Being a devout atheist (so to speak) I very rarely use the word “evil”. It seems too loaded with connotations of the supernatural or religious, as if some human actions were attributable to forces or powers beyond us. They are not. Nor have they ever been. As we look on at the turmoil in the world, particularly outside what is usually claimed as the “Western world”, it is all too easy to assume an air of superiority. Of civilized patricians gazing down in despair at the barbarian hordes beating against the gates. The clash of civilizations perceived by some between the Christian (or secular) West and the Islamic – well, everywhere else – can be attributed to a similar world-view.
However it is all too easy to forget the savage inside and that barbarism is not the sole possession of the “other”. Ireland is a small island-nation perched on the edge of Europe and we share a region of the globe with countries that were historically some of the greatest barbarian nations the world has ever seen – even as they posed as harbingers of civilization. Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and all the others. Even the smaller ones, the Belgians and Dutch, have their blood-soaked moments – albeit principally in faraway nations out of reach of law and morality.
It was not so long ago that central Europe was little more than a charnel house – an abattoir of human suffering. And those whose hands sank deepest and most greedily into the red gore were those who claimed to be at the very pinnacle of European civilization. Now, as never before, we have their own words, unsolicited, voluntary and unguarded. German Prisoners of War secretly recorded by the Allies during World War II as they conversed with each other. No carefully worded, post-conflict accounts these. Rather what we have is the horror of Nazi Germany, indeed its evil, in all its unredacted rawness. They are now gathered together into a new collection by the German historians Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer, Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying: The Secret WWII Transcripts of German POWs, and The Slate magazine carries an extract beginning with Lieutenant General Heinrich Kittel talking to a fellow POW, Felbert, on Dec. 28, 1944:
“Felbert: Have you also known places from which the Jews have been removed?
Felbert: Was that carried out quite systematically?
Felbert: Women and children—everybody?
Kittel: Everybody. Horrible!
Felbert: What did they do to the children?
Kittel (very excited): They seized three-year old children by the hair, held them up and shot them with a pistol and then threw them in. I saw that for myself. One could watch it; the SD [Sicherheitsdienst, the Security Service of the SS] had roped the area off and the people were standing watching from about 300 m. off. The Latvians and the German soldiers were just standing there, looking on.”
And this, Major General Walter Bruns also caught in conversation:
“Bruns: When I arrived those pits were so full that the living had to lie down on top of the dead; then they were shot and, in order to save room, they had to lie down neatly in layers. Before this, however, they were stripped of everything at one of the stations—here at the edge of the wood were the three pits they used that Sunday and here they stood in a queue 1½ km long which approached step by step—a queuing up for death. As they drew nearer they saw what was going on. About here they had to hand over their jewellery and suitcases. All good stuff was put into the suitcases and the remainder thrown on a heap. This was to serve as clothing for our suffering population—and then, a little further on they had to undress and, 500 m in front of the wood, strip completely; they were only permitted to keep on a chemise or knickers. They were all women and small two-year-old children. Then all those cynical remarks! If only I had seen those tommy-gunners, who were relieved every hour because of over-exertion, carry out their task with distaste, but no, nasty remarks like: “Here comes a Jewish beauty!” I can still see it all in my memory: A pretty woman in a flame-coloured chemise. Talk about keeping the race pure: at Riga they first slept with them and then shot them to prevent them from talking.”
The next time someone talks of the barbarism of the “Third World”, or of Arabs and Islam, remember that it is the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Holocaust-makers who now dictate the course of European politics and economics – and civilization.