Are the Nazis just a distant legend? Or is there a hint of their hellish mentality in each of us?
That is one of the questions raised in the 1999 German film “Nichts Als Die Wahrheit” (After the Truth). My school sponsors a series of ethics lectures and events each year, and the kickoff event to this year’s theme of media, technology and morality was a viewing and discussion of this movie.
The film centers around the German trial of Nazi leader Josef Mengele, nicknamed “angel of death” for his role in the Auschwitz murders and “experiments.” Attorney Peter Rohm is fascinated with the life of Mengele and researching a book on him when, through a series of strange events, he ends up meeting the man himself in Argentina and flying back to Germany with Mengele in tow.
Once on German soil Mengele is, of course, put under arrest and sent to court to answer for his soiled past. Mengele insists that Rohm serve as his defense attorney, and Rohm is subsequently warned by the judge that this is an incredibly public trial and if he doesn’t defend Mengele to the best of his ability, she will disbar him.
From that point on, the movie is a journey through the dark recesses of the human mind. Rohm brings the Nazis down to the level of everyday humanity, pointing out that doctors routinely euthanize patients (in his modern Germany), sometimes without the patients’ consent; that Mengele saved some people from death at Auschwitz; that medical experiments on unconsenting patients are performed in the modern world as well.
At the end of the movie (spoiler alert, if you want to watch it for the suspense) Mengele is convicted. After doing an excellent job defending his client, Rohm offers his final argument — Mengele is merely a product of his time, and acted in the interests of the medical community. He then sits, and the judge asks for his plea.
After a pause, Rohm answers. Mengele is a monster, he says, who shows no remorse or understanding of the sins he has committed. He is guilty.
“Guilty, and I call for the maximum sentence.”
Mengele then begins speaking, and runs as a voiceover through the closing credits, justifying his actions over and over in the name of science, compassion and the future of the human race. As the credits rolled, I found myself wondering how different the Nazis were, really, from each of us — from me.
Solzhenitsyn said “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties, either, but right through every human heart.” The Nazis didn’t have a monopoly on cruelty in the name of science; it happens all the time in America and elsewhere.
The Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which hundreds of black men were “treated” for syphilis under false pretences while the observing doctors withheld actual, proven treatment to watch the progression of the disease, is just one of countless such forays by American scientists.
And the Milgram study in the 1940s showed that ordinary people are prone to commit acts of cruelty to others when an authority figure tells them to do so.
My conclusion? Nazi-like cruelty is set apart from my behavior by degree, not by kind. I — and everyone else alive — am capable of great cruelty. All it takes is a series of small steps down the slippery slope. But I don’t think that lets Nazi-style perpetrators off the hook; if anything, it reminds the rest of us that the hook is just a few inches away from the back of our jackets as well.