How a Pebble Starts an Avalanche
By Eva Dou
Grosse Pointe, MI


 

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.



WorksCited :


Bauer, Yehuda. Holocaust Educational Trust of Ireland. April 30 2008 <http://hetireland.org/quotes.asp>

Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know," United States Holocaust Museum, 2006, p. 103.

Bulow, Louis. “Adolf Hitler.” Lest We Forget. 2008. April 30 2008 <http://www.auschwitz.dk/Hitler.htm>.

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>

 

 


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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