Choices that Define Us | Facing History & Ourselves

Choices that Define Us

Explore three stories of choices people made during World War II and consider their complexities, their impact, and what they can teach about human behavior.  
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English — US
Also available in:
French — FR


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • The Holocaust

Guido Calabresi, then the dean of Yale Law School, gave a graduation speech in 1988 in which he told four stories about individuals who made choices during World War II. Calabresi’s stories reveal the complexity of human behavior and suggest how difficult it can be to make sweeping judgments about good and evil.

When I was growing up [In Italy], I wondered about whether I would have the courage to make the kind of choice my father made. My father became an extremely active anti-fascist and as a result of his being an active anti-fascist, he had to leave Italy and we had to come here and start all over again. But the decision to abandon a comfortable life for the life of an activist, of a revolutionary, which is what he was, though of the most mild of revolutionaries from the most traditional of backgrounds, always puzzled me. I wondered how this person had done it and one day I asked him about it. And he said to me, “Everyone speaks about the banality of evil and very few people speak about the banality of good. How did I become an active anti-fascist? To be an anti-fascist is relatively easy. What they were doing was wrong but how did I become an activist?”

When he was a college student, Calabresi’s father was beaten and jailed for not applauding after a speech at his university given by the fascist minister of education. According to Calabresi,

[My father] sighed and said, “I was 21 years old, if I had known that going and not applauding would get me into trouble, maybe I would have stayed home. But I was there and I hadn't applauded before and now I was told I had to applaud and I was 21 years old, no I couldn't applaud. . . . After that the decision was made. I was not going to be a quiet anti-fascist. I was stamped for life, that was it.” A non-choice then but yet an important one that changed his life.

Calabresi’s second story also took place in Italy during World War II. It involved a cousin who, because he was Jewish, went into hiding with a Catholic family together with his wife and children:

They went there with their children, their oldest at the time 4 years old, and they all had assumed names. Sometime after, the villa was taken over to billet [lodge] German soldiers and the captain in charge of these soldiers was a perfectly dreadful person. He tried to steal things. He abused my father's cousin because he thought he was a draft dodger and that's why he was there. He behaved in every way appallingly, so appallingly that some evenings he would get drunk and try to break into the door of the room where my cousin’s wife’s sister slept to rape her and only the coming of other people would stop him. A dreadful man in every way—or so it seemed. One day, my cousin’s son was playing by the villa and the German captain called him by the assumed name and the child forgot and didn't answer. The German captain called him again and the child still didn't answer and the German captain went right up to him and said, "That isn't your name, is it?" And the little boy was frightened and said no. And the captain said, "That isn't your name because you're Jewish and you're having an assumed name," and the little boy said yes and ran off into the house to tell his parents what had happened. And a dreadful, dreadful silence took over as they waited because they could not escape and assumed they would be taken away. But slowly, they realized that nothing was going to happen. Indeed, the only thing that happened was that the German captain started being somewhat nicer to my cousin because he realized that he was there not as a draft dodger, but for other reasons. So somehow this dreadful man made a choice, a decision that he was not going to turn these people in. A decision which was made at the risk of his own life because if any of his soldiers had heard what he said, had heard the conversation with the boy as was very likely to be the case, and turned him in, he was dead. That choice didn't change the man, he continued to get drunk, he continued to steal, he continued to try to break the door down and yet it was a decision, a choice which was made that was an extraordinary one.

The third story was about a farmer who lived on land that belonged to Calabresi’s family in Italy:

He had had the reputation that during the war he had hidden at the risk of his life allied servicemen who had been caught behind German lines and were escaping. Jews who were escaping from the Nazis. All the people on the right side of that conflict who were in trouble. But he had also the reputation that the moment things changed in 1944–1945, he hid the Germans who were running away. Now it wasn't at the risk of his life but when they came through, he hid them as well. And I went to see him because I was very young and I thought that this was terrible; that this was someone who did not understand the difference between right and wrong, that he couldn't distinguish between hiding people who deserved to be hidden and hiding criminals. I already sounded like a lawyer, I guess. And when I went to see him, I asked him and he said, “Politics, politics, I don't know anything about that. I don't know anything about those things. I don't care about them. When they came here, when they were running away, each one of them was in trouble. ‘Eran tutti figli di mamma’—They were each the child of some mother somewhere. ‘Tiriamo a campare’—We all struggle to live.”

Calabresi’s final story was about Hugo Black, the US Supreme Court justice who upheld the decision to imprison hundreds of thousands of people with Japanese ancestry in internment camps in the United States during World War II:

But the person who wrote the opinion upholding that program was Hugo Black, Justice Black, the person for whom I clerked in the Supreme Court. A person whom many of you know as a great hero, a great civil libertarian, a person who has been on the right side on almost all the causes. And when I clerked, I asked him about that and he said, “Oh well, it was war and the military said that it was necessary, and there were all sorts of reasons why this was important and all my clerks tell me I was wrong but you don't really understand what was going on.” Then he added, “And besides, you know the other people who were in favor of that were Earl Warren, by then Chief Justice, who as Attorney General of California, supported the program and Franklin Roosevelt supported the program totally.” So here were dreadful choices, dreadful choices made by very good people.

Calabresi concluded,

Non-choice by a good person, dramatic choice by an evil person, wonderful and troublesome choice by a person who didn't think it was a choice at all and an evil choice by people who are good . . . There are many changes I could ring on these stories, but I guess I would like to leave you with just one thought. In one of these stories, a bad person made a dramatically good choice and we should remember that, both when we see someone we think of as bad, or equally so, when we think of ourselves that way. . . . But more important, some extraordinarily good people made a catastrophically bad decision and it is on this that I would focus. It is not that we are wrong in viewing Black and Warren and Roosevelt as good. The temptation is immediately to say, if they did that, there must have been something else wrong with them. They must have been in some ways bad.

No, I don't think so. If we do that, we're shirking. We're saying it's other people who do that. Rather, I think it is that all of us, I and you, are as subject to being careless, uncaring. We will all thoughtlessly, I and you, applaud at times when we shouldn't. Or even dramatically at times like Black and the others, mislead ourselves into following what seemed like good reasons, for a dreadful decision. Not one of these dreadful decisions which we will make will change us necessarily into bad people. And yet in time, these choices will define us. . . . 1

Connection Questions

  1. What range of choices is reflected in Calabresi’s stories? Why might these choices seem surprising or unexpected? Why do you think he chose to focus on these particular stories?
  2. What factors may have shaped the choices made by the people in these stories? Why does Calabresi find it difficult to judge these individuals?
  3. What do Calabresi’s stories reveal about human behavior? What message does he have for those who listen to his stories?
  • 1Guido Calabresi, “70th Commencement Address,” speech given at Connecticut College, May 1, 1988, available from Digital Commons at Connecticut College, accessed June 24, 2016. Reproduced by permission from Judge Guido Calabresi and Connecticut College.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "Choices that Define Us," last updated August 2, 2016.

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