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Hitler Was A Human Being

13 September 2010 No Comment

How do you react to the title? Outrage? Disgust? Confusion? Getting ready to put me in my place in the comments section?

If the thought of Hitler doesn’t stir it up for you, pick someone who does.

Depending on where you are, and your view of the world, it could be the 9/11 hijackers, Osama Bin Laden, Obama or Bush. Maybe it’s someone closer to home – one of your parents, a sibling, your boss or an ex-partner.

I’ll stay with Hitler for a while but you might want to substitute the name (or names) of someone who did something terrible and you just can’t see them as a human being.

For me it’s an old boss I had many years ago. He still brings up very powerful emotions whenever I think of him. It’s been hard for me to move past some things he did and, more than that, for a long time I had trouble seeing him as a person.

For illustrative purposes I’ll stick with Hitler.


Don’t get me wrong.

I am in no way condoning, agreeing with or softening any of the terrible things Hitler did. I’m fully aware of the outrageous things he was responsible for and I’m not going to list them here. He did them and there’s no changing it though I wish there was.

Call me naive (“You’re naive Ian,” I hear echoing across the virtual world) but my dream is to live in a world where these things don’t happen. Where Hitler couldn’t have done what he did. I believe one way to do that is to try to get under the skin, to try to understand what drives people to do horrible things.

This is not some woolly, love-is-the-answer-to-everything philosophy. Love probably is the answer to everything, but for now, at this point in our evolution, there seems to be large-scale immunity to it.

It’s much more pragmatic than that.

If your brand new car isn’t working properly you’ve got several choices. You can consign it straight to the scrap heap, hide it under a canvas and hope it will go away or you can try to find out what’s going on under the hood and fix it.

Unfortunately we seem to treat new cars a whole lot more compassionately than we do people!

What’s Going Wrong Under The Hood

Hitler was insane, inhuman, possessed by the Devil and a monster.

I do understand this attempt to explain actions that are so far away from what we can comprehend, but they are superficial and, I believe, dangerous.

Clearly these explanations are contrary to the fact that Hitler was most definitely a living, breathing, conscious human being. By trying to place him in a different category of life form – mythical or primal – the exploration stops there.

More importantly we absolve him from responsibility and accountability. Effectively we are saying Hitler was a monster or sick – and monsters and sick people, by definition, do horrible things.

Give Hitler a break. He was just doing what monsters do!

Or he was evil and doing the work of the devil.

Give the guy a break. He was controlled by some mythological force!

Give me a break! And the millions of people who’s lives were taken or wrecked by his actions.

I think what we’re doing is trying to rationalise any behaviour that’s not ‘normal’ (whatever that is!) in a way that allows us to cover it with the metaphorical canvas and move on. A great example is in Soviet Union where dissidents were locked in asylums – the logic being that they must be sick because they disagreed with the state ideology. Hide them away or scrap them so they don’t need to be dealt with. And as an aside this approach gives huge power to those who define what ‘normal is’.

But it’s false comfort.

I believe people do bad things when they are disconnected from their humanity. They lose sight of, or have never learned, what it is to be fully human. They have not realised we are all connected and that our actions effect not only other people but themselves as well.

By labelling them as inhuman we continue to breed atrocities, crimes and violence by giving them no way back into the arms of humanity.

We Are Products Of Our Environment

The values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who are.

In his book ‘Outliers’, Malcolm Gladwell makes a convincing case that those who are successful are so by virtue of, not only talent and hard work, but the time, place and opportunity they are in.

I believe the same is true at the other end of the spectrum. That people who do bad things are profoundly affected by the time, place and opportunity they are in.

In this way, when people are successful it is because we, the rest of us, have contributed in some way to that success. When people do terrible things it is because we, the rest of us, have contributed to that in some way.

Yet we treat criminal behaviour, or behaviour we don’t like, as an individual thing that’s not part of ‘our’ world. We exclude them by locking them up, executing them or turning our backs and closing our eyes. We respond from anger and fear and blame them, punish them and consign them to the scrap heap.

Somehow it’s easier that way because we don’t have to face up to our part in it, however small that may be.

I’m not saying victims are always partly responsible for the crimes against them. I am saying that we all play our part in the global community where crime (in the broadest sense of the word) is still a feature and that to change it requires all of us to participate.

What to do about it?

We can’t change the past but we can learn from it.

There will be times when it’s just not possible to bring people back to their humanness. Then, for our protection, they need to be kept away and secured. Not to punish but to protect the rest of us.

I believe those cases are few.

At the societal level there are proven, alternative forms of justice to the adversarial and punitive systems common in the world. For example, restorative justice where those who commit crimes are asked to face up to the impact on their victims, to hear the pain they’ve caused and to make amends. It’s not about punishment but about bringing them back to their humanity and giving the victims a chance to be part of the healing process.

To do this requires us to accept ‘offenders’ as human beings and give them a way back into the complex web of interconnections to which we all belong. Offenders are not acting in isolation of the community they are in, whether local or global, but as part of it.

At the individual level I face situations where I’ve been hurt by the actions of others. I make no apology for the fact that I’ve been fortunate and have led a peaceful, crime free life and I know it is not so for many.

Here are some steps I’ve found helpful in those moments I have faced:

  • noticing the language I use in thinking about the other person and transforming evaluative, judgemental language into the facts helps me see the situation more clearly and with some distance
  • finding and naming the feelings triggered in me helps dissolve the pain
  • looking deeper for my needs in the situation helps me connect with my humanity
  • expressing these things to the other person (if that’s not possible then I find someone else to talk to) helps release them from my inner world
  • enquiring with an open heart what drove the other person to do what they did – and receiving it in a way where I do all I can to see the human being behind the ‘offender’
  • making a clear request about what I would like to happen that will support me in moving forward (and to be very wary of anything that might be coming from a desire to punish).

Sometimes this doesn’t work. Maybe because I don’t have the chance to talk with the person, or I do and they are not willing. Maybe because the pain is too much for me to deal with easily and needs more time and insight to dissolve.

And of course I do things that trigger pain in others, but I’ll leave writing about that for another day.

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