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Are You a Servant of Tyranny or Liberty? 

Crowd awaiting the execution of Rudolf Höss. Auchwitz,1947

In 1788, George Washington wrote letters to the Marquis de Lafayette during the process of ratifying the proposed Constitution by the states.

Washington made clear to General Lafayette the essentials to prevent the new American republic from devolving into “despotic or oppressive form”: limited delegated powers to the government, checks and balances, and “virtue in the body of the People.”

Often “virtue in the body of the People” is overlooked. Washington wrote that “corruption of morals, profligacy of manners, and listlessness for the preservation of the natural and unalienable rights of mankind” would lead to “tyranny.”

Washington believed that “the happiness of society through a long succession of ages to come” depended upon the ratification of the Constitution. In his view, ratification was afforded by “progress towards rectitude in thinking.” Rectitude means “rightness of principle or conduct; moral virtue.” We see in Washington’s use of that word the importance he placed on principles and virtues to sustain liberty.

George Washington was a servant of liberty.

Endless historical examples warn us of the consequences of a society lacking checks and balances and limits on the power of government. What happens to a country with no constitution or deep-seated commitment to curbing the use of power? Absent those limits, virtue wanes, and it is easy for people to become servants of tyranny. The consequences deserve close examination, even those that derive from a mad ideology bent on the destruction of human life.

The Zone of Interest is a recent award-winning film that brought to public attention the life of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss and his family.

The Polish War Crimes Commission permitted Höss to write his memoirs before his execution in 1947. Höss understood he would not receive clemency, and his writing has little posturing. Unlike other Nazis, he takes some responsibility and does not try to deny his crimes.

In his memoirs, Höss recognized that “history will mark me as the greatest mass murderer of all time.”

He and his family lived just outside the walls of the concentration camp. Seemingly oblivious to the horrors just over the wall, for Höss’s wife Hedwig, their home was “paradise” and was where she “want[ed] to live and die.” His daughter remembered Höss as an “absolute wonderful person.”

In 1941, Himmler assigned Höss the task of carrying out Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Himmler told Höss, “The Jews are the eternal enemies of the German people and must be exterminated.”

Höss described his servant-of-tyranny mindset: “I had received an order, I had to carry it out. I could not allow myself to form an opinion as to whether this mass extermination of the Jews was necessary or not.”

Höss often explained that fidelity to Hitler and the Party trumped any sense of morality or principles. Höss repeatedly wrote about his obedience and certainty: “Every order had to be considered sacred and even the hardest and most difficult had to be carried out without any hesitation.”

Sometimes troubled soldiers asked him for reassurance, inquiring: “Is what we have to do here [at Auschwitz] necessary? Is it necessary that hundreds of thousands of women and children have to be annihilated?” Höss reverted to “it was Hitler’s order” and “necessary” to “free Germany…from our toughest enemy.”

He saw himself as a humane killer, gas being better than firing squads: “I was always horrified of death by firing squads, especially when I thought of the huge numbers of women and children who would have to be killed… Now I was at ease. We were all saved from these bloodbaths, and the victims would be spared until the last moment.” Höss was referring to the firing squads of the SS mobile units who killed millions in Ukraine and other places in Eastern Europe. Among the SS soldiers were some who “went mad” from participating in these bloodbaths.

Höss often watched Jews being loaded into the gas chambers and recalled how terrified mothers spoke “lovingly” to their children. He recalled, “Once a woman with four children, all holding each other by the hand…stepped very close to me and whispered, pointing to her four children, ‘How can you murder these beautiful, darling children? Don’t you have any heart?’”

Attempting to elicit sympathy for himself, Höss wrote he “had a heart” and explained he “had to appear cold and heartless during these events which tear the heart apart in anyone who had any kind of human feelings. I couldn’t even turn away when deep human emotion rose within me.”

The “lucky” prisoners who were not gassed were assigned to perform hard labor in armament factories. Höss recalled witnessing during Allied bombing attacks “how prisoners even helped the wounded guards…There were no more guards or prisoners; they were only people trying to escape the hail of bombs.” Despite witnessing the humanity of the starving prisoners, Höss continued to follow orders.

After the war, Höss wrote he was still a fervent National Socialist, but he admitted that the Nazi leadership “by using extremely effective propaganda and through its use of limitless terror, had made a whole nation submissive to such an extent that, with a few exceptions, the people followed in every way, wherever they were led, without criticism and without a will of their own.”

Höss was not without a will; earlier, he had remembered his choice to surrender his will to “orders.” How many others chose not to exercise their will?

In his final letter to his family, Höss writes that “it is tragic” that he “by nature gentle, good-natured, and very helpful, I became the greatest destroyer of human beings who carried out every order to exterminate people no matter what.”

Consistent with the reported universal regrets of those with a short time to live, Höss “deeply and painfully” regretted not spending more time with his wife and children because of his “duty.”

Finally, there was some repentance in his last days: “I can see today clearly, severely and bitterly for me, that the entire ideology about the world in which I believed so firmly and unswervingly was based on completely wrong premises.”

Seeing his errors of unswerving obedience, but too late to help those he murdered, he advised his son, “Learn to think and to judge for yourself, responsibly. Don’t accept everything without criticism and as absolutely true, everything which is brought to your attention. Learn from life.”He hauntingly told his son “listen above all to the voice in your heart.” He acknowledged, “The biggest mistake of my life was that I believed everything faithfully which came from the top, and I didn’t dare to have the least bit of doubt about the truth of that which was presented to me.”

If you expect to read the ravings of a psychopath, Höss’s memoirs will disappoint you.

The read will be very instructive if you want to see what happens to an ordinary man who abandons virtue and chooses to surrender to a government with absolute power. Höss answered the call of a depraved society.

With Washington’s triad of essentials to sustain a republic supporting them, the servants of liberty can block the depraved schemes of tyrants. When the powers of government are constrained, those willing to abandon morality will have a limited impact.

Here is what haunts me. Today’s America has fewer limits on the power of government — executive orders, party loyalty above principles, and the administrative state have run amok.

In such a world, what will the servant of tyranny be capable of doing in the not-so-distant future? Will there be enough servants of liberty to turn back a tide of tyranny?

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