Bob Schwartz

Tag: Nazi

Chaim Rumkowski, Hannah Arendt and the Banality of Evil

Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, Jewish council chairman in Lodz ghetto, seen here speaking amongst Jewish ghetto policemen. Lodz, Poland, ca. 1942.

 

It [evil] possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface.
Hannah Arendt

Citizens and respected leaders alike, in disgust and frustration, are heard comparing Trump policies and enablers to fascism and Nazis. This is treated by many, even those sympathetic to this disgust and frustration, as understandable but unhelpful and far too extreme.

In some ways, though, this is not entirely unhelpful. Theorize and moralize all we want, at some point we must look to concrete lessons from history for context and insight. Just because those examples seem so far outside an American context doesn’t mean that something can’t be learned.

Chaim Rumkowski:

During World War II, the Germans established Jewish councils, usually called Judenraete. These Jewish municipal administrations were required to ensure that Nazi orders and regulations were implemented. Jewish council members also sought to provide basic community services for ghettoized Jewish populations.

Forced to implement Nazi policy, the Jewish councils remain a controversial and delicate subject. Jewish council chairmen had to decide whether to comply or refuse to comply with German demands to, for example, list names of Jews for deportation. In Lvov, Joseph Parnes refused to hand over Jews for deportation to the Janowska forced-labor camp and was killed by the Nazis for his refusal. In Warsaw, rather than aid in the roundup of Jews, Jewish council chairman Adam Czerniakow committed suicide on July 22, 1942, the day deportations began.

Other Jewish council officials advocated compliance, believing that cooperation would ensure the survival of at least a portion of the population. In Lodz, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, who tried in vain to persuade the Nazis to reduce the number of Jewish deportees, urged ghetto residents to report for deportation as ordered. Rumkowski also adopted a policy of “rescue through labor,” believing that if the Germans could exploit Jewish labor, deportation might be averted….

On German orders Rumkowski delivered a speech on September 4, 1942 pleading with the Jews in the ghetto to give up children 10 years of age and younger, as well as the elderly over 65, so that others might survive. “Horrible, terrifying wailing among the assembled crowd” could be heard, reads the transcriber’s note to his parlance often referred to as: “Give Me Your Children”. Some commentators see this speech as exemplifying aspects of the Holocaust:

“A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They [the Germans] are asking us to give up the best we possess – the children and the elderly. I was unworthy of having a child of my own, so I gave the best years of my life to children. I’ve lived and breathed with children. I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg: Brothers and sisters! Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children!”

— Chaim Rumkowski, September 4, 1942 [27]

Hannah Arendt:

Born in Germany in 1906, philosopher Hannah Arendt gained much attention for her writings on totalitarianism and Jewish affairs after World War II. Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) addressed the rise of the totalitarian state out of the collapse of traditional nation-states. Following the war crimes trial of Adolph Eichmann, she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). She died in New York City in 1975….

Arendt completed her Ph.D. at the University of Heidelberg in 1928, after writing her doctoral thesis on Saint Augustine under the direction of Karl Jaspers. The following year, she married Gunther Stern. With the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, Arendt soon found herself in trouble for gathering evidence of the regime’s anti-Semitism.

In 1933, Arendt fled her native Germany for the relative safety of Paris, France. There, she worked for Youth Aliyah, an organization that helped rescue Jewish children from Eastern Europe. In 1940, Arendt married her second husband, Heinrich Blücher. Their wedded bliss was short-lived, however: The pair was soon interned at a concentration camp in Gurs, France. After managing to escape, the couple made their way to the United States in 1941….

In 1961, Arendt covered the trial of infamous Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, held in Jerusalem, for The New Yorker magazine. Her writings on the trial were later published as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), and she was criticized for some of the views she expressed in the work. Among these views, Arendt posited that Eichmann was more of an ambitious bureaucrat than a figure of extreme evil.

The Banality of Evil

Arendt’s coining of the term “banality of evil” and what some perceived to be her blaming the Jews for their own victimhood remain hotly controversial. Some think that seemingly characterizing the sort of evil perpetrated by Eichmann and other bureaucrats as banal and ordinary is dangerous and mistaken; if anything, they say, it should be forever described as radical and extraordinary.

Arendt on Eichmann:

What he [Eichmann] said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.

Arendt on the banality of evil:

It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth that can be radical.

Sophie Scholl: “Somebody, after all, had to make a start.”

Readers of Brigitte, the largest women’s magazine in Germany, voted Sophie
Scholl the most important woman of the 20th century.

You probably do not know Sophie Scholl. She was a founder of the White Rose movement, a tiny group of German students who distributed leaflets opposing the Nazi regime. In 1943 she and two others were arrested, tried and immediately executed for treason. At the trial she simply said, “Somebody, after all, had to make a start.”


From A Noble Treason: The Story of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Revolt Against Hitler:

A young Munich barrister named Leo Samberger opened his mail one morning in February of 1943, and, as he said afterward, he couldn’t believe his eyes. That was a time when every new day seemed to bring some new event to unsettle the nerves or stun the senses. The war, in its fourth year, had made the unexpected routine and the startling commonplace.

Even so, Leo Samberger was shaken when he opened what he thought was a letter but turned out to be a leaflet. It was neatly typed, singlespaced, with no illustration or typographical flourish of any kind. It was a solid block of type that made no more concession to the reader than a page from a textbook. But Leo Samberger caught his breath as he ran his eye down the page. “The day of reckoning has come, the reckoning of German youth with the most detestable tyranny that our people has ever endured. . .”…

With an intensity that broke through every phrase, the leaflet denounced the “corporal of World War I” whose amateur strategy had just cost the German people three hundred thousand of their sons in the bloodbath at Stalingrad. Here the leaflet, in its bitterness, used sardonically the saying that the Ministry of Propaganda had popularized to hail the achievements of Adolf Hitler: “Führer, wir danken Dir!” (Leader, we thank you!).

Then, at the end, came an impassioned call for revolt: “The name of Germany will be disgraced forever unless the German youth rises up, in both atonement and vengeance, to crush its tormentors and to build a new and nobler Europe.”…

The story circulated that some students had been caught scattering leaflets along corridors on the stairway between floors, and in the central hall under its high, domed skylight. The leaflets had been swiftly gathered up and spirited away by custodians before they could spread their corruption among the students. Copies were being closely examined in the rector’s office, to which, again, the Gestapo had been summoned. The names of the perpetrators were not immediately made known, nor was their fate….

Now it became clear why the chief judge of the People’s Court had been hastily flown from Berlin to preside at this trial and why the courtroom was so liberally seeded with representatives of the armed power of the state. The charges that Freisler had read from the indictments were among the gravest that could be brought against a German by his government in wartime.

It appeared from the evidence that the infamous deeds cited by the prosecution had been perpetrated over a period of many months by an organization with the curiously incongruous name of “the White Rose”. Page after page told of the activities of this group that had secretly and subversively produced thousands of leaflets attacking the government and the war effort and circulated them in many different cities, thereby threatening the very survival of the Reich.

Freisler made no pretense of being judicial. He ranted. He bellowed. He encouraged the prosecution and ignored the defense. At his post in the doorway Leo Samberger turned his eyes from the flaming figure on the bench to the defendants. There were three of them. Though he didn’t know them, he recognized their faces from seeing them many times in the concert halls of Munich that he himself frequented. They were college students, young, educated, clean-cut—his own sort. It seemed hardly credible that they were sitting in the dock with a death penalty over their heads as a consequence of what had happened at the university only three days before….

All three maintained their self-possession in a way that won a grudging admiration even in that room, but Sophie made a particular impression. Not only did she stand out as the lone female caught up in these proceedings, but she had an indefinable quality of her own. She was twenty-two years old, dark, and with a curious aura of mingled girlishness and gravity. Now and then during the trial, her brow would crease into a quick, musing frown, which those who knew her would have recognized as characteristic. Even here, in the courtroom with her life at stake, the frown did not signify anxiety or dismay. It meant that she was turning over in her mind a point, an implication, or a shading and weighing it to get it right.

She was wearing a rumpled and rather mannish sort of coat that contributed little to her appearance. She had endured three days of nearly unbroken interrogation in a Gestapo prison, and she looked worn and tired. But her quiet appeal, hovering always between girl and woman, was unimpaired. It was overlaid, now, with a kind of subdued defiance apparent in the cast of her features and the set of her head. Once Roland Freisler, squirming with fury inside his scarlet robe, demanded to know how any German could possibly do what the indictment charged against the trio in the dock. It was Sophie who responded, clearly and coolly:

“Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare to express themselves as we did.”

As the proceedings wore on, it became obvious that no defense worth the name would be offered. The court-appointed defense attorneys scarcely troubled to conceal their aversion to their task or to disguise their approval of the charges. The verdict itself was never in doubt. Berlin had not sent Roland Freisler winging down to Munich to preside over an acquittal.

Yet there was, as Leo Samberger noted, a pronounced tension in the courtroom as the words were about to be spoken that would, quite literally, cost three young people their heads. Such a thing had never happened before even in a Nazi courtroom. And the words came from the bench as expected: “. . . for the protection of the German people, and of the Reich, in this time of mortal struggle, the Court has only one just verdict open to it on the basis of the evidence: the death penalty. With this sentence the People’s Court demonstrates its solidarity with the fighting troops!”

Even before the auditorium was drained of its gray, black, and brown uniforms, the condemned trio was hurriedly surrounded by a cordon of police, put in manacles, and led away.

The three of them were taken directly from the court to the place of execution, to Stadelheim, on the outskirts of the city. There, that same afternoon, all three were beheaded, the girl, Sophie, going under the guillotine first. It was all done with a speed and brutality that signaled something like panic in high places.

Nazi in the White House: Nothing Surprises But Everything Astonishes (Update)

Update: Since publication of this story in the Forward on Thursday, two things have happened:

There has been the traditional muddying of the waters when controversial trump-related matters arise, with comments from various sources that on their face seem to put the basic matter to rest, but never directly address the question on the table. Or don’t address the question at all: neither the White House nor Gorka will talk about it.

The major news media have shied away, at least for the moment, because of their unwillingness or inability to look through muddy waters stirred up in trump-related matters. In many cases, this doesn’t go to journalistic high-mindedness or objectivity, but to weakness and timidity, and in this case, to having been scooped (or alternatively to having sat on the story).

Following the first story, the Forward has gone on to publish multiple stories, including this excellent summary from the following day, March 17. Please read in its entirety:

Sebastian Gorka: What Is The Evidence, And Why Does It Matter?

Sebastian Gorka, President Trump’s deputy assistant, and his chief adviser on counter-terrorism, has undisputed ties to the Vitézi Rend — a far-right Hungarian group who were close allies of the Nazis in World War II. Born in Britain to Hungarian parents, he became a naturalized American citizen in 2012 after marrying Katherine Cornell. No one has suggested that there is evidence he is anti-Semitic or an enemy of Israel but the ongoing political affiliations of White House advisers matter. Here is the actual evidence under discussion, and why it matters.


This from the Forward:

EXCLUSIVE: Nazi-Allied Group Claims Top Trump Aide Sebastian Gorka As Sworn Member

Sebastian Gorka, President Trump’s top counter-terrorism adviser, is a formal member of a Hungarian far-right group that is listed by the U.S. State Department as having been “under the direction of the Nazi Government of Germany” during World War II, leaders of the organization have told the Forward.

The elite order, known as the Vitézi Rend, was established as a loyalist group by Admiral Miklos Horthy, who ruled Hungary as a staunch nationalist from 1920 to October 1944. A self-confessed anti-Semite, Horthy imposed restrictive Jewish laws prior to World War II and collaborated with Hitler during the conflict. His cooperation with the Nazi regime included the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Jews into Nazi hands.

Gorka’s membership in the organization — if these Vitézi Rend leaders are correct, and if Gorka did not disclose this when he entered the United States as an immigrant — could have implications for his immigration status. The State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual specifies that members of the Vitézi Rend “are presumed to be inadmissible” to the country under the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Gorka — who Vitézi Rend leaders say took a lifelong oath of loyalty to their group — did not respond to multiple emails sent to his work and personal accounts, asking whether he is a member of the Vitézi Rend and, if so, whether he disclosed this on his immigration application and on his application to be naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 2012. The White House also did not respond to a request for comment.

But Bruce Einhorn, a retired immigration judge who now teaches nationality law at Pepperdine University, said of this, “His silence speaks volumes.”

International Holocaust Remembrance Day: Conspiracy

conspiracy

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Conspiracy (2001) is an HBO movie that tells the story of the Wannsee Conference, held in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee on 20 January 1942. It was a top secret meeting of senior government officials of Nazi Germany and SS leaders to debate the merits of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution,’ the extermination of the entire Jewish population of Europe.

The excellent movie and the horrifying meeting are both mesmerizing and near-sickening. But whatever your knowledge of the Nazis and the Holocaust, you should—must—see it.

Not only because you should know more about the Nazis and the Holocaust, though you should. See it because you will discover how men of supposed culture, faith, education, and managerial and professional stature (many at the meeting were lawyers) can find themselves not just following a debased and subhuman road, but actually designing and building the road themselves. A highway to hell.

Conspiracy should be made freely available, at least on this one day. Unfortunately, besides free availability on Amazon Prime Video, you will have to pay $9.99 to stream or buy it. You can at least view some clips for free.