I never wanted to go to a death camp. In fact, I never understood why people did go to death camps. As a kid I read Maus — if you haven’t read it stop what you are doing and go find a copy.
That graphic novel told me everything I needed to know about death camps: I knew as a kid growing up in Germany that they were real and they were nearby. Nearly everyone I knew had been to either Dachau or Auschwitz. But I was not going. I had already seen enough.
Coincidentally when I was 19 I took a road-trip with a friend from Mississippi that passed through Munich. That was the summer of 2002. I’d lived in Germany since the summer of ‘86. We ate at the famous Hofbräuhaus München, at the time I was a teetotaler, so it wasn’t an amazing stop.
After lunch the Mississippian asked if I had been to Dachau. He was bewildered to know that not only had I not been, but I had refused to go. I had been actively avoiding what for most Americans I knew living in Germany was absolutely obligatory; a pilgrimage to a Nazi death camp.
In fact, not long before that trip, on a family vacation to visit friends in Poland, I had been invited by my parents on a day-trip to Auschwitz, a trip that I had to argue fiercely to get out of.
In the culture I was raised in there was no coming-of-age rite such as a Bat Mitzvah or Quinceañera, although my sister was gifted a purity ring by my parents at a Chi-Chi’s after church one Sunday when she was 16. For me there was no such thing.
That trip to Dachau was my coming-of-age celebration.
The truth was that at 19 years old I was put face-to-face with the reality of James Baldwin’s famous quotation:
I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.
- James Baldwin
I grew up in Heidelberg where the flotsam of the Potsdam Conference led to Allied Force Command Heidelberg and vacationing in the shadow of Hitler’s Eagles Nest in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Annual tours of the tunnels and rooms underneath Hitler’s mountain-top retreat fueled endless learning about WWII and supported an endless imagination.
But by not addressing the reality of mass-murder in the places where it happened I had allowed myself to caricaturize the Germans of the Third Reich.
This is an essay about being forced to face the humanity of genocidal men. Since that day I’ve spent my entire adult life — one way or another — examining questions of how normal people come to do morally reprehensible things.
Carl Schmitt is a striking case study. Carl Schmitt joined the National Socialist party in 1933. Maybe he felt he had no choice. But, for me, a rhetorician — it doesn’t matter. As it is, I am interested in what speech does.
What I have learned is that:
The speed of mass murder is stunning because the line between speech and violence is paper-thin.
In Rwanda in 1990 an anti-Tutsi newspaper was founded, in 1992 a right-wing anti-Tutsi political party, in summer of 1993 a radio station followed. By July of 1994 over 1 million Tutsi men, women, and children had been killed by militias — mostly by machetes. There is a dangerous connection between hate speech and death.
The Dachau concentration camp outside Munich was opened within one month of Hitler’s rise to power in the Spring of 1933.
It can happen more easily than we think.
How do we evaluate Carl Schmitt —the man whose legal theory legitimized Hitler’s dictatorship, and the genocidal men and women who enabled it?
Genocidal people are neither evil nor stupid.
No one expects a genocide.
Carl was a normal guy doing normal things
Carl Schmitt’s impact was to allow for the führer and the state to be one. His legal writings paved the way for the ultimate power to decide political questions to be vested in a single person, Adolf Hitler.
Schmitt writes in Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty:
Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.
That’s it. That’s the theory. The book is only four chapters. It wasn’t a genocidal plan to exterminate Jews or a concoction from a place of deep anti-Semitism. Carl wrote a well-reasoned and logically sound justification for dictatorship.
Tracy B. Strong’s defense of Schmitt in his foreword to George Schwab’s 1985 translation of Political Theology argues that to be a Nazi in the Weimar Republic was neither necessarily evil nor ignorant.
But that is my point precisely. We must not dismiss members of the Nazi party as evil. Some joined out of economic pressure, some out of nationalistic aspirations, and some out of patriotic duty. Nor can we use Nazi as a slur — today’s equivalent of calling someone a morally bankrupt and soulless killer. As Nicholas Kristof says an irony of the human condition is that warlords can love their children and ruthless killers can be unspeakably hospitable.
Kristoff warns that we must be wise in recognizing that those who appear upstanding and welcoming and civil are also capable of shocking violence.
It is easy to say the Nazis were evil. It is hard to say that normal people and genocidal people are the same people.
We cannot dismiss systematic mass murder of gay, Roma, Jewish, communist, and disabled Europeans as an isolated act of violence by evil people. Until we see our shared humanity we are dangerously susceptible to becoming what we hate.
Internal motivations are irrelevant, what matters is what they lead to.
We cannot hate.
It seems silly to say now, but there in the early 2000s, after 15 years of living in central Europe and over 50 years after D-Day I realized that I hated the National Socialists of Hitler’s Third Reich. I believed they were evil, all of them.
It turns out that evil people are not genocidal, but smart, everyday people whose inattentiveness to the connection between speech and action is deadly.