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Conformity - A Disease

Anthony McIntyre • 24/6/2002

'Regular obedience to orders by people who are just doing their job and don't make the rules is one of those chilling banalities that keep on coming up'. So wrote Christopher Hitchens in 1992 when he was reviewing a book about the Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. Equally as chillingly, he went on to make the comment that given the 'right' circumstances, average humans are capable of doing pretty much anything'. A sobering thought with which to prick any soaring balloons of idealist sentiment.

And yet the evidence for it is all too readily available. Elizabeth Neuffer in her book on atrocities in both Bosnia and Rwanda refers to a local Rwandan mayor, Jean Paul Akayesu who, when the conflict broke out in his country, gave shelter to frightened Tutsis and at one point protected them by ordering his police to shoot armed Hutus on the prowl for victims. Neuffer points out, however, that once the Catholic clergy joined in the genocide, and as the United Nations withdrew, Akayesu capitulated and acquiesced in a brutal culture of conformity, becoming a war criminal in the process.

What was most unnerving about Hitchens's observations was that the people involved in Unit 101 hailed from Hamburg. For anyone who has ever visited that German city and partook of the political debate in the cafes or university there it should be apparent that the political culture of the Hamburg Left is swathed with a large measure of justifiable pride - the working class there voted anti-fascist and it was a long time before the Nazis were able to break down the resistance of left wing activists in the city. Tommy McKearney and myself were shown streets where it was claimed that the Nazi Party had difficulty entering before the war. Moreover, the unit was recruited late in the day and was comprised of soldiers who were married men with children, long since out of their youth and who could not, therefore, have been subject to the propagandistic woos of the Hitler Youth.

Nevertheless, this failed to halt the unit while in Poland behaving with ferocity towards Jewish civilians. Mass murder and sexual assault were commonplace. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his book Hitler's Willing Executioners showed how some of the cruellest officers accompanied by their equally sadistic wives displayed a particular penchant for savagery. But it was not restricted to the officer class. According to Hitchens the 'spirit of mediocre compromise and conformism spread through the ranks.'

Why? Fear of retribution from the upper echelons for refusing to commit atrocities was hardly a motivating factor. Despite the Nazi reputation for discipline and punishment by example no German soldier who declined to take part in actions of the type described here was punished. Last November Professor Jan Philipp Reemtsma launched an exhibition titled 'Crimes of the Wermacht, Dimensions of the War of Annihilation 1941-1944'. It successfully challenged the belief that 'orders were orders' by citing the cases of several individual soldiers who refused to obey their superiors and who went unpunished. This is all the more ethically challenging for those who did given the photo in Goldhagen's book which shows a German soldier taking aim at a Jewish woman holding her child at Ivangorod in 1942. About to be murdered by the rifleman she is helpless as she vainly tries to protect her child or at least spare the youngster the certain knowledge of what is about to become both of them. What sort of person would do this? Unfortunately, in this world, we do not need to look far to find quite a few. Those, Eichmann-like in their banality and devoid of their own firm opinions on anything. Those, ever willing to allow their leaders to think for them, and then abandon convictions they swore to die for while brooking no questioning of by others. Those who will kill to defend that which only a short while before they killed to oppose. They are the type who will happily queue up to toss the Zyklon B if merely given the nod from above.

Much of it appears to be a slavish devotion to leadership. Boris Becker commenting on his some of his German fans said that when he looked into their eyes he thought he was looking at ''monsters''. He reflected that 'when I saw this kind of blind emotional devotion, I could understand what happened to us in Nuremberg'. Yet not just those who hailed from Germany but every warlike body that seeks to craft iconography from banality and genuflects to the deity now known as 'the leadership' will at some point inhale the unethical fumes of Nuremberg.

Jean Baudrillard coined the phrase 'fatal strategy of conformity'. While it may not become physically fatal for those who conform it is intellectual suicide. And it invariably results in literal homicide against those whom the conformists wish to target. A striking reminder that the logic of the Indian writer Arundhati Roy demands even greater attention - the only thing worth globalising is dissent.





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For those who bear the instruments of war - and we are among them, some in practice, some by a hug of approval - are sucked, mumbling "necessity" and "vengeance", into the domain of war crimes.
- Nathan Alterman, 1948

Index: Current Articles

30 June 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Remembering the Future

Ciarán Irvine


Behind the Scenes at the World Cup
Billy Mitchell

Conformity - A Disease

Anthony McIntyre

Aldergrove Solidarity
Davy Carlin


28 June 2002


The Pity of War

Billy Mitchell


Dispute At Dunboyne School

Wealth Before Health

Anthony McIntyre

Belfast: Political Sectarianism and the Left
Davy Carlin




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