Getting It Wrong on the Nazis

Thursday’s comments by former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer reveals how ignorance of the Nazi era can be pervasive even in those who have moved in some of the highest levels of government or are now in the media. It’s distressing to know that the combination of Holocaust deniers, apathy and lack of education have conspired to erase from the historical consciousness of many the pinnacle of evil reached by the Nazis.

Fleischer responded to CNN analyst’s Jeffrey Toobin’s criticism that “This country fought Adolf Hitler. And I don’t really believe that Osama bin Laden and his group are worse or more dangerous than Adolf Hitler. And we managed to defeat Adolf Hitler by following the rule of law.” In response, Fleischer said: “They [the Germans] followed the law of war. They wore uniforms and they fought us on battlefields. These people [terrorists] are fundamentally, totally by design, different. And they need to be treated in a different extrajudicial system.”

Really? It would be hard to find so many distortions and misconceptions expressed in so few words. The Germans, in some cases, followed the rules of war when it suited them, but very often their military forces brutally and openly violated them. At the Nuremburg trials, Allied judges found Generals William Keitel and Alfred Jodl guilty of war crimes and they were hanged. Admirals Erich Raeder and Karl Donitz were sentenced to prison terms. And, of course, Hermann Goering, the Luftwaffe commander, committed suicide in prison after the court sentenced him to death.

Those high-ranking Germans were convicted precisely because they didn’t follow the laws of war, for repeatedly violating the Geneva Convention. Keitel, for example, was responsible for the infamous Commissar order, which gave German soldiers the right to execute Soviet officials on the spot. He also gave the order for the “Night and Fog Decree” that permitted the execution without trial. Keitel commanded his soldiers to kill members of the Normandie-Nieman Squadron, French fliers who fought on the Eastern front, even after they surrendered.

Numerous other instances occurred where German officers committed war crimes, violating international law. During the Allied thrust in Europe, German troops massacred hundreds of American POWS in such places as Malmedy and Baugnez. At the Malmedy massacre trial in 1946, no fewer than 43 death sentences were handed
out against the perpetrators. Unfortunately, due to Cold War politics, all the death sentences were eventually commuted.

Ask the Russians how their POWS were treated in German prison camps. An estimated 3.5 million Russian prisoners — more than half of those captured — died in German captivity. Soviet prisoners were forced to live in open areas, without shelter, and most died of starvation and exposure.

And the Germans wore uniforms. In fact, they had many different uniforms, depending upon which genocidal group they belonged to. The Einsatzgruppen, the murderers given the task of killing Jews in Eastern Europe, had distinctive black uniforms and insignia. Moreover the Werhmacht was also involved with the mass murder of the Jews by asssiting the Einsatzgruppen in shooting hundreds of thousands of Jews in the Soviet Union and its territories.

Josef Mengele, the notorious “angel of death” in Auschwitz, was noted for his immaculate SS uniform and gleaming boots. Adolf Eichmann proudly wore his uniform while planning the genocide of Hungarian Jewry. Wearing a uniform while committing genocide doesn’t make it any less of a war crime.

There were also cases where German soldiers didn’t wear uniforms — or, to be precise, German uniforms — a clear violation of the Geneva Convention. To sow confusion and deceive Allied forces, German commandos wore captured American and British uniforms during the Battle of the Bulge. Several of those commandos were convicted by Allied tribunals and later executed for war crimes.

Fleischer got his facts about the Nazis totally wrong, but he’s totally right about al-Qaida. Al-Qaida’s total and stated disregard for international law and their deliberate targeting of civilians puts them well outside any rights granted by the Geneva Convention. Those in Guantanamo, who have repudiated any sense of humanity, who promote genocide, deserve no rights in return. Al-Qaida and the Nazis have a lot in common. Maybe if the Allies had meted out stricter punishment to the Nazis, al-Qaida wouldn’t have so many willing recruits today.