The headline read Ordinary German Soldiers Responsible War Crimes, not just SS. (Daily Mail, UK)

It was the second time I saw the article. The first time it was in Der Spiegel a German magazine, English edition and the second time in the UK’s Daily Mail.

In both cases the headline revolves around secret recordings that have been exposed. The recordings were made during WW2 in prison camps for German soldiers, sailors and airmen in the UK. The recordings catch them telling stories of the their atrocities and bragging about them. It makes for pretty disgusting reading. Germans in particular should pay attention to the new book on the subject because it has become a popular myth in Germany and elsewhere to simply blame all the atrocities on the SS.

The revelation should cause some soul-searching but not just among the Germans.

While reading of the atrocities and the accompanying bragging turns my stomach it really does not surprise me.

As an American of primarily German extraction I often wondered how an advanced western, outwardly Christian nation could descend into barbarity apparently without much of a collective conscience? But in my study of theology I found out why. It’s because we all have the same gene. Germans, Canadians, Americans, Russians, everyone, has the evil atrocity gene.

What country or nationality (there is only one race-the human race) that has never committed an atrocity? The answer is none of them. Oh, they may differ in scope and scale but all are guilty.

Keep in mind that the first recorded atrocity, a murder, took place centuries ago when Cain killed his brother Abel.

It’s not popular to say so today, but we all are born with murder in our hearts and given the “right” circumstances it squirts out like a vile poison. We live in a culture that argues that man “is basically good” but that flies in the face of historical and personal experience.

There is a scene in the Lord of the Rings that makes the point.


In the movie the good wizard Gandalf wants to get the ring from Bilbo so that Frodo can carry it to its presumed destruction.

Bilbo, of the peaceable, gentle hobbit race, who would not hurt a fly gets very angry at Gandalf, very angry, even though Gandalf is three times his size and represents tremendous magical power. Yet, Bilbo challenges Gandalf. Why?

The ring I think most will agree represents power of some sort. It promises something to everyone who holds it. There are no exceptions and even the “saintly” Frodo is tempted by its controlling influence.

Bilbo’s unexpected scene of rage is not because the ring, something outside of himself, is controlling him. Bilbo’s rage is the result of what is already inside of him-resident evil. While ordinarily peaceable and easy-going the ring represents something Bilbo begins to demand-power!

In other words the desire for power that the rings represents resides within Bilbo and even a gentle soul like Bilbo Baggins has the capacity to do evil in order to achieve the desire of his heart.

In our culture we often ask why is it that good people do evil when we should ask why do evil people ever do good?

Yes, it’s a theological question and I certainly am not the first one to pose it or to ponder it.

In 1962 Adolf Eichmann was executed by the Israeli’s for his numerous war crimes. The trial was an international sensation in part because Israeli Intelligence (Mossad) had grabbed Eichman from his adopted homeland of Argentina and spirited him back to Israel.

Eichmann on trial in Israel, 1962

Eichmann on trial in Israel, 1962

Eichmann’s defense was the same as the Nuremberg defendants, that is, “I was only following orders.” The defense did not wash and Eichmann was executed. His last words included a belief that he would see God, thus implying he was going to heaven.

I read Eichman’s story long after his execution (I was only nine at the time) but I’ll never forget what one prominent Israeli said (I think a Judge.) He said that one thing he found scary was the idea that Eichmann’s lack of conscience and ability to call evil good resided in all of us.

In other words, there really was nothing all that unique about Eichmann and given similar circumstances and opportunity any of us might have done the same. My source for this analysis has long since been forgotten by me but the below paragraphs from Wiki take us in the same direction:

—Political theorist Hannah Arendt, a Jew who fled Germany after Hitler’s rise to power, reported on Eichmann’s trial for The New Yorker. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, a book formed by this reporting, Arendt details the conclusion of several Israeli psychiatrists that Eichmann was “normal.” She called him the embodiment of the “Banality of Evil”, as he appeared at his trial to have an ordinary and common personality, displaying neither guilt nor hatred. She suggested that this most strikingly discredits the idea that the Nazi criminals were manifestly psychopathic and different from ordinary people. Eichmann himself said he joined the SS not because he agreed with its ethos, but to build a career.[58]

Stanley Milgram interpreted Arendt’s work as stating that even the most ordinary of people can commit horrendous crimes if placed in certain situations and given certain incentives. He wrote: “I must conclude that Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth than one might dare imagine.”[59] However, Arendt did not suggest that Eichmann was normal or that any person placed in his situation would have done as he did. According to her account, Eichmann had abdicated his will to make moral choices, and thus his autonomy.[60] Eichmann claimed he was just following orders, and that he was therefore respecting the duties of a “bureaucrat”. Arendt thus argued that he had essentially forsaken the conditions of morality, autonomy and the ability to question orders (see Führerprinzip).—

Banality means “commonplace.” That is, evil is commonplace, because it is common to man. It does not mean that every man follows through on every evil he is capable of. It simply means we all have the capacity for tremendous evil given certain situation and certain incentives.

Eichmann’s motive was a career “with the winning side” meaning the Nazi’s. To be sure Nazi ideology of Jew hatred was a factor. Jews were an enemy of the Reich so to a Nazi, it made sense to kill them, a clear example of when wrong is right in the mind of one whose conscience has been totally hardened.

Eichmann was a Lutheran but any connection he had to Christianity had long since been erased by his own quest for power (the ring issue) and by a church that had long since caved to nonsense and with few exceptions abandoned the Cross.

Today we are fond of classifying all murderers regardless of scope and scale of being psychopaths, as if they are mentally ill. Eichmann was found “normal” because in his culture he was normal just as the ordinary German soldiers who committed atrocities and laughed about it.

Our problem as human beings, is seeing the evil outside of ourselves as being the problem whereas Jesus saw the evil inside of us as being the main problem.

And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:14-23 ESV)

This is not to minimize the scope and scale of Nazi atrocities. It is to say that no culture, no nationality, no country, is immune from such things. The capacity for evil is always there and our only hope is in the one who identifies what our main problem truly is.