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World War II -- Oppression, the Holocaust, the Nature of Terrorism
Today I received a comment from LauraGT, who had just finished reading the Hub, “What Did Most Germans Know About the Nazi Concentration Camp system?” (Part 1 of IV) In her comment she asked a series of questions that seemed cogent, relevant, and important. As my response to her comments grew more and more lengthy, I decided this might have some value for others, not just Laura and me. Your comments and constructive criticism are always welcome.
Laura - I deeply appreciate your thoughtful comments and all the difficult, yet important questions you raised. We need to look at and struggle with the hard questions; they should trouble our souls. That at least is a beginning when attempting to grapple with such serious issues and events. Thank you for providing me with an opportunity to express myself without the encumbrance of footnotes.
"What does it mean that the German people knew?"
Answer # 1. The fact that the German people knew about the concentration camps means that we can't ascribe the total responsibility for the Holocaust (or any other atrocity) to one small select group of people, eg, the Nazis or the SS. Such widespread horrors can only occur when there is a passive, compliant, or cooperative population. It would be easier if it were just the SS, so the lesson to be learned would be, “Be vigilant. Watch for any groups that seem like the SS.”
But when so many people are involved as bystanders, the questions get more difficult. Why would a society do this? Would we do the same thing? Are we really that different? How and why are we different? And if we are not sure we are different, what will make us different, able to resist a cruel and oppressive and powerful regime?
How can we make sure that we, our nation, our children are different? Where does a firm morality and the courage to defend it come from? School? Home? Religion? Spirituality? Philosophy? Character Training? From one source or many sources? How do we inoculate ourselves against tyranny and terrorism? All of these questions are important and should be asked, explored, and answered to the best of our abilities.
"What does it mean that the German people knew?"
Answer #2. The fact that the German people knew about the concentration camps also indicates that the Nazis or any abusive ruler or group, isn’t really trying to keep everything they do completely secret. But aren’t oppressive regimes always secretive? Don’t they always have secret prisons and gulags from which no one ever escapes or is released? Yes and no.
Yes, they are often secretive about “some of their programs, actions, and initiatives, especially at certain stages of development, before the regime's power is consolidated. But they are not secretive about everything and certainly not all the time. This may seem counter-intuitive.
So let’s think for a moment about a generic “terrorist group.” They have a terrifying name and reputation, the Black Faction; they develop a long list of demands and concerns, their manifesto if you will, and they make these materials public, releasing them to the media with lots of dire threats of death and destruction to follow if the demands are not met
Then they develop a plan and kidnap four Bolivian diplomats and never tell a soul about it. No public statements. No press coverage, no letters, or demands. No evidence of who committed the crime or why. Simply, four Bolivian men vanish into thin air, and the Black Faction is committed to total secrecy. Is this how terrorist groups function? Is this how terrorism works? Would it work?
Of course not. Terrorism ( my definition - a relatively small group of people using violence and controlling and directing the actions of a much larger group of people), terrorism is only effective when the following conditions are met: there is fear of tragedy, injury, torture, or loss of life; when tragedy and loss occur and in public settings, or the public is informed about the events usually through the police or media; and when these terrible and tragic events occur randomly and unpredictably.
"What does it mean that the German people knew? (#2 continued)
The first two components or ingredients of terrorism are pretty obvious, but what about the third component – random and unpredictable actions? Terror that is predictable is not terror. It holds little power over populations. If the Black Faction continuously and predictably bombed the Bolivian embassy and nowhere else, two things would happen. One, only people in the immediate vicinity of the embassy would be afraid and only they would be likely to accede to any terrorist demands. Two, the authorities would be well on their way to setting a trap and catching the Black Faction perpetrators.
Now lets apply this knowledge we have about how terrorists function to Nazi Germany, to Stalinist Russia, the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, to any number of brutal and cruel regimes. Terrorist regimes and governments operate on the basis of terror, not on the basis of their numerical superiority as we all know. If the concentration camps were originally established for political prisoners, to hold people who opposed the Nazis, what was the Nazi plan? Did they intend to build prisons and camps sufficient to incarcerate the 30 to 40% of the population (10-12 million people) who opposed them? And what country could afford to remove so many people from their economy?
Terrorists and terror based regimes control large populations by making absolutely sure they do know about the terrible consequences of opposition and disobedience that have been inflicted randomly upon a small segment of the population. And the punishment must be random and unpredictable so that everyone lives in fear. If the Nazis had only arrested green-eyed, red heads, then they would have had no effective leverage or control over the rest of the population. We need to understand the significance of the fact that everyone sent to a concentration camp in the early years did not stay there till the end of the war.
"What does it mean that the German people knew?" (#2 continued)
Every few months a small group of men (and sometimes women – Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch Holocaust survivor and author of The Hiding Place) were selected for release and sent home. While being processed for release, they received instructions from the Nazis to tell no one about the camp, the harsh treatment, the slave labor, the brutality, the incessant disease, the routine beatings. Many signed a form promising to never speak about their experience.
Do we really imagine that a single person went home and kept silent? Of course not. They feared for their families and friends and co-workers, so covertly, and in discrete whispered conversations they told everybody they knew about what had happened to them. They warned them to be careful, to obey, to stay out of trouble, to avoid being noticed, to be passive and compliant.
This is how millions of people can be controlled by a much smaller force. …by arresting and incarcerating hundreds of thousands and “releasing” a few tens of thousands back into the population. This tactic is amazingly and disturbingly effective. Many regimes, not just the Nazis, have employed this approach. So, even if we didn’t know that most German knew what the Nazis were doing based on any other kind of evidence (and there is plenty), we know they knew, because knowledge of consequences and fear of punishment are essential for a regime that controls its population and rules with terror.
Could more have been done if people had stepped up, or would they have simply been sacrificing their own lives?
I think much more could have been done and the results would have been two-fold. Some people would surely have tragically lost their lives, but others might have achieved success. One of the great problems when resisting cruel men and evil systems is that there is no guarantee – you never know if you will become the (1) Hero who saves many people or the (2) Hero who suffers a terrible death without managing to save anyone.
I should explain that my definition of a Hero or Heroine – and the classical definition of Hero is based on intent and effort and sacrifice, not on the final outcome of the Hero’s actions being successful. However, in Western society and literature this concept is often twisted so that a hero is the individual who succeeds, defeats the enemy, and lives to tell about it. That Hero rides off into a glorious sunset, which is the stuff of movies and children's stories, not of real life.
Even a quick survey of Holocaust literature bears this out. There were Polish partisans hiding in the dense forests and swamps of Poland who saved and rescued many people from the Nazis; however, there were also Polish partisans who in their first attempt to resist the Nazis and assist others were shot and left for dead.
Some elderly women successfully hid small children in their cellars, attics, and barns helping them to escape the Nazi round ups and they survived to write about it. Other women doing the same thing were caught and executed on the spot. There were boys of twelve, ten, even eight who crawled out of the ghettos and roamed the “Aryan” neighborhoods scrounging for food for their families. Some made many, many trips successfully; others were caught outside the ghetto walls and beaten to death with clubs and rifle butts.
So, I think the answer to your question is, we don’t know. We don’t know what would have happened if more people had resisted. Would it have made a difference if they had been organized and resisted in mass? Probably so, but how do you manage that when Nazi terror had created a fearful, compliant, obedient population? Had created in essence a nation of "bystanders and collaborators?"
Do you think people would do things differently today if something this terrible happened again? [What if it Happened in America?]
I have terribly mixed feelings when I think about this and I am not sure what would happen, what Americans would do if faced with a similarly oppressive government. Sometimes I think about how focused on freedom and individuality we seem to be as a people; we demand the right to congregate publicly (freedom of assembly), to speak our minds about any and everything (freedom of speech).
We are not raised to value obedience above everything, to respect authority above all else….and the Europeans of that generation, especially the Germans, especially the Prussians, were raised that way. No one in Europe in those decades defied or even questioned the Patriarch of the house, much less a societal or governmental authority figure. Part of me wants to believe we would resist, sooner rather than later, and that our opposition movements would stand a chance.
But sometimes I think about what kind of people we have become…and I do not say this to offend anyone and my observations about America apply even to me and my family. And my observations are “generalizations” of course, they do not apply to every individual by any means.
Do you think people would do things differently today if something this terrible happened again? [What if it Happened in America? continued]
But I think in many ways and for many reasons (I am certainly not assigning specific blame) Americans, not as individuals, but as a society, have become in the last 60 to 75 years rather soft, somewhat spoiled, very self-interested, inclined to take the easy way out. Far too many of us seem primarily focused on things that are easy, quick, fun, and painless. We feel and act entitled.
Much of American life seems to be about immediate gratification regardless of the long-term destructive and negative consequences. Many of us don’t seem very tough, very willing to endure hardship or deprivation to achieve a greater goal. We have become a very materialistic society and I wonder if faced with incredible difficulties we would have it within us to rise to the challenge. Some people absolutely would, of that I have no doubt, and they would be the Heroes and Heroines I spoke of earlier.
But I wonder if most of us would be any more prepared to resist evil and oppression than they were in the 1930s and 1940s? Would we have the strength of character, the fortitude, the moral fiber, the determination -- to fight for what is right no matter the consequences to ourselves, our families, our friends? I do not know the answer, but I hope so.
World War II and the Holocaust
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