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Title: The Nazi Conscience

Title: The Nazi Conscience
Author: Claudia Koonz
Publisher: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, Mass.

 

In The Lord of The Flies, author William Goldman told the story of how a group of children
marooned on an island formed a society that descended into the depravity of progressive
marginalizing some of its members.

So it was in the years leading up to the Shoah in Nazi Germany and throughout Europe – a modern, so-called “civilized” society steadily and surely marginalized members of certain groups. So superfluous were Jews and other “socially undesirable people” that the final process of “elimination” was a natural conclusion to the process of dehumanization.

As exemplified in Hitler’s ideas of “Volk” in Mein Kampf – the catchword was “Do Unto Others – But Only Others Like Ourselves.” Jews, Romani (Gypsies) and certain other groups were not considered quite human – beings for which Dr. Mengele’s medical experimentation in the Auschwitz concentration camp was even considered appropriate.

Is The Nazi Conscience an oxymoron? This indeed was the real “Final solution” – not just the
mechanized mass killing of millions of innocent people, but the indoctrination of an entire society into seeing atrocity confirmed as a positive communal experience. Koonz displays the gradual transformation of the traditional idea of conscience into something that was utterly shaped by the subordination of one’s own self to that of the Volk. This was one reason why many ordinary persons who committed atrocities have said that “they were just taking orders.”

Koonz cites the example of a former Hitler Youth member who recalled, upon seeing the Gestapo take away his best friend, along with all the other Jews in their village, not feeling that it was terrible that the Jews were being arrested. Having been indoctrinated in the “Jewish menace,” his thought was how unfortunate that his friend was Jewish. Although Jews had already become an integral part of German society, the expulsion of the Jews from the social order or moral obligation was carefully engineered, and they became strangers in their own country.

Hitler, Goebbels and other “democratically” elected officials of the Third Reich carefully directed a massive public relations campaign that fostered the idea of superior German nationhood – “Deutchland uber alles” – using various forms of mass media including radio, movie theatre newsreels, magazines and posters, to capture the popular imagination. This
was no Vance Packard’s Hidden Persuaders – there was nothing subliminal about the messages of hate that turned the disgust of the brutish and violent techniques of the early party followers (the “Brown Shirts”) into something much more evil. The ordinary citizens were subtly won over to the marginalization and dehumanization of the nation’s “enemies” – their
neighbors who had lived in their midst for centuries.

“Germans’ readiness to expel Jews from their universe of moral obligation evolved as a consequence of their acceptance of knowledge disseminated by institutions they respected. Like citizens in other modern societies, residents of the Reich believed the facts conveyed by experts, documentary films, popular science, education materials and exhibitions. What
haunts us is not only the ease with which soldiers slaughtered helpless civilians in occupied territories but the specter of a state so popular that it could mobilize individual consciences of a broad cross-section of citizens in the service of moral catastrophe. This persuasive process has little in common with brainwashing, which aims at turning its subjects into mindless automatons. In Nazi Germany, faith in a virtuous Fuhrer and joy at belonging to a superior Volk cultivated grassroots initiative and allowed for a margin of choice.”

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