There’s something in the human spirit that drives us to seek humanity in the face of monstrosity and of course, for Europeans there is nothing more monstrous than the Nazi era.
We need the assurance that even though some human beings are capable of despicable behaviour, there are other human beings who think otherwise. As a rational human being, I need such assurance. I need confirmation that even among the oppressors there are those who recoil from savagery, because otherwise we have no hope.
Therefore, instead of seeking the horror, I sometimes search for the spark of decency even among those who are most morally compromised. Without trying to justify their crimes, I look for the concentration camp guard who realises, however sporadically, that his work is evil, and thus we find somebody like Arthur Liebehenschel, who took over Auschwitz in 1943. Liebehenschel immediately shut down the torture chambers in Auschwitz, put an end to random beatings of prisoners, and disciplined SS personnel for brutality. Liebehenschel clearly had scruples about the abomination he was involved in and yet was well aware that Birkenau was an extermination factory and continued to operate it. He was, of course, executed in the end.
Albert Goering had no such ethical conflicts. From the beginning of the Nazi party, he opposed them. He knew what a vicious unprincipled movement his brother Hermann had become involved in and he fought against it for the rest of his life. From 1933 until 1945, he constantly used the offices of the Reichsmarschall to elude the Gestapo, who arrested him over and over again for opposing the Nazi regime. And his brother Hermann always got him off the hook, even when he had to approach the odious Heinrich Himmler for assistance. Such are family ties.
We all know about Schindler, the Nazi spy whose scruples got the better of him, and thanks to Stephen Spielberg, we know about the psychopathic killer, Amon Goeth, commandant of the Plaszow camp in Krakow, but who knows about Oswald Bousco, the SS officer who smuggled many Jews out of the Krakow ghetto and who was himself eventually murdered by the Nazis?
In a country as large as Germany, even political movements like the SS will attract decent people. We know about Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of military intelligence, who opposed Hitler until 1944 when he was finally executed, but do we know about Heinz Heydrich, older brother of perhaps the vilest of all Nazis?
Reinhard Heydrich exemplifies everything revolting about national Socialism, while at the same time embodying all the contradictions implicit in the stereotype. The son of an opera singer, he excelled at science and was a gifted violinist, capable of reducing his listeners to tears. Heydrich, head of the Gestapo, was the man who devised the Final Solution — complete extermination of the Jews — adopted at the Wannsee Conference.
On 27 September 1941, at the age of 37, Heydrich was appointed Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. Five months later, the hated oppressor was dead, killed by a bomb.
When SS Obersturmführer Heinz Heydrich received his brother’s private papers from Gestapo headquarters, he stayed up all night reading and burning them, as he read the full details of the plan to exterminate European Jews. From that time on, he devoted his life to saving Jews by printing false identity papers for them, on the presses of the soldiers’ newspaper Panzerfaust, using his connection with his brother to deflect Gestapo attention from his activities. Finally, when a State Attorney investigated Panzerfaust in November 1944, Heinz Heydrich shot himself in the mistaken belief that the investigation concerned his subversive activities.
In reality, the investigation concerned paper shortages.
Why do I list these examples? Is it because I think extremists are fundamentally decent when you get behind the facade?
No. It’s because I have always said that monstrous things are only shocking when carried out by ordinary people. And what makes us more ordinary than a friend or a brother disgusted by what we have done?