Thoughts on the Holocaust

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Thoughts on the Holocaust

In October of 2005 I finished reading Han Nolan's 'If I should die before I wake', one of several books I have read. It was interesting in covering the horrors of the holocaust as well as the current neo-nazis. However, as in other descriptions of the holocaust I was a little frustrated with the rather simplistic portrayals of a quite complex situation. What particularly bothers me is that the Nazi soldiers are uniformly treated as shallow hateful caricatures.

My own experience is that while some soldiers really relish the opportunity to treat others cruelly and some others are so devoted to their own careers (and gaining power and prestige) that they give nary a thought to the moral implications of their actions, .... most soldiers are pretty ordinary people with pretty ordinary fears, goals, and desires.

The real shame of the these portrayals is that they completely ignore the truly awful moral choices faced by the soldiers themselves. Most soldiers would know that what they were doing was seriously and fundamentally wrong, but there wouldn't be any reasonable alternatives available. If a soldier were to do the strictly morally correct thing, he would be shot most directly, bring doom and destruction on his friends and family, and all without making the slightest difference as the killings would continue just the same.

Of course if the soldier was less direct in his opposition to the killings, he would still have to participate in many killings and while risking almost certain death for himself it would most likely be a long a tortuous death in this case with the risk of betraying his compatriots, worse doom and disaster for his friends and family and still no particular effect on the killings.

Choosing to simply leave the situation (requesting a transfer from a comparatively safe rear echelon assignment) would almost guarantee a transfer to the Eastern front (the only place where you could transfer to) where it was known the likely outcome would be death from starvation or freezing, all the while supporting a government that you probably don't feel so good about (after seeing the horrors of the death camps first hand).

Sadly, the only strictly rational (but amoral) option was to simply follow orders and do as your were told, but that has the effect of eating away at your soul (which is generally not a formal rational consideration). What real choices were there? I fear that we are losing an opportunity to document one of the horrible effects of such a brutal regime in the effect it has on those who are not directly victimized by the regime, but are brutalized just the same.

As I was considering their dilemmas, one of the realizations I had was what a blessing it was that we had both Stalin and Hitler. A dispassionate review of the war suggests that the Western democracies had little hope of stopping the German war machine. It was the Soviet soldiers (and Russian winter, really) that broke the back of the German war efforts and had there been a weak democracy in Russia at the time, Hitler likely could have established a 1,000 year legacy and I personally am glad that we are not living with that legacy. Stalin was not in such a strategic position but without the obstacle faced in Hitler may well have been able to establish a 100 year legacy. After the war, Stalin was much more cautious (not at all like the Stalin who brazenly invaded Poland without serious regard of the likely consequences), but this caution was learned at great expense to the Russians and Germans.

Indeed Hitler and Stalin allowed us to learn the real horrors of such brutal regimes so that we could develop kinder and more gentle alternatives. While the death of so many millions (from several nations) seems a high price, I personally believe that anything of real substance does not appear from nothingness or disappear into nothingness and so they are still with us enjoying the fruits of their sacrifice.

Of course it is interesting to consider that both the Russian and German soldiers involved in the Eastern front of WWII could be considered as performing moral actions of opposing a great harm. Click here to see the next rambling tale

This page was last updated on March 15, 2007