Around 15 years ago a book came by two German researchers: “Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying.” The work, which caused a huge storm in Germany, was based on conversations among captured Wehrmacht soldiers that had been secretly recorded and transcribed. The transcripts were discovered by historian Sonke Neitzel in Britain’s National Archives.
Because the prisoners didn’t know they were being recorded, they spoke freely and openly about their war experiences. The transcripts were used by British intelligence to try to understand the psychological profile of the German soldier.
Neitzel, working with social psychologist Harald Welzer, read through the thousands of transcribed pages. Their book was one of the key factors that put to rest claims of the German army’s “purity of arms” during World War II.
It proved that there were no grounds for the claims by German right-wingers that there was a distinction between the Wehrmacht, whose fighters were motivated by patriotism, and the SS, who dealt with mass murder. The line between combat and war crimes wasn’t clear at all; the dehumanization of the enemy was deeply rooted, and murderous violence was used by everyone in uniform.
One of the conversations recorded in the book goes like this: Soldier A: “I shot a Frenchman from behind. He was riding a bicycle.” Soldier B: “At close range?” Soldier A: “Yes.” Soldier B: “Did he want to take you prisoner?” Soldier A: “Nonsense. I wanted the bicycle.”
At first glance there doesn’t seem to be any connection between this story and the case of the Israeli border policemen who seized and tossed away a girl’s bicycle; this event was caught on video and shared by B’Tselem. It shows a border policeman walking toward a Palestinian girl of 8 who dared bring her bike onto the street next to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, which, to borrow from German, is designated by the apartheid laws in the territories as Palestinrein.
The girl bursts out crying at the sight of the policeman, who steps on the bike. She runs away terrified. Another border cop takes the bike and throws it into nearby bushes.
There’s a bicycle in both stories, but that’s not the common denominator; it’s the attitude toward the victim and his property. There are German soldiers conversing about murder and the theft of a victim’s property, border police who accost an 8-year-old girl and cruelly prevent her from keeping her property, and the soldier Elor Azaria who coolly fired a bullet into the head of a helpless, wounded man lying on the ground. There’s a lot in common.
The one who precisely explained the process of dehumanizing the victim, which he termed the Lucifer Effect, was American psychologist Philip Zimbardo. The heart of the evil is the process by which collectives describe others as less human. Various circumstances can make the labelers decide that it’s permitted to humiliate and debase a group of people out of a sense of superiority and the assumption the others are inferior.
Dehumanization is a process that ordinary people undergo that leads them to change the rules of conduct they normally live by. They ignore these rules and become apathetic when they are required to carry out extremely violent acts, which without the prior dehumanizing of the object of their violence they would never dream of doing.
The process of dehumanization is similar to a cataract that blurs one’s vision, Zimbardo says. Dehumanization dulls a person’s mind and fosters the perception that other people are less human than he is. This makes the other a type of enemy who deserves different treatment, including violence, humiliation, torture and even annihilation.
The process undergone by German soldiers who served among populations they saw as inferior is exactly the same process undergone by Israeli soldiers in the territories regarding the Palestinians. The difference between events in the German-occupied territories and events in the Israel-occupied territories is not found in the dehumanization process that dulls thought. In that there’s no difference. The difference is in the legitimacy the system bestows on the implementation of the conclusions of this dehumanization, with no risk of prosecution.
As of now, there is no legitimacy in Israel for unbridled violence and extremism against those who have lost their status as human beings. But this situation could, of course, change if the gatekeepers – Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan, for example – who have warned against such possible deterioration, aren’t there to try to halt this process.
German soldiers in the occupied areas were generally not at risk of being prosecuted for the murder of those thought to be an inferior or a dangerous enemy. The Israeli army is still trying to stop this slide despite the dissonance between its humane message and the type of dirty work the occupation soldiers are required to do.
After all, it’s hard to demand a humane approach from those whose job it is to terrorize in the name of the Jewish master race in the territories. So really, why should it be forbidden to attack a little girl riding a bicycle or liquidate a wounded Palestinian in cold blood?
The writer is a Holocaust historian at Hebrew University.
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