Saturday, November 17, 2012

Good Guys and Bad Guys

Yesterday, I wrote a review of a documentary film about people whose lives were caught up in the Holocaust and its aftermath.  One of the responses I got to that blog posting came from a cousin from the non-German side of my family.

She wrote, in part:

… while the war was going on, what were you told about it - or were you too young?  I know your Mother and Grossmutter were both from Germany…

Although the older people, especially those who remembered WWI, spoke about the whole nation as being Hitlerites, I don't know why, but I always felt that there were those …who were forced to do things they did not believe in.

I was struck with the innocence, even naïveté, of that response.  I don’t mean that critically.  I am very fond of this person.  But it struck me that most people I know would still explain the world in terms of good people forced to do bad things. 

In 1960, when I first went to Germany as a student, I took a course taught by Germans for Germans in the history of the Nazi period.  I wish I had those notes.  I would love to be able to recreate the mind set and the perspective.  I was fascinated at the time, but now I’m not sure if I had the maturity to take things in I might want to take in now.  It began a life long quest to understand the meaning of personal responsibility.  How does one situate oneself in the world?  How does one know one’s capacity to go along or to resist?

I decided to try to answer my cousin’s implied question.  Here’s the letter I wrote back:


Dear B:

The quick answer to your question is I was too young.  I was five when the war ended.

I do remember Uncle Bill going off to war - but from home movies, not from memory.

My first strong memory was V-E Day when the factory whistles all started blowing and my grandmother took me by the hand - I was five at the time - to go meet my father.  We missed him because the crowd pouring out of the factory was too wild - decades before cell phones.  No way to connect.  I remember being swept up in the crowd and a little nervous.   I remember people dancing in the streets.

In other words, I did not experience World War II personally.  That was the only time I could speak of being swept up in the war emotionally.

But because of Grossmutter, I grew up with a very strong German identity, as you know, and that gave me some serious cognitive dissonance during the years when I began to move away from a childish good-guy/bad-guy understanding and into a more complex analysis of human thought and behavior.  I’d say that started when I was about twelve or thirteen and by the time I was fifteen or sixteen, or whenever it was that I got some real understanding of the genocide and brutality, I began wondering seriously what made the difference between the fun-loving Germans I lived among in America and the Germans in Germany who went along with Hitler.

Having that sense of somehow being German (and remember, I could always shut that identity off at will, and tell myself that actually I was an American, not a German, and I wouldn’t be lying to myself) put me out ahead of most of my friends with other immigrant identities or no hyphenated identity at all (they were rare) in having to contend with the notion of collective responsibility and the beginning and end of “us.”   And then having to move beyond a simple good German/bad German framework early on because I began meeting people who were actually involved in the war.  I remember one of my grandmother’s acquaintances who was from Danzig (now Gdansk, in Poland) and was married to a Romanian pilot who had flown for the Luftwaffe.  Lovely people, whose company I thoroughly enjoyed.  And then there were the photos of my Uncles Kurt and Willi in Nazi uniforms.  I would meet Willi one day, but Kurt was killed in the war.  My grandmother told me they were not Nazi uniforms.  They were German uniforms.  I was told he died trying to shoot down British planes bombing Hamburg.  That story turned out not to be true – he actually went missing in North Africa.   Probably more a creation of my own young boy fantasies, now that I look back on it, rather than information collected from listening to family conversations. 

I do remember asking my grandmother once why the Germans did such bad things.  Her answer was a reasonable one – “there are good people and bad people everywhere.”  It satisfied me at the moment, but it was like Chinese food – I was hungry again in no time.  Yes, but why should all the American Germans be good Germans and why should there be an entire nation of bad Germans who stayed behind.  Did the good ones see what was coming and the bad ones want to stay behind?  A lot of stuff for a young boy to process.

I was hungry for the explanation that some people had no choice, as you put it.  If you were young, you had to put on a uniform and fight.  Uncle Willi wasn’t necessarily a bad man.  He was wearing a “German uniform,” not a “Nazi uniform.”  The Nazis ran things.  Most people just went along.  We spent a lot of time discussing how war and genocide do not cancel out the printing press and Apfel Strudel, to say nothing of Bach and Mozart.

Little by little, step by step, I made more and more complex distinctions as I went down the layers of explanation from good guys and bad guys.

I remember the first time I saw the film Judgment at Nuremburg, with Marlene Dietrich playing the wife of a German officer trying to explain to the American judge – Spencer Tracey – that her husband was a noble man – noble in class and noble in character.  “We weren’t all bad.”  There’s a great line in the movie, at the end.  Burt Lancaster plays the Minister of Justice who went along with Nazi policies.  He tried to defend himself as somebody who understood things were wrong but wanted to work for his country and make use of his power and influence to mitigate some of the worst excesses of the Nazi regime.  He was on trial, however, for participating in sentencing people to death because they were infirm or mentally deficient.  “I never thought it would come to this,” he says to the judge. Tracy, the judge, answers back, "You knew it would come to this, the first time you sentenced an innocent man to death."

I later got interested in ethics and taught a seminar in it for many years in which I would show that film.  It’s one of the great films, like To Kill a Mockingbird and Gandhi and The Third Man, that raise the eternal ethical questions, whether it’s about how to face the challenge of moral principles in a world where you have to go along to get along, or not whether, but how, to face overwhelming odds in the battle against wrong, or the question of whether there is anything more important than democracy and justice and human equality.

When I was twenty and went to Germany for the first time I was still very innocent, still working out the good guys/bad guys question.  I would go down to the Hofbräuhaus in Munich on weekends and get into discussions with former soldiers and unrequited ex-Nazis and have some interesting exchanges.  It was astonishing to realize there were people all around filled with resentment at having lost the war, and not showing any guilt.  Years later, living in Berlin, I remember a grand old lady who used to serve me cognac and bring out the chocolates and line them up on her coffee table like tanks at the Battle of Stalingrad and tell me if Hitler had done this or done that how he might have won the war.  She was a little batty, but not that batty.  I realized how thoroughly the German ideology of the right to rule had spread throughout the culture and how it was never going to be entirely rooted out and how thin the line was between pride of German identity, which I had inherited from my grandmother, and the belief in racial superiority, which made enablers of so many.   Not too many years ago, a close friend of mine was mugged on her front doorstep in Berlin by a dark-skinned immigrant.  Her daughter’s remark after the event was, “Fifty years of denazification – up in smoke overnight.”  These were people I had genuine affection for.  Not bad guys.  But arguably, in some real way, enablers, however remotely.

I had a good friend in Berlin who worked after the war to maintain the graves of fallen soldiers.  I thought of it by this time as worthy charity work, selfless, and reflective of the man's basic decency.  He had served "in Hitler's navy," but that fact had lost its onus with time.  I was actually on a path which might have led, with a little push, to my giving up my American passport and taking on German nationality.  I had come to embrace the "das war damals" (that was then) mode of thinking and no longer needed to paint with too broad a brush.

But something happened that tested that friendship.  In February of 1985, Reagan decided he owed Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor, a favor and responded positively to an invitation to meet with him at a German cemetery in Bitburg where we were told German and American soldiers were buried.  The planned visit exploded when it was discovered the planners had not done their homework.  Not only were there no Americans buried there, but 49 members of the Waffen-SS were.   To make matters even worse, Reagan had agreed not to visit a concentration camp to avoid, he said, "reawakening the passions of the time."

For the first time since the end of the war, a serious rift developed between the "das war damals", school of thought to which most Germans belonged, and the "never forget" school of thought to which most Americans belonged to.   I remember a speech on the White House lawn by Elie Wiesel, imploring Reagan to reconsider.   Most people remembered Reagan in a movie with a chimpanzee named Bonzo, and a punk rock band came out with the song, "Bonzo goes to Bitburg."   

I sided with Elie Wiesel.  My friend Achim sided with the 72% of Germans who thought the celebration of German-American friendship should be the focus and not the unnecessarily righteous stand the Americans were taking.  Suddenly we were faced with evidence that four decades after the war, even people who had more in common with each other by far than either had with their fellow countrymen of forty years earlier, instead of answering questions like how do good people do bad things, were still asking "who was us?" and "who was them?"

I never reached a point where I could explain German behavior during the war.  What happened instead was that I came to see that behavior in the broader world around me, and therefore less justifiably attributable to something essentially German.  The United States, to pick just one example, cannot escape the genocide of the North American Indian, slavery, land theft, and civil war as integral parts of its history.  Today we are an aggressor nation that kills people by the thousands under the rubric of fighting for freedom.  We took forever to come to the realization that Ho Chi Minh, if you just turned the lenses slightly, could be labeled a freedom fighter and father of his country.  We took the French colonial domination of Vietnam and made it ours.  In the end, we recognized that to win the war we would have had to resort to a kind of Hitlerian “total war” and we backed off.  That makes us better, arguably, than the Nazis, but only in degree, not in kind.  And, it seems to me what moral high ground we might have claimed by that voluntary withdrawal from mischief in the affairs of others we lost when we engaged in the same folly again a generation later, this time in Iraq, where we followed people who would be understood as war criminals who lied us into war, if we had lost that war to more powerful forces.

There is reason to reject the argument that our evil is comparable to the Nazi evil.  They were world-class aggressors; we merely interfere here and there to satisfy our national interest.  They went for total war; we send in only 1% of our population while the rest of us shop and vacation as usual.  But there are similarities.   We don’t foster genocide, but we have thrown away the Geneva Conventions and countenance and justify torture.   We bankrupt ourselves and cover everything in sight with the flag to mask the fact we find money for battleships but not for taking care of the thousands with missing limbs and mental illnesses.  You can argue over equivalency, but you can’t argue, it seems to me, that the evil that arose among the civilized people of Germany in the 30s is recognizable in the neocons of the Bush era whose goal was the expanse of empire and in the policy makers of today whose problem-solving mechanism of choice is military invasion.

This leads to the question of the extent of our participation.  How much are we responsible for “going along”?  During the Vietnam War, every year, I would march in the streets of San Francisco, down Market Street, to a rally of 70,000 people to protest the war.  It felt good.  It felt right.  And then the next day the newspapers around the country would not even carry the San Francisco event and the war went on and we realized our impotence – right up to the end when the tide finally turned.

So marching in protest wasn’t really enough.  What then?  Douse myself with kerosene in front of the Federal Building and burn to a crisp for truth?

I remember one time standing in a crowd watching the Chinese New Year’s Parade in San Francisco.  A military band marched by as one of the contingents.  It was the late 60s.  I had only recently gotten out of the army and was filled with cynicism and disillusionment.  Suddenly, I heard myself shouting at the band, “Paid killers!  Paid killers!  Paid killers!”  Over and over again.  A woman standing next to me turned to me with daggers in her eyes.  “How dare you!  My son is fighting for your freedom.  He wears that uniform proudly!”

I couldn’t tell her I had only recently taken off that uniform and was still suffering from some sort of shock.  I sometimes dream that I can go back in time and find her and apologize.  She deserved not to have her fears for her son trampled on like that.  But I had seen awful things, soldiers taken out and beaten, corruption and incompetence among officers.  The scales had fallen from my eyes and I could no longer think of America as a land of heroes.  My mother had written me once when I was stationed in Berlin and told me how proud she was that all three McCornick boys were in uniform – Brian in the Air Force, Billy in the Marines.  I wrote back and told her if she ever mentioned that again I’d never write to her again.  Wouldn’t even open the envelope, I told her.  Clearly I had lost my balance and it would take years to get it back.

I’ve got it back now.  I’m once again proud and happy to be American, actually, even though I think the country is in terrible trouble – was, at least, until this last election, which has given me some of the early faith back.   I no longer see nationality or ethnicity as meaningful categories for assessing people, though.  I no longer look for heroes and villains but at whether or not individuals are being taxed beyond their capacity to behave with decency.  It’s less interesting to me to ask whether there are good guys and bad guys.  Of course there are.   And whether good people are sometimes forced to do bad things.   Of course they are.  I’m much more interested in how people contend with the world around them when they are overpowered by events.  If they cave, what makes them cave.  If they resist, where they go to find the power to resist.   

I’ve known pathological liars, people who seem to lack all common decency, people who take pleasure in the misery of others.  I’ve also known people with great moral strength, and people totally lacking in guile.    I’m interested in the strategies of most of the rest of us in between, how we develop strategies for staying upright, for recognizing responsibility, how we aid in making sure we and others don’t get taxed beyond our capacities.  How we generate moral leaders.   Of course it’s nice, once in a while, to see real heroes – the fireman rushing into a burning building.  But I am more interested, frankly, in the ordinary person and watching the strategies they develop for getting the most out of life and helping others to do the same.

As a student of anthropology, I became intrigued by the question of whether there could be what one might call an “evil culture.”  Apparently some anthropologists think so.  There are certainly dysfunctional cultural practices.  The culture of destruction generated by the Nazis, which entirely too many people went along with, shows the depravity of which we are capable.  But so does our cultural practice of sticking our old people into homes for other people to take care of.  So does our willingness to surrender our inner cities to drug dealers and our natural resources to corporations interested only in short term profits.  We are content to live in gated communities according to an "I got mine" ethical code where we look down on the poor without health care and think, "There but for the grace of God go I."  Many of us are quick to label the less fortunate as ignorant and lazy moochers.  These impulses, if not corrected, lead to destruction as surely as bombs do.  But how many of us have what it takes to engage and try to turn things around?

Of course we go along with evil.  We can’t fight every battle.  We can’t give our all to do the right thing.  We lack the ability to see the future and understand what going along will mean in the long run.  We take it one day at a time.

Some years ago I had a gay student come into my office.  He said something to me that I wasn’t prepared for.  “I so admire you,” he said.  “You’re not afraid to be open about being gay.  I’m a long way from being there.  I hope some day I have your courage.”

I didn’t have much time to bask in the compliment before I had to explain to him that we were in very different places in our two lives.  He was barely twenty.  He lived at home with parents who supported him.  He had to worry about graduating and getting a job and making his way into a still fairly homophobic world.  I was in my fifties at the time.  I had a tenured job and didn’t have to worry about being fired.  I had worked out most of my personal identity questions, knew who I was, what my strengths and weaknesses were, more or less.  If somebody came at me, I had defenses.  I was able to carry myself with the kind of self-assurance that dissuaded anybody who might want to try and make me small.  It wasn’t courage that I had and he didn’t.  It was security.  I lived in a world where the tigers were mostly caged and where I had the benefit of health, wealth and life experience many people in the world lack – I played a part in that, of course, but it was largely chance where I had ended up.

We can imagine ourselves in more challenging situations.  We can wonder what we would have done in the time of the Holocaust.  Could we have hidden a Jew in our attic?  Would we have divorced the father of our children if he decided to join the SS?  Could we have lived with ourselves if we had, like Truman, dropped the atomic bomb, or like the founding fathers, allowed slavery in order to unite the colonies into a nation?

One cannot spend too much time with questions like this or one would never get dinner on the table.  But it’s important, I think, that we revisit them from time to time so we don’t forget who we are and where we’re going.

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