Hitler’s Children

There’s a really good 5-part series available on YouTube called “Hitler’s Children”. It’s based on narrative and footage and interviews with five people who were in the Hitler Youth (and one woman who was in the Bund). At the time of filming they looked to be in their 50’s or 60’s and what startled me was how mild-mannered, thoughtful, and reflective they appeared. Like liberal arts college professors (except for one of them, who, although jovial, looked like he might still have a mean streak). The video shot of Hitler Youth at the end of the war portrayed them as utterly bestial. The Allied soldiers were stunned that any children could be so savage and monstrous. They were brainwashed psychopaths lacking any trace of humanity.

Regarding the 20 year old soldier with no liberal education etc, I admit that’s a tough one because it forces me to consider whether any soldiers caught in a cheney-war, including those on the German side in WW2, can fairly be judged and held responsible for carrying out orders. The German soldiers were given no choice and had been savagely indoctrinated since childhood in the Hitler Youth to worship the fuhrer and follow all orders without question. When I see the footage of skeletal teenage German soldiers on the Russian Front with icicles frozen to their nostrils, I feel pity for them, even though I’m sure I would have felt nothing but schadenfreude at the time.
It’s true that the ones who made villagers — including women, children and the elderly –dig their own graves and and then shot them into the trenches and buried them half-alive must have known it was evil, not to mention completely dishonorable behavior for a soldier, but what could they do? Refuse and get shot themselves, or court-martialed? They had taken an oath to obey Hitler  and soldiers take oaths very seriously, I hear. Despite all this, they were still having mental breakdowns over it and that’s what forced the Nazi command to switch to other — less intimate — modes of slaughter, like gassing in trucks and eventually the death camps.
William Shirer recounts one of Himmler’s speeches delivered to new conscripts, presumably in reference to the mental breakdown, where he informed them (roughly paraphrased from memory) that only the bravest and noblest among them would be able to serve the fuhrer with true honor since the tasks ahead would be very hard and the weaker-minded ones would shrink from carrying them out. But the more horrific the tasks appeared to be, quoth Himmler, the more heroism it required to carry them out. Great fortitude and honor and love of fuhrer & fatherland would be needed to overcome their human weakness and only those possessing the highest Aryan qualities would succeed. Reminds me of the Japanese ethos which held that the more harshly a soldier punished the Emperor’s enemies in the POW camps, the more he was proving his love for the Emperor. It was a clever trick — over-ride their natural human horror at performing atrocities against civilians and prisoners by telling them that their horror was the natural response of weakness and cowardice which only the bravest and strongest could conquer. The more horrific the task appears, the more heroic you are for carrying it out. It’s a speech Cheney could have written, had he been an adult at the time instead of just a rapacious glint in his father’s lidless eye).
But when it comes to holding soldiers responsible, where do we draw the line? The ones at Abu Graib(sp) were held responsible (sort of) for their torture, although we know they were acting on orders to “soften up” the prisoners and would never have been prosecuted had the story and photos not been leaked and caused a world-wide scandal. It’s not an easy call for a soldier to make. If he obeys without question he could end up being prosecuted at an international war crimes tribunal afterwards, if his side loses. But if he refuses to obey he could end up being court-martialed as a traitor by his own side if they win. Pretty tough decision, even for someone with more education/experience and intelligence than the hypothetical case you mentioned.
But apparently they were not brainwashed beyond repair, at least not these ones. It’s fascinating to hear them describe their childhood memories of the Third Reich and of how joining the Hitler Youth gave them their first feeling of belonging, meaning and direction, and sense of of having a purpose greater than themselves. I wonder how and if their experience differs from those who are drawn to Isis and other jihadi groups. Makes me wonder how many children/young people from any nation or ethnicity would act differently, given similar circumstances. Also makes me wonder if some decades from now we (or our children) won’t be watching interviews with thoughtful, reflective intellectuals in their 50’s and ’60’s and hearing them recount their youthful experiences in Isis et al and describing how utterly irresistible and transformational it was for them at the time. I really suspect the transformation to savagery has less to do with religion and ethnicity and more to do with circumstances and the perpetual human craving for purpose, meaning and belonging. Hyper-religiosity can be used to transform them into monsters, but so can hyper-nationalism. There are many mechanisms to create bots. (And, of course, there’s always a sub-section of every population that’s psychopathic from birth and ready to join any group that rewards sadistic behavior.)
At any rate, Hitler’s Children is a great docu-series if/when you’re in the mood to reflect on the psycho-social aspects of WW2. We have a lot to learn from that war and I don’t think we’ve even begun scraping the surface. As Carl Sagan said many years ago, we can no longer afford traditional wars. The planet’s too small and the weapons too huge. We’ll just have to find another way to settle differences, or else face consequences we’re not ready to face.

About basicrulesoflife

Year 1935. Interests: Contemporary society problems, quality of life, happiness, understanding and changing ourselves - everything based on scientific evidence.
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