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!
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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