Archive for July, 2011
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
… EDMUND BURKE, 18th Century British statesman
I’ll try to explain the terrible time of the Nazis but you should remember that we are dealing with people; many, many people. Very few people are all good or all bad and most people are not heroes either. Most people must trust in their leaders. But that is exactly why we condemn so many people of that time. Those respected people in position of authority who should have opposed the Nazis didn’t.
Before I write anything else I want you to understand that World War II (WW II) should be considered separately from the holocaust (The murder of six million Jews as well as between one and three million Gypsies and various other people that the Nazi’s didn’t like including some Lutheran and Catholic priests who dared to preach against Hitler’s policies even when their own bishops didn’t. )
Understand also that the killing of the Jews and Gypsies would have been only the beginning if the Nazis had won WW II. They were also killing or making slaves of Russians of Asian blood and would have killed or enslaved all Negroes had they gained political power in America or subjugated sub-Sahara Africa. Obviously that would have been beyond the ability of the German nation alone but there were plenty of other people who agreed with the Nazis (and there still are some.)
Now let me give you some background on the political and economic situation in Germany after World War I (WW I) and on European (but also to a lesser degree American) antisemitism in those days.
What were those days like in Germany after WW I ? There were cars but mostly horses. Small airplanes were used by armies but there were no airlines. Most people lived on farms. People in cities traveled by trolley cars, often these were horse drawn. There were few tractors, horses pulled plows. Radio had been invented but it was rare to own one. There was, of course, no TV, no supermarkets, and only a few telephones. Those cars that did exist were very expensive and the roads outside of cities were so bad that the cars could be damaged by them. Most people in Europe got around by bicycle and the modern bicycle had only been invented a few decades before WW I. Most people died much younger than people do today. Few homes had any electricity.
Antisemitism and other racism
Antisemitism means anti Jews. There is a long history of antisemitism going back to before Jesus and it still continuing today. Why?
Even before the time of Jesus the Jews were generally disliked by the other people in the Roman empire. This was because they refused to act like good Roman citizens (worship the emperor and pagan idols), and also because many of the merchants in the empire were Jews from Palestine, the area where Jerusalem is. Small traders are often unwelcome because they move from place to place and therefore have little chance to make friends.
Antisemitism after the time of Jesus was religious and comes from Jesus being killed by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. The Gospels were written mostly by non-Jews for non-Jewish readers and often speak badly of “the Jews”. This was unfair. Many of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem wanted Jesus dead but many other Jews did not. Remember it was a leader of the Jerusalem people who gave his own tomb for Jesus to be buried in. Also remember that Jesus was greeted by a crowd of admirers the week before he died.
Besides these things, the Jews had other things that kept them from making friends with non Jews. Especially know that there are certain foods that they are forbidden to eat at all (pork, shrimp) or cannot eat together (meat with milk or cheese). The Old Testament does forbid eating pork and shrimp but the rule against eating meat and dairy products is an interpretation of scripture by the Jewish rabbis intended to keep Jews from socializing too much with non Jews. Why? Because they quite correctly realized that the teachings of Judaism are directly from God and much better than the religious beliefs and the morality of the pagans. They feared that if Jews mixed socially with non Jews (Originally pagans but later Christians) they would marry non Jews and their children would not be raised Jewish.
In the Christian middle ages Jews were sometimes tolerated but usually not trusted. Many lies about them were believed and from time to time mobs would blame “The Jews” for some disaster or other bad thing and kill them. This is why they usually lived together in what are known as ghettos. Ghettos are a part of a city set aside for Jews only. (The word has now been borrowed to refer to poor African-American parts of cities.) In their ghettos the Jews were safer but even less likely to have Christian friends. Now human nature doesn’t like people who are different. Christians saw Jews only in business, usually in small business or as money lenders (Christians at that time were forbidden by the church to earn money by loaning money.). Christians had land but little cash. The Jews were seen as having all the money which did not make them popular. As money lenders (we’d say bankers) some of them did have quite a bit of money. They understood that money could save them from Christians who would otherwise kill them. This is why having money is still very important among Jews and is one of the reasons why they like to see their children become doctors and lawyers who make money. (By the way, Jews are much more charitable than Christians and not only to other Jews but to anyone who is being harmed or is poor; so do not think of them as selfish with their money.) The problem is that while it is understandable that the Jews wanted to not socialize with their Christian countrymen it is also understandable that the Christians didn’t feel very friendly toward people who only talked to them when doing business. This, however. cannot justify killing or otherwise mistreating them and sometimes the popes and bishops had to protect them against Christians. At other times they didn’t bother to.
Anyway, all this medieval discrimination was for religious reasons. If a Jew became a Christian he was treated the same as everyone else. The later Nazi antisemitism was purely racial.
Twentieth century racism wasn’t limited to Jews and Germany. Antisemitism was common throughout Europe and even in America. America was very racist in the early and mid twentieth century, and not just antisemitic. As you probably know, even as late as when Grandpa was a young man, African Americans were kept from voting in the southern states; they could not eat in the same restaurants as whites, drink from the same water fountains, sit together in the movies, attend the same schools (Black schools were terrible), or marry whites. In fact if a Negro was thought to have disrespected a white person or even looked at a white woman in the South he could be killed by a lynch mob and the killers were never punished,.
Most Americans today do not know that Negroes weren’t the only people discriminated against in the USA. By a law passed by our congress in 1924 immigration from everywhere but Northern Europe (and South America from which there were few immigrants in those days) was severely limited. Only 4,000 Italians a year were allowed but 57,000 Germans were permitted into the USA. No Asians (Japanese, Chinese, Indians, etc) were allowed. Those Chinese already in the USA were only safe if they lived in little Chinese Ghettos (Chinatowns). During WW II German-American immigrants were not bothered but Japanese Americans were forced to live together in camps in the California desert until the war was over. The excuse was that some of them might be working for our enemies but the main reason was so that California landowners could then basically steal their farms by buying them at a much cheaper price then they were worth.
Much of the violence against Negroes in America was done by an organization called the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). They killed Negroes that they thought were trying to get their rights or were otherwise not behaving as little better than slaves. Few priests and ministers opposed the Klan and it was not until the 1950s that Blacks – with the help of many, many white people from the North – were able to openly oppose the Klan and demand their rights as US citizens. Some were martyred. In the 1920s the KKK also opposed Jews and Catholics (usually Irish and Italian immigrants). They held scary demonstrations of their anti Jewish, anti Catholic program in cities and towns not only in the South but also in the northern USA. In 1925 over 50,000 Klan members paraded through Washington, DC.
There were similar problems in other countries. Hitler did not start hating Jews in Germany but as a young man while living in Austria where he was born. There is a famous case of the French army condemning a Jewish army captain to a terrible prison island even though they knew that he was not guilty of the crime charged. Throughout WW II the German Nazis used Polish sympathizers as guards in the death camps. Before the war, the United States turned away a ship full of German Jewish refugees and most of them later died in German death camps.
You should not think that WW II was fought to help the Jews. It was not until almost the end of the war that the allies recognized just how bad it had been for the Jews in Europe. No, It was fought by England and the USA because Hitler was invading friendly countries (France, Belgium, The Netherlands) and Russia. It was only towards the end of the war that the massacre of the Jews and Gypsies of Western Europe and the Jews and Slavs to the East in Poland and Russia began to bother other people. In fairness to the allies, they did not fully understand how bad it was but on the other hand they didn’t very much want to know. They were fighting a war with Germany not liberating Jews. Remember that while the allied countries did not kill Jews they didn’t very much care if they were mistreated. It was only when Hitler’s death camps were photographed by allied troops near the end of the war and the full extend of the atrocities became known that the conscience of America and Western Europe became outraged.
Why do I point up all this racism? For two reasons: First so you know that it wasn’t just the Germans who killed people they didn’t like. Yes they organized the holocaust and killed many millions of people – far, far more than the murders of Negroes in the USA for example. But the Nazis couldn’t have done it alone. They could only do it because everyone else, Germans and others, didn’t try to stop them. (Norway and Denmark were occupied by the Germans but because the Norse and Danes generally refused to cooperate with the Nazis most of their Jews survived.) The second reason is so you understand that while nothing like the holocaust happened in the USA and probably wouldn’t have, it could have. White Americans would not have killed Negroes en masse but would they have tried not to notice that it was happening if their government did something that just made racial problems disappear? Or would they have just trusted their leaders? They ignored the murders done by the Klan.
The problem is that no-one announced a program to kill the Jews and Gypsies, and Slavs, and most likely, in time, the Negroes in America and the Indians of Mexico and South America. Germans would not have supported such a terrible thing but it was a little-by-little thing. It started before the Nazis were even in power in Germany. It started when the German people were suffering a terrible depression after WW I, even worse than the worldwide depression of the nineteen thirties a few years later. In fact, Germany was a mess. Even before the end of WW I communists were organizing soldiers into communes and trying to overthrow the old German government just as they had done in Russia. When the war ended German soldiers came home to a country where there was little to eat. Those people who had jobs were paid in almost worthless money. They were paid in money that was so worthless that they had to carry it in wheelbarrows to have enough to buy a loaf of bread. Their wives would meet them as soon as they got paid so they could buy groceries because if they waited until after their husbands finished work for the day their pay might buy only half as much as at noon.
This made it easy for ambitious rabble rousers like Hitler to excite crowds and start anti Jewish riots even before he came to power. Hitler could say correctly that Germany had not been invaded. That was true, the war was fought in France and Belgium. He just ignored the fact that the allies were ready to attack with a million fresh United States soldiers and that the German army was no longer willing or able to fight. (The USA only entered WW I in its last year.) Hitler lied and blamed politicians for surrendering and ignored that Germany had lost. He blamed “the Jews” because Jews were already unpopular and suspected of supporting communism. It was easy to blame an international Jewish conspiracy despite the fact that Jews had fought and died for Germany in WW I just like every other German. This kind of talk became known as the big lie. If you tell a very big lie and tell it often, people will begin to believe you. After all, they reason, if it isn’t true why do we hear it so much. This is still done today. There are Moslems, for example, who believe that Jews destroyed the World Trade Center despite the fact that we know for a fact that fanatical Moslems flew airliners into the buildings. Why? Because they keep hearing it from irresponsible propagandists on Arab radio stations, just as Joseph Goebbels kept repeating equally absurd antisemitic lies on German radio.
But there was a new angle to antisemitism in Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It was no longer religious but racial. Since the late nineteenth century some Germans had started to teach that the Aryan race composed of Germans, Scandinavians, English, and to a lesser extent the other peoples of Western Europe (French, Spanish, Italian) were racially superior to the Jews, the Gypsies, and the Slavs of Eastern Europe (Poland, Russia, Bulgaria, etc.) They taught that Aryans were supermen and the others were subhuman and fit to live only as slaves if allowed to live at all. Despite considering them subhuman such people actually feared the Jews and believed that there was a great Jewish conspiracy though they never really made clear what the conspiracy was all about. Why would they fear the Jews? Probably because Jews were often well educated and held important positions out of proportion to their numbers. Many were bankers, scientists, and doctors, as well as artists, composers, and musicians. Why? Probably because these were occupations that Jews were allowed into and where they practiced as individuals not as part of a group as one does in a company. Throughout history Jews have been doctors, and bankers. As artists and musicians they did not threaten anyone else’s job. The world of universities was more interested in a person’s intellect than his race (although it was very hard to get a very high post in a university if one was a Jew.) Still, except for doctors, these were not the Jews that the ordinary German often saw. They saw pawn brokers who bought their family possessions for a few dollars during the bad times. They saw butchers and bakers and other small shopkeepers who did not mix well socially with other Germans and often looked different because many were very Orthodox Jews who still wear distinctive black beards, their hair in curly sideburns, and black hats and coats.
Even just a few decades ago when grandpa was working in New York, there were antisemitic riots in New York for the same reason. Negroes in the Black area of New York became angry at Jewish shop owners who seemed to only take their money without being part of the community. A few years ago there were similar riots for the same reason but this time against Asian immigrants who owned (or looked like they owned) grocery stores in Black neighborhoods but did not live there or seem to care about their customers. One of the problems with Asians was that – just as many Jews dressed differently – the Asians didn’t smile at their customers as other Americans did. It just wasn’t the custom in the countries that they came from. After the riots they learned to smile and things have gotten better..
My point is that it is easy when times are bad and people are suffering, for a person like Hitler and his propaganda minister, Goebbels, to blame the nearest group who are a bit different, to lie and exaggerate. In Hitler’s case, to say the German army had not been defeated and the loss of WW I was the fault of Jews and politicians (no-one likes politicians.) It’s a nice overly simple answer to a complicated problem. Always beware of people with simple answers.
The Rise of the Nazis
But other countries made it worse. The peace treaty after WW I made Germany pay for the war even though no-one country was really responsible for it. There had been an incident in Austria and the countries of Europe reacted by declaring war on each other according to agreements they had made before the war. Because each country had to get all its soldiers together, arrange for their food and transportation, and many other things that once started could not be stopped without giving their enemies an advantage, Europe just slipped into a war that no-one wanted. None the less, Germany was ordered to pay reparations for the war. The United States did not pressure Germany for immediate repayment but France did even though in the conditions after WW I Germany simply could not pay. Than France did something really stupid. It took over a part of Germany on the excuse that Germany had not paid reparations.
Even before Hitler, the great German arms industry which felt humiliated by the defeat in WW I began to secretly prepare for a new war of revenge against France. Even though these leaders of German arms companies did not like Hitler and thought he was a madman or evil they thought that they could control him. They wanted to rebuild Germany by using him and the other Nazis, and then get rid of them. Now Hitler had the support of both the poor and the rich.
So understand that Hitler and the Nazis rode to power on two positions: They played on the hatred of a hungry and defeated people, telling them that their problems were the fault of politicians and Jews. And they rode on a program supported by the wealthy to rearm and get revenge against France. But who were these Nazis? First, it is important to realize that they were not crazy. The first Nazis were basically street gangs, teenagers and young veterans of WW I who only cared to get “stuff”, blame their misfortunes on someone else, and find some sort of leadership. A street bully could think of himself as much more than that if he could put on a uniform of some sort and do his violence, not alone, but with others of his kind. (The SA – Not to be confused with the later SS.)
Street criminals like these have no ethical values. They just want to take what they want without concern for Christian values or the rights of others. Soon, however, they were joined by others who thought they could “use” Hitler. Many of these later people were well educated. They adopted and distorted the philosophy of a late nineteenth century German philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche. His philosophy of the superman eased any reservations that some might have had. In this philosophy there is no such thing as rights. A superman should just take what he wants. They said that laws and morals were created by weak people to protect themselves from the strong. It was not necessary for Aryan “supermen” to justify anything that they wanted to do.
Germany was starving and many people had no jobs. According to the superman philosophy Aryans should just take the farms of the subhuman people of Poland because they needed more land. At the same time they could invade France, and Belgium, and Holland not because French and Belgians and the Dutch were inferior as they said the Poles and Jews were. but because the French had humiliated them in WW I. The Dutch and Belgians were just in the way. If one doesn’t believe in ethics why not just take what you want?
In 1935 when Hitler had become chancellor of Germany a series of laws were passed that declared that Jews were not even German citizens although their families had lived in Germany for centuries. This deprived them of their rights under German law.
Besides the millions of Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs killed by the Nazis, hundreds of thousands of others – most of them Germans themselves – were slaughtered because they were not considered worthy of life. Children and adults with disabilities were killed in mental institutions before WW II. Anyone was subject to execution if he was blind, deaf, senile, retarded, or had any significant mental condition. This is what happens when all Christian ethics are ignored and only power matters. Of course the Nazis tried to hide this from their German countrymen and much – but not all – of the killing stopped when Catholic bishops openly opposed it. This was before the war but those who did it moved on to killing Jews and Slavs from The Netherlands, France, Poland, and Russia after the war started. But there is an important lesson to learn: You cannot sin just because your country has made that sin legal. You cannot ignore the natural law of God which values all life just because your country has a law saying it is OK to kill someone who is handicapped … or take his property as we did in the USA with the Native Americans and later with the Japanese-Americans here.
The Nazis even turned against themselves. When Hitler became chancellor of Germany he realized that he needed the support of the regular army and the industrial leaders more than a bunch of street thugs. He had his old friends who were leaders of the street toughs (known as the SA) killed and then disbanded the SA. By now he had given high positions in government to other old friends who were as bad as him. They were evil but do not think that these men were any more monstrous than many other people can be. They had no ethics but they had the opportunity to turn Germany into a state where people had no rights, where people they didn’t like could be tortured and killed for no good reason, where Jews and other undesirables were at first sent to concentration camps and later killed. Most of these evil people believed in what they were doing. They knew that they were doing awful things to bring about the kind of world that they wanted but they thought it was necessary and OK to starve, work to death, or gas millions of people who had done nothing wrong. These slaves weren’t Aryans so they didn’t matter. Can this happen in other countries. It has. In the nineteen eighties hundreds of thousands (Perhaps even two million) were killed in Cambodia just because they were in the way of the government’s program to change that country into one man’s idea of what it should be. The leader in Russia when Hitler was in power in Germany, killed millions of farm owners who got in the way of his turning Russia into a modern industrial country. The only difference between Stalin and Hitler was that while Stalin was killing many people too he was at least teaching the children of Russia that all working people are brothers. Hitler was teaching German children that they were superior to other people and could do anything they wanted to them. He was also teaching that Germans would rule the world for the next thousand years.
Where were the good people?
Where were the good people? Partly they were lied to and fooled. Partly they would risk their jobs and even their lives if they opposed the Nazis for the Nazis had a secret police force (the gestapo) which had the right to arrest and torture and kill anyone they didn’t trust. Eventually Germans became afraid to say anything to even their closest friends and neighbors that might be understood as criticizing Hitler and the Nazis because their friends might tell the gestapo. Partly too, they knew that bad things were being done but they felt it was necessary to rebuild Germany as a strong country. They thought that eventually Hitler and the Nazis would die or go away. Mostly they just preferred not to look too closely – to believe that their Jewish neighbors were simply being forced to new homes and villages in the east (Poland) even when they must have suspected that many of them would be killed. They probably did not know or want to believe that the Jews were all being gassed to death or worked to death. Would you believe that of our government if it were doing such a thing, or would you turn away from considering the possibility, play soccer or, as in the case of the Germans,work harder to win the war that their country had just gotten into?
War is why so many Germans who knew better or should have known better did nothing. Especially army officers who had the ability to change things. Their country was at war. They felt that they could get rid of Hitler and the Nazis after victory. Meantime they must fight for Germany against its old enemies even if they heard stories of terrible things being done, even if they were ordered to help round up Jews. After all, they may have thought: it was the Nazi SS troopers who were in charge of exterminating the Jews and Slavs and Gypsies and other enemies of the country, not the army. But they helped make it possible by collecting the victims.
So too did the local authorities in many towns in France, Poland, and other countries that Germany conquered. Most people didn’t like Jews and if the Jews could be sent away to “resettle “ in the east, then they could get the Jews’ homes and property. If this sounds like the treatment of Japanese Americans it was, of course, not the same; but the difference is one of degree not intent. White Americans would not have killed the Japanese Americans during WW II, but we don’t know whether they might have if the USA had been very poor and had just lost millions of men in a brutal war against Japan and been made to pay Japan for the cost of it? We like to think we would not have. We hope we wouldn’t have. But when things get worse little by little most people who at first think they wouldn’t do something awful can come to think it is OK to do it when their own jobs and homes and comfort are at risk and it seems that everyone else is doing it. Besides, this was the 1930s and 40s; most Americans thought of Japanese as just inferior bucktoothed yellow monkeys who worshiped idols, ate fish raw, and made their homes out of paper and sticks instead of cement block foundations and shingle siding like proper houses. How can that be? Communications, or rather lack of communication. Radio was a relatively new invention and there was no TV at all. Most Americans could remember when there weren’t even movies. Few people (even reporters) had college educations or had traveled very much. It took days to cross our continent by train and weeks to reach Asia by ship. All Americans knew about Japan was what they read in newspapers and magazines usually written by reporters who didn’t know much more than the readers. It is better today, of course; we know much more; but even today peasants in Afghanistan just look like dirty ignorant “ragheads” to some Americans.
Remember too that an infant at the end of WW I would be a man of 20 at the time of WW II and the holocaust. He would have been hungry as a child and all his life he would have been hearing how all Germany’s troubles were the fault of foreign enemies and depraved Jews. He would also have been told that Jews were less intelligent than other people, that they were “out to get” other people, that they were dirty and unfit to live; whereas Aryans like him were a super race who should and would repopulate the world and bring a new and glorious age if Germany could just get rid of its enemies at home and abroad. He would have been drafted into the German army and learned to think the way the government wanted him to. Most would be proud to be a Nazi who would bring about a better Aryan dominated world.
Did the Nazis believe this rubbish. Yes, it seems that many of them like Goebbels, the propaganda minister, really did. Others just went along. If you wanted a job and to stay out of trouble than you had to join the Nazi party; so you did so without much caring about the big picture.
Most Nazis had so lost any moral compass that they did believe this junk though. Very few of them were well educated men. They were mostly ordinary people who had gotten angry at Germany’s loss of WW I. They had come to believe that they could do anything they wanted to because they were doing so well as the Nazi party leadership that what Hitler and Goebbels and Himmler were saying must be true. Very few very successful people regret what they did to become successful. Things that we would call bad they simply see as necessary.
Of course there were some brave and good people both in Germany and in the occupied countries who did risk and often lose their own lives to hide Jews. Otto Schindler saved many people. Some priests and ministers were sent to death camps for speaking out against the Nazis. Others were simply shot. The memory of these people has been given a special place of honor in Israel today. Other people just left Europe (Such as the Trapp family singers and the actress and singer Marlene Dietrich.)
What of the guilt of the German people and nation. Despite everything I’ve written to explain the situation you must remember: Germany and Germans did start WW II and did murder over ten million people not counting twice as many killed in the war.
True, other peoples of Europe were antisemitic and some helped the Germans and most just tried not to look. But Germany did it, not the USA or France, or anyone else. Those pictures of Nazi stormtroopers are all of Germans.
Today Germans and Germany refuse to make excuses. (As they should not.) They rightly accept the blame. What I’ve written I’ve wrote to explain the circumstances not to excuse the Germans. But it is also true that few people alive today were adults or even teens during WW II and the holocaust. Germans today have worked very hard to return to being an honorable people. They have done much good in the world of which we hear very little. They have made a warm peace with their old enemies: France, England, Belgium, and the Netherlands. They are generally against war of any kind but have sent troops as peacekeepers into places where other people have been killing each other. Their scholars have returned to research in science and medicine and religion. What was done can never be undone but neither should any German today feel guilty. He didn’t kill Jews any more than I beat up Negroes or slaughtered Native Americans. These are a part of our history of which we are justly ashamed; but they are history. We go on with life and try to learn from the past so that such things do not happen again. Germany of the mid twentieth century was guilty but that was one period of about twenty years. The Germans before and after that time were not Nazis and are not Nazis.
The Nazis could be very stupid. Because they hated Jewish shopkeepers they drove the most educated of their people out of the country in the 1930s. The brilliant physicist Albert Einstein, himself a Jewish pacifist from Germany, suggested building the Atomic bomb to our president because he feared that Nazi Germany might get it first. In the years after WW I and before they were driven out of Germany or killed, the greatest music and art in Europe was being made by German Jews. In the centuries before the war many of Europe’s greatest composers were German Jews and its scientists German Jews. Many of these no longer practiced the Jewish religion but were still racially Jewish so Hitler got rid of them. Most, like Einstein, had thought of themselves as German Jews who had to put up with discrimination as Jews had always had to almost everywhere in Europe. Until Hitler came to power they thought that little by little things were getting better for them. It was only after other Jews were persecuted that men like Einstein began to think of themselves mainly as Jewish, not German.
But nothing I’ve written above explains how the Nazis could do what they did. How can humans send other humans to their deaths in gas chambers. The truth is that people can get used to doing terrible things. During the Vietnam war there was an incident at a village called Mi Lai. (Probably not the only one but the one that people found out about.) American soldiers lined up Vietnamese civilians including children and machine gunned them They did this because they believed that everyone in the village was helping the enemy who, of course, were trying to kill American soldiers. It was terrible and when it was revealed in the newspapers almost all Americans condemned it. They demanded that the officers in charge be brought to trial. Only one was. Still, though also a terrible thing and wrong, this was different from the kind of thing the Nazis did. Unfortunately, very bad things do happen in war but the holocaust began before WWII and had nothing to do with war.
How could they do it? First, the people most responsible – with a few exceptions – did not look at what they were doing. To them the Jewish people were just numbers on pieces of paper. Hitler never saw a death camp. Transporting Jews to death camps was just a matter of railway time tables. Building the camps with their death machines was just a mechanical problem. The exception was Heinrich Himmler who was probably more heartless and evil than Hitler. He was the head of the SS, an army of highly trained and fanatical Nazi troops. The SS fought fanatically well on the battlefield but are best remembered for their killing of the Jews and anyone else that Himmler considered worthless.
The actual killing was done by lower ranked German Nazis SS troops and some Polish guards who were just as antisemitic as the Nazis. Of course it was difficult for them at first; no sane man is a natural mass murderer. An SS soldier didn’t join the SS to kill Jews. He joined because he really believed in the Nazi propaganda about how Germans were a master race and he should help bring about a better world run by Germany. He became a monster only little by little. In the war he’d probably been ordered to do things that he did not want to do, like putting civilians onto trains going east. Like the Americans at Mi Lai he may have machine gunned innocent people because he was following orders and had been told that they were enemies. The first time he looked a Jew in the eye at a death camp and killed him he probably became sick. But with practice it got easier. Strangely, the ordinary SS guard was usually just like other people when he wasn’t killing people. In his mind he separated the rest of his life from the job he was doing for his country. None of this excuses his actions. No-one forced these soldiers to become SS mass murderers and push people into gas chambers. Even if they had been forced, it would have been wrong to kill thousands of innocent people even to save their own lives.
Certainly anyone who actively participated in the holocaust was guilty. One cannot just say he has no choice about murdering people. This the German nation accepts today and this is why it accepts the full blame for WW II and the holocaust without making any excuses or talking about the reasons I’ve noted that its people sank so low, or even noting that some people in other countries helped the Nazis too.
Weren’t some of the Nazis real monsters though? Yes. I am not going into detail about some of the things that some camp guards and camp commanders and their so-called “doctors” did. There were terrible cruel people who tortured prisoners for no reason at all – just for fun. Such people are called sadists. Civilized countries try to keep sadists away from running their prison systems but even those Nazis who weren’t sadists themselves didn’t care if others were. Still, most ordinary guards weren’t sadists. they just felt they had a dirty job to do and did it just as the ordinary American soldiers at Mi Lai did. Most of those soldiers who rounded up Jews and Gypsies throughout Europe and sent them “East” probably felt the same. They did their dirty job and then went home to eat dinner. Such men were not monsters like the sadists but they could still have been punished for what they did do. They should have been, but for political reasons after the war most weren’t. Like the soldiers at Mi Lai, each of them has had to live with his own conscience.
Is Germany responsible for WW II and the deaths of over thirty million people? Yes. Unlike WW I which just sort of happened, Germany planned WW II. Whatever its humiliation by France after WW I nothing excuses starting a cruel war to take territory by killing innocent people, certainly not just thinking that you are a master race of supermen. It is estimated that Russia lost twenty-seven million people in WW II, either killed in combat, or in prison camps, or starved to death because of the brutality of the war. Other countries lost fewer but still large numbers of men and women and children. No country can do that to another and claim the right to do it just because it wanted more land or had been treated badly by its neighbors. For reasons that I won’t go into here the victorious allies did not punish the German people as they might have. In fact the USA helped to rebuild all the countries which had lost so much in WW II including Germany. This time France and Germany made a warm peace which has lasted for 65 years and will continue to last. Even so, Germans paid a terrible price. This time their country had been bombed and invaded. Their factories, railroads, and many of their homes were destroyed. They lost perhaps twenty million people killed. For many years the eastern part of Germany was occupied by its Russian enemies.
After the war some of the top Nazis were condemned and hanged. Some, including Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, and Himmler killed themselves. Some important ones not directly involved in crimes (mostly army officers or less important officials) spent some years in prison. Others with a lot of money escaped to countries with pro fascist leaders that hid them. The police forces of the world and the Israeli government and Jewish organizations are still looking for them. Some have been found and punished but most have died. They would be over 90 or 100 years old by now.
The army officer corps
In a way the regular army officers were more responsible than other people though. They were intelligent men, not brutes, and the only ones who could have stopped the Nazis. They thought it was against their duty to do so. A few, like field Marshal Rommel, refused to participate in rounding up Jews but it was only near the end of the war that they actually tried to kill Hitler and then it was because he was losing the war not because he was evil. Most concentrated on fighting the war and just pretended that they had nothing to do with the murders. A general who actually risked his life by disobeying Hitler’s order to burn Paris did so because it is such a beautiful city and he did not want to be remembered as the person who destroyed it. But he admitted after the war that he had sent Jews to “the East” because that was his orders. He said that it was the hardest thing he had ever done, but he did it. Without this mentality among otherwise decent people, there would have been no holocaust. Maybe the ordinary people could not do much without losing their own lives and endangering their families’ welfare but the German generals could have and didn’t. They didn’t think it was their job and that was a terrible sin. Soldiers shouldn’t be involved in “politics”, they claimed. They just “followed orders.”
Could it happen here?
Could it have happened in the USA? Probably not but we can’t take much credit. Our Jews were often disliked and the KKK yelled all sorts of bad stuff about them but the USA is an immigrant nation and few Americans would accept extreme measures against a single race. The African-Americans were already a beaten down race and very much servants to the whites of that time, so they could not be blamed for the country’s misfortunes. They were also needed by the whites to do much of the hard work in the southern states.
Even during the Great depression in the years just before WW II most Americans either hated Hitler and his kind of government or just wanted nothing to do with Europe and its ways. Could it ever happen here if things got as bad as they had in Germany? I don’t know. Some important Americans as well as some important people in other countries like England admired Hitler.
(Others wanted a Communist government like Stalin’s in Russia though they didn’t know the bad things that Stalin did, only how he had built up that country and was talking about the power of ordinary people to run every country).
After all, Hitler’s supporters in other countries reasoned, Hitler had made the trains run on time in Germany. He had built the great German highway system. He had given jobs to millions of people. He had made the victors of WW I afraid of the German air force and the tanks of its army. Some people here and in England thought these things were more important than his antisemitic ranting. But in the end, Americans and English resisted the extremes of both the Nazis and the Communists. During our depression the USA elected Franklin Roosevelt as president and he changed the way things were done in this country just enough to keep our way of life without turning either fascist (Nazi) or communist. We never became very near to a fascist government in this country or a communist one either but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t people in this country who didn’t endanger our freedom, just that as an immigrant nation they didn’t get very far. Let me get off the subject of Germany for a moment to warn you. After the destruction of the World Trade Center eight years ago a few Americans would have thrown all Arabs who weren’t US citizens out of the country. There were a few scares and anyone who looked Arab was suspected. It was hard for them to succeed in business here. Some of this still exists among those Americans who believe that everything the USA does or wants to do it should do regardless of other peoples. But we are immigrants or the children and grandchildren of immigrants, once the immediate scare was over most of us considered that that kind of behavior does more to hurt our country than help. The worst scare in grandpa’s lifetime was the McCarthy era not long after WW II. As I’ve noted above, in the 1930s there was some legitimate worry that this country might turn communist. There were a lot of Americans – some of them in our government and some in the moving picture industry – who thought that Stalin was doing a great job in Russia. They accepted the communist philosophy that all the workers of the world should unite against their governments and the rich people. This sounded like a good formula for prosperity and fairness and even the elimination of war since all workers would be brothers. Some of these people became communists and obeyed orders from Russia, many more were socialists who agreed with much of this philosophy but loved America too much to take orders from Stalin.
By the years immediately after WW II the depression was over, everyone had jobs, the government had started helping former soldiers pay for college educations which very few Americans had ever had before. People could buy homes and cars cheaply. Communism started to not look so good. Worse for the communists, Stalin’s murder of millions of peasants became known. It became known that millions more people were held in Russian prison camps just for criticizing him. He was betraying agreements for elections in the countries of middle Europe that the Germany army had been driven out of. Instead Russia was taking them over. There was worry that it would also take over all of Germany and other countries that were friendly to the USA. It was supporting rebels in Greece and China. War had broken out in Korea between the North supported by Russia and the south supported by America. Clearly, Stalin looked more and more like just another dictator like Hitler and less and less like a great leader for the working class. So most of our American communists left the communist party if they had belonged to it during the prewar years and instead worked for social equality through more “American” institutions like labor unions and the civil rights movement. However some serious damage had been done. In fact there were still some Stalinist communists in the government and some of them worked as spies for Russia. They stole many secrets of making atomic bombs and gave the secrets to Russia thus making it much easier for Russia to get that terrible weapon long before it would have without their help. When Stalin got the bomb any idea which some Americans had of putting the bomb under international United Nations control instead of American control had to end because Stalin wouldn’t do the same. This is one of the great tragedies of twentieth century and perhaps all world history. When Stalin tested Russia’s bomb Americans freaked out. We had not expected anyone else to have it. An American senator, Joseph McCarthy, began to harass all sorts of people who dared to criticize him or the government, or just had liberal or socialist ideas. Many people in government and in the film industry had their careers ruined because they had at one time belonged to a communist organization though most such people had innocently joined in hopes of world peace and a better world and had since left the organization when it became known that it was just a front for Stalin. Most Americans said that they agreed with McCarthy’s intention to root out pro Russian spies but hated his methods. Eventually they realized, however, that one could not save America by destroying our people’s right to say what they want and associate with whoever they want without fear of the government coming after them (a right secured by the US constitution). At last McCarthy destroyed himself. He held televised congressional hearings thinking he would look good and patriotic. He didn’t. Americans saw a nasty little man who only wanted to promote himself by destroying other people, not save America. He just yelled at and embarrassed people who were testifying instead of listening to them. At last some people from the army and from Hollywood fought back at the hearings and our citizens preferred what they said to McCarthy’s ranting. A famous and very respected news reporter, Edward R. Murrow, attacked McCarthy on television; others followed. At last Congress itself condemned him. That was probably as close as America has come to losing its freedoms. Why do I write this? As a warning of what can happen if a really bad man can get a lot of power at a time when the country is scared. It was not as bad as in Germany. I doubt there would have been a holocaust but there might have been war with Russia. We were very fortunate, but it was not luck. Our institutions and our history of freedoms saved the USA. Germany before Hitler did not have a history of such freedoms, neither had Russia before Stalin.
I hope this essay is understood not as excuses for Germany’s behavior but as a warning that we cannot be overly confident that something like it could not happen some day in the USA, just as Germans before WW I could not have believed that their advanced civilization of great artists and educators and scientists would ever sink so low. Most Germans of the nineteen twenties and thirties were no more monsters than other people are but we’re all capable of ignoring monstrous behavior when that is in our interest. No, I can’t imagine a holocaust here, but other terrible things could happen. After all, no citizen of republican Rome would have believed it possible that his country would one day be ruled by someone as evil as Nero or Caligula, but it happened. The Cambodian people have for many centuries been a calm, peaceful, and gentle people, but under the Pol Pot regime in the 1980′s hundreds of thousands were murdered. In Germany there was Hitler, in Russia there was Stalin. None of these were backward countries. They were all very civilized. President Thomas Jefferson wrote that “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
If you’ve read this far, you may be interested in in other essays
Essay on Nazis
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Here is another promised essay from Grandpa. I do not expect you to fully understand everything. Ask questions. But this is how one learns. You learn to read by reading. You learn to dance by dancing. You learn to think by thinking. But first you need facts to think about. I try to avoid or explain words that are new to you, but some you may want to look up in a dictionary or ask your mother. That is how you increase your vocabulary and you need vocabulary to think. What I’ve written below is not easy, just as what I wrote about the Nazis was not easy. That’s why I hope you’ll read both essays again in a year or two. This is college level stuff but if you get even part of it you will know more than other kids and it is fun to know stuff. It will also help you learn to think, for you are learning that history is not a matter of simple yes and no decisions and there are many reasons for everything that’s happened: some good, some bad, some just practical, some just accidental. For example, I hope you’ll now understand American Negro slavery in the context of world history. Unfortunately, in school we tend to learn about American history as though it stands alone without considering the rest of the world at the same time and earlier. Slavery did not just pop up in America any more than Nazi racism did in Germany. If they had they probably would not have succeeded; for if people are not naturally good, they are not naturally bad either. Bad takes getting used to. There is a long background that explains American slavery though it does not justify it.
You will not fully understand everything at first but I hope it will give you a lot of information that you will apply when thinking about other things. There are lessons in history. Both in the Nazi essay and this one I mention Senator Joe McCarthy as a warning. It is of limited use to know about anything in history just for itself but invaluable if it helps you to think what we as Americans and Christians should be doing today.
I’ve often said that history is about change. I hope you’ll see that in this essay. You’ll also see that change is not always just for the better. The ancient world had slavery and thought it natural. In the Middle Ages in Europe slavery was being replaced by a somewhat better form called serfdom. But then we started using machines. That was generally good; people could buy many things at a price the average family could afford instead of making everything themselves. But it also meant the loss of hand working jobs usually done at home (spinning, weaving) and the increased use of slaves to provide cotton for the new clothing machines. So Africans were stolen from their tribal lives of hunting and put to much harder work against their will. “Christians” had brought back the slavery of the ancient world. It was bad for whites too. Work in factories in the North and in England and in Ireland was dirty and grim (Dickens’ stories). When the potato crop failed in Ireland, their lords no longer thought of peasant farmers as an extended family that they had to support. Was life getting better for the average white man? Yes, but not in a straight line upward and not without some losses. Think for a moment: Would you prefer to live in a medieval village with friends working together like at Plymouth Plantation, or in a dirty factory town like in Dickens’ Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol? Yet if humanity had not passed through those bad times we would still be stuck in the middle ages with disease, short brutal lives, few books, and no television. Much of Asia and Africa is passing through that stage now and it is very painful for them.
Although this essay is about slavery I’d like to first explain that the American concept of equality was unknown until fairly recent times. People might be equal before God, but nowhere else….and in the ancient world, not even there. From what we know about religion before Christianity, only major leaders were thought to have more than a shadowy afterlife. A pharaoh might join the gods after death and a Roman emperor might find himself a star in the heavens but the ordinary man or woman did not have any afterlife worth considering, except perhaps for a leader’s wives and servants who he would want to have with him..
There was no more equality in this life.
Equality as we know it only begins with the United States. Though we usually think of the USA as a young nation in this it is the oldest country in the world. Even in the USA it took a while for real equality to develop.
There was a great divide between the aristocracy and farmers everywhere in Europe but it was never quite so in America. Attempts by the Dutch and English to introduce European class distinctions in the early American colonies largely failed. You may have learned in school how gentlemen had come with their servants as settlers in Jamestown, Virginia. But John Smith, the leader of the English settlement made the gentlemen work as hard as everyone else because otherwise they’d all have starved.
Tradesmen and craftsmen were in a middle ground between farmers and lords both in Europe and early America because their skills made them needed by everyone. Generally, such craftsmen and merchants were the leaders of the American revolution in the northern colonies. Such businessmen as John Adams (a lawyer) and Benjamin Franklin (a printer) did not like being ruled by the lords in the English parliament.
In Europe, the French revolution was the result of aristocrats feeling superior as a class to other people. The term “blue bloods” refers to the fairer skin of aristocrats (who show their blue veins well) over that of farmers tanned by working under the sun. But even in America there was some separation. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were Virginia landowners who risked everything including their land and wealth and lives for American independence. That is one of the great things about these men for they themselves had little to gain from independence and a lot to lose if the revolution failed. Still, at Valley Forge Washington did not share the hardships of his soldiers though he did whatever he could for them. And the soldiers did not expect him to. Gentlemen were not expected to be uncomfortable. Later, in the nineteenth century gentlemen thought nothing wrong with poor children working while they didn’t, and if a workman offended a gentleman the law would not prevent the gentleman from having his servants horse whip the man.
Even today in Europe there is a divide between the management class and the working class that it is difficult to cross. Those who attended Oxford or Cambridge University in England run things. Those who didn’t, don’t. Think of My fair lady. A workman tips his cap to a man of importance, wealth, or education. He will get a cab for him. He will call him “gov(er)nor. He will step into the street so that a gentleman doesn’t have to. In My Fair Lady Elisa does not expect the aristocrat, Freddy, to work. This is the way it was even in the nineteenth century. In our south when Grandpa was young Negroes still behaved much the same way towards whites even though they were no longer slaves.
This is not all bad. Of course many European aristocrats wasted their lives and it was their kind that brought on the French revolution which destroyed the monarchy in that country. But others were and still are raised with a sense of duty toward their whole country. I have before me two excellent books from the nineteenth century: the first is a biography of the Byzantine general, Flavius Belisarius, the other is one of eight volumes on the barbarian invasions of Italy. Both of these were the work of English gentlemen scholars who did not have to work a job for a living but did contribute to human knowledge instead of wasting their lives with comforts. Our own Washington and Jefferson were in that tradition as were many of the military and naval leaders in both Europe and America. (General Macarthur was from a rich military family, but not General Eisenhower who was from a poor Iowa farm family. It is easier to cross the divide in this country.) There are families that you only occasionally hear of, whose service goes back generations, often as senators or US ambassadors, or working for the United Nations. The Kennedy brothers were raised to service by their father who himself started out as an ordinary person but became the US ambassador to England. The Adams family gave us two presidents and several other important members. The Massachusetts families of Lodges and Cabots have been quietly involved in important service to our country for centuries. So there is something to be said for having a leisure class that need not be reactive to fleeting public opinion and can look beyond the necessity of earning a living. Such men are raised to govern for the public good and often do so. That was also the situation in ancient Greece and Rome before the empire.
Just as I tried to explain how common racism is when I wrote to you about the Nazis, my intent in this essay is to explain why there was slavery, not to justify it and especially not to excuse it in America. Slavery in America was probably no harder or easier than in the ancient world. There were good masters and bad, field workers and house servants. But it was a retrogression for Christians. Little by little European Christians had come to think of slavery as a thing to get rid of; now in the new world it was coming back. Even worse, American slavery was based entirely on race and if one believes that all men are equal before God, feeling that you can enslave someone simply because he is of another race is sinful.
The term slavery is used in English to cover many different things. Even the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution adopted after our Civil War only prohibits slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” In the south convicts were rented to private companies after the civil war to do some of the work which slaves had done before it. Occasionally in the southern states prison inmates are still employed outside the prison on chain gangs to maintain roads.
In Europe until fairly recent times, and certainly in the ancient world, a freeman and his family could be enslaved for not paying his debts.
I have the feeling that most of the really awful work done by slaves in the ancient world was done as punishment though. For example, men who were sentenced to be executed might instead be worked to death in mines.
The Romans and others took slaves as captives in war and used them to farm big estates. Most Roman slaves were captives from war or their children. In fact many Roman wars were little more than slave raids. Most of these people captured were not sent to the mines or other terrible work but rather were used as farm workers or household workers, just as Roman soldiers were used as farm labor when captured by barbarians.
But there were also simple slave raids from ancient times till the nineteenth century just to capture people without any excuse, and make them slaves.
So there have been criminal slaves, captured slaves, enslaved enemy soldiers, and slavery for debt. There has also been – and still is – slavery under other names – what we sometimes call wage slaves.
I am going to sketch for you the history of slavery. You must keep in mind however that American slavery was fundamentally different and worse than the slavery of the ancient world. It was based upon the belief that the white race was biologically superior to the Negro race and, for that matter, all non-white races (Asians, Native Americans).
First lets look at slavery generally and in the ancient world in particular. To understand the reason for slavery you must consider that there were very few machines available, not even windmills or water mills. If you go back more than a few hundred years before Jesus there weren’t even metal shovels, axes, and hoes, etc. Therefore many workers were needed. It was the opposite of life in the twenty-first century. Now there are more people than jobs but this is the first time in history that is so..
Most ancient people lived by farming or by attacking other people to get what they wanted. This is true everywhere – in Asia, Africa, Europe, among the Native Americans and with the Vikings, the Arabs, the Romans etc.
Before people settled down to farming they roamed about following herds of animals. These are called hunter-gatherer societies. Hunting societies like the Plains Indians only used slaves on a small scale because they traveled a lot instead of farming and had no need for many workers.… In fact their slaves were treated more like family than servants. (Always remembering that the hard work was done by women, slave or free.) In such societies (like also the Huns and other nomadic tribes of the middle ages) the difference between a slave and a free man was minimal. Anyway, a slave in such a situation might easily walk away from his master.
Slavery became more important with agriculture. Early farming was the work of women but as agriculture became bigger and more important slaves were needed to work the great farms… Heaven forbid that the warriors, braves, (or whatever one calls the men), should do hard labor.
For this reason slavery among the Native American tribes was more common on the east and west coasts where the tribes tended to settle down and raise crops instead of following buffalo herds. These east and west coast tribes did raid each other, torture and kill the men, and enslave the women and children for farm work. Having said this, slavery by Native Americans was never as common in North America as it was among the more sophisticated Indians of South and Central America, or among the ancient Europeans and in Muslim lands.
Although there can be no direct evidence of slavery in prehistoric times (for which by definition there is no written or preserved oral history but only archeology), there certainly was warfare. It is assumed that such warfare produced slaves. In fact, if we look at the Native North and South Americans Indians, Africans, and the Pacific Islanders, it flourished before the Europeans came. There was widespread slavery in Africa, South and Central America, and the Pacific islands, in fact everywhere that there was field work to be done there was war. The fact is that slavery is an economic system and wars were regularly fought to obtain slaves, just as wars may be fought today for oil to run our machines, which are our mechanical slaves.
In ancient Europe, without more than the most basic tools, agriculture was very labor intensive. Generally, as in Greece and Rome, there was a small ruling class, a larger class of free men (usually small farmers or craftsmen), and a large slave population to do the heavy work. The wars of Rome were often little more than slave raids. How often do we hear of slavery in the Old Testament and there is no indication that even Jesus saw it as anything other than the normal lot of men.
GREECE AND ROME
In the ancient world there was little way even for a nobleman to get cash money. He might be rich in land but he had little to sell to people in cities whose luxury products he wanted to buy. What he could do was capture women to spin yarn and make clothing, rugs, ropes etc from cotton or wool. These could be sold for cash. Men were also useful when there was heavy work to do, especially in the case of Rome where estates were huge and required many people to work the fields. I’ve always had the feeling though, that the really bad jobs like working in mines were given to criminals who would otherwise have been executed. Such movie images as slaves rowing galleys or building roads are wrong; In the Roman empire that sort of thing was done by soldiers. Building roads gave soldiers work when there was no fighting to be done. (By the way: In China the army still does a lot of work to develop the countryside. Soldiers build roads, schools, dams, and other things that the local people would not be able to afford for their communities.)
In the ancient world slavery was considered normal and natural, even the will of the gods. Although I suppose one people have always thought themselves a bit superior to other people, ancient slavery was not basically racial. It was as common (or more common) to be a slave as it was to be free and was thought of as just your fate. None the less, slaves were not respected; when they died they might not be given a respectful burial as a free citizen would. But as in all things, it varied from place to place and century to century.
As you can see from the selections below there was no major element of race in ancient slavery. The Roman word for slave was “servus” which in Latin means to save. The theory was that if a soldier didn’t kill another soldier in battle he had saved him and the man became his property. The Romans also made a big thing of family (the “gens”); so a captive’s children would be slaves also. (In some cases the “Pater Familia” who was the oldest male on the male line (father, grandfather, great grandfather) could even kill his children if he felt that they had disgraced the family name.)
In the Metropolitan Museum of Art there is an inscription asking the person’s ancestors and family gods to look after his dead slave-wife, so obviously slavery wasn’t always such a terrible thing. I’ve always wondered if the man fell in love with and married his slave, or bought her from a neighbor because they had fallen in love. Commonly the Romans employed Greek scholars to educate their children and give an intellectual air to the household for they knew themselves to be culturally inferior to Greeks. (Although they certainly thought themselves superior in other ways.) Household slaves were akin to household slaves in America before the civil war and to American servants (free or slave) generally. (“Uncle” Tom a [fictional] slave before the civil war – “Aunt” Jemima, a free [fictional] cook and maid afterwards.) It was not unusual to treat such slaves almost as family so long as the slave remembered that he was a slave. Many a master, both in the ancient world and in America, freed such slaves when he died.
Here are some notes I took from the Internet about Roman slavery. American slavery was not much better except that an American slave-owner could not cause the death of a slave and had to allow him certain things like going to church services and receiving medical care.
Cicero had a (Greek) slave named Tiro. Tiro was Cicero’s secretary, confidant, right-hand man, editor, and after Cicero’s death, the publisher of a number of Cicero’s speeches He also wrote a biography of Cicero, a book on grammar and a book on philosophical questions. He also invented a type of shorthand. Cicero, his brother and his children were very close to Tiro. When Tiro was ill, Cicero worried and fretted over him like a nervous hen. Cicero’s son, Marcus, wrote to Tiro whenever he was in hot water with the old man, suggesting a relationship we would find more between an indulgent uncle and nephew, rather than that between a young lord and family slave. In 53 BCE, Cicero freed Tiro. On the occasion, his brother Quintus wrote Cicero a letter of congratulations: “I am truly grateful for what you have done about Tiro, in judging his former condition to be below his deserts and preferring us to have him as a friend rather than a slave.
A nastier example comes from the Roman Digest, a compilation of laws, legal problems and legal reasoning created for the Emperor Justinian. The Digest includes the analysis of Ulpian, one of the greatest legal scholars in Roman history, who lived three centuries after Tiro. Ulpian was considering a legal problem posed by the Roman law that required the seller of slaves to warrant that the slave was free from any disease or defect. Could a seller give such a warrant for a slave whose tongue had been cut out? Or was the slave inherently defective? One scholar said no. After all, horses whose tongues had been cut out could not be warranted, he argued. If a horse couldn’t, then a slave couldn’t. Ulpian doesn’t explicitly contradict this scholar, but his analysis seems to suggest that if the slave could be useful, than the warrant could be granted. He does say that slaves who stammer, lisp, ramble or rave can be warranted. Ulpian never stops to consider the implications of the analogy between the tongueless slave and horse. What is more, his matter of fact treatment of the question indicates that Romans were this sadistic and brutal to slaves often enough that the questions was one a good legal scholar should consider, and not think odd. Slaves were property. Owners exercised dominum over slaves, the absolute right to dispose of and control the use of a piece of property.
Legally, slavery was conceived of as a kind of death. Romans deemed citizens who did not return from battle as ‘dead’ because a captured citizen who survived battle would most certainly become an enemy slave. Thus, his will was read and his marriage formally ended, because the citizen was ‘socially’ dead to the Roman world. Similarly, the Romans legally conceived of the slaves they owned as cut off from all the rights and rituals of human society. Slaves could have no family. In practice, slaves formed relationships and had children. But they had no legal authority to protect these relationships. If you were a slave who had borne a child, the child was not yours. Similarly, while owners frequently gave slaves a peculium (an allowance), the slave had no right to it and had to surrender it on demand. The peculium was simply a device which permitted an owner to use his property more efficiently. (Note that the legal theory here sounds very rigid and that social practice was actually much more flexible.)
A slave by definition had no honor or dignity. The essence of being a slave is the inability to protect one’s body. While every citizen had the right to trial and appeal before they suffered physical punishment, a slave was defined by the absence of such a right and expectation. An owner could beat and abuse slaves
The mere experience of not being able to protect his own body from abuse was inherently and permanently degrading. Thus, even if your owner treated you quite well, Romans believed that you were degraded simply by being subject to another man’s ability to treat you poorly if he chose. A child born of a slave woman was a slave and the property of the slave woman’s owner.
Except that an American slave-owner could not cut out his slave’s tongue, these descriptions of slavery in Roman law could also describe American slavery.
Because slavery was the norm in the ancient world (and in the Muslim world until modern times), the condition of the slaves varied widely. It should be remembered that slavery is a very inefficient form of labor. People do as little as possible when there is no reward for working hard. (Probably why Romans often paid their slaves a little peculium and why we still pay prisoners a little for work they do in prison.). Good treatment is usually better than the whip. It is common to show nineteenth century photographs of badly whipped slaves with some comment that the guy was punished for attempting to escape. That is certainly true in some cases, particularly where treatment was bad but in most cases such severe beating was probably for crimes like theft from other slaves, or for drunkenness, etc. Nor was whipping reserved for slaves. It was a common punishment for anyone until the mid nineteenth century. In many cases – in the navy for example – it was necessary to get punishment over with quickly so that the culprit could rejoin the crew, something not possible if he were kept locked up. Imprisonment would also have been demoralizing for the rest of the crew on a ship, or the rest of the slaves on a plantation.
AFTER THE ROMANS
As Europe passed from the ancient to the medieval world, slavery changed too. There were still slaves in Europe but fewer. Generally the condition of freeman became worse as they had to attach themselves to some nobleman for protection when Rome no longer could keep the barbarians out of the empire. At the other extreme the condition of the slaves became better as Christian rather than pagan Roman values came to dominate. It is hard to see a man as just property if you go to church with him and believe that he may get a higher place in heaven than you. What developed is called serfdom. The freemen lost some of their freedom and the slaves gained some rights until there was no real difference between them. A serf was somewhat free. He worked land that belonged to his lord and had to work a certain number of days for the lord each year; but he also grew crops just for his family and might be able to sell a little. He could not move away but the church provided him with many feast days when he didn’t have to work. The lord had obligations too. He had to protect his serfs from highwaymen and barbarian raiders, and be the law on his estate. He had to provide a miller to grind their wheat, a priest, a blacksmith to make them tools, and occasional entertainment for the whole village as well as for himself, etc.
That is the way life was from about the fifth century after Christ when Rome lost authority in the west until fairly modern times. It began to end with the growth of trade and cities (about the time of Columbus.) Of course it didn’t go away suddenly. In France the system was finally ended by the French Revolution a few years after the American revolution but it continued in Russia up till your great grandmother’s time. (The Russian revolution during World War I ended serfdom there.) Serfdom had never been very important in Italy (after Rome) possibly because it’s economy was more city and trade based than the agricultural economies of most of Europe. In England serfdom evolved so that in time almost everyone was technically free. I say technically because you must not think that free men even in the time of George Washington were free in the sense of Americans today, though in England and the English colonies there was always more freedom than in the rest of Europe. (The American colonists originally sought their “rights as Englishmen,” not independence; rights that people in many other parts of Europe did not have.)
Of course, slavery was always popular in Muslim lands and there, as elsewhere, the condition of the slave varied widely. Muslim pirates raided ships to get slaves for farms until stopped by the USS Constitution and ships of other countries in the nineteenth century. But in a sense most Muslim people were the slaves of their rulers. A slave could just as well be a respected doctor or poet as a worker.
In 1842 the English Consul in Morocco, as part of his government’s attempt to curtail the slave trade, asked the sultan what measures he had taken to accomplish this desirable goal. In amazement the sultan wrote back: “The traffic in slaves is a matter on which all sects and nations have agreed from the time of the sons of Adam … up to this day.” Then he continued that he was “not aware of its being prohibited by the laws of any sect, and no one need ask this question, the same being manifest to both high and low and requires no more demonstration than the light of day.”
If there had been little slavery in medieval Europe itself, the new European countries readily enslaved people in the Americas. And as the medieval world changed into the early modern with the coming of the industrial revolution, men lost the security of serfdom. Now as factory workers they had no rights at all and were often worse off than slaves. If a factory worker in Europe or America was injured on the job he was simply fired from his job and there was no government help. He had to rely on begging and other family members with, perhaps, some charity from the churches. The factories in Lowell, Massachusetts were famous for treating the eight thousand free girls who worked there quite well, because that was unusual. Still, they worked 14 hours a day. In south Africa, although the British who ruled there had outlawed slavery and were punishing slavers that they caught at sea, they realized that they needed slaves to work the gold mines. They therefore required that each family pay a “hut tax” in English money which the natives could only earn by working at extremely low wages in the mines. This was just slavery by another name.
The Spanish conquistadors took it for granted that European civilization was superior to American and that Christianizing the natives and teaching them to work on farms was good for them whether they wanted it or not. In practice that meant enslaving them though usually that word was not used. Pagan Indians were not respected but looked down upon as ignorant and primitive. In some ways this was true. They didn’t have iron swords, hatchets, or pots, much less guns; and Christianity is certainly superior to native religions which approved torturing and killing captives as sacrifices or just for fun. It is popular these days to see the religion of the American natives as wholesome. It was not. In fact only Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism of the world’s major religions require kind behavior to others who are not of your group (except for visitors). Despite what you might hear from Muslims in the USA, even Islam only requires good treatment as a charity towards Christians and Jews who are people of the book (The Bible). Black Africans who have not been converted to Islam are considered natural slaves. In parts of the African desert like the Sudan there is still slavery although it is officially illegal. Without wanting to whitewash the Americans in the evil slave trade, the slave traders in Africa were generally Arab Muslims who bought the slaves from Black African tribes who raided each other for this human cattle. (Judging by the brutality of tribal wars still being fought in Africa, they would still enslave each other if they could get a little cash for prisoners. They can’t, so now they dishonor women and kill them and their children.)
In the early modern world Africans and Central American “Indians” were seen as more able to endure heat than free white labor and were made to work against their will in the British and Spanish colonies in the Americas. Governments saw nothing wrong in enslaving “Indians” any more than they were bothered by sending their own petty criminals to work in America and Australia, or grabbing free seamen in their own port cities and forcing them into their navies. Ordinary people had few rights against the upper classes in Europe so certainly they had none on other continents.
It was only with the birth of the USA that ordinary people began to be considered a gentleman’s equal, and that took time. The U.S. Constitution eliminated titles of nobility but also raised all citizens to the level of a country squire in England ( Mr. Toad in Wind in the Willows.) Yet in our southern states, even when Grandpa was young, while a white man was Mister Jones in a court of law, a black man was just called Jim or Tom.
WHITE LABOR IN AMERICA
In the American colonies there was the western frontier which in Washington’s day was only around western New York state. If a farmer didn’t like it in the east he could just move west with his ax and start a new farm. But still there was no equality as we know it even for whites. In the early United States a person could not vote unless he had land or money. He would tip his hat to a gentleman and do whatever he asked. It wasn’t until the presidency of Andrew Jackson that ordinary people began to feel that they were truly the equal of the fairly wealthy.
But still, he was neither a serf nor a slave. Our early leaders were not lords but rich farm owners like Washington and Jefferson, or tradesmen and merchants like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. They did not think every farmer was their equal but neither did they think someone important just because he had inherited a title of nobility and a castle as in Europe. America got rid of lords and ladies but at the same time it raised everyone to the titles of mister and missus and miss which in England had been reserved for men and women less important than nobles but more important than just being a farmer or minor craftsman.
Except for our Negroes.
All this I point out not to make slavery seem less bad – It could be terrible especially in the deep south – but so that you understand that during the industrial revolution life was awful for everyone except the rich.
Sometimes what is called slavery differs very little from other forms of oppression. Both England and Spain eliminated slavery by that name. They were thereby able to assume a superior attitude toward other nations but they could do it only because there was little need for slavery in those countries. However when they realized that slaves were necessary in their colonies they instituted what amounted to slavery under other names.
In America life for “free” Irish immigrant families before our Civil war could be worse than for slaves. Pay was very bad. Working conditions were unsafe and unhealthy. Businesses felt no obligation to their workers; if a man was hurt on the job he was just fired. There was no government assistance. His only hope was in help from private charities or to beg. Most immigrants were not paid enough to buy food and pay rent for their housing so their children had to work long hours in dirty dangerous jobs instead of going to school. If workers tried to form unions private “detectives” would beat and sometimes kill them.
In many parts of the underdeveloped world this is still the situation. In India boys go blind working to cover ornaments with brass. In other parts of Asia children as well as grown ups work at other dangerous and low paying jobs. Their governments don’t like it but they plead that these workers would otherwise starve. By comparison, an American slave-owner had legal obligations toward his slaves. He had to feed, cloth, and care for their health. That is the origin of the “Uncle” Remus stories – the old slave who can no longer work but is cared for while he watches over the children.
It is still common to hire immigrants as servants and there is nothing wrong with having servants if you can afford to do so. You’ll note that in My Fair Lady Henry Higgins has many servants. That was normal everywhere in Europe and America until the twentieth century when hired labor became too expensive for most middle class people, and labor saving machinery like vacuum cleaners and washing machines made such help at home less necessary. Unfortunately, even today some immigrants to America are taken advantage of and are treated just like slaves. They may be told that they can leave their employer only when they pay him a certain amount of money but are never able to earn that much money on the little bit that is given to them. They have little food and many people live together in one room. Sometimes they are beaten. Especially when they have been brought to this country illegally, they are afraid to go to the police. This is not new. In the nineteenth century many Irish immigrants to America faced the same situation. They worked in dirty dangerous factories and mines but had to buy everything they needed at a store that was owned by the factory. They never earned enough money to pay off their bill so they could not “go west” or leave for a better job somewhere else.
Eleven million Black Africans were kidnapped and sold into slavery in the New World, especially in the southern colonies (later states), and in the Spanish West Indies. Tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands died on the slave ships that brought them.
There were always reformers called abolitionists who opposed slavery. It was unchristian to begin with, and the humanist philosophy of the seventeenth century also turned thinking people against it. (Humanism means respect for man in himself, not only as a creature of God.) It is these two factors that are spelled out in the Declaration of Independence. “All men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is a philosophy which cannot be meshed with slavery through it took almost another century and a civil war to implement this sentence. Furthermore it was not the normal way of life in the North or in Europe as it had been in the ancient world and could no longer be considered natural. Men like Washington and Jefferson owned slaves but were well aware of this humanist philosophy. They agreed with it but they could not suddenly change the economy of their plantations and the nation – nor fight a revolution against Britain at the same time because too many other people did not agree… There had always been slavery, they’d be told. Slavery was thought of as a necessary evil. Even the Bible assumed it.
But most thinking people hoped that under the influence of Christian morality and humanist philosophy slavery was slowly dying out. Then Eli Whitney invented the cotton jin which suddenly made it possible to process much more cotton then before. The plantations grew and expanded further west and south. More, not fewer, slaves were needed to work the fields because while machines could process cotton, they could not pick it. Slavery is about money.
Under the attacks of abolitionists, southerners began to justify Negro slavery as natural. For the first time people starting to say that Negroes were racially inferior as well as better suited than whites to work long hours under the sun. This is what separates American from ancient slavery and makes it worse. In Nazi Germany we saw what can happen when a person is considered inferior because of his race.
In the United States, even in the North a Negro had to prove that he wasn’t a slave. That is a violation of our most fundamental principles in America and a slippery slope. How would we like to have to prove that we aren’t Jewish, or Chinese, or Bulgarian, or for that matter, Christian, or Republicans, or anything else the government didn’t want us to be? (You’ll recall what I wrote about Joe McCarthy destroying people’s reputations just by calling them communists without any proof that they’d committed a crime.)
After WWII a Lutheran pastor in Germany wrote:
“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out.”
Now I’m not trying to make American slavery look good. Even when a slave’s life was decent he was still a slave. He could not look for a better life. As with the examples from Roman law above, he had no control over his body. How would you like that? He could not leave. It was illegal to teach a slave to read. He could be whipped or sold “down river” to work in the horrible plantations of the Gulf coast. Slave families were separated and children never saw their mothers again. But what made American slavery different from that in other times and places is that it was racial. The Roman slaveholder did not feel that he was superior to his slaves, just lucky not to have been born a slave. But just as European countries were coming to think that slavery was immoral (Christianity and Humanism) and less necessary as machinery began to replace hand labor, America found itself for economic reasons needing more slaves. America which had led the world in freedoms at the time of our revolution, was now behind Europe only a few years later. Nor should we forget that although northerners generally thought slavery to be a bad thing, there were some house slaves in the north and the slave-ships were owned by northerners and run by captains and crews from New England. It took the Civil War to end slavery and the Civil Rights movement a hundred years later to bring about something like true equality.
I have largely limited this essay to European and American slavery; but slavery has existed in almost all societies and to a large extent still does under other names. In the Asian countries, for example, there was always slavery even of their own people. In Asia it has been common to sell children that a poor family can not feed.
When the Muslims invaded India in the Middle Ages they enslaved hundreds of thousands of Indians and shipped them to other Muslim countries. This was done first by Arab Muslims then by Turkish Muslims. Later, with the arrival of Europeans, the slave trade around Asia was continued by westerners, especially by the Dutch. Then the English occupied India and in the nineteenth century tried to end slavery. The result was only that slavery changed in name. To rent someplace to live the former slaves were forced to take loans that they could never repay. They had to work as what are called indentured servants until they did. Effectively they were still owned.
There is another kind of inequality unique to India which I mention because it resembles American Negro slavery in that it denigrates a person’s worth as a human being. The Hindu religion of most of its people (but not the Muslims who ruled there for many centuries before the English) considers people as belonging to categories called “castes.” You cannot change the caste that you are born into. At the top are priestly families called Brahmans, then below them are other castes like merchants and craftsmen. At the very bottom are people known as sweepers or untouchables who must work at filthy jobs that no one else would take. They labor for really tiny wages and a Brahman would feel ritually (spiritually) unclean if he touched one (though the sweeper can clean his toilet and remove the waste.) At one time, sweepers had to display extreme deference to high-status people, physically keeping their distance–lest their touch or even their shadow pollute others–wearing neither shoes nor any upper body covering in the presence of the upper castes. The lowest-ranking had to jingle a little bell in warning of their polluting approach. In much of India, untouchables were prohibited from entering temples, using wells from which the “clean” castes drew their water, or even attending schools. In past centuries, dire punishments were prescribed for untouchables who read or even heard sacred texts. In fairness, the modern Indian government in pursuit of the ideal of Mahatma Gandhi has had some success at raising the level of the untouchables. (Though born into a respectable trade caste himself, Gandhi always referred to the sweepers as God’s children.) But the caste system is ingrained in the Hindu religion and it may never really change.
“I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
Martin Luther King – on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.
on August 28, 1963
Because this essay was written for a ten year old girl I omitted all references to sexual servitude, including that the wearing of upper body garments was forbidden to untouchable women as well as men in India in former times.
Sexual slavery where it existed and still exists is entirely about money. The trade in Thai women who are kidnapped for brothels today is business, and women are still kidnapped to work as maids as well as prostitutes. The historical enslavement of women for sex should be seen as much the same thing and a sidebar to the enslavement of people for work. The buying of both boys and girls to be raised in brothels was business and was seen by their own peoples and governments as a better alternative to starvation.
The truth is that female servitude has always been basically for work, the same as with males. There are exceptions: Musa, the Arab conqueror of Spain, allegedly sent thirty thousand virgins back to Arabia. These virgins were most likely children whose families he’d killed. Since Arab women commonly married at age twelve and European girls usually not much older, these children would have been intended for harems where they would certainly be sex objects but also servants. Even today, non-Muslim girls travel at risk of being raped in Muslim lands, and the police do nothing.
Since the subject of “dancing” girls is titillating even to historians who may have a personal viewpoint to promote, their numbers and specifics must be taken with a lot of salt. I have tried to indicate throughout this essay that women were generally enslaved as workers, not just for sex. Take the American experience for example. Certainly masters regularly raped their female slaves but the reason for buying them was generally for work. Where it openly known to be otherwise, the Christian community would have been forced to be scandalized despite it having no problem with enslavement for labor.
Since I’ve mentioned Thomas Jefferson I must briefly address the condition of Sally Hemings, his slave but also his mistress. Much has been made lately of his relationship with her and their child. A child of a master and a slave was a slave. TJ was rather liberal for his day but the boy was born out of wedlock and not entitled to inherit any more than he would have been had the woman been a prostitute. TJ did indirectly emancipate both mother and child at his death and the boy went on to own a carpentry business of his own. That was all, and more, than might be expected for a boy born on the “wrong side of the bed.” (The child was born after the death of TJ’s wife though the affair between them probably started when TJ was ambassador to France, and Sally his daughter’s nurse and lady’s maid. Sally would have been free there under French law but not when she returned to Virginia.) Anyway, the Hemings family were more like servants than slaves and only did light work like sewing and running errands at Monticello. Sally’s ancestry was more white than Negro and the Hemings family one-by-one passed out of servitude to the Jefferson, were successful in business, and because of their light skin passed for white in Virginia. As I’ve indicated in the main essay, it would have been impossible for Jefferson to change the system, but he did leave a sleeper clause in the Declaration of Independence for future generations to deal with.
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You can always talk to me. Maybe I’ll be able to help, maybe not; but sometimes just “venting” helps. It seemed to me over the last few days that something was bothering you. Is it always being told what to do? My son had that problem with me when he was about your age. I was always telling him what to do and how to do it instead of letting him take the lead. After we had a talk about it I loosened up a bit and found that he usually had good ideas. The only problem he had was that he did not always considered all the facts that an older person would have.
OK, but what is your obligation?
As a child you naturally obeyed because (A) Momma and Papa knew everything, and (B) they had ways of punishing disobedience.
But the Commandments don’t say anything about that; just that you should: “Honor your mother and father as the Lord thy God has commanded you.” That kind of responsibility is too much for a little kid. Think about it. It says nothing about them being right or you getting punished. And it doesn’t end when you grow up. Your mother and I may disagree but then she makes me coffee or takes me shopping for ice cream because she knows that I like to be with her. She is busy but manages to find time for her daddy. She honors her parents.
Obeying is a very hard thing to do but it is the first opportunity to honor your parents that you as a very young adult have. I call you a very young adult because you are becoming one. That is why you are now allowed to receive Holy Communion. Unlike a child you are beginning to know that the difference between right and wrong isn’t what you can get away with. An adult has opportunities to get away with doing wrong but it remains wrong.
For example, you may want to wear a pretty dress while your father thinks you should wear something else. There are reasons that you might not think of. Among them:
He might worry that you’ll spill something on it or you’ll otherwise dirty it. You think you won’t but should you be so sure?
He might be worried that it isn’t warm. You aren’t cold at the moment so why worry, you think?
He may think that for some reason you’ll need another outfit. Gee, you hadn’t considered that.
There is often some other reason that an adult might think of but you wouldn’t.
But you probably just want to wear it without considering any of these things because you can still often act like an irresponsible child. ( I WANT! I WANT! OK from a six year old but not from an eleven year old.)
OR – Sometimes he might just be busy, or annoyed about something, and letting off frustration. You just happen to be in the way. But if so, you should try to cheer him up. That is to show love and responsibility which you won’t do by being as grumpy as he is just because you can’t have your way..
It doesn’t matter why he’s grumpy. Obedience is a way to honor you parent. But it can be very hard because to you it seems that parents are not respecting your wishes and are “treating you like a child.” That attitude is itself selfish and childish. To obey is the hardest thing in the world, yet everyone loves and respects an obedient child. No one – not even other children – likes a disobedient kid.
Priests, monks, and nuns in the Catholic church take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They own nothing, don’t marry, and not only obey their superiors in the church, they must obey willingly and cheerfully. For them to only obey grumpily is a sin because a vow is far more serious than a simple promise. Any priest will tell you that of the three vows, obedience is by far the hardest. They are naturally resentful when ordered to do something with which they don’t agree, or which they don’t like, or which they think is unfair, or just dumb, because like you they think that they know better than their superiors – and, like you sometimes, maybe they do.
Obedience is responsibility. It is also a hard thing to do. It is a sign that you are growing and can be trusted and relied upon. A disobedient child cannot be, and is a pain in the ass.
“I know the power obedience has of making seemingly impossible things easy to do.” … St. Teresa.
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