Monday, January 28, 2013

“How The World Was Lost”

From:   they thought they were free”, Milton Mayer, 1955    pp. 176-180

     Another colleague of mine brought me even close to the heart of the matter – and closer to home. A chemical engineer by profession, he was a man of whom, before I knew him, I had been told, “He is one of those rare birds among Germans—a European.”  One day, when we had become very friendly, I said to him, “Tell me now—how was the world lost”
     “That,” he said, “is easy to tell, much easier than you may suppose. The world was lost one day in 1935, here in Germany. It was I who lost it, and I will tell you how. 

      “I was employed in a defense plant (a war plant, of course, but they were always called defense plants). That was the year of the National Defense Law, the law of ‘total conscription.’  Under the law I was required to take the oath of fidelity.  I said I would not; I opposed it in conscience. I was given twenty-four hours to ‘think it over.’  In those twnty-four hours I lost the world.”
     “Yes?”  I said.
     “You see, refusal would have meant the loss of my job, of course, not prison or anything like that. (Later on, the penalty was worse, but this was only 1935.) But losing my job would have meant that I could not get another.  Wherever I went I should be asked why I left the job I had, and, when I said why, I should certainly have been refused employment.  Nobody would hire a ‘Bolshevik.’ Of course I was not a Bolshevik, but you understand what I mean.”
     Yes,” I said.
     “I tried not to think of myself or my family. We might have got out of the country, in any case, and I could have got a job in industry or education somewhere else.
     “What I tried to think of was the people I might be of some help later on, if things got worse (as I believed they would).  I had a wide friendship in scientific and academic circles, including many Jews and ‘Aryans,’ too, who might be in trouble.  If I took the oath and held my job, I might be of help, somehow, as things went on. If I refused to take the oath, I would certainly be useless to my friends, even if I remained in the country. I myself would be in their situation.
     The next day, after ‘thinking it over,’ I said I would take the oath with the mental reservation that, by the words with which the oath began, ‘Ich schwöre bei Gott, I swear by God,’ I understood that no human being and no government had the right to override my conscience.  My mental reservations did not interest the official who administered the oath.  He said, ‘Do you take the oath?’ and I took it. That day the world was lost, and I was the one who lost it.
     “Do I understand,” I said, “that you think you should not have taken the oath?”
      “But,” I said, “you did save many lives later on.  You were of greater use to your friends than you ever dreamed you might be.” (My friend’s apartment was, until his arrest and imprisonment in 1943, a hideout for fugitives.)
     “For the sake of the argument,” he said, “I will agree that I saved many lives later on. Yes.”
     “Which you could not have done if you had refused to take the oath in 1935.”
     “And you still think that you should not have taken the oath.”
     “I don’t understand,” I said.
     “Perhaps not,” he said, “but you must not forget that you are an American. I mean that, really.  Americans have never known anything like this experience – in its entirety, all the way to the end.  That is the point.”
     “You must explain, “I said.
     “Of course I must explain. First of all, there is the problem of the lesser evil. Taking the oath was not so evil as being unable to help my friends later on would have been. But the evil of the oath was certain and immediate, and in helping my friends was in the future, and therefore uncertain. I had to commit a positive evil, there and then, in the hope of a possible good later on. The good outweighed the evil; but the good was only a hope, the evil a fact.”
     “But,” I said, “the hope was realized. You were able to help your friends.”
     “Yes,” he said, “but you must concede that the hope might not have been realized – either for reasons beyond my control or because I became afraid later on or even because I was afraid all the time and was simply fooling myself when I took the oath in the first place.
“But that is not the important point. The problem of the lesser evil we all know about; in Germany we took Hindenburg as less evil than Hitler, and in the end we got them both. But that is not why I say Americans cannot understand.  No, the important point is – how many innocent people were killed by the Nazis, would you say?”
     “Six million Jews alone, we are told.”
     “Well,that may be an exaggeration. And it does not include non-Jews, of whom there must have been many hundreds of thousands, or even millions.  Shall we say, just to be safe, that three million innocent people were killed all together?’ 
      I nodded.
     “And how many innocent lives would you like to say I saved?’  
     “You would know better than I,” I said.
     “Well,” he said, “perhaps five or ten, one doesn’t know.  But shall we say a hundred, or a thousand, just to be safe?”
     I nodded.
     “And it would have been better to have saved all three million, instead of only a hundred, or a thousand?”
     “Of course.
    “There, then, is my point. If I had refused to take the oath of fidelity, I would have saved all three million.”
     “You are joking,” I said.
     “Or that others would have followed your example?”
     “I don’t understand.”
     “You are an American,” he said again, smiling. “I will explain. There I was, in 1935, a perfect example of the kind of person who, with all his advantages in birth, in education, and in position, rules (or might easily rule) in any country. If I had refused to take the oath in 1935, it would have meant that thousands and thousands like me, all over Germany, were refusing to take it.  Their refusal would have heartened millions. Thus the regime would have been overthrown, or, indeed, would never have come to power in the first place. The fact that I was not prepared to resist in 1935, meant that all the thousands, hundreds of thousands, like me in Germany were also unprepared, and each of these hundreds of thousands was, like me, a man of great influence or of potential influence.  Thus the world was lost.”
     “You are serious?” I said.    

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