There’s some internet law or other which apparently predicts that any on-line exchange will, after a certain period, end up with one of the parties bringing Hitler or the Nazis into the conversation. Well, I’ve decided to pre-empt the proper working out of that law by starting with the Nazi reference right from the top. Many of you who follow this blog, or my Twitter persona, will know that over recent days I’ve been struggling to find ways of implementing savage cuts in my organisation, which are the direct result of the government’s policy on public expenditure. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not about to try and argue that somehow this government’s attitude to the public sector is analogous to the Nazis’ policy of racial extermination. That wouldn’t be simple hyperbole: it would be both fatuous and an insult to the memories of those affected by the Holocaust and to their descendants and families. It’s not in the policies that I see even the remotest connection. But one element of the Nazi period in war-time Germany does seem to have a most unsettling echo for me this week. Time and again, when asked to explain their seemingly incomprehensible compliance with their government’s pernicious demands, ordinary Germans, no less than high ranking officials, responded by saying that they were merely doing their jobs.
I am not being asked to send people to their deaths. I am not ordering that families should be rounded up and transported to concentration camps. I very much hope that if I were, I’d have the courage and moral fibre to refuse, no matter the personal consequences. Until any of us has been tested to such extremes in practice, and God prevent us from being so tested, we would do well not to castigate those who were tested and who manifestly failed. However, I am doing things that I fundamentally disagree with. I am visiting upon my colleagues emotional and financial trauma that I do not believe should be visited on them. I am making choices about who to cast into possible penury, and who to save from that possibility. I am using my ingenuity, and my skill, to find ways of making real the government’s policies.
What should I do? Where does my moral duty lie? I am doing my job. I am trying to make sense of nonsense. I am trying to protect those for whom we are charged to provide a service, and to make better rather than worse decisions. But I have a choice. I can do these things, or I can refuse to do them and leave my job. I cannot pretend that I have no choice, because it is abundantly clear that I do have a choice. So far, I am choosing to continue.
But when I search my conscience, when I try to justify my choice, I find myself saying things indistinguishable from the excuses given by the concentration camp guards, the petty clerks in the offices organising the transportations, all those hapless little people in Nazi Germany who did terrible things to their fellow citizens. “If I don’t do them, then they will simply find someone else who will.” “I have a wife, and a son, I have to think of what’s best for them.” “I need a job, I can’t live on fresh air.”
As I have already written, sacking people is not the same as condemning them to death. Of course it isn’t. But morally, perhaps what I am doing, and the excuses I make to permit myself to do it, are not so very different. The things I am doing are wrong, but I have decided that my personal well-being is more important than my moral judgement. I have convinced myself that it would be wrong to impose my personal moral flagellation on my wife, to make her suffer for my moral purity. Arguments don’t come much more seductive than that. Suddenly morality demands that I continue, that to stand up for what I believe to be right would be a self-indulgence. How very convenient.
Perhaps this really is only a matter of degree. That if the moral stakes were raised, I’d do the right thing. I’d like to think so. But I’m haunted by a verse in St Luke: “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.”
But please don’t blame me – after all, I’m just doing my job.