Land of mine: an Ethical Example of Wisdom and Empathic Rationality

By Patrizia Piredda

The Oresteia by Aeschylus, like every Greek tragic trilogy, represents a series of catastrophes and grieves provoked by the violent feeling of revenge that prevents reason from evaluating the best actions to take. Orestes is hunted and tormented by the Erinyes because he killed his mother, who assassinated her husband, who originally sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia, Orestes’ sister.   

In the last tragedy of the trilogy, however, a fundamental event happens: Athena, goddess of reason and justice, enters the scene as the judge of a regular process, during which a jury composed by twelve Athenians and the goddess herself has to judge whether to condemn or to absolve Orestes and therefore whether to stop the Erinyes hunting him. Orestes is eventually absolved and the long chain of sufferings and grieves is broken: the Erinyes are transmuted into Eumenides and Orestes, the last descendant of Agamemnon’s dynasty, finds peace.

The importance of this myth lies on the fact that it represents the passage from the habit of perpetuating the state of conflict throughout the violent reaction of revenge, which derives from the incapacity to limit the feeling of hatred, to the habit of mitigating the natural emotional reactions of hatred, violence, and resentment throughout rational thinking.

The myth of Orestes brings us to reflect on a number of fundamental aspects of the human character and on the building of our social habits, based on the capacity of feeling emotions and empathy in a balanced way, always in combination with the critical thinking of reason.

What can one do in the case of suffering from violence, or of having witnessed or perpetrated violent actions? In the ancient Greek society, violence (bia) was known as the mother of tyranny and defeat, while on the opposite end there was democracy, viz. a society based on free discussion and exchange of opinions. However, the statement according to which violence brings violence is only partially true. Any violent act begets revenge when the agent believes that only by means of punishment grounded on the principle of an eye for an eye it is possible to act by justice and to restore peace. These ethical reflections on the Greek myth are once more expressed in Land of Mine, a historical movie from 2015, directed by Martin Zandvliet and nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in 2017.

After the surrender of Nazi Germany, the disposal of over two million anti-personnel mines all along the Danish beaches immediately started. German POWs were used for this dangerous work, many of whom were just boys, the same ones that the Nazi regime had sent to war after the Wehrmacht’s decimation.

At the beginning of the movie, Sergeant Rasmussen savagely beats up one German prisoner who is strongly holding the Danish flag, probably stolen and kept as an ironic trophy. In order to understand this emotional reaction, it is necessary to take into account the fact that at the end of every war, the most common feelings toward the enemy army, guilty of horrible crimes and atrocities, are hatred, resentment and the desire of revenge. These feelings prevent empathy, compassions and sympathy for prisoners to raise and consequently hinder the possibility to attribute some value to their lives. At the beginning of the story, Sergeant Rasmussen, appointed to lead a team of prisoners for clearing an area of Danish beaches, is entirely dominated by these feelings as well as Lieutenant Ebbe, who manifests a strong rancour and a firm will to take revenge. However, being in daily contact with young prisoners, Rasmussen notices that his team is formed by boys who call their own mother when they feel pain and fear. Slowly, as Rasmussen grows aware of the situation, his feelings change and his hatred, under the control of critical reflection, turns into compassion. This allows him to act wisely and prevents him from committing injustices in turn. Rasmussen, insofar as Lieutenant Ebbe told him, promises his boys that once the clearing is finished they will go home. Without asking for authorisation, because his prisoners had not been eating for days, he personally brings them some food taken from the military depot and decides to relieve them from work on a Sunday so they can enjoy a football game. The peak of this empathic feeling is reached when Rasmussen provides moral support to one of his boys, who has just lost his twin because of an explosion. It is undeniable that many Nazi soldiers that many Nazi soldiers never had similar behaviours and that they almost never developed a thought based on mercy and empathy, which permits us to see ourselves mirrored in the others. The irrational and uncritical acceptance of the false beliefs promulgated by Nazi propaganda (like every uncritical acceptance of populist discourses) originated from the fear that impels to look for strong certainties that might protect the individual (or at least give an illusion of protection) as a part of a group, even if this happens to the detriment of freedom of thought and agency.

The characters of the movie, moreover, are very young boys educated under Nazism. Forged according to the principles of hatred, anti-Semitism, violence and the crazy myths of the purity and supremacy of the Arian race, the generations of the 1920s and 1930s developed their own image of the world founded on the emotion of fear and on the feeling of hatred against diversity: a concept of identity, in other words, which contemplates alterity as something potentially dangerous, since the other, being a stranger, is considered as a potential threat.

 Hatred generates hatred. There are two possible behavioural solutions for Rasmussen: to take revenge on his prisoners for the evil produced by the Nazi ideology that had been feeding them since they were born; or to listen to his own feelings and reason, and to show them a different way of life, built on humanity and wisdom. Rasmussen’s wisdom becomes evident during the football game, when his dog gets killed by a missed hidden mine which had remained undisposed. Suffering from the pain for the death of his dog, after his first reaction of fury – the same he felt when he beat up a prisoner at the beginning of the movie – Rasmussen is able to understand that the prisoners had not premeditated to let mines hidden in the sand and that it was just a human mistake. Therefore, he can regain control over his own emotions and eventually bring his duty to completion, viz. he grants the safety of the beach: he decides that the prisoners will check the safety of the ground by walking in a row all over the beach, but he does not take revenge or punish them. He does not allow hatred to take over reason and justice.

Rasmussen chooses, therefore, the second solution and thanks to his empathic and rational behaviour he manages to provide the young prisoners with a new perspective over life because he donates them an example of something they have not yet experienced: the feeling of justice that paves the way to democracy. In fact, as opposed to the violence of dictatorship, democracy expects the existence of disputes, insofar as without diversity there would never be changes or evolution. Democracy does not mean simply putting the city government in the hands of the population: this is, indeed, extremely problematic because the judgment of the individual – who is part of a group – is influenced by rhetoric. The propagandistic use of rhetoric is aimed at enhancing the passions in the audience as to convey the general opinion toward a precise direction; it is also aimed at diminishing the presence of a rational reflection through which it is possible to see the errors of argumentation and to eradicate prejudices, false beliefs and erroneous opinions.  That who does not develop such critical capacity risks having his-her emotions manipulated and, therefore, emitting erroneous judgments. When one is not aware of the importance and dangerousness of passions, it is possible that one easily listens to and accepts the absurd argumentations of propaganda, by approving and backing dictatorship and consequently by renouncing freedom. By thinking on the power of propaganda, Jaspers writes that the conflict of information, the prohibition of free public discussion and finally the repetition of falsehood might turn a community into an unresponsive dull mass (Karl Jaspers, Vernunft und Widervernunft in unserer Zeit, München, Piper, 1950). When the human being does not act like a thinking individual, he falls in the trap of sophists whom Jaspers calls the sorcerers, the enchanters that create illusion by promising knowledge and by claiming to act for the good of the others (Jaspers).

Such “sorcerers” fight reason with the weapon of “anti-reason”, which requires the enchanter’s and the enchanted audience’s cooperation: the mediocre and undecided people who legitimate anti-reason by believing in its absurdity and by adopting the rhetoric of scientific objectivity (Jaspers).

 Democracy, then, means that everyone should develop critical capacity to have a balanced interaction with their emotions, which are necessary for judgment, without letting them prevail over reason. In this way, it is possible within a group to compare different opinions based on knowledge and on rational and critical evaluation, which time after time permits to make decisions for the sake of social equilibrium.

This is what Rasmussen does. Even if he is blinded by hatred and pain, he is able to find an emotional balance between the feeling of grudge against the prisoners and that of compassion towards the young men. Eventually, reason prevails: it is right to punish those who are guilty of the evil they have perpetrated, but that it would be wrong to take revenge: this rational behaviour permits to break the same closed circle that reproduces the violence in the Oresteia.

Against the will of Lieutenant Ebbe, who instead of sending the young prisoners home, after the clearing is finished, assigns them to clear another beach, a much more dangerous one, therefore condemning them to death. Rasmussen decides to keep to his promise; he goes and picks them up with a truck and drives them a few metres away from the border with Germany, where he sets them free. By doing so, he prevents the perpetuation of the chain of hatred, which characterises Orestes’s myth according to which the victims sooner or later become oppressors, and prevents his own feeling of hatred from causing him to act unfairly.

The movie shows that the ethical sentiment depends on the individual and does not concern complying with laws and rules; these are fundamental for organising societies but, being made by human beings, can be unjust or wrong. Therefore, one must develop critical thought, which enables to judge and act well. The only possibility for the young prisoners to develop this feeling, in order to be rescued from an unjust system, is to develop the maturity to understand that they were educated to hate and to obey blindly. In other words, only by letting them modify and improve the consciousness of themselves and others, to develop a better conception of life through the experience of diversity and, above all, of justice, the young prisoners have a possibility to direct their lives toward wisdom.

Freedom, coercion or torture? The political re-education of German POWs in Soviet concentration camps, 1941-1956

By Gianluca Cinelli

In all ages of human history, torture has represented a fear and a reality for prisoners of war. Soldiers captured in war can be the victims of the victor’s retaliation immediately after battle as well as far behind the front line, through interrogations for intelligence, forced-labour, brain-washing. In fact, torture is not only physical. George Orwell describes the perversion of psychological torture in his novel 1984 (1948) by means of the symbol of Room 101. Primo Levi, the well-known Auschwitz-witness, once wrote that “useless violence” in Nazi Lagers consisted in inflicting apparently aimless physical and psychological suffering in order to demolish the human dignity and resilience of captives.

A mass-scale case of ideological torture was the political re-education of German POWs in Soviet concentration camps during WWII. In 1941 Walter Ulbricht (1893-1973, he was President of the Democratic Republic of Germany from 1960 up to his death), in exile in Moscow, thought that German POWs could represent a useful instrument of propaganda, if they could be won to the cause of Communism. Ulbricht believed that the Red Army would eventually win the war, and he therefore saw the necessity to create a group of German Soviet agents who would trigger a socialist revolution in Germany after the end of the war. Ulbricht submitted his project to the Soviets, who recognized the potential of the proposal and decided to install the first School of Antifascism in the concentration camp of Jelabuga, where the German Captain Ernst Hadermann began to cooperate with Ulbricht and the Soviets to win the German POWs to the cause of antifascism. The breakthrough came in winter 1943, after the German debacle in Stalingrad, where the entire 6th Army was destroyed. Although only 90.000 Germans were taken prisoners, among them Feldmarschall Freidrich Paulus and his staff were also captured. For the first time hundreds of thousands of POWs were in the hands of the Red Army (over 100.000 Germans, about 74.000 Italians, and many thousands of Rumanians and Hungarians).

On 13th July 1943 in the Lager of Krasnogorsk the National Committee “Free Germany” was founded with the purpose to create the first group of military resistance against Hitler’s regime. Soon after, in September 1943, a number of officers who had refused to join “Free Germany” because it seemed too compromised with Communism, founded the Union of German Officers, which was apparently independent but actually under the thumb of Communist political activists. By the end of 1944 some tens of officers and a few hundreds of Wehrmacht soldiers had joined the antifascist movement, small figures in comparison with the 3.500.000 German POWs in Soviet hands at the end of the war.

In November 1945 “Free Germany” and the Union of German Officers were disbanded. The former members were sent back to the Soviet Zone of Occupation in Germany between 1946 and 1948 in order to build the new socialist German fatherland. Nonetheless, although political re-education of POWs was no longer in agenda, POWs remained exposed to arbitrary Soviet policies concerning intelligence and forced-labour. In 1949 a wave of political trials stormed over the thousands of concentration camps in the USSR: thousands of German POWs were accused with war crimes and sentenced to death, life imprisonment or 25 years of forced-labour. POWs were to be used to rebuild the Russian cities and infrastructures destroyed by war as well as hostages to put pressure on West Germany, which in 1950 was to be re-armed within the NATO. Political trials against POWs took place in an atmosphere of terror and menace, which can be acknowledged from the literary memoirs of witnesses.

One must distinguish between memoirs written in the Democratic Republic of Germany and those published in West Germany because they reflect different political perspectives: in fact, all Eastern authors (e.g. Paulus, Adam, Müller, Steidle and Rühle) occupied relevant roles in politics, culture and education and their memoirs depict the political re-education in Soviet concentration camps as a rejuvenating experience of self-affirmation. Political re-education, or Antifascism, certainly was not for them torture or suffering. They consider themselves as patriots who embraced the cause of a free and democratic Germany shaped on the Marxist view of history and society. They interpret Germany’s catastrophe as the necessary outcome of imperialism and militarism, to which they oppose socialism and its vocation to internationalism and peace.

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, things were different. A small group of witnesses came from the ranks of former antifascists, such as Heinrich Einsiedel (vice-president of the National Committee “Free Germany”), novelist Heinrich Gerlach, and theologian Helmut Gollwitzer. These authors had first joined Communist antifascism because they had believed in the historical necessity to take a stand against Hitler and his war. They had later gown critical toward Communism and they had been persecuted and punished for that, in concentration camps before and once they had come back to Germany after 1948. They represent the political re-education as a two-fold experience: on the one hand it was a noble and heroic assumption of responsibility that they faced as officers and human beings; on the other that experience was also a dangerous compromise with power and corruption insofar as being antifascists in Soviet concentration camps meant claiming privilege and prominence over other fellow POWs. These authors remember in their memoirs how they had to act as spies for the Communist authorities, how they had to lie and deceive in order to keep their privileges, and how they had to go through a never-ending psychological war against other prisoners in order to conquer power. These authors recall the motto of Soviet antifascism: “whoever is not with us is against us”, or “whoever does not work does not eat”, which did not sound much different than under the Nazi yoke.

The political re-education in the memoirs of lower officers and ranks, who depict it as sheer torture, appears even worse, as a school of double-thought and as a struggle for surviving, because the periodical interrogations carried out by Communist activists made the difference between being admitted to the school of antifascism (which meant more food, warm bedrooms and no hard-labour) and being sent out to Siberia for hard-labour in the woods, in mines or on cotton fields. Interrogations were subtle and dangerous, aimed at forcing prisoners into self-contradiction. When this happened, the prisoner had to choose between becoming a spy and collaborating, and ending up in punishment camps. These witnesses recall the wave of political trials of 1949 as the most fearful experience after starvation and typhus epidemics of 1943-1944: threatened to be held for years in hard-labour camps, many a prisoner chose to denounce even close friends as war-criminals, in order to be sent back to Germany, and many even mutilated themselves in order to be spared from work and sent home.

In West Germany some authors, such as former pilot and POW Assi Hahn, caught the occasion to raise a vehement polemic against Communism, which in many cases turned out to be a shameful apology of the old Nazi regime, militarism and imperialism. What is striking is that the Soviet project of conquering a huge mass of POWs, marked as a “bunch of fascists”, to the political cause of Communism eventually ended up into a large-scale failure. In fact, the strategy of attracting POWs to antifascism in exchange of privilege and power over fellow comrades in concentration camps did not produce the model of a virtuous democratic society, but rather a “grey zone” where compromise, deceit and egoism prevailed over social virtues such as solidarity, friendship and justice.

In this sense, Soviet concentration camps of POWs also represented a sort of laboratory for social experimentation. The separateness of POWs from their homeland permitted to create the condition for an artificial acceptance of the new political and social doctrine in abstract, not as a real means to manage the life of a community. Better said, there was a community, but a fragile and weak one, of starving and frightened POWs under the thumb of a powerful and intricate structure capable of inflicting suffering and death or to grant favour and privilege. Such political re-education can be seen as torture, especially if one considers that many German POWs remained in Soviet camps up to 1956.

Torture is an evil and useless instrument. Its secrecy and separateness testify to its unlawfulness as well as to the bad will of those who use it. In the past, criminals were tormented and executed in public, as Foucault pointed out, in the course of violent ceremonies aimed at restoring the authority of the State challenged by serious offences. But torture is different. It is a closed-door activity, because it is brutal and illegal, because it is aimed at overwhelming the victim’s will, in order to force out a confession beyond evidence of crime and guilt. Torture can make up evidence as magic: in order to stop suffering and fear the victim is ready to confess what the torturer wants to hear. The case of political re-education shows that torture can also be a means to force ideologies into the mind of people. Nonetheless, experience teaches that such achievements almost always remain unattained, or that they are reached at the cost of moral degradation, illegality and inhumanity.

For further reading

Bungert, Heike, Das Nationalkomitee und der Westen. Die Reaktion der Westalliierten auf das NKFD und die Freien Deutschen Bewegungen 1943-1948, Stuttgart, Steiner, 1997

Scheurig, Bodo, Freies Deutschland. Das Nationalkomitee und der Bund Deutscher Offiziere in der Sowjetunion 1943-1945, München, Nymphenburger, 1960

Schoenhals, Kai, The Free Germany Movement. A Case of Patriotism or Treason?, New York, Greenwood Press, 1989

Smith, Arthur, The War for the German Mind. Re-Educating Hitler’s Soldiers, Oxford, Berghan, 1996