Psychology of Nazi Field-Marshal Keitel, George Bush & Hezbollah · 3 August 2006
When Admiral Canaris, head of German military intelligence, protested to Field-Marshal Keitel about Nazi brutality on the Russian-front, Keitel replied: These anxieties belong to the concept of chivalrous warfare. Here we are engaged in the destruction of an ideology. For this reason I approve of the measures and stand by them. Earlier, Keitel had signed a Decree on the Exercise of Military Jurisdiction, which said: For acts committed by members of the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) against enemy civilians, there is no obligation to prosecute, even when the act constitutes a military crime or offence.
Jon Alterman, Middle-East Program Director at the Washington based Center for Strategic & International Studies says that the Bush administration puts a lot of stock in the idea of moral clarity. They believe Hezbollah is full of bad people.
And, Field-Marshal Keitel, who was executed at Nuremberg for war crimes, was obviously a bad person! But was he really bad? And, is Hezbollah really full of bad people?
Keitel, Chief of the Wehrmacht Supreme Command Hitler’s most senior military man was not a rabid Nazi or an aggressive militarist. Gustave Gilbert, prison psychologist at the Nuremberg trials, described him as almost a Ferdinand the Bull type: Stripped of his military rank and power, Keitel revealed himself as an obsequious, gentle soul who had never really wanted to fight but had always longed to be a country squire.
General Halder wrote of Keitel: It was given to him to build bridges, to alleviate sources of friction, to reconcile enemies or at least to bring them closer He was a person of extreme diligence, literally a workaholic, of the highest conscientiousness in his field but always in a way that kept his personality out of it, so that he himself never stood out in a leading way.
Psychologist George Victor wrote that most of the people who carried out the Holocaust were reasonably normal. And those who helped, as were as those who knew and did not try to stop it, were ordinary people.
The case of Field-Marshal Keitel suggests that the world is much more complex than George Bush believes and, of course, much more complex than many in Hezbollah will believe.
Keitel was in most ways a normal man with admirable qualities. In different circumstances and times, he may have indeed been a gentle country squire. But like most normal people, Keitel’s insights and consequent actions were constrained by his own personality, his personal circumstances, and the environment in which he lived.
As a proud and loyal German (Prussian) military officer, he had little desire to understand people not in his own identification group; indeed, he went out of his way to avoid being placed in a situation which might require him to feel empathy with those in other groups. As a soldier, he believed in duty and in absolute obedience in carrying out orders.
As a soldier in World War I, he felt victimized by the Treaty of Versailles, which in his view like that of many Germans was caused by a stab in the back. In particular, he said, the flaming red torch (of socialism) flung out from the homeland had caused those immense, victorious battles to be fought in vain. Keitel became a willing tool of anyone who offered a way to avenge this.
Keitel allowed himself to be persuaded that this war was different: a (communist) ideology needed to be destroyed, and this meant that previously unacceptable brutal methods needed to be employed. (The Bush administration seems to have similar beliefs in relation to Hezbollah.)
While Keitel’s subservience to Hitler brought him promotions, prestige and wealth out of all proportion to his talents, he was a yes-man and a war criminal for psychological reasons: essentially for being quite normal. He lacked insight into and empathy with those not in his in-group; he sought vengeance for past injustices to his in-group and his broader society (in this case, his country); and, he was persuaded that the enemy this time was some-how different (ie ideological) and needed to be treated new (ie brutal) way.
Jon Alterman of CSIS has also said: I’m amazed how little they (radicals in the Middle-East) understand about American psychology. I’m also amazed at how little we understand their psychology. And ultimately, a lot of this is psychological.
Indeed! Hezbollah will contain many normal people who for reasons similar to that of Keitel will take up arms for their cause. If Bush administration and others are to defeat radicals in the Middle-East, they will need to recognize that they are mostly dealing with normal people albeit with their own psychological perspectives and circumstances. This requires dealing with nuances rather than moral absolutes.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration has about as much psychological insight as Field-Marshal Keitel.
**Jeff Schubert’s book, Dictatorial CEOs & their lieutenants: the cases of Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Ataturk, Mussolini and Mao, will be released soon.