Monday, March 16, 2009
Thus the World Was Lost
From Milton Mayer's book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45:
Mayer tells the story of a chemical engineer, who brought Mayer "even closer to the heart of the matter...":
One day, when we had become very friendly, I said to him, "Tell me now--how was the world lost?"
"That," he said, "is easy to tell, much easier than you may suppose. The world was lost one day in 1935, here in Germany. It was I who lost it, and I will tell you how.
"I was employed in a defense plant (a war plant, of course, but they were always called defense plants). That was the year of the National Defense Law, the law of 'total conscription.' Under the law I was required to take the oath of fidelity. I said I would not; I opposed it in conscience. I was given twenty-four hours to 'think it over.' In those twenty-four hours I lost the world."
The engineer recounts how his refusal to take the oath would have meant the loss of his job, and that he would have had difficulty getting another, at least in his chosen field. But he tried "not to think" of himself or his family -- but of "the people to whom I might be of some help later on, if things got worse..."
He finally took the oath: "That day the world was lost, and it was I who lost it." But in fact, the engineer did save lives: "For the sake of argument," he said, "I will agree that I saved many lives later on. Yes."
"Which you could not have done if you had refused to take the oath in 1935."
"And you still think that you should not have taken the oath."
"I don't understand," I said.
"Perhaps not," he said, "but you must not forget that you are an American. I mean that, really. Americans have never known anything like this this experience--in its entirety, all the way to the end. That is the point."
"You must explain," I said.
"Of course I must explain. First of all, there is the problem of the lesser evil. Taking the oath was not so evil as being unable to help my friends later on would have been. But the evil of the oath was certain and immediate, and the helping of my friends was in the future and therefore uncertain. I had to commit a positive evil, there and then, in the hope of a possible good later on. The good outweighed the evil; but the good was only a hope, the evil was a fact."
As their conversation continues, and to make the case for the engineer's decision to take the oath as strong as possible, they agree that "only" three million innocent people were slaughtered by the Nazis, while the engineer saved as many as a thousand lives. The engineer asks:
"And it would have been better to have saved all three million, instead of only a hundred, or a thousand?"
"There, then, is my point. If I had refused to take the oath of fidelity, I would have saved all three millions."
"You are joking," I said.
"You don't mean to tell me that your refusal would have overthrown the regime in 1935?"
"Or that others would have followed your example?"
"I don't understand."
"You are an American," he said again, smiling. "I will explain. There I was, in 1935, a perfect example of the kind of person who, with all his advantages in birth, in education, and in position, rules (or might easily rule) in any country. If I had refused to take the oath in 1935, it would have meant that thousands and thousands like me, all over Germany, were refusing to take it. Their refusal would have heartened millions. Thus the regime would have been overthrown, or, indeed, would never have come to power in the first place. The fact that I was not prepared to resist, in 1935, meant that all the thousands, hundreds of thousands, like me in Germany were also unprepared, and each one of these hundreds of thousands was, like me, a man of great influence or of great potential influence. Thus the world was lost."
"You are serious?" I said.
"Completely," he said. "These hundred lives I saved--or a thousand or ten as you will--what do they represent? A little something out of the whole terrible evil, when, if my faith had been strong enough in 1935, I could have prevented the whole evil."
Posted by theo at 11:05 AM