This is a tough one because of the sen­si­tiv­i­ties of var­i­ous groups involved. Glancing at the LA Times yes­ter­day I came across a head­line that read “‘Nice, Sweet Lady,’ 83, Deported for Nazi Past”.

I wasn’t sure what I’d find on link­ing to the article.

Really — was it going to be a sac­cha­rine play for sym­pa­thy? Legitimate news? Some Frankenstein pas­tiche of the two?

It turned out to be the last of the three, but the arti­cle did give me pause. Apparently Elfriede Rinkel was in fact an SS guard, work­ing at Ravensbruck in 1944. She signed on there about 10 months before the European stage of WWII closed. She was evi­dently respon­si­ble for guard­ing the perime­ter of the camp, com­plete with trained attack dogs.

Ravensbruck was one of the places where med­ical exper­i­ments were per­formed on pris­on­ers, as well as slave labor, gassing, mass cre­ma­tions and the other atroc­i­ties we’ve come to expect of Nazi his­tory. Did she know about the ter­ri­ble things tak­ing place inside the camp’s fences? Of a cer­tainty. Did she approve? Well, she was there — that would sug­gest approval — but then, it’s easy, all too easy, to sim­ply ignore things we pre­fer not to recognize.

She was in her early 20s at the time, and I don’t think there’s any way we can know for cer­tain why she joined the SS in the first place. Then again, we could say that about many, many other SS troops.

What gives her case a real twist is that she later mar­ried a Jewish man, who went to his grave with­out ever know­ing his wife’s his­tory. Her stint in Hitler’s death squad she left care­fully hidden.

She emi­grated to the US in 1959, lying on her appli­ca­tion for a visa — or, more accu­rately, fail­ing to dis­close the salient fact of her near-year’s stay at Ravensbruck. But she also didn’t apply for US cit­i­zen­ship, sure that her his­tory would then be exposed.

On one level, this looks pretty bad. Conniving, plot­ting, try­ing to hide a ter­ri­ble secret.

Or maybe it was more like a sur­vival gam­bit. Regretting a past that made sense at the time, but in a broader con­text, under a freer, more human light, one that was clearly wrong.

One of the prin­ci­ples behind the insan­ity defense is that a per­son mak­ing such a plea can­not have rec­og­nized the fun­da­men­tally wrong nature of his actions while he was per­pe­trat­ing them. The insan­ity defense fur­ther requires that there be no attempt to cover up or oth­er­wise hide the nature of one’s crimes; doing so sug­gests an abil­ity to dis­tin­guish right from wrong — which is regarded as being sane.

That doesn’t really mat­ter here; I’m not try­ing to sug­gest that Rinkel — or any­one else who signed on with the Nazi party — was or is insane. However, I think we can agree that there were two main types of Nazi: The gung-​​ho type who really believed in Der Führer and the Partei; and the type who ended up being in the party because it was a choice between that or what looked like a much worse alter­na­tive, such as star­va­tion, per­se­cu­tion or death.

It’s easy, too easy, for us now to look back on those times and assume we’d know what to do if we lived in Germany in the 1930s. We’d reject Hitler! We’d turn in con­tempt from the Brownshirts! We’d flee the coun­try if we had to!

Oh, bull­shit.

Henry Ford is just one exam­ple of some­one who believed whole­heart­edly in the Nazis; he loved their ideals so much that, in the early ’30s, he donated money to the Brownshirts, which was one thing that helped keep them from bank­ruptcy and dis­ap­pear­ing into obscu­rity. If an American cit­i­zen could be seduced by the Nazi line, how much more likely was it that those who lived in direct thrall of Hitler and his min­ions were sim­ply over­whelmed by the depth, breadth and inten­sity of the party’s message?

What a lot of peo­ple don’t even try to do is under­stand what Germany looked like in, say, 1932. The depres­sion that was sweep­ing the world would have been almost an old friend to the aver­age Berliner by then; it would cost upwards of one mil­lion marks to buy enough bread to eat for a day or two, and Germany had until recently been using a specie known as Notgeld, or money of need. This was cur­rency that had an expi­ra­tion date on it. You had a lim­ited amount of time to spend it before it lost value. The idea was to stim­u­late the econ­omy, which was under crush­ing loads imposed on it after the end of WWI, when Germany was sad­dled with ludi­crous repa­ra­tion debts.

Seen against this back­ground, this des­per­a­tion and poverty, the pageantry and glitz alone of the Nazis was appeal­ing to many. They had chic, élan, style. They had clean, new cloth­ing. They had tall, shiny boots. They had food and shel­ter and a sense of pride and pur­pose that the German peo­ple had sorely been lack­ing for quite a long time by then.

They also had scape­goats, peo­ple to blame for what was wrong in Germany; the thiev­ing Jews, the immoral homo­sex­u­als, the trai­tor­ous gyp­sies.* Whatever was hap­pen­ing that was wrong, it wasn’t the fault of the Germans; that was a ter­ri­bly seduc­tive mes­sage to a defeated, demor­al­ized nation.

Now some — enough — really believed in the mes­sage of the Nazis. And surely they bul­lied oth­ers into going along. And sud­denly, you have an entire nation that’s tipped over the edge, that’s clearly gone insane en masse in its desire to pro­tect itself from per­ceived and actual threats, in its cer­tainty that its mis­sion is true and valid, in its obses­sion with impos­ing upon the rest of the world its par­tic­u­lar brand of ide­ol­ogy and social engineering.

But this piece isn’t about the dis­turb­ing par­al­lels between Nazi Germany and Bush’s USA. It’s about the idea of deport­ing, try­ing and, osten­si­bly, pun­ish­ing an octa­ge­nar­ian for things that took place more than sixty years ago.

If we haven’t learned yet from the Cuban com­mu­nity in Florida that mono­ma­ni­a­cally hang­ing on to a decades-​​gone past is fool­ish, per­haps we’re in no posi­tion to col­lec­tively lec­ture the Simon Weisenthal Institute on the ques­tion­able mer­its of chas­ing down one lit­tle old lady. However, given the fact I might have been in a con­cen­tra­tion camp had I been in Nazi Germany, I believe I can speak with a lit­tle author­ity here.

By cling­ing to atroc­i­ties that took place before most peo­ple alive today were even born, noth­ing pro­duc­tive is gained. Blame cer­tainly gets pushed around, but it’s cre­ated blame, not earned. Certainly we can­not, must not, for­get the ter­rors inflicted on the world — and pri­vate German cit­i­zens — by the Nazi thugs that once marched so proudly through Munich, Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Warsaw and in many other places; but remem­ber­ing the lessons of his­tory is not syn­ony­mous with obsess­ing on the hor­rors of that his­tory.

At some point, we have to be will­ing to say that a given event is so far in the past that there is nowhere left to lay blame, that what­ever per­ceived wrongs might linger to this day are almost cer­tainly self-​​created attach­ments to the event rather than gen­uine reper­cus­sions of it. Blaming Castro, Hitler, slav­ery or Columbus for any one person’s cur­rent mis­for­tune is not only coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to dis­cus­sion; it over­looks the fact that, by and large, most of us are respon­si­ble, most of the time, for what­ever state our lives hap­pen to be in at any given moment.

Prosecution of some­thing that took place more than six decades ago seems, to me at least, exces­sive — par­tic­u­larly in this case. It’s not as though Rinkel remained a loyal Nazi or turned into a vicious anti-​​Semite. She didn’t start up a Klan chap­ter. She didn’t kill off her own chil­dren because they were half Jewish.

Punishing the past might be one way for some to silence the ghosts that haunt them; this does not, how­ever, mean such behav­ior is sane, desir­able or com­pas­sion­ate. Maybe it’s time to let the dead lie silent.


* If you’re won­der­ing why that sounds famil­iar, sub­sti­tute Muslims for Jews, ille­gal immi­grants for gyp­sies, and homo­sex­u­als for … homosexuals.


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