Bodyguard of Lies

“In war-time, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”—Winston Churchill

Reading an account about the death of Adolf Hitler’s last surviving bodyguard, Rochus Misch, provides a fascinating glimpse at a piece of history that is quickly receding from living memory.

What is interesting about this article is that it is factually and soberly written, thus helping to highlight the commonplace aspect of even very great evils. When Misch says that the “Final Solution” (mass murder of the Jews and others) was “never” discussed in his presence he is not necessarily indulging in revisionism. Given that he was a non-commissioned officer he would not have been privy to matters that were closely guarded secrets even amongst higher-ranking officials in the Nazi regime. I remember speaking with a German veteran many years ago. He was only sixteen at the end of the war (even younger than Misch) and said that ordinary soldiers not were allowed in the vicinity of the concentration camps without authorization. I believe that Richard Breitman makes the same point in his 1991 study of Heinrich Himmler.

Having recently read the harrowing account of a Catholic priest who spent a year in Dachau (Priestblock 25487) one learns just how much tyrants deal in ambiguity. Even people on the outside, who tried to help imprisoned relatives, could be taken in by the vague excuses and explanations of the system. In one case a man who was a physician to an SS commander was promised that his brother would be released from Dachau. What he wasn’t told was that his brother was transferred to Auschwitz where he later died. I suspect the reason so many people then and afterward refused to believe in the horrors of Nazism was not out of sympathy for Hitler but because the mind naturally recoils from the possibility of such overwhelming brutality.

A certain amount of secrecy must surround the oppressive apparatus of any totalitarian power because knowledge tends to breed resistance. When facts are suppressed or carefully rationed then you get people like Misch, who may well have been outwardly decent, going along with evil agendas. That does not free them of guilt. Many individuals preferred the comforting euphemisms of tyranny, which assuaged their misgivings and allowed them to  admire Hitler without scrutinizing his moral compromises too closely.

So long as iniquity remains in the shadows it is easy to justify all the “good” things that a tyrant might accomplish, or at least promise, so as to satisfy his followers’ short-sighted aspirations.

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