To Whom Do We Owe Our Loyalty?
What the Trump Administration and a dutiful police officer can teach us about our choices.
Franz Stangl considered himself to be a man of duty. He started off as a police officer in Austria, and his faithful service would gain him one promotion after another. He would eventually become a key leader responsible for the deaths of almost a million people during the Holocaust.
In an interview with British journalist Gitta Sereny, Stangl said, “This was the system.” At his trial, he said he had to accept his various promotions out of fear for his family’s life. Each appointment meant further compromise of his ethics. To reduce his cognitive dissonance, he saw his victims as “cargo.” He said he held no ill will for the Jews — he was just doing his job.
French Pastor Andre Trocme also was a man of duty. He urged his congregation in Le Chambon to house those seeking refuge from Nazi Germany. When Vichy authorities coerced him to desist, he responded, “These people came here for help and shelter. I am their shepherd. A shepherd does not forsake his flock… I do not know what a Jew is. I know only human beings.”
After Trocme’s imprisonment, he went into hiding for 10 months. Trocme and his wife Magda would establish La Maison de Reconciliation and work for peace and nonviolent resistance throughout the world.
Trocme remained loyal to his humanity.
Both Trocme and Stangl possessed one common trait — loyalty. Stangl remained loyal to his family, but also to his job as an enforcer of the law. Although Stangl and his family were threatened if he didn’t perform his duties, his loyalty to his family and humanity clashed with his loyalty to his party and professional career. After all, the heart of Nazi ideology was to uplift one race at the expense of another.
Trocme remained loyal to his humanity. His loyalty wasn’t limited to his congregation. He and his wife had dedicated themselves to preserving peace in the world. His personal values and professional life were consonant, and he didn’t have to compromise his loyalty.
C.S. Lewis writes about the choices we make in his book, Mere Christianity. Every day, each person is presented with choices that bring us towards humanity or strife. Each person makes a choice depending on where the loyalty remains the strongest. Lewis explains:
[A]ll your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself.
Stangl, with each advance in his career, was one step closer to his loyalty towards war with humanity. His saying “no” at the first promotion in the Nazi Party might have meant death to him or his family. Even if he did sacrifice his life for the sake of his conscience, the Nazi Party would have found someone else who wouldn’t defy orders. Regardless of his fear, he continued to say “yes.” He remained loyal to his party.
Choices in the Trump Administration
Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper admitted to Military Times his battle between what he believed to be right and wrong. He knew that his job was always on the line, and he had to pick his battles. He was in a continual state of “yes” and “no” in his loyalty to the president.
Miles Taylor, the former chief of staff of the Department of Homeland Security, repeatedly oscillated between his loyalty to the president and his loyalty to his country. When he anonymously wrote the famous op-ed in 2018, he assured U.S. citizens that his loyalty remained first with his country. He wrote, “And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.” Taylor eventually said his final “no” in April 2019 when he left the Trump Administration.
Several in the Trump administration said “no” in their loyalty to truth and transparency. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified at Donald Trump’s impeachment hearing, was threatened and bullied by Trump and his supporters. Fiona Hill, who also testified, received death threats for her loyalty to the truth. Others, such as Elizabeth Neumann and Sally Yates, sacrificed their careers for their loyalty to the truth.
The question is — who is still saying “yes” to fidelity to tyranny and oppression and “no” to human values of truth, compassion, and equality?
Each person possesses these human values, but each person also makes concessions against them out of desire for power, wealth, or fame. How each person wrestles with this internal battle can determine a path of Heaven or Hell. Lewis elaborates:
To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.
Franz Stangl had choices. It was a matter of where his loyalty was rooted. Unfortunately, his loyalty to his administration resulted in the loss of almost a million lives. Had he made a different choice, his own life or that of his family might have suffered, but he would have remained loyal to his duty as a member of the human race.
During Stangl’s interview with Sereny, he maintained that he didn’t intentionally hurt anyone. He admitted that the choice to save his life over the destruction of others had been a heavy burden to bear throughout his life. He had chosen the path of madness and horror.
He would die the day after his interview with Sereny. Sereny, in her book, Into That Darkness, suggested his death was his coming to terms with his choices.
I think he died because he had finally, however briefly, faced himself and told the truth; it was a monumental effort to reach that fleeting moment when he became the man he should have been.
To whom are we loyal? Is it an ideology that has morphed into something dark? Has our loyalty to a person, ideology, or political party become so abstract that it has become a slippery slope into choices of madness, horror, idiocy, or rage? Have we considered the long-term effect of our choices?
Ultimately, we carry the burden of our choices. We might not see the immediate consequences. For now, we might want to take a closer look at where our loyalties lie.