Thursday, June 21, 2018

Trump, Hitler, Their Supporters and Evil: The Absence of Empathy

While Der Trumpenführer has supposed taken action to halt future family separations, no plans exist to reunite children already torn from their parents.  The cruelty of the Trump regime policy shocked a majority modern day Americans, yet found support among at least 55% of Republicans according to one poll.  This leaves one grappling for an explanation for cruelty - evil is the correct word in my view - and how seemingly ordinary citizens can support such heinous policies.  The answer can be found in the aftermath of WWII when American psychologists working with top Nazi officials awaiting trial at Nuremberg.   One such American Army psychologist assigned to watching the defendants at the Nuremberg trials was Captain G. M. Gilbert who made the following statement in hi1950 book Psychology of Dictatorship:
“In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trails 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”

Combined with this lack of empathy was a mindset enunciated by many Trump supporters that (i) the immigrants were "breaking the law" and/or (ii) those crudely separating families were merely "following orders" and, therefore, were devoid of blame.  A piece from five years ago in The Daily Beast tracks how these same excuses were used by Nazi supporters in Hitler's Germany.  Here are key excerpts:
Why do men commit evil? Were the kommandants who ran the Nazi death camps psychopaths? Did they have subnormal intelligence? Were they just ordinary men who made appalling decisions?  I have been thinking about these questions ever since I found out that my great-uncle, Hanns Alexander, a German Jew, was a Nazi Hunter. At the end of the Second World War he tracked down and caught one of the worst mass murderers of all time, Rudolf Höss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz.
These were also the questions that a team of American psychologists and psychiatrists were directed to answer during the Nuremberg Trials that opened on November 20, 1945, six months after the war’s end. . . . With so many senior Nazis held in one place at the same time, the Americans instructed a panel of psychologists to conduct exten­sive interviews and tests with the defendants. Such horrific crimes were committed surely by damaged men, men different in some fundamental way from the rest of humanity.
Gilbert later wrote about his meeting with the Kommandant in his 1947 book Nuremberg Diary.  Gilbert asked for a brief career summary, and was surprised when Höss admitted in an unemotional tone that he had been responsible for the deaths of more than two and a half million Jews.
The American asked how it was possible to kill so many people. “Technically,” answered Höss, “that wasn’t so hard—it would not have been hard to exterminate even greater numbers.” Gilbert then pressed him for an emotional response, but Höss continued in a similar tone: “At the time there were no consequences to consider. It didn’t occur to me that I would be held responsible. You see, in Germany it was understood that if something went wrong, then the man who gave the orders was responsible.” Gilbert started to ask, “But what about the human—” before Höss interrupted, “That just didn’t enter into it.”

Two days later, a U.S. Army psychiatrist, Major Leon Goldensohn, came to visit Rudolf Höss. . . . Goldensohn asked him how he felt mentally. Rudolf Höss replied: “I feel less nervous now than I did.” He was then asked if he felt upset over what he had done in Auschwitz. “I thought I was doing the right thing,” said Höss. “I was obeying orders, and now, of course, I see that it was unnecessary and wrong. But I don’t know what you mean by being upset about these things because I didn’t personally murder anybody. I was just the director of the extermination program at Auschwitz. It was Hitler who ordered it through Himmler and it was Eichmann who gave me the orders regarding transports.”
On 15 April 1946, Rudolf Höss provided his testimony at Nuremberg. In its candor and detail regarding the mechanics of the Final Solution it changed the course of the trial.  Rudolf Höss’ testimony was reported around the world. The New York Times described it as the “crushing climax to the case.” In Britain, The Times of London went further. They said of Höss’ signed testimony: “its dreadful implications must surpass any document ever penned.”
A few days later, Rudolf Höss was handed to the Polish authorities to face his own trial. In April 1947, the former kommandant was hung on the gallows next to the old crematorium in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
The conclusion of the psychologists and psychiatrists at Nuremberg was clear: they both decided that though Rudolf Höss was intelligent, he was mentally ill: a psychopath, psychotic, amoral, lacking empathy.
An alternative theory of what underlies the character of the men and women who executed the Final Solution is put forward by Hannah Arendt. She argued that these men and women were typically not psychopaths or two-dimensional monsters. Rather they were ordinary men, who made a series of terrible decisions with horrific consequences.
To paraphrase Hannah Arendt—as portrayed in the recently released movie of the same namethe Nazi war criminal’s actions stemmed from her well-known phrase “banality of evil,” not as a result of mental illness but as a result of a lack of thinking. Their greatest error was delegating the process of thinking and decision-making to their higher ups. In Rudolf Höss’s case, this would have been his superiors, particularly Heinrich Himmler.
To many this conclusion is troubling, for it suggests that if everyday, “normal,” sane men and women are capable of evil, then the atrocities perpetrated during the Holocaust and other genocides could be repeated today and into the future.
Yet, this is exactly the lesson we must learn from the war criminals at Nuremberg. We must be ever wary of those who do not take responsibility for their actions. And we ourselves must be extra vigilant, particularly in this day of accelerated technological power, heightened state surveillance, and global corporate reach, that we do not delegate our thinking to others.
Remember that this piece just quoted was written five (5) years before today's Trump regime directed brutality towards undocumented immigrants and their families.  Other than the degree of the cruelty, is there really much difference between the staff at Auschwitz and ICE staff personnel implementing Trump's horrible policy?  As for the excuse raised by many Trump supporters/Republicans that the immigrant victims of Trump/Pence devised cruelty were "breaking the law," many 1930's Germans used the same excuse even as laws were being promulgated by the Nazis taking away the rights of Jews and others.  It seems that the admonition of the last paragraph quoted above has been forgotten, especially when it comes to not delegating one's thinking to others. 

I will admit that I am very sensitive to state directed discrimination and mistreatment of others simply because they are "different." I saw the drift toward cruelty and hatred in my waning days as a Republican as the Christofascists and evangelical Christians took over the GOP base.  These people are all about hatred of others and dehumanizing those toward whom they harbor animus.   I likewise experienced anti-gay bigotry when I was forced from a Virginia Beach based law firm for being gay.  From these experiences, I have some sense of what Gilbert was getting at.  When I was forced from my law firm so it could pander to "the sensibilities of conservative clients," no thought or concern was given to me or to my family, including my three young children.  Such was the lack of empathy/morality of self-styled prominent members of the local legal community. 

America is at a turning point.  Either the decent and moral majority mobilizes and defeats the forces of evil embodied in the Trump/Pence regime and its GOP enablers - voting them out of office is easily feasible come November - or America is accelerating down the road towards fascism and a repeat of its most ugly history.

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