Sharing history so the future never forgets

This coming Wednesday is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Among the many disturbing moments at the January 6 insurrection at the United States Capitol were when white nationalists displayed racist and anti-Semitic flags and symbols. In an age in which “truth” can be twisted and manipulated, I worry that humanity will not remember the horror perpetrated by Nazi Germany. Holocaust survivors who are still alive are now in their 80s and 90s. The passage of time means that in less than two decades, there will likely be no more first-hand witnesses to one of the most barbaric, hateful acts of the 20th century. The world cannot afford to forget the lessons of the Holocaust, and all democracies must heed the lessons of history.

Voices of Holocaust survivors
Scholars are rushing to document the voices and stories of Holocaust survivors. The Dimension in Testimony project, created by the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation, uses virtual reality to allow museum visitors to have a conversation with a survivor. Interview subjects were asked more 1000 questions, and highly technical recording and language processing allows those virtual subjects to answer unique questions. Another amazing resource is the United States Holocaust Memorial, from which online users can read and listen to stories of survivors. These accounts are so important in terms of describing the bravery and the humanity of European Jews who faced the death camps.

Holocaust history
It is also important to understand how the Holocaust happened. One of the most interesting courses I took in graduate school was about Nazi Germany. Nazism was part of a mass movement, and it emerged in a democratic state. Adolph Hitler’s ideology played off centuries of European anti-Semitism; but his specific lies about Jews being the cause of Germany’s defeat in WWI resonated with Germans facing economic instability in the 1920s and 1930s. Nazi ideology offered a scapegoat for the nation’s challenges. It offered to some a way of making sense of a complicated world. The Nazis used coercion and intimidation, as well as misinformation and propaganda, to gain power. They exploited weaknesses in the constitution of the Weimar Republic to emerge as the de facto rulers of Germany. And they gained power through democratic means.

Early in WWII, Nazi leadership contrived to find more efficient means to kill those whom they considered enemies of the state, such as Jews, gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and communists. A myth that emerged out of WWII was that those complicit in the Holocaust took part in it, because “they were ordered to it” or would be killed if they didn’t. Historians have long debunked the self-serving justification that some SS guards and Nazis employed after the war to evade consequences. In the forests of Poland, groups of SS units called Einsatzgruppen took part in mass killings. These shootings proved to be too psychologically hard on the soldiers and were deemed inefficient. So Nazi officials experimented with other means, eventually leading to the deployment of poisonous gas. To kill on a mass scale takes engineering and planning; and it takes a level of complicity to participate in any way in the forced removal and killing of millions. I have read through translated communications between engineers who worked for a car manufacturer—far from the front—and the SS trying to problem solve the technical challenges related to mass killings. It’s non-emotional, technical analysis, and you have to read really carefully to understand they are communicating about how to kill people more efficiently. This example is indicative of a bureaucracy that rewarded solution finding. Little is known of the German engineer and his team, but historians do know that it wasn’t just the SS that drove the Holocaust. Ordinary Germans participated or looked the other way.

We can think of the worst caricature of a Nazi and find it easy to dismiss that person as an aberration of humanity. To be sure, there were sociopaths among the SS and Nazi leadership. The truth is more concerning. I recommend reading Laurence Rees’s landmark study of Auschwitz. Rees is a scholar who has interviewed war criminals from Stalinist Russia, Imperialist Japan, and Nazi Germany. He notes that German war criminals were different: “It’s fantastically easy to dismiss this kind of event as the work of insane people, of madmen. The disturbing thing is they’re not mad. They’re doing what they think is the right thing to do at the time. Unless we understand why people like this think it’s the right thing to do at the time, we’re helpless in the face of it happening again.”

In another interview, Rees explains further: “What’s going on in Germany is rather different. What’s going on in Germany is that—I think to some extent thanks to the work of Goebbels, who—again, a horrible, nasty person, but the genius of propaganda of the 20th century. Thanks to the work of Goebbels, but also thanks to the fact that there was a genuine feeling of injustice in Germany after the end of the First World War. There was a feeling put about that Jews were to blame. There was a feeling of fear of communism, that Jews were somehow falsely attributed in their totality to communism. Simultaneously, Jews were thought to be running Roosevelt in American politics, anti-German and so on. So, there were a whole series of what they took to be, at the time, pragmatic, positive reasons to do what they were doing, and that’s one of the frightening things about it.”

The takeaway for me is that we must look deeply into history and learn from it. I hope families might spend some time this weekend checking out these resources. Listen to and read the powerful stories that Holocaust survivors share. And have conversations about how we all can combat hate and offer hope. Poet Amanda Gorman, our nation’s youngest Poet Laureate, shared powerful encouragement at the Presidential Inauguration, reminding us that our nation is not broken, and that when we move forward with purpose and focus on what is before us, the divide between us can close.