Thursday, August 15, 2013

Hitler's Baby Picture, the Comfort of Goldhagen's Thesis About the Holocaust, and the Problem of Everyday Evil

In my last post, we discussed how the Ku Klux Klan can now be easily mocked and ridiculed as an example of a type of throwback racism that signals how White Supremacy is a largely a thing of the past in the United States of America. There, I tried to sufficiently complicate such a conclusion, arguing that a focus on a cartoon version of racism is chaff, blinding folks to the reality of institutional white racism that exists even in the Age of Obama.

One of our occasional guest contributors here at WARN, Werner Herzog's Bear, very intelligently and sharply--as he often does--pointed out how the public misunderstands the dynamics of Antisemitism in Nazi Germany. 

In that earlier post, I had alluded to the work of historian Daniel Goldhagen and his much discussed thesis about how everyday Germans were complicit with the Nazis and the Holocaust. 

Werner is an expert on modern German history. As such, he offered up a very helpful corrective: it was not that Germans were possessed of a maniacal and pathological amount of Antisemitism as Goldhagen had suggested in Hitler's Willing Executioners; no, the majority were self-interested actors who took advantage of anti-Jewish racism pushed by a small percentage of ardent Nazis for their own personal gain. 

We have discussed how contemporary racism is driven by selfishness, indifference, and personal gain here on WARN on earlier occasions. I have also suggested that it is easier for folks to come up with demonic caricatures of white slave owners as rapine beasts than it is to accept the more disturbing notion that White Supremacy was just a day-to-day way of doing business and becoming "middle class", and no small number of white slave owners were "good people." 

These people are still evil. But white slave owners were not necessarily the flat two dimensional characters that some would prefer in order to feel safe and secure in their own personhood through a belief that the "bad guys" are "over there", as opposed to living right next door to them.

Our discussion of Daniel Goldhagen's work reminded me of what has been described as "the problem of Hitler's baby pictures." 

As discussed by Ron Rosenbaum, the human psyche wants monsters and bogeymen for its vision and the face of evil; it would seem that human beings have a very hard time reconciling human evil with the mundane and the banal.

He wrote about this dilemma with great insight and authority as he observed the following:
A lot of valuable work was done under the rubric of "follow the money." Exposing political corruption, exposing the hidden financial agendas, it's still valuable and I wouldn't want to deter anyone, if that's your kind of talent, if that's what you're good at. But the assumption that money is the root of all evils is, I think, a limited one. One thing I turn away from in the ten years I've spent researching my book on the origins of Hitler's evil, is that bad ideas is the root of a more dangerous evil. And on a more mundane level, bad ideas can be the root of routine stupidity, bad public policy, bankrupt conventional wisdom about human nature, human society.  
So I tend to think that the future of investigative journalism, the future of great journalism, is not "follow the money" but "follow the ideas." Examine, challenge the origin of conventional wisdom, the hidden agendas and unexamined ideologies of supposed impartial experts, the thinking behind think tanks; expose the corruption, the sloppy thinking, the supposedly objective and scientific ideas that help shape not just policy but culture, behavior, belief of who we are.  
There's a world of fat targets awaiting those who are willing to go after them.  
Let me just give you an example of unchallenged conventional wisdom that I've found in my research on Hitler theory...Well, there are a lot of theories about Hitler's abnormal sexuality- very little evidence to support it- why people attach themselves to it? I think it has to do with- if we can think of Hitler as abnormal, as a pervert and distant from ourselves, its comforting, its consoling. Hitler's not like us; he's a monster of some sort. And in some ways, it’s a lot more frightening to think of a Hitler that is normal in some respects, or like us in some respects.
On the cover of my book I put Hitler's baby picture, and I put it there because there's a big controversy over Hitler's baby picture. (Garbled)  
But what I also found was that is raises a question of Hitler's normality- I mean, this is a very normal looking baby picture. (Garbled)  
… this normal looking baby was really kind of threatening. My book was translated into ten languages by five publishers, and none of the foreign publishers wanted to put Hitler's baby picture on the cover. They put a picture of Hitler shaking his fist or Hitler in a military uniform, Hitler scowling as an adult, but certainly this child, this baby was more threatening because it somehow implicated us more, it implicated normality.  
I'm not patting myself on the back for critiquing Hitler theories but I'm suggesting a skeptical attitude toward sweeping theories and a little investigation on your part can bring a lot of great theories crumbling down. There's just too much uncritical reliance on designated experts in American society, whose theories are quoted in newspapers- I mean, my beef with newspaper stories is that always in paragraph four they call some expert at a university and you know, all their experts are their experts, and usually, newspapers feed their readers expert testimony, expert quotes that are not very well examined. 
These paragraphs speak directly to Werner's concerns regarding Daniel Goldhagen's thesis about the Holocaust and Nazi-era Germany. How are laypeople and outsiders to understand and arbitrate complicated matters of history, politics, science, and the like, if what seems to be an imminently logical and compelling claim, does not pass the scrutiny of experts with inside knowledge, proper training, and empirical consensus?

However, knowledge and understanding as recognized by the academy and the learned professions is not static. Knowledge must grow, evolve, be unsettled, sometimes shattered, and recontextualized if it is to remain beholden to "the truth" and relevant.

Sincere and proper intellectuals and students intervene against standing norms as necessary, and by doing so unsettle the standing consensus. Unfortunately, such moves are unpopular and can ruin lives and young careers. But, and if one is lucky, said person can make themselves known in their profession by staking out such a position and being right--and having no small amount of luck, good timing, and well-placed advocates who are ensconced within a broader regime of knowledge.

Surprises are good things. Some surprises about the scale of human indifference, and our capacity to exploit others, are utterly disturbing.
THIRTEEN years ago, researchers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum began the grim task of documenting all the ghettos, slave labor sites, concentration camps and killing factories that the Nazis set up throughout Europe.
What they have found so far has shocked even scholars steeped in the history of the Holocaust.
The researchers have cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, during Hitler’s reign of brutality from 1933 to 1945. 
The figure is so staggering that even fellow Holocaust scholars had to make sure they had heard it correctly when the lead researchers previewed their findings at an academic forum in late January at the German Historical Institute in Washington...When the research began in 2000, Dr. Megargee said he expected to find perhaps 7,000 Nazi camps and ghettos, based on postwar estimates. But the numbers kept climbing — first to 11,500, then 20,000, then 30,000, and now 42,500. 
The numbers astound: 30,000 slave labor camps; 1,150 Jewish ghettos; 980 concentration camps; 1,000 prisoner-of-war camps; 500 brothels filled with sex slaves; and thousands of other camps used for euthanizing the elderly and infirm, performing forced abortions, “Germanizing” prisoners or transporting victims to killing centers. 
In Berlin alone, researchers have documented some 3,000 camps and so-called Jew houses, while Hamburg held 1,300 sites. 
Dr. Dean, a co-researcher, said the findings left no doubt in his mind that many German citizens, despite the frequent claims of ignorance after the war, must have known about the widespread existence of the Nazi camps at the time.
“You literally could not go anywhere in Germany without running into forced labor camps, P.O.W. camps, concentration camps,” he said. “They were everywhere.”
What events occurring right now are Americans (and others) ignoring, happenings that future generations will be shocked and disgusted by in hindsight? 

The phenomenon of social distance is real. I wonder, how much is social distance just a function of self-delusion and/or self-interest? 

Coming full circle, for centuries America was a slave society. Slavery was not something out of sight and out of mind. It was central to how white Americans and others understood democracy and freedom. Likewise, the lie of outliers and mouth-frothing wicked white racists, slavers, and members of the KKK brings comfort. 

The truth of White Supremacy for most of American history as something both non-controversial and "normal" scares so many because just as in Germany, they do not want to imagine their neighbors turning on other people, and judging them less than human based on some arbitrary type of distinction made about groups of human beings judged to be the Outsider.

Moreover, I would also suggest that so many people of color, young folks especially, would like to believe that such a decision would make most in dominant White society either disturbed or unable to sleep at night. The history of the colorline and White Supremacy in the United States reveals just how normal and not-upsetting such sentiments were for white folks in mass.

Scary isn't it? As it should be...


JGrey said...

Great post.

They say hindsight is 20/20 but it is indeed scary looking back at the appalling apathy of those folks whom claims all those Enlightened Ideas organically runs through their blood.

For my part , i have come to believe that there wasn't one white supremacy, but several competing against each other, at least in the U.S. an eastern, a southern and a western, with Lincoln coming from the western's one, the self sufficient model in which whites proved that they could have lived by and for themselves without having to maintain any kind of interdependency unlike the other models of white supremacy.

It's a model which believes the other supremacies were led astray , corrupted midways or sideways and only need a light guidance provided they submit first and do not renege on it.

I do not think that germans are of a different breed than their american contemporaries.The germans seemingly overindulgence in repenting is a suitable penance for their sin for attempting to cheat their way above's one station. A punishment which flatters and at the same time mortifies their Lutheran fiber whilst respecting some vague Wagnerian script about their rise and fall.
They gain as much as they seemingly lose from this and the americans under their benevolent guidance made sure they didn't lose too much from this.

Did the good guys truly win at the end of the story and is the Dragon vanquished? I wouldn't bet my left toe on it. But the idea of a conflict between major white supremacy nations seems as ludicrous as it could ever have been, which is some kind of a miracle and no small feat.

Maybe the paradigm that evil has to be vanquished needs to be ascertained.

Black Sci-Fi said...

The OJ trial was very revealing with regard to "group think", tribalism and institutional racism. The most revealing aspect of the trial is how so-called everyday white folks of all political stripes came out of the woodwork to express their solidarity for a Simpson guilty verdict. And, were willing to directly confront black folks, even strangers, to express their feelings.

It should also not be forgotten the MSM's (Nancy Grace, CNN, FOX, et al) part in whipping up the "lynch mob" mentality among otherwise disinterested white folks. My point, and the points I share with this article, is that there are no neutral parties when "tribalism" rears it's ugly head.

At the time of the OJ trial I was in a middle management position at a company, a multi-national Midwestern ad agency, that could be categorized as a "bastion of liberal thinking". During the later stages of the trial when it became clear that OJ would not be hung on the spot, I would be confronted on a daily basis by "liberals" who decided to "gather" outside my office to "vent" about the OJ trial.

I was never uncomfortable with the "gatherings" but I can only imagine how a similar "gathering" in a "conservative" or southern company may have had a much more chilling affect on a black middle management employee let alone a line worker. The threat is both direct, in that there is a mob threat of physical violence, and institutional, because disagreeing with the mob mentality may cost you your job, for some vague and indefensable reason like "other employees are uncomfortable working with you".

Exactly who would such an employee go to to complain? We are all aware that historically the EEOC complaint process is a long, financially ruinous and career killing option. Justice, in this case, is the ultimate Catch-22.

What exactly would be the basis of such a complaint?

The perception of a threat is not going anywhere no matter how real it was to a black individual who was being marginalized by "hostile" white co-workers.

That is the real power of institutional racism. You have no one to go to when "white supremacy" rears it's ugly head. Previously "friendly" co-workers will turn on you and support "group think". Subordinate white employees will see an opportunity for advancement through your demise. That is the bond we share with Nazi Germany.
It's the profit motive that drives racism in both cases. That is also the motivation that drives the lower and middle class white folks to oppose Affirmatie Action and by extention their opposition to Civil Rights legislation.
That is also the reason for Obama's failure to address the problem, institutional racism, directly. Who is going to back him up? How would subordinates react and what could they do to undermine his authority or plot his politiacl demise through trumped up charges and false accusations.

Rita D. Lipshutz said...

personally i don't think it's the best analogy. i am left/liberal and a fulltime antiracist organizer and i believed at the time as i do now that OJ was guilty. i didn't run around confronting anybody about it but i lost a bunch of black friends over it at the time because of that belief. i think he and the dream team played alot of people and the lapd was racist enough for long enough that it was easier to do. btw, remember how he promised to "pay back" the black community for all of their support? unless i missed something that promise was never kept, he just continued to be the low quality human being that he always was.

johnieB said...

I am a Vietnam Veteran with PTSD due to my duties as an Interrogator; for me, D. J. Goldhagen's thesis simply does not suffice,but the following is helpful. I recommend Christopher R. Browning. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. Harper Perennial (PB). New York: 1993. 1998. In the afterward Browning discusses Goldhagen at length.

chauncey devega said...

OJ may have been found "innocent" in the legal sense as he should have been, but he was likely guilty. My rebuttal to white folks all of a sudden considered about the unfair legal system--which worked as designed for the rich and how could one not acquit OJ given that the LAPD's lead investigator tampered w. evidence and was a racist--was where was the outrage before w. all of the innocent people of color and poor and working class people in the lockup?

That was usually met with silence. Where was the outrage over Claus Von Bulow (sp?) for example.

chauncey devega said...

Great points. And you are correct. When power is omnipresent and hegemonic all one has to do is say "not me" even while their interests are advanced.

The Zimmerman acquittal is an interesting example of whiteness and tribalism--esp. for conservatives. Why didn't the majority of white folks simply reject Zimmerman as a loser and an embarrassment should not get the status of an honorary white person? He has a criminal record, was a wannabe cop obsessive, was accused of molesting his own cousin repeatedly, violated the rules of the neighborhood watch of which he was the only member, and supposedly beat his wife/fiance.

Never-mind shooting down unarmed people in the street who he stalks at night after being told not too.

Why? Because a sense of aggrieved Whiteness under threat at all times from any black person was the default. Those are the social dynamics that get people killed and allow the perpetrators to feel justified. That is one scary social dynamic.

chauncey devega said...

Research on the authoritarian personality certainly does suggest such horrors could be unleashed here. And never forget the Nazis were heavily informed and influenced by American eugenicists. Historically white supremacy was the governing and dominant ideology for most of American history, but yes, its form and enforcement did vary by time, region, and context too.

Rita D. Lipshutz said...

well i was outraged and i always am when a killer walks free, especially when it is a man who murdered a woman. but i will absolutely grant you that most of the outraged white people after OJ were not coming from the same place i was, and certainly the ones who felt they had the right to "vent" to any person of color they felt like about it were not. btw, loved the piece, i usually do love your stuff, and have shared it widely on fb today.

Rita D. Lipshutz said...

oops, i think i meant to put my reply to the last comment here, but anyway, you get my gist i think

chauncey devega said...

how kind of you. tribalism and group think are compelling, no?

i was in college and wore my "the Juice is Loose T-shirt" to piss people off. It worked fabulously.

chauncey devega said...

I will do that. You must have many stories, too many I imagine. Stay strong.

Rita D. Lipshutz said...

your referencing "overindulgence in repenting" reminds me of years ago when i met alot of young german "hipster left" types through and ex. i am jewish and on finding that out, it was astonishing how many of them had found that they had some amount of jewish blood in them going way back, and even more astonishing how many of them felt the need to impress it upon me and make a constant point of it. very annoying and not very credible, even statistically.

johnieB said...

Thank you sir. I'm doing my best. I still sometimes try to say something about it; way too few people give a damn, which scares me, but I won't be around much longer to face the consequences (I'm just old; that's all.)

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Thanks for the props. Yes, that new study of the pervasiveness of the mechanisms of mass genocide definitively confirms what people like Peter Fritzsche have already said. Poster johnieB is absolutely right, Browning's book is a tour de force, and he used the same sources as Goldhagen, but interpreted them more effectively. When I taught historical research methods classes, I had my students read the two of them, especially the new epilogue that johnieB mentions. Based on the great stuff you've written here, I really think that book will resonate with you.