The Sunflower

With Rosh Hashanah coming up, I decided to do something a little different.

One of my rabbis suggested a book to me recently that has really caught my attention. I read the entire first portion in a couple of hours. Written by Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower tells the story of one of the most captivating moments of the famed Nazi hunter’s life. While he was held for work in the Lemberg prison camp near the town where he had grown up and gone to school, Simon (who when the war broke out had been an architect) was taken to work in the nearby army hospital. His first day working in the hospital, he was summoned to the bedside of a dying SS man who confessed a horrible crime and then said he needed the forgiveness of a Jew. The edition that I now have has the 98-page story followed by 53 different authors answering Simon’s moral question: what would you have done?

Before I read that section, I’m going to write what I would have done.

In my studies of Shoah – the totality of what the Nazis did – I have often thought about what life would have been like for me if I had been there. It would not have mattered that I was highly intelligent; intellectuals among the Jews and other undesirables were a favorite of Nazis to slaughter. It would not have mattered that I was a musician; they were only kept alive long enough to entertain the SS troops, and as soon as it fit some commandant’s fancy they were killed. It would not have mattered that I was a writer; it likely would have made me even more of a target to ensure I wasn’t able to tell the world what the Nazis had done. The only thing that would have mattered is whether or not I was a Jew. Or a Gypsy, a homosexual, or some other poison to their “master race”.

First they would have taken my identity. Then they would have taken my dignity. Then they would have taken my sense of humanity. They would break me before killing me for the mere amusement of it. Living every day with the fear of serious harm or death, what would I do if faced with a dying SS man begging me to forgive him for things he didn’t realize he would have to do when he volunteered?

I would not have made it to that point.

I am not now and have never been the type to be subservient in the face of oppression. Were any man to make the attempt to take me from the business I had worked so hard for, much less force me from my home, I would have fought to the bitter end. I would have died rather than live as less than a third-class citizen, a human with no identity and no rights. I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees.

Were I to survive, and a Nazi ask my forgiveness afterwards? Knowing what he had done to my family and our people? No. I would not have forgiven him, and anyone who suggests that Simon or any other Jew should forgive the Nazis is too arrogant to see the reality of what the survivors faced.

I have no problem calling such a stalwart belief arrogance. The Jews’ motto today is Never Again. No matter how much we know about what the Nazis did, there are still those (far too many, in my opinion) who deny that it happened. Far more actually continue to blame the Jews for all of the problems of the world – the very attitude that ended in the wholesale slaughter of six million Jews to begin with. Jews have been blamed for orchestrating 9/11, pushing George W. Bush into war with Iraq, and spreading the AIDS virus. You’re more likely to wake up to find your car or house spray-painted with hate messages if you’re Jewish than if you’re black or Hispanic.

Yet despite how many people across many different races (30% of blacks and 35-40% of Hispanics, in fact) hold views that are unquestionably antisemitic, Jews don’t riot or accuse entire races of practicing apartheid. Instead, we bend over backwards to make peace – even when the people who hate us riot in our neighborhoods and injure and kill us and never apologize for what they’ve done.

No, I wouldn’t have forgiven him. Anyone who believes that I would have had some kind of moral responsibility to forgive needs to imagine themselves hiding in a sewer to avoid the death squad before preaching. That is a fate I would not have been capable of abiding, and I would not dare ask any man, woman, or child who has endured those things to forgive the animals who committed them.

Forgiveness has limits. It is the deeply personal choice of the individual who has been wronged. Refusal to forgive does not mean that I intend to harm that person; it only means that I want the world to remember their acts so they are not repeated.

Just Following Orders

I am a Jew by choice. I was not born Jewish, I chose them as my people. I am an American, ready to give up everything I have to protect our freedom. I come from a long military history, and even though I was outed and sent home before I could actually serve, I am still a part of my family’s military story. I still embrace my Irish, Scottish, and German roots – but I am proud to be an adopted Jew.

You can imagine my shock and disgust, then, upon seeing this image in my Facebook timeline. It was proudly posted by one of the many military groups I belong to.

gruntworks

If you know anything about history, Erwin Rommel was arguably the best military commander – Field Marshal – of Nazi Germany’s military. He fought in WWI, and when Hitler rose to power he was so enamored of Rommel that he made him the War Ministry’s liaison to Hitler Youth. Rommel, at one point, pushed for more military training for Hitler youth. He was good friends with Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels and commanded Hitler’s personal escort during the invasion of Poland, later leading security for Hitler on multiple occasions. During the invasion of France and Belgium, he was supposed to be in the rear, but he ended up in the front (likely by his own design), leading the attack. He led German forces in the North African theater, aiding the Italians against the British. Hitler so loved the man that other Nazi military commanders hated him.

According to the history that I know, Rommel refused orders to kill civilians. If that is true, fantastic – but considering how close he was to Hitler, you cannot convince me that he didn’t know what the Fuhrer was all about. It has been claimed that he was involved in Operation Valkyrie, the plot to assassinate Hitler; what I have read, however, says that Rommel knew about the plot and offered to stay silent but was never involved because he believed that an assassination would make the situation worse. In the end Rommel was given the choice to either take a cyanide pill and end his life or fight charges of treason, see his wife and son suffer and be publicly executed. I honestly don’t think Hitler would have publicly executed him. He knew that Rommel’s outing as a traitor would have damaged the public’s perception of their Fuhrer and possibly emboldened any future endeavors to end the Reich. That is merely my opinion, but it is an educated one.

In the more than two thousand comments posted on the image above, one thing was repeated constantly, by soldiers in our military: Rommel was a brilliant tactician and therefore should be respected.

Yes, he was a genius as a tactician. So much so that he was the one military leader later saluted by Winston Churchill. I can accept, even agree with, teaching his knowledge and actions in military academies (particularly West Point). I can see showing respect for one’s enemy as a true soldier. I cannot, however, accept posting a quote like this one as something to live by – even for 11B or the Marine Corps.

Regardless of what one may think of Rommel as a soldier, he was still a Nazi. He may have later come to dislike Hitler’s methods but there is little I can find to like about a man who was that close to the author of genocide. I cannot believe that he didn’t know what Hitler and Goebbels believed and what they wanted to do to the Jews and all other “undesirables”. As close as he was to that circle, I cannot believe he wasn’t antisemitic, regardless of whether he agreed with the methods being used to implement the “Final Solution”.

He may not have been Hitler himself, but being a respected soldier and leader does not mean a killer should be given a voice. One must ask how many of Rommel’s troops did murder undesirables under orders. To say that a man is “just following orders” when he commits such an act is a massive cop-out, a weak argument used by cowards and killers alike to excuse barbarity. It is just as wrong today, for the soldiers sent to Leavenworth for carrying out an illegal order to kill all Iraqi men of military age, as it was for the Nazis who rounded up and exterminated my people – and the ones who approved by remaining silent.

The Reign of Nazism

When the Wehrmacht entered the Rhineland to re-take it, most were not armed. Due to a shortage of troop vehicles many rode bicycles. Hitler’s rearmament project was just getting started. While his shift of economic focus had been completely diverted to the military, the move was only a temporary fix. Construction projects were expensive, both in material and labor costs, and they created jobs; they couldn’t be put on hold. Soldiers needed to be paid, too, as did party members. Hitler’s plan was to expand Germany on a grand scale – that would generate quite a bit of revenue.

He suggested an “Anglo-German Alliance”, inviting Italy, Britain, France, Poland, China and Japan to sign the Anti-Comintern Pact. Only Italy and Japan signed the Pact. I think Hitler made the offer knowing full well that European nations would refuse; upon their refusal, he publicly stated his aim of Lebensraum, or “living space” for the German people. The pact strengthened ties with Japan and ended German support for China (whom Japan was trying to conquer); as a result, Hitler lost essential raw materials that China produced.

The issue didn’t faze him. On March 12, 1938, Anschluss was declared, and Austria was reunified with Germany. Hitler also wanted the Sudetenland – another “buffer zone” set up by Versailles, one that was home to a large number of ethnic Germans. A secret political plan to excuse military action against Czechoslovakia, which governed the Sudetenland, was hatched, but it was summarily canned when Hitler realized that he was still dependent upon oil imports and Britain’s superior navy could bring those imports to a grinding halt if he was too aggressive too soon.

The French and British were so averse to the idea of going to war again that they were willing to do anything to end it before it began. While Hitler’s plant in Sudetenland stirred up trouble on the ground, Hitler met with British PM Neville Chamberlain, French president Edouard Daladier, and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in Munich on September 29, 1938. The Czechs were deliberately left out of the Munich Summit. Chamberlain returned to London declaring “peace in our time,” holding the Munich Agreement aloft.

Hitler, meanwhile, was publicly disappointed that Germany didn’t have an excuse to declare war. His rearmament began faltering for lack of raw materials, particularly iron. He finally cracked and cut the military budget, but he refused to sit still for long. On March 15, 1939, Hitler invaded and conquered Prague. The Allies condemned him again, but refused to do anything tangible. The British vowed that Poland was their line in the sand and any German effort to invade would be met with military resistance.

Hitler took it as a challenge. He signed a non-aggression pact with Russia to set the stage for war and ordered the invasion of Poland (what most don’t know is that the pact also included a promise to split Poland between Germany and Russia, securing Russian military assistance). France and Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, but did not actually respond.

While all of this was going on, a plan to systematically rid Germanic Europe of the Jews was being put into place. Hitler was merely one man in a historic string of hardline anti-Semitic Europeans (to include Martin Luther), but he was the culmination of beliefs that the Jews were responsible for all of the world’s ills. Whereas political enemies and “moral” enemies (particularly homosexuals) were seen as salvageable, Jews were race enemies and – along with Gypsies and Poles – to be eradicated.

Dachau actually opened in 1933. At the height of the Third Reich, some 42,000 concentration camps were being operated, primarily in Germany, Austria and Poland. Shoah (literally “The Calamity”, known to most as The Holocaust) did not begin with a bang; rather, it began with a slogging gait, slowly introducing injustice after injustice until it became an act of pure horror. In April 1933, Jewish businesses were boycotted. Throughout that year, Jews were banned from nearly every respectable profession in Germany – law, medicine, and agriculture chief among them. Hereditary Health Courts were set up to order the sterilization of “undesirables”, mostly those who had physical or mental impairments.

In 1935, Hitler passed the “Blood Laws”. They stripped Jews of German citizenship, barred Jews from marrying non-Jews, and forbade German women from working as maids in Jewish households – in essence, they deprived all Jews of any semblance of civil rights. In footage from Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew), Hitler gives a speech in which he says, “if international-finance Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed once more in plunging the nations into yet another world war, the consequences will not be the Bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” Jewish scholars began leaving in droves around this time, with the upper- and middle-class Jews hot on their heels. Despite the globally-recognized persecution of Jews in Germany, the 1936 Olympic Games were held in Berlin.

On November 7, 1938, a Jewish teenager named Hermann Grünspan walked into the German embassy in Paris and assassinated Nazi diplomat Ernst vom Rath in retaliation for the persecution of some 12,000 Polish Jews in Germany (they had been forced from their homes, herded onto trains and forced back to Poland, only to be left in the snow when the Polish government refused to allow them entry). The act was used as an excuse to take more drastic action. Almost immediately, a wave of new pogroms now known as Kristallnacht began; by the end, 7,000 Jewish businesses had been vandalized, every synagogue in Germany had been either badly damaged or destroyed, and an estimated 100 Jews were dead (although the true figure is unknown). It was also used as an excuse to ban Jews from owning any kind of weapon, particularly firearms (which the Nazis required registration and permits for anyway, and now knew where to go to collect them).

Jews were forced to wear a yellow cloth badge in the form of the Star of David so that good Aryans would know whether to have civil dealings with them. Many tried desperately to leave, but with most countries enacting strict laws to halt the flow of Jewish immigrants, it became increasingly difficult. With the opening of Dachau, Jews in German-held territories who gave any excuse at all were sent to concentration camps. In 1940, they were relocated to ghettos while their homes were given to German citizens.

In April 1940, Hitler invaded Denmark and Norway. A month later he took France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. The British, having realized that they should have acted long before this point when Winston Churchill had first warned them, invited Churchill to be the PM and began fighting the Nazi onslaught. Hitler badly wanted to take England and ordered London to be firebombed when the Luftwaffe failed to upstage the Royal Air Force. He asked Russia for help, but Stalin’s emissary refused. Hitler quietly ordered a plan to invade Russia for their insolence.

He didn’t know it, but he had just sealed the fate of the Third Reich. The rest of the world feared that they would never defeat him. Nobody knew where this massive conflict would go.

The Birth of Nazism

A couple of years ago, I began a series based on a very long college essay I was writing. I decided to start over…here is part one of five.

Young Adolf Hitler was an artist. Most people who don’t follow history closely don’t know this important fact about the man. When he was a teenager, his father insisted on sending him to a technical school so he could learn a trade skill that would make real money; Adolf, raised by a very strict authoritarian father (Alois) and an oversympathetic, doting mother (Klara), deliberately failed at school in his teen years in the hopes of forcing his father to enroll him in art school.

We all know now that his drive was fruitless. Adolf was Austrian and he grew up with friends who believed that Austria belonged to Germany. German nationalism was strong in the run-up to WWI. Only after his father’s passing did Adolf finish school and he only passed by the skin of his teeth – he still wanted to be an artist, and his mother supported his ambition. He ended up living as a bohemian in Vienna while he attempted to gain acceptance to the Art Institute of Vienna. Twice he was turned down because he didn’t have the “aptitude” for painting. By 1909 he’d been selling watercolor landscapes to tourists in Vienna for four years and was living in a homeless shelter. In 1913 the government finally turned over his father’s estate and Adolf moved to Munich.

Adolf’s Austrian citizenship was set aside when he volunteered to join the Bavarian army in August of 1914. He was made a messenger (a job that was extremely hazardous at the time) and was highly decorated – earning the Iron Cross, both second- and first-class, along with the black wound badge. He was wounded at least twice during his duties. When the Germans surrendered in 1918 and the Treaty of Versailles was signed, Adolf was enraged. During speeches later in his career he proclaimed that, as he lay in a hospital bed blinded by mustard gas, he knew that he would be the one to liberate Germany.

He knew that his career options were nonexistent, so he stayed in the army for the newly-formed Weimar Republic. In 1919, he was assigned to infiltrate the Deutsch Arbiterpartei – or the DAP, in English the German Worker’s Party. It was an anti-Weimar socialist organization formed to represent the working poor and push socialist ideals. During a meeting one evening, Adolf got into a row with a member who suggested the unthinkable: Bavaria separating from Germany, forming with Austria and creating an entirely new country. DAP founder Anton Drexler was so impressed with Adolf’s oratory skills that he immediately offered the young soldier membership in the party. Adolf left the army and joined in 1920.

He rapidly rose to a leadership position. His public speaking skills were so natural that he was described as “mesmerizing” and “hypnotic”. The year he joined, Adolf changed the name of the party to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsch Arbeiterpartei – the NSDAP, or the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. The very first syllable is pronounced “Nazi”.

And so, anti-communist socialism became an officially-recognized political party in Germany.

Adolf the artist designed the new NSDAP logo, a swastika – a symbol commonly used by many cultures prior – in a white circle superimposed on a red background. In just one year Adolf had brought a few thousand members into the ranks, but in 1921 a small but vocal group within the leadership attempted to oust him as the party leader. Adolf angrily resigned; the group knew that without him, they would disintegrate, so they offered him anything he wanted to remain. He insisted on being the Fuhrer, the only recognized leader of the NSDAP. His wish was granted. He also formed the Sturmabteilung, or SA – the NSDAP’s “stormtroopers”.

In 1922, reparations payments as ordered by the Treaty of Versailles helped cause the hyperinflation of the German Mark – German paper currency essentially became worthless, at around 8000 Marks on the US Dollar. This further angered the NSDAP, which now commanded a force of thousands of members alongside thousands of SA to do Adolf’s dirty work. Since the Weimar Republic couldn’t get France, Britain, and the US to accept paper Marks anymore, the French moved in and occupied the Ruhr to ensure that reparations were being paid in goods – specifically coal and industrial materials produced in German factories. It got worse when the workers in the mines and factories went on strike; the government printed more money to keep paying the workers.

Germany had descended into economic chaos. In 1922, while Germans were taking wheelbarrows full of worthless Marks to the food lines to buy basic items, Italian fascist Benito Mussolini etched his name into the history books with his March on Rome. Adolf Hitler, growing ever angrier at the state of his beloved country, was taken by Il Duce – so much so that he decided to emulate his actions. On November 9, 1923, Adolf ordered 600 SA to surround the Bürgerbräukeller, a beer hall in Munich. Weimar state commissioner Gustav von Kahr, who had refused to entertain the notion of including Adolf in any new government and laughed the man out of his office, was speaking to a crowd of about 3,000. He dramatically marched into the auditorium surrounded by 20 of his NSDAP associates, fired a round into the ceiling and proclaimed that the government of Bavaria had been taken over and nobody was allowed to leave.

The Beer Hall Putsch ended the next morning after a mass crowd of 2,000 couldn’t figure out exactly what to do and were scattered by a force of only 100 soldiers (incredible considering that most of the rioters were former soldiers themselves). Adolf was taken into custody two days later, and on April 1, 1924, a judge eternally sympathetic to the cause of the accused in his courtroom sentenced Adolf to a measly 5 years. He only served eight months. The Putsch may have been a technical failure, but it ended up being a massive propaganda victory for the NSDAP. Adolf’s prison guards showed him respect and even pledged loyalty to his cause. It was during his imprisonment that he dictated Mein Kampf to Rudolf Hess.

On December 20, 1924, Adolf walked free. He didn’t receive the hero’s welcome he expected; during his incarceration, the economy had greatly improved and politics had become far less violent since workers did not feel nearly as put upon. What’s more, the NSDAP had become a banned organization in Bavaria and Adolf himself was barred from public speaking. He refused to give up, though. In January 1925, he promised government officials that he would only seek political power through honest public elections. He was hoping to have the ban on the NSDAP lifted, although he still wasn’t allowed to speak. Instead, Mein Kampf was published, and in 1925 the first volume was published to wide praise from the general population. He and his associates moved to Northern Germany to re-found the NSDAP. Joined by a group of highly skilled community organizers, Adolf Hitler went to work slowly working his way into government – he had realized that a sudden takeover would never be tolerated.

Then came the Great Depression. In October 1929, the US economy crashed and sent the still-recovering German economy into a tailspin. Millions lost jobs. President Paul von Hindenburg began ruling through emergency decrees. Adolf and the NSDAP, long telling the people that the Treaty of Versailles had been grossly unfair, found their stride during this time: they promised to end the promises of Versailles and renew pride in Germany.

In 1930, NSDAP members – all previously unknown to the public – won 107 seats in the Reichstag. The rise of Nazism had officially begun.