World War 2 ended more than seventy years ago and seems to have been studied by historians in every detail. However, one key question about Nazism remains unanswered. How could young, cultured men of sound mind go out and kill hundreds of thousands of defenceless children and civilians?
“War is war,” one might respond. However, before World War 2, there had been no precedents of a warring party forming military units specifically to kill civilian populations in mass. It was not until the first half of the 20th century that a cultured and industrialised Germany begins to organise battalions of willing executioners, which is called the SS death squads, or Einsatzgruppen. They did not fight at the battlefront but followed Germany’s regular troops to exterminate the Jews, Communists, partisans and other ‘undesirables. Initially, each death squad consisted of 3000 people, but later volunteers from the local populations joined their ranks.
In Soviet territory alone, they were responsible for the killing of 750 thousand people. Some two million people died at their hands altogether. Because the men in the invaded territories were in the regular army, the victims were mostly women, children and the elderly.
One of the leading prosecutors of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, Benjamin Ferencz, was instrumental in investigating the crimes of the Einsatzgruppen and bringing those responsible to justice. After coming across the secret files of the German Gestapo documenting these crimes, he initiated a court investigation of some of the most notorious cases. Many of the court hearings raised the same question: how could these people with a good education, and good manners have voluntarily become members of these extermination teams, despite being raised in the traditions of the Christian faith? Had any one of them ever attempted to examine the orders to kill peaceful civilians and children from a moral perspective. Yet all of the accused gave the same answer. They insisted that they had no right to question the legitimacy of their orders.
Prosecutor Ferencz researched the matter thoroughly. He investigated whether the wartime law that mandated capital punishment for disobeying an order applied to members of the Einsatzgruppen. He found out that no officer would face death or even imprisonment for not fulfilling an order. The worst outcome for him would be reassignment to a different detachment. He also found no documented request for reassignment from a single officer of a killing team.
Who were the members of the Einsatzgruppen?
One might assume that members of these units were recruited among people with criminal records. Contrary to these assumptions, the Einsatzgruppen were considered the elite of the SS, and recruitment of its members was the responsibility of Reinhardt Heydrich, chief of the Reich Main Security Office. He was notorious for his plan for ‘the final solution to the Jewish question’, of which the Einsatzgruppen were the instruments. Nor was there any shortage of candidates. The commanders were generals of the army, including veterans of World War 1. Nearly all of the accused were highly educated, the majority held diplomas from several universities, and some had doctoral degrees. Paradoxically, the commanders were not some crime lords or serial killers, they were the cream of the German society. Of them, at least one had a degree in theology and was a pastor.
What were their motives? Why did they engage in mass murder and perform it as their routine job?
Normal or insane?
Many years after the trial, Prosecutor Ferencz admitted, “What struck me most during the trial was that the defendants could not show the slightest trace of repentance or compassion for the millions that they had killed or tortured. That is something I will never forget.”
In every hearing, the defendants denied their responsibility and insisted that they were only obeying orders. At times, one had the impression that they were insane, living by their own set of distorted principles. But could it be a mass psychosis or some unknown reaction of the psyche?
Two American psychiatrists examined this question, Doctor D. Kelly and Doctor М. Gilbert. They spent more than a year interviewing their subjects.
At first, Doctor Kelly was confident that he was working with psychopaths. Like psychopaths, they lacked conscience and seemed incapable of feeling guilt. He conducted multiple tests and discovered to his great surprise that his subjects had exceptional intelligence, but lacked creative potential and imagination. Not one of his subjects showed a tendency for pathological violence. One thing that made the Nazi criminals distinct from most other people was their complete absence of empathy, or the ability to feel for others.
The fact that the defendants turned out to be normal, brought the scientists to a terrible conclusion: anyone could be in their place.
Kelly and Gilbert agreed that the behaviour of the Nazi killers had no explanation in psychiatry and should be viewed through the prism of evil. “Evil is the complete absence of empathy, or in other words the inability to feel the pain of others,” wrote Gilbert. In sum, evil originates from the inability to give love.
The nature of evil
Philosopher and political scientist Hannah Arendt is noted for her insights into the nature of evil and the personality of a Nazi. In 1961 – 63, she attended the trial in Jerusalem of the Nazi criminal Adolph Eichmann, a key architect of the Holocaust.
“How could one reconcile the mediocrity of this person with the horrendous crimes that he had masterminded?” remarked Arendt. According to Arendt, the person we saw in court was a mediocre bureaucrat with a conscience turned upside down by the ideology of the Nazi regime.
From this, Arendt concluded, “The most horrendous and evil acts are perpetrated by ordinary people with no personal convictions.” Passively, they accept as the norm the order of things in their society and perform conscientiously the obligations prescribed to them by the existing law. Where the law instructs them to kill, they will kill, without the slightest moral qualms. In doing so, they were silencing the voice of their consciousness and refusing to face reality. Hannah Arendt termed this phenomenon the banality of evil.
Like the other Nazi war criminals, Eichmann recognised no guilt and was found by forensic experts to be fully competent.
So where does the root of such horrendous evil lie?
The choice is ours
We can gain valuable insights into the causes of the inability to love and feel compassion by examining the question from a spiritual perspective.
The Church teaches that we exist not only in the physical world but also in the spiritual one, which has angels and demons. Demons are incapable of loving or having compassion. No matter how much some people may try to dismiss this teaching as fiction, many facts confirm its veracity.
As the church fathers admonish us, every day we come under the action of evil thoughts which we falsely believe to be our own. The Venerable Saint Barsanuphius of Optina wrote: “Thoughts do not just come and go. Some may lead to the demise of our spirit and lead us away from the right path of life into a completely different direction. Our acceptance of evil thoughts will eventually make us no different from the ones from whom they originate. From a mental health perspective, evil people remain entirely normal, but their conscience and will are paralysed, making them incapable of telling right from wrong.
The history of World War 2 enabled us to delve into the depths of the human spirit and discover the magnitude of the abyss into which some of us may fall. One gruesome lesson that few would dare to say aloud is that all of us are vulnerable.
Yet from a Christian perspective, this observation is nothing new. We know from the Scripture that our human nature is afflicted by sin. By forgetting about our ultimate purpose of being servants of God, we risk becoming evil before we even notice, due to our circumstances or weakness.
As the Church fathers write, heaven and hell are within us, and the choice is ours. It is up to us whether to heed to the Lord saying to us softly, “I have set before you life and death. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”
Sourced from: https://spzh.news/ru/istorija-i-kulytrua/79617-nacistskije-ajnzacgruppy-mogli-li-normalynyje-lyudi-massovo-ubivaty-detej