Global Resilience Solutions > 2016 > June

For the Cause… whatever it is

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In today’s post, we deal with one of the key issues in the Warrior’s life – what to do when faced with institutionalized evil. 

Every single one of us faces this issue at some point in our lives, whether it’s pressure to cover up someone else’s wrong-doing, to act unjustly toward someone because “it’s policy” or simply pressure to say the politically correct thing when it’s a flagrant lie.

Because it’s based on the pursuit of TRUTH on all levels, the Warrior’s life can get pretty uncomfortable in daily life.  Below you’ll find some of the most extreme examples of people abdicating moral responsibility and the rationalizations they used to live with their deeds.  While most of us will never face this extreme level of institutionalized evil, this does underline how vital it is for YOU as a  Warrior to understand your own “lines in the sand” ahead of time:

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If you received a progressive education, you probably had the importance of cooperation drilled into you from a young age.  Unfortunately, when it comes to the psychology of mass evil, cooperation becomes the single most devastatingly terrible mode of human existence.

During World War II, the Allies placed captured German officers and men under surveillance.  The recordings of their conversations provide immeasurably valuable insights into the psychology of institutional evil- and the ways in which human beings abdicate moral responsibility for it.  Neitzel and Welzer’s book Soldaten compiles and analyses these sometimes chilling recordings.

 

soldaten

 

Shifting Blame

For a long time, the Wehrmacht, the regular army of Nazi Germany, tried to distance itself from war crimes.  The blame for everything was, they claimed, to be laid squarely at the feet of the SS, the military arm of the Nazi Party.  Even if there weren’t ample evidence of the Wehrmacht’s guilt, these recordings would suffice to condemn many of them out of their own mouths.

 

Partisans and Civilians

PFC Müller: In a village in Russia there were partisans, and we obviously had to raze the village to the ground, without considering the losses… The order was given that every tenth man in the village was to be shot… the women and children and everyone were shot down; only a few of them were partisans.

This sort of thing, razing villages and killing dozens or hundreds of hostages in reprisal for partisan attacks, sometimes even for the death of a single soldier, occurs many times in the recordings.  Of course, these things didn’t deter partisan attacks- they simply drove a cycle of ever more extreme violence.

 

Ethnic Cleansing

Many Wehrmacht officers also discuss their involvement with massacres and deportations of Jewish populations.  Many if not most of them approved in principle of some sort of ethnic cleansing of the Jews, even if they were personally repulsed by particular methods used, such as the mass shooting of women and children.

Col. Erwin Josting: No, it isn’t right.  You can do whatever you like with them, but not burn them alive or gas them or heaven knows what else!  They should be imprisoned, and after the war has been won, you can say: ‘This people must disappear.  Put them in a ship!  Sail them wherever you wish, we don’t care where you land.’

 

Prisoners of War

There were also large bodies of opinion that dismissed crimes against prisoners of war, especially Russians.

Lt. Gen. Maximilian Siry: In the East, I once suggested- thousands of PWs were coming back, without anyone guarding them, because there were no people there to do it… So I said, “That’s no good, we must simply cut off one of their legs, or break a leg, or the right forearm, so that they won’t be able to fight…” At the time, of course, I didn’t really condone it either, but now I think it’s quite right.

 

Disagreement Actually Doesn’t Help

As Neitzel and Welzer note, it is not that there was any one uniform moral standard in the Wehrmacht or the SS, that there was no critical thinking or that everyone was successfully indoctrinated into the same culture of brutality.  Far from it.  Some people were completely against these crimes.  Many more objected to some extremes of cruelty but not the principles under which they were performed- the execution of civilians to deter partisan activity, the execution of partisans upon capture, the execution of prisoners of war when it was inconvenient to take prisoners, the extermination or expulsion of the Jews.

In the Wehrmacht especially, the people who were, so to speak, ‘thought-leaders’ of cruelty and extreme measures were probably in the minority.  But there were always others willing to go along with them, others still who objected but did not actively resist, and a command structure that didn’t want to hear about it too much.  The variety of moral views didn’t matter.  No one was willing to stand up against it, and only a couple of the German prisoners actually suggested such a thing.

A few refused orders to kill civilians.  Many claim to not have personally participated in whatever activities were beyond their personal ‘red lines’.  But when an officer received an order from higher command to burn a village or execute civilian hostages or kill Jews, for the most part, they did it.  They didn’t know what else to do.

 

The Culture of Obedience

And that was part of the military mindset.  Obedience was the prime military virtue, and disobedience was unpardonable.  The lengths to which German officers would go in the name of obedience was shown in their reaction to the frequent demand that they fight ‘until the last man and the last bullet’ in untenable positions.

From a military perspective, there was seldom any strategic sense in such orders- a mobile defence is more effective than a fixed one.  From the standpoint of military conduct, this was an innovation- you fought until there was no point in going on, and then you surrendered.  But although many officers disagreed with these orders, many of those who disagreed fought until their units were all but wiped out, in the name of following orders.

 

Cultivating Cognitive Dissonance

All of this was tied in with carefully-cultivated cognitive dissonance.  The image of the German soldier, and more importantly the German officer, as a skilled professional, was the foremost element of their self-image.  The military values of courage, obedience, discipline and so on were their touchstones.  German prisoners of war competed with stories of their exploits in battle.  But behind that there was the image of Germany as a civilised nation.  “Aren’t we the most civilised people?” one POW asked.  Another argued that Germans were generally too tolerant and incapable of hatred, and so were always being taken advantage of.

What made this sort of cognitive dissonance sustainable was that these people were trained and conditioned to limit their empathy for anyone who was not like them.  Their empathy was first for their peers, then Germans in general, and anyone else came later.  Empathy for the enemy did exist, but it was never so urgent that one had to do anything about it.  It was easy to put distance between oneself and the victims through the overarching bond of military loyalty.

And for those who pulled the trigger themselves, whether on their own initiative or in obedience to orders, the Nazi propaganda machine had a ready-made delusion: they were sacrificing for the fatherland by being willing to get their hands dirty. The same delusion of self-sacrifice has been recycled many times up to the present day.  Nazi propaganda spoke of the need to overcome ‘humane’ instincts by sheer force of will.

 

A Universal Dynamic

And here comes the painful part.  It may be the Wehrmacht saying these things, but every other power in World War II did the same things- not necessarily the targeted racial violence, but the war crimes, the execution of prisoners when it was inconvenient to take them in, killing of civilians and so on.  Neither the Japanese nor the Americans were noted for humane conduct in the Pacific War.  The British executed German paratroopers on Crete.  All sides bombed civilian population centres, a class of crime that was curiously removed from the level of disapproval a single infantryman killing a single civilian could draw.

And it wasn’t just the global madness of that particular war.  American soldiers in Vietnam saw nothing exceptional about burning villages or killing suspected Viet Cong sympathisers- especially if they got the South Vietnamese Army to do the deed for them.  We could go into Russian war crimes in Afghanistan, the war crimes of both sides in Korea, the war crimes of more recent conflicts, but you get the idea.  Brutality becomes the norm unless a clear line is drawn against it- and ruthlessly enforced.  The category of “War Crime” becomes a function of political and military convenience.

 

The Institutional Culture Trap

This is the trap of mass psychology, especially within a close-knit institutional culture.  It becomes easy to object to something, yet do nothing about it, because it is the norm, because your superiors don’t want to hear about it, because policy has been made, because it happens all the time, and above all because you don’t want to break your bond to that institution or stick your neck out.  The really sad thing about these recordings is that until defeat seemed inevitable, most of these officers still believed in the war they were fighting and the glory of German arms.


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