Friday, June 8, 2012

Nazi Germany’s Example and the Future of America (Part 4): Arthur Nebe Vs John Yoo

Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler’s favorite architect and later Armaments Minister during World War Two, has often been described as “The Good Nazi” because he was intelligent, charming, was not directly involved in any of the genocidal policies of the regime and actually tried to save Germany from Hitler’s insane destruction orders issued while the Russian tanks were closing in on the Fuhrerbunker in the spring of 1945. Speer’s biography makes for fascinating reading because it is pretty obvious that had he been born 30 years later he no doubt would have become one of Germany’s leading lights instead of ending up a convicted war criminal serving two decades of his life in Spandau prison.

Speer’s example begs a question: is it advisable for someone who retains at least some sense of ethics and humanity, but serves a regime hell bent on destruction, to remain in power believing that if they resign whoever takes their place will be worse? Or does it really not matter either way? Speer himself, while there is no evidence of his direct complicity in the Holocaust, did give orders as Armaments Minister that resulted in the horrific torture, abuse and deaths of many slave laborers the Nazis were forced to use to keep the war machine running in the desperate days after the Battle of Stalingrad.

For purposes of this discussion, however, I would like to focus on a German official who was actually a bit farther down the food chain. SS Gruppenfuhrer Arhur Nebe is another fascinating case of a man, unlike many of the notorious thugs who served the Nazi regime, who had he lived at a different time would have likely borne a far more positive posthumous reputation than that of a mass murderer. Nebe was a professional law enforcement officer, and he was good enough at it that he was installed as Berlin Police Commissioner in 1924 when he was just 30 years old.

Tragically for Nebe, he joined the Nazi party and Heinrich Himmler’s SS in 1931, two years before Hitler even came to power. One might have inferred from his not having been a “March Violet” (those who joined the Nazi Party immediately after Hitler’s ascension to power) Nebe was an ardent National Socialist and vicious anti-Semite, but he in fact seems to have been motivated more by career enhancement than any inherent malevolence. At any rate, Nebe started to sour on the new regime as early as late 1933 after he was ordered to liquidate Gregor Strasser, Hitler’s rival for power within the party as the head of its “Socialist” wing.

At that moment in time, Nebe had a choice to make: resign from his post in protest or continue to work within the system. He fatefully chose the latter option, and by 1941 found himself serving as the commander of one of the SS’s notorious Einsatzgruppen units on the Eastern front in Belorussia, directly carrying out mass exterminations of Jews, communists and other “asocial elements.” Even more appallingly, Nebe’s unit was among the first to experiment with the use of poison gas to exterminate prisoners, a tactic which helped greatly inflate the final body count of the Holocaust.

However horrified Nebe may have been at performing this duty, and there is evidence that he actually attempted to reduce the total number of killings by his own men, by the time he returned from the East to become the President of Interpol in 1942 his hands were indelibly stained with the blood of his many victims. Nevertheless, Nebe subsequently joined in the conspiracies against Hitler, and was part of the plot to assassinate the Fuhrer in July 1944. Shortly after the failed attempt on Hitler's life he was arrested and eventually executed in March 1945 as the war was drawing to its conclusion.

So what does Nebe’s example mean for those of us who are concerned about the direction in which America appears to be headed as a nation? Nebe was born and raised in Imperial Germany, and began his career as a police officer during the Weimar Republic. There is nothing in his early history to indicate that he would so flagrantly depart from the ethics of his chosen profession under the Nazi regime. Yet despite his growing private opposition to Hitler, he countenanced ever more flagrant abuses of power until such time as he himself became complicit in committing history’s most notorious genocide.

Now compare Nebe’s example to that of John Yoo, who while working in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel from 2001-2003, according to Wikipedia:
...played an important role in developing a legal justification for the Bush administration's policy in the war on terrorism, arguing that prisoner of war status under the Geneva Conventions does not apply to "enemy combatants" captured during the war in Afghanistan and held at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, asserting executive authority to undertake waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques" regarded as torture by the current Justice Department. Yoo also argued that the president was not bound by the War Crimes Act and provided a legal opinion backing the Bush Administration's warrantless wiretapping program.
In fairness to Yoo, he is not the only attorney who has given such advice to presidents in the wake of 9/11. Even today, lawyers for the Obama administration have been providing the legal cover for his drone missile bombing and assassination campaigns. Yoo and the others are highly educated Americans, among the best and brightest one might say, who graduated from our top universities and law schools. And yet, in their quest to have a seat at the table in the inner sanctum of power they have been perfectly willing to cast aside any notions of professional ethics or even basic human decency. How many of them have qualms about what they are doing, but justify it based on the idea that if they don’t do it somebody else will? We may never know.

Of course, it is a huge leap from authoring Bush’s notorious “torture memo” to actually becoming the commander of a death squad as Nebe did. As I pointed out in my previous essays on this subject, however, the Holocaust didn’t happen overnight, but was a nearly decade long decision making process in which the repression against the Jewish population of Europe worsened along with the larger political tensions and then the widening of the world war. When one has started down the road of considering that a “leader,” be they a president or a dictator, has the legal right to indefinitely detain, torture or kill anyone who is perceived as a “threat,” one has created the conditions that make possible a gradual increase in the repression of the general population. In Nazi Germany, the terror eventually turned on its own (non-Jewish) citizens as it become obvious that the war was lost. There is no reason to believe something similar will not happen on our own shores as the economic crisis generated by peak oil and resource depletion continues to worsen and it becomes plainly apparent that our “way of life” is not only negotiable, but completely unsustainable.

How many Arthur Nebes and Albert Speers do we have living in America today, who will keep the faith in what they are doing long past the point when it should be obvious that the regime they serve is increasingly becoming out of control? There is no way to know for sure, but I would bet that such men (and women) are more the rule than the exception.

Previous: Nazi Germany’s Example and the Future of America (Part 3): The Hologram Vs. The Propaganda Ministry

Nazi Germany’s Example and the Future of America (Part 2)

Nazi Germany’s Example and the Future of America (Part 1)

Bonus: "Don't be stupid, be a smarty...come and join the Nazi Party"


  1. "Yoo and the others are highly educated Americans, among the best and brightest one might say, who graduated from our top universities and law schools. And yet, in their quest to have a seat at the table in the inner sanctum of power they have been perfectly willing to cast aside any notions of professional ethics or even basic human decency."

    I think the pathological ambition and ruthless opportunism you describe Bill is a big part of what made these folks into our alleged "best and brightest" in the first place. In more stable times, we would dismiss them as annoying yet largely harmless yuppies. During cataclysmic times, they have the potential to inflict great damage. But they won't admit they did anything wrong until they're sitting in the dock, like Speer, facing the noose. (And he should have been executed, btw.)

    I think there are many disturbing parallels to be drawn between the contemporary USA and pre-WWII Germany. And given that pathological ambition and ruthless opportunism are actually admired qualities here, and our society is arguably even more disjointed and dysfunctional than Germany's, we may be headed for an even greater Gotterdammerung.

    Great post.

  2. Good post, Bill.

    Another thing that I think contributed to Speer escaping the hangman was his remorse and acceptance of responsibility on the witness stand. None of the others did this, but rather arrogantly stated a belief in the rightness of their actions, or tried to blame others and saying they had no choice. Göring tied his own noose, so to speak, with his big mouth arguing with the prosecutors.