Why did Germans willingly cooperate, support or passively stand by as six million Jews were exterminated? According to Daniel Goldhagen author of a new book Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, their mindset was virtually a national psychosis and the product of a long history of anti-Semitism embedded in German character. This is the crux of Goldhagen's thesis about the cause of the Halocaust and it has drawn sharp criticism.
One big hole in this theory is the history of anti-Semitism throughout Europe such as the Spanish Inquisitions, the expulsion of Jews from Britain for almost 300 years, Jews restricted and accused of ritual murder in Poland and let's not forget the depths of French anti-Semitism exposed through the trial of Alfred Dreyfus. Why didn't the Holocaust happen elsewhere in Europe? My grandmother told me stories about Cossack massacres and Russian pogroms, and how my family fled Poland at the turn of the century to escape persecution, those that stayed behind were lost in the Holocaust.
I want to believe Goldhagen's easy answers. That only a sick society plagued by relatively unique cultural hatreds could commit such horrific crimes. Such conclusions are comforting, but actually fail to explain Adolph Hitler's Germany. Hitler was the Holocaust. Without comprehending the scope of Nazi power, there is no understanding of the Holocaust. Goldhagen's theory trivializes Nazi influence, their powers of persuasion and Hitler's ability to mold an environment that produced a mindset capable of genocide.
Nazi Germany was not the only nation in modern history taken over by a destructive totalitarian regime. The "killing fields" of Cambodia, cultural revolutions in both China and Iran, Stalin's purges and North Korea's "Great Leader" are other examples of such terror. Likewise, no nation is immune to the parallel powers of persuasion used by cults. Tokyo's subway gassing by Aum and the mass suicide in Switzerland of members of the Solar Temple are proof of that conclusion.
But my deeper interest lies in understanding the mindset produced by controlling dictatorial groups and movements. For almost fifteen years I have studied the process used by cults and radical groups to mold the minds of members. Hundred of individual interventions have afforded me an opportunity to unravel these programs of control and provided proof of their power. I have worked with Waco Davidians, an anti-abortion militia member and racist skinheads. Learning first-hand how easily messianic leaders can create hatred, unreasonable fear and make murderers.
My work began when my grandmother was confronted in a Jewish nursing home by a crusading proselytizer. Subsequently a self-styled "Hebrew-Christian" told me that the "Holocaust was God's judgment on the Jews for rejecting Christ." Friederich Heer, an Austrian Catholic religious scholar and author concluded, that the "problem of anti-Semitism can be successfully solved only on this condition: that outraged Christians become reconciled with themselves, that an inclusive Christian religion seeks and finds reconciliation with [people] of other religions and beliefs." Christians like Heer have given up ethnocentric dogma, but crusades like "Jews for Jesus," prove that many American "born-again" Christians have not.
The book Thought Reform and Psychology of Totalism, by Robert Lifton examines former prisoners of war, once held within the prison camps of North Korea. Lifton outlines how people can be changed and control achieved, by a process chillingly reminiscent of Nazi Germany and not unlike Orwell's 1984. The process begins with control of an environment, associations, information, and then demands pure, absolute commitment to a movement and its leaders. People are told to purge thoughts not consistent with the program and a pseudo-science develops that rationalizes the movement placing its claim and validity beyond question. A special "loaded language" permeates the environment filled with "thought terminating cliches." These combined elements lock together programming individuals and producing a mindset that can control a cult or dominate a nation.
Hitler's Third Reich manipulated the German people through what Lifton calls the "dispensing of existence." The Nazis drew a sharp line down "between those whose right to existence can be recognized," the pure Aryan and "those who possess no such right" such as the Jew, portrayed by their propaganda as an infestation of vermin. Thus genocide became fumigation, or as Camus said a "crime of logic." I have witnessed the effectiveness of such propaganda myself seeing how cult leaders like Koresh could convince followers that their families were "satanic" and therefore easily dispense with future communication cutting all ties. Or, demonizing the government as many militias do enabling adherents to murder citizens seemingly without conscience.
American history includes the killing of "Indians" labeled as "savages" in the name of something called "manifest destiny." This racist mindset rationalized by claims about Christian triumphalism and European cultural superiority is another example of the "dispensing of existence." How arrogant it is for Goldhagen to condemn Germans, ignoring our own troubled history strewn with hate and massacres. I have seen the same denial when audiences at my lectures insist that only crazy, troubled people are involved in cults. It could never happen to them or anyone in their family. Unfortunately the facts indicate cult members include some of the best and brightest in our society, often the product of solid loving families.
In Oklahoma City people wonder how someone became the willing executioner of 170 innocent men, women and children. But there is a mindset behind the madness at Waco and the bombing of the Murrah building, a subculture bubbling beneath the surface of our society that often erupts and explodes. Hitler understood how to exploit old hatreds, fears and national schisms. He rose to power when Germany was beset by economic hardship and turmoil, supported by people who wanted a sense of security. Racism, slavery, the Klan and anti-Semitism are all part of our history.
Today American are haunted by insecurities. Corporate "down-sizing" and a highly competitive world market have caused hardships, and led to fear and anxiety about the future. This has provided a platform for polemicists, demagogues and would-be messiahs. From LaRouche to Moon, Buchannon to Bo Gritz cults militias and the politics of hate cater to fear and seemingly offer a sense of security, thriving on scapegoats and conspiracy theories.
An astonishing number of Americans are now influenced by conspiracy theories. A recent poll reported that 34% of American white males believe citizens have the right to buy and stockpile large amounts of weapons to oppose the Federal Government. Many believe dark forces now control the FBI, BLM, IRS, FEMA, UN and Great Britain. Radio Internet bulletin boards, E mail, Web sites and faxes jam the information highway with paranoia, hate has gone hi-tech. Government employees have been threatened by groups like the "Freeman of Jordan, Montana, now locked in a standoff with the FBI. The Freeman, deeply anti-government and phobic about the "new world order," have been radically changed by the influence of their leaders, according to friends, family and neighbors.
The influence of seemingly disparate, but extreme groups in the United States has increased through networking. Cults, radical anti-abortionists, the "Religious right," militias, old hate groups, the far right and some so-called "conservative Republicans" often work together. Their common agenda includes attacks on "big government," "over regulation" such as gun laws and supposedly returning "power to the people." These code phrases have become thought terminating cliches, a facade to mask an attempt to strip power from the only institution able to hold such groups accountable.
Jerry Falwell attends a seminar sponsored by Moon's Unification church, which controls the Washington Times, Insight, and The World and I magazines. Congressman Sonny Bono helps promote the agenda of the Church of Scientology through an organization called "Parents Involved in Education which includes many conservative Christians. The "Citizens Commission on Human Rights," founded by Scientology, pushes a bill in Florida which would impede child abuse investigators and abolish the Baker act, the state's psychiatric commitment law. Scientology also has its own lawyers, not unlike tobacco companies, to harass and silence critics. I myself have been subjected to such harassment.
Militia groups can rely upon sympathetic ears in Congress like Representatives Steven Stockman of Texas and Helen Chenowith of Idaho. Larry Pratt of "Gun Owners of America," who has been linked to militias and white supremacists, held a high-ranking position in the Buchanan campaign. Pratt has friends on the NRA board, ties to House majority leader Richard Armey and has made contributions to Oliver North and Stockman's campaigns, "Operation Rescue's" Randall Terry's defense fund, " and Kirk Lyons CAUSE (now defunct). Lyons, a lawyer, once defended white racists, has ties to the "Aryan Nations" and helped to start the "Waco Justice Foundation."
The congressional hearing on Waco brought out not only the NRA but cult apologists like James Tabor, Stuart Wright and Dean Kelley, all recommend as resources by Scientology. In 1994 Leaders of the German government called for a ban on Scientology saying it is "not a church or a religious organization" but "a machine for manipulating human beings."
According to Goldhagen Germany today is a "remade country." Germans learned bitter lessons from the Nazi era. It is now illegal for a German to possess, produce or distribute Nazi materials and a crime to incite violence. However, the primary source for hate literature today in Germany is the United States. In 1995 Gary Rex Lauk, of Lincoln, Nebraska, was arrested in Denmark and extradited by the German government. Once one of the biggest distributors of neo-Nazi propaganda in both the United States and Europe, Lauk was the single largest source in Germany. However, the U.S. refused to cooperate with German officials citing the Constitution's protection of free speech.
Americans are only just beginning to face the problems posed by radical groups and cults. Contrary to conspiracy theories promoted by cults, militias and hate groups, they are not being persecuted by the government, but seem instead to be rather unfairly exempted from legal scrutiny. Equal accountability, and enforcement would be a meaningful step in dealing with such groups. Passing tougher laws regarding hate crimes and terrorism would help to protect the public. Education about propaganda, coercive persuasion and undue influence should be offered at school, along with courses to develop or improve critical thinking skills.
Hitler changed people into "willing executioners." The Holocaust was not the product of German culture, but the result of a reign of terror brought about by the most heinous cult in human history. That tragic event forced Germans to recognize their vulnerabilities and the dangers of undue influence. Hopefully, Americans can learn from modern Germany and find hope in its solutions.