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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews +
Letters + Archives