Former Reich Marshal Hermann Goering was on Channel 4 the other night in a documentary about the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Old Hermann, a fat beast, was testifying. After him came other defendents, and then pictures of concentration camps, and then pictures of bodies, mounds of them, and then, precisely at 9:00 p.m., an entertainment show with a fetching lady singer. Even history has to take a break.
It is of course curious, almost bizarre, to see this sort of documentary in Germany. The announcer spoke German, but I could make out much of what he said. There was nothing subtle about the crimes -- mass killings, the extermination of European Jewry, the death of romantic notions about mankind, of any belief that human beings cannot do such things. I understood everything. I understood nothing.
It is of course curious, almost bizarre, to see this documentary while covering the former American hostages in Germany. They are, we are told, consumed with hatred for Iran. One of them said something about how the only way he would be willing to go back to Iran is in a B-52 -- to bomb them. A State Department spokesman said the returnees (the word hostage has been banned) are hostile to all things Iranian. Of course, of course.
But that is not quite the case. That is not what all the former hostages say. Some of them are already confusing the issue, talking about good Iranians and bad Iranians, guards who were mean and guards who merely guarded and those Iranians who had nothing to do with Americans at all.
And of course there were Iranians who supported the shah. And there were Iranians who tortured the people who later did some torturing themselves. There were those who hated Americans and those who loved Americans. Some of them, exiles who have been living here, in fact, presented 52 roses to the former hostages the other day.
Old Goering faded, another war criminal came on the screen and then Albert Speer, as the young and rather dapper Nazi, followed him. He was Hitler's favorite architect, a bit of a hack who caught the eye of the Fuehrer and wound up directing the war-time industrial effort. He used slave labor. He was part of the largest killing of all time. He is shown on television as a young man and, after a long time in prison, as an older man. He lives here in Germany, lives on the royalties from his books, and is being interviewed in what looks like a comfortable home. There is no way to reach through the screen, grab him by the neck, and wring it. Television is still in its infancy and, besides, I have no desire for revenge.
What are we going to do with this matter of national guilt? How are we to hate Iranians, make war on the Ayatollah, starve the mullahs or even snub them at the cocktail parties of diplomats when Germany is our ally. Speer is on the tube and the car I drive in America was made not far from here? These Germans are the people who have killed my fellow Americans and my coreligionists. I have visited their handiwork at Treblinka and Auschwitz and now, soon, I will go downstairs and have dinner with them. We will all denounce the Iranians.
It is easy, a cop-out, intellectual laziness, to blame a nation, a people, for the deeds of a few. Nations have character, of course, and nations have languages that in some cases form character -- give them a particular way of seeing things. It is possible, as some social scientists say, that nations share a way of raising children and that this forms a national character. But, if that is the case, when it comes to brutality, the Germans and the Chinese and the Cambodians and God knows who else sing the same lullaby.
But without stereotypes -- without caricatures of methodical Germans and excitable Italians and lazy Mexicans and cruel Turks -- we were left with a depressing realization that people are people, that what happened in Germany could have happened anywhere. It took a particular set of historical circumstances and a gift for organization. But further than that it is hard to go. The devil does not reside solely in Germany. And he has not moved to Iran.
So the upshot is that people are people -- governments are a different matter. But when it comes to people we cannot now discard all that we have learned, all the lessons of history, and start making hateful statements about Iranians. We will be trading with them soon enough.We may be their allies some day. Maybe, someday, newsmen will go to Iran and cover, say, the evacuation of hostages from Germany.
All this makes it harder to hate. All this makes it harder to stay angry. All this confuses right and wrong, separates people from governments and individuals from people -- robs revenge of its sweet satisfaction. Black and white becomes gray, and the world loses a firm but false standard and gains instead a little bit of reason. As Hermann Goering and the Ayatollah prove, we sure can use it.