Last Saturday, January 27th was the Holocaust Day of Remembrance. Although most social media commentary was appropriately supportive, I also saw a dark side in various posts. I chose not to weigh in to debates or respond to comments because I wanted time to collect my thoughts. The result is this lengthy essay. I am not Jewish but I’ve identified with the story of the Holocaust, including the events leading up to it, since I first learned of it. As the son of World War II generation parents, that war felt present to me. When we played childhood “army” games in our neighborhood in the late 1960s/early1970s, we were always battling the Germans and the Japanese.
I read the deluded comments of a few Holocaust deniers or minimizers, which are sad to the point of tragic to see. Something must be terribly wrong in your life to hold this view. It can’t only be ignorance. There were other more thoughtful posts suggesting that while the Holocaust was awful there have been many similar atrocities. Within this view there is usually an intention to reduce the significance of the Holocaust, which is misguided at best. One person went so far as to say that Winston Churchill was guilty also of mass murder since the Allies killed 5.2 million Germans during the course of the war, which of course is flatly ridiculous given that Hitler started it; but his post had its supporters.
Still others have compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians with the Nazi’s treatment of Jews. I understand the Palestinian Arab perspective and there have been many injustices committed against them and not just by Israel. After a nearly two-thousand year Diaspora, Jews began returning in small numbers to Palestine only in the mid-19th century. As Jewish persecution increased in Europe during this time, so did Jewish emigration to Palestine, both legal and illegal, but the numbers remained small. The British assumed control of Palestine post-World War I after the demise of the Ottoman Empire (who had backed the Germans) and the British gave more support to Jewish resettlement in Palestine as a function of religious persecution in Europe and more prosaic self-interest like keeping control of the Suez Canal with the help of pro-British Jews (the Balfour Declaration of 1917 expanded emigration; the White Paper of 1922 sought to limit it). Following World War II and the Holocaust, Zionism (the ambition for a Jewish homeland) took on understandable urgency, but the native Arab population wasn’t pleased, as you would expect. When the British decided to pull out of Palestine, the United Nations developed the 1948 Partition Plan to create two states, one Israeli and one Palestinian with Jerusalem as a separate internationally controlled city. The Israelis accepted the plan, the Arabs rejected it and wars, terrorism and unending tension have been the legacy. I do understand the Palestinian perspective. To Arabs, this clearly felt like an occupation of aliens, aided and abetted by Western powers; how dare they partition a land Palestinians had called home for centuries? On the other hand, Palestine had been overrun time and again, Jews had a legitimate claim to their ancestral homeland, and this was a good attempt to create solid nation-states along reasonable borders. It could have worked. Indeed, the Palestinians would love to have that deal today. In any case, the Jewish settlers who became Israelis had no desire to murder all the Arabs and today there are nearly equal numbers of Jews and Arabs living in the former Palestine, inclusive of the West Bank and Gaza, and about two million living within Israel proper. There is simply zero comparison to the Holocaust as difficult a situation as it’s been.
There are self-evident truths in human history. Sadly, the first one is that it is a history of brutality. I think it would be impossible to find any group that hasn’t committed atrocities against another for reasons of conquest, blind hatred or fear, religion (that must top the list) and even sociopathic pleasure. Human beings have been remarkably skilled at dehumanizing other human beings throughout the centuries. If you can kill a person as easily as the ant crawling across your countertop, you’ve arrived at that state of existence and humans have gotten there over and over again. This is a horrifying flaw but one we must acknowledge, kept in check only tenuously by laws and reason. The earliest societies are guilty and the modern ones raised it to global level with weapons that could produce total annihilation.
Colonial European powers starting in the 15th century sought to conquer the world and did a very good job of it, eventually carving it up into Dutch, Spanish, English, French, Belgian, German, Italian, Portuguese and other territories. The United States, of course, was one such territory with English, French, Dutch and Spanish claims. Europeans “discovered” America and this convenient bit of false history persists to this day, in spite of the clear fact that European explorers were greeted on the shore by native Americans, which is to say other human beings. That is not, however, the way Europeans saw them and treated them; hence, the whitewash (pun intended) of history. With no disrespect for my Italian forbearers, Columbus was a bad human being, at least judged by modern standards; a not entirely fair judgment, of course, but many of his heinous acts were deemed unacceptable even by 15th century standards. He was, in fact, removed as governor as a result of his brutality (read up if you doubt me). There’s no question he enjoyed his musket-enforced power trip from the moment he stepped ashore. At first sight, he commented on how quickly he could conquer the natives and jumped to conquest when he saw a glint of gold. He would send the natives off in search of gold; if they returned without, he would have their hands cut off or worse. This is why some people question the idea of honorific statues to him; as heroes go, we could do a lot better. Later in our great nation’s history, and continuing long after we declared our independence with the inspiring words that “all men are created equal”, we kept over 4 million people in bondage at the peak of the “peculiar institution” as African slavery was known. There was a infamous slave market right in Washington D.C., the viewing of which hardened the anti-slavery attitude of a young Congressman named Abraham Lincoln. We fought the bloodiest war in our history, with over 600,000 people killed, to end it (and no, revisionists, not for “states’ rights”; the only dividing issue between north and south was slavery and the rebellion was a unilateral, non-constitutional one.) After the Civil War, the defeated Southern states rose again in the form of racist laws – so called Jim Crow segregation and Black Codes – that lasted another long century until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. There are still plenty of white Americans today who sniff at the idea of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. These people may not be bigots, but they sure don’t know their history. MLK Jr., flaws and all, was a remarkable human being and his legacy will live on long after most of us are forgotten.
As for those colonial empires, we are still very much dealing with their repercussions in the present time as many of the conquered territories did not exist in a nation-state beforehand but rather followed tribal and/or religious divisions and were forced together by the occupying party. When “independence” was granted to these territories, which it was in a typically haphazard way, the resulting power vacuum left highly fractionalized areas with simmering and open rivalries. There are a great many such divisions still, the Israeli/Palestinian one being the most familiar but other prominent ones as well, including Sunni and Shiite Arabia, and Kashmir, caught between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India, two nuclear-armed adversaries. These divisions have caused or threaten war throughout the world with no end in sight.
America had its own version of territorial conquest. We called it Manifest Destiny and its westward sweep extended all the way across the wide Pacific to Hawaii and the Philippines by the early 20th century. (Ever wonder how an island group thousands of miles off shore became a state?) The Japanese, closely observing European powers and America, thought they should get their share, too, and invaded Korea and China by Western example for land and resources, ultimately attacking Pearl Harbor as a preemptive strike against what they perceived as a rival power expanding in the Pacific. Along with Hawaii, we also claimed the Philippines as a territory at the close of the 19th century. Check your map; it’s a whole lot closer to Tokyo than San Francisco. World War II, the cataclysmic consequence of these now global power rivalries in Europe and Asia led to the death of some 80 million people. Shocking as that is, it would be nothing compared to a World War III.
So the sad first truth is that man is a brutal beast, only slowly evolving to a better means of existence but not fast enough to avoid more unnecessary deaths every single day and with the prospect of mass annihilation should someone provoke a nuclear attack. Teddy Roosevelt said, “speak softly but carry a big stick.” He didn’t say Tweet like an arrogant fool about how big your nuclear arsenal is. He summed up his philosophy as “the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis.” This does not sound like our current President, does it? Teddy understood about provocation; Trump clearly does not. That scares me.
The second self-evident truth in this discussion is that the Holocaust was and hopefully will remain the most egregious example of brutality in the history of the human race. It must continue to remind us of how far wrong human beings can go if led by evil people in the worst direction imaginable. That’s why Holocaust Remembrance is so important to everyone, not just Jews. Yes, there have been far too many examples of human brutality but the Holocaust was mass incarceration and then industrialized killing of innocent men, women and children with the intent of total genocide, not for some pedestrian gain like resources, land or wealth. It was not a clash of armies on a battlefield, but people pulled from their homes and workplaces and herded like cattle into ghettoes and later on to death trains to death camps. It is the stuff of the worst imaginable nightmares made real (read Elie Weisel’s Night to feel the terror), and it came from a modern, cultured society caught in the grip of demagoguery enforced by fear. It did not happen all at once, it followed an insidious path based on calls for national purpose and unity, making Germany great again (frankly a more understandable siren call in Germany after the World War I imposed privations and strictures than 2016 America, still the wealthiest nation on the planet), and removing undesirables. Power was consolidated through democratic means at first, but later subverted via totalitarian mechanisms.
And it happened in my parent’s generation, not in some long ago time.
I’ve read that some modern Germans say that the Nazis conquered their country first; that Germans were Nazi victims, too. Common people had serious doubts as did many non-Nazi politicians and military leaders but learned what protest would mean to them or their family if the Gestapo knocked on the door. That all Germans during Hitler’s reign were not Nazis is not appreciated fully but far too many were complicit, caught up in the excitement of a movement that seemed to benefit them. Is it the same for us, now? As with Trump, the Nazis also proclaimed economic gains to buy off people’s misgivings. I’ve had friends tell me, “I know Trump’s a jerk…but I’m happy with my 401K this year!” I’ve been to Munich recently and I walked the beautiful streets, squares and parks and listened for the echoes of Nazi Germany. I’m pleased to say I heard none. I was left only with the question, “how did this happen in this beautiful city only a generation before me?” Even given the history of post-WWI Germany, it is so hard to imagine what was to come. Yet it did. We must pay attention to that fact.
The Holocaust must be remembered and studied and honored because we can never have it repeated; not against Jews or any other group. I do not think Trump is a Hitler. I’d like to think the world would not, could not, produce another Hitler; although in Assad and others, we’ve come too close. Our system of checks and balances, which includes a uniquely diverse population, should withstand even a determined attempt to undermine American society as the Nazis did in Germany a generation ago. But I do think that Trump uses similar rhetoric of division, is far too cynically calculated, careless in his statements (Tweets) and behaviors, lacking in empathy and superficial in his understanding of the world we live in, for me to be comfortable with his “leadership”. Trump shares with Hitler an obvious megalomania – “only I can fix it!” he said at the GOP convention, having first spoken of our collapse as a nation. His inauguration speech and most of his utterances to follow were more of the same – the United States is a devastated country that needs a great leader like Trump (and he often speaks in the third person) to save it. Really? This is not the country I live in. We have our challenges, sure, but this remains the richest, most powerful country the world has ever known. I am also disturbed by the vitriol expressed toward the party and people who are not in power (Mike Flynn leading the “lock her up” chant…ironically, now it’s Flynn who may be locked up). It’s perfectly OK to disagree on policy but this debate has become something much more personal and ugly. There is a meanness to Trump and elements of the GOP that is just not acceptable, not American, and seems to be changing behaviors on a societal level. The bullies have control of the schoolyard. It is not OK to be a neo-Nazi, not even remotely. It is not OK to mock the disabled, women or minorities. It is not OK to use hate for political ends.
America became great because we were compelled to live up to the promise of our creation over the past 242 years. Our founders, although imperfect men and certainly men of their times, also had the great wisdom and foresight to frame our society in such a way that compelled us to get better, often in conflict with our baser instincts and desires. That was the genius of our founding, not that these men were saints. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution are why all United States citizens, men and women from every ethnic and racial background, are now treated equally under the law if not always in practice. It was a hell of a fight to get here. Our parents and grandparents fought the fascists to save the world. They liberated the death camps and ended the Holocaust. We can’t turn back now.
I heard no echoes of Nazi-ism in the streets of Munich. I hear too many now in the streets of America.
Peace. Munich, May 2016