Explaining the Unexplainable

Since World War II, the common reaction to the horrendous crimes of the Nazis has been to wonder how such extreme behavior was possible. But the more important point is how the process of killing could be made so mundane, a question that remains relevant today, as Gary G. Kohls explains.

By Gary G. Kohls

A couple of years ago, the iconic sign over the gate to the infamous World War II-era extermination camp at Auschwitz was stolen. (It was later recovered after being found cut into three pieces). At the top of that gate was this classic bit of Nazi propaganda, proclaimed to the millions of doomed incoming victims: “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes One Free).

“Arbeit Macht Frei” is a pretty good summary of what is otherwise known as “the Protestant work ethic” that started in Europe during the Protestant Reformation. Right-wing nationalists, anti-communist, pro-capitalist, pro-war, anti-Semitic, racist and religious reformers such as John Calvin and Martin Luther would have agreed that “Arbeit Macht Frei” supported their dogmatic teachings about fulfilling one’s patriotic duty to the state, the church or the industry that employed the people.

The gate to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, including the German phrase, “Arbeit Mach Frei,” or “work makes one free.”

Following Hitler’s fascist takeover and the total destruction of Germany’s liberal democratic government in 1933, Germans were indoctrinated to believe that it was their patriotic duty to defend the Nazi’s Thousand Year Reich by any means necessary, including laboring, killing or dying for the cause.

Indeed, the efforts instituted by the fascist government (including the abolition of labor unions) resulted in virtually full employment in all of the war-related industries that were set up to ensure the success of the Thousand Year Reich, including the military arts, police, fuel, chemical, agriculture, mining and weapons production. All of these industries thrived with willing, reasonably well-paid and grateful “Good Germans” who blindly applauded Hitler for orchestrating his “economic miracle”.

The transportation and communications industries that were essential for war-making – but which were also domestically beneficial – also thrived. Good examples included the building of the Autobahn for rapid troop movement and the increased production of automobiles, including the affordable Volkswagen for the masses and the not-so-affordable Mercedes for the elite.

The provision of cheap mass-produced radios and plenty of entertainment (propaganda) that was overseen by Joseph Goebbels made sure that everybody would be able to hear the demagogues spout their Nazi propaganda demonizing non-Aryan foreigners, Jews and various anti-fascist leftists, such as trade unionists, socialists, liberals and subversive antiwar activists.

Little more than a decade earlier, in 1922, hyperinflation, joblessness and hunger had followed the fiasco of World War I. Then, just as the economy was recovering, the Wall Street Stock Market crash of 1929 sealed German democracy’s doom.

So, after Hitler was appointed to the Chancellorship in 1933, even many of the most ethical Germans were thankful for the war industry work, and they liked the state-sponsored (socialized) medical care, educational opportunities and the paid vacations of Hitler’s “Strength Through Joy” campaign, even though there was essentially no freedom of movement in the labor market.

‘Good German’ Christians

Until Hitler started occupying, colonizing and brutalizing other nations, things were going well for most obedient, white “Good German” Christians. Not so for non-Christians and other minorities who were suffering under the police-state jackboot of Prussian militarism.

“Good Germans” dutifully averted their eyes and closed their ears to keep from seeing the hateful anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia and other forms of discrimination that were happening all around them, including the aggressive building of concentration camps all over Germany and the occupied territories.

The Nazi concentration camps started in 1938 at Dachau. The scores of concentration camps that eventually dotted Germany’s military empire (especially occupied Poland) also provided a lot of work for Hitler’s obedient (and silenced) Volk, for each camp needed, in addition to the SS troops and Gestapo (who beat any resister into submission), numerous citizen-workers to keep them running smoothly.

The notorious extermination camp at Auschwitz employed 60 physicians and 300 nurses and many other ancillary staff members for just the medical facility, much of which was involved in human experimentation. Many of the people involved in those crimes against humanity were professed Christians.

The gulag of camps was good for the economy, though, for each of the camps was aligned with very profitable German corporations, whose bottom lines flourished with the cheap labor costs. The prison camps played a major role in Hitler’s economic boom. Germany’s Gross National Product grew substantially, for the labor was free and the food and lodging expenditures were minimal.

Auschwitz was located in Poland, far away from the eyes of most Germans back in the homeland. It was the most infamous of the camps, but the German occupiers of the newly acquired Polish territories knew what was going on inside. Still, most “Good Germans” averted their eyes and ears and noses. Most of them claimed that they were unaware that mass murder was happening on the other side of the electrified fences.

But it was a time of war and telling the truth in wartime is always a revolutionary act that requires a lot of courage. Witnessing to the truth in a time of war is also frequently regarded by military regimes as an act of treason. And so the Volk lied to themselves and to others.

Cognitive dissonance happened in Nazi Germany, although there was no such phrase back then that described the conscious or unconscious denial of and confusion about unwelcome new truths that contradicted deeply held beliefs. But the truth was obvious to all. Only one conclusion could be drawn from the 24/7 stench of burning flesh and the red smoke that came out of the crematorium’s tall stacks of each of the extermination camps.

After the total collapse of the militarists, financiers, investors and industrialists who had been behind Germany’s attempts to steal the resources of Europe and Asia (especially the oil fields of Eastern Europe and western Russia), more unwelcome truths were to be revealed. Among these revelations was the story of the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess (not to be confused with Rudolf Hess who was Hitler’s # 2 early in the Nazi regime).

Cruelty in Child-Rearing

The Rudolf Hoess, MD, of Auschwitz infamy was the son of a devout, well-to-do, conservative Roman Catholic family that had wanted him to go into the priesthood. But circumstances were such that he instead chose to serve Hitler in the thuggish Freikorps, that group of traumatized and unemployable World War I veterans who became his street fighters and mercenary soldiers and who believed the lie that leftists, especially Jews,  socialists and communists on the home front had “stabbed Germany in the back” and were the real cause of the humiliating defeat in the trenches on the Western Front.

Just like most men who grew up in authoritarian Europe, Hoess learned unconditional obedience to authority early in his life. Cruelty in child-rearing, especially in males, usually elicits the unconscious desire for vengeance, often only acted upon in a delayed fashion, frequently against a scapegoat rather than against the original perpetrator of the cruelty, which is usually an abusive parent-figure.

Harshness in child-rearing was the norm for most German and Austrian children for centuries prior to Hitler, whose regime also promoted punitive child-rearing methods. It makes for vicious, obedient Nazi soldiers or, for that matter, Special Forces soldiers in any country.

Such “parenting” was reinforced by the similarly harsh discipline that was often practiced in most German churches and schools – and not just in Catholic schools, but in secular schools as well. And so Hoess wrote the following explanation for his willingness to reflexively carry out the decidedly un-Christ-like – indeed, satanic – orders he received from his superiors:

“Above all, I was constantly reminded that I was to comply with, and follow, the wishes or commands of parents, teachers, priests, etc., indeed all grown-ups including the servants, and that I was to allow nothing to distract me from that duty. Whatever they said, went. These fundamental values of my upbringing became part of my flesh and blood.” [See Alice Miller’s Breaking Down the Wall of Silence.]

This is how military recruits in basic training internalize the killing arts. So it should come as no surprise when soldiers react automatically and violently in the war zone, obeying even illegal orders given in the kill-or-be-killed chaos of the battlefield. After the psychological trauma, humiliation and threats of punishment experienced in their child-rearing, school yards, mean streets or their basic training, soldiers can be relied upon to react automatically, even unconsciously, and do what they have been indoctrinated to do when their own physical survival is threatened.

Duty and honor; solemn oaths of allegiance to a flag (the Swastika or the Stars and Stripes); obedience to god and country; patriotism; nationalism; “America # 1” and “Deutschland Uber Alles” are common examples that will promote the blind patriotism that has driven the killing machines on all sides of every war throughout the entire history of warfare.

Internalizing such propaganda allowed Hoess to perform his gruesome “duties” at Auschwitz, without any obvious signs of remorse when he was later tried, convicted and hanged for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The baptized Lutheran Adolph Eichmann, a contemporary of Hoess’s, also reacted without remorse during his trial in Jerusalem long after the war, as did most of the other defendants at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial.

Consequences of Violence

Sadly, the soldier-victims (willing or unwilling) of chronic brainwashing (which can easily create robotic humans willing to inflict pain on others) learn much too late that being involved in state-sponsored terrorism, directly or indirectly, can also be lethal to their souls and psyches, not to mention the souls and psyches of their battlefield victims (and loved ones when they come home), all of whom are mostly innocent, unarmed and decidedly defenseless women and children.

The invisible spiritual wounds of the warrior can also be experienced by another group: the guilty bystander, who witnessed the violence and then may have stood silently by, doing nothing to stop it. The guilt felt later for not intervening (or feeling helpless to intervene) often becomes too much to bear, with the resultant depression, anxiety, anger, insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, drug use, homicidality and suicidality of combat-induced posttraumatic stress disorder symptom, often identical to that experienced by the guilty perpetrator.

One has to wonder what kind of Christianity is it that promotes harshness in parenting, racism, discriminatory attitudes toward the “enemy-other, and pro-war theologies. And what kind of Christianity remains silent about its country’s extrajudicial assassinations by drone warfare or the manufacturing, stockpiling, and training to use, the lethal weapons that are only intended for human destruction?

From where in the human soul comes the willingness to kill, torture and cooperate with the evils of state-sponsored homicide and economic oppression, irrespective of what militarized nation one lives in, fascist/capitalist Germany or “democratic”/capitalist America?

As Bob Dylan asks so poignantly in his classic antiwar song, “Blowin’ in the Wind”: “How many times must the cannonballs fly before they’re forever banned?” “How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?” “How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?” “How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?” “And how many times can a man turn his head pretending he just doesn’t see?”

The answers aren’t really mysteriously blowing in the wind. The answers to the questions about why there is an epidemic of violence instead of sustained peace are understandable and therefore preventable.

The solutions to the problems (and the prevention of the consequences) concerning both military and domestic violence lie in whether or not children and recruits are treated humanely (with unconditional love and mercy) or with brutality and/or neglect in their families, schools, churches, neighborhoods, workplaces and streets.

Gary G. Kohls, MD, is a founding member of Every Church A Peace Church (www.ecapc.org) and is a member of a local non-denominational affiliate of ECAPC, the Community of the Third Way.

18 comments for “Explaining the Unexplainable

  1. paschn
    December 8, 2012 at 16:26

    I can’t speak for all of you, but this discussion is getting way too serious! I’d say it’s time to inject a little levity;


    Gives an entirely new meaning to the term, “diamonds in the rough”.

  2. Bigfoot Lives
    December 3, 2012 at 22:25

    quote “…the top of that gate was this classic bit of Nazi propaganda, proclaimed to the millions of doomed incoming victims: “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes One Free).”

    I think it said that because it was a work camp, it was also unfortunately a “concentrated worker” camp, the author implies it was a concentration and elimination/processing/death camp.

    Bash Nazi propaganda while telling the sorry discredited Holocaust story again and again, that is how the spell is maintained.

    Ayn Rand on Collectivism:

    “Collectivism means the subjugation of the individual to a group—whether to a race, class or state does not matter. Collectivism holds that man must be chained to collective action and collective thought for the sake of what is called “the common good.” ”

    The Nazis were national socialists, a form of collectivism, under that system the individual has no rights, so Hitler like all statists, used the state to accomplish his goals, he blamed all Jews and rounded them up and put them in work camps, they became part of the state making items for the war machine.

    Hitler made the Jews slaves for his vision of the perfect state, just like all dictators he violated the rights of people for an ideal of perfection. He blamed all Jews for some Jews who were busy subverting Germany for their own ends. Netanyahu is doing exactly the same thing, he has a vision of a Palestinian free state and is using the state to accomplish his goals, a slow genocide and encroachment for a perfect state for Jews only.

    In fact many are saying Netanyahu is the new Hitler, the new Nazi. The shoe fits.

  3. Ben Franklin
    December 3, 2012 at 10:34

    Zionism is not Judaism, Sacha. Mebbe you should research the difference.

  4. Ben Franklin
    December 3, 2012 at 10:17

    You were doing fine until you threw Dylan in there. His Zionist affiliations are an effrontery to all those committed to peace outside the financial incentives for same. His new 4-cd “Chimes of Freedom” does nothing but provide more cache for Bibi Netanyahoo and his new Warsaw Ghetto in Gaza.

  5. Hillary
    December 2, 2012 at 19:48

    ” As a proponent of rational thought”

    Claims Mr. F. G. Sanford is a staunch believer in the 9/11 official fairy story.

    BTW ..immediately after the end of WWI & WWII millions of Germans were willfully “murdered” by enforced starvation by the victorious allies.

    Winston Churchill who was a Jew started WWII & called it “The Unnecessary War”

    Remember the slogan of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s “1984,”
    “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”


    BTW why does Spam Free WordPress rejected your comment because you did not enter the correct password or it was empty ?

  6. philohistoricus
    December 2, 2012 at 16:59

    It may also be worthy of note that the motto over the camp gate at Bucehnwald was “Recht oder unrecht mein vaterland”, that is “my country right or wrong” and yes Hitler got that (alon with eigenics) from the US, not the other wayt around.

    Nicholson Baker has compiled a remarkable book called “Human Smoke” in which the progression of errors and injustices -on all sides- led to World War II, chronicled in speeches, newsapper articles, etc of the decade before 1942.

    Regarding the commentaries on the “Holcaust” it is simply wrong to believe what happened was an exclusively Jewish catastrophe – Hitler considered Slavs equally “subhuman” and murdered at least five times more them, some 25 million innocent civilians in Poland, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere.

  7. Hillary
    December 2, 2012 at 13:18

    Why has Consortium removed my comment ?

    WWII was the unnecessary war as was well explained by Mr Pat Bucannan.

    Over 30,000,000 Russians over 20,000,000 Chinese and over 8,000,000 Poles died.

    BTW reference to “The gate to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz”


  8. Paul G.
    December 2, 2012 at 05:40

    I haven’t read her latest book, but I read “For your own good” a long time ago. I highly recommend her work for an intimate description of the processes the author is talking about. Through an extensive description of German child rearing books of the late 19th and early 20th century; Alice demonstrated the universality and effect of the harsh German parenting practices that were used on the generation that made up the Third Reich

  9. Otto Schiff
    December 2, 2012 at 01:24

    The belt buckle of the German army soldier has the inscription
    Gott mit uns (God with us).
    The misuse of the God idea is universal.
    Think of the crusades, the Spanih inquisition etc.

    • paschn
      December 7, 2012 at 08:02

      Or the ever present, phoney “In God We Trust” (used on the FED RES USURY based currency), and “God Bless AmeriKa” (sic), while we slaughter the world.

  10. MikeH
    December 2, 2012 at 00:27

    I think a major part of the problem comes from within Christianity itself, and from the Bible.

    First, I think that at least one of what are known as the “Ten Commandments”, namely the commandment to “honor your father and mother”, is wrong. (And yes the Bible was written by fallible human beings, and exhibits human fallibility and human prejudice just like anything else that has ever been written.) The commandment is unconditional and makes no exceptions if one’s parents are abusive or are otherwise unworthy or undeserving of honor.

    An abused child (or an adult who suffered abuse as a child) is not going to understand any fine points as to what honoring one’s parents “really” means. Alice Miller in her writings implicates the commandment. A child like Rudolf Hoess, after being taught to unquestioningly honor and obey his parents, will later unquestioningly obey the authorities who require him to run the concentration camps.

    It is very unfortunate that the commandment to “honor your father and mother” has become one of what are known as the “Ten Commandments” which are attributed to God and which have become central to Judeo-Christian and Western traditional morality.

    If anything there should be a commandment to parents to treat their children with dignity and respect, that they (the children) might come to treat themselves and others with dignity and respect.

    And I think that any good or competent parent, or any parent with any self-respect, does not need the backing of a commandment from God. A good parent would not ever want to suggest to his or her children that an affront to one’s parents is an affront to God. A good parent would always be willing to seriously consider the possibility that he/she might be wrong, and if the parent is upset or offended at something the child says or does, it might as likely be a problem with the parent as with the child.

    And another problem is with the Christian idea of hell. According to Protestant fundamentalist Christian belief, a person can be “saved” and go to heaven by “accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior”, and only by doing so, and only in this lifetime. Otherwise the person is condemned to an eternity in hell. Too bad for those who miss their chance in this lifetime, for whatever reason, to “accept Jesus Christ”. And too bad for those who happen to guess wrong by adhering to a religion other than Christianity. And too bad for a murder victim who happens to be “unsaved”; however if the murderer later “repents” and “accepts Christ”, the murderer is let into heaven.

    And even if one “accepts Christ” for oneself and is “saved”, one is always burdened by the awful thought that OTHERS are condemned to hell if they do not come to “accept Christ” in this lifetime, and one has the grim and awful duty to tell others about Christ with that thought on the back of one’s mind and motivated by that concern.

    There is really no psychological difference between a fundamentalist Christian uncritically and unquestioningly accepting the Bible as the “infallible and inerrant Word of God”, and believing the above as a result, and a “good German” in the 1930’s uncritically going along with Hitler.

    • F. G. Sanford
      December 2, 2012 at 01:39

      BRAVO! I am always amazed by the number of attempts, always in the end lacking, there have been to explain Hitler and Nazism. Kershaw calls him an “unperson”, Rosenberg the “psychopathic god”, and Machtan posits the idea that he was a homosexual. The idea that he was an “empty vessel” animated by evil contents is laughable. After all, how often does history produce a mediocre non-entity whose phenomenon results in the blind obedience of seventy million people? None of these explanations is adequate. Your comment gets closer to the truth than most of the esteemed chroniclers and pundits. Though often criticized, the first analyst to attempt to unravel the mystery came closer than most of his successors. H. R. Trevor-Roper called him “messianic”, stating, “The power of the Fuehrer was a magic power, and no hand might reach out to touch it until the reigning priest was really dead.” Thousands of first-hand accounts testify to the “hypnotic gaze”, the “mesmeric power”, the “light behind the eyes”, and so on, ad nauseam. He was first and foremost a religious figure, and his movement can only be understood in religious terms. The destruction he wrought was Biblical in scope and proportion. The language he used to inspire it was often lifted directly from scriptural depictions of all that “smiting” so notoriously depicted in the Old Testament. One of his favorite words was “annihilate”, in the biblical sense. He was fond of reminding that his, “Savior was most glorious as a warrior, not as a pacifist”, recounting the cleansing of the temple with a whip in hand. In a nutshell, that old saying hits the nail on the head: “It’s easy to get bad people to do bad things. But if you want to get good people to do bad things, it takes religion.” The “Christian Right” confirms that observation on a regular basis. As a proponent of rational thought, I reject the idea of resurrection. But if it were possible, I suspect that contemporary encounters with all our cherished religious figures would produce similar depictions: mesmeric, hypnotic, and removed from their historical context, sublimely evil.

  11. Otto Schiff
    December 1, 2012 at 22:09

    Holocaust is a bad name for the mass murder that took place.
    Regardless of Finkelstein et al, The Nazis committed mass murder.
    My best friend, Franz Gumpert was murdered in Mauthausen at age 21.
    An uncle Carl Hessdoerffer was gassed in Auschwiz. The Germans have
    many records of these murders in Bad Arolsen.
    Holocaust denioers are nitpicking idiots lacking basic humanity..

  12. Otto Schiff
    December 1, 2012 at 20:35

    One of the first things Goebbels did was to promote the “Volksempfaenger”,
    Peoples receiver, to spread the Nazi philosophy.
    We have Fox News and Rush Limgough to promote their right wing stuff.

    • F. G. Sanford
      December 1, 2012 at 21:29

      Otto, funny you should mention that. I actually own a functioning DKE-38, which they sarcastically referred to as “Goebbel’s Snout” back in the day. I have often thought about doing a youtube video, tuning the radio to Limbaugh, Hannity or Savage, and slowly zooming in on the little eagle and swastika logo. We’ve become so brainwashed, I’m not sure people would understand the satire.

      • Hans Boeker
        December 3, 2012 at 23:53

        I think the person you are adressing here will find it increasingly difficult to “emigrate to your beloved middl-eastern oil paradise in the sand”, because that illegally growing state called Israel appears to be intent on “eliminating” the local non-jewish people and occupying their lands. Why couldn’t Israel be satisfied with was allocated to them by the UN partition plan, which by the way neglected to ask the residents of Palestine what their thoughts were?
        The rest of the world should “tell” Israel once and for all, what they can claim as Israel, as envisaged by the partition plan and make Istael withdraw from all other areas totally. To suggest that the Palestinians must negotiate with their occupier is absoluteley ridiculous; its suggesting that the victims of the Nazi occupation should have negotiated with their occupier. Are you serious?

        • paschn
          December 7, 2012 at 07:56

          Good call. One could make the same comparison with the U.S. colonies “fortunate” enough to have “our boys” deciding what type of Banking system/political affiliations and “benevolent” corporations they will happily “give” to said corporations.

  13. F. G. Sanford
    December 1, 2012 at 18:42

    It’s simple. The boiled frog analogy explains the whole thing. Are not our Bill of Rights protections slowly evaporating in the same manner? All that’s required is that the heat increases at the necessarily imperceptible gradient.

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