Another timely quote in the vein of the apocryphal Julius Caesar warning
about political leaders who can all too easily send the citizenry marching
eagerly off to war by manufacturing crises that purportedly threaten national
security and making popular appeals to patriotism. In this case the sentiment
expressed is even more disturbing because it comes not from a venerated
figure of antiquity, but supposedly from a reviled twentieth-century figure
associated with the most chilling example of genocide in human history:
Hermann Goering, Nazi Reichsmarshall and Luftwaffe-Chief. We may be made
somewhat uneasy by the idea that the head of a classic civilization recognized
2,000 years ago that the populace could be manipulated into sacrificing
themselves in wars at the whims of their leaders, but we're outraged (and
maybe even scared) at the thought of a fat Nazi fascist flunky's recognizing
and telling us the same thing.
The notable difference here is that although the Caesar quote is a latter-day
fabrication, the words attributed to Hermann Goering are real. Goering
was one of the highest-ranking Nazis who survived to be captured and put
on trial for war crimes in the city of Nuremberg by the Allies after the
end of World War II . He was found guilty on charges of "war crimes,"
"crimes against peace," and "crimes against humanity"
by the Nuremberg tribunal and sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence
could not be carried out, however, because Goering committed suicide with
smuggled cyanide capsules hours before his execution, scheduled for 15
The quote cited above does not appear in transcripts of the Nuremberg
trials because although Goering spoke these words during the course of
the proceedings, he did not offer them at his trial. His comments were
made privately to Gustave Gilbert, a German-speaking intelligence officer
and psychologist who was granted free access by the Allies to all the
prisoners held in the Nuremberg jail. Gilbert kept a journal of his observations
of the proceedings and his conversations with the prisoners, which he
later published in the book Nuremberg Diary . The quote offered above
was part of a conversation Gilbert held with a dejected Hermann Goering
in his cell on the evening of 18 April 1946, as the trials were halted
for a three-day Easter recess:
Sweating in his cell in the evening, Goering was defensive and deflated
and not very happy over the turn the trial was taking. He said that
he had no control over the actions or the defense of the others, and
that he had never been anti-Semitic himself, had not believed these
atrocities, and that several Jews had offered to testify in his behalf.
If [Hans] Frank [Governor-General of occupied Poland] had known about
atrocities in 1943, he should have come to him and he would have tried
to do something about it. He might not have had enough power to change
things in 1943, but if somebody had come to him in 1941 or 1942 he could
have forced a showdown. (I still did not have the desire at this point
to tell him what [SS General Otto] Ohlendorf had said to this: that
Goering had been written off as an effective "moderating"
influence, because of his drug addiction and corruption.) I pointed
out that with his "temperamental utterances," such as preferring
the killing of 200 Jews to the destruction of property, he had hardly
set himself up as champion of minority rights. Goering protested that
too much weight was being put on these temperamental utterances. Furthermore,
he made it clear that he was not defending or glorifying Hitler.
Later in the conversation, Gilbert recorded Goering's observations that
the common people can always be manipulated into supporting and fighting
wars by their political leaders:
We got around to the subject of war again and I said that, contrary
to his attitude, I did not think that the common people are very thankful
for leaders who bring them war and destruction.
"Why, of course, the people don't want war," Goering shrugged.
"Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a
war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm
in one piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in
Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany.
That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country
who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the
people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or
a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship."
"There is one difference," I pointed out. "In a democracy
the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives,
and in the United States only Congress can declare wars."
"Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people
can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All
you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the
pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.
It works the same way in any country."