Period. At most they recognized some rough edges but not enough to question the moral authority of what they (their institutions/government) were doing. Latch on to one belief of absolute moral authority and the gates to mass-murder and atrocities are wide open. Machiavelli’s best known observation is the mechanism of ‘the goal justifies the means’ as a political tool. This also applies to morality. If people are convinced of their own moral superiority they stop questioning their actions. Any action is allowed. But moral authority never rests with just belief or creed or conviction. It is not absolute, it is not unquestionable. Ones morality is determined by ones actions and by ones inactions, not by belief. Remember, looking away in order not to be confronted by unpleasant realities is not a valid excuse to claim innocence. Not acting is a moral choice too. Not questioning your assumptions is also a moral choice. ‘God is on our side’ or its equivalent has been uttered by just about every side in a war at some point even when the warring sides were of the exact same religion. Now looking back that looks as absurd as two members of the SS wondering if they are the bad guys. But when you don’t question moral authority, when you simply assume it then both of these make complete sense.
Which begs the question, how will people in the future look back at us and our historical era? I am a citizen of one the western countries that thinks of itself as free, democratic and based on Judaeo-Christian moral authority. My fellow countrymen and women consider themselves to be the good guys. It’s so ingrained into the national consciousness it’s like a super-dogma. By implication they consider what their government does, especially internationally, morally good. ‘They are us and since we are good so too must they be’ the thinking, if any, goes. And yet domestically they denounce individual politicians and political parties in large numbers as corrupt, self-serving and elitist. The traditional political parties in most western countries are taking a beating in the polls as they are seen to represent not the people but their own pockets and supranational interests. Voters flock en masse to the so-called populist parties on both the left and right of the political spectrum. We denounce the European Union as completely undemocratic and ruled by technocrats who are at the beck-and-call of big business. Fewer and fewer of us consider ourselves to be Christians and even if we do it’s a vague sort of watered down version without much substance or clear morality. The popular narrative in fact is to be inclusive of ‘the other’ and their convictions. All creeds and convictions are supposedly equal. Tell that to the Kali-worshippers. And although we question and discard the very foundations of our own freedoms, our own democracy and our own Christian-based morality domestically, we still believe that our national and supranational governments and their attached institutions somehow represent freedom, democracy and moral authority. We still think we, both individually and collectively, are the good guys. We seem to be unable to separate the moral self-image of the individual from the morality of the state. And yet it stares us in the face.
The number of people that died in Iraq since the western aggression against that country started in 1990 has been estimated at several million. The economic sanctions imposed by the west between the first and second gulf war have cost an estimated 1.5 million Iraqi lives of which about 500.000 were children. When confronted with these numbers former US representative at the UN Madeline Albright stated that ‘it was worth it’. Hillary Clinton had a similar comment. I know of no western leader who back then condemned or denounced this and who acknowledged our actions as immoral and wrong. I could go on with numerous examples of how our western policies have resulted in mass casualties of civilians, including children, over the last few decades. If this one by itself does not start you to question morality nothing will. So if you’re not questioning now, maybe you should wonder why and take some time to contemplate the matter.
I do consider myself to be of high moral character. I have thought about this long and hard. I know right from wrong or at least I think I do. It is always tricky to confront ones own assumptions. I consider that what our western governments are doing is very, very wrong. I sense this clash between me as an individual and me as a member of a happy society that does, according to my individual sense of morality, evil. When I look around myself in my day to day life I don’t see it. Most people are like me. I feel like I fit in. Life looks nice and shiny. Bread and games for all. But when I widen the scope and see what those we let represent us do I shudder. And I feel sick to my stomach. For me there’s no doubt. The future historians will look at us and wonder in amazement. They’ll ask why we buried our head in the sand so deep, why we didn’t acknowledge the signs we were seeing. Why we didn’t call out our leaders on their immoral actions and attitudes. They’ll ask “how could they not have known they were the bad guys?”. Because we are. As long as we look away and do nothing we too are guilty. We enable the system and it fills me with shame. As long as we maintain our illusion and refuse to acknowledge that we are in fact not the free and democratic societies we pretend to be and do something about it we are as much to blame as our governments are.
R.Lesnoix is a concerned citizen who grew up during the Cold War under the constant fear of nuclear weapons. He is dismayed with the direction the western democracies are going in.