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Many decades after World War II, remembering the banality of evil

  • Author: Michael Carey
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 11, 2018
  • Published September 11, 2018

Auschwitz-Birkenau, part of a Nazi concentration/extermination camp complex in Poland during World War II. (Pixabay)

Years ago, I read a German journalist's memoir of his youth. He was born in 1926, and the rise and fall of Nazi Germany ran like a torrent through his early life. When World War II ended, he was a scrawny teenager in an American prison camp.

His parents were devout Catholics disgusted by Hitler and his henchmen. The family resisted the regime in the limited manner open to them – by not joining the party, not paying attention to propaganda, not attending rallies, not flying the flag. These "nots" were recorded by local Nazi officials: The father eventually lost his job as a school administrator; the family, under steady observation, lived on savings.

Late in the war, both the future journalist and his older brother were drafted. Doubts about loyalty were put aside when the Wehrmacht desperately filled uniforms.

By the war's end, the older brother was dead, the future journalist's family had lost everything – like Nazi families. And the previously pious mother had told her children she no longer believed in God.

Years later, the aged mother was hospitalized, dying. She called for the journalist, now on a path to prominence in West Germany, explaining beforehand that she had something important to tell him. The journalist came to her bedside, confused by his mother's request. What did she have to confide?

The mother said "All those years before the war, all those years of war, we saw evil everywhere. It reached into our home. Why are people evil? Do you know? Why are people evil?"

The son said pensively "Tell me."

The old woman snapped, "BECAUSE THEY LIKE IT." And turned to the wall.

Across Europe, and in parts of the United States, there are agitators who call themselves neo-Nazis. These people adopt Nazi slogans, symbols, arguments, although in Germany, the Nazi salute is outlawed.

The ban did not stop neo-Nazis from flaunting the salute at an anti-immigrant riot in eastern Germany recently that, police said, drew about 4,500 people.

Aping the Nazis anywhere except a comedy skit ("Springtime for Hitler") should make anyone a pariah. It did for a half century after World War II. Perhaps it won't any more. After all, there are people who say the Jewish Holocaust never happened. Herman Goering himself said at the Nuremberg war trials. "Oh, one heard lots of rumors, but naturally one didn't believe those things."

In "Anatomy of a Genocide," published this year, Brown University Professor Omer Bartov looks at the eastern European town of Buczacz to illustrate the mass murder in World War II. Buczacz, now in the Ukraine, had perhaps 12,000 people when the war began, and many were murdered as the war unfolded under German occupation. Bartov writes: "For close to three years (this) was the home of several German families, complete with wives and children, parents and lovers, catered to by a host of household servants and workers, many of them Jewish. These tidy German homes were an island of normality floating on a ocean of blood." Bartov later quotes a survivor, "The Jews were hunted on the streets like rabbits. Fleeing Jews were shot on the spot."

The sound of gunshots was a common interruption of German card games and other friendly gatherings.

A number of the killers, some soldiers, some policemen, were tried in German courts after the war. Their own testimony, the testimony of survivors makes it clear they liked their work. Living in a world in which the standards of civil society had been abolished gave them pleasure.

Hans Frank, the German Governor General of Poland during the Nazi occupation, testified at Nuremberg "A thousand years will pass and the guilt of Germany will not be erased."

The world is less than 100 years into Frank's thousand years and already neo-Nazis are busy with erasers.

Adolf Eichmann is infamous for "the banality of evil" as the bureaucrat who brought efficiency to the death camps. Eichmann said – when World War II was long over – "Remorse is for children." This is an assertion essential to genocide.

Eichmann was banal – the classic soulless bureaucrat. But he believed fully in the mission and was part of a vast machine, millions of men and women, who believed fully in the mission.

When I was a teenager, there were neo-Nazis in the United States, and they were kind of a joke. George Lincoln Rockwell of the American Nazi Party was ridiculous in his self-created role of New World Fuhrer, and his followers were absurd, driving around Washington, D.C., in their Volkswagen "Hate Bus."

But Rockwell liked the role, the rhetoric, his take-charge look in the mirror. Nobody should misunderstand: The neo-Nazis of today like what they are doing too. They like evil. They would not behave as they do if they didn't.

Michael Carey is an Anchorage Daily News columnist. He can be reached at

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