haGalil, a German webzine on Jewish life, announced a demonstrative performance “under strictest observance of the mandatory Corona protective measures, including the testing of the participants” and “in close consultation with the appropriate authorities.” And thus, three days later, a spooky scene presented itself on May 9th 2021, the 100th anniversary of Sophie Scholl’s birthday, to onlookers at Munich’s Königsplatz (The King’s Square) as well as the viewers of a live video stream.
A definition of cognitive dissonance
At a distance of about twenty meters from the visitors, Dr. Hildegard Kronawitter, the managing director of the Weiße Rose Stiftung (White Rose Foundation Germany), was giving her emotionless opening speech by reading from her notes. She explains that she wishes the actors much joy at the performance and that Sophie Scholl may accompany them in their everyday lives. She thanks “the audience which has shown up in exactly the numbers permitted” by the authorities. Then she proceeds with reading a short welcoming speech from Munich’s mayor Dieter Reiter who couldn’t participate personally “because the conditions to be observed under Corona made that impossible for him.” His text honoured the theatrical artists’ upcoming performance as “a living monument” for Sophie Scholl whose actions “have broken the Nazis’ claim for monopoly over public opinion.” He proclaims that “Remembrance today means that we stay vigilant and do not remain silent when people get affronted, ostracized or attacked on confronting cheap propaganda” and closes his address by emphasizing how “fundamentally important it is to stand up for freedom, peace and justice – every day, and in every situation.” So far, so good. But then…
What follows would have been a bizarre sight even before 2020. One hundred young people come walking through the side gates of the Propylaea, a monumental arch in Greek classicist style. They are dressed in black pants, bright red shirts and … dark FFP masks. A few years ago one would have correctly guessed that those masks were symbols for abolished freedom of speech; today you’ll be cut short by the managing director of the White Rose Foundation if you assert as much. The youth march to their positions in front of the gate, exactly two meters apart from each neighbour, where, for about forty minutes, to the sound of Scholl quotes, they go through their theatrical motions without moving much from their places.
It is not up to me to judge the performance which has surely been given with the best intentions and in a spirit of devotion by the students, but as I said already, the scene felt utterly spooky and bizarre when seen in the light of the occasion, the celebration of a young woman who has been killed for committing simple acts of non-conformity to government orders. Set to the recitation of her demand for freedom a group of one hundred students – “under strictest observance of the mandatory Corona protective measures” and “in close consultation with the appropriate authorities” – through their large-scale demonstration of obedience make a nonsense of the very matter to be celebrated: an individual’s decision to follow her conscience even under the threat of death. If you need a definition of cognitive dissonance, here it is. And if you ask me whether it is justified to quote the words of Sophie Scholl, Anne Frank, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer in defiance of their second slaughtering by contemporary bureaucrats, be blessed.
Civilization and violence
In a certain way each era has us living in unprecedented times – times which have never before unfolded like these. It lies in the nature of our linear view of history, but more so it lies in the nature of the subject of history, civilization, a culture in eternal making-over. As civilization amasses lands, people, stuff, knowledge, it grows constantly bigger until it eventually reaches its peak, the maximally achievable size and power, before it collapses into a heap – the end of history. Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian and social critic, in a typical misconception of the civilized philosopher stated that,
“One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay which leads to death has already begun,” [Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy, 1937, p39]
The thing that Niebuhr almost touched without noticing is that the apparent peak of civilization is not only a turning point but the most intense illusion of grandeur. What he, like most everyone I know, overlooks is the fact that the great architecture, the nicely chiseled rhetoric, the elaborate theories, the astounding technologies, the dolce vita and the fantastic wealth of civilized culture have at their basis the rape of peoples and lands. Violence, in other words, is not the exception to the supposedly lawful order of civilized culture – it makes up its very foundation. So we lie to ourselves when we think that violence is uncivilized, a typical characteristic of “primitive underdeveloped” people(s). We lie to ourselves when we think that we could keep violence in check. We lie to ourselves when we think that “best practices”, “progress”, and well-chosen leaders were able to overcome the predicament. At the apex of civilization, violence immerses everything, penetrates all places, and is baked into the morals, the knowledge, the technology, the law, the religion, the arts, and even the most ordinary rituals of everyday life. To say that violence got institutionally established – which it is – does not sufficiently describe its seat, its role, and its effect within our societies.
This becomes increasingly highlighted by the tyranny whose grip for power, for the first time in all history, does not radiate from one centre. It does not rally around one leader. Those who seem to take decisions are so obviously puppets that we cannot attribute full responsibility to them. Though they are guilty as shame for issuing inhumane unconstitutional orders they cannot be mistaken for the source of the global all-pervasive violence which is wrecking the illusion of the supposedly benevolent culture. No longer may we point to a Führer who verbatim took all responsibility on his shoulders. Violence has become a background radiation emanating from countless sources.
As I pointed out repeated times, and as it should be quite obvious prima facie, every single state, national and public institution or organization in India and most of Europe – the regions I have an overview on — has been turned into a zombie of the new régime. Among the most efficient of the numerous techniques applied to this effect are 1, the appointment of outsiders into leading positions – a non-police as head of police, a non-journalist as editor or publisher, a non-politician as minister, a non-physician as chairman of the board of the medical association etc –, 2, a strictly hierarchical culture of obedience, 3, the induction of fear of an elusive source of danger, 4, financial incentives, 5, misinformation, secrecy and censorship, and 6, social control and mass-psychological manipulation.
The technical term for this process in the German language is Gleichschaltung. Introduced by the Nazis in 1933, The technical term for this process of zombification is Gleichschaltung. Introduced by Germany’s National Socialists in 1933,its literal meaning is the simultaneous directed switching-over, the result of which is social synchronization among all public, economic and private entities within a country, to achieve a declared purpose. Neither the origin nor the intent of Gleichschaltung – whether you call it by that name or not – have anything to do with democracy, even as the parliaments castrate themselves and many of the institutions and organizations seem to spontaneously fall into lockstep all by themselves.
The moral collapse of respectable society
Some people object to the use of such terms (or any statements at all from that time, for that matter) in today’s context because these supposedly refer to specific events in the thirties and forties of the last century, while today’s societies – on the level of declarations – seem to differ tremendously from back then. Let’s take Frau Kronawitter, the above-mentioned managing director of the Weiße Rose Stiftung, as an example again. In November 2020 she said that her institute “disfavours” the use of Sophie Scholl quotes by the “Corona opposers”. The White Rose members had rebelled against a dictatorship which oppressed opinions and persecuted dissenters brutally whereas today, she said, the rule of law guaranteed free speech and the right to demonstrate.
You have to be quite blind – or biased – to not see the brutal physical and verbal violence against the peacefully acting dissenters of today, dissenters against an already established authoritarian régime under which oppositional views no longer reach the general public through ordinary, established channels. Being ignorant of the atrocities committed by the system, said Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge, is no excuse, though, for there are always means to acquire knowledge through means outside the official framework. Sophie Scholl who has been beheaded around the time Traudl Junge joined Hitler as a secretary, might have agreed, I guess. At her trial before the Volksgerichtshof (the NS supreme court) she said to Roland Freisler, “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.” In another quote attributed to her she stated,
“The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honor, truth, and principles are only literature.
Frau Kronawitter is not one of “those with no sides and no causes.” Even as she disagrees with the critics of the corona measures, her position – as a guardian of the memory of historical resistors to tyranny – might rather have obliged her to give those who quote from Scholl’s legacy at least the benefit of the doubt. ‘I understand the outrage,’ she could have told the journalists, ‘but I believe that we are far from the kind of situation the members of the White Rose found themselves in.’ Instead, in denial of the writings on the wall, she uttered the words abuse and absurd to denounce the protesters’ concerns. To my ears, it’s her own words that sound grotesque, not only in the face of the current situation but also with relation to the declared goal of the Weiße Rose Stiftung: At the end of the closing credits to the film Sophie Scholl, The Final Days (2005) it says that the foundation “informs relentlessly … on civil courage and resistance – even today.” In other words, keeping the memory of historical lessons alive is an ongoing task that requires vigilance with regards to wolves in sheep’s clothing. Early warnings need to be taken seriously, and active resistance should set in before it becomes a suicide mission. Yet obviously, like so many other leading figures in the memorial business, in music, literature, politics, science, medicine, philosophy and leftist circles, Kronawitter fell for (or instrumentalizes) literalism which means she cannot concede that under the shallow surface of differing phenomena the same old patterns drive the same old game for power toward the same old goal. But their literal understanding of what the assertions of the oppressors and the statements of their adversaries mean from a broader perspective is outdated since at least the 1960s.
Lessons from history
Ever since people wondered what had befallen humankind during Europe’s totalitarian period, historians, philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists have been using the actual terminology of that time in a more general sense to describe the phenomenology and mechanisms among groups of people and whole societies sliding into barbarism – or hyper-civilization, I should say. History does not repeat itself; it does rhyme quite regularly though. In other words, the lessons of history speak of active patterns, not of identical actors or events. Hannah Arendt as one of the better-known, well-received socio-historical analysts, dedicated her life’s work to finding the patterns underlying the fascist state. In her speech on Personal Responsibility Under a Dictatorship (1964), she made the conditions we live under remarkably well discernible:
“Totalitarian society, as distinguished from totalitarian government, is indeed monolithic; all public manifestations, cultural, artistic, or learned, and all organizations, welfare and social services, even sports and entertainment, are “coordinated.” There is no office and indeed no job of any public significance, from advertising agencies to the judiciary, from play-acting to sports journalism, from primary and secondary schooling to the universities and learned societies, in which an unequivocal acceptance of the ruling principles is not demanded.”
Most of today’s governments work in open breach of their democratic constitutions; yet so far they act merely authoritarian, not totalitarian. It is society itself – following impulses from its executive branch – that has slipped into totalitarianism, with all its elements “coordinated”, streamlined, lockstepped, gleichgeschaltet. If you don’t wear a mask you cannot enter the shop. If you don’t test negative you cannot enter the classroom. If you don’t vaccinate you cannot go to work, or to concert, and you cannot cross the border. If you kiss your friend or have a birthday party or publicly read from the constitution you get arrested. If you outspokenly disagree with the official health paradigm your publisher rejects your book or record, your chief editor refuses to print your article, your bank cancels your account, your internet provider drops you, your boss fires you, your landlord boots you out, your social-media hangouts silence or de-platform you, and your friends stop speaking to you. Hannah Arendt, in her effort to understand what had happened eighty-five years earlier to herself, described the same “incredible ease with which lifelong friendships were broken and discarded.” At the root of the phenomenon there was “fear-inspired hypocrisy”, she explained, but also an “early eagerness not to miss the train of history … among a great majority of public figures in all walks of life and all ramifications of culture” (ibid.), just as we can observe today. And there was a righteousness in them that defied all reason, all empathy, and persisted beyond the collapse of the violence-enforced lies as became overt in the post-war trials.
But even those who drifted along for fear of sanctions or who thought they were somehow choosing the lesser evil washed their hands of all responsibility. They felt that, as cogs in a machine, as functionaries of a system, they had no power over its atrocious deeds whatsoever. Nevertheless – according to Arendt – they have been and remained human beings which could and should be held accountable for their participation in the events, because they always had a choice. “All governments rest on consent,” she quotes US founding father Madison, and added that the fallacy rested in mistaking consent for obedience. Therefore the correct question to be put before the followers in a tyranny was not, ‘Why did you obey?’ but ‘Why did you support?’ (This is also part of the spiritual practice of taking responsibility for one’s life; instead of telling oneself, ‘I have to go to work’ one concedes ‘I choose to go to work.’) “Monsters exist,” says Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, “but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” [The New Republic, Feb 17, 1986]
Making a difference
Hannah Arendt tried to find an answer to the most fundamental question in which way the system’s supporters and the non-collaborators differed. She concluded that the non-collaborators, “called irresponsible by the majority, were the only ones who dared judge by themselves.” They carefully decided on the limits of how far they could go and still look in the mirror, and even under force would prefer to die rather than step beyond those limits. The others, though, the system’s supporters would cling to established rules which were hijacked by those in power:
“The total moral collapse of respectable society during the Hitler regime may teach us that under such circumstances those who cherish values and hold fast to moral norms and standards are not reliable … Much more reliable will be the doubters and skeptics, not because skepticism is good or doubting wholesome, but because they are used to examine things and to make up their own minds. Best of all will be those who know only one thing for certain: that whatever else happens, as long as we live we shall have to live together with ourselves,”
writes Arendt (ibid.), whereby she points to a generalization to be derived from the experience collected under the Nazi régime. As unique as the extent and the particular forms of evil under that specific tyranny may seem, underneath lay psychological and behavioral patterns which can be traced across all of civilization throughout all of world history, and they came to the foreground, again, in March 2020, clearly visible to anyone with open eyes or sensitive guts. If the Holocaust memorials, the war tribunals and the public commemoration days ought to have any meaning in today’s world beyond simple sorriness for irrecoverable losses, if the legacy of the Scholl siblings tells us anything at all, it is this one word: Beware!
For the time to stand up and disobey has arrived.