by Mary Roe
from Signs of the Times No. 49 - Apr 2013

I am no psychologist, but I have lived, observed and pondered for a long time now. 

Back in the 1950's, when I was living in Germany only a short time after WWII, I began to wonder how it was that the really likeable and intelligent Germans whom I got to know could be the same people as those who had carried out the atrocities of the concentration camps.  One of my closest friends had worked in the German Foreign Office in Berlin throughout the war - surely she must have known what was happening? I never asked her, but, like almost all the Germans one met,  in offices, pubs or on trains, she was adamant that she had no knowledge of the camps' existence, but admitted to thinking that 'Hitler didn't like the Jews very much!'

The next question was whether we Brits or our American allies would ever have resorted to the same tactics. I knew and knew of many English people, some of them in high places in society (I name no names,) who had great sympathy with the Nazis but I assumed that they really didn't know the extent of Hitler's persecution of all those, including gypsies, the disabled and mentally retarded as well as the Jews, who were perceived to be a blot on the landscape of the Fatherland. But would they, could they have led us down the same path to a 'final solution' of our own problems as they perceived them? (The chief of these at the time was understood to be the threat from the Bolsheviks.)

Since then, we have grown used to the realisation that many of the perpetrators of the worst war crimes were affectionate husbands and fathers, kind to their dogs and highly civilized in their ability to be moved to tears by great music (by Caucasian composers, of course). But my interest in the German psyche, well before the Nuremburg trials brought the full horrors to light, led me to discover that the rise of Nazism was accompanied by a simultaneous descent into the most nauseating folksy sentimentality: the rousing marching songs, which were indeed very catchy, were balanced by dreadful, tear-jerking  popular ballads which, as my friend said, 'had all the kitchen maids weeping buckets into the washing-up water as they sang them.' These Moritaten, or Kuechenlieder, had titles such as 'Der Bettler und sein Hund'  ('The Beggar and his Dog') and 'Traurig aberWahr' ('Sad, but True'). The lyrics were mostly even worse than the titles suggest and a typical line from 'Sad but True', which begins with 'Lenchen went walking in the woods - alone!' is the final, 'Ihr junges Blut fliess in dem Sand' - her young blood flowed in the sand  (of the railway line where she had thrown herself and her new-born baby under the express train).

Even by the 1950s, these songs were the cause of much merriment, but the laughter of those who had lived through the decade of their popularity had a decidedly nervous or embarrassed tone.It seems that when genuine feelings of empathy with one's fellow human beings are suppressed, a safety valve of synthetic, facile emotion has to be opened. There are other periods in history which appear to support this theory, but I haven't made a thorough study of any of them.

The answer to the question whether we are all capable of extreme cruelty is probably,Yes - to the extent that we allow ourselves to be moved by the cheap and the trivial manipulators of our emotions to which we subject ourselves in fiction, television 'soaps' et al. The flip side of Mary Poppins with her kittens and mittens, could well be Myra Hindley if we are not aware of the possibility of that happening in our much loved green and pleasant land.

Should the situation I have outlined bother us? Is there anything we ought to be doing to make sure that history doesn't repeat itself here, or elsewhere in the world? As a Christian, I am bound to say that we should never turn a blind eye to any possibility of evil prevailing and as a liberal Christian, I am wary of any expression of the faith which raises levels of mass emotion and simple-minded gut reaction at the expense of thoughtful, prayerful and critical study (at whatever intellectual level is appropriate) of the life, teaching and death of Jesus, remembering his words, '...as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.' If the Christians in Germany had borne these words in mind and acted on them, there would have been no Holocaust - and possibly the popular songs of the day might have been less toe-curling and more genuinely moving. We need to remember that there are two sides to every coin and when one side is cloyingly sentimental,  the other is very often cold and cruel.

We have seen recently how this dichotomy has affected many parts of the Roman Catholic Church; the more sentimental the devotion to Mary, the mother of our Lord (as opposed to open-hearted veneration for her part in the Christian story) the more such institutions as the Magdalen laundries flourished. The more Mary was worshipped for her virginal motherhood, the harsher the treatment of young girls who had been raped by a randy uncle or the parish priest.

I once saw an exhibition of religious paintings in France, entitled, l'Art Sacre and came out feeling that a more accurate description would have been l'Art Sucre. Many of these works were created at the time of the post-revolutionary Terror.

When I was a child, there was a vogue for negro spirituals and lullabies about 'little piccaninnies'  but the 'negroes' who were feted were (with the exception of Paul Robeson who was persecuted as a suspected communist) white men blacked up and the opportunities for piccaninnies to grow up to be educated citizens with a share in the American Dream were pretty well non-existent.

I have come to the conclusion that sentimentality is not harmless or healthily cathartic for members of a stiff-upper-lipped race (not to say stiff-necked). Sentimentality is the opposite of genuine feelings of joy, sorrow and empathy and it is the enemy of true love of God and of one's neighbour - true religion. I can't think one would find many sentimental members of Modern Church; liberal theology is honest theology;  it is opposed to all forms of hypocrisy. And hypocrisy and sentimentality go hand in hand.

Perhaps we need to pay more attention to this aspect of our struggle to present the gospel to people who have grown up with only the sentimental version of our great festivals, such as Christmas and Easter... or have I just got a bee in my bonnet?


Mary Roe is a retired RE teacher, lay reader, widow of a bishop, and member of the Modern Church Council.