We can all agree, I would suggest, that the Nazis were a bad lot.
We probably can’t all agree that contrition, repentance, forgiveness, if sincere, could or should be part of our view of WW2. I’m referring to the side who lost, of course.
So, along comes Erich Priebke, challenging us more in death than in life, it seems. How do you dispose of a dead Nazi? There is a fascinating obituary in the Economist on Priebke, well worth reading. However, it’s in the online comments that there is a real gem, from “A. Andros”.
All the comments are of interest, but this one I quote in full:
I remember that Sam Donaldson interview and was surprised that Priebke was so nonchalant. Perhaps he thought that fifty years had mellowed the world. Turns out he was wrong.
Priebke was far from the worst. There were those who were able to escape becoming mass murderers by simply saying “No.” (See Christopher Browning’s “Ordinary Men” for an account of this.) They killed anyway. Priebke, on the other hand, seems to have genuinely feared for his life if he did not “just obey orders.” Few of us will lament his passing — but then few of us were ever told, “It is you or him — kill or we kill you.” And . . . do we know what we would say in that case? I am sure I do not know!
A Lancaster pilot dropping six or ten tons of bombs from a dark sky over Hamburg or Berlin easily may have killed as many as Priebke and his victims, as well, might have been innocent children. In fact, give the changed demography of German cities during the war due to the enlistment of nearly all young men it is nearly a cinch that the victims were children — or women.
A Russian sub commander put a torpedo into a German passenger ship relocating Prussian refugees in 1945 — and drowned six or seven thousand civilians, mostly women and children. American B-29 pilots incinerated 85,000 residents of Tokyo in a single raid in March of 1945. And, virtually any honest account of WW II mentions executions of captured personnel — especially in the Pacific Theater — by the Allies.
Was there no difference, then, between the two sides from a moral standpoint? Like hell there was no difference! There was all the difference in the world in terms of what each side fought for, the world they envisioned after the War and the willingness to end the violence. Under the Nazis the killing would never have stopped. Under the Allies it stopped at once when the Axis powers surrendered and then, together, defeated and victors built a better world. There were Good Guys and Bad Guys — and our side, the Allies, had all the white hats.
But, on a purely personal basis doesn’t Priebke appear to be just one more cog in a murder machine he did not create, could not control and that threatened to crush him as well? He was a murderous louse. Put anyone in his position and he could just as easily become a murderous louse too. Maybe that includes you and me.
It is impossible for us to feel much sympathy for the man. But, we were never in his shoes and did not have a Gestapo or SS detachment nearby that would be perfectly happy to shoot one of their own countrymen if that person disobeyed orders. As Dr. Johnson said — the prospect of being hung in the morning DOES seem to concentrate the mind.
The lesson, if there is one, must be: Don’t let these things start. Don’t invade, don’t go on crusades, don’t look for trouble. Also, mind one’s own business and don’t vilify others and deny their humanity. Neglect these maxims and the Priebkes become both moral lepers — and moral victims, just like that Lancaster pilot.
I will go to my grave ever grateful that I was spared “Priebke’s Choice.” What makes me think I’m any better than that pathetic figure? We all fear death. Priebke feared it. He made his choice — it may well have been our own as well.