Be a Philippe
Updated: Sep 10, 2019
One thing I love to do when I have time is watch weird, depressing documentaries. I don’t know why, because I hate sad movies or TV shows, but there’s something about experiencing someone else’s life firsthand, happy or sad, that’s fascinating to me. I think in another life I could’ve been an anthropologist. I love seeing how other people live and think.
I was sick today and spent most of the afternoon on the couch, so I had plenty of time to fill my afternoon with gloom. In the span of 6 hours I watched a documentary about escorts, two about serial killers, one about Treblinka (the 2nd largest concentration camp in Europe), and one about the sons of two Nazi commanders.
This last one was by far the most interesting to me. The documentary was called What Our Father’s Did: A Nazi Legacy, and it focused on 3 men: Philippe Sands, a human rights lawyer whose family was killed in the Holocaust, Niklas Frank, son of a high level Nazi commander in Poland, and Horst von Wachter, son of another Nazi commander in Poland.
The documentary follows Philippe as he meets with Niklas and Horst, who have very different ideas about their families.
Niklas Frank is very aware of who his father was and what he did. He says his father knew exactly what he was doing, he knew right from wrong. He has no illusions that his father was a good man, in fact he calls him evil. He is ashamed of his father’s actions and speaks out against him almost constantly. He has a very realistic view, not clouded at all by the normal sentiment or respect for a father. Though he never said it this way, I think it’s safe to say he hates his father for who he was and what he did.
Horst von Wachter, on the other hand, fully believers his father was a good person. He consistently calls him a “decent man” and refuses to believe he had any part in the murder of Jews in Poland. Though he was the governor of Krakow, created the ghettos there, and was in command during Grossaktion (the extermination of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto), Horst will not acknowledge that his father was directly responsible for any deaths. He wholeheartedly believes his father didn’t want to participate in the Holocaust, but was forced to by superiors.
No matter how many documents, photos, or evidence Philippe shows him, Horst will not believe his father was a criminal. At every turn he calls on semantics and vague, abstract ideas and excuses to redeem his father. He says things like, “My father didn’t sign this document so it proves he wasn’t involved” (even though his name was in it) or “My father was never convicted of war crimes, they caught everyone who did it” (despite the fact that he was called to trial but ran away and hid in Italy until he died).
When Philippe took Horst to a field where thousands of Polish Jews (including his family) were murdered, he immediately shifted the focus and said, “I see this as a battlefield. You know during World War I thousands of Austrians were killed here, too.”
He says his father never pulled the trigger, never ran a gas chamber, and never murdered anyone, therefore he has no responsibility for the Holocaust. He says that he has lots of accounts and documents saying his father was a “good, decent man” and would never willingly take part in this. He was sitting in the audience when the “Final Solution” was announced and stood and clapped like everyone else, but Horst says this was a “very rhetorical speech” and his father couldn’t just jump up and say he disagreed.
It’s incredible to see the amount of denial and self-imposed ignorance this man is capable of. I think if any of us were asked if the guy who created the Krakow ghettos (or any high level Nazi for that matter) was a bad guy, we’d all agree he was. You can’t cause that amount of suffering and not be guilty in one way or another.
But at a certain point, I kind of understood where he was coming from. His father had been a good man to him, he had been loving, affectionate, kind, and decent. People had told him his father wasn’t “all-in” on the Final Solution and wanted to work against it (though there’s no evidence he did). He wanted so badly to believe the good father he knew was also a good man he could be proud of, and since he had no video evidence of his father murdering anyone, he was able to distort and circumvent the truth to fit what he wanted it to be.
I don’t think he was trying to be unreasonable or difficult, I don’t think he means to justify the murder of millions by justifying his father’s actions. I think he genuinely couldn’t allow himself to believe his father was a bad guy or that he could have been responsible for anyone’s death. I’m sure on some level he knows the truth, but he just couldn’t admit it.
The whole time I was watching I couldn’t help but think these two men so accurately represent our current political situation. I feel like the country is at two extremes, the ones who are incredibly angry and outspoken (often to a fault) and the ones who want so badly to believe the best and refuse to believe reality, not out of maliciousness, but out of an intense desire for happiness and peace and a longing to believe they’re not in the wrong.
I’m sure many of you will disagree about my analogy, and I don’t mean to offend anyone, but I can’t see it any other way. The evidence of sexist, racist, and unbecoming things Trump has done and said is overwhelming. There’s video, audio, and written evidence proving the kind of leader (and person) he is. It can’t logically be disputed. You can still believe that Republicans are the best people for the job, that his good outweighs his bad, but at this point you can’t ignore the truth of his character.
But some people still do. There are still people who think his comments are “taken out of context” or are just “rhetorical.” They think he shouldn’t be judged on things he said 5 years ago. They think the media is out to get him. They think the world hates Christians/Republicans/white people, etc. They make excuses for him at every turn, refusing to believe evidence, circumventing truth and blaming the media for representing him unfairly or the Democrats for sabotaging his every move.
I’ve spent countless hours of my life trying to figure out the logic behind this denial. I’m not a Democrat, I’m not on one side or another, I just want people to be logical and honest. That’s all. And it’s been so frustrating to be deprived of that. But after watching this documentary, I think I have a much better understanding of that mindset.
Sometimes people just can’t accept what’s happening, not because they’re purposefully being difficult, but because they want so badly for it not to be true. They genuinely want to believe they made a good choice, they want to believe things are looking up and that their President is a good man. They have such a desire for things to be good that they genuinely believe they are. And I get that. Because facing reality is hard. Accepting that things aren’t great is hard. Admitting you might have made a poor choice is hard.
I’m not saying the people that choose this mindset refuse to make hard choices. I just think at a certain point, if you want something bad enough, you’ll believe it’s there. And that’s not always a bad thing. Those are the kind of people that can create incredible things out of nothing, that can hold onto hope when everyone else has given up. It can be an amazing trait to have.
But it’s not the right choice for now. This documentary helped me understand the “other side” more and appreciate where they’re coming from, and for that I’m grateful. Because there’s always two sides to a story, a lot of gray area in the middle of the black and white spectrum, and it’s always good to gain a fresh perspective.
But it also helped me realize how hurtful that mindset can be to others. By denying his father’s responsibility and justifying his actions, Horst minimalizes the effect his father had on millions of lives. Can you imagine knowing your family was murdered but people were trying to justify it to you, telling you the murderers had no choice or “didn’t really want to”? That doesn't make it better and takes away from the pain and hurt they've caused.
Denial hurts a lot of people. By insisting Trump is a good man, you minimalize the trauma and hurt suffered by women at his hand, the distress caused to refugee families, the suffering of Muslims, African Americans, and Mexicans, the danger women face at his policies, and the difficulty caused to teachers and children because of his appointees.
The way I see it, in this situation, we can be a Nik, a Philippe, or a Horst. Nik was outspoken and angry (rightfully so, but perhaps over the top at times). Horst denied reality and the truth to hold onto his dream of a good father. But Philippe, while he was equally affected by the events of World War II, took a different approach. He was honest, he was logical, he looked at the facts and, though he never got angry, was forthright and open about what he was seeing.
You could say that he has the most to be angry about since his family was murdered at the hands of the Nazis, but he never took it out on Nik or Horst. He never stretched the truth to make his point, he never ignored the facts, he simply searched for real, genuine truth.
And that’s what I want to do. I don’t want to be angry all the time, but I also don’t want to bury my head in the sand and pretend that any of this is normal or ok. I don’t want to minimize the suffering of others by ignoring or denying their suffering, but I don’t want to feel like I’m constantly fighting.
I want to be a Philippe. Let’s forget the partisan stuff, forget what we dream or hope things would be, forget our previous prejudices or grudges, and move on in truth and honesty, being frank about our reality. Let's all strive for truth.
I want honesty. I want truth. I want to be a Philippe. And I hope you’ll join me.