I am reading the book The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal.

In the first part of the book Wiesenthal relates a disturbing experience during his time in a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. While on a work detail outside the camp at a school (his old "high school") that had been converted into a hospital for wounded German soldiers, he was summoned by a nurse. She led him into the room of a dying SS soldier and left him there. The young man had asked that a Jew be brought to him. He then proceeded, in words interupted by pain, to relate his life story, working up to what he wanted to tell a Jew.

He had been a good boy, he said, raised in the [Roman Catholic] Church by a pious mother, and truly believed. Then, he joined the Hitler Youth, and gradually was turned against the Church, giving higher alliegance to the Furher than to his parents. When the war started he volunteered for the SS. Moving east with the invasion of Russia, he and his squad were given an order one day.

"An order was given," he continued, "and we marched toward the huddled mass of Jews. There were a hundred and fifty of them or perhaps two hundred, including many children who stared at us with anxious eyes. A few were quietly crying. There were infants in their mothers' arms, but hardly any young men, mostly women and graybeards.
"As we approached I could see the expression in their eyes--fear, indescribable fear . . . apparently they knew what was awaiting them . . .
"A truck arrived with cans of petrol which we unloaded and took into a house. The strong men among the Jews were ordered to carry the cans to the upper stories. They obeyed--apathetically, without a will of their own, like automatons.
"Then we began to drive the Jews into the house. A sergeant with a whip in his hand helped any of the Jews who were not quick enough. There was a hail of curses and kicks. The house was not very large, it had only three stories. I would not have believed it possible to crowd them all into it. But after a few minutes there was no Jew left on the street."
. . .
The dying Nazi went on: "Then another truck came up full of more Jews and they too were crammed into the house with the others. Then the door was locked and a machine gun was posted opposite."
. . .
"When we were told that everything was ready, we went back a few yards, and then received the command to remove safety pins from hand grenades and throw them through the windows of the house. Detonations followed one after another . . .My God!"
Now he was silent, and he raised himself slightly from the bed: his whole body was shivering.
But he continued: "We heard screams and saw the flames eat their way from floor to floor . . . We had our rifles ready to shoot down anyone who tried to escape from that blazing hell . . .
"The screams from the house were horrible. Dense smoke poured out and choked us . . ."
. . .
". . .Behind the windows of the second floor, I saw a man with a small child in his arms. His clothes were alight. By his side stood a woman, doubtless the mother of the child. With his free hand the man covered the child's eyes . . . then he jumped into the street. Seconds later the mother followed. Then from the other windows fell burning bodies . . . We shot . . . Oh God!"

More below.

The dying SS trooper then asks the Jew at his bedside for forgiveness.

While the book is concerned with whether monstrous deeds may be forgiven, or not, I want to look at the story from another angle this evening.

The boy who became the SS trooper was a normal child. (Wiesenthal visited his mother after the war, but did not reveal to her the son's confession.) He was raised as a Christian and internalized the faith. As he lay dying he returned to that faith and sought forgiveness. He was not raised as a monster. But, when he joined the Hitler Youth, along with the other youngsters of his school, he began to change. Peer pressure stopped him attending mass. His youthful mind was filled with the propaganda of hatred, and of the manifest destiny of his race. In his youthful exuberance he joined the SS when war began. And, though his training was not mentioned, he would have been shaped by the ethos of this group of True Believers. And so, this normal boy became a killer of Jews. And it bothered him, and his colleagues. They had restless sleep and sought relief in brandy. Their commander told them they had to be hard. It seemed to come as a relief to this trooper when his unit was moved to the front lines to fight armed men. There he received his deadly wound.

Without the Nazis, I cannot imagine that the dying man would have been a murderer. Nor, probably, would his colleagues. But the social system in which they lived shaped them into such.

Human beings, most of us at least, are malleable. We can be shaped, like soft metal by a hammer. Especially when we are young. It is no accident that advertisers, and the military, want to reach 18 to 20 year olds. So how is our society shaping its youth? With music that glorifies violence and degrades women. With video games doing the same. With advertising that tells us to find our happiness in possessions and pleasures. For the last forty-some years we have allowed most anything in our mass culture, in the name of freedom. Eventually, societies reap what they sow.