The Holocaust will forever be known as one of humanity’s darkest hours. Hitler and the Nazi regime forced mankind to confront its own vast capacity for evil and, perhaps even more shamefully, revealed the stunning indifference man could show toward his fellow man’s suffering. The Holocaust is an atrocity against which all future atrocities will be measured; the epitome of ultimate evil, it typifies the darkness labeled by author and scholar Roger Shattuck as “radical evil.” Shattuck defines this category of evil as “moral behavior so pervasive in a person or a society that scruples and constraints have been utterly abandoned,” and “so extreme that it can no longer recognize its own atrocity.” This definition is the key to answering the question of why we must pass our knowledge of the Holocaust to future generations. Germany in the 1930s and 40s was swept up in a wave of nationalism so powerful that it blinded the average citizen to the ugly truth about Hitler’s intentions. The Germans chose to value national pride over universal human decency, prosperity over diversity, power over compassion. The consequences of their choices were the deaths of 11 million men, women, and children. There is no better illustration for the importance of not looking the other way when those around us choose evil over good, or when persecution falls upon the heads of our neighbors.
Many Germans pled ignorance in the aftermath of the Holocaust, claiming they had no idea the extent of the horrors taking place in their own backyards. Whether or not they were aware of the Final Solution is debatable. What is undeniable is the impossibility of being unaware that the Jewish people were suffering from severe discrimination and persecution under the Nazi regime. The first program of the Nazi party, issued February 24, 1920, stated explicitly, “None but members of the nation may be citizens of the state. None but members of the nation may be citizens of the state. None but those of German blood, whatever their creed, may be members of the nation. No Jew, therefore, may be a member of the nation,” (Morse 105). When the Nazis came to power, American diplomats and foreign correspondents reported back a precise account of the assault on the Jews. On March 9, 1933, U.S. ambassador to Germany Frederic M. Sackett reported that uniformed Nazis had forced the closing of Jewish-owned stores (Morse 105). Consul General George Messersmith in Berlin reported around the same time that Jews holding public office were rapidly being dismissed, Jewish judges in Prussian courts had already been dismissed, only 17 of 72 Jewish lawyers in Breslau were allowed to appear in court, Jewish musicians and conductors had been discharged, and Jewish shops were being boycotted (Morse 106). In Hesse, in 1931, the Boxheim Documents, detailing a plan to starve the Jews of Hesse by denying them ration cards, were published in the papers as a warning to citizens the night before a local election. The next day, the Nazis won 46% of the vote and Herr Schaeffer, the ex-Nazi who initially revealed the secret plans to the public, was shot and killed (Morse 107). The writing on the wall became even more apparent in the spring of 1933. On April 1, 1933, the German government organized a national boycott of Jewish shops (Morse 111). On April 7, 1933, the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service was passed, initiating a wave of discriminatory legislation against Jews. The persecution of the Jews was no secret: “Actions taken against the Jews were carried out with the full knowledge of the German public. Communities vied with one another to proclaim restrictions against Jews; they competed for the honor of posting signs at town limits boasting that they excluded Jews, refused to sell them real estate or, most triumphant of all, were judenfrei” (Morse 152).
On June 30, 1933, a dispatch was sent to the U.S. State Department stating, “All potential sources of resistance to the Nazi regime…have now been either absorbed by the Nazis or largely, if not totally crushed…With the exception of the Evangelical Churches, which valiantly, though in vain, fought against the threatened Natzification, no group in Germany actually offered serious resistance” ( Morse 116). This communication confirms that there was perhaps a time when the German people could have stopped Hitler. Even before the commencement of the Final Solution, Hitler’s targeting of the Jews was obvious. The willingness of the German public to turn a blind eye, however, sealed the fate of six million Jews and five million other ‘undesirables.’
The most important lesson that can be taken from the Holocaust, then, is its reminder to disengage from the inflammatory rhetoric that is exemplified by Hitler’s rally cry of Aryan purity. Such rhetoric appeals to emotion, rather than reason, and provides the fuel for mob mentality or group think. Truly learning from the lessons the Holocaust has to teach means henceforth pausing to step back from daily life and question, “is my society headed in a direction I can be proud of?” And if the answer is no, to continue the line of questioning more personally: “Will I be able to tell my children and grandchildren, ‘when everyone else had turned their backs, I stood with my arms outstretched?’” And if the answer once again is no, why not?
The 22,000 people who have been honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations are men and women that, “in a world of total moral collapse…mustered the extraordinary courage to uphold human values,” (Yad Vashem). Their example is perhaps the only bright spot that emerges from the landscape of Nazi abomination. It sets the precedent for how conscientious, compassionate human beings should react in the face of violence and prejudice, particularly in an atmosphere of radical evil, when it seems as though all sense of universal human decency has been abandoned.
Going against popular opinion, as the Righteous did, is difficult for anyone. For high school students, who are excruciatingly conscious of social pressures, it is even more of a challenge. Having the perspective to recognize injustice, as well as the courage to speak out against it, is perhaps the greatest challenge of our generation. To take the message of the Holocaust to heart, however, we must strive, even as adolescents, to be constantly alert to the repercussions of our decisions and the decisions of those around us. When we feel that bad decisions have been made, we must take leadership and speak out to reverse them. Start small-protect the victim of bullying who is constantly being teased by classmates. Think big- lobby the government to be proactive in Darfur and other regions of the world overshadowed by the threat of genocide. Take leadership when events make you uncomfortable, rather than waiting for someone else to step up. Let us change the easy refrain of, “not my problem” to the courageous, “not in my time”- as in, not in my time will humans use their ingenuity to invent more effective means of mass murder. Not in my time will children and babies be slaughtered for no reason other than their parents’ religion. Not in my time will 11 million more cries for help go unheeded.
Morris, Arthur D. While
Six Million Died. New York, N.Y.: Random House, 1968.
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