Oscar Wilde is famously quoted (and may perhaps even have really said) “Be yourself – everyone else is already taken”. Whether or not he really said it, it’s an interesting statement. Sometimes being true to yourself is not as straightforward as it may at first appear. Even before our recent tailspin into Political Correctness and all the inanity (and even occasionally: insanity) that that produces, it hasn’t always been easy to say and act in accordance with one’s true thoughts and feelings.
The other night I was driving home late and was listening to CBC’s “Ideas”. The episode was called Shame on You(Tube). Now to be brutally honest I wasn’t listening VERY carefully to it all, but there were a few interesting ideas. Like how perhaps the concept of shame within a group helped us evolve as a species into the highly co-operative (usually) social animals that we plainly are. It is used to bring peer pressure to bear and encourage “acceptable behaviours” as defined by the larger group.
The age of the internet has made “the group” pretty much the entire species… at least those with access to WiFi or a cell signal. This has warped the concept because it is now so easy to use Twitter or FaceBook to yell “J’accuse!” when we see a perceived injustice – real or imaginary. The radio programme gave examples of a web site in China that encourages people to “out” folks with bad table manners or performing other indiscretions. They are publicly humiliated (personal details are published) in an apparent effort to bring them back in line to supposed social norms. Of course, the dark side of this is the mental effect it has on many of those “outed” and almost predictably there are several reported suicides – particularly of teenage girls – of people who see this shaming as worse than death itself.
As is so often the case in my blogging, these two ideas hung like unrelated iota in my consciousness until a third mote of an idea hove into view and created a triangle of related thought. In this particular case, it was some cheap tat of a website I happened across (“10 historic photos you’ve never seen” or “9.37 random images you couldn’t care less about”, something of that nature). This particular site had an image from 1936 of a crowd of Germans at the Blohm + Voss shipyard in Hamburg. It was taken at the launching of the naval training vessel Horst Wessel on 13 June 1936, and the group were obediently all making the Nazi salute. All, that is, with one defiant exception! The photo was published on 22 March 1991 in Die Zeit, and though there are one or two others not saluting, this individual is quite obviously not doing so with some amount of defiance.
It turns out that this gentleman is actually quite well known by historians. His name was August Landmesser, and he was not exactly a fan of the Nazi regime. His wife was Jewish (their marriage was not recognised at the time but was retro-actively recognised in 1951), but he’d joined the party in 1931 anyway in the hope that it would help him get a job more easily. As you might imagine in such times, he later ended up being put in a penal regiment and met his death in action in Croatia in 1944. His wife was placed in several concentration camps and died in 1942.
His story is familiar. It was lived in one way or another by literally millions of people under the Nazi regime for a decade or so. But this man impresses me. Despite the huge social pressure to conform (surely all those around him making the salute were not all dyed-in-the-wool Nazis), he stood by his principles and simply chose not to raise his arm. He felt scared, I’m quite sure… but not shamed into conforming. A simple, but incredibly brave act. If anything, I was saddened that today, 12th December 2015 was the first time I became aware of his story. Almost 80 years later.
I’m sure August Lanmesser was not a perfect person.
I’m sure he had as many faults and foibles as any other person we know. But he was not shamed into giving public support to a political system that relied as much on passive submission as it did on active support for its growth in power.
Sometimes being yourself has dire consequences. That doesn’t necessarily make it wrong.