P.S.: Reader Commentary

By Nethe, Richard H. | The Humanist, January 2001 | Go to article overview

P.S.: Reader Commentary


Nethe, Richard H., The Humanist


It was George Bernard Shaw who quipped in The Revolutionist's Handbook: "We learn from history that we learn nothing from history."

Paul Shore in his "Invisible History" (November/December 2000) seems to reenforce that view while relating horror stories dating back to World War II. Such stories remain untold for various reasons, but their retelling is vital for the sake of future generations. That's why Shore is to be commended for his essay.

It has special meaning to me because it focuses attention on a situation that has been haunting my memory for the past fifty-five years. Shore described how the former inhabitants of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland)--my hometown --were not only victimized by the brutal Nazi regime but, to add insult to injury, their plight was conveniently forgotten (one reason, I suppose, is that it would have impeded the war effort by the Allied Forces during those last days).

An important point that can never be emphasized enough is that one of the greatest evils affecting humanity is unquestioned and blind loyalty. It's essential for a well-functioning society to maintain a balance between mutual trust and a healthy skepticism. Once healthy skepticism is stifled by a regime (or religion for that matter), a system is liable to emerge that gives rise to all sorts of horrors. While it may bring out the best in people in some cases, it will eventually allow the dark side of human nature to come to the fore--as was the case in Nazi Germany. Horror stories, such as the one told in Shore's article, tend to remain untold because the victims are ashamed for having tolerated such a brutal regime and therefore are reluctant to volunteer their experiences. Many such victims--and I count myself among them--were too young and too uninformed to practice good judgment; others supported the regime out of fear of reprisals or perhaps, even more so, out of a misplaced sense of loyalty.

I have been reluctant to tell my own story because I was drafted into the German army which, here in the West, is always portrayed as the "Nazi" army--a label that most of the ex-soldiers would disagree with. Most of us didn't consider ourselves Nazi, least of all the officers in the regular army.

The SS was another matter. But even its case is not that clear-cut. Some of the ethnically German conscripts from occupied countries, such as Hungary or Poland, ended up in SS units even though they weren't necessarily Nazis. Most of the young soldiers were duped into believing that unquestioning loyalty was a virtue to be cherished. The rude awakening that awaited us at the end of World War II subsequently turned many into hardened skeptics.

As to freely sharing those horrible experiences, most of us discovered that listeners who have never lived in a closed society or a police state cannot muster sufficient empathy nor can they believe some of the seemingly unreal and bizarre events that, with their nightmarish quality, could best be described as "Kafkaesque. …

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