I’ve long thought – and it’s not an original thought – that we do ourselves a great disservice by failing to sympathize with the Nazis. We don’t want to make the potentially uncomfortable distinction between the actions – truly monstrous – and the people who did them. We want them, the rank and file perpetrators of those great evils, to be monsters, unsympathetic in every way. We demand that they be totally different from us.
The uncomfortable truth is that while there were certainly a good number of sociopaths involved in National Socialism, the rank and file were people like us. Another way to look at it: while there are almost certainly a good number of sociopaths involved in the YMCA, police department, Walmart, and grade schools – it’s statistically unlikely that there are not* – the rank and file are people just like us. Heck, they ARE us.
I read one story** about the recruitment of female death-camp guards and staff. A Jewish woman is lead into a room full of potential hires, who are told to slap her hard. Milgram would not be surprised at the result: All but a few went ahead and slapped her. The ones who hesitated were abused and threatened until they conformed. One woman refused entirely, and ended up *in* the concentration camp.
So, you think you’d behave any different? I certainly hope I would – but I’ve got Milgram, Catholic Teaching and the fear of Hell to help me out. But would that be enough? Just like us, the Germans were raised by parents who loved them imperfectly, soaked in a culture full of biases and fears, and – most of all – shared with us a deep-seated and desperate drive to fit in.
Machiavelli observed that when the time came for ruthless, brutal acts, a Prince would never lack for people willing to do them. The sociopaths and the merely ambitious flutter around power like moths to a porch light. But what’s more telling – when the heads start being separated from shoulders, when the innocent get marched off to die, almost all of us can be counted on to stand down. Thus has it always been.
Now add one more trick, let’s call it boiling the lobster. You can try to toss the live lobster into the boiling water, which it will not like. Or you can put the lobster into cool water and just gradually heat it up, and the lobster will die without protest (At least, that’s the story – never tried it personally). So, while sometimes a wise tyrant will make a dramatic move and lop off heads (Machiavelli again: when you become Prince, figure out who needs to die and kill them all at once) but mostly, they – whether a single leader, a group of leaders or a bureaucracy – will boil the lobster. Inch by inch, they move you from a position of horror to a position of support, all the while picking off the peasant girls who won’t slap the Jew, the employer who won’t pay for the Pill, the doctor who won’t abort the baby, the schoolteacher who won’t enforce the standards, until everyone who is left with any trace of autonomy or power has bought into the story. Most important, we, the little people, are now invested in believing, the cost of disbelief being the self accusation that we are cowards and dupes.
And, once this homogenization has been achieved, the ruthless, the ambitious and the sociopaths rise to the top. This is a problem that become evident over and over again as more or less popular tyrannies play out: the Russian revolution had to result in Stalin or someone just like him; the French Revolution produced whole teams of people who thought themselves idealists as they executed nuns and priest and peasants by the score.
Does it always get this bad? Eventually, yes, barring a miracle. It is not a mere truism to say that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. What we can do to slow it down is to, first of all, recognize that the monstrous things done by the Nazis were for the most part carried out by people as morally and mentally clear as we are – if not more so. They didn’t start out to be vicious killers of women, children and men – at worst, they started out as loyal sons and daughters of the Fatherland, out to regain for it its proper place among nations. They worked their trades, kept their farms, taught their classes, treated their patients, all while the water in the pot kept getting almost imperceptibly warmer.
So, if you defend the simple truth, such as it’s a Bad Thing for the government to put all citizens under surveillance, or that unborn babies are people, or that there must always, without exception, be transparent legal safeguards against the unilateral execution of non-combatants, you can expect howls from those who have already bought in – for them to even admit you have a point would be to call themselves cowards, liars, dupes and murderers. We weak humans are unlikely to do that to ourselves given any options.