Guest post: The moment he realized how horribly wrong he had been

Originally part of a comment by Golgafrinchan Captain on They were essentially without any relevant experience.

When I was growing up, my parents had a friend who had been a Nazi is WW2. It wasn’t something he really talked about but, through the years, I gathered some details from him and some more from his children. They thought they were the good guys, doing what needed to be done to protect themselves and the world from an imminent threat. It scares the crap out of me that our brains can make that kind of rationalization, but they can.

He was captured quite early and kept in a Canadian POW camp. The moment he realized how horribly wrong he had been is when he got to the POW camp and was actually treated well. The enemy he thought he was fighting would never show compassion to captives. That’s what’s so horrible about things like the US torture program; it confirms the beliefs of “the enemy”.

When Bush Jr.’s Iraq war started, it really messed with my head. Many of the things I heard coming out of the States reminded me of the things that had convinced my parents’ friend that they were on the side of good in WW2. Note: this is not to say that the US’s current actions are anywhere near as horrible as some of the things done by the Nazi’s, but it’s walking the same path. Also, plenty of comments by US citizens were/are just as horrible (“nuke all the sand-n***ers”, “savages who don’t deserve to live”, etc.). To be fair, Canada also has it’s share of such assholes but I think they are tolerated much less.


  1. Blanche Quizno says

    Early on in the Iraq Invasion, I remember reading something about how the prisoners of war that we captured during the Kuwait War were treated with respect, provided with proper accommodations, and even given Qur’ans and prayer rugs. They sang like birds. So I hoped that our armed forces and our political and military leadership had learned a valuable lesson.

    I didn’t understand what Dick Cheney was at that time, or how much he was of that Nazi mindset. The CIA’s own interrogators are both candid and clear that torture does not work – it does not deliver *any* useful intelligence, because, as you might predict, victims will say *anything* that they believe will stop the torture.

    For decades, experts and government officials alike have said torture is not only illegal but also — more to the point — does not work. But that didn’t stop the CIA from subjecting dozens of detainees to hours of waterboarding, rectal feeding, sleep deprivation and other brutal treatment in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The spy agency’s insistence on using so-called enhanced interrogation techniques in an attempt to force answers from terror suspects has raised questions about why U.S. officials were so committed to such harsh tactics long after it was known they didn’t work.

    Could it be because we’ve got irrational sadists in positions of too much responsibility, perhaps?

    Indeed, the CIA has consistently said for many decades that torture doesn’t work:

    The CIA’s 1963 interrogation manual stated:

    Intense pain is quite likely to produce false confessions, concocted as a means of escaping from distress. A time-consuming delay results, while investigation is conducted and the admissions are proven untrue. During this respite the interrogatee can pull himself together. He may even use the time to think up new, more complex ‘admissions’ that take still longer to disprove.

    Richard Stolz, the chief of the CIA’s clandestine service under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, testified to Congress:

    Physical abuse or other degrading treatment was rejected not only because it is wrong, but because it has historically proven to be ineffective.

    According to the Washington Post, the CIA’s top spy – Michael Sulick, head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service – said that the spy agency has seen no fall-off in intelligence since waterboarding was banned by the Obama administration. “I don’t think we’ve suffered at all from an intelligence standpoint.”

    The CIA’s own Inspector General wrote that waterboarding was not “efficacious” in producing information

    A 30-year veteran of CIA’s operations directorate who rose to the most senior managerial ranks (Milton Bearden) says (as quoted by senior CIA agent and Presidential briefer Ray McGovern):

    It is irresponsible for any administration not to tell a credible story that would convince critics at home and abroad that this torture has served some useful purpose.
    The old hands overwhelmingly believe that torture doesn’t work ….

    A former high-level CIA officer (Philip Giraldi) states:

    Many governments that have routinely tortured to obtain information have abandoned the practice when they discovered that other approaches actually worked better for extracting information. Israel prohibited torturing Palestinian terrorist suspects in 1999. Even the German Gestapo stopped torturing French resistance captives when it determined that treating prisoners well actually produced more and better intelligence.

    Anyone who advocates for torture should be immediately transferred to duties that do not involve *ANY* responsibility over another person or *ANY* contact with outsiders. Since they obviously are even *LESS* sensible and rational than the German Gestapo.

    The second issue is all these movies (like “Zero Dark Thirty”) and TV shows (like “24”) that reinforce the fiction that torture is the only way to obtain critical, lives-saving information. This is highly irresponsible and should not be tolerated.

  2. Seth says

    One of the worst aspects of US education about Nazis is the refusal to acknowledge that the vast, vast majority of them were just regular folks who’d been infected with some very, very bad ideas. This complements the deification of Adolf Hitler as an uncanny rhetorical and political genius who single-handedly architected the Holocaust and engendered the anti-Semitism that drove his followers out of thin air.

    Adolf was a bully, and a coward, and if he had been accepted to his art institute there would have been another figurehead of the great wave of horror that was going to crest over Europe out of the ashes of the Great War. The twelve-million-plus casualties of the Holocaust (only, or, rather, fully, half of them Jews) were murdered by their neighbours, people in the thrall of at least a certain kind of reason. If that could happen to Germans, and French people, and Lithuanians, and Ukrainians, and Russians (only about half of the workaday men and women involved in the machinery of death were actually German; the rest were ausländern–foreigners, eager and happy to participate in the immolation of their fellow human beings), then there is absolutely no reason it could not happen to Americans.

    But telling the truth about the Holocaust and the Nazis would require a more thorough and honest examination of US history and US present, and that is just not going to happen.

  3. John Morales says

    The OP made me think of The Operative in Firefly. — a different archetype, but functionally similar.


    The second issue is all these movies (like “Zero Dark Thirty”) and TV shows (like “24”) that reinforce the fiction that torture is the only way to obtain critical, lives-saving information. This is highly irresponsible and should not be tolerated.

    But it’s not life imitating art, rather the converse.

    (It’s a big call to ask art to restrict its expression outside the noble and the anodyne!)

  4. says

    I can’t believe it is incompetence or even sadism.

    Cheney et al had an agenda of things they wanted to do.

    They went into the torture program with a list of things they wanted the prisoners to say to provide ‘intelligence’ to justify their agenda. Any overlap between what was said and what was true was irrelevant.

    From that point of view the torture program was extremely effective. The effect it had in further accustoming the US public to state brutality was just an added bonus.

  5. RJW says

    @2 Seth,

    Yes, there are many forgotten victims of the Nazis, the total death is far in excess of 12 million and they certainly had many willing collaborators in occupied Europe. For example more French fought on the Axis side than the Allied side during WW2, partly because of the widespread anti-Semitism in France and the centuries long animosity to the English. During the seventies I had long conversations with former members of the Nazi war machine (one was a survivor of Stalingrad) they claimed that the French were friendly until the tide turned. France certainly didn’t deserve a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

    Of course, there’s the forgotten Holocaust, the atrocities committed by the Japanese in Asia during the 1930s and 40s, they have developed collective and selective amnesia about their history during WW2. However the Chinese haven’t forgotten.
    One of the consequences of the horrors inflicted by the Nazis, Japanese and our Soviet allies was the progressive corrosion of Western ethical and moral standards.

  6. Daniel Schealler says

    On the subject of Nazism, I really like this John Green quote.

    All the essentializing and sensationalizing of these stories [about Hitler] is designed to make us feel comfortable, to make us feel like we aren’t like ‘those people’. We want to feel fundamentally different from the people who participate in genocide. But of course, that’s not the truth, Hank. The truth, whether TV executives want to accept it or not, resists simplicity.

    Original Context: Hitler and Sex

    The key messages I take from this history of Nazism are the dangers of in-group/out-group thinking and the dangers of disgust.

    The moment we find ourselves embroiled in a conflict with an enemy, that is the moment to increase our critical evaluation of the in-group. Not give the in-group a free pass. The idea is to avoid group-think, not encourage it.

  7. Seth says

    @6, RJW:

    Of course I was remiss in ignoring the East Asian portion of the Second World War, which actually began earlier and, until the ovens really got going and the Russians started dying by the millions in homes and fields, had the highest number of military and civilian casualties of any theatre. WWII didn’t begin with Danzig; it began with the Marco Polo Bridge (or with the renaming of Manchuria to Mangukuo, , depending on when and how you date the assumption of Sino-Japanese hostilities).

    An entire division of the Waffen-SS (Wiking, or, in English, Viking) was wholly composed of foreign-born volunteers and non-commissioned officers. Many of these were indeed French. The Dreyfuss Affair was just barely out of living memory at that point, if indeed it wasn’t still fresh in the minds of many French people, just as one example of the deep-seated anti-Semitism of French society in the late 19th and earth 20th centuries.

    Let’s not forget the role of Christianity (and most especially, though certainly not exclusively, Roman Catholicism) in all of this. There is a reason there were so many French collaborators within and without the Vichy structure; there is a reason (other than simple NIMBY-ism) that the largest and most horrific concentration camps were located in Poland. Jozef Tiso (very much not to be confused with Josep Broz Tito), the man the Nazis installed to administer Slovakia, was even in holy orders up to the very hour of his execution by the post-war Slovak state. He was never excommunicated for his role in virtually denuding Slovakia of its Jews, Roma, and other ‘undesirables’; in fact, the only person within the Nazi heirarchy to suffer the Church’s displeasure, so far as I can tell, was Joseph Goebbels–and that for the unconscionable crime of marrying a Protestant woman.

    So, yes, the architects and arbiters of the European Holocaust were regular, God-fearing people, scared and lied to by their leaders into committing the worst crimes we have yet to perpetrate as a species (though, seemingly cyclically, many among us keep trying to top them, from Belgrade to Brazzaville). The covering-up and sweeping under the rug of these horrors was not done so much to ‘corrode ethical and moral standards’, in my opinion, it was done to preserve and maintain the illusion that these standards have ever actually existed in the first place. The knock-on effects of placidity, groupthink, and obeisance to authority that such a lack of critical examination affords certainly haven’t harmed the existing political structures, either.

  8. RJW says

    @8 Seth,

    When I referred to the ‘corrosion of ethical and moral standards’ I was thinking of the ‘grim necessity’ argument.

    For example, after the partition of Poland between Hitler and Stalin, 1.5 million Poles—who were as much victims of Stalin, as of Hitler— were deported by the Soviet regime to Siberia, nearly 400,000 perished. When astonishingly, 115,000 of the survivors were given permission to leave Russia for Persia, the British authorities, at first, resisted accepting them. The Colonial authorities in Cairo wrote to the Foreign Office–“To put matters brutally, if the Poles die in Russia, the war effort will not be affected” So let them die in Russia—eventually compassion defeated expediency and the refugees were allowed to enter Persia. There were, of course, many other similar cases during the war.

    Historian Max Hastings’ writes–“This shamelessly callous analysis illustrates the brutalisation of some of those directing the Allied war effort, in the face of so many competing tragedies”. Did this attitude survive WW2?

    Catholic priests were also instrumental in the establishment of the notorious “ratlines” network which facilitated the escape of Nazis from Europe after WW2.

  9. dorkness says

    ‘more French fought on the Axis side than the Allied side during WW2’ (RJW)
    AFAIK there was just one under-strength third-rate SS-division. (the Milice do not count, they were used to terrorize French civilians, not to fight Allied armies.)
    ‘I had long conversations with former members of the Nazi war machine’ (RJW)
    Consider the source and read it critically. For example, the Germans typically manage to remember with perfect clarity the antisemitism of everyone else except the one and only people calling the shots in the Third Reich.
    ‘the French were friendly until the tide turned’
    The French had lost the war in 1940, openly expressing hatred at the occupying power was very bad for your health.

  10. dorkness says

    ‘An entire division of the Waffen-SS (Wiking, or, in English, Viking) was wholly composed of foreign-born volunteers and non-commissioned officers.’ (Seth, 8)
    Petty Nazi parties in Norway, Denmark, Netherlands and Flemish Belgium promoted their own importance by creating volunteer legions that were assigned to the SS-Wiking, but there was not enough of them to fill the entire division at any time. It was good PR, a Pan-European crusade against Communism and so on, but Nazi war propaganda is not a terribly reliable source or information. Non-Germanic Fascists also sent legions to the Eastern front (e.g. ), but they were not considered Aryan enough for the SS, originally.
    When things started turning to shit, the Nazis stated recruiting pretty much anyone they could, and the larger units were created in the SS (smaller units were all over the Nazi military: ). Most of the foreign divisions weren’t much use, the motivation was not there, but some post-war writers have managed to cover these units in glory that was sadly missing during the actual war.

  11. RJW says

    @10 dorkness,

    No, remarkably, you’ve ignored the Vichy French government completely, not all France was occupied immediately by the Nazis, Vichy forces fought against the Allies in Syria, Madagascar and resisted US landings in North Africa. The Japanese used French Indo-China as a base for their operations in SEAsia.
    I certainly wouldn’t rely only on the recollections of Wehrmacht veterans.
    You might benefit by consulting general histories of the period, rather than Wiki.
    Whatever the behaviour of individuals under Nazi occupation, the fact remains that anti-Semitism was widespread in Europe and of course many people hated the Roma (also victims of Nazi genocide) and still do.

    So, my comment stands, the Vichy French weren’t initially terrorised by the Nazis, and more French fought on the Axis side than the Allied side after capitulation in 1940.

  12. wondering says

    Interesting that your father’s friend was treated well in the ally POW camp. The step-father of a friend of mine was an Austrian fighting for the Nazis in WWII. He claimed to have been an unwilling soldier; he tells a story of how his whole platoon surrendered to two US soldiers because they weren’t getting enough to eat and wanted to get the hell out of the war. He spent time in a US POW camp, and he told stories about how the huts were so crowded there was no place to lie down to sleep. Apparently, they slept sitting up, leaning on each other.

  13. jafd says

    Re: wondering’s comment

    Do you know when your friend’s stepfather became a POW ?

    If you became an Allied POW in the early and middle parts of the war, you probably got treated pretty well. By the spring of 1945 a lot of German soldiers had concluded that the war was lost, there was no sense being the last casualty, and ’twas much better being a POW of the Amis that the Russkis.

    A lot of American POW processing, in that March and April, was, “Hand over your rifle, here’s a C-ration, when the fighting’s over you can head home and start clearing up the rubble”. Recordkeeping was very loose, thus some Nazi apologists claimed that thousands of POWs had been murdered by the Allies.


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