Are people who do evil things inherently evil? It’s a question my life experience has often driven me to explore. Not only because the ugliness I’ve witnessed, and experienced firsthand. But also for another reason...I’m one quarter German.
From the time I was little, I grew up with the knowledge that a great many of the things that made me and my family special were a result of my German heritage. My mother’s tendency to use German exclamations for emphasis. The unique holiday traditions that were the legacy of my mother’s long-lapsed Lutheran upbringing. The duck-like feet that seemed built for Birkenstocks.
By the time I was school age, awareness of my German identity was well ingrained, the benefit of which I never questioned. But then, in school, we learned about World War II. About the Holocaust. Now my German identity didn’t seem quite so special. And I wondered, what did it mean? Was there some part of this horrible ugliness that resided somewhere inside of me?
In a child’s world, good and evil are polarized, very clear cut, and often represented as intrinsic. Villains in children’s books and programs are evil through and through; their minions never waver. Evil is evil. Good is good, and never the twain shall meet. If the Germans were evil, and I was German, what did that make me? It troubled me greatly.
It took me a long time to fully reconcile myself to the idea that the Germany that perpetrated the Holocaust was also the Germany of my ancestors. Although I comforted myself with the thought that they had left long before these horrible atrocities happened, that never fully satisfied. Was evil intrinsic, or wasn’t it? Was there something in the basic building blocks of the makeup of the German people of that time that could also have been present in those who left earlier?
I began to play a little game with myself. What would my family have been like had they NOT left Germany? Would they have, like so many, been deceived by Hitler’s Nazi regime? Or would they have been the courageous lone dissenters in a crowd? I hoped so. Soon, I began to imagine myself in such a situation. What would I have done? How much of the environment of hate and fear would have influenced me, a child in a world of adults?
This question haunted me for much of my life, but was never fully resolved. A few weeks ago, browsing in a bookstore, I came across a book that brought this old speculation roaring back to life. The book, On Hitler’s Mountain: Overcoming the Legacy of a Nazi Childhood, by Irmgard A. Hunt, was the story of a little girl who grew up in the shadow of the Third Reich. She was the girl I always feared I might have been, who grew up the daughter of an “average, law abiding, middle-class German who helped sweep Hitler to power and then supported him to the end.” I knew I had to read it.
The personal impact of the story hit me quickly, as the author described an early experience:
“Three of the four Dehmel girls were always part of the group of neighborhood children that played together in the park. The fourth girl had an illness of some kind and never came outside to play…White-blond Hildegard, the youngest of the three sisters who played with us, was a somewhat peculiar-looking, slow child with very small eyes and seemingly little response to the world around her. Her two older sisters, Else and Gisela, were incredibly patient with Hildegard and carefully helped her get through a fence or sat her down on a lump of grass or moss so that she could see us while she gently rocked her body back and forth.
One afternoon…Tante Susi and my mother talked quietly with serious, worried faces. I loved to listen to grown-up gossip and moved closer to hear what the women were saying. ‘One of the Dehmel children, the mongoloid one who’s never outside, was picked up by the Health Service a few weeks ago, and now they’ve said she’s dead from a cold,’ said my mother. Tante Susi with her pretty bobbed haircut shook her head. ‘That child was retarded worse than Hildegard,’ she mused, adding after a moment, ‘Well, that’s probably true, her dying from a cold, I mean.’”
The reality, of course, was much more disturbing. Hitler’s program for euthanizing the disabled was now in full swing. The Dehmels, the author explained, never questioned the death of their child, although they must have suspected. “With deep silence, cunning, and determination” she wrote, they succeeded in hiding Hildegard. “They did not send her to school, use public health services, or do anything else that might bring her to the authorities’ attention. The fear of having their child killed by the Nazis for her defect far outweighed the risk they took by not having her inoculated or ever visit a doctor.”
All these years, I’d worried I could have been someone like Irmgard; but now two more sinister possibilities emerge. I could have been Hildegard. Or her sister. It’s a reality that’s danced around the edges of my consciousness, unacknowledged, since learning about my place on the spectrum…and this makes it all too clear. But why would the adults dismiss the implications of this news of a “killer cold” so easily? How could they stand by and do nothing as children were murdered?
Irmgard’s mother, she speculated, did not want to “believe or face” the reality of what was happening, and “would have convinced herself that Hitler himself would not condone such murder.” None of the adults, she wrote, the girl’s parents included, had the “moral courage to voice their suspicions openly,” attributing this to “fear of Nazi retribution, and the wish to be left alone.” It’s a situation we see all too often in daily life – the desire to avoid trouble. When does this all too common desire shade into complicity? What should they have known? When should they have acted?
Strangely enough, this makes me think about my father, my experiences with bullying, and what he taught me about human nature as a result of it. My father had a unique perspective on bullying. While he too had been bullied in the same way, in the same community, he also had memories of being a bully. So, when I asked the question that the parent of every bullied child dreads, “Why?” He was uniquely positioned to answer. He answered with a story.
Back when my father and I had lived on the west coast, there was only one member of his family that lived nearby…his younger brother. My uncle was friendly and jolly, and seemed to like me very much. My father and he seemed very close, but there was a history there that I had no idea about.
If you looked at them side by side, they didn’t look that much alike. Like me, my father had medium brown hair and blue eyes. My uncle, on the other hand, had kinky curly black hair and very dark eyes. These were differences I never remarked upon. My father and his brothers, it seemed, were not quite so oblivious. When they were children, they were cruel to my uncle, and taunted him for being different.
When confronted about his differences, my Grandmother was evasive, and insisted that they were all the same. But somehow, someway, my uncle knew different. One day, during a visit out west after my father and uncle were both grown, she admitted the truth. My uncle had a different father…and his father was of another race. My uncle was biracial.
The news sent shockwaves through the family. My uncle, understandably, was angry. Angry at the years in which his identity, made so clear to him by the treatment of others, was denied. My father, on the other hand, was dealing with identity issues of his own. His poor treatment of his brother had never sat well with him, but how common is it that older brothers taunt their annoying little brothers?
Now, of course, he had to face the fact that the traits for which he taunted him, were traits related to his racial differences. So how much of the tension was typical, and how much of it was race? And if it was race, what did that make him? And how did he reconcile the fact one of his cherished childhood role models was an African American man? He'd seen himself as "one of the good ones," but now he wasn't so sure.
Given the environment in which he grew up, in which family legend had it that my Grandmother’s interracial dating was brought to an abrupt end by a group of guys with guns, it’s not surprising that my father and his brothers unconsciously picked up on the racist attitudes of the time. When he was aware of racial differences, he also became consciously aware of these attitudes and fought them. But when taken unawares, as with my uncle, the prejudices had made themselves known.
The moral of his story? People are often afraid of differences they don’t understand. Sometimes prejudice can hide in plain sight, practiced most painfully by the people most close to you. Who have may have no idea that they are perpetuating it, or why. But when people become aware, or choose to be aware, things change in a profound way.
In my life, I’ve run into this dynamic over and over. One of the biggest barriers to inclusion I encounter is often not outright hate, but indifference and unawareness. Ironically, sometimes that indifference and unawareness comes from the people who are most convinced of their virtue. After all, only “bad people” do evil, right?
One of my most wrenching memories of the time that I was bullied, was the moment when my father looked at me, filled with utter pain. “I’m sorry.” He said. “I knew what it was like…but I forgot. I forgot how bad it was. I thought things would have changed.” It’s not surprising he would think this – people are supposed to progress, get better, right? Well, only if they want to.
It was once said that all that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing. All it takes for an atrocity to occur, is for the good people to look the other way, to live in denial, or to see only what they want to see. For every overtly evil person like Hitler, there are thousands of others who can make a difference if they make the right choice. A choice to stand. A choice to listen. A choice to speak. A choice to open their minds. A choice to see. Most of all, the choice to see themselves as they are; whatever that may mean.
On Implicit Bias: When Prejudice Hides in Plain Sight
It is really hard to change what you do not acknowledge. A lot of us think that we are “one of the good ones,” and rather than doing our own work we sit and point at the other people who need to change, who need to be fixed. The closed minded people, the bigots.
But that leaves much work undone.
Recent research on children’s implicit or indirect biases has also shown that early biases may exist prior to the preschool period. Further, there appear to exist biases of which children may not be consciously aware, which develop early in life and generally do not decline with age. These biases may be related to features within the child’s cultural milieu.
We all have implicit biases. The key is whether we act on them. While our internal biases are automatic, honestly understanding them can help control and moderate our interactions. We can make a deliberate choice to suspend the judgement we’re biased to make.
If people are aware of their hidden biases, they can monitor and attempt to ameliorate hidden attitudes before they are expressed through behavior. This compensation can include attention to language, body language and to the stigmatization felt by target groups.
The Nazi Euthanasia Program
In May 1939, seventy-two years ago this month, the Nazi Committee for theScientific Treatment of Severe, Genetically Determined Illness was established in Germany to undertake the massive secret killing, first of infants, then later older children and adults with disabilities. Initially the killings focused on children with physical disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, larger or smaller than typical head size or atypically developed arms and hands or legs and feet, or misshapen spinal column. Later, the Nazi doctors in charge of deciding who would be killed, began including any child with a mental disability, which in all probability would have included most children with autism and intellectual disability.