ALONE IN BERLIN: Terror, courage and convenience

05/31/2015 22:50

A month ago, I visited my friend Mats in his beautiful villa from the 1920s, north of Stockholm, a treasure cave filled with art, music and books. With his customary generosity Mats received us, me and another good friend of mine, whose name is Mats as well. Together we enjoyed delicious drinks and food, constantly engaged in long and winding discussions about politics and literature. Mats and Mats are unbeatable when it comes to literary taste and expertise, they have never recommended a lousy book and one of the profits I gained from this invigorating get-together with good, old friends, was that I brought with me Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada.

Fallada´s novel is an unblemished masterpiece, written by a man with a deep knowledge of human misery and greatness. A writer who had mastered his craft to perfection – a novel has to be written just like that; genuine, unassuming, solid and with recurring, unexpected tosses and solutions. A piece of art, which with all possible clarity puts the haunting question: "What would you have done if you lived under the Nazi dictatorship? Would you silently have accepted the terror, abuses and excesses?" Fallada´s portrayal of people in Berlin - a woodworker, a female postman, a zealous police detective, factory workers, Nazi hooligans, Communists, a saintly priest, petty criminals and informers, a pet shop owner, a righteous judge of appeal, a host of corrupted legal representatives, a Jewess, an acclaimed conductor – all of them provide hints whether the reader would have been a bold opponent to the repulsive Nazi regime. When it comes to me,the answer might probably be that I would prove myself to be just as coward as most Berliners at the time and I could thus, just like John F. Kennedy, state: Ich bin ein Berliner, but in a more negative sense.

Millions of people were hard hit by an insane regime, making a living immersed within a society characterized by snitching and state-sanctioned brutality. An attack on the regime would be tantamount to a form of suicide, which furthermore would almost inevitably bring death and misery to relatives and friends. No one could trust anyone else and it is actually surprising that, despite their own weaknesses and shortcomings, some individuals actually dared to offer some kind of resistance. Heroic people emerged Amidst all decay and corruption, though in pitiful small numbers, being by far outnumbered by those who in benefit of their own security were willing to sell body and soul to the Devil. A sense of false safety that for most of them would prove to be false. If they did not end tormented by the Gestapo, many of them would be killed on the Eastern Front, in concentration camps or most likely during Allied terror bombings, or in the Russians unforgiving onslaught on their hometown.

Fallada had an uncanny ability to portray ordinary people's lives in such a way that their actions become understandable, whether they were career-climbers, egoistic collaborators, or engaged in passive or active resistance. Such is life, and it was so in the Berlin of the nineteen-forties, just as it is in many places today. Just as miserable, pathetic, corrupt and heroic. Fallada´s book does not present any grandiose theories about why the Germans did this, or why they did that. Here are the Berliners in all their human nakedness and they turn out to be like you and me. We often find heroes where we don´t expect them to be and that goes for villains as well. Just as it was hard and difficult in Berlin during the vicious Nazi era, it is certainly a similar hell in places like today´s Syria, Iraq, Libya and Eritrea. Where young people are beaten and forsaken, while others allow themselves to be corrupted, while some are turned into torturers and killers.

Fallada´s novel is great and exciting literature, though some sections turn out to be almost unbearably painful due to the utter despair they convey and harsh depictions of brutal violence, while other parts, mainly due to their glaring sarcasms, can be quite humorous. Fallada´s experiences - his failures, his journalistic flair, sense of guilt and remorse, drug addiction, alcoholism and mental frailty – are constantly alive, pulsating beneath the text.

It is rarely acclaimed heroes who have impacted the grateful memories of people who had the misfortune to end up in hell and against all odds were able to return to a “normal” life after the war. Aharon Appelfeld states:

The war changed people beyond all recognition. Decent men who had run large companies would steal bread under the cover of darkness, and overnight honest merchants turned into enemies of their own children. But there were also people, mainly simpler folk, who came into their own, totally devoting themselves to others.

Appelfeld was born in a small village in Bukovina, in a district which then was in the Kingdom of Romania, but now is part of Ukraine. His small family soon moved to Czernowitz (Chernivtsi). When Bukovina, in 1941 after a year under Soviet rule was reconquered by the Nazi allied Romanian army 50,000 Jews were herded together in a ghetto established within Czernowitz. Appelfeld´s mother was brutally murdered and soon the then eight year old Appelfeld found himself, together with his father, on his way to a concentration camp in Transnistra, nowadays a Russian-supported breakaway republic from Moldova.

Through strange and horrifying adventures Aharon Appelfeld managed to escape the loathsome Nazi persecutors and at a quite tender age ended up as a cook with the Soviet troops. After the war, Appelfeld came to Italy, and finally he was in 1947 miraculously reunited with his father in Israel. Appelfeld describes his remarkable exploits with the lucidity and sense of wonder of a bright child.

In his books we find Appelfeld in the midst of the senseless violence along the eastern front of World War II – inhabited by executioners, sadists and people mad with hunger and hardship – but he does, amidst all this senseless cruelty, encounter people able to show an almost unimaginable concern for their fellow men. Good people like Rauchwerger brothers who offered hope and compassion to the people of Czernowitz's ghetto.

Otto, the firstborn, had worked for many years in a lumberyard. The owner, a small shriveled Jew, exploited Otto´s strength, working him late into the night. Otto neither complained nor demanded overtime pay. Occasionally he would go into the inn, downing a few small glasses, and invite all the poor people there to join him for a drink. They loved him and would gather around him as if he were their elder brother. At the inn he´d be happy and throw his money around. Respectable people didn´t like Otto. His naïveté and honesty were considered foolish. They´d say: ”A man who doesn´t stand up for what he thinks and doesn´t insist on getting what he deserves is an idiot.”

The middle Rauchwerger brother, Max, sold charcoal under a tarpaulin and not many people had taken any particular notice of him. However, when the war came and the city's Jewish residents were detained within a ghetto Max turned into a completely different person. Respected by each and every one he moved with a fearless stride, upright and proud, among the ghetto´s degraded and indolent inhabitants.

The youngest of the brothers, Karl, was deaf-mute from birth and just as incredibly strong as his brothers. He earned his his living as a porter working for a truck-owner, a vulgar man who treated him abusively, kicking and slapping him. Karl who was as innocemt as a child, neither complained nor raised a to protect himself, but worked from morning tioll night, barely making a living.

Then they were hoarded into the ghetto Rauchwerger brothers lost their jobs. Otto began working as a volunteer in the ghetto orphanage, where he cleaned, made the dishes, peeled potatoes and chopped wood. In the evenings he sang lullabies for the children, playing with them, amusing them with his amazing ability to mimic birds and other animals. When the deportations to labor and extermination camps began in earnest, Otto smuggled most of the orphans, through the sewers out of the ghetto, to peasants and monasteries who in collusion with the Resistance could offer them a safe haven.

 After the end of the war Appelfeld once again met up with Otto Rauchwerger:

The deportations, of course, did not pass him by. On the forced march across the Ukrainian steppes, he helped the weak and buried the dead. Over the course of the war, his face changed, his beard grew and he became to look like a rabbi who had been reincarnated in a non-Jewish body. […] He was thin. A kind of spirituality radiated from his face. Most of the refugees looked wretched and were depressed, but Otto hadn´t changed in the slightest: he had the same way of inclining his body toward you in careful attentiveness, the same natural desire to lend a hand and to help, the same self-effacement.

The middle brother Max, had after his family had been rounded up and sent to the camps, ended up alone in Czernowitz and began to work as a volunteer in the hospital. He quickly gained a reputation for decency and devotion, and when he appeared in the streets to ask for donations for the sick, men and women alike would fill his basket with bread, salt, sugar, and candy for the children. People trusted him, and offered him what they might have eaten themselves or even kept for their own children. On more than one occasion, he was brought half an orange or half a lemon offered to him with the words "the sick need them more than we do." When the hospital was emptied Max disappeared with the sick.

The deaf-mute Karl, youngest of the Rauchwerger brothers, returned to his former home, The Institution for Deaf-Mutes, where he was received with open arms. The ghetto days became his hour of glory. He was a hero for the blind and the death; strong as a bear, he carried potato - and coal sacks, barrels and anything else that demanded his astonishing strength. As soon as any of the disabled were treated badly Karl Rauchwerger was by their side, prepared to defend them with his mighty fists, or drill his piercing eyes into terrified bullies.

Karl died shortly before the final deportation to the camps. When a Romanian Iron Guard who without any viable cause assaulted one of Karl's death-mute friends the sturdy Rauchwerger brother hurled himself on the evildoer, but he was felled to the ground with a heavy punch and then the Iron Guard began to mercilessly kick his fallen victim. The furious Karl, however, came back on his feet and with his bare hands he strangled the assailant. The bewildered murderer was immediately arrested and was within a few hours´ time executed in the police station's courtyard.

Appelfeld writes that the Rauchwerger brothers became full-fledged heroes for Czernowitz´s ghetto inhabitants, how they were able to maintain a hope for a better future. Their conduct gave a sense of decency and strength to people trying to endure amidst inhuman misery and callous abuse:

Everyone wondered how these brothers had been raised, they had not gone to high school and did not read newspapers. Their parents were simple folk, so what had they imbued their sons with to turn them into people with such a remarkable devotion to others? Nobody could come up with an answer


While I read Fallada´s Every Man Dies Alone it became clear to me how it could be that so many millions of people without protesting could accept grotesque abuses, lawlessness, total humiliation and silently witness how vulgar monsters with impunity violated completely defenseless fellow human beings - neighbors, friends, confidants and family members. How terror buried its claws into each and every one.

A constant nagging fear became part of existence; fear of being exposed to the wild beasts, to be forsaken by friends and acquaintances. Be taken prisoner, beaten, tortured, sent to concentration camps or even executed in silence. Who could under such circumstances have the nerve to offer any futile resistance that would expose your loved ones to the danger of becoming victims of those who had put their services and expertise at the disposal of a merciless and unscrupulous regime?

Terror was in Berlin real and tangible. You might be able to avoid any contact with it if you kept silent and refused to get involved, but if someone heard about your critical stance and reported it to the authorities you were up for a rough ride, which in most cases would have a terrible end. It is well known that during The Reign of Terror of the French Revolution the regime guillotined opponents in a steady stream. During the French Revolution, 16,594 people were registered as having been executed by the guillotine, of which 2,693 in Paris. In Germany, an estimated 16,500 convicted persons were guillotined between 1936 and 1945, apart from those who had been beheaded by the Nazi regime and its supporters in other countries and in labour- and death camps. In 1936, Hitler had decided that convicted “serious” criminals and "enemies of the state" were to be executed by guillotine, after 1942 it was furthermore decreed that hanging could be an option while executing a capital punishment. In October 1936, 20 guillotines were constructed on Hitler's explicit orders and put into operation at various locations in Germany.

In the prison of Plötzensee in Berlin, which has a prominent role in Every Man Dies Alone, 2,892 people were executed between 1933 and 1945, by beheading or hanging (after 1943). In  the night of September 8, 1943 the Plötzensee prison was hit by a British bomb and its guillotine destroyed, while the walls surrounding several cells were razed. The prisoners were immediately rounded up and the State Secretary Curt Rothenberger ordered over the phone, in the absence of the Minister of Justice Otto Thierack, that all prisoners without any functional cells would immediately be hanged. During the 24 hours that followed the bombing, 186 prisoners were hanged. When the Minister of Justice had returned to his office, he approved of Rothberger´s drastic decision and ordered the immediate hanging of another 60 prisoners. After the war, Rothenberger was sentenced to seven years in prison, while Otto Thierack committed suicide in US custody.

Many of those who were beheaded in Plötzensee were individual citizens, without any knowledge or support of others. Many of them had to the best of their ability been opposing the murderous Nazi regime with the few modest means at their disposal. Examples of such isolated opponents to the regime were the spouses Otto and Elise Hampel, who served as models for the characters of Otto and Anna Quangel in Fallada´s novel. The English title Every Man Dies Alone is a somewhat erroneous translation of the original Jeder stirbt für sich allein, which would be "Everyone Dies Alone". Fallada is namely quite sensitive to the plight of both women and men, exposing and pinpointing how women and men due to their diverse gender roles were treated differently, as well as women and men perceived their predicaments in a somewhat different manner. The crime of the Hampel couple, which Fallada after the war read about in Gestapo´s retrieved files, was that they during several years in different locations of Berlin had placed personally texted postcards with rebellious messages.

Otto and Elise Hampel died unnoticed. There were few German citizens who dared to assert the equal rights and value of every human being, thereby exposing both themselves and others, endangering their well-being and even their lives. Were they maybe thoughtless egotists? There were no examples of resistance leading to any positive changes, but plenty of evidence to the contrary - that criticizing the regime was both useless and deadly. Torment, torture and death affected not only the righteous who had had the courage to question absolute power, terror and arbitrariness, but also people in their vicinity who through such courageous acts became innocent victims of merciless, state sanctioned violence.

 And those who were the cause of all this madness? I do not mean the executioners, hooligans and brutal sadists, but those who had initiated the insanity and were profiting from it. Men like Adolf Hitler. Politicians and bureaucrats, who were distanced from the dirty work and could afford to relax in Olympic grandeur, like Hitler in his Berghof.

Hitler's secretary Traudl Junge described a typical evening, or rather night, by the fireplace in the great hall of Hitler's grandiose abode. Huge logs crackled soothing on the spacious hearth, drinks were served and you could by the great hall's other end, through huge panoramic windows see how moon and stars made the Alpine peaks shine white, out there in the cold winter night:

By the time Hitler finally entered the living room it was usually midnight. Now we would just be waiting for the Braun sisters, the Führer led the company to a nocturnal chat around the hearth. By now the fire had been lit. Broad sofas and deep armchairs had been drawn up in a large semi-circle, grouped around a big circular table, generally with some other smaller tables off to the sides. Far to the back of the room in the corner, a single standard lamp was switched on and several candles flickered on the mantelpiece and in the middle of the table. You could see the shapes of the people sitting round it indistinctly.

Hitler himself sat on the right, in deep shadow, and to the right of him, very close to the fire Eva Braun nestled into her deep armchair with her legs folded under her. Everyone else chose anywhere they liked to sit. Somewhere under the table in front of the fire lay Eva´s two scotties, Negus and Stasi, looking like tangled balls of wool […] Hitler drank his tea. The rest of the company could have anything to drink that they fancied. There was no ban on alcohol here; you could drink sparkling or still wine, cognac or strong spirits. Cakes and pastries were served with the drinks, and Hitler had his favorite apple cake again. Sometimes Eva Braun managed to persuade the Fuhrer that at this late hour would be much more welcome than sweet things. She was expressing the wish of the whole company, and Hitler would go along with her.

In this large company it was difficult to get a general conversation going. The dim light, the thick carpets that swallowed up any loud footsteps, and the gentle crackling of the logs on the hearth tempted you stay silent. But Hitler didn´t care to be left with his own thoughts. He wanted distraction. He would talk quietly to the woman next to him, perhaps Frau Bormann. But what could she tell him? She mustn´t let the Führer know about the anxieties and problems she had with her husband. And anything she had to say about the ten children she had brought into the world one by one during her marriage to the Reichleiter was quickly over.

Far from the restful atmosphere of the Berghof's large hall soldiers were killed and froze to death on the steppes around Stalingrad, while all over the Reich Jews and other desperate people were herded together, tortured and massacred.

Hitler leaned back comfortably in his chair and while sipping green tea he started within the cozy circle of submissive worshipers to speak, with expertise and self-confidence, about anything between heaven and earth. These were long monologues and no one dared to interrupt the mighty leader endowed with an aura of infallible power. He was thinking aloud, offering his listeners a wide range of food for thoughts; pieces of advice and admonitions. The Führer was the proud owner of an extensive library and a voracious reader. While his audience munched on light snacks; canapés, sausages and turtle soup, the Führer told his acolytes about Roman legionaries, who lived on fruits, cereals, nuts, vegetables and honey:

Meat eating is harmful to humanity. When you offer a child the choice of a piece of meat, an apple, or a cake, it's never the meat that he chooses. There's an ancestral instinct there. One may regret living at a period when it's impossible to form an idea of the shape the world of the future. However, there's one thing I can predict to eaters of meat: the world of the future will be vegetarian.

With a quick glance at Eva Braun, rather heavily roughed as usual, he could add:

I don´t understand why women are not disgusted by smearing on lipstick, especially considering that it is made from animal fats extracted from sewage. During wartime lipstick is produced out of dead bodies.

Fat burns exceptionally good, which was found in the extermination camps of Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec, where it was important to safeguard the fuel capacity of human fat. A group of prisoners called Feuerkolonne removed the corpses from stretchers, which continuously were brought out from gas chambers and then arranged them in layer after layer, to a height of up to two meters, on a grill made out of railway tracks and placed over a large pit. Up to 3,000 corpses could be placed on the grill. While the bodies were piled up, dry wood and branches were placed in the pit beneath them, to be ignited with flame throwers as soon as the corpses had been put in place.

The bodies were quickly consumed by fire. The rails glowed red-hot in the heat and flames reached a height of up to ten meters. It was impossible to approach the blazing fire at a distance less than fifty meters. To increase combustion, flammable liquid had initially been poured over the corpses, but this turned out to be unnecessary. SSpersonell responsible for cremation were soon convinced that corpses were incinerated just as efficiently without additional fuel. It was, however, important to arrange the bodies in such a way that ignited fat could be used to its maximum effect. Accordingly, the Feuerkolonne were ordered to place female bodies, face down, on top of the pile of corpses, particularly those who were fat, under them corpses of obese men were placed. In such a manner, the Feuerkolonne of Belzec. Sobibor and Treblinka were able to cremate 150,000 to 200,000 bodies a month and 5,000 to 7,000 in a day.

This was something that Hitler did not want to be reminded of. He was well aware of the large scale extermination of Jews, Roma, homosexuals and Russian prisoners of war. The Führer demanded that the grotesque objectives he had established for the mass killings unconditionally must be achieved. However, he did not want to familiarize himself with the details of the gruesome activities he had ordered to be carried out and never visited a single concentration camp. Let alone a death camp.  It was not Hitler who put his own eradication plans into action, but his subordinates who were eager to realize their Führer's almighty will. Hitler was far from being a well-organized person interested in micro management and red tape, he used to give his orders verbally and was seldom interested in the details of the savagery he was causing and had the ultimate responsibility for. He much more preferred to watch operettas, light-hearted movies, discussing art and architecture with Albert Speer, or visiting the charming Winfred Wagner in Bayreuth. Writing about the Führer 's cozy evenings by the fireplace at the Berghof Traudl Junge stated:

But those who, like us, knew him well, recognized that he had recourse to such small talk as a kind of anesthetic to distract him from the losses of territory, equipment, and human life of which every hour brought fresh report.

Henriette, the daughter of Hitler's life-long friend and companion, the Munich photographer Heinrich Hoffmann, described "Uncle Alf" as a cozy Austrian", who "wanted to make himself and others a little bit happy."  Before becoming Reich chancellor, Hitler spent much time with the Hoffmann´s, almost as if he was a family member, celebrating birthdays and major holidays together with them. He liked being in Hoffman´s home enjoying the company of charming young ladies like Henriette Hoffmann, his own niece Geli Raubal and Hoffmann's apprentice, Eva Braun. "Hetty" Hoffmann wrote:

I liked him because he was always considerate and sometimes helped me when I wanted something from my dad, for example, money for tennis lessons or skiing expeditions ... But kiss him?

The last remark refers to an incident when Uncle Alf once had tried to force his way to a little kiss from the seventeen years old Hetty. She later married Hitler´s, at that time, handsome adjutant Baldur von Schirach, who later became the leader of the Hitler Youth, and finally Gauleiter, party district leader, in Vienna.

Henriette von Schirach and Hitler was undeniably close, in her youth she had occasionally worked as his personal secretary, though her behavior during one of the evenings at the Berghof enraged Hitler, demonstrating his dislike of being reminded about the extermination of the Jews. The Führer had amiably asked Hetty about a trip she recently had made to Amsterdam. He did not know that Hetty during her Dutch visit had happened to witness a brutal "Jew transport" and become very upset when she witnessed how viciously the women and children had been treated. Without thinking, Hetty indiscreetly asked Uncle Alf to consider what was actually happening to the Jews. The Führer felt he was under attack, became infuriated and rose to his feet. In her memoirs published in 1975, Henriette wrote:

I told him what I had seen. Hitler's reply was, "You are sentimental." He stood up, I stood up, [and] I said, "Herr Hitler, you ought not to be doing that." I thought I could allow myself to say so because I had known him [for] so long. I have hurt him deeply, what's more in front of other men who were there. Then Hitler said, "Every day 10,000 of my best soldiers die on the battlefield, while the others carry on living in the camps. That means the biological balance in Europe is not right anymore.”

Hiler raised his cupped hands to show how scales rose and fell. Hetty shook her head and with increasing irritation Hitler started shouting at his former protégé: “And what will become of Europe in one hundred, in one thousand years?” In a tone which made it evident that he considered the matter closed, he declared: “I am committed by duty to my people alone, to nobody else!” Witnesses later claimed that a furious Hitler also said: "They are driven off to work, so you needn´t pity them. You must learn how to hate. What does it matter to you what happen to female Jews?" An aide motioned to the von Schirach couple that they urgently should withdraw to their rooms.

The following day, Goebbels came to visit to the Berghof. Perhaps could the Führer's anger have dwindled by that time if not the spiteful Goebbels, during the cozy evening gathering in front of the open fire, had he not began to compare Vienna and Berlin, where he for several years had been Gauleiter. Goebbels stated that paralleled with von Schirach´s Viennese rabble Goebbels´ Berliners were far more laborious, intelligent and considerably smarter than the average inhabitants of Vienna, at least when it came to political ideas. Hitler, who due to painful memories never had been a great friend of the Viennese agreed. Furthermore, Goebbels insinuated that von Schirach had been far too lax in his leadership. With satisfaction the demonic propaganda minister later jotted down in his diary that the “teary-eyed” Henriette von Schirach had “behaved like a stupid cow”. Hitler, who was still sour after last night's upsetting intermezzo, turned to Henriette and muttered: "Tell me, is your husband the Reich´s representative in Vienna, or Vienna's representative in the Reich." Mr and Mrs von Schirach captured the underlying threat and chose to leave the Berghof as soon as possible, they never met Hitler again.

Despite this debacle, Baldur von Schirach could retain his post as Gauleiter of Vienna and was in Nuremberg eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was the only one of the accused, with the exception of Albert Speer, who admitted that Hitler was guilty of crimes against humanity. von Schirach´s gravestone somewhat cryptically declares: “I was one of you”.

Many considered the verdict against von Schirach to have been too mild. Baldur von Schirach had had the ultimate responsibility for the deportation of 65,000 Jews from Austria to the death camps in Poland, at the time declaring that he had done so as a "service to the European culture". Goebbels wrote acidly in his diary:

Mrs. Schirach discovered her compassion only after almost 60,000 Jews had been deported from her own doorstep.

With the exception of the von Schirach incident, tumultuous scenes never occurred during Hitler´s cozy evenings. In Hitler's devout environment, there reigned an “authentic Austrian conviviality”. When the company began to doze off during the small hours, Hitler rarely went  to bed before five, it was time for music:

He was genuinely convinced that he had an infallible musical ear. [..] A thick book register listed all the records that the Führer owned. There must have been hundreds of them. The wooden paneling of the wall turned out to be a cupboard holding records with a built-in gramophone that was invisible till the cupboard doors were opened. The black discs stood in long rows, labelled with numbers. Bormann operated the gramophone. Hitler nearly always had the same repertory played: Lehár´s operettas, songs by Richard Strauss, Hugo Wolf and Richard Wagner. The only pop music he would let us play was the ´Donkey Serenade´. It usually formed the conclusion of the concert.

To the tones of the Donkey Serenade the nightly company left the salon, laughing and chattering. The tune was probably sung by the popular tenor Richard Tauber, who was born in Linz two years after Hitler came to life in a village not far from that city. Tauber had after he had been severely beaten up by Nazi Brown Shirts in Berlin moved to Vienna, but after the annexation in 1938, he was living permanently in London. Tauber was a Jew.

Fallada writes about "the little man's" responsibility. Shall we tacitly accept injustices committed against our fellow human beings? Should we not protest against acts we assume to be wrong and unjust? One urgent worry use to be present when we are making a decision to act, or not. Will all those friends and acquaintances who have urged us to do something about apparent wrongdoings, by declaring that they would firmly stand behind us and support our views and actions, actually be around if we shoulder the heroic role as whistleblower? All of us are worried about our own lives and careers.  Most of us become extremely anxious if we find ourselves standing out from the crowd, missing out on promotions, support and friendship. Condemnation might affect not only ourselves, but also our colleagues, friends and especially our loved ones, for whose welfare we have a personal responsibility.

My limited experience has provided me with some insights into how large, hierarchical organizations cherish those who within their own systems have been provided with power and benefits. How management teams do not hesitate to strike hard against anyone who dares to point out errors committed by people within their own, exclusive circles. Protective minefields surround the power centers of most large organizations and companies. It may here suffice to quote an open letter to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that recently was submitted by relatively high ranking UN employees, who had been struck down by high and mighty bosses´ anathema of whistleblowing The letter writers claim that their revelations of serious misconduct, gross abuses and even criminal acts committed within the UN system, had led to retaliation against those who pointed out the abuses, instead of any action taken against those guilty of the improprieties.  “Retaliation against whistleblowers affects the entire U.N. system and goes largely unchecked at all levels, including in the Executive suites. [...] this will damage the UN’s moral standing and, ultimately, its legitimacy.”

A few years ago, Niklas Ekdahl´s and Inga-Britt Ahlenius´ book, Mr Chancethe UN's decay under Ban Ki-moon, so far only published in Swedish, blamed many obvious ills of the Organization on the inapt leadership Ban Ki-moon, who from my own frog´s perspective unfortunately is far from being the charismatic and powerful leader the Organization needs. In my opinion, the UN is badly damaged by corruption, an atmosphere of deaf authoritarianism among members of senior management and an often shameless nepotism, based on personal strategic thinking and political stances. Furthermore, the fact that the UN largely lacks independence from the world's major powers is also highly regrettable, but all this cannot possibly be blamed on the ineptitude of a single person. Conditions are of course partly the result of the Organization´s inflexible, hierarchical structure and internal power structures, though solutions are hard to find, not the least because the UN, after all, is the sum of its members and their representation and control are generally quite miserable.

Unfortunately is Ahlenius´ book, for a time she was working as the secretary general of the UN audit department, rather unsuccessful. Admittedly, she puts the finger on a lot of confusion and power abuse, but she also depicts herself her own hero and even if blaming the UN top management is certainly correct, it is far from enough.

I am a staunch supporter of the UN idea and charta, without its existence the state of affairs in the world would have been significantly worse. The UN cannot be deprived of its great importance when it comes to establishing and respecting the human rights, not the least for promoting equality between women and men. However, the manner in which the Organization has carried out its mandate leaves much more to be desired.

Let us be honest. I believe that when each one of us has been faced with situations where we are forced to follow our conscience, we have generally chickened out. Most of us are not any everyday heroes and if we would end up as whistleblowers or in heroic circumstances it is probably an unavoidable emergency that has placed in such a situation, forcing us to act. Something that makes me remember an incident from my youth.

I was working as a waiter for TR, the restaurants of the The Swedish State Railways, after spending the night in Stockholm I had arrived at Malmö Central Station in the south of Sweden and was with the cash earnings heading towards the SR offices. In those days, SR waiters wore a uniform; a white jacket with brass buttons and epaulettes in black and gold. A man came running towards me:

- Come quickly! It has happened something very unpleasant!

The unknown man grabbed me by one upper arm and pulled me towards the exit towards the taxi and bus stops, where a group of people had gathered. As soon as I arrived the crowd of onlookers opened up in front of me - a man was lying on the pavement, a pool of blood spreading under his head. None of the bystanders did anything, though all eyes were directed at me. Two men held a drunken youth with a wild, hunted look. One of the captors called out to me:

- It was this son of a bitch who did it! He kicked him right in the face! What shall we do with him?

 - Have anyone called the police? I wondered. 

This was long before the mobile phones. The bystanders looked indecisively at each other, but no one answered.

- You there! I commanded. Run immediately over to the payphones and call the police. 90 000, it is free of charge. 

Why these completely unnecessary details? Every idiot knew that you could call 90 000 to the police and that the call was free of charge. However, the young man obeyed without any hesitation, and rushed off to the phones. It seemed that everyone, young and old, women and men alike were grateful that someone had taken command and without thinking I took upon myself the responsibility for leading the operations and allocate tasks. I gave short commands and people immediately got involved.

- Can someone check if he is conscious and if his airways are free? 

I had recently done my obligatory military service and was therefore partly aware of the essential terminology. Someone leaned over the man on the ground, spoke to him and the bleeding wretch muttered something barely audible.

- It's OK. He is conscious, but obviously both shocked and drunk, said the man who had knelt beside the wounded.

- Good, does anyone around here know how to make the recovery position? I wondered.

Two young women nodded affirmatively, kneeled by the victim´s side and effectively positioned him in accordance with the instruction books.

- Does anyone have something to cover him with?

An elderly man took off his jacket and placed it over the bleeding man.

- And what will do we do with this devil who kicked him in the face? wondered one of those who kept the young offender in a firm grip.

- Hand him over to the police and report to them, I ordered short and crisply.

I suddenly felt exposed and embarrassed, turned around and hurried away. Police sirens could be heard from a distance. I was ashamed. Those people should have realized that I was nothing but an inexperienced young man in a ridiculous waiter´s uniform, yet they had all obeyed my orders. It was the uniform that made it happen, nothing else, and it had moreover allured me into acting as if I was some sort of authority imbued with powers to order my older fellow beings around.

What if I really had had the power over people's welfare? What if I had ended up on the unloading ramp at Auschwitz, wearing Hugo Boss´ handsome SS uniform and with a riding crop in my hand decided who would go to the right or to the left, to life or to death? Former watchmen, chicken farmers, or elementary school teachers got dressed up in the elegant uniforms, with their skull emblems and could then, just like I in my waiter´s uniform be seized by the powerful feeling of realizing that people actually obeyed my beckoning.

Most of us reading this ought to consider ourselves as being lucky to be living where we have ended up, but we ought probably be aware of our complacency as well. It is doubtful if we have earned our privileged time here on earth and it is equally doubtful if we would be able to act as heroes and protectors of human rights, something we so easily imagine ourselves to be able to do.

Appelfeld, Aharon (2004) The Story of a Life. A Memoir. New York: Knopf Doubleday. Fallada, Hans (2009) Every Man Dies Alone. New York: Melville House. Junge, Traudl with Melissa Müller and Anthea Bell (2004) Until the Final Hour: Hitler's Last Secretary. New York: Arcade Publishing. Opie, Robert Frederick (2003) Guillotine: The Timbers of Justice. Stoud, Gloustershire: History Press. Schroeder, Christa (2009) He Was My Chief: The Memoirs of Adolf Hitler´s Secretary. Barnsley: Frontline Books. von Schirach, Henriette (1960) The Price of Glory. London; Frederick Muller. von Schirach, Henriette (1980) Anekdoten um Hitler. Turmer: Berg / Starnberg. Yitzhak, Arad (1999) Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

We are the United Nations whistleblowers:





As a teacher for young women and father of two daughters, I have, despite the fact that I am a man, assumed I might have some understanding of how transformative it can be for a female child to suffer from the bleeding that introduces her sexual maturation and long menstrual cycle. My oldest and...
Som lärare för unga kvinnor och far till två döttrar har jag trots det faktum att jag är man trott mig förstå hur omvälvande det kan vara för ett kvinnligt barn att drabbas av de blödningar som inleder hennes könsmognad och mångåriga menstruationscykel.   Min äldsta och konstnärligt begåvade...
To me, Flaubert's  The Temptation of Saint Anthony early on opened the doors to an aspect of History of Religions that I only had suspected, but which now interests me more and more, i.e. the religious, often violent, clashes between various sectarians that repeatedly exploded during...
Some time ago it was Easter. What touches me during this holiday is not the cosmic, abstract-theological drama, but the personal tragedy. An attempt to come to terms with life, to accept my fate.   As far back as I can remember I have been fascinated by religion and have of course been asked:...
ör mig öppnade Gustave Flauberts Hjärtats begärelse, La Tentation de Sainte Antoine tidigt dörrar in mot en aspekt av religionshistorien som jag endast kunnat ana, men som nu intresserar mig alltmer – det religiösa tumultet som gång på gång exploderade under den Helige Antonius...
Det har varit påsk. Vad som griper mig med påsken är inte det kosmiska, abstrakt-teologiska dramat, utan den personliga tragedin. Försöket att komma till rätta med livet, att förlika sig med sitt öde.   Så långt tillbaka jag kan minnas har jag fascinerats av religion och har då givetvis ofta...
During a weekend, when I was not travelling to my family in Rome, I did one early morning in Paris wake up with a desire to do something unexpected, something spontaneous. I dressed quickly, took the metro to La Chapelle, a café au lait and a croissant at a bistro...
Under en helg, då jag inte rest till min familj i Rom, kände jag en tidig morgon i Paris att jag borde göra något oväntat, något spontant. Klädde mig snabbt, tog métron till La Chapelle, en café au lait och croissant på en bistro i Gare du Nord och sedan...
At the same time as I write my blog essays, I occasionally write an entry for my column on the site of an international news agency, Interpress Service (IPS). About a month ago, I wrote a comment about the attack on the US Congress and what I assumed to be its historical background. An...
Samtidigt som jag skriver mina bloggessäer skriver jag emellanåt en och annan betraktelse för en internationell nyhetsbyrå, Interpress Service (IPS). För någon månad sedan skrev jag en betraktelse kring attacken på USAs kongress och dess historiska bakgrund. En anonym person skrev då...
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In Spite Of It All, Trots Allt