Auschwitz and Beyond: The Science of Apathy and Mass Murder
The ideas of ‘Never Again’ and ‘Lest We Forget’ would seem to be only poetic and ethereal phrases as we enter the new millennium. While countries and people such as Rwanda, Pol–Pot, and East–Timor, never enter the collective consciousness of the world, more people continue to die. It is estimated that in just the brief space of time from 1988 to 1998, one hundred-seventy-million people were killed as a result of genocide and what Rudolf Rummel calls "democide," the systematic killing of people through government action.1 How is this allowed to happen? And what, if anything, can be done to prevent such things from happening again?
Although, these two questions may themselves seem intangible and inexplicable, they are not. One only needs to look at history to see how such things are possible; the Holocaust is the best example of this. How did Hitler create the power he needed to commit the murder of 6 million Jews?2 When Hitler became dictator in 1932, he made a series of progressive steps after gaining power that allowed him to address the "Jewish Question." 3
He took away the free press. When Hitler created the German National Socialist state, he nationalized a great majority of institutions, putting them under control of the government; the free press was just one victim.4 Soon came the Nuremberg Laws, the infamous set of laws limiting Jewish freedoms. Then there was Kristallnacht, the 1938 government–sponsored mass pogrom. Then came the ghettos, the camps, and finally the gas chambers.5 Silence, oppression, segregation, and then murder – four simple steps that made the road to genocide possible. Unfortunately, that road was never destroyed; only the names have been changed. Words like Poland and Manchuria are today replaced with Bosnia and Kosovo, Hitler with the Congo’s Laurant Kabila, the SS with the Khmer Rouge; the list is endless and still in need of the distance of time to be fully understood, but the principle is not. By limiting freedom, by being silent, and by submitting to apathy, the defenseless of the world continue to die, while the rest of the world makes this possible by doing absolutely nothing.6
Again, the Holocaust begins to come into perspective here. The United States, in its unwavering isolationist policy, turned away thousands of Jewish refugees in the years before the war; the voyage of the St. Louis is one of the more famous of these incidents. The St. Louis was an ocean liner in 1939 carrying 1,128 German Jewish refugees. Seven hundred of those onboard were allowed to come to America, holding U.S. quota numbers, but the rest were turned away because of the United States’ refusal to allow them all entry. Most of those onboard would find haven in various European countries due to the high amount of press coverage given to the sad event. But, because the war would bring most of these countries under control of the Nazis, almost all of those who found refuge in Europe did not survive the war.7
And, not even the United States or Great Britain could claim ignorance on the subject of the Holocaust. As early as 1941, reports reached the allies of mass shootings in the East, and similar reports of the actual gassings of Jews would not be an infrequent occurrence as the war progressed, coming mostly from neutral Switzerland. Little was ever said to the American or British people, leaving them in the silent darkness of ignorance. 8
What information that did reach the public came in the form of the free press. On September 7, 1942, as Germany began its endless deportations of French Jews to the concentration camps of the East, the title on the imperial and foreign page of the New York Times read: ‘Vichy’s Jewish victims, children deported to Germany.’ The article went on to describe the attempted suicides of eighty–six men and women, saying that ‘some men had cut their veins with broken glass’ to escape their uncertain fate. Uncertain to them, but not to others. It is arguable that Roosevelt and Churchill could have told them just where they were going. Churchill spoke to the House of Commons the next day, on September 8, about the recent events in France. He spoke of the ‘pitiful horrors attended upon the calculated and final scattering of families,’ but mentioned nothing of the mass graves in Russia and Poland, or the mass killings in the gas chambers at Auschwitz which had been going at full pace since the beginning of that year. Instead, he left the House with words that promised apathy and the belated liberation to come: ‘When the hour of liberation strikes Europe, as strike it will, it will also be the hour of retribution.’ Unfortunately, to the allies, the only course of retribution was to win the war. Until then, the Allies would do little for the Jews of Europe. 9
It is, in the end, the government that makes genocide and democide possible. Whether it is the government of the oppressor or the government of the onlooker, it does not matter. The oppressive government acts out its murder, while the government of the onlooker does nothing, playing its equal part in the cycle of death. The only solution to this problem is freedom.10 Freedom of the press, freedom of the people, freedom of truth. As long as we live in a world where institutions such as the United Nations pick and choose their battles only when it suits them, nothing will ever be solved. While we condemn the killing fields of Cambodia because they do not conflict with our economic interests, and while we stay silent about the killing fields of East–Timor because it helps us economically, then we are hypocrites.11 When there is free access to all types of information, there is an open voice, and a means of debate and protest. It was Elie Wiesel himself, who said upon accepting the Nobel Peace Price, that: "Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."12
If the Holocaust does not serve as a clear of example of this, nothing ever will.
1. Filreis, Alan. "Wiesel On Taking Sides."
2. Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1985.
4. Lest We Forget. CD–ROM. Oak Harbor: Logos, 1996.
6. Pobzeb, Dr. Vang. "Genocide in Cambodia and Laos."
7. Rummel, Rudolph J. "Democide Since World War II."
2. Oak Harbor: Logos, 1996. CD-ROM. Lest We Forget, 1.
3. Oak Harbor: Logos, Lest We Forget, 1.
4. Martin Gilbert. The Holocaust, 31-32.
10. Rummel, 1.
11. Rummel, 1; Jardine, l; Pobzeb, 1.
*For simplification, web-based pages and CD-ROM sources are denoted as having only one page.
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