On Empathy, Dragons and Nazis

How To Train Your Dragon
Source: WIkipedia

Astrid: It’s a mess. You must feel horrible. You’ve lost everything. Your father, your tribe, your best friend…
Hiccup: Thank you for summing that up.
[silence]
Hiccup: Why couldn’t I have killed that dragon when I found him in the woods? Would’ve been better, for everyone…
Astrid: Yep. The rest of us would have done it. So why didn’t you?
[pauses]
Astrid: Why didn’t you?
Hiccup: I don’t know… I couldn’t.
Astrid: That’s not an answer.
Hiccup: *Why* is this so important to you all of a sudden?
Astrid: Because I want to remember what you say, *right now*.
Hiccup: Oh, for the love of… I was a coward! I was weak! I wouldn’t kill a dragon!
Astrid: You said *wouldn’t*, that time.
Hiccup: Agh, whatever… I *wouldn’t*! Three hundred years, and I’m the first Viking who wouldn’t kill a dragon!
[pause]
Astrid: First to ride one, though. So…?
Hiccup: I wouldn’t kill him, because he looked as frightened as *I* was. I looked at him… and I saw myself.

How to Train Your Dragon is a fun movie, memorable and unique in many regards.  It even has a quote worth retelling and including with some quotes from They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer.  What?  Dragons and Nazis?  Psh, that combination isn’t unique at all!

Hiccup, the main character in How to Train Your Dragon said that he was unable to kill the dragon because he saw himself in the dragon, he looked at him and realized that they shared the same feelings.  Fear.  Hiccup was able to empathize with something that had previously been an alien, a creature with no similarities to himself or his people.  In fact, that is when empathy really starts, when you realize that what was previously alien, is now somewhat similar.

Milton Mayer references the German character numerous times, about some of the differences and how it is critically important to understand what those differences are and how if we can understand those differences and understand why it is that way, we can avoid such suffering.

Pg 303 – They Thought They Were Free
The failure of the Occupation could not, perhaps, have been averted in the very nature of the case. But it might have been mitigated. Its mitigation would have required the conquerors to do something they had never had to do in their history. They would have had to stop doing what they were doing and ask themselves some questions, hard questions, like, What is the German character? How did it get that way? What is wrong with its being that way? What way would be better, and what, if anything, could anybody do about it?

Empathy basically.  If the occupiers had empathized with the Germans, if they sought to understand the unseen whats referenced above and not just the seen whats, the Occupation wouldn’t have been such an initial failure.  If the Occupiers had only looked back into history and realized the differences between the Unseen and the Seen, it wouldn’t have been such a failure.

Pg 296 – They Thought They Were Free
Those stones were the houses – not the munitions plants or the switchyards, but the houses. In the city of Worms, the railroad roundhouse stood miraculously untouched; and a half-mile away stood a whole row of walls that were once apartment houses; and so it was in Frankfurt, where the I.G. Hochhaus, the headquarters of the world dye trust, was undamaged; and in Berlin, where the Patent Office was intact. And so it was everywhere in Germany, for the war was a war against houses. One raid knocked one-third of Freiburg over; Dresden was destroyed in twenty-four hours. And Hamburg! And Munich! And Rotterdam! Warsaw! Coventry! Stalingrad! How could Americans understand? They couldn’t.

They couldn’t.  Or wouldn’t?  Empathy is possible, it is always possible to understand the positions behind why people act.  Sometimes their reasons are stated and we can blatantly ignore it as the below video shows.  Starting at about 1:30 into the video Paul specifically states that the terrorists gave reasons for why they attacked the US on Sept 2011, 2001.  Later in the video former mayor of NY Rudy Giuliani states that he has never heard such ridiculousness.  This statement in itself is a lie because anyone who looks into the matter is exposed to the terrorist’s perspective either through their words our or own CIA’s words.  What Giuliani is missing is empathy.  He has no empathy for the Middle Eastern people and thus – even when exposed to why they attempt to hurt us – he is blind to their stated reasons for attacking us.

So why is empathy so hard?  It is in fact part of Christ’s 2nd Commandment, and so it should be instilled in our very nature.  The pressure but on us by society can effect this and has been discussed before; both for negative and positive consequences.  However, imagine the following scene and seeming contradictions:

Pg 276 – They Thought They Were Free
Nowhere have I seen so many old men and women staggering through train sheds with heavy suitcases and never an offer of assistance from the empty-handed, nowhere such a uniform disinclination to assist on the scene of an accident or to intervene between children fighting on the street. But the service in German hotels, restaurants, and stores is superb.

Pg 296 – They Thought They Were Free
Right up until the total collapse of steel fabrication at the end of 1944, the Germans had four rails in the yards for every rail in use; within two to six hours after a yard was hit, it was moving again. But sleepless workers weren’t moving so fast, and terrified workers were moving still slower, and workers whose homes were gone (and maybe a wife or child) weren’t moving fast at all.

Horrible isn’t it?  If empathy is understanding and sharing the feelings of others how do you think the above scenes effect our ability to understand others?  If we can’t understand what is happening to us as individuals, how can we be expected to attempt to understand others?  If pressure focuses us inward so that all we have time and energy to think about is the self and short-term consequences it makes sense that German’s wouldn’t offer assistance but that the service was superb.

In this, care is necessary.  Judgement of the German’s shouldn’t be so harsh as to further remove empathy as well as to remove it from those doing the judging.  People should and need to suffer consequences for their actions – whether good or bad – but empathy is needed on both sides.

Pg 223 – They Thought They Were Free
“You say, ‘Totalitarianism.’ Yes, totalitarianism; but perhaps you have never been alone, unemployed, sick, or penniless, or, if you have, perhaps never for long, for so long that you have given up hope; and so (you’ll pardon me, Herr Professor) it is easy for you to say, ‘Totalitarianism – no.’ But the other side, the side I speak of, was the side that the people outside Germany never saw, or perhaps never cared to see. And today nobody in Germany will say it. But, believe me, nobody in Germany has forgotten it, either.

This post is a continuation of a long series of commentary on quotes pulled from They Thought They Were Free, the Germans 1933-45 by Milton Mayer.  The book itself is home to a lot of revelations to the nature of people and I do recommend reading it.  To see the short review of the book itself please click this link, to see other commentary like this post click this link.

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One thought on “On Empathy, Dragons and Nazis

  1. Pingback: Death via Quota « The Economical Engineer

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