Friday, June 25, 2004

Deconstructing Bushitler

Medienkritik reports on the German media's enthusiasm in drawing parallels between the American abuses at Abu Ghraib and the Nazi concentration camps. The Bush-Hitler comparison is so old it's hardly shocking anymore. But now "modern America = Nazi Germany" (so much for the paper distinction of loving Americans but hating U.S. foreign policy).

The blog cites an example from the conservative, mainstream "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," writing about "a pile of naked men that reminds us of pictures from the concentration camps."

Overlook the fact that the concentration camp photos showed piles of dead bodies. Apparently that difference doesn't register in the German media. Overlook, too, the fact that the German media had zero interest in Abu Ghraib under the previous owners. Pictures exist from that phase in the prison's history. The only reaction I have to those of them I've seen is a line from Günter Grass: "I couldn't eat enough to puke enough."

But overlook it, because I will say, in Abu Ghraib, Americans got a glimpse over the precipice that leads to a Death Camp.

I haven't read many books more cold-blooded than Christopher Browning's "Ordinary Men" (1992). He tells of a group of average German civilians who mustered into the military as Reserve Police Battalion 101, shipped off to the Eastern Front, and methodically rode from village to village across the plains of Poland, marching the Jewish men, women and children of each place out to the woods and shooting them individually to death.

This book paints the horror with an everydayness that makes it the more horrible.

On their first assignment to kill Jews, in the Polish village of Josefow, the battalion's major gave his troops the option of "excusing themselves" from the task. Of the 500 in the unit, only about a dozen did so. They were not punished. The rest slaughtered 1,500 women, children and old people. They became one of Nazi Germany's most efficient extermination units; by the time Police Battalion 101 disbanded in late 1943 "the ultimate body count was at least 83,000 Jews."

[If this sounds familiar, but you haven't read Browning, realize that his research was a key source for Daniel Goldhagen's bestseller "Hitler's Willing Executioners."]

Browning's new book, "The Origins of the Final Solution," explores how the Holocaust came to happen. It was not Hitler's plan all along; it evolved. The racial policy shifted as the military campaigns in the East rolled up huge successes. There was no direct order from the Führer to exerminate. "But local commanders, whether SS officers or administrators in occupied territory, always sensed that more extreme action on the ground would find approval above them," a reviewer of the book observes. Hitler is portrayed as a leader who "filled the air with fearsome innuendo, but left it to junior figures to put into practice what they sensed he wanted -- and what they wanted too." In the end, "[t]he Wannsee Conference of January 1942 only made the German bureaucracy complicit in what was already being done."

Among Browning's revelations in the new book, one seems to have caught the eye of British reviewers, in publications that take a dim view (at best) of the war to overthrow Saddam. "The decisive impulse (to the Final Solution) was not defeat but the euphoria of victory in Russia, in the summer of 1941," a reviewer writes. "It was the sense that they were invincible which persuaded the Nazis that the genocide of Soviet Jews, which they were already carrying out, could be extended to the Jews of every nation they controlled."

Euphoria of rapid victory ... war crimes that begin with low-level decisions, implicitly sanctioned from above ... something seen at first even by Himmler as "un-German" becoming a fact, then a policy ... the mix of semi-professional soldiers with loutish tendencies and leaders willing to turn a blind eye to brutality.

Yes, it's there. The parallel is there. If you only look at it through a drinking straw.

Now put the straw down and look at the whole scene. What came before? In Germany, whole generations of demonization of Jews -- they were vermin, disease, the focus of a century of legal restrictions and social exclusion. This was approved in the churches, in the universities, and in the political parties of all stripes.

In the U.S., we have a welcoming culture that is aware of its own mongrel, immigrant origin. Some cartoonish Arab bad guys in a few Hollywood movies hardly are the equivalent of Der Stürmer's vicious blood-libels. Imams visit the White House. Courts uphold muezzin chants. After 9-11, in town after town, neighbors protected Muslim women who were afraid to walk in the street in their distinctive garb. The list goes on.

What came after? Were the American abusers sent off to the next prison, to continue their work? Were their bosses promoted and their leaders pleased? The criminals have been sacked and await punishments. The whole system has been shaken by the revelation. Civil and military tribunals convened, the chain of command exposed and scrutinized. Even though the recently released memos show Bush rejecting any interrogation methods that don't meet Geneva standards, the outcome of all this very likely will be the defeat of his entire administration.

The German fighting force of 1940 was the finest professional army in the world. And before it was over, even the proudest outfits had been tainted by war crimes. Americans are not better than Germans. American National Guard prison units from Pennsylvania are not inherently morally superior to German police battalions from Hamburg. What is the difference? Start with transparent institutions, free inquiry, a cultural sense of right and wrong that had not gone completely mad over a demonized enemy, and, yes, a media that is willing to expose crimes.

As Medienkritik goes on to point out, the German press probably should not push this line too hard. It could lead to some embarrassing comparisons.