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A friend passed on an anecdote the other day. A friend of his was at a dinner party at which everybody around the table was discussing what they would do if they were an inmate in a Nazi concentration camp. My friend’s friend said that the more interesting question is: What would you do if you were a Nazi concentration camp guard?
That really is the more interesting question. It’s a radical iteration of a moral dilemma that many of us face: what do you do if your livelihood depends on the contribution of your labor to an unjust, even an evil, system? It’s easy to say, “I’d quit, and join the resistance.” But would you really? What if your family might go hungry if you quit, or otherwise suffer? It’s one thing to be prepared to suffer personally for your convictions, but to put your spouse and children at risk is another. I’m not saying it would be right, obviously, to labor as a concentration camp guard under any conditions. I am saying, though, that some of us have jobs, or are involved in industries, that we know in our hearts are immoral. But we see no way out, because we have become enmeshed in the system. What to do? This is what haunts me when I think about what if I had grown up under segregation: what would I, a white person, have done? It turns out that it’s easier (at least for me) to imagine what I would have done as a victim of cruelty or oppression than as someone who was part of a system that perpetrates it.
Anyway, what would you do, reader, if you were a Nazi concentration camp guard?
UPDATE: From an old Crunchy Con post after I watched “The Sorrow and the Pity,” Marcel Ophuls’ documentary about French collaboration with the Nazis:
The most unsettling thing about the film, though, is not the examples of villainy or heroism, but how most people simply made their peace with tyranny (this is why the French government, which had commissioned the film through state television, didn’t want to show it: it exposed the myth that France had by and large nobly resisted the Nazi occupation. What you get from the film, which is mostly interviews with a variety of people who had been involved with the drama of the time (most of them inhabitants of the French city Clermont-Ferrand) is a sense of how difficult it would have been to have done the right thing. To be sure, the film does not excuse the collaborators. But it does reveal them to be human, all too human.I can’t stop thinking about this one man in the film, a French Catholic aristocrat who, get this, joined the Waffen-SS and earned an Iron Cross for fighting on the Russian front. This man, Christian de la Maziere, dispassionately admits to having been a fascist before and during the war. He now (well, he then; this was the late 1960s) called himself a liberal, and said he warns young people to be wary of ideology. He explains that back in the 1930s, French politics were run through with far left and far right ideology. One felt one had to choose. Being an aristocrat and a Catholic, and having seen daily stories in the papers of nuns raped and massacred, and suchlike, by the left in the Spanish Civil War, he concluded that he should join the side that fought communism most fiercely. And this is how, in time, he came to wear Germany’s uniform.
This interview is the most haunting because you can see how people made the choices that they did. One never falls victim to the idea that to understand all is to forgive all, but one does understand what the former British prime minister Anthony Eden says at the film’s end, when asked to pass judgment on Petain, the Vichy leader. Eden says that no one who didn’t have to endure the horrors of occupation should propose to judge the actions of those who did. When one of the interviewees observes that the respectable bourgeoisie made the best collaborators, because they had something to lose, I winced.