Did the Nazis have a conscience?

… the existence of a universal human conscience may be demonstrated even on a more elementary level, namely in the vilification of other humans, a practice that has undergone little or no change at all since the beginnings of human history up to the present day.

At first glance this seems to be more than just a paradox – it seems a contradiction. But we have to ask ourselves why to this day nothing is so widespread as the pejorative and sometimes downright destructive marking of the members of foreign clans, tribes, peoples or nations as non-humans, subhumans, monsters, brutes, barbarians, criminals, beasts etc.?

In my view, only one conclusion does justice to this universal fact of human behavior. At all times, people were perfectly aware that they should act humanely, justly, understandingly towards their peers – often even under the imperative of sacrificing themselves for their fellow tribesmen, as these were thought to be identical to oneself. But for this very reason, it was necessary to declare those whom one wanted to harm, to take advantage of or to fight, to be radically different from one’s own group, that is to consider them as non-humans, brutes or alien beings – as the Nazis said of their Jewish countrymen. Before the beginning of any war of annihilation (in contrast to ritualized tournaments) enemies were first of all reduced to aliens of a radically different kind, so that the cruelties and crimes committed against them no longer counted as such, for they were not exercised against real men or fully-fledged people. This elementary and globally spread behavior testifies to the existence of a universal conscience as much as it shows the ease with which people are able to outsmart and override it.

This was true until yesterday, when the Nazis declared fellow citizens of Jewish origin to be subhuman, and it will also apply in the future, whenever a group, a government or individuals deny others the quality of being their fellows, reducing them instead to the status of outlaws. It is simply not true that the Nazis did not know what they were doing. Precisely because they knew so perfectly well, they created the greatest propaganda apparatus of their time for the only purpose of declaring a part of the German population to be distinct from real humans. Heinrich Himmler’s horrible word about the “decency” of SS members though their hands were dripping with blood proves the necessity of justifying the mass murder as much to oneself as to others. Every German was well aware what decency normally meant and implied, so a new definition had to be found that suited the killers.

The Nazis sought this justification until the end of their reign. Without their insidious, relentless propaganda, the ordinary citizen would hardly have understood why the Jewish neighbor, whom he greeted daily, whom he personally valued as a doctor or who perhaps even belonged to his circle of friends, should in truth be a man with a hidden diabolical intent: a danger to the community. He did not know that the Nazis were in  need of such an enemy as people are most safely controlled when they are welded together by hatred. When Hermann Rauschning asked Hitler whether he believed that the Jew had to be destroyed, the latter replied: „No, we should have then to invent him. It is essential to have a tangible enemy, not just an abstract one.“ As we know, after the Wannsee Conference he reneged on that stance.

At the end of the war, the judges of the Nuremberg Trials, where the greatest Nazi criminals were brought to justice, only told the Germans what these had known all along, for those judges merely embodied the common conscience that had been temporarily suspended. Undoubtedly, it would have been better if there had been an international court of justice that avoided the easy suspicion that this was but a revenge taken by the victors on their defeated victims. But in the absence of such an institution, even the victor’s justice was both justified and welcome. All the more reason do we have to complain, that by far the greatest number of all historical crimes has never been atoned for. Looking at the number of their victims, Stalin and Mao killed many more of their fellow citizens than the Nazis, but no court has ever called them to account. On the contrary, both Russia and China are now trying to rewrite history in their own way. It was Hannah Arendt who let the true, universal conscience have its say when she put left- and right-wing totalitarianism on the same level.

This is an excerpt from my as yet unpublished book: „Auf der Suche nach Sinn und Ziel der Geschichte – Leben in der Ära der Streitenden Reiche“. English version currently still available on the net ( “In Search of Meaning and Purpose in History„)