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Those Who Justify Genocide

Michael McManus asks what remains of morality in the face of genocide.

“I made the effort to shoot only children… it was soothing to my conscience to redeem children unable to live without their mothers.”
– Member of a Nazi police death squad

Israel recognises 6,620 Poles for their sacrifices, sometimes of their lives and their children’s lives, in helping Jews during WWII. The figure far exceeds the number of heroes in France, or in fifty other countries listed at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust (one exception is the Netherlands). Some of the Polish heroism is described in Code Name: Zegota (2010) by Irene Tomaszewski and Tecia Werbowski. It is therefore a tragedy that Poland briefly brought in penalties for anyone speaking of Polish complicity in the Holocaust, for complicity there was. Poland could instruct us all on the complexity of morality under enemy occupation, but foolish leaders have chosen instead to ally themselves with those who deny their history – such as the manipulators who rule Turkey and deny Turkish responsibility for the genocide of Armenian Christians between 1915 and 1922.

In 1992 Christopher Browning published an in-depth study of the Police Battalions operating as death squads in Poland. He titled it Ordinary Men because that is what the squads were made up of – people like you and me and our neighbours: respectable people, kind and compassionate, who loved their wives and their children, who led blameless lives, until confronted with the opportunity to do evil with impunity. These men were mostly in their late thirties and their forties, with varied backgrounds: most were previously labourers, truck drivers, seamen, waiters, salesmen, and office workers. A few were better educated, such as teachers and pharmacists. They were assisted in their work by Polish informers who often plundered the vacated property. They were hampered, however, by other Poles.

No one reading Browning’s book can avoid the question, ‘What would I have done?’, nor be content with the easy answer, ‘I would not have committed murder’, ‘I would not have stood aside’, and so on. We think of ourselves as basically good, and we can all give reasons why we do not cheat, lie, or kill. Even in this secular country in this irreligious age, many of us will think of the ethical part of the Ten Commandments (you should not dishonour your parents, lie, steal, commit adultery, or murder) as a list that has stood the test of time. It’s almost part of our physiological makeup. Others will have in mind the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. Some will refer to a sense of duty, following, without knowing it, Immanuel Kant’s command to do nothing that we would not wish all other people to do in suitably similar circumstances.

The members of the Polish death squads, brought up in a Catholic country, ought to have had the same commitments. However, none of the cases examined by Browning showed any sign of religious principles. So much for the sense of duty and its influence on moral behaviour. How much better to follow a secular rule like the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill: a deed is good if it leads to the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

Some of the murderers reasoned like that, too. One officer explained that the killing of a few thousand Jews would protect Germans from harm; another reasoned that defeating Bolshevism – for which the Jews were to blame – would “be for the benefit of Germany, Europe, yes, the entire world.” Some officers justified the killings as self-defence: killing unarmed Jews stopped those Jews from sheltering armed partisans.

Genocide © Federico de Cicco 2020. Please visit zumar7.com Instagram.com/zumar7/

Ethics & Character

Where does all this leave morality? Is ethical teaching no more than words, with no actions attached?

Friedrich Nietzsche, of all people, can initially help us here. He emphasised character as the indicator of how a person would act. In this he was influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer’s assertion that our unconscious impulses (which Schopenhauer confusingly said were part of the Will) determined our actions, not moral imperatives like the Ten Commandments. A man can do what he wills, said Schopenhauer; but he cannot will what he wills. Nietszche dismissed rules for ethical behaviour as merely dealing with the symptoms of evil actions, not the roots. He regarded character as unchangeable in its essence, even if somewhat variable in its expression. Therefore, he claimed, to say, ‘Thou shall not kill’ was as nonsensical as to say, ‘Thou shalt be wise’. A person with a calm, compassionate, and virtuous character might nevertheless express anger and seek retribution when confronted with a depraved murder, or an evil character might appear placatory and emollient when accused of a serious crime. Yet if a person’s character determines how they behave, then the reasons they give for their actions are otherwise irrelevant, and when put to the test, they will act without thought, like those who jump into a raging sea to save a child and afterwards deny that it took courage, explaining that they did what they did without thinking.

The task set to the police death battalions was to pull men, women, and children from their homes, march them to a killing site, and shoot them. Anyone too old or too young to march was shot on the spot, sometimes in their beds.

Before the first massacre, a doctor demonstrated how the execution was to be performed. To cause instant death, make the victim lie face down, fix bayonets, and put the point on the spine just below the neck, and shoot. If you shoot higher, as nervous shooters did, the skull explodes, scattering human debris over the killers. After being told what they had to do, the men were given the option to step aside and take other duties. Out of five hundred, no more than a dozen did so, acting on impulse and without being asked for reasons. Aristotle, the father of virtue ethics, might have described these men as showing good character – but not as good as those Poles who actually helped Jews. Those who did showed a similar lack of deliberation: they acted spontaneously, not as result of reflection on duties, or of Christian morals, nor on the utilitarian calculation of cost and benefits. They impulsively did what was right.

Once the killings were underway, Browning estimates that between 10% and 20% opted out after feeling revulsion at what they had done. (Laboratory experiments by Philip Zimbardo or Stanley Milgram, on the influence of authority on behaviour, found similar low percentages unwilling to inflict pain out of the general civilian population.) Some killers reported vomiting; but more than 80% of the men carried on with the work. One even justified himself by claiming to be compassionate. He declined to kill adults: “I made the effort to shoot only children… without its mother the child could not live… it was soothing to my conscience to redeem children unable to live without their mothers.” Others, faced with having to kill Jewish workers with whom they were friendly, also reasoned that they were being compassionate, by killing without warning. One “took Jutta to the woods and engaged her in conversation before she was shot from behind.” Another man, who thought he had been asked to pick blackberries, was also ‘compassionately’ shot in the back of the neck. These murders were not committed by animals with no moral knowledge or sensibilities. Time and again, we find them simultaneously expressing remnants of misgivings: they disapproved of torturing and humiliating victims before shooting them; they were outraged when one commander brought along his pregnant wife to see their work. Nor were they Nazi ideologues. Most of these middle-aged men had been educated in the early twentieth century and had reached maturity before Hitler’s racist rhetoric had begun to bite. So these crimes show how accommodating moral reasoning can be, and consequently how ineffective moral rules are in guiding behaviour. Nietzsche was on to something. Character, with its impulses to do good (maybe 20% of us), or bad (80%), is in evidence all around us.

Ethical Characters

Let me cite only one relatively recent example of excellent character in action. In August 2015, Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler leapt upon an Islamic State terrorist who intended to massacre passengers on the 15:17 train from Amsterdam to Paris. Their childhoods and backgrounds were unremarkable. On the train to Paris they appear to have acted instinctively at the moment of threat, and therefore as an expression of their character. One of the men said he found himself involved in the struggle without knowing how he had got from his seat to the fight; another had just said to himself, ‘Go’. As the French police carried away the hog-tied terrorist, the men stood bemused and marvelling at what they had done. In comments expressing gratitude for their actions, President Hollande quoted one of the men as having said, “When something happens, you have to do something.” All of this suggests they acted on impulse and (so) expressed aspects of their character: courage, coupled with an instinctive sense of good and evil. There had been no reference to ethical imperatives. They had seen a threat and had jumped on it, while the train guard, the one in authority in this context, took no part in the struggle. When one of the men went to search for possible accomplices, he found the passengers from several carriages, far from helping, were all crammed together as far away as possible from harm at the end of the train.

Character is formed partly as a result of our genetic inheritance, and partly as a result of our parenting, education, and social environment. There are no simple answers to how good character can be developed and maintained. Judeo-Christian ethics have made only limited impact, partly because, although taught, they are not diligently practised. Christians are told many things by Christ: that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven; do as you would be done by; love your neighbour as yourself; turn the other cheek… Not character traits that characterise many of us, including those who profess to follow Jesus of Nazareth.

We need to refocus on developing good characters; but how that is to be done is a large question to which no political party or religious group has the full answer. Perhaps we need to study the background lives of people who have unequivocally demonstrated virtues of character – such as Johnson Beharry, who drove into an Iraqi ambush and dragged his friend to safety despite his own severe wounds.

Perhaps only good deeds are done spontaneously, and evil takes a little time to flourish. Perhaps character has to be nurtured rather than taught. Just as Aristotle said, an acorn becomes a tree only when it’s in good soil, not by being exhorted to grow. Perhaps a start might be made by ensuring that all children have a happy childhood that’s emotionally and cognitively stimulating. A long term project then – and one that our politicians, often lacking as they are in excellence of character, might never undertake.

© Michael McManus 2020

Michael McManus is the author of Troublesome Behaviour in the Classroom, published by Routledge.

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