This question has been pondered before. Would I have been able to be on the side of evil? Could I have been the cruel master? Could I have been a concentration camp or Gulag guard?
The true answer to this question is – I don’t know. How could you know? Everything is a relative. I wouldn’t do it in the morning if they asked me to, no way, but that was never the option for these ‘run of the mill’ soldiers.
Recently (Nov 2019) a former German SS man in the World War II Bruno Dey was on trial in Germany for his part in one of the worlds greatest atrocities. He was 95 years old. He was however been tried in juvenile court, because of his age at the time.
His defence was based on he was forced to join the SS and then was following orders. He regretted what he had done. What would I have done?
Could anyone be capable in the wrong circumstances of being a Nazi concentration camp guard? That is where this becomes even more uncomfortable. We must do some self-reflection and walk a mile in another’s shoes.
It is easy to dismiss instantly that of course I wouldn’t and even to suggest it is bordering on criminal. How could you say such a thing to me? I now look from a lens of comfort and choice. I live in a very different world. It was not the same for this teenage German. I look at myself when I was that age and frankly…. I was a non-rebelling idiot.
At what stage should he have been a more conscious decision-making teenager? In 1942 when the war had been raging for 3 years and Germany had been in the grip of the Nazi party since he was 8 years old. It was all he knew. He was indoctrinated into the Nazi ways of thinking. He would have ‘learned’ this in his education. I cringe as I write this but a bit like being indoctrinated into any religion from a young age. It becomes all you know and seems to be the one true path. Only joking religion has always had a history of tolerance.
At the age of 17 after 9 years of watching Hitler he joined the army. He would have been forced to join the army, whether he liked it or not. In his shoes do you see yourself not joining the army at this stage? I probably would have, maybe reluctantly but I am would not have been strong enough to face the alternative punishment.
In other countries in the world at the time 17 years olds were forced into the army through conscription too, how much they knew about the war and the reasons, was no doubt – limited.
Each country would have only had access to their side of the story #propoganda. How many would have joined given the choice? The choice wasn’t there, you would have been labelled a traitor if you didn’t join. Shunned by the community and country.
If it was me as a 17 year old I would have followed the status quo I am quite sure and joined the army. I have heard stories from around the world where youngsters were given a gun and told to fight. ‘Don’t shame the family’, ‘you are too young to understand the history’, just fight.
When in the army it is made clear from day one that disobeying orders is not an option. After years of being saturated in propaganda it is possible that it wouldn’t even be considered.
Then you get stationed in Poland.
The path is clear if you put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You can only imagine the turmoil and the terror, but maybe you can see it is possible. I say I have never been brainwashed by my upbringing, but how am I to know? Persecution of minorities still happens in the world, how? Think Rohingya in Myanmar, dare I say Palestine. We still hear the word genocide in the news. How is it possible, aren’t we more connected and tolerant? Civil unrest is met with force in many countries. Do as those in power say…. or else.
The Russian guards at the Gulags were the one who chose to oppress rather than be oppressed. Maybe I could have been a Gulag guard as well. Which would I have picked if I had been in the same situation? Hard labour, beatings and starvation or the easier existence? I pick a pretty easy existence at the moment. This choice scares me, I am so happy I am not in that position to have to make it.
Now I follow the laws of any country I am in, pay my taxes and listen to the news. I am not part of any civil uprisings and don’t tend toward disobedience. I follow the rules and what I am told to do by government. In war time would this mean I would have followed all orders. If I were born in Germany or Russia 20 years before the war I would have been in the army, then what?
‘You are assigned to …… ‘
I hope my moral fortitude would be strong in that situation and I would find it in myself to rebel and refuse to follow orders. I am not evil, I consider myself a good person. But I know I am probably weaker and more comfortable than any generation before. Death could await this choice to rebel anyway. Consciousness may kill you in the war but so could submitting. Survival at all costs, what is the limit to all costs? Nations and ideals triumph over individual needs. Hope loses. Morals destroyed just to live until tomorrow. Survive to see tomorrow. To see every tomorrow.
War is horrific, appreciate what you have today, appreciate you don’t have to make these choices. Be nice to your friends, neighbors, family and strangers. Be a better you. We are lucky.