This is a thought that I’ve had many times over the past couple years, and I’ve never quite taken the time to articulate it, thinking perhaps no one would listen, or no one would care, or that I would be attacked for expressing it this way. Now, in light of recent crises in Paris and Beirut and the refugees fleeing ISIS, not to mention the growing violence and disregard for minorities in our own country, I have to verbalize it.
I don’t claim to be a politically-savvy person. I will admit that sometimes I bury my head in the sand rather than stare down situations that often require choosing the lesser of two equals, because no real clear good choice exists.
But I have been a student of history, and more so, I have been a student of Germany – its language, its people, its history. I once took a course entirely dedicate to Berlin through the 20th Century, starting in 1900 and working all the way up to the year 2000 – which means I spent a lot of time studying World War II.
I remember, in high school particularly, hearing fellow students wonder how in the hell Germans allowed the Holocaust to happen. Couldn’t they see what was happening? How could they let this atrocity happen right under their noses? Surely they were partially to blame, if they didn’t try and stop it. Surely they knew, surely they just let this happen, let all of these innocent people die, all these millions – millions – of Jews and other minorities. How could they let this happen?
You know how this happened? Hitler and the Nazi party used propaganda. Propaganda, in case you’re just a bit fuzzy, is inflated, intentional use of opinionated, sometimes – oftentimes – even falsified information to sway public opinion towards a particular direction. Hitler and the Nazi party used propaganda to blame the Jews for everything, from the crucifixion of Christ to the economic downfall of Germany after World War I.
Hitler blamed the Jews for all major issues in modern day Germany, he made them scapegoats, and he made them easy to blame for all the hard times German felt as the Third Reich rose to power – so much so that the Nazi Party seemed like a reasonable choice, getting those villains out of the picture, and giving their jobs, their homes to “true” German citizens. So much so that when the Jews were rounded up and forced into ghettos, people could feel it was for their own safety. So much so that after the ghettos, most citizens could turn a blind eye to what happened to the Jews after they left the ghettos and headed to the work camps, and could remain unaware as they moved from the work camps into the gas chambers, and the ovens.. The Jewish people were so marginalized in their own society, their humanity was so reduced that they stopped being humans in the eyes of those who wanted to be rid of them.
If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, I’m worried about you. I’m scared about you.
In light of recent upheavals in all areas of the world but particularly here at home, in the States – there is a growing movement to marginalize those who would call out injustice, either aimed at themselves, or behalf of others. Those who would call racism. Those who are not content to sit idly by and let the majority steamroll anyone who dares to stop and ask questions, who stops to say, hey, something about this doesn’t seem right, something about this seems scary.
Now, far be it from me to call our current situation anything remotely like the Third Reich in its hey-day. Our modern day Hitler is hopefully not in power yet. But the pieces are in place. The climate is right, the water is boiling, and every day, we are turning up the heat.
We’re not there, thank God. But to me, a sometime student of history and a one-time, long-term student of Germany – it’s not difficult to see how it began, all those years ago. It’s not difficult to compare the marginalization of Muslim lives, black lives, Mexican lives – to the marginalization of Jewish lives in the twenties and thirties. It needs to stop here. We need to wake up. We need to stop the train from rolling forward. We need to stop ourselves from become so desensitized from human suffering that we say certain lives don’t matter because they’re not like us. We need to stop saying the lives of women and children don’t matter because they were born in a country that – like ours – is also home to religious extremists who will stop at nothing to promote hate and violence. We need to stop ourselves from becoming so indoctrinated that we are unable to see lies presented as truths, and demonize anyone who dares to differ from public opinion.
That is scary to me, and it is scarily familiar. Nazi Germany is only one of many historical examples, and look what a great and beautiful nation they have become since that dark time. Look at their industry, their accomplishments, their people – how all of it is grown. This can be us. We can stop this parade of hatred and drawing hard lines to separate humanity – and we can stop it before we too become a black mark on history’s page.
Clear and shining moments of humanity happen not when we stick to our guns and demand that things stay the same because that makes us feel safe. Clear and shining moments of humanity happen when we choose to look past borders, past creeds and ethnicities and genders, and choose to see human beings for what they actually are – human beings, just like us.
In conclusion, I can only end with a quote so frequently used by a great professor and a great woman. She used it in almost every course she taught me, and it has stuck with me. It sticks with me now:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”
-Martin Niemoeller (1892-1984)
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