To say that Hitler killed 11
million Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and Poles is a dangerous thing. The
danger is that such a statement pins the blame on a single evil man, and
washes clean the hands of millions who either supported Hitler directly,
or abetted him indirectly by being too indifferent to object. It
exonerates those who turned in their neighbors to the Nazis, those who
drove the cattle cars full of screaming people to the death camps
(Bulow), and those who turned a blind eye and simply pretended they
didn’t know what was happening. Saying Hitler killed 11 million (Bulow)
innocents finds only the one individual culpable, not the group, and it
is due to this mindset that when people say, “Never again,” the tendency
is to look around us for the single wicked villain rather than looking
inwards at ourselves.
Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer said it best when he asserted, “The
horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the
horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not
necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are
all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders”
(Bauer, p xxi). A tragedy like the Holocaust does not happen without the
complicity of many. This is one of the primary lessons we need to take
away from the Holocaust.
One of the most astonishing aspects of the Holocaust is the totality
with which Hitler was able to unite the people of Germany in a campaign
of hate and destruction. Germany in effect became a “genocidal state” (Berenbaum).
Parish churches and the Interior Ministry contributed birth records to
reveal who was Jewish (Berenbaum). The Finance Ministry confiscated the
property of Jewish citizens, and government transport offices arranged
the deportation trains to the camps. German companies fired Jewish
workers and disenfranchised Jewish stockholders. Universities refused to
admit Jewish students and fired Jewish professors. German drug firms and
scientists performed tests on camp prisoners. Companies placed bids for
contracts to build the ovens. Citizens joined the Nazi Party and SS by
the hundreds of thousands (Berenbaum). It was not just Hitler’s killing,
but a whole society’s killing, a massive movement that met with little
resistance. As Israeli historian Saul Friedländer said, “Not one social
group, not one religious community, not one scholarly institution or
professional association in Germany and throughout Europe declared its
solidarity with the Jews” (Friedländer). Though Hitler was of course the
driving force, many others must share the blame either due to their
actions or their lack of action in the face of mass genocide.
Why is this relevant to today’s society? Because history seems to be in
danger of repeating itself not once, not twice, but again and again.
“Never again” is now applicable not only to the Holocaust, but also to
Rwanda, with the slaughter of over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus
(Rwanda), and Darfur, which has so far taken 200,000 lives and displaced
2.5 million (Croft). While saying that genocide must never again occur,
we have let Rwanda and Darfur take place, and there seems to be no
assurance that there will not be yet another.
If we want “never again” to become a reality, not just an optimistic
hope, we must first go back to Yehuda Bauer’s words. “We are all
possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.” A
Holocaust does not occur due to one man’s hate, but due to many men’s
ignorance, apathy, and conformity. We cannot prevent other individuals
in the future from attempting genocide, but we can prevent such
atrocities from actually developing through an active resistance. We
must also realize that “never again” does not only mean resisting others
but examining ourselves: humans by nature are inclined to conform to
social norms and avoid confrontation against the majority, but these
tendencies can be deadly if the norm is intolerance and the majority is
allied with discrimination.
Which brings us to the question of what an individual student can do. It
is a difficult question to answer without falling into facile
pronouncements of shedding one’s apathy and taking the initiative. The
fact is every person’s situation is different; but everyone must do
something. Some students may be leaders in school or community efforts
against prejudice, while others take a role of more quiet resistance.
Some may raise awareness about international issues through local
organizations, write to lawmakers and diplomats, volunteer, send
donations to goodwill organizations, or battle prejudice personally in
the school or local environment. But whatever the action, the most
important aspect is the mindset: one must realize that every individual,
as a human being, has a responsibility to help others who are in danger
of crimes against humanity, and that those who abet such crimes either
through passive participation or purposeful disregard must share in the
guilt. It is not enough to just avoid committing a wrongful act. To know
that fellow humans are oppressed and suffering and to turn a blind eye
is almost tantamount to the crime itself: not only does the
transgression go unchecked, but the perpetrator is silently supported by
the knowledge that no one cares enough to fight back.
The longer the silent sanction of a crime, the greater the social
pressure to stay silent. It is like an avalanche of rocks that begins
with the fall of a single pebble. However, the opposite is also true. A
single dissenting voice can spur others who feel a crime against
humanity has been committed to take up the fight as well. The reason a
student or any individual must speak out is because to stay silent is to
shift the balance toward injustice; one must decide whether one will
support injustice or humanity, prejudice or acceptance.
Although a student is only one person, it should be noted that Hitler
was only one person too. Hitler was only one person, whose single voice
became a thousand, which became ten thousand, which became millions in a
chorus of staggering prejudice and hate. The bitter lesson of the
Holocaust is that there is always the danger of such an avalanche if
people are not alert and ready for active resistance. But the good news
is that each one of us have one pebble to our name. How we choose to
place our pebble, and what sort of avalanche we may start, is entirely
up to us.
Bauer, Yehuda. Holocaust Educational Trust of Ireland. April 30 2008
Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know," United States Holocaust
Museum, 2006, p. 103.
Bulow, Louis. “Adolf Hitler.” Lest We Forget. 2008. April 30 2008
Croft, Adrian. “Brown presses for Darfur peace talks soon.” Reuters.com.
30 Apr 2008. April 30 2008 <http://africa.reuters.com/world/news/usnL30446498.html>
Friedländer, Saul. The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the
Jews, 1939-1945. London: HarperCollins, 2007.
“Rwanda: How the Genocide Happened.” BBC News Online. 1 Apr 2004. April
30 2008 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/1288230.stm>