This article by the Guardian offers us a very insightful, fascinating look into the life of Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels’ secretary, Brunhilde Pomsel.
You should read the article in its entirety before continuing on with my analysis in order to fully understand the points I raise. A quote from Pomsel in the beginning sets the tone for the rest of the article in which she unapologetically recounts her days working for one of the biggest liars in history.
Those people nowadays who say they would have stood up against the Nazis – I believe they are sincere in meaning that, but believe me, most of them wouldn’t have.
However much we may want to dislike Pomsel, I find her honesty and frank attitude refreshing. She insists what few want to admit; 99 out of 100 people would have done precisely the same thing as she did if put into that situation.
I’m sure many of you instinctively react in moral outrage. I would never do that! I would have joined the resistance! I would have opposed it at every turn! I would have been the Good German!
The very fact that people believe they are above it is why they are not. I discussed this in my post on why power doesn’t corrupt. It’s one of my personal favorites, and incidentally it is also the most read article here at the Anarchist Notebook.
It’s why I so thorough disliked the 2005 V for Vendetta film that contradicts the very message Alan Moore’s graphic novel preached. Moore understood that the Nazis (like the Soviets and others) were not Saturday morning cartoon characters. They were regular people who committed or abetted those who carried out horrific crimes; the path that took them there wasn’t irrationally or illogical, Moore notes.
The observation made by Pomsel highlights this fact, which strikes at the heart of human nature.
First, we have to examine this from the individual perspective, not from a 30,000 foot altitude level 70 years after the fact. We can’t think of the choice as between finding the good fight and cooperating with mass murderers who systemically killed several million people. We think of these life decisions as titanic clashes worthy of a cinematic adaption.
In reality, it rarely ever comes down to one monumental and morally unambiguous decision. History is created by millions of ordinary life events that by themselves amount to nothing. A secretary pecks away at a typewriter and works for a man who is nice to her and is well-mannered. There may be some problems or unsettling things she might suspect go on around her outside of her duties, but from her limited viewpoint they are no more ethically troublesome than what most modern corporate cubicle inhabitants regularly encounter.
Little does she know the information she types up will be used to determine which prisoners will be shot and which ones will be spared. A soldier delivers a truckload of unknown people to a camp and then drives off; he may suspect their ultimate fate, but he doesn’t know and isn’t told. Besides, to refuse orders means to be shot and have your family suffer. Who wants their kids to starve?
In the 1993 film Schindler’s List, British actor Ralph Fiennes played Amon Goth, the sadistic Nazi in charge of a concentration camp. In an interview, Fiennes gave a very articulate observation of what causes normal people to behave like in such appalling ways (bold emphasis added).
People believe that they’ve got to do a job, they’ve got to take on an ideology, that they’ve got a life to lead; they’ve got to survive, a job to do, it’s every day inch by inch, little compromises, little ways of telling yourself this is how you should lead your life and suddenly then these things can happen. I mean, I could make a judgement myself privately, this is a terrible, evil, horrific man. But the job was to portray the man, the human being. There’s a sort of banality, that everydayness, that I think was important. And it was in the screenplay. In fact, one of the first scenes with Oskar Schindler, with Liam Neeson, was a scene where I’m saying, ‘You don’t understand how hard it is, I have to order so many—so many metres of barbed wire and so many fencing posts and I have to get so many people from A to B.’ And, you know, he’s sort of letting off steam about the difficulties of the job.
We want to despise people like that not because they are evil (they are) but because they contradict our perception of what an evil person looks like and what causes an otherwise ordinary person to do evil things. One day, they are perfectly fine. They go to work, obey the rules, pay their taxes, follow traffic laws. They are polite and courteous, but underneath it all is the capacity for moral indifference.
It’s easier with someone like Goth, who personally committed atrocities. But with a regular person doing an otherwise harmless task, we offer protestations about how we are different, which is just virtue-signaling to others and attempts to reassure our own egos that we aren’t like that. We’re the good guys.
We have to tell ourselves this because when look at them we don’t see an emotionless monster. We see a regular person just like us.
We look at the mirror, darkly.
It disturbs us because we realize that evil is not only committed by ordinary people, but it is found in very seemingly harmless acts. It’s the lady next door who smiles and waves at us every day. How are you doing? She heads to work and does some menial task. That task helps carry out some violation of a person’s rights. A soldier is sent overseas to fight in an undeclared war; he doesn’t think of it that way. He sees it as having his buddies back or guarding a hydroelectric dam needed to keep the power running. To not go means to abandon his comrades when they need him most. The native population may not deserve to be occupied by a foreign military, but his priorities are naturally tribal. They aren’t his people, but his platoon members are.
Nobody ever has full perspective and clarity of what their actions amount to in the grand scheme. They only see what their limited viewpoint offers. Some are clearer than others in regards to the morality of the decision, but most of it has to remain amoral in nature.
Evil isn’t carried out by a maniacal man twisting his mustache while plotting world domination. It is carried out in mundane assignment that when combined with a thousand other assignments amount to a collective evil. Compartmentalization of power and responsibilities effectively ensures that no one person bears too much moral culpability to the point where their moral conscience might inspire them to resist.
The issue isn’t whether Pomsel was innocent for her part in the Third Reich, but whether or not anyone else would have behaved differently.
People like Pomsel are living proof that we all have the same capacity to commit evil, ignorant or not, if we do not remain aware of how our actions affect others and the temptation to obey when put in the right circumstances. There are few things people won’t do given the right situation.
Put him in the right situation, and the saint can become the demon.
This doesn’t mean all people will do evil, but enough will. My point is that the state is not the root cause of evil or corruption. This is a libertarian utopist idea. Man’s imperfect nature is the source. The state is also not the only entity that can carry out appalling crimes. My contention is that the state is the ideal apparatus through which atrocities like the Holocaust and the Holodomir can occur. It enables ordinary people to contribute to a great evil under the guise of legitimacy.
Pomsel is a reminder to us all of what we are capable of and to learn from the mistakes of others. If we aren’t aware of our circumstances and can’t accurately interpret our political surroundings, then we too can be used and co-opted for whatever purposes those who control the state see fit. People need to know when the actions they take or are about to take are morally compromising.
This is the fundamental error that the Western World has made since the Allies first stumbled upon the concentration camps and asked the question, “How could this have happened?” Yet they offer no guidance on how the West might avoid committing the same thing, or what Germans like Pomel should have done differently.
It’s not about bad men doing bad things. It’s about creating the situation in which base nature of mankind can be easily tapped into and used without challenging their ego-based belief that they are a good person. We think that if we just keep the bad men out of power the problem will be avoided, or the system in place prevents the misuse of power. Both are terrible errors based on a flawed understanding of where evil originates.
To conclude, when people wonder aloud how the Holocaust happened I sometimes mention the internment of Japanese Americans. I won’t go into the full background, but to be succinct they were forced to sell their homes and possessions and then board buses that took them to the internment camps in other parts of the country. Unlike the Holocaust this was not done in secret. It was carried out openly by the U.S. government. The rest of America was aware.
Now, what if they hadn’t been sent to internment camps? What if, instead, they had been taken out somewhere and systematically massacred? What if those internment camps had been just like the death camps the Jews had been shipped off to?
Think of how the entire episode leading up to the buses would look in retrospect. How would this reflect on the man who purchased the property of a Japanese family? How would he defend himself against charges that he had profited off of the murder of innocent people? How would the bus driver who took those people to the camps and then drove off defend himself? Or of those who watched the buses drive off?
What would their response be?
Probably something like this:
No one believes me now, but I knew nothing… those people nowadays who say they would have stood up…I believe they are sincere in meaning that, but believe me, most of them wouldn’t have.