How did otherwise honest, decent, Christian and well-intentioned Germans allow political leaders, who were supported by a minority of the electorate, to do what was done in Germany during the years 1930 through 1945? That is a question that has bedeviled historians, theologians and philosophers for the last 80 years.
It is the same question that we, as Americans, should be asking ourselves today. The phrase that came into existence to describe what occurred is known as: “The Good Germans.” Are we in America moving toward becoming known as “Good Americans”?
The German people have a proud, illustrious history. Germany was one of the more powerful nations in the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its people were highly motivated, extremely nationalistic, hard-working and patriotic.
For centuries, both before and after the Lutheran revolution, Germans considered themselves Christians and adhered to Christian theology. Unfortunately, at the conclusion of World War I, the Allies imposed punitive sanctions on Germany and its people. Territory over which France and Germany had feuded for decades was returned to France. Germany viewed its borders as having been weakened, and the severe economic punishments imposed on the country soon reduced the standard of living for many Germans.
In 1924, a group of people formed a party with the goal of restoring Germany to its pre-World War I glory. That year, the party received 6.5 percent of the popular vote. By 1928, support for the party had dropped to 2.6 percent. In 1929, the world changed, and Germany changed with it. Wall Street crashed. German unemployment rose dramatically.
By 1930, the same party that two years earlier had received only 2.6 percent of the popular vote now claimed 18.3 percent. In 1933, by combining the “unfairness” of the Allied-imposed sanctions with the nationalistic tendencies of the German people, that same party was able to earn 37.3 percent of the popular vote. Although it never earned support of more than 50 percent of the German population, it effectively controlled the German legislature.
Once in control of the levers of power, the party with a minority of the popular vote enacted laws that allowed it to engage in conduct that was legal but morally reprehensible and inhumane. Here are a few of the laws that were passed:
1. In April 1932, the German legislature passed the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service; it excluded non-Aryans from the legal profession and civil service.
2. In July 1933, the legislature passed the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring. This law called for the compulsory sterilization of people with a range of hereditary, physical and mental illnesses.
3. In July 1933, laws were passed that stripped naturalized German Jews of their citizenship, creating a legal basis for recent immigrants (particularly Eastern European Jews) to be deported.
4. In 1935, the legislation was passed that became known as the Nuremberg Laws. There was the “Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour.” It forbade marriages and extramarital intercourse between Jews and Germans. The Nuremberg Laws also prohibited the employment of German females under 45 years of age in Jewish households. The Reich Citizenship Law that was passed declared that only those of German or related blood were eligible to be Reich citizens. Those German citizens who were not of German blood were classified as state subjects, without citizenship rights.
5. In 1935, a supplementary decree was passed that outlined the definition of who was Jewish.
6. In November 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were expanded to include Romani people — known at the time as “Gypsies” — and black people. This supplementary decree defined Romanis as “enemies of the race-based state,” the same category as Jews.
7. The Law against Dangerous Habitual Criminals, passed in November 1935, was used to incarcerate in prison or concentration camps “social misfits” such as the chronically unemployed, prostitutes, beggars, alcoholics, homeless vagrants and the Romani.
The ostensible purpose for the German laws was to enable the people in power to characterize their actions as “legal.” It allowed the party in power to represent that its conduct was within the letter of the law, thereby lending an air of both legality and acceptability to what was being done. It is beyond dispute that the German leaders who caused these inhumane laws to be created were violating the most fundamental human rights.
By one definition, a “Good German” is defined as someone who turns a blind eye to criminal atrocities committed by the government. It includes needless war, lying to the public, stripping civil rights, ignoring laws held to keep the government in check and disrespecting the general populace. Another, slightly different definition, describes a Good German as a citizen of Nazi Germany who participated in or overlooked atrocities while denying personal moral responsibility because the actions done by the government were permitted by law.
Being a Good German meant going along without objection. It meant turning a deaf ear to political leaders who repeatedly lied and a blind eye to actions that were clearly inhumane. What made the Good Germans so susceptible to believing lying politicians who blamed immigrants, Jews and the less fortunate in their midst for the economic and social problems that Germany was facing? Volumes have been written about the fears and anxieties that caused otherwise honest, decent Germans to abandon their long-held Christian values of compassion, decency and charity. While volumes have been written about the various causes the Good Germans have never come up with a definitive answer.
Given current events, a case could be made that America is at a crossroads similar to that experienced by Germany after World War I. For that reason it is appropriate that we, as Americans, ask ourselves the following: Are we as Americans falling prey to facts and circumstances that are turning us into “Good Americans”?
Recent events suggest that many Americans are turning away from the values that actually made America great. As a result, the phrase “Good Americans” may soon come to replace the phrase “Good Germans.” For example, are we turning a deaf ear to the repeated lies that are being disseminated by those in power? According to the accounts of virtually every person or entity that has analyzed the subject, the current occupant of the White House has lied to the American electorate more than 3,000 times in the first 466 days in office. Turning a deaf ear to that many lies is the first step in becoming a “Good American.”
Another step is using current immigration laws to arrest, incarcerate and deport members of our society who have lived in our country, paid taxes, respected our laws and raised families for decades on the grounds that the laws “require” such action to be taken. The Good Germans tumbled to that siren song in the 1930s and used it to justify otherwise despicable, inhuman behavior.
We may have laws that permit our government to do what it is doing, but that does not make the actions “right,” nor does its justify them. A “Good American” is found among those who say things like: “I like the president’s policies but don’t like how he goes about communicating them or announcing his views.” Put more colloquially, “I wish he would stop tweeting.”
If we want to avoid becoming known as “Good Americans,” we need to recognize and resist. Recognize that there is such a thing as truth and that democracy’s foundation is premised on the existence of certain, immutable truths. Recognize that any leader who is incapable of distinguishing truth from prevarication is a significant threat to our democracy. We also need to recognize, resist and defeat at the ballot box any candidate who lacks the courage to confront those who would deliberately promulgate false facts.
By failing to confront the liars we enable them. Enabling leaders who are chronic liars encourages the liars to continue to lie. False statements that are continuously repeated take on an appearance of truth. That is what chronic liars are attempting to achieve. Repeated misstatements and untruths tear at the fabric of our democracy and are normalized by civic and political leaders who look the other way instead of having the courage to confront those in power who threaten our democracy.
If we don’t want to become known as “Good Americans,” it is essential that we resist every effort by those who would aggrandize themselves at the expense of the values that made America Great.
Joseph W. Anthony is an attorney in Minneapolis.