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Humanizing History's Monsters

June 05, 2004

Simon Sebag Montefiore's May 31 commentary, "Human Faces for Our Favorite Evildoers," raises significant questions about human nature. The fact that we can be appalled at the crimes committed by Hitler, Stalin and the others without realizing the possibility that they also can show an opposite gentle, caring and loving side suggests something more encompassing about us of which we must we become aware.

In the 1970s, I was able to view composite films taken by Nazi film crews of Hitler's weekend retreats during World War II at his castle in Bavaria. These gatherings included his top military and administrative leaders, their wives and their young children, dressed in their Sunday best, Wagner playing in the background and the sophisticated chitchat of comfortable people having a lovely time. Hitler joked and teased Goebbels, Goering and others in animated conversation. How charming and elegant it all was.

Then my mind brought forth the death, torture and devastation that Hitler perpetrated. How, I asked myself, could such polar opposites occur within the same minds -- individuals, families and rulers -- as if they existed with two entirely different personalities that could be turned on and off with ease?

Similarly, how can we justify American administrations, both Democrat and Republican, as ultimately responsible for the deaths of millions of people (in the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Central America and others and now Iraq)? Hitler made a clear distinction between the Jews as "other" and therefore dispensable, and only his own immediate world as real and relevant. How different is this, except by degree, from other imperialists and colonialists set upon acquisition of land, resources and people?

We must come to recognize not only the futility of war and its consequences but also that, as human beings on this planet, if we are not self-aware we can be capable of the worst atrocities against humanity without giving them a second thought while we bask in our safe, secure lives.

James Ajemian

San Diego

Montefiore seems bent on a fool's errand. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were quite human, in that, as the line in Pogo went, the enemy "is us." For, as history has illustrated over and over, we are all capable of the most horrendous deeds. Abu Ghraib prison, anyone? The Spanish conquistadors in Mexico? The Belgian holocaust in the Congo? The firebombing of Dresden? The slave trade that made America rich and powerful, and from which blacks have yet to fully recover?

The mantra for every leader has always been: We did what we had to do. And the majority of the citizenry typically accepts that. Proof of which is the fact that there is no groundswell now calling for the impeachment of the president.

Worse yet, it seems Montefiore apparently doesn't know much about China. For Mao's image remains ubiquitous and his programs for improving the welfare of the citizenry are still hailed there by the majority of the people. At least according to CCTV, China's international news channel.

F. Daniel Gray

Los Angeles

That evil men commit evil deeds is no great surprise. That good and decent men can also commit evil deeds -- ah, now there's the rub!

William Shakespeare, the most insightful student of human nature who ever lived, warned the world repeatedly of good men who succumb to one character flaw and do monstrous things. These men are far more dangerous than those who are obviously evil, because the world often does not see the threat they pose until it is much too late.

Simplistic distinctions between good and evil not only obfuscate the more profound truths about human nature, they also render a nation defenseless against the more subtle and equally destructive forms of evil that threaten the human race.

Dennis M. Clausen


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