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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Open Secrets - Then and Now

The May 2009 issue of The Atlantic has a joint book review written by Benjamin Schwartz covering a series of books published recently about Nazi Germany:

The Third Reich at War -- Richard J Evans
Life and Death in the Third Reich -- Peter Fritzsche
Germany and the Second World War – Volume IX: German Wartime Society 1939-1945 -- (various)
Hitler, The Germans and the Final Solution --Ian Kershaw

Schwartz’s piece, entitled Hitler’s Co-Conspirators (#1) addresses a common theme covered in all of these books that has not drawn much focus in prior historical summaries of Nazi Germany – how could millions of Germans citizens NOT know what was happening?

As the authors of these books found and as Schwartz summarizes, the answer is very simple. Hundreds of thousands, if not most, Germans DID understand exactly what the Nazi regime was doing. Soldiers wrote home about mass shootings. The German tendency towards methodical efficiency meant thousands of mid-level bureaucrats saw reports of killing squads and mass murders. Towards the end of the war, a principle motivating factor for German troops to continue the slog was the fear of possible treatment of Germany by the Allies should Germany lose when the full scope of the Final Solution became apparent. Here is a quote from the Evans book repeated in The Atlantic piece:

Railway timetable clerks, engine drivers and train drivers and other staff on stations and in goods yards could all identify the trains and knew where they were going. Policemen rounding up the Jews or dealing with their files or their property knew as well. Housing officials who reassigned the Jews’ dwellings to Germans, administrators who dealt with the Jews’ property—the list was almost endless … The mass murder of the Jews thus became a kind of open secret in Germany from the end of 1942 at the very latest.

There’s the key phrase. An open secret.

Here is the key point of Schwartz’s commentary on these books and their conclusions about mass psychology, fear and unspeakable criminality:

As the social historians of the Reich probe more deeply, it’s increasingly clear that although knowledge of the Final Solution prompted action by only a heroic few, that knowledge—and Germans’ accompanying quiescence—nevertheless loomed large in the mind, and in many cases the soul, of the nation. This was deliberate on the part of the regime. In their public pronouncements Hitler, Goebbels, and Alfred Rosenberg married the bluntest language about an exterminationist policy toward the Jews with a complete absence of detail regarding implementation of that policy. Or the regime would wink at the population, as in a famous speech Goebbels made in 1943: when describing Nazi plans for the Jews, he said “exter—” and then theatrically corrected himself with the word exclusion. By establishing the murder of the Jews as an open secret—open enough that awareness of it pervaded society but secret enough that it couldn’t be protested or even openly discussed—the Nazis devilishly nudged the nation into complicity, and further bound the population to its leaders.

Read that paragraph a couple of times, slowly and carefully.

Sound familiar?


America has maintained many notable “open secrets” of its own over the past years.

Remember Dick Cheney’s appearance on Meet the Press on September 16, 2001 after the September 11 attacks? Here’s the first reference to working on the “dark side”: (#2)

VICE PRES. CHENEY: I’m going to be careful here, Tim, because I — clearly it would be inappropriate for me to talk about operational matters, specific options or the kinds of activities we might undertake going forward. We do, indeed, though, have, obviously, the world’s finest military. They’ve got a broad range of capabilities. And they may well be given missions in connection with this overall task and strategy.
We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.
MR. RUSSERT: There have been restrictions placed on the United States intelligence gathering, reluctance to use unsavory characters, those who violated human rights, to assist in intelligence gathering. Will we lift some of those restrictions?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Oh, I think so. I think the — one of the by-products, if you will, of this tragic set of circumstances is that we’ll see a very thorough sort of reassessment of how we operate and the kinds of people we deal with. There’s — if you’re going to deal only with sort of officially approved, certified good guys, you’re not going to find out what the bad guys are doing. You need to be able to penetrate these organizations. You need to have on the payroll some very unsavory characters if, in fact, you’re going to be able to learn all that needs to be learned in order to forestall these kinds of activities. It is a mean, nasty, dangerous dirty business out there, and we have to operate in that arena. I’m convinced we can do it; we can do it successfully. But we need to make certain that we have not tied the hands, if you will, of our intelligence communities in terms of accomplishing their mission.

TRANSLATION: I’m going to be careful here (you true patriots know I can’t say the truth so read between the lines here…), we’re going to have to work on the dark side (what could be “darker” than war?), if you will, without discussion, to use any means at our disposal (what means are there beyond bombing and killing people?). It is a mean, nasty, dangerous dirty business out there and we have to operate in that area. But we need to make certain that we have not tied the hands, if you will, of our intelligence communities. (No translation required).

Was there any doubt what was being conveyed with those comments?

Remember Cheney’s appearance on Meet the Press on September 8, 2002 prior to the October debates over a war resolution for Iraq? Here’s his mock restrained comment on the link between Saddam Hussein and the September 11, 2001 attacks: (#3)

Mr. RUSSERT: But no direct link?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: I can’t-I’ll leave it right where it’s at. I don’t want to go beyond that. I’ve tried to be cautious and restrained in my comments, and I hope that everybody will recognize that.

TRANSLATION: I don’t want to go beyond that (implying there is a “beyond” when there wasn’t), I’ve tried to be cautious and restrained in my comments (famed protector of state secrets that I am except when they help my cause) and I hope everyone will recognize that (and read between the lines to absorb what I’m trying to imply while not actually saying it so I can be convicted later).

Of course, open secrets aren’t just limited to genocide, terrorism, torture and war. How many thousands of people were employed in the financial and real estate sectors who knew of the trillions in fraud being perpetrated?

* how many thousands of loan officers approved no-document loans for hundreds of thousands of dollars?
* how many thousands of real estate agents encouraged people to buy homes they couldn’t afford as long as their commission was paid at closing?
* how many thousands of appraisals for properties were written on a drive-by basis or site unseen?
* how many county tax assessors said nothing as appraisals on dilapidated properties jumped ten or twenty percent on flip after flip as long as the next sucker paid the property tax on time?
* how many thousands of accountants working for banks and insurance companies knew their firms could not cover their CDS bets?
* how many thousands of stock brokers ignored their fiduciary duty to their clients by convincing them to buy crappy stocks their own internal analysts categorized as dogs?
* how many executives approved securitization and CDS strategies for their firms they didn’t understand for fear of being caught short in earnings compared to their competitors or for fear of losing millions in bonuses?

The key point about open secrets is the willful suspension of disbelief and mass psychology involved aren’t used to merely trick millions into buying Snickers bars when they should have been buying Milky Ways – harmless mis-directions in the overall scheme of human activity. They produce a culture and society in which unimaginable harm is produced and unspeakable crimes can be (and often are) committed. Americans need to start thinking very seriously about the broken mechanisms in our government, media, society and ourselves that allow these kinds of “open secrets” to remain unaddressed for years / decades. No guns have been held to our heads to ignore the realities in front of us and look away. Willful ignorance is the primary enabler and it’s entirely avoidable.


#1) http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200905/nazi-germany

#2) http://www.emperors-clothes.com/9-11backups/nbcmp.htm

#3) http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/bush/meet.htm