Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Timesby Eyal Press
On the Swiss border with Austria in 1938, a police captain refuses to enforce a law barring Jewish refugees from entering his country. In the Balkans half a century later, a Serb from the war-blasted city of Vukovar defies his superiors in order to save the lives of Croats. At the height of the Second Intifada, a member of Israel's most elite military unit informs
On the Swiss border with Austria in 1938, a police captain refuses to enforce a law barring Jewish refugees from entering his country. In the Balkans half a century later, a Serb from the war-blasted city of Vukovar defies his superiors in order to save the lives of Croats. At the height of the Second Intifada, a member of Israel's most elite military unit informs his commander he doesn't want to serve in the occupied territories.
Fifty years after Hannah Arendt examined the dynamics of conformity in her seminal account of the Eichmann trial, Beautiful Souls explores the flipside of the banality of evil, mapping out what impels ordinary people to defy the sway of authority and convention. Through the dramatic stories of unlikely resisters who feel the flicker of conscience when thrust into morally compromising situations, Eyal Press shows that the boldest acts of dissent are often carried out not by radicals seeking to overthrow the system but by true believers who cling with unusual fierceness to their convictions. Drawing on groundbreaking research by moral psychologists and neuroscientists, Beautiful Souls culminates with the story of a financial industry whistleblower who loses her job after refusing to sell a toxic product she rightly suspects is being misleadingly advertised. At a time of economic calamity and political unrest, this deeply reported work of narrative journalism examines the choices and dilemmas we all face when our principles collide with the loyalties we harbor and the duties we are expected to fulfill.
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1. DISOBEYING THE LAW
I. Underhanded Practices
One night in November 1938, a fourteen-year-old boy named Erich Billig slipped across the Austrian border into Switzerland. It was, he hoped, the final leg of a hastily arranged journey that had begun ten days earlier, on November 9–10, when Billig and Jews throughout Vienna hid in their apartments or ducked for cover while Nazi storm troopers led a bloody rampage through the streets. In the organized pogrom known as Kristallnacht, which turned Austria’s stately capital into a cauldron of terror and violence, hundreds of Jewish shops were vandalized, dozens of temples burned down, and scores of injuries and fatalities recorded. The shattered storefronts and smoldering synagogues left little doubt what the unification of Austria and Germany, which Adolf Hitler had announced before cheering throngs of jubilant supporters in Vienna’s Heldenplatz (“Heroes’ Square”) in March, would mean for Jews. Erich Billig already had a sense. A few months earlier his father had been deported to Dachau, a concentration camp near Munich; his older brother, Herbert, had fled the country after landing on the Gestapo’s wanted list, and was now in Zurich. After Kristallnacht, Billig’s mother, Hilde, put her youngest son on a train bound for Altach, a town near the Swiss border, where he holed up in an abandoned shed and pondered how to get to Zurich himself.
There was one problem: Switzerland, like every other country in the world, didn’t want to take in masses of Jewish refugees. At the Evian Conference, held at the Hotel Royal on the shores of Lake Geneva in July that same year, representatives from thirty-two countries had gathered to discuss the plight of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. Expressions of sympathy rained down from the dignitaries; promises to take in more refugees did not. Unlike some countries, including the United States, Switzerland did not have a fixed quota limiting immigration on the basis of nationality. It did have a statute requiring Austrian refugees to secure an entry visa beforehand, which the Swiss consulate in Vienna had been directed to grant only to applicants of “Aryan” ancestry.
Lacking the proper lineage, Billig staked his hopes on finding a more discreet path across the border. One night, he and two other Jews he met in Altach entrusted their fate to an Austrian gendarme who claimed to know of such a route. After pocketing the money they’d pooled, the gendarme led them through a forest to a clearing bordered by a shallow creek, a place known to the villagers on the other side of the border as le vieux Rhin. Here, for a brief stretch, the great river that flowed down from the Alps and snaked its way along the Swiss-Austrian border before emptying into Lake Constance tapered off into a narrow, easily passable stream. The gendarme motioned toward it and said, “Okay, there’s the border. Now you can go to the other side.”
The trio of fugitives waded across the knee-high water and followed a footpath into an open field, moving soundlessly along what they thought was an unobstructed path. They hadn’t gone far before the sound of dogs barking pierced the silence, tipping off the guards on duty that night.
Hours later, as morning light filtered through the alder trees and spread over the hills and meadows of the neighboring villages, the Swiss authorities confirmed that Billig lacked an entry visa and sent him back to Austria.
* * *
Three months before Erich Billig’s thwarted expedition, the chiefs of police from the cantons of Switzerland were summoned to attend a conference on immigration in Bern, the Swiss capital. It took place on August 17, 1938, during a spell of glorious weather, a string of cloudless days ideal for leisurely strolls along the banks of the Aare River, which looped around the peninsula on which Bern’s cobbled streets and medieval-style buildings were spread out.
The officials at the conference gathered inside the Bundeshaus, a domed edifice set on a promontory where Heinrich Rothmund, head of the Federal Police for Foreigners, held forth. A tall man with a clean-shaven jaw and neatly trimmed mustache, Rothmund was responsible for refugee policy in a country that had long prided itself on its hospitality to strangers, a tradition dating back to the Protestant Reformation, when French Huguenots had settled in Geneva to escape religious persecution. In more recent times, Switzerland had burnished its reputation for neutrality in part by offering shelter to the victims of conflict in bordering states. Rothmund was not unaware of this heritage. “The asylum tradition of our country is so firmly anchored that not only the Swiss citizen but every office that must deal with an individual refugee case is inclined to accept the person without reservations,” he observed at one point. But his tolerance was hedged by other concerns. One of these concerns was Überfremdung—“foreign overpopulation,” an expression that cropped up with growing frequency as the Great Depression fueled anxiety among Swiss citizens that foreigners might take their jobs. Another was Verujudung—“Jewification,” which Rothmund, among others, portrayed as a virus that could produce unwelcome side effects if allowed to metastasize and spread. “If we do not want to let a movement that is anti-Semitic and unworthy of our country take legitimate roots here, then we need to fend off the immigration of foreign Jews with all our power,” Rothmund warned. “We have not used the foreign registration office to oppose foreign penetration, particularly the Jewification of Switzerland, just to let ourselves be flooded by immigrants today.”
As the statement suggests, the custom of welcoming strangers gave way to other priorities as the political skies darkened over Europe during the 1930s, all the more so when Jews began spilling over the Swiss border in unprecedented numbers after Germany’s annexation of Austria in March 1938. In the months that followed, even refugees with work permits were picked up in Switzerland for “looking Jewish” and sent back. Yet more and more kept coming, driven by desperate circumstances that, in Bern, elicited little sympathy from the officials on hand. “Can’t we close our borders better?” asked the chief of police from Zurich during the conference. They certainly spared no effort to try. To make it easier to pick out and identify “non-Aryan” refugees, the Swiss authorities soon prodded Germany to place a special mark on the papers of Jews, a request the Nazis obliged by stamping their passports with a large red J. Meanwhile, under the new policy unanimously adopted at the conference organized by Heinrich Rothmund, anyone who crossed the Swiss border without proper papers after August 19, 1938, was to be denied entry “without exception.”
The policy of no exceptions is what prevented Erich Billig from being welcomed after he’d been caught sneaking across the Rhine. It did not prevent Billig from trying again, the very next night, with the help of two Swiss guides who distracted the border guards as he forded the river a second time, then spirited him to a secluded bungalow where he ate, slept, and spread his waterlogged shoes and clothes over a stove to dry. The following morning, Billig squeezed into the back of a truck belonging to the guides, who drew a canvas tarp over him and drove to the city of St. Gallen, twenty miles or so inside Switzerland. They pulled to a stop in front of a building by a church near the center of town, the headquarters of a Jewish relief agency. Billig climbed out of the truck and was taken inside to meet the agency’s director, a dapper, bespectacled man named Sidney Dreifuss. Shortly thereafter, an official appeared, dressed in a crisp police uniform and wearing a rimless pince-nez held in place by a thin metal chain tucked behind a pair of ear pads. Billig had never seen such a contraption before and he would not soon forget it, not least because, after interrogating him for several minutes and taking stock of his options, the officer with the peculiar ear pads told him that he could stay.
* * *
Paul Grüninger was the commander of the state police in St. Gallen, which is situated in northeast Switzerland, on a plateau between the shores of Lake Constance and the snowcapped peaks of the Appenzell Mountains, the northernmost range of the Alps. He was forty-seven years old at the time he met Erich Billig in the Jewish relief agency, a pale, unprepossessing man with gray-green eyes, pursed lips, and a background bereft of obvious clues as to why he would have put his career at risk by violating the policy formulated at the conference on immigration in Bern, which he’d attended.
Born in 1891, Grüninger was the son of middle-class merchants who ran a small cigar shop in St. Gallen. As a youth, he was a mediocre student but precocious athlete whose proudest accomplishments came not in the classroom but on the soccer field (he would later play on a team that won the Swiss national cup). During World War I, he served in the Swiss Army. Some time later, in 1919, an influential client dropped by his parents’ cigar shop and tipped them off that the police in St. Gallen had a vacancy and would soon be looking to hire a lieutenant, a position ideal for a young man of military rank. By this point, Grüninger had obtained a teaching diploma and moved to the neighboring town of Au, where he’d joined the staff of a primary school and met Alice Federer, a colleague to whom he’d gotten engaged. Alice didn’t want to live in St. Gallen, but at the urging of his mother, Grüninger applied for the opening in the police department and beat out seventy other candidates for the post.
Shortly after they’d settled in St. Gallen, the newly married couple’s first daughter, Ruth, was born. A few years later, in 1925, Grüninger was promoted to police captain, which elevated his stature and responsibilities. He soon found himself handling security for foreign dignitaries who visited the canton, among them Emperor Hirohito. In a photo from this period taken in the town of St. Margrethen on an overcast winter day, Grüninger is standing to the emperor’s right with his police hat on and his rimless spectacles in place. His shoulders are square, his expression unsmiling, the lapel on his uniform buttoned to the top. He has the orderly aspect of a midlevel civil servant who might have been taken for a punctilious inspections officer, a dutiful official not inclined to let the large moral questions that would soon begin swirling through the air in Europe interfere with his responsibility to do his job, which had been the case. The canton of St. Gallen, known in the nineteenth century for its flourishing embroidery industry, shared a border with Austria. In 1936, volunteers began passing through it en route to Spain, where they joined the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Anarchists, Communists, and writers such as George Orwell and André Malraux flocked to join the struggle against General Francisco Franco, who received his supplies and ammunition from Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. The network shepherding volunteers across the Swiss border was illegal, however, and Grüninger worked to choke it off, meeting on occasion with Joseph Schreider, a member of the Gestapo, to discuss the matter.
On April 3, 1939, two days after Franco proclaimed victory in Spain and one year after Hitler announced Germany’s annexation of Austria, Paul Grüninger stepped into the courtyard of the Convent of St. Gallen and strode toward the gate of the building he normally entered to reach his office on the second floor. A rookie police officer named Anton Schneider was waiting for him there. “Sir, you no longer have the right to enter these premises,” Schneider said. “Really?” replied Grüninger in a bewildered tone, unaware that a report singling him out had been circulating among Swiss officials. Its author was Gustav Studer, a white-haired bureaucrat with dark-framed glasses who, in response to inquiries posed by Heinrich Rothmund about reports that refugees were still getting into St. Gallen, had launched an investigation to determine why the identity papers of so many Jews in Switzerland indicated they’d arrived just before August 19, 1938, when the new restrictions had gone into effect. Under questioning, Sidney Dreifuss, the head of the relief agency to which Erich Billig had been taken, admitted that he’d been directed to falsify the dates of Jews who crossed the border after this date by the police captain who’d shown up at his office that morning—and many other times, it appeared. Hundreds of refugees had been given “special permission” to remain in Switzerland, Studer’s report indicated, and the person responsible was Paul Grüninger.
The target of Studer’s investigation was soon ordered to turn in his uniform. A month later, Grüninger was dismissed and informed that a criminal investigation was under way. In the fall of 1940, he appeared before a panel of judges, who convicted him of violating his oath and arranging for the papers of twenty-one refugees who’d entered Switzerland illegally to be falsified; 118 questionnaires had also been doctored.
“Such underhanded practices threaten the necessary trust and the respectability of authorities and the reliability of subordinates,” the court stated, imposing a fine of 300 Swiss francs and an additional 1,013 francs to cover the costs of the investigation. Grüninger did not appeal the ruling, perhaps because, if anything, it understated the extent of his lawbreaking.
* * *
Many years later, a patrolman who’d policed the same stretch of the Swiss-Austrian border voiced the sentiment most officials shared about his captain. “In my eyes, he broke the law,” the patrolman said of Grüninger. “If an official is an official, he cannot simply act according to his own opinion. Had we had only people like Grüninger from Basel up to Martinsbrugg, I don’t know what the Swiss people would have said.”
As indelicate as the sentiment may seem, the patrolman was right to wonder what people would have said. Irrespective of its consequences, a law had been enacted, and good citizens in orderly Switzerland obeyed the rules. Truth be told, when it came to refugees fleeing Nazi terror, the orderly Swiss were not alone. “You are a consular officer, in the early years of a diplomatic career that you hope will lead to an ambassadorship,” the diplomat Richard Holbrooke has written. “On your desk sit two rubber stamps. Use the one that says ‘APPROVED,’ and the person in front of you can travel to your country … Use the other stamp which says ‘REJECTED,’ and the visa applicant in front of you might die or go to prison—simply because he or she is Jewish.” Between passage of the Nuremberg Laws and the end of World War II, countless officials manning checkpoints, consulates, and border posts faced a version of this dilemma. The choice before them was not an easy one. As Holbrooke noted, “Government service is based on the well-founded principle that officials must carry out their instructions; otherwise, anarchy would prevail.” Many of the diplomats in question were low and midlevel officials entrusted to enforce rules that, in democracies such as Switzerland and the United States, carried a presumption of legitimacy, having been enacted by freely elected governments. On the other hand, this also meant that refusing to enforce the laws barring refugees would not likely have endangered their lives, and might even have persuaded their superiors to reconsider whether the statute or policy in question was just. Few deigned to find out. “We heard, and mocked, the defense of many Germans after World War II; they were just following orders,” wrote Holbrooke. “But the same rationale was used by the majority of non-German diplomats in Europe.”
What possessed Paul Grüninger to take a risk most officials in his shoes scrupulously avoided? One morning, I took a train from Zurich to Heerbrugg, a sleepy town on the border with Austria, to meet someone I thought might know. Shortly after I arrived at the station, an elderly woman appeared on the opposite end of the platform, inching toward me at a gingerly pace with the Welsh terrier she’d told me she’d be tugging along on a leash. The woman’s name was Ruth Rudoner. She was small and stooped, with a maze of wrinkles etched around her mouth and gray hair that fell in bangs above her pale gray-green eyes—her father’s eyes.
Ruth Rudoner was Paul Grüninger’s daughter. She was eighty-seven years old and lived in an apartment a few blocks from the station, to which we slowly made our way with her terrier in the lead. Ruth’s home was plainly furnished and slightly musty, with a large maple-colored wood chest, a stuffed gray couch, and white walls adorned with anodyne landscape paintings. She brought out a pot of coffee and, after setting two cups on a tray, began talking about her father, who went from being a respectable authority figure to a covert document falsifier when she was seventeen. I’d come to Heerbrugg hoping Ruth could shed some light on what led her father to undergo this transformation—what set him apart from his peers. Not a lot, she insisted while sipping her coffee. Her father was a “normal” man who liked to take her hiking on weekends and to spend Sundays playing soccer with his friends, she told me. He sang in a church choir and enjoyed playing the piano. He read his fair share, though not in a way that would have led anyone to mistake him for a subversive. He was on friendly terms with one such person—a fiery trade unionist from St. Gallen named Valentin Keel, who was the only socialist to serve as a state deputy in the otherwise conservative canton. Her father cut a more discreet profile, Ruth indicated. A member of the center-right Swiss Radical Party, he kept his nose out of controversy and his political opinions to himself. “He was interested in what was going on, but that’s all,” she said.
Perhaps her father was guided not by politics but by faith, I thought. In my mind was the story of another wayward official, a Portuguese consul-general named Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who in 1940, while stationed in Bordeaux, began handing out transit visas to Jews running out of places to hide as Nazi forces stormed across Belgium, Holland, and France, in direct defiance of Portugal’s ruler, António de Oliveira Salazar, who’d made it clear that accommodating refugees was forbidden. Recalled and dismissed on the grounds that “a civil servant is not competent to question orders which he must obey,” Mendes, a devout Catholic, was unrepentant, declaring, “If I am disobeying orders, I’d rather be with God against men than with men against God.” Given Grüninger’s membership in a church choir and the fact that St. Gallen was home to one of the oldest monasteries in Europe (the city was named after an itinerant monk who’d wandered through the surrounding countryside and settled there in the seventh century), I wondered if Ruth’s father might have been cut from similar cloth. “We were Protestant,” she told me, but added that, beyond the occasional trip to church, expressions of piety in her family were rare. “Again,” she said, “we were normal.”
In the literature on the Holocaust, the outliers who refused to become passive bystanders have often been divided into two camps: rescuers who helped Jews out of a basic sense of humanity, and resisters who were driven by ideology. The former were altruists who acted to save lives, the latter political activists committed to the antifascist struggle. Advancing this idealistic struggle is clearly not what drove Paul Grüninger. Could it be that what motivated him was his outsized compassion—a rare sensitivity to suffering that others lacked? Ruth Rudoner’s soft voice and gracious manner made me wonder about this. She expressed no bitterness about what had happened to her father, whom she described as a fair-minded, gentle-spirited man. Certainly the record suggested as much—part of the record, at least. A few days before coming to Heerbrugg, I’d met with Stefan Keller, a Swiss journalist and historian who’d written a book about a witch hunt that had unfolded in a village near St. Gallen before World War II. Its targets were an Austrian servant and a Swiss ranger from a prominent local family who fell in love, touching off a scandal worthy of Hawthorne. The lovers were interrogated and confined to psychiatric wards; the servant was eventually lobotomized and then mysteriously disappeared. Nobody felt terribly moved by her plight, including Paul Grüninger. “It was this very narrow village mentality,” Keller told me. “Grüninger didn’t have much to do with it, but nobody said, This is wrong. The police just did what the authorities told them.”
The unfavorable impression Keller took away from his research was still with him when, some time later, he started digging through the Swiss archives to find out whether, as had long been rumored, the police captain who’d presided over this regrettable affair had allowed Jews into Switzerland in 1938 not because of high-minded principles but for less lofty reasons—in particular, money and sexual favors. Far from dismissing these accusations out of hand, Keller told me he suspected they were true, not least because it was well known that many of the smugglers who helped Jews cross the Swiss border illegally did demand compensation for their services, which is hardly surprising in light of how risky doing so was.
Unfortunately for Keller, many of the files in the Swiss archives turned out to be missing. Then it occurred to him that some of the refugees Grüninger had helped might still be alive. He soon tracked down one of them in Brussels, a woman named Klara Hochberg who appeared in a file sprinkled with hazy allusions to sexual improprieties. She’d kissed Grüninger on the cheek one time; he’d later asked after her. When Keller broached the subject of whether Grüninger had taken advantage of her, shame and embarrassment had spread across her face. “I’ve slept with one man my entire life—this is my husband!” he recalled her telling him indignantly. “It was absolutely scandalous to her,” he said. Keller located dozens of other former refugees who’d had encounters with Grüninger. All told him the same thing: that the police captain from St. Gallen had demanded nothing of them.
Keller ended up publishing his findings in a book, Délit d’humanité: l’affaire Grüninger, which documented what he’d come to view as the real scandal: that a man who’d refused to carry out a policy many Swiss citizens looked back on with shame had lost his job and never received an official apology. Grüninger’s fall from grace was indeed swift and dramatic, a steep downward slide that took him from the company of foreign dignitaries to the cusp of poverty virtually overnight. In August 1939, a few months after he’d been suspended from his job, ordered to hand over his uniform, and subjected to a psychological examination to determine whether he might be deranged (the doctor who examined him could find no evidence of this), he applied for a license to open a pawnshop. The application was turned down. He was denied some of his retirement benefits. He was too proud to ask for handouts, but a disgraced police captain dogged by rumors of corruption had predictably few employment prospects. Grüninger took to working various odd jobs, peddling raincoats, greeting cards, even animal feed at one point. Although some Swiss Jews lent him money behind the scenes, most were careful to distance themselves from a man who threatened to tarnish their own status as upstanding citizens who abided by the rules. (Before Grüninger’s dismissal, some Swiss Jews had actually complained that the border in St. Gallen was “too open to undesirable elements.” Others worried that the presence of too many refugees might spark an anti-Semitic backlash.)
Lacking a steady income, Grüninger and his wife moved out of the elegant white house with forest-green shutters where they’d lived in St. Gallen and returned to Au, moving in with Alice’s parents to avoid paying rent. In later years, he could be spotted on occasion at a local restaurant owned by an acquaintance of his, sipping cider and munching on peanuts, among the cheapest items on the menu.
Paul Grüninger died in 1972, having spent three decades searching in vain for steady employment while failing to disentangle himself from the web of rumors that clung to his name long after he passed away, including whispers that he’d pursued improper relations not only with refugees but also with some of their tormentors. These allegations were spread by the St. Gallen police, who, after Grüninger’s conviction, arranged to have his phone tapped and tasked undercover agents to tail him to such shady functions as card games. A police report subsequently raised questions about his “ambiguous financial situation,” another about his alleged habit of “boasting of his contacts with foreign authorities, and even with Gestapo officials.” The publication of Stefan Keller’s book put these allegations to rest, revealing that the target of the smears was put on a Gestapo blacklist after the Germans discovered he had helped some refugees transfer money to Switzerland. Grüninger also sent letters to and authorized entry permits for several prisoners in Dachau whose relatives had made it across the border. In his book, Keller refrained from speculating about what motivated this conservative, seemingly risk-averse police captain to go to such lengths. But he did develop a theory about it. An oppositional temper is clearly not what distinguished Grüninger, Keller told me. Something else did. “You know, from the perspective of the Swiss bureau administration, Grüninger made a big mistake,” he said. “He had no barriers. Refugees came to him, right up to the door of his office, sometimes on their knees, and asked for help. He did nothing to separate himself from the people.
“The other police chiefs didn’t do this. They delegated. They made the decisions, and delegated the responsibility to others.”
II. Mechanisms of Denial
In 1989, a Polish sociologist named Zygmunt Bauman published a book titled Modernity and the Holocaust. Dedicated to his wife, Janina, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, the book sought to explain how a nation of civilized, law-abiding “men in uniforms” who loved their families and were often compassionate to their neighbors nevertheless managed to preside over mass murder. An earlier generation of social scientists had traced the answer to the peculiarities of German character—conventionalism, submissiveness, ethnocentrism, and other proto-fascist traits catalogued in studies such as The Authoritarian Personality, an influential 1950 book coauthored by the Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno. Bauman argued that the focus on these personality traits obscured the social and institutional arrangements that made it frighteningly easy for citizens not only in Nazi Germany but in all modern states to transgress the boundaries of conventional morality—to perpetrate crimes they would never dream of committing in their private lives—without feeling responsible for their acts. What made this possible was one of the most celebrated achievements of modernity, he claimed, the emergence of bureaucratic organizations guided by instrumental rationality that turned individuals into specialized functionaries who were trained to focus narrowly on “the job to be done” while putting their moral concerns aside.
“Cruelty correlates with certain patterns of social interaction much more closely than it does with personality features,” argued Bauman. Though clearly influenced by Hannah Arendt, whose portrait of Adolf Eichmann as a middling bureaucrat presaged his description of the Nazis as “ordinary people like you and me,” in his analysis of obedience Bauman drew most explicitly on the work of another close student of the subject, the social psychologist Stanley Milgram. In 1961, Milgram oversaw an experiment in which an instructor in a gray lab coat ordered a volunteer to press a switch on an electric generator every time another volunteer gave the wrong answer on a paired-word test. The purpose of the experiment was to clarify whether punishment induces people to learn more effectively, the instructor explained, not revealing that the volunteer taking the test was an actor and that the real point was to see whether subjects would obey. Before carrying out the experiment, Milgram figured most people would stop administering shocks once the actor exhibited discomfort and asked to be released. So did a number of psychiatrists whose opinions he sampled. They were wrong. Despite the shrieks and screams that soon echoed through the laboratory at Yale University where the experiment was conducted, 65 percent of participants continued pulling switches until the electricity generator had reached maximum level and the actor had pretended to pass out.
It was a startling display of how quickly ordinary people prodded by an authority figure could be turned into brutal sadists, not in Nazi Germany but among a random sample of accountants, factory workers, clerks, and advertising executives in the United States. Yet as Milgram himself would subsequently note, a penchant for brutality is not what accounted for the distressingly high rate of obedience. As the experiment unfolded, most of the volunteers in the lab protested. Not a few begged for it to stop. “He’s in there hollering!” exclaimed a participant named Fred Ponzi. “I’m not going to kill that man.” At this point, the experimenter explained that he, not the volunteer, would be responsible if anything went awry. “You accept all responsibility?” Ponzi asked. “The responsibility is mine … Please go on,” the instructor assured him. And go on Ponzi did. What happened at such moments was that the volunteer entered what Milgram termed the “agentic state,” whereby an individual “sees himself as an agent for carrying out another person’s wishes” and stops agonizing about the consequences. “Any force or event that is placed between the subject and the consequences of shocking the victim will lead to a reduction of strain on the participant and thus lessen disobedience,” Milgram observed. “In modern society others often stand between us and the final destructive act to which we may contribute.”
Here was the essence of modern bureaucracy, Bauman warned: the high-ranking officials who formulated criminal policies delegated responsibility to subordinates and didn’t have to see the consequences. The subordinates implementing their decisions could tell themselves, rightly, that they were merely acting at their superiors’ behest, and so went about focusing on their discrete jobs. Responsibility thus became “unpinnable,” which is how a group of decent, even kindhearted adults could preside over an unconscionable endeavor without losing a second of sleep.
It was a deeply unsettling theory. But it rested on a premise that was arguably not so bleak, which is that individuals followed unjust laws and orders mainly because they were put in situations that “spared [them] the agony of witnessing the outcome” of their deeds, as Bauman put it. Inhumanity was not necessarily a product of willful aggression or hateful ideas, in other words. More often than not, it was a product of disavowal and distance. “Perhaps the most striking among Milgram’s findings is the inverse ratio of readiness to cruelty and proximity to its victims,” noted Bauman. This is indeed what Milgram deduced. In his original experiment, the learner had been seated behind a glass panel in a separate room. “It’s funny how you really begin to forget that there’s a guy out there, even though you can hear him,” one subject told him afterward. “For a long time I just concentrated on pressing the switches and reading the words.” Such comments led Milgram to wonder what might happen if the arrangements were altered slightly so that the victim intruded more on the subject’s awareness. He therefore repeated the experiment with the learner and volunteer in the same room. The percentage of defiant subjects promptly doubled, from around one-third to 60 percent.
“The mechanism of denial can no longer be brought into play,” Milgram observed. In another variation, the learner received an electric jolt only when his hand rested on a shock plate; at 150 volts, he pulled his hand away. At this point, the instructor ordered the volunteer to force the hand back in place. Seventy percent of participants refused. Observing the pattern, Milgram concluded that the capacity to disobey had a great deal to do with a person’s proximity to the harm and with how directly responsible for it he or she felt.
* * *
Not long after visiting the archives at Yale to examine the papers of Stanley Milgram, I came upon a book by one of his students, Eva Fogelman’s Conscience and Courage, a study of ordinary people who defied authority and in some cases broke the law to rescue Jews during World War II—people like Paul Grüninger. “Milgram’s was the first psychological explanation of how—and why—good, decent people could carry out horrendous deeds,” Fogelman wrote in her introduction. “What caught my attention, however, were not those who obeyed authority, but those who did not.” In the book, Fogelman told the story of an Italian man named Giorgio Perlasca who was walking through the streets of Budapest one day when he paused suddenly. A group of Nazis had chased down a young boy and were assaulting him in broad daylight. As Perlasca watched, one of the Germans bashed the boy’s head with a gun. Perlasca asked another witness what the victim had done to provoke them. Nothing, he was told—he was simply Jewish. Perlasca was appalled, and after witnessing this attack committed his life to rescuing Jews, a reaction that would not have been obvious from his background. The Budapest representative of a company that supplied meat to the Italian navy, he had fought with the Italian army in the Spanish Civil War—on the side of General Franco.
As the story indicates, admirable politics and impeccable moral credentials were not traits that united Fogelman’s subjects, a motley crew that included not only erstwhile Franco sympathizers but also “sneaks, thieves, smugglers, hijackers, blackmailers, and killers.” One characteristic they did share was a level of awareness that made it hard for them to put the faces of the victims out of mind. More often than not, Fogelman found, this awareness was spurred not by abstract principles or distinctive personality traits but by a searing personal experience: in some cases, what psychologists call a “transforming encounter” like the one Giorgio Perlasca underwent; in others, a more gradual accumulation of “influences and events” that eventually triggered an awakening.
As Stefan Keller had told me, most of the police captains in Switzerland took pains to avoid such encounters by delegating tasks to their subordinates and limiting face-to-face contact with refugees. Paul Grüninger didn’t. Every day, refugees showed up at his office begging to stay in Switzerland. Every week, he witnessed scenes that made it resoundingly clear what enforcing the new policy would mean. On one occasion, he was called to the border because the guards didn’t know what to do with an elderly man who was threatening to jump into the Rhine if deported. On another, three young Jews insisted they’d be shot if expelled. Although it would be a few more years before the Nazis started systematically exterminating Jews in concentration camps, by the spring of 1938 any official in Switzerland who bothered to read the newspapers knew unsettling scenes like this were occurring with growing regularity, as Hitler set about making the German Reich Judenrein—“cleansed of Jews.” (“The approximately 500,000 Jews still remaining in Germany are supposed to be expelled somehow,” the Swiss foreign envoy in Paris reported after speaking with the German secretary of state, Ernst von Weizsäcker, in 1938. “If, as has been the case up to now, no country is willing to accept them, they face extermination in the short or long term.”) But as Ruth Rudoner reminded me, hearing about the Nazis’ agenda was not the same thing as witnessing the situation up close. The officials in Bern who formulated the refugee policy “didn’t see the people, so it was easy for them to do that,” she told me. Her father lacked the same mechanism of denial, which is why he couldn’t bring himself to enforce the law.
“He saw what condition the people were in when they arrived and he knew all too well what would happen if he sent them back,” she said. “He would always say, ‘I could do nothing else.’”
III. Choices and Beliefs
On April 5, 1939, Paul Grüninger wrote a letter to the Swiss government defending his conduct in which he portrayed himself as, in effect, a victim of circumstance. “Whoever had the opportunity, as I had, to repeatedly witness the heartbreaking scenes of the people concerned, the screaming and crying of mothers and children, the threats and suicide and attempts to do it, could … ultimately not bear it anymore,” Grüninger averred.
A few years later, in 1942, some of Grüninger’s former colleagues did get such an opportunity, while inspecting locations along the Swiss border with France. The expedition had been organized by Heinrich Rothmund, the man who’d orchestrated Grüninger’s dismissal and who was now worried that the supposedly watertight border was springing new leaks. He was right to be worried. No sooner had the officials left a border post near Grandfontaine than word arrived that five Jewish refugees had turned up there. Soon fifteen more showed up in nearby Boncourt. The officials and border guards rushed to round up the culprits—Belgian Jews, Polish Jews, a mother with a child whose husband was already in Switzerland, another young child. But they did not deport them. “I thought about instructing the guards to expel them,” Rothmund later informed a colleague of his. “However, I didn’t want to make a hasty decision, and frankly, I did not have the heart to expel them since there were two cute children, and I did believe that their lives would have been in danger if I had done so.”
The story appears to illustrate exactly what Grüninger claimed: that anyone who saw what he did would have done the same thing, even the official who’d designed the policy of deportation. That, moreover, what ultimately determines moral conduct are not character traits, personal beliefs, or political attitudes but situational factors, as not a few social psychologists and philosophers have indeed come to believe. “Studies designed to test whether people behave differently in ways that might reflect their having different character traits have failed to find relevant differences,” the philosopher Gilbert Harman has argued. “It may even be the case that there is no such thing as character.” Among the studies lending support to this view is an experiment designed by John Darley and Bibb Latané that sought to determine what led bystanders to help a stranger in an emergency—in the case of their experiment, an epileptic seizure heard over an intercom. Personality traits (tender-heartedness, coldness) turned out to matter little. The key factor was whether the bystander believed he or she alone heard the attack or thought other people were present, in which case the likelihood of intervention declined, a phenomenon Darley and Latané termed “the diffusion of responsibility.”
For a brief moment in Boncourt, Heinrich Rothmund felt the responsibility for the survival of several families was his, and so he had a change of heart. But only very briefly, it turned out. On the same day that Rothmund wrote to his colleague about the refugees he couldn’t bring himself to expel, he managed to block out their image long enough to arrange for the border restrictions to be tightened anew. He also took pains to avoid visiting the checkpoints again. “As soon as Rothmund sat at his desk in Bern again, the faces of the people paled, displaced by ‘fears of excessive foreignization’ and the fear of ‘excessive Jewish influence’ in Switzerland,” noted the Independent Commission of Experts in its official report on Swiss refugee policy during World War II.
As Rothmund’s conduct showed, human beings don’t inflict harm on others merely because layers of bureaucracy or physical distance lead them to stop thinking about the consequences of their actions. Often they do so because of a factor conspicuously absent from the artificial experiment Stanley Milgram designed: ideological convictions and beliefs. In other words, because they believe the harsh policy they’re enforcing is justified, even moral. So it was with another bureaucrat operating in a very different context, Adolf Eichmann, who was not quite the robotic functionary Hannah Arendt portrayed him to be—who, indeed, repeatedly went out of his way to ensure that the number of Jews excluded from deportations to the camps was minimized, even though he’d witnessed his share of heartbreaking scenes. One time Eichmann watched German soldiers slaughter scores of naked Jews standing on the edge of a pit. “There were children in that pit. I saw a woman hold a child of a year or two in the air, pleading,” he later recalled. “At that moment, I wanted to say ‘Don’t shoot, hand over the child.’” As the statement suggests, Eichmann was not actually incapable of knowing and feeling that murdering innocent people was wrong. Yet he got over his misgivings quickly enough, not because the victims were an abstraction to him but because he was a committed Nazi and ardent anti-Semite who, in the end, decided it was more important to serve his nation and party.
In his study of Reserve Battalion 101, the unit of German soldiers that carried out the massacre in Józefów and countless other atrocities during World War II, Christopher Browning drew directly on Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience to explain why some conscripts refrained from participating in specific operations. In some massacres and “Jew hunts” where the soldiers saw their victims and the killing was personal, individual policemen refused to fire. When they were assigned to herd throngs of anonymous deportees onto trains en masse (operations that killed far more people), by contrast, everything went off smoothly. “Direct proximity to the horror of the killing significantly increased the number of men who would no longer comply,” Browning observed.
Nevertheless, in places like Józefów, where the faces and screams of the victims were all too easy to see and hear, most of the battalion’s members still did comply, and one of the reasons was surely that, unlike the subjects in Milgram’s laboratory, they didn’t view the people they were harming as fellow volunteers in an educational experiment. They saw them as members of a dehumanized minority group that had to be eliminated for the good of the Fatherland. Daniel Goldhagen’s theory that Germans were gripped by a uniquely virulent brand of “eliminationist” anti-Semitism, which predated Hitler’s rise to power and led them to kill Jews with exuberant joy, has rightly been criticized as simplistic and crude. But few scholars would deny that pervasive anti-Semitism did play a powerful role in fostering brutality and turning many Germans into “willing executioners.” “The men of Reserve Battalion 101, like the rest of German society, were immersed in a deluge of racist and anti-Semitic propaganda,” observed Browning. Although most were not members of the Nazi Party, many referred to Jews as “dirty,” “unkempt,” “less clean.” Some clearly relished tormenting them—Sergeant Heinrich Bekemeier, for example, a sadistic Nazi who on one occasion responded to an elderly Jewish man who begged him for mercy by shooting him in the mouth.
Proximity can easily be overcome by indoctrination, a lesson not only the Nazis understood. During World War II, a study by a team of U.S. researchers found that no more than 15 to 20 percent of American infantry soldiers on the front lines actually shot at the enemy. “The average and normally healthy individual—the man who can endure the mental and physical stresses of combat—still has such an inner and usually unrealized resistance toward killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility,” Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall, the lead author of the study, concluded. “At the vital point, he becomes a conscientious objector.” In the decades that followed, the U.S. Army set about changing this, both by training soldiers to fire reflexively at “pop-up” targets and by convincing them that their opponents were not people but “inferior forms of life,” as Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, a former professor of psychology at West Point, has observed. The creation of such “cultural” and “moral” distance reached its peak at places such as My Lai during the Vietnam War, when U.S. soldiers took aim at “gooks,” “Commies,” “rats,” “Charlie”—and where the firing rate rose to 90 percent.
* * *
Officials in Switzerland during World War II were not subjected to the relentless racism that shaped the moral atmosphere in Nazi Germany. Many took pride in their nation’s tolerance. Yet lurking in the air was the fear of “foreign overpopulation,” and the related threat of “Jewification.” Being stationed near the border didn’t always soften such attitudes; sometimes it hardened them. “Border guards relentlessly sent back illegal refugees almost everywhere, often turning them over directly to the German police, in full knowledge of the danger that threatened them,” observed the Swiss Commission of Experts in its report. “At the same time, a process of brutalization occurred. Border guards hit refugees with their rifle butts to prevent them from crossing the border.”
“I could do nothing else”: the phrase Ruth Rudoner recalled her father voicing does not quite mesh with these facts. The words sound weirdly like those of a man submitting to a stern authority figure, and, in a way, Grüninger was—the sway of his conscience, his inner voice, which made him feel that letting in refugees was his only choice. But in fact there were other choices, plenty of them. In the letter he wrote defending his conduct, Grüninger indeed justified the one he made. He could have felt the flicker of conscience, gone home, mulled the risks of violating the law, and decided he’d best avoid venturing near the border again. He could have slipped into the “agentic state,” passing responsibility for the policy up the chain of command, to Heinrich Rothmund. He could have become hardened or brutalized. Or, short of this, taken comfort in the thought that, even if sealing the border was a bit cruel, preventing “excessive Jewish influence” from tainting Switzerland made it necessary.
Why didn’t he? The answer is that preventing this was not a priority of his, owing to a trait that was not so normal. In a part of Switzerland where nearly everyone was either Catholic or Protestant and the token Jewish presence had sparked its share of bigotry—in the 1920s, a Christian defense group waged an anti-Semitic campaign against Jews on the St. Gallen City Council—Grüninger failed to exhibit even a trace of anti-Semitic bias, much to Stefan Keller’s surprise. “I never found a word written by Grüninger against Jews,” Keller told me. “Even among people who helped Jews, you always find a bit of anti-Semitic remarks from this time. I was astonished.”
Conventional in his political attitudes, Paul Grüninger was unconventionally tolerant, which shaped what he saw when he came into contact with refugees—not “Jews” or “foreigners” but “people who had been horribly mistreated,” as he put it in a statement defending his conduct—and, in turn, how he chose to respond to them. “Perhaps Grüninger forgot that one should be anti-Semitic in Switzerland,” said Keller. “But I don’t think he thought at this level. He just saw what was happening and he said, ‘In this situation we can’t send people back.’”
We can’t send them back, Grüninger thought, because of another belief to which he fervently adhered. In the arc of his story there is one unbroken thread: his unshakable conviction that Switzerland was the enlightened nation it claimed to be, a sanctuary whose citizens had always extended a welcoming hand to castoffs from more troubled lands. A cynic might have told him that the reality was more complicated—that pursuing a policy of neutrality during World War II would lead to plenty of unenlightened conduct, like depositing Nazi gold into cosseted bank accounts while leaving Hitler’s victims brutally exposed. But Grüninger would have waved the cynic off. Not infrequently in 1938, before the conference on immigration in Bern that year, he would drive to Diepoldsau, a small village near the Austrian border where a former embroidery factory had been converted into a makeshift refugee camp. Inside its crowded barracks, hundreds of newly arrived Jews slept on narrow cots arranged in uniform rows. Outside, above the entrance, a white sign with dark trim and black lettering had been mounted: “Dank dem Schweizervolk” (“Thanks to the Swiss People”). Grüninger was touched by this message, not only because he could see the gratitude in the eyes of the residents but also because, in his own eyes, a proud tradition was being upheld.
Later, in seeking to explain his conduct, Grüninger composed a letter citing a speech that a Swiss foreign minister had made in the 1880s about how welcoming strangers was an integral part of Swiss identity and always would be. He never wavered from this starry-eyed view. “Cheer up,” he once told a young Jewish girl who arrived at the border with her family in tears, “now you are in free Switzerland”—words that, to Stefan Keller, sound almost touchingly naïve. “This self-constructed image of Switzerland as the country where people are safe, this mythology, it has nothing to do with reality,” Keller said. “But Grüninger really believed in it.”
To disobey authority requires being rebellious, common sense suggests. Sometimes, though, it is precisely a faithful insider’s nonrebelliousness—the earnest belief in Switzerland’s asylum tradition, in the justness of its laws—that can spark disobedience. Grüninger was not a rebel but a true believer, a conservative, patriotic man who subscribed wholeheartedly to the tenets of a belief system that his subsequent downfall indeed revealed to be a myth. His conduct was “guided by the opinion of a large part of the Swiss population, the press, and the political parties,” he claimed, the forces that rewarded his faith by maintaining their silence as his reputation was blackened for having violated a policy that roused little opposition from his fellow citizens and peers.
Little open opposition, that is.
IV. Correcting Mistakes
“We have ascertained that the cantonal police in St. Gallen is implicated in recent illegal attempts to enter Switzerland.” So relayed a report from the border surveillance command in December 1938, a few months before the investigation into Paul Grüninger’s misdeeds began. It was drawn up and circulated shortly after several smugglers had been spotted outside a restaurant in Bregenz, Austria. The owner of the restaurant was a taxi driver who had assisted partisans in the antifascist struggle in Spain. The men milling around turned out to be members of a network formed by Swiss socialists to help their Austrian comrades escape the clutches of the Nazis. After being interrogated by the Gestapo, the smugglers were sent back to Switzerland, where, under questioning, they informed the authorities that an official from St. Gallen knew what they were doing and approved of it.
The official in question was not Paul Grüninger. It was Valentin Keel, the former trade unionist who Ruth Rudoner had mentioned to me. Before entering politics and becoming a state deputy, Keel had served as the editor of a leftist newspaper that routinely hurled salvos at the authorities. In a conservative canton, he had a reputation as a firebrand, an outspoken antifascist who at one point demanded the names of all Swiss officials on the far right who’d pledged their support to Hitler. In January 1939, after the report on illegal attempts to enter Switzerland had circulated, Keel was called to Bern to see Heinrich Rothmund. A week later, he sent a letter to Paul Grüninger explaining that the federal authorities were concerned about the “surprising proportions” of Jewish refugees entering St. Gallen.
If the authorities were surprised, Keel surely wasn’t: his office was located directly across the hall from Grüninger’s. Every day, he saw Jewish refugees come to Grüninger’s door. The two men even lived on the same street, and were on friendly terms, with Keel dropping by on occasion in the company of his granddaughter. Like Grüninger, Keel had attended the immigration conference in Bern. The idea that he was unaware of Grüninger’s activities defies plausibility, not least since one of his responsibilities was to oversee the police department.
Grüninger insisted that Keel knew everything, which, if true, makes his own conduct somewhat easier to comprehend. As common sense suggests and experience confirms, it is exceedingly difficult to disobey authority alone, far less so when one feels supported by others. In one variation of his shock experiment, Stanley Milgram demonstrated this by placing the teacher in a room with two peers who were actors and who, at a certain point, disobeyed the order to administer more shocks. Under these conditions, 90 percent of the subjects also disobeyed. “The mutual support provided by men for each other is the strongest bulwark we have against the excesses of authority,” Milgram concluded.
“Wenns mi butzt, butzt au de Keel”—“If I go down, so will Keel,” Grüninger vowed. Yet it was Keel who, under pressure from Heinrich Rothmund, tapped Gustav Studer to probe Grüninger’s misconduct. On March 1, 1939, Keel was called before the State Council to explain what he knew. He could have defended his colleague, perhaps even delivered a speech calling for the restrictions on immigration to be overturned. Instead, facing accusations from the far right that he’d supplied his comrades with passports in the midst of a bruising reelection campaign, Keel admitted to knowing that a handful of socialists had been spirited across the border, but claimed ignorance of Grüninger’s activities. Sidney Dreifuss, of the Jewish Aid to Refugees Office in St. Gallen, told investigators he had no choice but to submit to Grüninger’s orders to falsify documents, though he added that he felt indebted to him for helping so many Jews “escape the utter hell of the German Reich.” Not surprisingly, Dreifuss was not summoned to testify at Grüninger’s trial by Willi Hartmann, the court-appointed defense attorney assigned to the case—and a member of the openly anti-Semitic, ultraconservative Swiss Patriotic Federation—nor were any of the refugees that the two of them collaborated to save.
* * *
So Paul Grüninger went down alone, defended by nobody, the ripple effects of his “underhanded practices” contained to himself and his family. At the time her father lost his job, Ruth Rudoner was in Lausanne, enrolled in business school. After his dismissal she had to drop out, come home, and support her parents, or at least try. “I had difficulty getting a job because of my father—there was this fear of Hitler invading Switzerland and all of Europe, and people thought they should not hire someone whose father had been helping the Jews,” she told me. “My friends at school—they didn’t ask what was happening to me or to my parents, they were all pretty distant.”
In the decades that followed, the authorities in St. Gallen conveniently forgot about the Grüninger affair—or rather, remembered just enough to make sure that efforts to revisit it were swiftly rebuffed. The day after I had coffee in Heerbrugg with Ruth Rudoner, I paid a visit to a member of the Swiss Parliament named Paul Rechsteiner, a trim, sprightly man with a mop of shaggy brown hair and a slightly frenetic air. “I’m every time in a hurry,” he said with a quick smile as we sat down in his office, which was dominated by books and papers stacked in towering heaps on his desk, a filing cabinet, and broad swatches of the floor. In the mid-1980s, when he was serving as a deputy in St. Gallen, Rechsteiner had locked horns with conservatives who sought to ban a play by the Swiss dramatist Thomas Hürlimann, which was set in World War II and raised pointed questions about attitudes toward Jews. Always in a hurry, Rechsteiner decided to slow down and reexamine his country’s past, figuring there was a reason the play had touched a nerve. He soon took a particular interest in Grüninger’s case. More than a decade had passed since the disgraced police captain’s death. Yet when Rechsteiner introduced a motion to rehabilitate him, he encountered a wave of opposition. “The authorities in the government fought against it, the majority of parties on the right were against it,” Rechsteiner told me. “It had something to do with guilt and a period in the history of Switzerland where the attitudes of authority, the attitudes of the state, had such an impact on lives.”
Even Ruth Rudoner responded tepidly to his idea, Rechsteiner said, which is understandable. In 1968, when hundreds of fugitives from the Eastern bloc were welcomed into Switzerland after the Soviet Union crushed the Prague Spring, a Swiss politician named Willi Rohner published an article, “Thirty Years Afterward,” suggesting that the time had come to reexamine the case of the man who’d been punished for welcoming an earlier wave of refugees fleeing tyranny. “It would be an honor for the canton of Saint-Gallen and for the entire country to correct the mistakes it had made about a man who had ignored inhumane directives at a time when Europe was sinking into barbarism,” Rohner wrote. The State Council responded by indicating that, actually, it would not be such an honor. A year later, Ruth Rudoner asked to speak to the council about her father’s case; her appeal went nowhere, with one state councilor telling her he’d examined the files and discovered that her father had gotten “rich” the year before he was dismissed.
The effort to bury the past was not entirely successful: Willi Rohner’s article was translated into English and came to the attention of some Jewish veterans associations, leading, eventually, to Grüninger’s recognition by Yad Vashem. In 1970, the State Council even sent him a letter recognizing his “humane actions.” But it ruled out the possibility of reexamining his case. In all, five petitions were introduced to rehabilitate Grüninger, all of them denied. Each time, the old rumors were trotted out, notwithstanding the fact that the main players in the Grüninger affair had long since retired or passed away. Why couldn’t state officials simply admit their predecessors had been wrong? Because, of course, it wasn’t just the reputation of their predecessors that was at stake: to rehabilitate the man who’d said no to the authorities in Bern in 1938 would have been to issue a searing indictment of the tolerant, neutral country that had condemned him to humiliation and disgrace. Realizing this, a group called Justice for Paul Grüninger decided to commission a historian to probe the veracity of the rumors once and for all. Paul Rechsteiner was a member of the group. When the first scholar approached declined, its members turned to Stefan Keller, perhaps unaware he wasn’t so certain they’d be thrilled with the findings he unearthed.
Those findings initially appeared in a series of articles in Die Wochenzeitung, a Swiss weekly, and caused a stir, thanks partly to the timing. With the fiftieth anniversary of Normandy approaching and Switzerland’s conduct during World War II beginning to fall under critical scrutiny, articles about Grüninger soon surfaced in everything from The Wall Street Journal to Le Monde. Keller’s book became a bestseller in Switzerland. It also spawned a film, by the Swiss director Richard Dindo, much of it shot inside the same wood-paneled courtroom where Grüninger was convicted. In the documentary the trial is reenacted, with some witnesses on hand who weren’t invited to appear at the original proceedings—the people Grüninger saved.
One afternoon, at a table by the window of a café in St. Gallen, I met one of these witnesses, a distinguished-looking elderly man with thick dark eyebrows and a shock of wavy gray hair that framed a still-handsome face. He was originally from Vienna, the city he’d fled at age fourteen after witnessing the events of Kristallnacht, following the trail of his brother Herbert. The gray-haired man was Erich Billig. Nearly seventy years had passed since he’d taken flight from Austria. I asked him what he remembered of the experience. “Everything,” he said, and, leaning forward slightly, in a tone by turns grateful and bemused, told me the improbable story, pausing only to laugh at his good fortune or to search for the right words in English, which he spoke fairly well, having spent several years working in America at one point. When he got to the part about meeting Paul Grüninger, he recalled the one aspect of his physical appearance that stood out. “He had something I had never seen before—at the end of the glasses there were two chains brought behind the ears,” he said. A deep smile creased his face.
After a conversation of no more than ten minutes, Billig told me that Grüninger sent him to the refugee camp in Diepoldsau, and then, having determined it was an inappropriate place for a boy his age, to a Swiss family that sheltered him during the war. Billig got along well with the family, especially with one of the daughters, who later became his wife. They raised three children together. Roughly twenty-five thousand Jews were denied entry into Switzerland during the course of World War II; countless others didn’t bother trying. I asked Billig if, after the war, he ever got in touch with Grüninger to express his appreciation, perhaps bringing his kids along to show him how well things had turned out. He shook his head. “Sometimes I thought I should go and see him and say, ‘Thank you very much—this is my family thanks to you,’” he said. “But it was really—I hesitated. I had a bad conscience to say ‘Now I’m happy and you have problems.’ I knew he had problems—it was in the newspapers, not a lot but I read about it.” His eyes fell. “I did not have the courage to go.”
Before we rose to leave, Billig promised to send me some documents he’d collected about various members of his family. Some time later, I received a yellow envelope in the mail with a cover note dated November 9/10, 2008—Billig had composed it on the seventieth anniversary of Kristallnacht. The first document in the packet was a photocopy of a passport—“Nr. 5396/39”—issued by the German consulate to Erich Ismael Billig in 1938. Emblazoned on it was a swastika and, next to this, the letter J, along with a black-and-white photo of a slightly bewildered-looking dark-haired boy. Also in the packet were various maps: an aerial view of the Swiss-Austrian border; a sketch of Europe marked with various places where Billig’s relatives had passed through or ended up—Dachau, Buchenwald, Theresienstadt. One other piece of family memorabilia was included, a copy of a letter dated August 31, 1942. It had been sent from Cannes to St. Gallen by Billig’s mother, who had stayed in Vienna after sending her sons to Switzerland because she couldn’t bear to leave without her husband, who was stranded in Dachau. She eventually left Austria for France and, by August 1942, was in transit to an unknown destination. “My Dearest Erich!” began her letter, which was written in a large, looping script,
Before I leave I send you the dearest kisses from my heart and I wish you all the best and may dear God continue to protect you. Many tender kisses from your mother, who is always thinking of you and hugs you in spirit … Temporarily, they put us in the Camp Rivesaltes, and where we will continue from there I do not know yet.
The mystery of where she was heading was cleared up by another document in the packet, indicating that Billig’s mother was among the Jews in Deportation no. 29, to Auschwitz. The letter in the looping script was the last thing he heard from her.
After Stefan Keller’s book appeared, some of the refugees who had never thanked Grüninger in person got a small chance to make amends, traveling to St. Gallen to attend a meeting with some politicians who’d opposed rehabilitating him in the past. Their presence evidently made a strong impact. “This was very, very impressive,” Keller, who arranged the meeting, recalled, “because they couldn’t—it was similar to the Grüninger case. If you have the people before you at the same table, the abstraction becomes difficult to deny.” Difficult enough that in 1993, forty-five years after his dismissal, the Federal Department of Justice and Police—the division once headed by Heinrich Rothmund—issued a statement expressing “gratitude and respect” to Paul Grüninger and granting the “political rehabilitation long solicited.” In 1995, a district court in St. Gallen exonerated Grüninger for “criminal fraud for having backdated records and falsified papers in order to save people’s lives.”
* * *
Thirteen years later, on a damp, drizzly fall morning, a ceremony was held in a small cemetery in Au, a town nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains that were wreathed in heavy mist. Next to the vine-covered wall bordering the final row of headstones, beneath a rain-soaked apple tree, about a dozen people gathered by the grave of Paul and Alice Grüninger. Inscribed on a plaque at the foot of their grave was a now-uncontroversial statement:
“Paul Grüninger saved hundreds of refugees in 1938/39.” Among the spectators squinting through the rain as a photographer snapped pictures was Paul Rechsteiner. Ruth Rudoner was also there, dressed in a red blouse beneath a black-and-white wool sweater, flanked on one side by Erich Billig, who’d come to pay his respects, and on the other by a middle-aged man in a gray jacket and striped tie—the mayor of Au.
Sixty years after the fact, associating with Paul Grüninger had finally become politically correct. Along with the tree planted for him at Yad Vashem, a courtyard and a football stadium had been named after Grüninger in St. Gallen. A public square in Israel also bore his name. The honors were richly deserved, though they arguably replaced one comforting misrepresentation with another, equally comforting one: the formerly vilified police captain now recast as a hero who did something only a person of exceptional merit could have done.
When asked to explain why he disobeyed the law, Grüninger struck a humbler note, insisting he was simply doing his “human duty.” The phrase may reek of false modesty to people whose image of defiance during World War II has been shaped by films such as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows, a spellbinding portrait of the French Resistance in which a small band of heroic operatives battle the Gestapo while dodging the bullets aimed at their heads. Melville’s film presents resistance the way we are accustomed to seeing it: as something that demands superhuman courage, washed in the mythical light of a doomed yet noble cause. But while there were such resisters during World War II, there were others like Grüninger, unexceptional people who took great risks not because they felt drawn to lofty causes but because they were in a position to help someone and did. And then did it again, and again, and again, until what would have seemed unthinkable before came to seem routine, no less routine than enforcing the law became to his peers. As both Hannah Arendt and Stanley Milgram recognized, one reason ordinary people were capable of carrying out unjust orders was habituation: you pulled one switch on the voltage generator, then a couple more, and after a while you stopped agonizing about it, not least since you’d already dirtied your hands a bit.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, might a similar process unfold among people who resist? So contend the psychologists Andre Modigliani and François Rochat. Resistance to authority, they argue, often begins not with grand gestures carried out in the name of abstract causes but “small, modest actions” that rarely seem unusual to the people carrying them out. This is particularly true if the noncompliance starts early, before any compromises are made, as was the case with Grüninger, whose first act of dissent came at the 1938 immigration conference in Bern, where he uncharacteristically rose to express his views, telling his peers it was “impossible” to send the refugees back because the situation on the border was “heartbreaking.”
If evil is banal, than surely good must be extraordinary. Rochat and Modigliani argue otherwise, noting the lack of outstanding qualities among the vast majority of Holocaust rescuers who risked their lives to help Jews and how often they spoke less of their heroic conduct than the disjointed world in which they found themselves, an upside-down universe where acting “normal” would have required violating everything they believed. “It is obvious that the attitude I took could not fail to cause strangeness,” wrote the Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes of his irreverent conduct. “However, it should be noted that everything was strange at the time. My attitude was, in fact, a result of the totally abnormal and insuperable circumstances.” We honor people like Mendes to redeem them from the mistreatment they endured, but in the process risk diminishing the power of their example, Rochat contends: “Rescuers were very few … so that one is tempted to think that they were indeed outstanding people, some kind of saints, or heroes of goodness, which in turn means … that they are not like us.” In this way, “we keep them away from us, for they are great people, outstandingly good, which we don’t think we are.”
To claim Paul Grüninger’s conduct was the norm would be preposterous. Yet it is equally difficult not to see something unremarkable about him. The former schoolteacher from Au met with refugees, he listened to them, he saw the fear and desperation in their eyes, and so he devised ways to let them stay. His job was to protect people from harm and, guided by nothing more than a capacity to see the refugees as people and a belief that he was honoring his country’s founding principles by treating them humanely, this is what he did. The fact that he was not a figure of pristine virtue who seemed destined for heroic things does not detract from the magnitude of his achievement. It makes it more poignant—and, as a commentary on the spirit of his times, more damning.
Paul Grüninger never got to say what he thought of being turned into a hero, but he did get a final opportunity to defend himself, in 1971, when Swiss national television recorded an hour-long program about his case. Before the video was broadcast, the government of St. Gallen threatened legal action if it was depicted unfairly, but the program aired. In one scene, Grüninger is shown standing near the railing on a small bridge at the Swiss-Austrian border. He is dressed in a black top hat, a white shirt, a dark overcoat and tie, peering over the railing at the leafless trees lining the banks of le vieux Rhin, which are covered in a thick blanket of pearly white snow. The winter light is pale and bright, and Grüninger blinks repeatedly while gazing at the serene, glistening landscape. He does not smile. He does not speak. His expression is somber but composed. After a while, he ambles across the bridge in a slow, even gait, maintaining his balance with a wooden cane clutched in his gloved right hand. His head is bowed slightly down and, as he shuffles forward, his mouth sags into a pronounced, unmistakable frown. Ruth Rudoner insisted her father was never burdened by resentment after his dismissal, continuing to sing in a choir into his seventies, refraining from voicing complaints. Others who knew him before and after his fall said he became less approachable. An acquaintance named Bernhard Mehl was haunted by “the sad look on his face.” This is the look he wears as he crosses the bridge, alone with his memories and, perhaps, his grievances and second thoughts. Has coming to the place that once roused his sympathy jarred loose some bottled-up anger? Might it have stirred a small, uncomfortable pang of regret?
In another scene, Grüninger sits down to field a series of questions. His hat and jacket are off, and sunlight angles through the window onto his cheeks and brow. In his days as a police captain, his full face had lent him a boyish aspect. Now his fleshy jowls accentuate his age. His eyes are heavy and lidded, and the pince-nez he wore has given way to a pair of thick-framed browline glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. “You were aware of the fact that you violated the strict orders of the Swiss government?” he is asked. “Yes, I was certainly aware of that,” he says. “But my conscience told me that I could not and may not send them back. And also my human sense of duty demanded that I keep them here.” He is asked about the rumors, and tenses up. “Well, I never took a cent,” he says, his right eyebrow twitching slightly, the pace of his words quickening. “These people had no money either. They also were the poorest, those that came, and as to how people think, there, I can’t change a thing. Many things are said and many lies are told.”
The camera continues rolling. One more question is posed. “Would you act in the same way if the situation were the same?”
“Yes, of course,” he says without hesitation. “I would do and act exactly the same.”
Paul Grüninger was laid to rest one year after this interview was recorded, at a funeral where the choir sang “Nearer My God to Thee” and the Swiss flag was raised. During the ceremony, Rabbi Lothar Rothschild recited a famous passage from the Talmud: “He who saves a single life, saves the entire world.”
Copyright © 2012 by Eyal Press
Meet the Author
Eyal Press is an author and journalist based in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, The Raritan Review and numerous other publications. A 2011 Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation, he is the author of Absolute Convictions, and a past recipient of the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism.
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After Chris Hayes gave it such a great review on his program, I had to read it--he was right! Well written and very interesting. The four individuals written about from different backgrounds, countries and time periods were great examples of how some people choose to apply their values of right and wrong to do the right thing. Even though it is not written from a religious perspective, it still reinforced what I have learned about the saints and/or martyrs from Roman times to the present--Mother Teresa, Damien of Molokai, the Irish Catholics in England, the Catholics during the Jacobin Revolution in France, the martyrs of Nagasaki, slaves in America, Native Americans, The Holocaust and so on. I could especially relate to the last person who stood up to her employer and tried to expose their financial wrongdoings to their investors.
excellent study of frequently ignored issue of what makes ordinary people risk greatly for strangers. Unsettling, thoughtful, hard to put down.
Fresh look at topic
Mr. Press is initially astonished that his subjects are not the rebellious intellectuals he imagined them to be but rather quiet people leading ordinary lives. Why is that Mr. Press? Your comment smacks of elitist snobbery to me. Astonished to actually realize that "ordinary" people have class, decency and ethics? Memo to Eyal Press: "Ordinary" people have far more sense of what's right and wrong than a plethora of warehouses full of "intellectual academics." But I gather that's too hard to comprehend from your throne high up in your ivory tower. Thank God for the "ordinary" people of the world.