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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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.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 set...
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