A moment of choosing not to act can save more lives than lawful action takes
“For a brief moment, one man had to decide whether or not to blow up the world” – Aaron Lemos
Martyr of the State
Known as “The Butcher of Prague”, Reinhard Heydrich was for the government of Nazi Germany an accomplished senior figure. He had the preferred look that many racialists enjoyed, clean cut and Germanic. A man that Adolf Hitler had described as having an “Iron Heart”. For many of the monumental events in the history of the Nazi German government, Heydrich had helped organise or participated in. From the 1936 Berlin Olympics to the Kristallnacht persecutions, he was a crucial element of the prewar government and its growth. Heydrich was an excellent administrator, he would be an asset to most governments, obedient, a stickler for bureaucraucy and administrative detail and void of compassion. A man of action. The particular ideology of the Nazi regime seemed to suit his talents and principles best. It was one of those perfect historical matches, where the outcome was terrible.
Heydrich became instrumental in establishing the task forces that rounded up Jewish people and placed them into ghettos. Some estimates claim that one million innocent people were murdered during the process of this bureaucratic implementation. Heydrich’s planning and attention to detail ensured that no child was left behind or no family was spared. No exceptions were made, it was the law. By 1941, Heydrich’s reputation was such that he was appointed as Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, what was formerly known as Czechoslovakia. Executions, arrests and slavery ensued. For the history that was being written for the Nazi State, he was a great man. Which is why he was one of the key figures at the Wannsee Conference, the 90 minute meeting that would write the laws allowing for the mass extermination of those determined to be of Jewish descent. Genocide was to become official government policy.
The cruelty of Heydrich’s administration in Czechoslovakia was brutal. He was an efficient government director, calculating and obedient to the ambitions of the State. He was the viceroy of an already industrial and productive sector preoccupation, he milked and bled the people under his rule and gained the results that profited the State. The nation was at war and men like Heydrich were crucial in protecting the State from defeat and the many enemies. In 1942 Heydrich was killed by British military trained Czechoslovakian operatives. For the German State, a hero had been slain by foreign backed terrorists. The reprisal was horrible.
Immoral Revenge of the Law
The German governments rulers instinctive proposal was to kill 10,000 random Czechoslovakians, but after some consideration the plan was dropped. The region was an important industrial sector for the German governments war effort, so such random mass murder could interfere with production. Over 13,000 people were arrested, most tortured. Approximately 5,000 were then executed. German government military intelligence, falsely linked the village of Lidice to the assassination. Everyone in Lidice was punished. On the spot 199 males were murdered. The women, 195, and children, 95, were taken into custody and ended up in concentration camps. Rape and torture ensued, eventually the women were gassed to death along with 81 children. The village of Lidice and neighbouring Lezaky were destroyed. The full power of the State and control over human life was on display as the spirit of vengeance took hold.
A thorough manhunt followed, the German government threatened to murder more innocent people if information relating to the culprits did not reach them by the end of a deadline. A bounty was also set for information leading to the capture of the killers of Heydrich. One of the culprits Karel Caruda gave himself up and shared the location of contacts, he was paid one million Reich-marks. When the German government agents raided one safe house, a 17 year old boy was tortured, forced to get drunk and then shown his mothers severed head in that was kept in a fish tank by the authorities in an attempt to get him to talk. He was told that if he did not give up information, his father would be next. He ended up revealing what he knew to save his father. He was later executed with his father, his fiance and her family. The State rarely keeps its promises.
Others were arrested and a siege occurred at the Karel Boromejsky church. The defenders fought back with determination against a larger German paramilitary force. The defenders were armed with pistols and the German government besides using conventional weapons of war also deployed tear gas and had the local fire fighters flood the church. The defenders were eventually killed and identified. The Bishop and senior church leaders were tortured and then murdered by the German government. The mathematics is always simple, the death of one government official is worth the blood of thousands of innocent civilians to the State.
An Exceptional Man and Collective Responsibility
Heydrich was mourned as a hero. Two large funeral ceremonies were held in his honour. A great leader of the German government had been assassinated by terrorists and the reprisal was a punishment to those associated by any collective identity to have been linked to the killing. It is the mindset that all governments impose when they embrace policies of vengeance. It may be the carpet bombing of cities, the targeted attacks on infrastructure, embargoes or the destruction of Czechoslovakian villages. Because of his position in the German government Heydrich was an important human being. He is above others, in some ways such an individual is sacred and in death the government will sanctify such a man and justice will be absolute to any who would dare defy.
The collective responsibility of punishment as was the response utilised by the German government was not unique to the Nazi regime. It is in essence that of all government. It is found inside of prohibitions and censorship and each regulation. The assumption that all are to be held responsible because of the imagined potential actions of a few or because in the past a minority had in some way been linked to that which is now being banned or controlled. The collective belongs to the State, to be ruled and regulated by the government. Regardless of the ideology of the government the outcome always is that the State is more important than individuals. The State is absolute but the elites that fill its key positions or hold influence are examples of unique human beings that transcend the rest of the citizenry. The more egalitarian the policies of the State, the more it collectivises and the more the planners, experts and policy makers of importance become exceptional and above all others.
Because the Nazi regime was defeated, men like Heydrich are no longer seen as heroes. Except from among the ranks of a perverse few. Heydrich is seen as being a criminal. Though he acted lawfully according to his own government. He was cruel and savage, though in victory he would have been justified. Such people like Heydrich are called monsters, though they were human beings. They left a path of pain and death for millions of innocent civilians. Any neutral moral observer would judge a person for such outcomes, that is all that should matter, no context needs to be considered other than the contribution to so many innocent deaths and countless tortures. We however do not live in a moral and neutral world, context and perspective seems to reign and steer many minds. For those inside the Nazi German controlled territories, Heydrich was a hero. His victims were necessary eggs to be broken in order to improve the omelette of the State, or so it is often said well beyond the bloody history of Nazi Germany.
To Save Lives is a Hero to humanity, not to the State
The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is remembered for its frightful brinkmanship, when the United States and Soviet governments danced close to the furnace of global destruction. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and a war of the worse kind was averted. One such cool head was Soviet naval officer Vasili Aleksandrovich Arkhipov, who was aboard a submarine at the height of the crisis. The nuclear torpedo armed submarine he was a crew member of came under depth charge attack from the US Navy. Soviet doctrine at the time determined that if such a submarine came under attack, three officers needed to agree to launch a nuclear weapon, when no other orders had been received. Isolated and under stress, Arkhipov disagreed with his comrades and averted any escalation.
While operating under radio silence and at the peak of the cold war, with a Captain deadset on launching the nuclear torpedo on the Americans, Arkhipov remained resilient and reasoned for caution. Aware of what such a response could lead to. He insisted on no launch. He was adamant that more information was needed before such an attack should be unleashed. The submarine eventually received radio signals and with the new information and orders from the Soviet government, the submarine was removed from a situation where attacking US ships with nuclear weapons was not to be considered for the time being.
Upon returning back to the Soviet Union, Arkhipov and his crewmen were criticised by his superiors. They had failed, the submarine had been tracked and then come under attack by the Americans, This was an embarrassment to the pride of the navy and Soviet Union. Instead of seeing a cool headed officer as being a hero, he was clumped in with the rest of the crew. Criticised for incompetence, by men who were participants in such hubris and folly that could have contributed to the world losing millions of lives in a matter of minutes. Well aware of the catastrophe that Arkhipov had prevented, the Soviet government officials were more concerned with doctrine and procedure.
It would take decades before Arkhipov was recognised for his cool reason under great peer pressure and stress. The cold war mood soon shifted and the paranoia of the Russian State would change somewhat, allowing for the acknowledgement of such individuals who defied the collective will or sacred doctrine to have their stories told. It is hard to imagine how many lives that the inaction of Arkhipov saved, how the course of history would have been reshaped if he had of obeyed and performed according to how policy makers seemed to have wanted him to. The irrationality of the situation of the Cuba Missile Crisis was created by the biggest governments on the Earth. Human beings of apparent wisdom and immense education all conspired in their own way to bring the planet close to destruction, for what end? Other than the pursuits of their own ideologies, the perpetuation of their governments, pride or just because it was their job and should they have accomplished mass destruction, then none of that would have mattered at all.
‘Lucky it was me’
Just over twenty years later it would be for another member of the Soviet military who would use clear judgement to prevent nuclear war. In another phase for high tension between the Cold War adversaries. In 1983 Duty Officer Stanislav Petrov was on duty as part of the Soviet early warning systems dedicated to detecting incoming missile strikes from the United States. In the early hours of the morning sudden computer read outs indicated that several missiles had been launched in the direction of the Soviet Union. The protocol was to attack immediately in response.
Duty Officer Petrov however did not report the computer read outs to his superiors. He instead dismissed them as a false alarm. He was in breach of duty. Disobeying procedure and the doctrinal rules. A retaliatory strike would have been almost certain, given the limited response times and the nature of the destruction that a US first strike would have caused. Petrov had no advice and only the information coming from his archaic Soviet computer.
What had made Petrov suspicious was how strong and clear the alert was. Though apprehensive he was certain that it was a glitch. Petrov called his superior at the Soviet Army headquarters and reported an error in the system. If Petrov was wrong in a matter of minutes nuclear blasts would be erupting over the Soviet Union, but by then others would have been well aware of such an attack. If he was right, for the rest of the world it was an otherwise normal morning.
It would be after the fall of the Soviet Union when Petrov would receive recognition for his inaction. He had speculated that if some of his colleagues had been on the shift when it occurred, they may have acted according to the procedures as most of them were well trained and good military men. Such procedures when written and laid down are absolute, but when wise reasoning human beings exercise judgement and remain patient, lives are saved. Despite doing what they were trained to do.
“But they were lucky it was me on shift that night”- Petrov said years later. The world certainly was lucky.
Giant collectivist States like those of Nazi Germany and Soviet Union celebrate men of action, decision makers and administrators that cause carnage and misery. They do not celebrate those who are careful and exercise a wisdom in the spirit of Laissez-faire, perhaps because government is always about its own growth and the need to control, regulate and force. It attracts in its most extreme cases people like Heydrich and it deters those like Arkhipov or Petrov or at the very least punishes them for not doing according to the rule book. When it was their lack of action that saved lives and even the State itself, such people are marginalised.
Crisis seems to attract the need to act, even when it is the same course of action over and over again that can increase the crisis. Patience and non-interference is seldom valued, it is antithesis of government and those attracted to the institutions of power. To the State a man like Heydrich is always a hero, so long as he is in their employ, and such a man would never tolerate Arkhipov or Petrov. And for that we all end up suffering.
The nature of government is control, the control people, industry, abstracts and even nature itself. It is the many complexities of control and the many layers of government that leads to crisis, smothers individual action and deters those of wisdom to shine through. Instead it promotes the bully culture of the mob and the arrogance of a perceived ‘greater good’ is often sought. How this good is determined tends to be directed from the perspectives of the elites and ruling class. By the nature of their position they have determined that they know what is best for all others. To make decisions and to act upon them is their super human ability based upon the positions that they fill inside of government. Lives are in their hands and they command them with absolute arrogance, unlike any deity they are ignorant of more than they will ever be aware of.
Control also creates conflict, between individuals, ideologies and national governments. So when men like Heydrich find themselves in positions of power they will use it to their full disposal. Always certain and confident in their own intelligence and abilities when backed by the authority of their government. No matter how benevolent they may claim to be, the nature of policy is often violent and leads to consequence. In the case of Heydrich, it is obvious and easy to criticise. The Nazi Germans lost, they are a known evil. Far more subtle examples exist of people with less consequence and villainy, who have also participated in misdeeds that have led to the anguish of the innocent. It is controversial to compare, the difference is usually scale and victory. When you have those like Arkhipov and Petrov and the many whistle blowers, they exist to challenge the perfection of the system or the institution itself. Apostates who should know better, even if they end up saving lives. To the government they did not do the right thing, according to humanity they did.