Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Remembrance Day. Lessons Taught.
On Thursday, April 12 air raid sirens went off across Israel and for two minutes, all activity stopped. Cars pulled off the road. Pedestrians stood still. All work ceased. Sirens, typically a warning of danger, this day served as the signal for the reverent observance of the Jewish Holocaust, an event of such deep human depravity that over 70 years after the last death camp was liberated, it is still difficult, if not impossible to understand. And yet it happened – six million Jews – exterminated simply for who they were and how they prayed.
I must admit, I had no idea that there WAS a Holocaust Remembrance Day, let alone that it was April 12; at least, not until I saw the chryon scroll across my muted TV Thursday afternoon. Later, news analysts showed clips of Israelis standing solemnly in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem heads bowed in quiet contemplation. Chuck Todd, during MTP Daily later that afternoon, cited a study (I’m not sure which study he referenced, it may have been the one by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany) indicating that Millenials (born between 1981 – 1996) and younger know less about the Holocaust than those of us in “older cohorts.” (They mean us – Gen X, Baby Boomers, and the World War II generation – the one that actually lived through it). The study cites black and white metrics such as “number of Jews murdered” and “names of camps” as illustrative of knowledge and notes that Millenials have less insight into that information than their elders.
Arguably, there is a significant difference between 6 million and 2 million deaths; the latter being a common response by Millenials to the question, “how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust?” But of 40,000 concentration camps, I myself could only name two (Auschwitz and Dachau) and technically, the latter may not have been an official death camp. Plus, I had to look up how to spell it. Further, I suspect some of our knowledge gaps are a result of years of public school neglect: sacrifices are made when the public decides that lower taxes are the priority. Finally, time and distance are factors. There are fewer living witnesses to World War II and to the death camps themselves. In July 2016 Time reported that there were only 100,000 remaining Holocaust survivors, in the entire world, left to tell its story. And as survivors leave this earth, we are left only with their accounts, and the memories they shared.
There are few other moments in our collective history that the great majority of western civilization agrees should never happen again. In the decades after World War II, American foreign and immigration policy was shaped in part by the images our GI’s encountered as they liberated Western Europe. As recent as the First Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush compared Saddam Hussein to a modern day Hitler as the Iraqi dictator’s Red Guard invaded and looted Kuwait. And while the United States support of Israel is today, based more on having a democratic ally in the Middle East, the actual founding of the Jewish state in May 1948 had to have been impacted in some way by what European Jews had endured.
That said, the ‘would be historian’ in me bristles at some of the lessons, Americans think the Holocaust taught. Perhaps social media simply shines a bright spotlight on our ignorance, or maybe we honestly believe the gifs we post and share. We’ve been told that a “picture is worth a 1,000 words,” so a screenshot (gif) with a few references to Hitler or the Holocaust superimposed to make a political point must be worth a bundle. I have seen Hitler invoked as a comparison to Trump, Hillary, and Barack Obama. In the last round of gun control debates, gun rights activists cited a late 1930s German gun registration law and a quote from the Fuhrer about disarming citizens of nations the Nazi’s conquered, as a warning that gun control would lead to a repeat of the holocaust, fascism, and World War 2. That is simply an incorrect understanding of what actually happened in 1930s Germany, and frankly should be insulting to the survivors of that horrible period.
Our propensity to “pull out Hitler” or to cite the Holocaust as a result of a malevolent political decision or dissolution into totalitarianism as a means to prevent a disastrous repeat is good; we should understand history, else we are doomed to repeat it. But given this political moment, and the ensuing discussions in the public sphere, I worry that not knowing the names of a few concentration camps is the least of our worries. It is clear to me that many of us, truly do not understand why the Holocaust happened; how it came to be, why it was allowed to continue, and why the international community – including the United States – did nothing, despite knowing what the Nazi’s were doing. In fact, while Jews were being gassed at any one of the 40,000 concentration camps, American immigration policy, influenced by our own anti-semitic and nativist impulses, refused to accept additional Jewish refugees.
I think there’s a general belief that fascism, and all the evil it entailed, was allowed to grow because the people “gave up their rights.” From this, we get the idea that gun control could lead to gun confiscation, which then results in being marched to the gas chambers. Setting aside the lunacy of that specific argument, there is some element of truth in the “giving up rights” explanation. But even that is too simple and lets us all off the hook for some truly abominable behavior.
So Amy, in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day and “Never Again,” what lessons should we have learned?
When did you first learn about the Holocaust? I do not remember but regardless of age, I know how the textbooks explained it. While the most horrific details were sanitized for our young minds, we were introduced to the concept of “scapegoating;” blaming others for wrongdoing, mistakes, or faults of others. And in the Jews case, they were cited as the cause of Germany’s woes and all the economic and political strife that followed the Treaty of Versailles. Or at least, that was Hitler’s argument, which he used to rise to power.
Suffice it to say, I found “Jews were used as scapegoats” to be a rather unclear “cause and effect” historical argument. It seemed so arbitrary, with no definitive links. Sure, there was the depression and the defeatism after the Great War. Reparations and a weak economy led to a lot of problems around the world and specifically in Germany. But why fascism and why the Jews?
As a history student in college, I did not spend much time on the Holocaust. The closest I came to studying it was Schindler’s List, a film I saw with my cousin who visited one weekend. But in my studies, I did come to understand European history and politics, and more specifically the rise of the nation-state and its impact on world events. Economics taught how the world’s bankers did not understand the impact of their actions or at least, were powerless to reverse course when it became evident that economies were sliding toward the abyss. But even then, how could genocide happen in Germany? The scapegoat argument still seemed hollow.
“Why the Jews”
Hitler did not invent anti-semitism. That honor goes to a German named Wilhelm Marr who coined the term in the late 19th century. But persecution and hatred of Jews go back centuries, pogroms across Eastern Europe and Russia were launched at various points in history invoking violence and terror against ethnic minorities. In some areas, laws were passed prohibiting Jews from engaging in certain business activities and professions. They were banned from social activities and civic associations. In most countries and principalities, they were treated as second-class citizens. Stalin killed millions of his own people in the 1930s, thousands of whom were Jews. (Note: Stalin was less of an anti-semite and more of a ‘power consolidator.’ He killed enemies and those that got in the way of his goals and ambition).
The question is why? In his book, Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism, Dennis Prager makes a really compelling argument (at least I think it was Dennis Prager in this book – I read it a long time ago!) I admit that I am not a connoisseur of Jewish history, but I believe that by the end of the first century A.D., what was left of Ancient Isreal had been crushed by the Romans. Jews were scattered throughout the Empire in the Diaspora and would remain until 1948 with the founding of modern Israel.
Prager points out that the Jews, in the Diaspora maintained their unique history, religion, traditions, culture, and language, as a means of survival. These cultural characteristics bound generations together across nations and timezones, forming a unique identity separate from their host country. Jews may live in Poland or Germany, pay taxes and speak the local language, but they remained intrinsically Jewish and followed Jewish traditions and practices. This made them different – and “different” made them a target. Prager also points out that early on Jews promoted education and literacy; Judaism was a written faith – the Torah, the written word of God – that laymen were encouraged to read. Education and literacy were unique cultural identifiers in early centuries, which again helped set Jews apart from the rest of the masses.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw great economic and political upheaval in Europe. Politically, the failed democratic revolutions of 1848 left liberals demoralized, and radicals prepared for violence. The industrial revolution had resulted in both economic and social displacement, negatively impacting factory workers in poor working conditions. Additionally, there had been a bit of a scientific thought revolution, with nutty racial theories like eugenics coming out on the heels of Social Darwinism, which offered a justification for white Aryan supremacy over minorities and non-whites. Jews, being different, and unassimilated in their “host” country were easy targets and victims.
But the interwar years in Europe were incredibly difficult and for Americans, probably hard to comprehend. We tend to view history through our own myopic lens, seeking to answer the question, “how did that affect us,” and nothing more. When we limit our understanding of world events to such a narrow result set, we miss larger parallels to our own experience. We know that Germany was “blamed” for the Great War and at that time, the full costs were born by the defeated. The war debt, repayment schedule, limitations on industrial production, and ceding of territory put the new German government, the Weimar Republic – a parliamentary democracy – on weak footing, from the moment the ink on the Versaille Treaty was dry.
The rest should be easy to figure out without a lot of help. One aspect of the Germany inter-war years and the rise of fascism that may not be known is how the Great War (World War I) ended for the German population. Most of the citizenry had gone largely unaffected by the war and were susceptible to Hitler’s later propaganda campaign that they had been “sold out” at Versailles. The Nazi’s were able to persuade the Germans that their soldiers were winning and that it had been the Kaiser, the generals, the military elites, and the Jews, who had surrendered not only the war but Germany’s future greatness. But what was truly unfortunate, and something that we see time and again throughout our own history, was how quickly Germans forgot that they hailed the fall of the Kaiser and the advent of democratic reforms. Granted, their situation was dire, but the general citizenry was quick to eschew democracy, for the ravings of a madman who very clearly articulated what he would do to his enemies, the Jews.
So what should we remember about the Holocaust?
Despite arguments to the contrary, an armed citizenry did not stop the Nazi’s from committing crimes against humanity, let alone starting another world war. In the late 30s, the Nazi’s banned Jews from owning weapons, but I argue that there is nothing in the historical record that indicates had Jews taken up arms against the Nazis that they would have stopped the march toward the gas chambers. It is a ridiculous and somewhat ignorant understanding of history and an argument that should never be used to argue for gun rights or against gun control.
I also take issue with the argument that the Holocaust happened (or rather, fascism’s rise, World War 2, and everything that ensued thereafter) because Europeans decided to “give up their rights.” No, they didn’t. In no Nazi-occupied territory were the “people” given a choice. Nobody went up to the average Czech and asked, “Hey, do you want to be part of the Third Reich? And since you are not German, that means that gosh, well…that means forced labor camps for you and your family and likely death?” No. Nobody made that choice willingly. Diplomats, government officials, and leaders made choices and decisions on behalf of their people and in most cases, they took what they saw as the easy way out. “What can we do today that will put off a hard decision until tomorrow?”
So what should we remember? We should remember that Hitler and his merry band of fascists were initially elected officials to the German Reichstag. The German people elected those monsters as their democratic representatives. Now, we can discuss all the things that happened next: the coalition with the Hindenburg government, the Reichstag fire, and ‘martial law.’ Honestly, I would have to re-read the series of events that took Hitler from a Reichstag member of a minority party to Chancellor to Fuhrer. But he was initially elected, after attempting to overthrow the government (in the 1920s) and publishing his anti-semitic manifesto from prison. Enough Germans thought it would be a good idea to make him a member of the Reichstag, that they colored in the little dot next to his name on the ballot (or however they voted back then).
The best accounting of the entire period is William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Shirer was a war correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, and his seminal work – all 1,300 pages of it – chronicles the rise and fall of Hitler and his Nazi Party. For years, Shirer’s reporting was the only information coming out of Germany and thus, was used by American diplomats and officials in making policy decisions and later, planning for war. But to me, what it demonstrated was how quickly a rational and educated population could be whipped into a frenzy of hate and fear through the sheer force of a national pep rally. Seriously – a pep rally.
Hitler rose to prominence because he threw really good pep rallies. Under no circumstances, am I trying to oversimplify an incredibly complex economic and political period. But put yourself in 1930’s America. It’s the Great Depression – a period of economic destitution that just went on, and on, and on. How easy it would have been for Americans to have fallen prey to a populist con man telling them that they deserved better. Imagine a guy screaming into a microphone, whipping the crowd into a frenzy by citing problem after problem, and blaming a group of people, that really shouldn’t be here in the first place, for your woes. “All you need to do America is to vote for me! All these other guys are losers! They don’t know what they are doing and they’ve sold you down the river. If they stay in, the “others,” who shouldn’t be here in the first place, will get the rewards that are your due!”
Oh. Did I say 1930’s America? Obviously, I meant 2016 America.
Let me state unequivocally that Trump is not Hitler and he should not be compared as such. But there is a parallel in how both rose to political power and yes, both cited ‘scapegoats’ in order to rally supporters. And it worked. That’s a lesson taught but not learned. When a leader points to specific groups or people and brands them as the problem, rather than their policies, that should be unacceptable to all voters regardless of ideology. That is how Hitler rose to power. That is how he accumulated and consolidated power. And that is how he and his merry band of fascists took Germany to war, killing 6 million innocent Jews in the process.
The next lesson taught but not learned is that once mass murder and genocide have started, it is very difficult for the international community to intervene and stop it. America’s response to the Jewish Holocaust was embarrassing. Our immigration policy at the time was highly restrictionist and anti-semitism within this country prevented policymakers from making changes to accept additional Jewish refugees. In fact, in 1939, the United States turned away a ship carrying 900 German Jews fleeing Europe and certain death, refusing to issue them visas. Did we know about the Nazi persecution? Did we know about the death camps? Of course, we did. We simply chose not to intercede. Today, we have refugees arriving on our southern border, fleeing violence in Latin and South America. This Administration is consciously choosing to not to intercede and instead, sending people back to certain death.
Lessons taught. Not learned.
Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Darfur, Bosnia, Yemen, Myanmar, Syria. What do all of these countries or regions have in common? Genocide and mass murder of their citizenry for political, religious, or cultural reasons. How many of these ring bells to you? I admit I would have to look up the details of several to be able to have an intelligent conversation about them and that is the problem. The American military intervened in Rwanda and Bosnia, but not until after hundreds of thousands of people were killed. And military intervention is truly not the best alternative as it typically causes more problems than it solves.
In my view, a key lesson of the Holocaust is that once the killing starts, we are significantly limited in what we can do to stop it. Therefore, we must recognize the signs of scapegoating and hold fast against regimes that marginalize their own citizenry. Not every leader will write a book announcing their plan for minorities within their borders. But internationally, our ambassadors and foreign service officers should look for and report signs of injustice and human rights abuses. Too often we align ourselves with dictators for “national security” or economic reasons and ignore how they treat their own people. America’s own hypocrisy on racial and social injustice is difficult to defend internationally when we see the same in other nations. So we need to “get right at home” and call it out when we see it abroad. We can use our incredible economic and political strength to pressure these governments and those that do business with them into making internal changes that protect minority rights.
None of this is easy and there will be situations in which we have to call out our friends. But as Israel stood still for 2 minutes honoring the victims of the Holocaust, 1.8 million Palestinians living in dire poverty and hopelessness in the Gaza Strip under their occupation. There are another 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, also living in poverty with limited access to services, employment, and education. Israel could do something about that and America could call them out for their lack of action (Obama did). In Yemen, tens of thousands of Yemini’s have died during that civil war, a conflict perpetrated and intensified by Saudi money, a significant American ally in the region. We could do something about that. And in Myanmar, the government has engaged in a systematic ethnic cleansing of it’s Rohingya Muslim minority. Almost 700,000 have fled to Bangladesh, with the balance of the 1.1 million Rohingya population thought to have been killed by the Buddhist backed military government. I’m not sure what sway we have over the Myanmar government, but we should at least try.
America cannot solve the world’s problems but we can take a leading role. Perhaps the most important thing we can do is recognize the signs of scapegoating and call it out. Economic and political issues are never that easy, so when you hear it used as a campaign device from our leaders, we should immediately reject it and them. I guarantee – by demanding that candidates present real solutions to problems rather than placing blame on specific groups, we will get better leaders. Leaders that understand how to make good policy, foreign and domestic, and leaders that recognize and will leverage America’s unique position in the world.
Want to remember the 6 million Jews that died in the Holocaust? Call out social injustice in this country. Stop freaking out about the government taking away your gun and spend a little time thinking about the one that will be used to murder the immigrant seeking asylum in the United States when the Trump Administration rejects her application and she’s forced to return to the place she fled. And if you can handle it, visit the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. It is not an easy tour but it tells the truth. The Holocaust should never be forgotten, but its lessons are meant to be learned, not taught.