If Heartache Be the Price of Growth
By Eric Harrison
Fayetteville, NC


 

A cool wind breathes upon the Polish countryside near the town of Lublin. Amid the pristine beauty of the temperate Polish summer, a column of Soviet troops advances through the devastation left by the retreating Nazi horde. A soldier approaches the entrance to a partially destroyed Nazi compound; after a deep breath and a moment’s pause, he opens the gates. Following in those footsteps a week later, an embedded British reporter walks through the same gates, and to his great horror he looks upon Hell itself. His name is Alexander Welch; the year is 1944; the place is Majdanek concentration camp, and the world will now know the unspeakable horrors of the nightmare that was the Holocaust. (“Inside”)

63 years later, the lessons first learned in the Polish countryside are more important than ever. Though mankind has advanced in many ways since then, modern civilization remains predicated on some of the same dangerous concepts that manifested themselves in the savage cruelty of Nazi Germany. The barbaric infliction of pain known to us as the Holocaust was, at its core, the product of ignorance and the inevitable culmination of three centuries of myth, hatred, and misinformation. It was an uncommon slaughter based on a very common concept: the concept of race.

One truth must be laid out if ever progress is to be made: the concept of race as it has been disseminated to most people alive today and its accompanying mythos have no basis in science, reason, or fact. Scientific research throughout the 20th century has settled this beyond any and all doubt or contention. (Long and Kittles)

The myth of race is one that finds its roots in the hatred and ignorance of a bygone era. As European explorers encountered different peoples around the globe in the early modern period, they took note of their physical and cultural differences. As the African slave trade emerged in the 17th century, European nations engaging in the practice increasingly found it necessary to reconcile the enslavement of other peoples with the doctrines of Christianity. The differences they had been observing between themselves and the peoples of foreign lands for over a century provided a convenient solution: they look different, thus they are a different type of human altogether; they are a different type of human altogether, thus it isn’t wrong to enslave them (“RACE”; Gosset 17). The first attempt to classify humans into races was made by François Bernier who, in 1684, divided mankind into four politically strategic racial groups (32-33). Many in the following two centuries devised their own racial classification systems, and while they rarely agreed on the specifics they always agreed that the various races were anything but equal.

The extremity of racialist dogma continued to escalate over the following centuries, piquing with the rise of the Third Reich in the 1930s. By manipulating the concept of race, the Nazis were able to isolate, intimidate, and exterminate those who were, for whatever reason, termed undesirables. Yet though they were the most horrific abusers of this concept, the Nazis were by no means an aberration; rather, they were the inevitable climax of the racialist philosophy to which we are all introduced from birth.

In the wake of the ignominy of Nazi Germany, one would think that the myth of race would be corrected and discarded with all haste. As is sadly evident in the current generation of youth, however, this myth is as deeply ingrained as ever. Above all else, the Holocaust reminds us of what happens when men are senselessly broken into arbitrary and imaginary categories. The significance of passing this message on to the generation of rising young adults is simply immeasurable: if we remember the horrors brought about when the myth of race was wielded by madmen, we may yet realize a world free from petty divisions and the tragic consequences that follow therein. If, however, we keep with the status quo and let the profound legacy of the Holocaust fall to the wayside, we inevitably resign ourselves to experience it again. Avoiding this fate means not only remembering the Holocaust, however, but actively working to dispel the myths, the ignorance, and the hatred that made it possible.

Seeking to combat the proliferation of prejudice in the modern world, advocates often take to their pulpits and preach a familiar sermon: we ought to recognize that there are different races and then learn to tolerate each other anyway. While human conscience and decency necessarily compel good men to take up the noble cause of justice, the approach prescribed by these well-intentioned but misguided souls has been tried and trumped time and again. The cause: merely settling for the norm of ‘recognize racial differences and then ignore them’ is ethically unsound, scientifically unfounded, and logically paradoxical. If palpable change to the climate of bigotry and malice that so thoroughly pervades the modern world is to be affected, certain assumptions and misconceptions must be challenged and corrected, not coddled and reworked. Essentially, qualifying the decidedly dangerous myth of race with ‘and then learn to tolerate each other anyway’ only succeeds in dressing the issue, not addressing it; acknowledging the existence of a fictitious system of human classification still leaves the door open for dangerous ideologies like that of the Nazis.

By asserting that there is any actual, quantifiable difference among people simply due to their ancestry or physical characteristics, we unwittingly set ourselves up for failure: if there are different types of human, there can be superior and inferior types. In its most benign forms, this mindset leads to stereotypes such as ‘white boys can’t jump’ and so forth. In its most severe iterations, it leads to ethnic cleansing, slavery, and genocide.

Ultimately, combating the myth of race, casting off its venomous legacy, and averting the macabre climax that lies at its end comes down to a matter of choice: we can choose to abide by the ignorant malevolence of yore, or we can choose to take a productive and proactive stance. Personally, I choose to rise above the absurdity of racialist mythology, and moreover I choose to try to inform others. I am but one person, but if one person can make a conscious decision to break with the trend of ignorance then the world is that much closer to applying the lessons so painfully learned through the Nazi conquests. The Holocaust, horrible though it was, was no anomaly, and so long as the racialist myth that caused it remains a popular misconception there will always be a chance that it will happen again. History repeats itself not because we forget, but because we forget to correct our mistakes. Here’s hoping that heartache will indeed lead to growth.

 

Works Cited


Gossett, Thomas F. Race: The History of an Idea in America. 1963. Ed. Oxford, England: Oxford UP, 1997.

"Inside a Nazi Death Camp, 1944." Eyewitness to History. 2004. 1 Apr. 2007 <http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/maidanek.htm>.

Long and Kittles (2003). Human genetic variation and the nonexistence of human races (PDF): Human Biology, V. 75, no. 4, pp. 449-471.

"RACE - The Power of an Illusion." Public Broadcasting Service. 3 Apr. 2007 <http://www.pbs.org/race/000_General/000_00-Home.htm>.

 

 


The opinions, comments, and sentiments expressed by the participants are not necessarily those of Holland & Knight LLP or the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, Inc.

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