06/08/2009 03:17 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Can We Learn to Guard Against Our Own Cruelty?


"That cat, Barack Obama, our first black President, is amazing."

, observed my friend Michael McCollom. We were listening to Obama's poignant speech from the Buchenwald Concentration Camp; a rejoinder to his acknowledgment of Palestinian suffering, given the day before in Cairo. 2009-06-08-06prexy.span.600.jpged.jpg

The American executive has charged the world to bear witness to the magnitude of wickedness that occurred at such places giving rise to the establishment of a Jewish state. Recalling this ignoble past, he used it as an example to substantiate the formation of a new Palestine. That's what Michael was applauding, but it was easily enough expected of someone so thoughtful.2009-06-08-buchenwald.gifed.gif

What President Obama said next, was neither anticipated nor ordinary. In fact, in the realm of the counter intuitive, it almost ranks right there with Jesus Christ's improbable admonition for people to love their enemies, when he said,

"And just as we identify with the victims, it's also important for us I think to remember that the perpetrators of such evil were human, as well, and that we have to guard against cruelty in ourselves.


This message, familiar in holy text and uncommon works of art like the film The Reader is, alas, a hard sell among the President's intended large popular audience. It's a difficult concept to grasp and implement for any audience, irrespective of social class, nationality or size.

2009-06-08-Hitler_with_prince_Philipp1.jpged.jpgPrince Philipp of Hesse laughing with Hitler and Goebbles

Surrounded, in the midst of life, with joy, with beauty, but by the sordid, by desperation and death, we usually imagine, that should we encounter evil, we will recognize it at once. After all, it's vile and inhuman. But, as it turns out, conceiving inequity as stereotypically odious and awful, very often, unknowing, far from withdrawing repelled, we eagerly grasp evil-incarnate tightly by the hand when it arrives. 2009-06-08-article102479801840DF300000578512_468x358.jpged.jpg Hitler greets the Duchess and Duke of Windsor

Obedient and insular, utterly defeated, despite their discipline and self-sacrifice, it's easy to understand the appeal among Germany's ordinary masses, of Hitler's absolving Jewish scapegoats. How like the American 'religious' right's demonization of gays, which, with similar irony, asserts that keeping same-sex partners from being married will foster heterosexual unions, forestall divorces and preserve the otherwise faltering 'traditional family'.

What of Weimar Germany's leaders, however? Why didn't a sophisticated and worldly intelligentsia and aristocracy save Germany from Nazi intolerance? Hadn't the debacle of the 'Great War' taught them anything at all?

"You might as well ask why slave masters didn't educate, cultivate and uplift their former slaves," says Stanley Crouch. "If Douglass was correct in contending that, 'Authority concedes nothing without a demand.' I'm here to tell you that having your power curtailed, there's an irresistible reflex to try to get it back. Those who have long held absolute power aren't likely to feel much contrition, as opposed to be ready to blame anyone else but themselves for their losses."


One unlikely victim to perish at Buchenwald was Princess Mafalda of Savoy, the daughter of King Victor Emmanuel, III, and sister of Italy's last monarch. Her story is movingly related in Johnathan Petropoulous' engrossing book published by Oxford in 2006, Royals and the Reich.

Puccini had dedicated Turandot to her. As her husband was highly intelligent, artistic and gay, one might without difficulty reason that Prince Philipp of Hesse, whose lovers included famed English anti-war poet Siegfried Sassoon,2009-06-08-siegfried_sassoon.gif

who had Jewish ancestry, to have been an unlikely spouse for the Roman Catholic princess.


Yet in 1925 this great-grandson of Queen Victoria and the Italian king's daughter were married---eventually producing 4 children.

The same private resume which made Philipp a somewhat startling bridegroom, also made him an improbable if not unprecedented high Nazi administrator. However, not only did he become a part of the Fuher's inner circle, but as an art advisor and an envoy to Mussolini, Philipp, with architect Albert Speer, was perhaps as close as Hitler had to an intimate friend.

Honest enough to satisfy his sexual orientation, Philipp was pragmatic enough to hide these activities from both establishment officialdom and his family. Nonetheless, a whirlwind of multiple and often overlapping, youthful relationships alone, identified him as someone with an unconventional outlook. How then was he deceived by Hitler's exploitation of royalty and aristocrats to lend decorum to his fledgling and sinister movement? For someone who was a true connoisseur and a gifted decorator, a kind friend to Jews, Christians and atheists alike, and a devoted father, what justified his decided moral compromise?

One might ask the same question of any one of thousands of well-educated, well-connected aristocrats who became early proponents of a 'Thousand Year Reich.' Philipp's uncle, Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, determined to outwit the lowly upstart, to restore his family's Hohenzollern dynasty, was only Hitler's highest ranking early staunch supporter. A 'real man's man' the heir of Kaiser Wilhelm, II had married beautiful2009-06-08-BBBcpprus02small.jpg 2009-06-08-Cecilie_1908_1_.jpg

2009-06-08-15165r.jpgED.jpg 2009-06-08-2045137876_97149d784c.jpged.jpg



Duchess Cecilie Auguste Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.


They had six offspring and all throughout the horrors of the First World War had built a fantastic palace outside of Berlin called Cecilienhof.2009-06-08-SchlossCecilienhofBlick.jpgED.jpg


"It has been a trait of megalomaniacs throughout history to use the arts to control thought, gain respectability, bolster their power and memorialize themselves,"

says Frederic Spotts, an historian of modern Germany, in his book "Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics." Referencing structures like Munich's 'House of German Art' and Berlin's Chancellery, which recall contemporary monuments in Washington, Delhi and elsewhere, he stresses how Hitler went "beyond the others," to "define and legitimize his rule in cultural terms."








Rather aptly the fountain in Cecilienhof's garden court personifies Narcissus




Realizing that Crown Prince Wilhelm was Queen Victoria's 'favorite' grandchild makes the quaint 'olde English' atmosphere that pervades Europe's last royal residence at Potsdam less incomprehensible. Incorporating elements from the famous half-timbered English manor house

2009-06-08-450pxLittleMoretonHall_gable.jpg Canted bay window at 16th century Little Moreton Hall
2009-06-08-home_schloss_cecilienhof01.jpgED.jpgCanted bay window at Cecilienhof, derived from Little Moreton Hall

Little Moreton Hall at Cheshire, Cecilienhof was equally indebted, stylistically,


to Edward Ould and Charles Eamer Kempe's Wightwick Manor of the 1890's.

Admittedly bigger than either any of its 16th century vernacular sources or fin de Siècle models designed by Lutyens, George & Peto and their contemporaries, certainly there was nothing ominous about this Arts and Crafts style extravaganza--like ten manor houses and five cottages put together to form a substantial domestic bastion.

Built according to plans by architect Paul Schultze-Naumburg, the eclectic interior, which includes a baronial great hall,






a Neo-classical drawing room and a family sitting room in the form of a ship's stateroom, was devised by Paul Ludwig Troost, who originally had designed deluxe steamship décors. Espousing a conservative and luxurious aesthetic that allied fine hand-craftsmanship with cutting-edge technological advances, royal designer Troost was soon patronized by the ambitious Chancellor Adolph Hitler. Brick, with oak timber-framing, Cecilienhof, which includes


5 courtyards and 55 carved brick chimney stacks,

2009-06-08-2618224382_1aab236df1.jpg should have been completed in 1915, but with construction delayed due to the outbreak of war, the royal couple could not move in until August of 1917.

2009-06-08-BBBcpprus03swmall.jpged.jpg 2009-06-08-wilhelmprussia188215.jpg

Idyllic photographs notwithstanding, Prince Wilhelm's following his father into exile one year later was telling. Crown Princess Cecilie and her children stayed at the palace. Separation only exacerbated estrangement induced by the pPince's many recurrent infidelities, which had included an American opera star. The Crown Princess remained steadfast and dignified, with periodic visits from her husband, until she fled from the approaching Red Army in February 1945. 2009-06-08-793pxPotsdam_conference_19456.jpg
The setting for the strategic Potsdam Conference where Churchill , Stalin and Eisenhower concluded the Second World War, today Cecilienhof is operated today as an hotel and a museum.


Regarded from the first with reservation, in the end Hitler imprisoned his former pal, Prince Philipp, whose nephew, the Duke of Edinburgh is the British Queen's consort. The fate of Prince Philipp's wife was sealed when her father had Mussolini arrested. On the pretext that her husband had sent for her,


Princess Mafalda was apprehended in occupied Rome and spirited off to Buchenwald. Injured during an allied air raid she died from botched surgery to amputate her arm. 2009-06-08-2057392680031751182oicAeR_ph.jpged.jpgA Savoy emerald and diamond brooch

Are bad people only ugly, or black, or white, or Arab, or rich, or poor? Does either their art or architecture ever really betray the propensity that people have to act badly? Can those who imagine that it will create the best result for the greatest number or even ordain God's will, concentrating all power and resources in their hands, solely among people who believe as they do, ever be dissuaded? Voluntarily, will they ever relinquish their weighted influence?

Allowing individuals to make our own decisions guided by just laws, according to the dictates of our conscience, will those who marshal power, allow others to do what they believe to be best for them? Will comprehensive, high-quality education, contraceptives, employment at a living-wage, affordable health care, and housing and any other measure that would eliminate the need for abortion altogether, ever be pursued with the same vigor as efforts to punish people who err according to someone else's standards? Will government for the people, by the people, with liberty and justice for all, ever dictate our united endeavor whoever we are, wherever and however we live?