A few years ago I was fortunate enough to be selected to attend the National Executive Institute Program hosted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The class was comprised of forty chiefs across America from the country’s largest police agencies. One of the highlights of the program was a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. A special tour and discussion took place that centered on how quickly police values eroded when the military began their persecution of Jews throughout Berlin and Vienna.
The line between police and military blurred and a police state readily emerged. It was a time of helplessness for citizens who had no one to trust or protect their everyday freedoms. Despite the carnage that followed in the coming years, there were numerous stories of courage that eventually surfaced.
Paul Ernst Grueninger was born and raised in Switzerland and left his job as an elementary school teacher after being called to active duty in 1914. After leaving military service he joined the police force in 1925 and became commandant of Saint Gallen Canton. After the union between Austria and Nazi Germany in 1938, the Nazis began to organize a series of brutal attacks on Jews living in Vienna. Thousands of Jews began their frantic flee from Austria to the safe sanctuary of Switzerland. Even though the Swiss government had decided to stay neutral during the war, officials ordered border police to refuse admittance to Jewish refugees.
Defying his own government, Grueninger permitted nearly 4000 Jews to enter the country at his checkpoint and refused to accept any bribes or gratuities for his efforts. Although he attempted to conceal his actions by back dating passport stamps and falsifying reports, the Swiss government eventually discovered what he was doing. Pending a criminal inquiry, he was suspended from duty in December 1938.
In early 1940, Grueninger was found guilty of forging state documents. He was dismissed from civil service, thus losing his pension and government subsidized apartment. After his dismissal, he struggled to find employment for the rest of his life working odd jobs where he could find them.
A year prior to his death in 1972, the Yad Vashem Remembrance Authority recognized Grueninger as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” for his heroic efforts to rescue Jews before the war. Likewise, the district court in Saint Gallen overturned his conviction in 1995 and the town named a square in his honor, recognizing him as a national hero. The story emphasizes the power that one person can have when he or she does the right thing regardless of the personal pain it may cause.
The overall experience and visit to the Museum made me realize how fragile democracy can be and how quickly it can be compromised. The merger of Nazi forces with the policing mechanism vividly illustrates that when police officers violate their oath, there are always consequences. The Holocaust is probably the most extreme example of just how far reaching and horrific those consequences can be. Historic proof that moral courage continues to be the cornerstone of effective leadership.