I am consistently drawn to two critical periods of the past — the American Civil War and World War II.
They are fascinating because they beg you to try to understand, in the former, why the subjugation of other human beings, slavery, became a way of life in parts of our country and tolerated by the rest.
We had to fight a war, mostly driven by the slavery issue with states’ rights as a subplot in the narrative, and 620,000 soldiers died from battle injuries or disease. Imagine the impact on the nation as a whole when hundreds of thousands of families lost loved ones and hundreds of thousands more welcomed home physically and psychologically impaired veterans.
And all of this carnage was bolstered by the beliefs of each cause that God was on its side. The Bible was a tool used by each to propagandize their cause’s justness and morality. Romans 13 was cited by Loyalists to justify siding with the British in the American Revolution. Ditto for defenders of slavery in the prelude to the Civil War. The Revised Standard Version (RSV) calls upon all of us to be “subject to the governing authorities” and that “he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed…” That same chapter, by the way, reminds that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself “ and that “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.”
If you read the King James Version (KJV), which would have been the chosen Bible of the antebellum years, the obedience to governing authorities is not so clear: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil…”
So if you were the churchgoing type, whether in Alabama or Pennsylvania, your support of either North or South would be justified on Sunday mornings, because Biblical scripture also took its shots at slavery as seen in Exodus 21:16 (KJV): “And he that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he is found in his hand, he shall surely by put to death.”
The Bible is not always safe ground to trod when arguing your cause, but it always provides ammunition.
So I wonder, had I lived in the 1840’s and 1850’s in Alabama, would I have been convinced that slavery was morally justified and not just an economic benefit or proof of racial superiority? I don’t know the answer to that and I keep struggling to understand why people like me, my own ancestors, would have confidently held those beliefs.
That an entire culture of good and caring people would support an evil cause cannot be blamed on the Bible, though interpretations of the Bible played a part in comforting them into acceptance of something otherwise distasteful. How about the evolvement of Nazi doctrine in Germany leading to dehumanizing the Jews and exterminating them and other proclaimed undesirables by the millions?
Why did the people of Germany allow all of that to happen? Had I been there would I have stood by while such evil was perpetrated? Would I, as a patriotic German, been a part of it, serving in the military or working for the government?
I’ve gained a little more insight into how ordinary people— moral and Christian people— would have followed Hitler into the abyss. The truth is that the people supported him and even became Nazi Party members because they “wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.” Those were the words of German writer Milton Mayer in his 1955 book: They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45.
It happened gradually, following a horrible time in Germany in the wake of World War I. People were barely surviving, perpetuated by sanctions against them and, when they were down, the Great Depression, spreading through Europe made life for the ordinary German even more miserable.
Things got better under Hitler, which restored their national esteem as Germans and they started living the good life with jobs and even elaborate vacations provided by the government.
Germans interviewed years after the war ended— all of them former Nazi Party members because that was the easier path to take—pleaded ignorance.
Most did not know about the extermination camps and many believed that Jews who were imprisoned had committed traitorous acts and that most of the others who weren’t around any more had chosen to emigrate elsewhere.
There may have been some self-delusion here, but they were proud to be Germans for the first time in years and, yes, life was good. Many Germans, as noted by author Konrad H. Jarausch, were not so much avid supporters of Hitler as they were hostile toward other countries and world leaders attacking their Fuhrer. These were the same countries, including the United States, who had teamed to humiliate and impoverish Germany after the First World War. There were real and imagined enemies constantly being offered up by the Third Reich— us against them. The press was one of them, leading to their extinction as a source of fake news and the government taking over that role.
“Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained…” noted one countryman in Mayer’s book. He went on to compare it to something “developing from day to day (like) a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.”
History’s lesson is we should always be on guard, because even good and ordinary people are susceptible to abetting evil.