Our Compassion Died
When I hear the stories of the ones who survived the Holocaust a dark cloud of resentment descends and I cannot help but ask why. Why did so many have to die? Why didnít somebody stop them? And more importantly, why did it start in the first place?
Germany in the 1920ís was the perfect setting for an ambitious leader to make his entrance. WWI had ended, and the Treaty of Versailles, especially the "War Guilt Clause", had left the Germans angry, and stripped of their pride. On top of the worldwide humiliation, their economy and currency was on the brink of collapse, and political turmoil added to the nationís instability. However, a little known leader of the German Workerís Party, was searching for a way to get the peopleís attention, and he found it...the Jews.
Hitler offered the Germans a way out and a scapegoat for their troubles. In Mein Kampf, Hitler presented his belief that the Jewish people were not only responsible for the misfortunes of Germany, but that they also belonged to an inferior, sub-human race. He delivered savage, fiery speeches to growing numbers of followers about the "Jewish Plot" to control of the countryís land, government, and banks. He instilled in them the firm belief that the Germans belonged to a superior "Aryan" race. It didnít matter that his thoughts had no organization, and that his arguments held no merit. He spoke with such power, emotion, and conviction, and thatís all the crowd wanted to hear. They longed for a leader who would restore their pride. However, what caused so many to support the Nazi party had nothing to do with Hitlerís anti-Semitic beliefs, but instead depended on the extensive social projects and economic promises that he made. Ultimately, many members were willing to go along with Hitlerís hate for the Jews, if he could put bread on the table and money in their pockets. Much like voters of today, the exchange of moral beliefs for money was too enticing to pass up.
Hitlerís rise to power from 1925 to 1933 depended largely on successful propaganda. Hitlerís "prime minister of propaganda", Goebbels, knew that domination over the media was vital to his plan. By letting the people hear only one thing, they would have only one choice. Hitler once said, "If you lie, lie big, for a little of even the most outrageous lie will stick if you press it hard enough. Never hesitate, never qualify, never concede a shred of validity or even decency to the other side. Attack, attack, attack!"
Despite the seductive nature of Hitlerís speeches, the public cannot shed the responsibility of their choices. Each individual made a conscious decision to give themselves up to him. He drew them in with promises of prosperity and honor, he held them with the notion that the shame they felt was the fault of the Jews alone, and he won their souls with the belief of their superiority. Once he had the adults, he went after the children. From this desire came the largest and most influential childrenís organization in Germanyís history Ė the Hitler Youth.
Hitlerís first step in winning the German youth was to control their education. Administrators dismissed teachers who did not submit to Hitlerís doctrine. Independent thinking was quickly eliminated, and racial texts were introduced to the very young. Schirach, leader of the Hitler Youth, annihilated all competing youth organizations and by 1938 had claimed over 90 percent of Germanyís young people. Although the Hitler Youth seemed like an innocent club, it was actually closer to a childrenís cult in which they were turned into mindless, obedient, hateful, devotees of the Fuhrer.
Meanwhile, Hitler was slowly destroying the Jews from within. It began with stereotypes, which advanced to identification of all Jews with the Yellow Star of David. It progressed from isolating in ghettos to concentration camps, which finally escalated to death camps. Genocide didnít become public policy overnight. It was this quiet, gradual progression that infected the nation. Every right taken away set the stage for what was to come, and every message of hate and prejudice helped the Germans to rationalize either their apathetic attitude or their enthusiastic participation in murder. The Jews were de-humanized in the eyes of their persecutors, enabling the Germans to feel no pity. As Renare Finckh, an ex-member of the League of German Girls, put it, "Basically it was a seduction which ran counter to all the ethical and humane principles of our upbringing. It is what warped us in such a devastating way and killed off our sensitivity and ability to feel compassion, even more so in the young."
We all need to realize that this can happen even in todayís world. Take for example, the relocation camps set up for the Japanese right here in America. By the authority of an executive order, 110,000 Japanese-American citizens were interned for fear that they might be spies in connection with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Even more recent was the ethnic cleansing taking place in Yugoslavia under the direction of Milosevic. In addition to deporting 740,000 ethnic Albanians, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia murdered 340 men, women, and children in mass killings and burnings. We must remain vigilant when it comes to the human rights of all people. We cannot back down, for every small infringement on liberty will lead to a larger one. Our school systems must remain independent from domination by the government, and we must protect the vulnerable and young from manipulation. Most importantly, we must speak up for whatís right. Apathy and self-preservation were responsible for the deafening silence heard around Germany when the Jews were murdered. They knew what they were doing; but they denied their moral conscience and perpetrated evil. The only way to prevent this horror from repeating itself is to understand and appreciate other cultures. Then, have the courage and moral strength to stand up for whatís right.
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