Lessons From Berlin//Be VIGILANT
21st November 2015

I was going to write about how I’m worried that our country is becoming more ‘extremist’ and how the aftermath of the Paris attacks is worse than the attacks themselves… but first, some foundation to how I think.

Narrative Introduction

The thoughts for this post happened over a year ago… but as I was doing my final year of university, writing blogs took a backseat.

I visited Berlin last year. I think it’s a great city to visit – no idea what it’s like to live in, but it seems cool – but no surprise that when I visit a city, I’m looking for more than just somewhere to take nice social media photos and have an alcoholic beverage!

Berlin has lots of history, recent history. It’s been through a lot: the Second World War wasn’t that long ago, and after that Germany was split in half, following post-war occupation where the Allies (America, UK, France) occupied half of it and the USSR occupied the other half. WW2 went straight into the cold war, so they weren’t reunited until 1990. The city of Berlin itself was split in half, and sometime around the 1970s a huge wall was built by the East to stop people leaving into the West. I knew it existed, but it was something else to see… a bit of it had been left intact, a 5m high concrete thing with a rounded top, so no way to climb it. There was a 30m death zone in the middle, with landmines and spikes and constant guards who were under orders to shoot anybody they saw crossing it. The real price of a border.

So that remaining wall bit (I’m sure it has a name, but I forgot it) is one of the bits of history that is left up in Berlin. There are many others. You can see the traces of the division in the city apart from this – there’s a metal line in the floor which shows where the wall used to be, and a couple of other parts left standing (Checkpoint Charlie, for example, which was the one bit of road between the two halves, always guarded, which had a tank stand-off at one point). You can see the difference in some places between East and West. There’s a big area which used to be on the corner of the wall, and has now had huge redevelopment: kinda funny as it’s a modern cinema and shopping centre and maybe even a couple of bank offices… definitely capitalism claiming the space which it was once blocked from! There’s a museum about the Stasi (East German secret police) surveillance methods – it was immense, they used to spy on loads of people, as part of keeping the population under control, and when it all collapsed they tried to burn all of their documents but didn’t destroy all of them, and there was a big office in Berlin that got ‘saved’.

And there are also some World War 2 bits, and that’s what I want to talk about today. I’ll focus on one bit, because that’s where I had this thought, about a Lesson From Berlin. There’s an outdoor museum display thing (picture below so it makes more sense) that goes through the history from 1930 or so until 1945. I looked it up and found a photo (credit: Adam Carr, English Wikipedia, it says public domain) to show it:


The Lesson

It became quite clear to me in reading it that there was nothing special about the German people in the 1930s. They were just ordinary people. The Nazi regime didn’t rise up because the Germans were evil, it rose despite the fact that they weren’t. And if it happened to them, it can happen to anybody: any ordinary group of people, in the right conditions, could have had the same thing happen. And has – this was not a one-off in history.

This is not groundbreaking, but it is definitely not something we take into account. The conclusion: if atrocities can happen in ordinary societies, we need to BE VIGILANT against such things happening.

We can see it in the saying, “All that is required for evil is for good people to do nothing”, which is not the same but is a similar idea. Hannah Arendt wrote about the evil as she understood it, coining the phrase “the banality of evil”. (I haven’t yet read the book where she talks about this, so this is now third hand). It wasn’t that all of the people working for the SS and executing people (jews, disabled people, communists, other regime enemies) were evil people; it was that evil happens due to a form of apathy, they don’t think or care about what they are doing, enabling evil to be channelled through them.

There’s some psychological work on this too. One I know of is Philip Zambardo, who ran an experiment (the “Stanford Prison Experiment”) where students were either prisoners or guards in a mock prison. All knew it was a mock prison for an experiment. Reports differ a bit, but the prison guards started doing some evil things. (Following this experiment, ethics reviews were introduced for all psych studies!) Zimbardo’s view, as he testified in court in the Abu Ghraib case (American Military, a detention centre in Iraq that had horrible stuff), it wasn’t that the people were evil but that in the sitaution of a prison, they do evil things, and that’s normal. (See further his wikipedia entry). There is also a school of psychological thought called the “situationism”, which argues that there isn’t really much room for internal traits, and rather reactions tend to be determined by situational factors. So make someone a prison guard, make them feel like that the prisoners deserve it, and they do some nasty things.

So this is why I say that the German people weren’t special. It could happen to any of us, or any group of people, in certain conditions. Have a war fifteen years before, then have an ecomomic collapse. The country isn’t doing so well, they want an improvement. More extreme politics becomes more attractive, offers an answer, people are drawn to it. Blame some Jews, it allows people to take out their anger on someone. This is the narrative of WW2 I remember from GCSE History, anyway.

So one part to it is that the capacity for evil is in all of us. Another part is that there was huge apathy and ignorance. This would be a mixture of intention of those in power, and fault on the people involved. Certainly Nazi Germany had a huge propoganda machine, with the quote “it is a good thing for those in power that people do not think” being one that I remember. Alduous Huxley (author, Brave New World) says that “The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.” Most German people did not know about the genocides happening in death camps and concentration camps (and I’m sure there is research into how much of this was conscious ignorance or how much of it was unknowable, but I haven’t seen it). But they were certainly aware of what was happening in the lead up to WW2 and the holocaust: the destruction of democracy, persecution of political opponents, Jews, disabled people, and so on.

That’s the point made, then, that there was nothing special aboout the German people. Terrible, evil things, atrocities, can be committed by any peoople in the right situations.


The inevitable conclusion to me is that we should BE VIGILANT. I put this in capitals because it needs to have force. I am also reminded of Alastor Moody from Harry Potter, who kept saying “CONSTANT VIGILANCE!”, that they needed to always be aware because there is a war on.

Even if it’s only a small chance, say one percent, that the UK society ends up committing an atrocity. The way risk works is that the value is a function of the probability of the outcome and the outcome itself. If there is a twenty percent chance it will rain, that doesn’t mean don’t take an umbrella; rather, you should weigh up the value of the 20% chance it rains with the consequence of the rain, and balance that against the cost of taking an umbrella. If it’s only a short walk from a car to an indoors place, find. If you’re wearing a nice dress, hair done, etc, then probably take the umbrella incase. Or if you had some nuclear weapons that could kill millions of people, you would be really careful that they were stored safely, couldn’t be stolen, or used just from a small misunderstanding.

It’s also not something to undo. One metaphor would be a slippery slope: easier to slide down it (away from democracy and toward extremism); I prefer the metaphor of a ratchet. If you become more extreme by a notch, you get stuck there. Power becomes concentrated and crystallises far more easily than it can be taken back. The security services get a load of power, in secret, without democratic authorisation and illegally; this gets exposed, but it is very hard to take the power away from them. And so on.

We should therefore be really vigilant against anything bad happening, given that the outcome, if something like Nazi Germany happens again, is really bad.

Wait, what do I mean happens again? This sort of thing happens all the time, there are countless examples since WW2: East Germany, USSR, Indonesia, Vietnam, and I’m sure many more that I can’t think of or don’t know. And some by ourselves and our allies: in Iraq, US and UK military did some horrific stuff in detenton centres, and we still have Guantanamo Bay, which is for people where there isn’t actual evidence to charge them with to “interogate” them (there is a more realistic and sinister theory I have for why it still exists, given that torture evidence is known to be unreliable). ISIS is perhaps an example, but it’s only one of many roaming military groups. American police violence and brutality, especially against black people. In Israel, Palestinians are treated as sub-human and it’s gone past just police brutality: it isn’t that someone with a knife is shot, instead of a non-lethal option, it’s that people who don’t even have knives and are no threat are shot.

Evil does not come announced. Few people wake up one day and think, hey, I want to kill millions of people. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, it is said. Fascist regimes do not present themselves as such, they instead promise to make the country strong again, and they don’t openly say they are using a scapegoat for what they do. There is not an open, democratic discussion about whether the costs (in terms of human lives) are worth it.

So yes. It is important to BE VIGILANT.

What would being vigilant look like? I’m not too sure, I’m no expert, but learning it in school, having safeguards set up in the political system (a free, independent, watchdog press, or watchdog group with powers – I guess that’s what the judiciary does, actually, but the current UK system is insufficient).


As always, thoughts, comments, feedback, etc, welcomed and encouraged.

There may be a follow-up post coming where I discuss, in a vigilant manner, where it’s already gone wrong. This line of thinking can also be seen in my DESPAIR post: we are already committing great evil in allowing refugees to die in the tens of thousands instead of helping them; and our environmental destruction is also a great evil that most of us commit unknowingly, and will be responsible for millions of deaths, if not more, in the coming century.