An Inquiry into Responsibility

By Sander Rubin

(From The Mensa Bulletin, September, 1991)

Some years ago, starting in the early 1950’s, I became interested in the origins of the Second World War. I had witnessed from afar the coming of the war as a child and the fighting as an early adolescent. At age 12, as a school assignment, I had kept a daily scrapbook of news items for the year 1941-42, and I had continued to follow events closely in The New York Times and other periodicals. I had a fair grasp of the public facts in my mind, but as a young adult a decade later I was still troubled by many questions which were not answered satisfactorily by the simplistic myths of current slogans or a superficial assignment of blame to the obvious villains of the day.

How had a Europe decimated by a generation-destroying war still within the memories of my parents come to destroy itself again in the next generation? How had a nation of intelligent people with a fine record of cultural contributions come to follow such an obvious course of destruction, first of others and then, inevitably, of themselves? How had the entire western world come to cooperate in the massive killings of innocent populations and of groups who had, in their own ways, given much to the consciousness of that very western civilization?

My researches were intended only to answer my own questions, not to spin out a scholarly theory for publication. I read sporadically – in an unorganized way and without making notes – historians, witnesses’ memoirs, journalistic reports, philosophers, psychologists, and political scientists. I also accumulated in my mind impressions of personal conversations with witnesses and survivors on both sides of the conflict and of neutrals. Over several years, I talked with U.S. Army officers responsible for the occupation of Germany, former members of the Dutch underground, and a number of the enemy including a former Luftwaffe pilot, an ex-SS lieutenant, many ordinary German people of all classes, and refugees from both sides of the war and of the iron curtain. There is no way I can lay out for you all the evidence to build the case for my own conclusions; I can only tell you that my questions were answered entirely, at least to my own satisfaction. If you care to hear them, however, I can relate to you the most important and interesting of my conclusions.

If you are looking for personal villains and heros, you will not find them in the public eye. Villains conceal themselves as well as their villainy, and heros do not act on a stage for public approbation. Bad as he was, Hitler was not the arch-villain of Nazidom; his lieutenant Josef Goebbels was. If you were to ask me to name an archetypical hero, it would not be a Churchill, as much as the world owes to his leadership, but an obscure, professional Wehrmacht colonel named Count Klaus von Stauffenburg. On one level, it is important to be able to name names, to point to specific examples of evil and of good so that we may damn or honor, so that we may know what to avoid and what to emulate. On another level, a focus on the individual provides concealment for an even deeper source of the kind of villainy that makes wars and destroys civilizations: the widespread human propensities to submerge a sense of individual responsibility in a group, a cause, or an abstract ideology and to accept facile, simplistic explanations for events and actions. It is hard to think critically and to see the broader context of issues; rather than extend the necessary effort, many of us are all too ready to do as we are told and then to blame the system or to find innocent scapegoats for failures that we cause ourselves. Finally, the institutions we set up to protect us from villainy, especially the law, are at best inadequate and at worst shams behind which villainy can be readily concealed.

Early in my researches I discovered that Hitler was an uninteresting person. His thinking and writing was muddy, to say the least. Crazy, mean-minded, and unsympathetic people abound in the world. Anyone can see what following Hitler brought to his followers. The interesting questions are why did they follow him for so long, why did they follow so enthusiastically, and why were even those who knew better willing to go along or easily cowed? It was not all the doing of the Gestapo, much as such institutions served to suppress the few courageous opponents of the regime. The Nazis came to power legally and upheld the forms of legality throughout their regime. How could so much law produce so much obvious injustice and oppression? Although Hitler’s charisma escapes us, he provided the charismatic focus for a mass movement, the authority for a set of oppressive institutions and for any arbitrary act by a bureaucrat or official acting in the name of the state. He was, more than anything else, a hollow symbol for petty-mindedness and spite run amok in government. How did this come about?


The key figure was Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda before the war and top authority for domestic matters during the war. Goebbels has been accurately called Hitler’s PR man. His wartime diaries have been published in paperback, and they make fascinating reading. Even before the war, Goebbels articulated the principles by which the Nazi party would control the government and obtain the consent of the people to their program. Roughly, these principles are as follows: There is no truth, only what people believe to be true. Control people’s perceptions of the world and you can control their beliefs. A big lie is as believable as a small one, just declare something long enough in an environment where alternative views are not heard and it becomes true by belief; evidence of truth or falsity is irrelevant. Tell people what they want to hear; give them: simple solutions to complex problems, enemies on whom they can blame their discontents, promises to satisfy their narrow aspirations, spectacles and ceremonies to stir the emotions and suppress critical thinking, manufactured news and contrived reports that support the party line. Goebbels was completely successful.

Through Hitler, Goebbels promised the industrialists that he would save their enterprises from communism and labor unrest, the military that he would rebuild their forces, the people that he would give them employment, Volkswagens, and autobahns. Meanwhile, he distracted them with impressive party rallies each year in Nuremburg, parades and flags, and for the more aggressive youth an organized way of doing violence by picking on Jews. The Jews, an expendable one percent of the population, were also convenient and traditional in European history as a peg on which to hang the blame for anything that went wrong. Everything was done quite legally and according to form. Where a vote was needed, brand the opposition as disloyal to the state or to the leader. Do not debate the merits of proposals, that’s too political. Just vote with the government. So long as only official voices were heard and argument was conducted on the level of loyalty rather than on specific substance, it was no trick to get 98% majorities.

Everything was clean and orderly, especially when compared to the political diversity of the Weimar Republic. People could pride themselves on how well the country was run, how well-organized things were. It was only natural that it should be Germany’s mission to organize the rest of Europe. Of course, we don’t want war, but we are surrounded by nations of inferior culture and social order, and we must defend ourselves from pressures by them. A few Germans may have actively wanted war. For some, it may have been an act of national vengeance for the perceived disgrace of the loss of World War I; for others, it may have been an opportunity for personal adventure or professional advancement. For most, it was a duty to the state and government. The Wehrmacht, the military establishment, had been cowed into submission to the political side of government, purged of disloyal elements, and made to take personal oaths of loyalty to the Leader, Hitler. Everyone was excused from responsibility for the larger consequences of his acts. Each was doing his own job conscientiously; each could cite superior orders, operational necessity, or not my department.

Loyalty was the word of the day. It was not accident that the motto of the elite SS-Corps was, “My Honor Is Loyalty.” In the name of that slogan, men could perform heinous acts against non-combatant populations and still think of themselves as decent human beings, as good fellows. Perhaps it was harder for some than for others, but it was clearly possible for most to regard the enemy as a non-human mass and therefore deserving of whatever fate the state ordered for them. There were, of course, as there always is in any population, a number of vicious types, but more typically the worst horrors were committed by decent, loyal, personally honorable people only doing their respective jobs. Their flaws were human, like an inability to see the other as fundamentally no different from the self, or a propensity to see us as good and them as bad or undeserving.

The German Resistance

Was there a German underground, a resistance movement? Yes. The Dutch underground, for example, had secret telephone lines directly into Berlin. It would not have been possible without some kind of German coöperation. Yet the opposition to the regime, apart from the Communists who had their own totalitarian ideology, could never get itself organized. The big conceptual hurdle that the opposition could not overcome until it was too late was the legality of the regime and the personal oaths of allegiance taken by all persons in authority. Eventually, the philosophers of the resistance movement came to see that there is a great difference between legality, which is a matter of form and order, and legitimacy, a matter of reality of consent. A regime which suppresses dissent, monopolizes the means of communication, regards the engineering of public opinion and the invention of convenient facts as a proper function of government instead of the discovery of truth through free debate and a regard for reality – such a regime may conform completely to the requirements of legality but be entirely illegitimate. Until the resistance came to recognize the difference between legality and legitimacy, it was as bound by the regime as the pettiest bureaucrat working for his pension.

Even a decent, law-abiding conscientiousness, when narrowly construed, can lead to awful consequences. A simple example, one of many, will illustrate. The Dutch underground got word of the Nazi’s plans for the Jews of Holland, an old, respected community of great distinction. The underground sent word to the vital statistics officials to destroy the population registration records showing the religious origins of individuals. But destruction of records was against the law, and the officials’ loyalty to form and to the preservation of the fruits of their toils overrode any consideration of real consequences to innocent parties. As a result, the Nazi’s had a relatively easy time rounding up Holland’s Jews; few survived. Although all too typical, that kind of obedience to law was not inevitable. Two outstanding exceptions are recorded in the history of that terrible time: the officials and ordinary people of Denmark and Bulgaria (yes, Bulgaria) simply refused to comply with the law and saw where the higher duty lay; most of their Jews survived.

Klaus von Stauffenburg

In Germany, the high mark of the resistance led to a tragic conclusion.In the middle of the war, after having served bravely in battle and suffering severe wounds, a professional officer, Colonel Count Klaus von Stauffenburg, reached the correct conclusion that the regime had brought Germany to moral disgrace, the brink of military defeat, and immense internal suffering. He saw, also correctly, that the only way to disentangle Germany from the web of misplaced loyalties was to eliminate Hitler, the ultimate authority figure. If Germany’s honor was to be restored, this project would have to be undertaken by Germans without the help of the enemy or of the underground organizations of the subjugated countries. He also saw that the project would involve a personal commitment of the deepest kind; he would have to do much of the hardest work himself and bring in others only as needed.

Early on, von Stauffenburg ran into the Little Red Hen syndrome. He made discreet inquiries and got a few allies to the cause. The most common reaction, however, was, “Of course, you are right, and I sympathize with your efforts, but there is this oath I’ve sworn. . . . If you can get rid of Hitler, then you can count on me to lead my troops against the SS and those remaining loyal to the Nazis.” Usually the cautious c.y.a. reaction, seldom the kind of wholehearted cooperation and commitment that the occasion required. Nevertheless, von Stauffenburg proceeded first to plan then to act.

Von Stauffenburg undertook himself the critical task of killing Hitler. His allies had only to use their powers of command after the deed had been done. On one occasion, a bomb planted aboard a plane had inexplicably failed to go off. He saw he would have to get closer to his target personally. The final plan involved as direct a confrontation with Hitler as could be arranged. It was set for 20 July 1944.

Hitler was to be at a staff conference in East Prussia at the headquarters for the Russian front called Wolfenschanz (Wolf’s lair). Von Stauffenburg got himself invited to the conference. He went with a briefcase containing a bomb, placed it under the table near Hitler, and left, by plan, to return to Berlin to take up the management of the military uprising. As he left the headquarters he heard the bomb go off; he believed he had killed Hitler. One of the conspirators was the captain in charge of the signals installation at Wolfenschanz. The signal officer was to transmit a code to Berlin that Hitler had been killed and then cut off all communications from Wolfenschanz; he did exactly that. The conspirators in Berlin were then supposed to alert the various regional army headquarters to disarm the SS troops and pick up the Nazis to set the stage for a new government.

When von Stauffenburg reached Berlin after a four-hour flight, he was surprised to learn that his friends had done nothing. They still were waiting for assured confirmation that Hitler was actually dead, as though it really mattered. Meanwhile, a battalion of army troops in Berlin, under a major loyal to Hitler (later rewarded with a generalship), took the initiative. In the confusion and delay, the army general staff could have acted decisively, and it would not have mattered whether or not Hitler was alive had they seized control; they did not. Von Stauffenburg, still believing he had killed Hitler, tried to muster his forces to act, but it was too late. In fact, of course, Hitler had survived although injured, and several officers near him had been killed. Somehow, the heavy oaken table had deflected the blast sufficiently. The war went on for nine more months; many more died.

Some 3,000 people thought by the Nazis to be implicated in the plot were put to death, many quite horribly. Von Stauffenburg’s act is still debated as one of heroism or treason. There is no question in my own mind. Despite its tragic failure, hung up on bureaucratic waffling as to the actual death of a symbol, the plot stands out as an act of national redemption brought about by a remarkable individual.

What About Today?

What have these tales of an earlier generation to do with us today? In their time, the Nazis brought about millions of deaths, maimings, psychological and physical suffering that cannot be accounted for or redressed. I have seen some of the damage, and nothing can be done about it. The individuals who have been hurt are no longer here, even if they survived in body. The longer term damage that has been done to all of us, however, lies in the sheer numerical dimensions of the horrors and the unrelieved purity of the totalitarian ideal. This is, regrettably, an age of quantification, some of it fully justified, some thoroughly misplaced. We can easily tell ourselves that no matter what our failings we are not as bad as they were, as though such things can be compared on some scale of evil. Not so.

On rare occasions, when actually confronted with a choice between evils, one may have to weigh one against another in some quasi-quantitative fashion. Seldom do such occasions arise. The excuse that someone else did worse does not justify or condone the committing of a lesser evil. The killing of 20-million unarmed civilians does not make the killing of 200 any less a crime. The telling of a big lie against a whole people does not make the telling of a small lie against an individual less wrong. The Nazis ushered in the era of government by public relations, mass manipulation, and appeal to unreason on a national scale; we have not yet done with that era even if we are less totalitarian in our methods. A manufactured Gulf of Tonkin incident, leading to 50,000 American deaths and who knows how many Vietnamese, is not less wrong than dressing up some dead prisoners in Polish uniforms to simulate a justification for an invasion leading to a World War. Violence in the name of reasons of state is not more benign than violence by individuals; to the extent that the state is the teacher and exemplar of its citizens, such violence is even less justified.

In a way, we are at even greater risk than the Germans of the 1930’s. Then it was still possible to identify many of the individuals responsible for the deceit and manipulation. Now we hide our self-deceptions in massive institutions, each with its own myths propagated by closed channels of communication that shut out the dissenting, skeptical voice by anonymous self-censorship. We either delude ourselves into following some institutional voice of authority, or else, recognizing that such voices usually lie, we retreat from our share of participation in the processes of politics and leave the power and glory to shameless manipulators. In the end, we all lose.

Somehow, even the best of us lose our humanity when we act as part of group or in the name of an institution or of a higher authority than our own conscience, and the worst of us become worse than beasts. Can anything be done to avoid repetitions of the horrors of collective action? There are no pat answers, but surely a corrective policy begins with each of us recognizing, and acting on, a sense of individual responsibility. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of things we can do as individuals which, if enough individuals join us, will make a difference in the long run. First, we can limit the role of government by doing for ourselves many of the things that we ask government to do for us. Second, we can do what we must to see that those to whom we entrust the general welfare put the general welfare first, and reward them when they do so.

We can start by recognizing that we are linked to one another, that the myth of the Lone Ranger, the superman, is indeed a myth. As corrupt as a government can become when it loses its way, there remain essential and legitimate functions that only government can perform when people do not perform them of their own wills. When we do not ourselves voluntarily do justice, charity, or other qualities that cement a society, we leave a vacuum that government or some other organization will fill, albeit less well than we could do ourselves.

Having done what we can to minimize the need for government, there still remains a residual need. We participate in government not only through elections but also by what political and lobbying organizations we support, either financially or through personal involvement. And we don’t avoid ultimate responsibility by turning our backs on participation (as did the good Germans), leaving the field to those with private agendas. It has to start with cultivating our minds so that our judgments are rational and our values are generous (particularly generous toward posterity, giving them better than we received). To be responsible, we must first become informed; we must insist on truths based on verifiable facts, not on emotional desires. We must recognize propaganda and appeals to prejudice and eschew them. We must cultivate critical thinking in ourselves. When we select people to wield the authority of government, we must select the best and reward them well when they perform well.

Until we, as individuals, can distinguish the von Stauffenburg’s from the Goebbels’, until we can contrive a government that permanently recognizes that it exists for the sakes of each of its individual citizens and that places their legitimate aspirations well above its own institutional goals, I see little hope for an end to our social problems.

Some sources in literature

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

Constantine Fitzgibbon, 20th July

(Paul) Josef Göbbels (Louis P. Lochner, trans.), Diaries

Robert Edward Herzstein, The War That Hitler Won: Goebbels and the Nazi Media Campaign

Milton Mayer, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45

Copyright © 1991 by American Mensa Limited, 1996 Sander Rubin
Related sites are welcome to establish a link to this page upon notifying me by e-mail. I shall be glad to reciprocate upon request.

The original version of this article was first published in 1981 in The Propeller, an unofficial Mensa publication devoted to the reform and elevation of the Mensa milieu.

Entered: 8 Jul 95
Modified: 02 Jan 00