Being German is no fun

If anyone ever wonders what I’ve got against fascism, why I say it shames all Germans, or why I say it’s not dead yet (unfortunately), and why I say fundamentalists have the same mentality as fascists, google this place sometime: Colonia Dignidad.

The name of this German-speaking commune (founded by a former Nazi turned fundie preacher) in Chile is a travesty, of course, for a more shameful, dignity-denying place is hard to imagine. Here’s the latest chapter in the ongoing sorry saga, courtesy of the Beeb:

A German doctor is in custody after allegedly admitting she tortured a number of children at Colonia Dignidad, a secretive religious colony in Chile.

Gisela Seewald, 75, is said to have told a judge that she gave them electroshock treatment and sedatives.

She was ordered to do so by the group’s ex-leader, Paul Schaefer, who said they were possessed, she reportedly said.


It is alleged that the treatments were applied to teenagers who disobeyed adults or showed interest in the opposite sex.

Those who opposed alleged sexual advances by Mr Schaefer were also interned in the commune’s hospital for treatments that lasted between one and three months, Judge Jorge Zepeda is reported to have been told.

Isn’t that just so lovely? Using superstition and accusations of “disobedience” as grounds for torture. What century are we in, again?

And hey, you’ll never guess why our old Nazi came to Chile in the first place: to escape child-abuse charges. Quel surprise!

And here’s another non-surprise: Colonia Dignidad also doubled as a torture chamber for the Pinochet reign of terror. Hey, nothing like an old fascist to help a new fascist out in the fight against the twin evils of socialism and democracy, right? Gotta love that far-right unity of purpose; it’s rather touching.

All flippancy aside, however, this is seriously sick stuff, and further evidence, for those who really need it, that fascism and fundamentalism share a brutal, abusive streak that pervades the entire fabric of both. Central to this streak is the notion that children must be controlled extremely strictly, even to the point of abuse, from birth onwards. Alice Miller has written extensively on this hideous phenomenon:

Contrary to received opinion prevalent as recently as 15 years ago, the human brain at birth is not fully developed. The abilities a person’s brain develops depend on experiences in the first three years of life. Studies on abandoned and severely mistreated Romanian children revealed striking lesions in certain areas of the brain and marked emotional and cognitive insufficiencies in later life. According to very recent neurobiological findings, repeated traumatization leads to an increased release of stress hormones that attack the sensitive tissue of the brain and destroy existing neurons. Other studies of mistreated children have revealed that the areas of the brain responsible for the management of emotion are 20 to 30 percent smaller than in normal persons.

The children systematically subjected to obedience drill around the turn of the century were not only exposed to corporal “correction” but also to severe emotional deprivation. The upbringing manuals of the day described physical demonstrations of affection such as stroking, cuddling and kissing as indications of a doting, mollycoddling attitude. Parents were warned of the disastrous effects of spoiling their children, a form of indulgence entirely incompatible with the prevalent ideal of rigor and severity. As a result, infants suffered from the absence of direct loving contact with the parents. The best they could hope for was to find some kind of substitute from the servants, who in numerous cases used and exploited them as objects of pleasure, thus frequently adding to the child’s emotional confusion.


Present-day neurobiological research makes it easier for us to understand the way Nazis like Eichmann, Himmler, Höss and others functioned. The rigorous obedience training they underwent in earliest infancy stunted the development of such human capacities as compassion and pity for the sufferings of others. They were incapable of emotion in the face of misfortune – such feelings were alien to them. Their total emotional atrophy enabled the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes imaginable to function “normally” and to continue to impress their environment with their efficiency in the years after the war without the slightest remorse. Dr. Mengele could perform the most cruel experiments on Jewish children in Auschwitz and then live for 30 years like a “normal”, well-adjusted man.

In the absence of positive factors, affection and helping witnesses, the only course open to the mistreated individual is the disavowal of personal suffering and the idealization of cruelty with all its devastating after-effects. Undergoing an exceedingly humiliating and cruel upbringing at the preverbal stage, usually without helping witnesses, may instill into the victim admiration of this cruelty if there is no one in the immediate vicinity of the child to query those methods and stand up for humane values. People subjected to mistreatment in childhood may go on insisting all their lives that beatings are harmless and corporal punishment is salutary although there is overwhelming, indeed conclusive evidence to the contrary. Vice versa, a child protected, loved and cherished from the outset will thrive on that experience for a lifetime.

Now, I’m fortunate that I was raised (a) in Canada, and (b) by loving, affectionate parents who were, themselves, NOT abused in the turn-of-the-century mechanistic fashion so glorified by the Nazis (who, all of them, clearly WERE so raised, and with detrimental effects manifest for the whole world to see.) I turned out sane and humane. Here’s Miller again, to confirm my hypothesis that being raised with love and tolerance makes all the difference:

Perhaps our grandchildren will be able to say; “What good fortune that we weren’t beaten like our grandparents and now are able to see things much more clearly than they did.” If being beaten in childhood had been harmless, they wouldn’t have been blind to Hitler’s contempt for human beings; they would have seen through it immediately and rejected it, as our children do when confronted with acts of cruelty. Children who are permitted to defend themselves don’t become destructive. It Is evident that destructiveness is not the inevitable fate of humankind, for the loving treatment of children could banish it from the world. The “destructive drive” slumbers in children who were once mistreated and who later don’t want to know what happened to them in their past. We ourselves have no need to strike our defenseless children; we can’t even imagine doing that, even when we’re tired and have no patience for their questions. After all, there are so many other ways to treat children that are truly productive, respectful, and not destructive.

I do see things more clearly than my grandparents did; they were all of them born between 1905 and 1915, and therefore more or less subject to the “traditional” strictness then in vogue. My parents, born in 1933 and 1938 respectively, suffered the same to a much lesser degree, despite the fact that Nazism had just begun its march when my father was born, and was in full stride by the time my mother came into the world. My dad suffered to a greater degree than my mom. His grandmother, in particular, was a bad-tempered woman who lost her husband to a mine cave-in and had to raise six children alone. She once killed a cat with a fire poker just for snatching a morsel of meat. You can imagine what living under such a tyrant did t
o my grandfather. (He turned out to be a real piece of work himself, although he hated Hitler and never killed any of my cats.) How my parents turned out as sane as they did I can only guess, but maybe both made conscious decisions to do better by us than their parents did by them, and so on.

This much I do know, though: unless the cycle of brainwashing and brutality is broken, with consciousness and love, it will perpetuate itself and mutate and morph into further sick and degenerate forms. Such as, you guessed it, Colonia Dignidad. Every time I run across another horror story from there, I end up shaking my head…but I’m not a bit surprised, either, because that sort of thing is only to be expected under the circumstances. Anyone, anyplace, with an unexposed and unexamined history of fascism, will turn out very much like that–unless some great good luck, some force of compassion, intervenes at a crucial moment to change things.

Because I’m of German parentage, I choose to make it my life’s mission to oppose and expose fascism and fundamentalism, and every other form of brutal brainwashing, and provide what I can by way of antidotes. Call it the art of living an examined life; call it rebellion; call it what you will, but call it also HEALTHY, and above all, NECESSARY. I was handed the tools to do it by growing up in a multicultural, social-democratic country where kindness is the common value among people who otherwise might not be seen to have anything in common at all. Call that the force of compassion that intervened…and, as a society, must go on intervening. I devoutly hope that as Chile swings more and more to the left, they too will stage such interventions on Colonia Dignidad. Because damn me, that nest of crazy Krauts has got one hell of an intervention coming…

Being German is no fun. But fortunately, as I’m also a first-generation Canadian, I can handle it.

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