Lebensraum: Evil and Citizenship

DISCLAIMER: Let me state that this is the extreme case. I do not believe that American citizenship is anything near this bad insofar as the condoning of evil people like the Nazis. This is merely using the most awful possible instance to illustrate the evil that lies with the constructs of man.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler took the reins of power in Germany. What followed was the worst possible outcome, an international nightmare. To give this nightmare some scope: over six million men, women and children were killed in the period of 12 years. At the camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, where some figures estimate as many as 1.5 million entered, and approximately 6% survived. These atrocities occurred in the backyards of so many German citizens. One example of this is the story (linked here) of Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton’s visit to Ohrdruf and Buchenwald concentration camps. So horrified were the men when they saw what had been perpetrated that Ike ordered all the citizens of the nearby town from which the camps were visible to tour them indescribably horrendous sites of genocide. The mayor and his wife, wrought with such guilt over what they had tacitly condoned with their willful ignorance, returned to their home and hanged themselves.

Emerson said, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness,” (Emerson, Self Reliance). This is an example of how citizenship let people stand by while their government murdered countless millions of Jews, homosexuals, and Romani. Citizenship can be, as we discussed in Emerson, a force from external perspectives that manipulates what people believe. While I differ with Emerson on numerous different doctrines and ideologies, such as ‘finding God within oneself,’ which I believe to be false, he and I do convene in belief when it comes to the ills of seeking recognition from the people. Emerson goes on, “For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face. The by-standers look askance on him in the public street or in the friend’s parlour,”(Emerson, Self Reliance). This seeking to conform leads to a problem of an unwillingness to act. It places people strongly in Morone’s pet peeve of complacency regarding the reformation of government. Citizenship can lead to complacency, it can lead to inaction. If the goal is a state of being, a standing of recognition, you will fear the alienation and loss of that standing.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” Citizenship as defined as a state of standing can lead to the acceptance of evil. Let me again state that I don’t believe there is anything wrong with American citizenship. This to which I am referring is taking the valuing of citizenship to the extreme. I merely wanted to make the point that normal people are capable of condoning evil when they value standing given by others.

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11 Responses to Lebensraum: Evil and Citizenship

  1. jwpeace88 says:

    First of all, I completely agree on the point you made about social standing leading to complacency and ultimately to inaction. Citizenship is essentially a mark of recognition that comes from society and people around us. It confirms that we are indeed worthy and deserving of that standing. In other words, being without such standing could mean that person is somehow lesser or inferior than those who already possess it. The fear of losing standing and public respect discourages us from speaking out. More often than not, it is in the interests of the powerful to suppress any attempt that would challenge the conventional system. And normal people like us whose opinions might differ still end up acquiescing in whatever decision society has made, because if we dare to question the authority, we are sure to be thrown out of the circle and suffer the demeaned condition of the excluded, something that we are well aware of.

    I know this is not something that was covered in class, but I just want to illustrate how group psychology comes into play in the process. According to Freud, normal people are capable of condoning evil precisely because they look to others. In personality, there is a part(agency/system whichever term you like it) called superego. This is almost like a parental voice that tells the person to act in certain ways. When someone has internalized important/powerful people/ideas/norms and incorporated them to his superego, it makes him feel that he must obey what it says. Normal people(followers) place themselves instinctively under the authority and conform to dominant ideas, however hideous they might be, since they transfer to the authority whatever their reaction to their parents were. As long as people look to external forces for their recognition, they will always be capable of condoning evil of society.

  2. andycraft says:

    I like how you incorporated both the danger Emerson was talking about with conformity and the potential benefits from breaking out of conformity that he so vehemently expressed. The danger so explicated by conformity as Emerson says is the inactiveness that accompanies conformists. This is the true danger. This common theme of exclusion by complacency, like you have mentioned, can be seen as a major cause of many political problems. The majority becomes complacent and disregards the minority. The citizen becomes complacent and never actively participates in the polity, for he has achieved citizenship status already. He is safe, stable, unchanging.
    I found your example of Nazi concentration camps especially interesting. This example definitely covers the extreme end of conforming to the ways of evil. Nazi-dominated Europe proliferated fear to conform. This is quite different than merely acting complacent and following societal norms that everyone accepts. The fear Nazis supplanted in the entire Jewish Population and other outcasts of society created a reluctance to speak out for fear of violent death, persecution, and exile. Emersonian thought is a bold and ambitious philosophy when confronting such radicals as the Nazis. However there are numerous examples of individuals helping those Jews secretly, gaining there access to freedom. In these instances, Emerson’s reliance on the self, to non-conform was especially apparent in World War II.

  3. allenle2011 says:

    I completely agree with your blog post. When citizenship comes from standing people become comfortable and complacent with it. It is because citizenship is really nothing that they can work for. I think this post, while an extreme example, is very good because it shows what can happen when citizens get comfortable with their standing in terms of citizenship. The citizens of Germany never thought that electing Hitler would create a situation so horrendous. Right after Hitler was elected he began to pass a series anti-semitic laws. Hitler passed these laws while German citizens stood by and did nothing. I believe this is because they were complacent with their standing as citizens of Germany. Once people became aware what Hitler was really doing, it was too late. The laws were already passed and Hitler had momentum on his side. Because external forces gave citizens recognition, they unfortunately assisted in the spread of evil.

  4. bjacobs25 says:

    Excellent application of Emerson here. While not as magnified or harsh in scope as your Concentration Camp example, I couldn’t help but think of the current situation at Penn State University in relation to it. The parallels are almost stunning. Joe Paterno, similar to the mayor of this town that housed the concentration camp, either implicitly or explicitly knew that young boys were being sexually assaulted within the confines of his football program. However he did nothing to stop and and by keeping quiet, actually encouraged these horrifying activities.

    “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.” Paterno took this stance. He was singularly focused on the sanctity of what was his, his football program, and completely ignored his surroundings or the young boys that were brought into it. This Emersonian train of thought has no place for a chief executive or other person in a position of power. By focusing on one’s self and only one’s self, we ignore our environments which compose so much of who we are. In Paterno’s case, it led to him losing literally everything he had – and it tarnished the legacy of one of the most magnanimous people in the history of college athletics.

  5. erikamir says:

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post and I found it interesting how mentioned the question posed in lecture of the possible dangers of conforminty and benefits of breaking away from conformity. I immediately thought about Blacks in terms of conformity and Emerson. Emerson himself was against slavery and saw the dangers that it imposed on society. I like that Emerson alludes to the fact that coventional wisdom of thte time might not be the best way of thinking. I like that he understands that just because something has been taught to you, doesn’t make it right. I believe that what Emerson was ultimately arguing is that we cannot function as a people without have the value of morals. In Self Reliance, he asserts that society is a wave and how in order to change society you have to change the way of thinking. You must rely on yourself to make change for the greater good.

  6. Robert Tepper says:

    I found this post to be extremely interesting and I like how you related the conformity of the by-standers to Emerson. I believe you made a strong connection to the reading and I definitely agree that conforming was one of, if not the main cause in standing by and doing nothing. I also believe that not being self-reliant was another cause. I believe that there were people who wished things were different at the time, but were hesitant to try and stop the atrocities because they thought someone else would do it. Fortunately, however, there were a small group of people that did decide to do something about it: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shtetl/righteous/

  7. kmuth0307 says:

    I agree with the above comments that this is an excellent application of Emerson. While it is extreme, sometimes extreme cases make the point much more clear. I was surprised to hear that the townspeople were so shocked and upset at the concentration camps. It is hard to believe they did not smell the stench of burning bodies in the wind from time to time. Emerson’s opinions on individualism and non- conformity are interesting here. If they had been in play, the townspeople would not have allowed such atrocities.

    However, uniformity is important at times. For example, the U.S. military requires uniformity in dress, hair, language, and training for important reasons. This uniformity increases production, safety, and communication. Without uniformity, there would be a complete lack of control and organization. To put it simply, on levels of social issues, uniformity may not be necessary or appropriate, however in the world of business and production, uniformity is required and expected. Uniformity is conditional based on the situation.

  8. udontempura says:

    Couldn’t agree more with the post. I just saw the movie “The Pianist” for the first time the other day, and watching it from the comfort of my room I could easily condemn the unquestionably horrific actions of the Nazis. At the same time, I look at everything I do today that conforms with the norms of citizenship (from going to college to spending money to… the list is endless) and I wonder… could I have been pushed to do the same in the setting of Nazi Germany?

    The fact that so many Germans (who at the end of the day are a vast majority of citizens no different then you or I) were pushed into it means that in all probability… yes. Its truly mind blowing to really think about it, but the power of group mentality is an overwhelming one. Sometimes, disastrously so.

  9. charliefilips says:

    I also like the application of Emerson’s ideologies towards the non-action of citizens within Nazi Germany. You properly alluded to Emerson’s notion that it is illogical and potentially dangerous to look to others for standing. As emphasized with the Nazi Germany example, the desire to conform to conventional morality caused citizens to tacitly consent to genocide. However, Emerson also suggests that only few people, great people, have the capacity to resist conformity. If this idea is recognized as true it is an unfortunate condition of mankind.

    Continuing on this train of logic, I’m not so sure I believe non-action makes those people who stood idly by genocide evil people. I know that sounds terrible on my part, but if few people have the capacity to act against what is done in accordance with conventional morality is it reasonable to condemn them? The gift of hindsight allows for clear moral decisions, but it seems difficult to act against societal norms when the consequences could result in the loss of standing.I like to think that I would be able to act against conventional morality when what is done goes against my own moral truths, but there is no way to know definitively whether I would or not. This leads me to reflect on another of Emerson’s ideas, the idea that “We know truth when we see it, from opinion, as we know when we are awake that we are awake.” If you place this idea the context of moral reasoning, I’m not so sure I agree that man has the capacity to recognize truth from opinion. Many variables can cloud the certitude of an idea that you held to be true, and as a result you could develop and believe in a new truth. Emerson wouldn’t agree with that, but I think this is because Emerson is really good at having a logical cop out for all the ideas that he presents.

  10. eakunne5 says:

    Even though it was a rough topic, I rthink your did a good job of reflecting your main points. Emerson’s emphasis on individualism and the problems of conforming with society shine brightly when it comes to areas like this. People’s willigness to turn their eyes to the horrors they knew deep down in their heart as wrong is pretty scary. History has shown over and over again the problems with people conforming to scoiety and not fighting for what they truly believe as right. It is true that Emerson takes things to the extreme and might have some odd ideas, but he also has alot of valid points in his ideals. When people shut off their indiviidualism to the society and function basically like robots, it in reality hurts a society’s progress. I feel thsat having a good mixture between Emerson’s ideals and civic republican mindset is often the middle ground people should keep.

  11. arullis says:

    I read this post and at first was a little taken back. How could you relate citizenship in America to Nazi Germany. Upon reading your introduction and your disclaimer I started to read and became very interested. I completely agree with your statement of the power of standing within society. Also, the dangers standing presents. i liked how you related this thought of yours to multiple points in history. You depicted the evil which society presents and tied it in with citizenship. You did a great job of it as well. This post really made you think about how the two are related.

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