When mourning war dead, be careful who you honor

By Jayson Jacoby December 03, 2010 12:10 pm

The great bloody stain on civilization that is Adolf Hitler’s legacy continues to leak through the decades, leaving splotches in unexpected places.

The Portland Police Bureau, for instance.

Last month, Chief Mike Reese suspended Capt. Mark Kruger for 80 hours without pay and ordered him to attend “Tools for Tolerance” training.

Kruger’s offense, now almost a dozen years in the past, was nailing five plaques to a tree in Portland’s Rocky Butte Park, each marker honoring a German soldier killed during World War II.

(Kruger removed the plaques several years later.)

Kruger’s technical violation was breaching the Bureau’s professional conduct code, which prohibits officers from attaching plaques or similar items to property in a city park.

But it seems clear to me, based on the disciplinary letter Reese wrote to Kruger, that had the captain erected plaques commemorating pretty much any other group of soldiers, then Kruger might have been called on the carpet in Reese’s office, but not sent home with both his bank account and his reputation depleted.

Reese wrote: “Your conduct, the publicity surrounding it, and negative perceptions about its nature raise legitimate questions about your ability to be effective in your job.”

In other words, putting up plaques for dead soldiers is one thing.

But shed a tear, even figuratively, over a bunch of Nazis who got killed while jackbooting their way across most of Europe, and we’re coming after your paycheck.

Especially since the newspapers got hold of the story.

Which is embarrassing.

Now so far as I can tell, no other Portland cop has nailed plaques to trees in a city park.

Or at least none has been caught.

Which means I can’t claim that Reese punished Kruger more harshly than he did another officer whose sympathies, as expressed by the placement of memorial plaques, lie in less controversial directions.

Also, Reese has been chief for less than a year, which isn’t enough time, probably, for him to have accumulated a lot of police plaque-nailing incidents.

Nonetheless, I’m troubled by the prospect that a policeman can get docked two weeks’ salary because he thinks it’s tragic that some ordinary but brave Germans, along with millions of innocent Jews, died because one lunatic was hell-bent on fulfilling his deranged and vile dreams.

We could, I suppose, debate the degrees of innocence among Hitler’s victims.

But that seems to me a futile exercise.

Suffice it to say that individual German soldiers were very nearly as powerless to avoid their fate at such places as Kursk and Stalingrad as were the Jews and others sent to Auschwitz and Dachau.

The soldiers had guns, of course.

But several of those who wielded weapons against Hitler ended up with piano wire nooses for their trouble.

And the war went on.

Kruger, in his public apology, called the Nazi movement “abhorrent” and “repulsive.”

Fine choices of adjectives, those.

Kruger claims his motivation for making the plaques was his longtime study of European history.

But acquaintances say Kruger seemed more like an admirer of the Nazi regime than a disinterested historian.

Which is the more accurate version of the man’s hobby, I can’t say — I’ve never met Kruger.

But I do know that some whose reputation as Nazi fighters has never been questioned — Dwight Eisenhower, for instance — had considerable respect, professionally speaking, for the German Army and the abilities of its soldiers.

And I believe it’s reasonable, indeed praise-worthy, for a person to simultaneously regret the deaths of men, and despise the cause for which they died.

It might well be that Kruger deserves his punishment.

Maybe the man thinks Hitler was a nice guy who just got a little carried away.

Yet it seems to me that Chief Reese, to justify his sanctions against Kruger, needs evidence of acts by the captain rather more egregious than nailing plaques to a tree.

For instance, no one, according to the media accounts I’ve read, has claimed to have heard Kruger utter a “Heil, Hitler.”

Not even in a stage whisper.

Ultimately, this episode sullies the reputation for tolerance that Portland has so earnestly, and at times obnoxiously, cultivated.

“Keep Portland Weird,” the city’s unofficial slogan, seems to me based on the notion that here is a place where the unconventional idea is honored, where the man in a thousand-dollar silk blazer is not automatically granted a level of respect denied the guy who wraps himself in plastic grocery sacks as a protest against petroleum products.

This is a laudable part of Portland’s character.

Would that the city’s police bureau had a little more of that spirit.  

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.