Monday, July 17, 2017

Moral Demands

I seem to have been reading Nikolaus Wachsmann's KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps for an awfully long time, yet I've still got well over a hundred pages left, despite the fact that it's been my exclusive reading now for a few weeks. I don't feel any desire to speed up though, or the slightest bit of boredom with the book. Far from it. It remains utterly compelling. Almost every page tells you something unexpected, or sheds awkward light on aspects of human behaviour that demands shedding. I suppose it might be fairly said to illuminate a frightening darkness also.

Yesterday I found myself reading about the strange fact, supported as always by shedloads of evidence, that there was a clear contrast between the behaviour of German civilians towards those camp inmates they came into contact with in the later stages of the war and the behaviour of civilians in other Nazi-occupied European nations, like France. Put simply, German civilians behaved for the most part with cold indifference towards the suffering they encountered whereas the ordinary peoples of other nations showed a much greater degree of empathy and genuine concern.

Wachsmann suggests various factors that contributed to the contrast, taking it for granted, of course, that this had nothing to do with some form of innate 'German-ness' involving a fundamental lack of humanity. He suggests that the years of virulent Nazi propaganda having had a dreadful effect on the way ordinary Germans perceived those imprisoned as a key factor, and it's easy to see how this is likely to have been the case.

This reinforces for me something that has come to figure large in my thinking in recent years. I'm convinced that what might be termed a nation's ethical climate is a very real thing and that we neglect the notion at our peril, since we inevitably all contribute to that climate. It seems to me fundamentally mistaken if not downright dangerous to see ourselves as powerless. I'm becoming more and more convinced that we have a moral duty to contribute to that climate positively, because if we don't we run the risk of becoming as complicit in wrong-doing as any citizen of Germany in those awful times who passively accepted the evils of the Nazi regime.

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