Surrendered dog reunited with puppies after staying in corner
The scale of the atrocities is unfathomable. Like slavery, the Holocaust is a piece of history in which it becomes more horrifying the more you learn. The inhuman depravity of the perpetrators and the excruciating suffering of the victims defy description. It becomes almost too much for the mind and heart to take in, but it is important that we overcome this resistance.
The liberation of the Nazi camps marked the end of Hitler’s attempt at ethnic cleansing and the beginning of mankind’s awareness of how such a hideous chapter in human history took place. The further we get from this chapter, the more important it is to focus on the lessons it has taught us lest we ignore the signs of history repeating itself.
Lesson 1: Unspeakable evil can be institutionalized on a large scale
Perhaps the most harrowing thing about the Holocaust is how systematized it was. We’re not talking about people killing other people in a fit of rage, or a small number of twisted individuals torturing people in some basement somewhere – this was a structured, calculated, disciplined, and meticulously planned and executed attempt to exterminate masses of people. The Nazi regime built a well-oiled killing machine the size of half a continent, and it worked exactly as intended. We often quote the number of people killed, but the number of people involved in the systematic torture and destruction of millions is just as staggering.
It has now turned out that the Allies already knew about the mass killing of Jews in 1942 – three years before the end of the war. And obviously from the beginning there were reports from individuals of what was happening. It is often asked why more was not done sooner if it was known, and there are no doubt political reasons for this. But we also have the benefit of hindsight when asking this question. I imagine most people just don’t believe what actually happened because it sounds so utterly unbelievable.
The lesson here is that we need to question our tendency not to believe things that sound too horrible to be true. We have evidence that the worst things imaginable are entirely plausible to a degree that seems unfathomable.
Lesson 2: Atrocities can happen right under our noses as we go about our daily lives
One thing that struck me when I read about the liberation of Auschwitz was that it was only 60km from Kraków, one of the largest cities in Poland. This camp, where an average of 500 people were killed daily, where corpses were piled up like logs, where men, women and children were herded into gas chambers – and it wasn’t far from a major population center.
And that was just a group of camps. We now know that there were thousands of places where the Nazis carried out their “Final Solution” and it’s not like they always did it far out in the middle of nowhere. A New York Times report on how many more camps there were than scholars initially thought describes what happened to Jews and marginalized people while the average person went about their daily lives:
“The documented camps include not only ‘killing centers’ but also thousands of forced labor camps where prisoners manufactured war materials; prisoner of war camp; Places euphemistically called ‘care’ centers, where pregnant women were forced to have abortions or their babies killed after birth, and brothels where women were forced to have sex with German military personnel.”
Whether or not the average person knew the full extent of what was happening is unclear. But sure there were reports. And we know how the average person reacts to reports, even today in our own country.
How many stories have we seen about abuse and inhumane conditions in US immigrant detention centers? How do we react when the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner visits our detention centers and walks away “horrified”? There’s a natural tendency to assume it can’t be that bad – no doubt that’s what millions of Germans thought too, as stories filtered through the propaganda.
Lesson 3: Propaganda works incredibly well
Propaganda has always been a part of governance as leaders try to get the general population to support whatever they do. But the Nazis perfected the art and science of propaganda, playing shamelessly on people’s prejudices and fears, and flooding the public with mountains of it.
Hermann Goering, one of Hitler’s leading political and military figures, stated in an interview late in his life that such manipulation of the masses was not all that difficult.
“People can always be made to obey leaders,” he said. “It’s easy. All you have to do is tell them they are under attack and denounce the pacifists for their lack of patriotism and put the country in danger. It works the same way in every country.”
Frighteningly true, isn’t it? For this reason, we must remain vigilant in the face of the fear-inducing rhetoric of our leaders. When an entire religion or nationality or ethnic group is portrayed as “dangerous,” “criminal,” or “terrorist,” we must recognize that we are being exposed to the same propaganda used to convince the Germans that the Nazis just trying to protect her. Safety and security are strong human desires that make it easy to justify terrible deeds.
Hitler was also great at playing the victim. As he marched across Europe, conquering countries and rounding up millions of innocent people to destroy them, he claimed that Germany was the one being attacked. Obvious anti-Semitic rhetoric certainly fueled Hitler’s core supporters, but the message to the average German was that this was all in the name of protecting the homeland and not in the pursuit of a world-dominant master race.
Lesson 4: Most of us are in more danger of committing a holocaust than of becoming a victim
I had to stop when one day this realization hit me. As a fairly average white American, I am in the majority in my country. And strange as it is, that means I have more in common with the Germans, who either committed heinous acts or surrendered to the Nazis, than I do with the Jews and other Nazi Party targets. That’s not to say I’d go along with mass murder lightly, but who says I could totally resist the combination of systematic dehumanization, propaganda, and terrorism that led to the Holocaust? We all like to think we’re the brave heroes the Anne Franks of the world hide in our secret closets, but the truth is we don’t really know what we would have done.
Watch what this army captain who helped liberate a Nazi camp said of his amazement at what the Germans, “a cultured people,” were allowing:
“I studied German literature during my studies at Harvard College. I knew about the culture of the German people and I couldn’t, couldn’t really believe that this was happening in this day and age, that in the twentieth century a cultured people like the Germans would do something like that, it was just beyond our imagination.. .—Captain (Dr.) Philip Leif—3rd Auxiliary Surgical Group, 1st Army
Some say that we can gauge what we would have done by examining what we are doing now, and they may be right. Do we speak out against our government’s cruel family separations that traumatize innocent children? Do we justify travel bans from entire countries because we trust it is simply our leadership trying to protect us? Do we believe the rhetoric “Muslims are terrorists” and “undocumented immigrants are criminals”?
While it is prudent not to compare current events to the Holocaust, it is also wise to recognize that the Holocaust did not begin with gas chambers. It started with “Othering”, scapegoating and scaremongering. We need to watch not only for signs of atrocities, but also for the signs leading up to them.
Lesson 5: Teaching complete and accurate history
There are people who deny the Holocaust even happened, which is amazing. But there are far more people who don’t know the true horrors of it. Reading first-hand accounts of both the people who survived the camps and those who liberated them is perhaps the best way to grasp the magnitude of what happened.
A small example is Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower’s attempt to describe what he saw when he visited Buchenwald’s subcamp, Ohrdruf:
“The things I saw are hard to describe. While touring the camp, I encountered three men who had been inmates and had escaped by some trick or other. I interviewed her through an interpreter. Cruelty and bestiality were so overwhelming that I felt a little nauseous. In a room where twenty or thirty naked men, starved to death, were piled up, George Patton would not even enter. He said that he would get sick if he did. I made the visit on purpose in order to be able to prove these things firsthand, if there ever was a tendency in the future to take these claims as mere ‘propaganda ‘ to count.
And of course, the most important stories to read and digest are the accounts of those who survived the camps. Today 200 survivors of Auschwitz gathered to commemorate the 75th anniversary of its liberation. They warned of the rise of anti-Semitism in the world and that we must not let prejudice and hatred smolder. Imagine having to issue such a warning seven decades after seeing family and friends slaughtered before your very eyes.
Let’s take this anniversary as an opportunity to delve deeper into the circumstances and environment that allowed millions of people to be killed by a country’s leaders. Let’s learn the lessons the Holocaust has to teach us about human nature and our place in the making of history. And let’s make sure we do everything in our power to ward off the forces that threaten to lead us down a similarly dangerous path.