A Refresher Course on the Good German


A Refresher Course on “the Good German”

The “Good German” is everywhere. He could be just as well be denominated “the Good American” the “Good Frenchman,” the Good Ugandan,” etc., but because of Hitler’s unprecedented barbarity “the Good German” is what entered the language and stuck. In the Urban Dictionary, he is defined as a person who “turns a blind eye” to bad behavior and does not speak out.

Examples of the Good German in American life (and I won’t even touch on the apparatchiks serving at the highest level of the Federal government) continue to proliferate: the Good Germans that kept Harvey Weinstein’s rapes and other violence against women secret; the Good Germans of USA Gymnastics that protected the predator doctor Larry Nassar; the Good Germans at the Wells Fargo Bank who looked the other way as millions of fraudulent savings and checking accounts were foisted on unsuspecting clients; the Good Germans at Penn State University that stood by as a new pledge was hazed to death during his fraternity initiation ceremony, resulting in death from fatal alcohol poisoning. And, of course, the Good Germans in the Catholic Church, from the Vatican grandees to the Boston parish priests, that allowed known predators in their midst to molest thousands of children.

Why do Good Germans go along with such deviation from “accepted norms” (goodness and decency) when it is so egregious and unforgivable? The answer is really pretty simple and unvarying from one example to the next, with two justifications jumping out. The first reason (they will say) is that they do it to protect the reputation of the venerable institutions that they work for or are associated with. They convince themselves that a great film, a great Olympic team, a great return on investment for shareholders, or faith in a loving God, is ultimately worth the sacrifice of a few unimportant lives. In the military such a subterfuge is sanitized as “collateral damage.” This obscure phraseology is of course crafted to make the destruction of life seem less poignant and horrifying than it is.

The second reason (they may not admit to it unless pressed under oath) makes no noble claim of a communal defense to realize a perceived higher good. It is the Good German’s naked self-interest at play. He is sure that the fraternity that provides him sanctuary or the powerful boss who pays his salary will never be caught and dethroned. So it is best he go along since everyone else like him is going along. He keeps silent to save his own skin.

Of course, if the Good German’s leader does lose his grip on power, he is the first in line to say that he was never really a Good German in the first place and welcomes his liberators with open arms. Actually, he remains a Good German, though he is now a Good German in the service of the new regime--whether it turns out to be an improvement over the old order or not.

My bleak conclusion is that the Good German is the vast majority of humankind on all continents from pre-history, when this can’t be documented, to today, when documentation abounds. Human history would be a much happier story if this was not the case.

Easy enough to be an armchair moralist, but I might well be a Good German too, if I had a family to feed.

How about you?