Hitler and us
In the winter of 1942, 300,000 German soldiers starved in Stalingrad, surrounded by the Russian army, while Hitler held regular tea parties with his generals and their ladies back in his Wolf’s Lair headquarters. Hitler sent his troops into Russia, refused to allow them to surrender, and then forgot about them. When the German troops were near starvation, their general defied Hitler and surrendered his men. Pictures from that time show the starved and frozen soldiers: They looked exactly like the victims of the concentration camps that would be discovered a few years later. Hitler had lost interest in them.
As a young man, I was fascinated with the story of those 300,000 soldiers. They were a modern example of military discipline in the face of death. Like the Greek soldiers who fell at Thermopylae and the Charge of the Light Brigade cavalrymen. On the other hand, the actions of Hitler at that time hold important lessons for all people who hold power over others.
In his Ash Wednesday homily, Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle talked about the growing indifference in the country to the suffering of others. Perhaps, but I haven’t noticed a growth; indifference has always been strong among us, just as lust and greed are—always have been—strong. Indifference to the sufferings of others for which we have no responsibility is one thing, but indifference to the fate of people whose suffering we have caused is quite another matter. St. Pope John Paul II said: “Any persons or families who are forced through no fault of their own to live in indecent housing are victims of injustice” (Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace, 1997).
I believe he was telling us that indecent housing is a result of injustice; and we are all responsible for the slums. At the very least we have not protested their existence, and we haven’t visited the poor people in the slums to help them in some small way. The same could be said of hunger among children, widespread unemployment and subpar education. If 50,000 people marched demanding food, jobs and proper education for all children, government would act, especially if the marchers were middle class and well-off people.
Hitler has lessons for all of us. When his armies first advanced into Russia, he chose to stay behind in the Wolf’s Lair. But as the German forces roared almost unopposed across the plains of Russia, they soon were so far away that he lost contact with his generals and troops. He still made all the decisions for his armies, so he began making bad decisions.
Have our leaders lost touch with the ordinary people and their problems? It seems so. I believe that if our leaders knew that 40 percent of children in the slums of Tacloban are malnourished and therefore in need of regular government feeding programs, they would not spend P1 billion on a new tunnel to ease traffic in Makati. What reasonable argument can be made for such a tunnel while children remain malnourished?
When was the last time our top leaders walked in slum areas, fishing villages, sugar haciendas, or tribal villages to talk with the people and hear their problems? They may begin their terms with the best of intentions, but the world of politics has its own demands and temptations, and the ordinary people are soon forgotten.
Offices on the 20th or 25th floor of buildings with spotless corridors and views of the entire city don’t encourage empathy with or compassion for the poor. It’s usually impossible to see the slums from those office towers. If the slums were visible at all, they would just be black smudges on the horizon.
Hitler never delegated, but when things went wrong he lambasted his subordinates. Have we ever heard our leaders apologize for mistakes they made? And in the end, when the allied armies surrounded him and defeat was inevitable, Hitler looked to his own safety. The German people suffered terribly in the last months of the war, as Hitler prolonged it in the hope—against all hope—he could somehow find a way out.
Much of the above information was contained in the National Geographic Channel program “Nazi Megastructures,” which was recently shown in Manila. There was no mention about the Catholic Church, but we shouldn’t leave a discussion of Hitler without reflecting on his hold on the Christian churches.
The churches accepted Hitler as their leader even though his autobiography made his long-term hatreds clear. They followed him into war. They tolerated his monumental abuse of gypsies, homosexuals, communists, Jews and all who opposed him. The churches followed the desires of the German people for revenge after their defeat in World War I, for power equal to that of Britain and France, and for racial might. They chose the things of man and not the things of God.
All churches are tempted to do the same, including the churches here in the Philippines. In fact, some of our bishops are prepared to follow tired, old politicians rather than a pope preaching mercy and compassion.
We need inspired leadership. Let’s hope the Catholic Church provides it.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates ([email protected]).