365 “No Ordinary Men”

       One of the haunting questions following World War II was this:  why did so many “good” Germans stand quietly aside while Adolf Hitler gained power and unleashed much evil.  Addressing that question, Fritz Stern and Elizabeth Sefton wrote No Ordinary Men:  Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State (New York:  New York Review Books, c. 2013; Kindle Edition).  Given the rapidity with which Hitler seized and consolidated power, granting the orchestrated terror within his regime, it is quite remarkable that some brave souls dared resist him.  These included “two admirable men who from the start of the Third Reich did their utmost, each in his own way, to oppose Nazi outrages, and who then conspired to overthrow the tyrant” p. 1).  For doing so, Hans von Dohnanyi, a lawyer, and his brother-in-law Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor, ultimately died as martyrs in 1945.   

       Dietrich’s father, Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer, headed the neurology and psychiatry unit at Berlin’s principal hospital, occupying “the pinnacle of the German psychiatric profession” (p. 7).  He and his wife, Paula, had eight children (whom she home-schooled) and they enjoyed the privileged life of Germany’s elite.  Nominally Lutheran, they didn’t attend church, though Paula taught the children Bible stories, and the family “observed devout customs:  grace before meals, evening prayers before bedtime, large family celebrations at Christmas and Easter with Bible readings and hymns presided over by the agnostic father” (p. 19).  Somewhat surprisingly young Dietrich was drawn to theology, studying at the University of Berlin where Adolf von Harnack and Ernst Troeltsch had taught.  Their liberal theology, however, did not appeal to Bonhoeffer, who found the more bracing Neo-Orthodoxy of Karl Barth more satisfying.  He “was enthralled by Barth’s interpretation of the Gospels, and by his great theme:  that above all Christians must heed, in their hearts, the ‘unbelievable, incredible, and certainly disturbing testimony that God himself said and did something; something entirely new, outside the correlation of all human words and things’” (p. 23).  

       Both Barth and Bonhoeffer opposed Hitler as soon as he came to power.  Barth took refuge in Switzerland while Bonhoeffer worked within the German Evangelical Church, helping lead the “Confessing Church” that sought to “keep the church Christian.”  He thought that very soon “‘we shall have to decide between National Socialism and Christianity’” (p. 50).  His brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, was one of several prominent lawyers within the Bonhoeffer clan, and he sought (working within the Ministry of Justice) to uphold traditional legal standards while keeping records of their abuse by Nazi functionaries.  In the late 1930s he began working with some senior army officers, including General Ludwig Beck, chief of the general staff, and Hans Oster, who served as deputy to the chief of Germany’s military intelligence, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris.  They crafted plans and imagined plots to remove Hitler, but none succeeded.  Though not directly involved in these conspiracies, Bonhoeffer sought to set forth a moral perspective on their situation, writing a Christmas essay for his family that “was an unsparing assessment of Germans and their conduct over the previous decade—when, as he wrote, ‘the huge masquerade of evil has thrown all ethical concepts into confusion,’” when “Germans who knew all too well the need for obedience ‘did not reckon with the fact that [it] could be misused in the service of evil’” (p. 100).  Though formerly an avowed pacifist, Bonhoeffer changed his mind as he wondered how to actually stop the dictator.  

       Ultimately, one of the plots to kill Hitler came to light, and a series of arrests in 1943 brought into custody Hans von Dobnanyi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, along with Hans Oster and Wilhelm Canaris.  Imprisoned, they were constantly interrogated, pressured to reveal fellow conspirators.  Bonhefffer found strength by maintaining “his physical health and spiritual vigor by following a strict daily regimen—rising before dawn, reading and memorizing Scripture, meditating, exercising” (p. 110).  Dobnanyi “increasingly turned to the Bible; his earlier and perhaps unarticulated faith became more conscious, and it fortified him in moments of despair” (p. 114).  Finally, one of the military officers’ plots nearly succeeded.  Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s bomb exploded within a few yards of Hitler without killing him, and a savage retaliation ensued.  Everyone remotely connected with the conspiracy was hunted down and 6000 people were executed.  Bonhoeffer and Dobnanyi were guilty by association and would be killed, along with Canaris and Oster,  shortly before WWII ended in 1945.  

       “Though the world knows of Bonhoeffer in detail and hardly at all of Dohnanyi, they deserve to be remembered together.  The Third Reich had no greater, more courageous, and more admirable enemies than they” (p. 142).

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       Decades ago Herbert Molloy Mason published To Kill Hitler:  Plots on the Führer’s Life (London:  Michael Joseph Limited, c. 1979; reprinted in 2018 by Lume Book).  As soon as Hitler divulged his plans for world conquest a few German commanders turned against him, determined to kill him if necessary and restore the nation to its rightful condition.  “The conspirators, always few in number, never flagged in their determination to rid Germany of the scourge of National Socialism, and many of them paid with their lives for their daring.”  They were men “‘who brought themselves through difficult conflicts of conscience to the realization that legal methods could have no effect against the National Socialist terror.  The path taken by these men was long and thorny.  Their story deserves the appreciation of posterity because their actions had been barred not only by traditions of German soldierdom, which were hundreds of years old, but also by the professional ethics of all soldiers of the world.’  Here, then, is the story of those men who tried to kill the devil” (p. 10).

       Opposition to Hitler emerged early in Germany.  For example, in 1936 Mayor Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, refused to follow a Nazi order to remove a statue of Felix Mendelssohn (a famous Jewish composer) from Leipzig’s main square.  “‘When that statue goes,’ he said, ‘then so will I’” (p. 51).  “Goerdeler loathed the street-gang aspects of the Nazi party” and “refused point-blank Hitler’s personal invitation to join the Party.”  He had “soured on Nazi methods, publicly declaring, ‘The Party will be shattered on the rock of moral law that makes human society possible’” (p. 50).  He began a “one-man crusade” to remove Hitler and frequently talked with Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of Germany’s counterintelligence organization (the Abwehr).  The admiral “stood less than five feet four with his shoes on.  His size and reticent manner belied his determination and personal courage.  In Canaris Goerdeler found a kindred spirit” (p. 53).  Canaris considered the Nazis little more than gangsters and worked subtly in several anti-Hitler plots.  These Germans knew that Hitler was determined to create a Third Reich controlling all of northern and easternEurope.  He was willing launch a war to do so, horrifying  senior military officers at its prospects.  Initially they thought they might enlist support for their resistance abroad.  For example, General Ludwig Beck, chief of the general staff, sent a message to the British Foreign Office, saying:  “‘Bring me certain proof that England will fight if Czechoslovakia is attacked and I will make an end of this régime’” (p. 59).  But his offer was disregarded as the British sought to appease Hitler.  Thus Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met Hitler in Munich inn 1938 and complied with his demands regarding Czechoslovakia, an agreement that deeply depressed Germans scheming to eliminate Hitler.  As Hitler later said, “‘I saw my enemies at Munich, and they are little worms’” (p. 88).  Little worms, lacking backbones, caved in.

      When war erupted in 1939 and Russia later invaded, a series of futile plots (both civilian and military) were launched to kill Hitler.  Mason carefully details a number of them and one cannot but admire the courage with which the plotters risked death in order to rescue their country.  Lieutenant Colonel Count Claus Philipp Maria Schenk von Stauffenberg, was one of them.  He had been seriously wounded while fighting in North Africa, losing an eye and the use of one arm.  “A staunch Catholic, Stauffenberg reached the conclusion that his life had been spared to fulfil a mission of critical importance to mankind:  destiny had chosen him as the prime mover in Hitler’s overthrow by assassination, while Germany’s frontiers were still unviolated, while there was still time to salvage the vestiges of honour rightfully belonging to a once-great Fatherland” (p. 167).  Early on he’d hoped Hitler would be good for Germany but quickly became disillusioned, concluding that Hitler and his entourage were “rotten and degenerate” psychopaths.  

       Working with sympathetic fellow officers Stauffenberg became a proponent of the Valkyrie plan, which included not only assassinating Hitler but reorganizing Germany thereafter.  He recruited some 100 officers and planned to personally detonate a bomb near the Der Fuhrer when an opportunity came.  Given his standing within the officer corps he occasionally took part in meetings with Hitler.  In July 1944 the perfect opportunity came, and Stauffenberg left the bomb in a briefcase near Hitler in the Wolfs Lair (one of Hitler’s command posts in Poland).  Flying back to Berlin after hearing the explosion Stauffenberg thought the deed was done and took steps to seize control of the nation.  But somehow Hitler survived the attack with only superficial wounds and unleashed the full power of his security forces to round up and destroy the conspirators.  Within 12 hours Stauffenberg and Beck and others were shot.  Anyone remotely connected with the conspirators was arrested, tried, and executed.  Germany’s most acclaimed military hero, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (the “desert fox”), committed suicide when offered that option, though he had nothing to do with the plot.  While Germany’s forces were retreating everywhere Hitler would exert enormous energy and resources to finding and punishing anyone who dared oppose him—some as late as April, 1945, literally days before the Allies occupied Germany.  

       To Kill Hitler presents, in a highly readable fashion, an important a aspect of Hitler’s Third Reich.  It’s clear that it was difficult to oppose the Nazis, and it took unusual courage to plot to defeat them.  No doubt too many Germans remained quiet and submissive.  No doubt much harm would have been avoided had only more courageous men risked their all to do what was right.  But few of us are, in the end, as brave as we ought to be.  The fact that a few Germans rose to the challenge merits our commendation.  

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       Eddie Jaku was certainly no “ordinary man”—as is evident in his autobiography,  The Happiest Man on Earth:  The Beautiful Life of an Auschwitz Survivor (New York:  HarperCollins, c. 2021; Kindle Edition), written after he reached the century mark in life.  Born in 1920, reared in Leipzig, one of the world’s great centers of culture, nurtured by a successful Jewish family, he considered himself primarily German and only incidentally Jewish.  But when the Nazis came to power everything changed for the worse, and he had “to stare evil in the face.”  He couldn’t fathom how “surreal and horrible” it was.  “I could not understand what had happened.  I still don’t understand it, not really.  I don’t think I ever will.  We were a nation that prized the rule of law above all else, a nation where people did not litter because of the inconvenience it caused to have messy streets.  You could be fined 200 marks for throwing a cigarette butt out your car window.  And now it was acceptable and encouraged for people to beat us” (p. 33).   He saw “the very worst in mankind, the horrors of the death camps, the Nazi efforts to exterminate my life, and the lives of all my people.  What he soon learned was that when the Nazis took control the typical German, though not usually evil “was weak and easily manipulated” (p. 97).  

       Jaku would be arrested and sent to several concentration camps, even escaping from Buchenwald and unsuccessfully trying to reach friendly territory, finding “much kindness from strangers” in small French villages.  Ultimately he would be rearrested and sent to Auschwitz, where “a man in a clean white lab coat stood above the mud, surrounded by SS.  This was Dr Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death, one of the worst murderers who has ever lived, one of the most evil men in the history of mankind.  As the newly arrived prisoners went by, he indicated whether they should walk to the left or the right” (p. 67).  One group went to the gas chambers; the other would be forced to labor making war materials for the Nazis.  “The high-ranking Nazis behind the Final Solution called the slave labour Vernichtung durch Arbeit.  Extermination through labour” (p. 90).  Fortunately young Jaku was mechanically gifted and had received an outstanding education in mechanical engineering.  So when sent to concentration camps he survived because the Nazis needed his skills.  His father had been right to stress education and work.  They saved his life.  He also determined to live as a “civilized” man, refusing to do evil because he was suffering it.  So he “never hurt another prisoner, I never stole another man’s bread, and I did all I could to help my fellow man. You see, your food is not enough. There is no medicine for your morals.  If your morals are gone, you go” (p. 101).

       Jaku survived the war—the only one of more than a hundred of his relatives to do so.  He then met, fell in love with, and married a lovely Jewish woman and soon sired children.  Becoming a father changed him forever!  “When I held my eldest son, Michael, in my arms for the first time, it was a miracle.  In that one moment, my heart was healed and my happiness returned in abundance.  From that day on, I realized I was the luckiest man on Earth.  I made the promise that from that day until the end of my life, I would be happy, polite, helpful and kind.  I would smile.  From that moment, I became a better person.  This was the best medicine I could have, my beautiful wife and my child” (p. 154).  Having a family literally “saved” him.  Wanting to escape Europe, Jake and his family emigrated to Australia, where he started a succession of successful businesses and in time became a well-known spokesmen for Holocaust survivors.  His adopted homeland became a “heaven” for him “down under.”  

       After living 100 years, he claimed to be the “happiest man on Earth.  Through all of my years I have learned this:  life can be beautiful if you make it beautiful.”  His story “is a sad one in parts, with great darkness and great sorrow.  But it is a happy story in the end because happiness is something we can choose” (p. 4).  Ultimately:  “Here are the lines I try to live by, and which I like to include when I speak publicly:  May you always have lots of love to share, / Lots of good health to spare, / And lots of good friends who care” (p. 176).  This is a simply-told, deeply inspiring account, so different from many reflections set forth by other Holocaust survivors.  For that reason it is so valuable.  Rather than remaining angry following his suffering, he concluded that:  “Kindness is the greatest wealth of all.  Small acts of kindness last longer than a lifetime.  This lesson, that kindness and generosity and faith in your fellow man are more important than money, is the first and greatest lesson my father ever taught me.  And in this way he will always be with us, and always live forever” (p. 175).  

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       For decades I’ve resolved to read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem:  A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York:  Penguin Classics, c. 1964; Kindle Edition) and finally did so.  Controversial when first published, it remains so today, for America’s Jewish establishment effectively excommunicated her!  Her fiercest critics were Jews who thought she too readily blamed Jewish leaders for cooperating with the Nazis, though she insisted she simply tried to tell the truth about Eichmann and the Holocaust.  She refused to ignore the role of “Jewish Sonderkommandos (special units)” who killed Jews in order to save their own lives; she held the Jewish Councils and Elders responsible for helping round up and dispatch other Jews so they themselves could survive.  Throughout Europe Jewish leaders, “almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis.  The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people” (p. 173).  Stating what to her was an inescapable truth cost Arendt dearly within the Jewish intelligentsia, who considered her a traitor.  

       Witnessing Eichmann on trial, she considered him and his ilk not “demonic monsters” but ordinary bureaucrats following orders, mindlessly seeking promotions and power, more “morons” than brutes.  Psychiatrists examining Eichmann found him  “normal” rather than psychopathic!  He was, to put it mildly, boring.  He and too many Germans lost their “conscience” and Eichmann’s was eased, he said, by the fact that no one actually opposed killing Jews when it became possible.  While on trial in Jerusalem he found it difficult to speak coherently without resorting to bureaucratic clichés—“‘Officialese [Amtssprache],’” he said, “‘is my only language’” (p. 84).  As Arendt listened to him she concluded that “his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else” (p. 84).  To her he appeared almost a “clown.”  He was born to and reared by a typical middle-class Germany family.  His schooling was a bit erratic and he seemed disinterested in serious academic work.  He attended a vocational school and falsely claimed later in life to be a “construction engineer.”  His parents enrolled him in the Young Men’s Christian Association, and he later joined the German youth movement, the Wandervogel.”  An inveterate “joiner” of organizations, he joined the Nazi Party without knowing much about it.  He never studied its platform, never read Hitler’s Main Kampf, and just seemed to want to be part of something exciting.  Religiously, he claimed to be “a Gottglaubiger, the Nazi term for those who had broken with Christianity, and he refused to take his oath on the Bible,” claiming an affiliation with “a higher Bearer of Meaning,” aligned with the “movement of the universe.” 

       Eichmann used his party ties to secure several governmental positions, ultimately working within the bureaucracy dealing with Jewish issues.  At first the National Socialists supported the Zionist movement, encouraging Jews to voluntarily leave Germany.  Eichmann did some reading and talked with some Jewish leaders and before long claimed  to be an “expert” in dealing with them.  Moving up in the ranks of officials and helping wealthy Jews get passports and visas with which to settle in Palestine or other friendly nations, Eichmann always claimed to have good relations with them.  While he worked in Vienna in the late 1930s, some 45,000 Jews “legally” left the country, cleansing Austria of them before the “final solution” was implemented.  As Reinhard Heydrich (the main architect of the Jewish policies), conferring with Herman Goring on the morning of the Kristallnacht, explained,   “‘Through the Jewish community, we extracted a certain amount of money from the rich Jews who wanted to emigrate.  By paying this amount, and an additional sum in foreign currency, they made it possible for poor Jews to leave.  The problem was not to make the rich Jews leave, but to get rid of the Jewish mob’” (p. 79).  Only after WWII began did “the Nazi regime became openly totalitarian and openly criminal” (p. 106).  But the first gas chambers were built within months of the war’s inception,  and Hitler’s true intent became clear:  the “final solution” meant killing all Jews.  Eichmann was tasked with arranging the transportation for Jews sent to various camps in Europe.  “He never actually attended a mass execution by shooting, he never actually watched the gassing process, or the selection of those fit for work” (p. 132).  He probably lacked the brutal temperament necessary for the actual work of killing people.  Nevertheless he played a significant role in their deaths, organizing mass deportations designed to “make the Reich judenrein [free of Jews]” as quickly as possible.

       However one evaluates her stance, Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem remains a valuable record of a gifted philosopher’s views on a prominent Nazi and the genocide he promoted.  She sought to plumb the depths of Eichmann’s mind and discern therein “the totality of the moral collapse the Nazis caused in respectable European society.”  Primarily this happened because folks failed to think!  They refused to see how things truly were.  They all too frequently followed “orders” and almost deified the State, allowing it to determine what was right and wrong.  This was “the banality of evil” on display in Jerusalem.

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