There is no more dismal aspect of human history than the behavior of victors. However just their cause, they never fail to cast doubt upon its righteousness by the manner in which they exploit their victory. Usually they disavow vengeance in explicit terms and insist that they are only interested in justice. But they do not understand how unjust all punishment is, which proceeds from a situation in which men are judges in their own case.
Consider the situation in eastern Germany, where millions of homeless Germans are forced out of Silesia and Czecho-Slovakia and being dumped into an already overcrowded and economically bankrupt Germany. Let an eyewitness speak: “The picture [is one] of unimaginable suffering, with thousands of the millions of people being kicked out by the Poles, dying of starvation by the roadside, with no one paying any attention to the corpses, with virtually no cattle, poultry, horses, etc., left because the Russians or the Poles have taken them away… The greatest criticism against us is our callous indifference to German suffering, particularly as it manifests itself in the conspicuous waste of food and the incessant driving around on joy-rides and in empty trucks while the German transportation situation is so desperate.”
In the British parliament recently an emotional scene occurred when Foreign Minister Bevin reported on conditions in Germany, deplored the partitioning of the country and cried out that Britain would not condone the inhumanities which were resulting from various occupation policies. The British people are particularly concerned about the impending starvation on the whole continent. We are also concerned, but our conscience seems less sensitive than that of Britain, at the present moment, possibly because we are farther from the scene and have less direct information of the situation. Britain, as usual, has the advantage of finding its moral sentiments in agreement with its national interests. Britain needs a healthy continent, including a healthy Germany, for the sake of its own health. But this does not detract from the fact that Britain has always had a moral abhorrence of degrading a defeated foe. We are so isolated, so powerful, and so rich that we are not quite sure whether we need the health of any other nation for the sake of our own health or not. We do need it of course; but the need is not sufficiently obvious or vivid to arouse the American people from the stupor of their post-war lassitude.
There is a danger that the vindictive passions of the nations, which suffered most acutely from the terror of the Nazis, will be compounded with American indifference, to produce untenable policies, which will make the confusion of Europe worse confounded. Germany is really a very sick nation, proved guilty of criminal psychopathic tendencies. It can hardly be cured by being overrun by doctors and jailors who fight at the bedside on the question whether it is death or cure which is desired, and what instruments of death or what curative methods should be used. Let another private witness report on this situation: “Germany has collapsed not only economically and politically, but also emotionally. The people are exhausted and too preoccupied by their day-to-day worries to give much attention to larger issues. It is all the more important that a minimum standard of living be restored… A young socialist told me that all during the Hitler period they kept insisting that all the Nazis said about the Russian and the Allied plans for destroying Germany, was propaganda. But now what the Nazis said seems to have come true. The Russians and Poles are really as barbarous as the Nazis said they were; and the Western powers are really fighting the German people, rather than the Nazis only.”
It is idle to expect a very high degree of imagination from the collective behavior of mankind, particularly when it has been subjected to the strains of an exhausting war. The whole world is sick in fact, the victors only somewhat less so than the vanquished. How can one define the Czecho-Slovak refusal to discriminate between loyal and disloyal Sudetan-Germans than a form of sickness? Or the French belief that peace can come to Europe through a policy of dismemberment in the West, equal to the Eastern dismemberment? All these policies proceed from minds and tempers, exhausted by years of war and by suffering from Nazi inhumanities of unparalleled cruelty. The nations lack sufficient poise and balance to deal creatively and curatively with the evils which they confront.
The French Catholic philosopher Maritain, tells the story of a group of French underground fighters catching a Gestapo agent, who had made it a practice to torture prisoners by tearing out their fingernails. The Frenchmen proceeded to repay the Gestapo agent in kind until one member of the group was overcome by a form of hysterical revulsion. With a cry he cut the rope which held the Gestapo criminal, lectured his comrades on the danger of becoming a Nazi in the procedure of avenging Nazi crime; and set the criminal free. Something like that cry of revulsion will have to pass through the victorious world. It need not be hysterical and the prisoner need not be set free. But the danger of becoming infected with the evil which we seek to eradicate must be more fully recognized.