Monster in the Mirror
This January 27th marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp by soldiers of the Soviet Red Army. In the five years of its existence, from 1940 to 1945, it was the most streamlined mass killing center ever created. Over one million people were murdered in this site, and the name "Auschwitz" has become symbolic of the Holocaust.
The inclination is always to vow "never again," to recount tales of the horrors of the camp, to celebrate the liberators, and to vilify the Nazis as inhuman monsters for having committed such atrocities. But I'm going to go quite the opposite route.
Thumb through these pictures and really see them. Ignore the uniforms, look at the faces and see how much humanity you recognize in their expressions.
The Nazis were not monsters, and that's what makes this all the more horrific. They were just people. They were kind and thoughtful coworkers; good members of their communities, who checked up on their elderly neighbors; they fed lost cats and played with stray dogs. Civil administrators were people with families, who doted on their own children, or who humored nieces and nephews clamoring for their attention and annoying them with their interruptions. Soldiers had friends and comrades-in-arms, with whom they would clown around, having snowball fights while supposedly on duty; groups that would strike ridiculous poses for the camera and share good humor at parties.
They were people just like you and me. Just like the police who patrol our streets, the firefighters that rescue us from burning buildings, the pharmacist who remembers your child's name when you fill a new prescription, the neighbor who checks on you if you leave your garage door open.
And they would murder millions.
Ultimately, they would report their neighbors' hiding places to the Gestapo; they would drag them from their homes; they would force them into cattle cars and lie that they were only being relocated. They would separate families, brutally working the men to eventual death and gassing the women, children and elderly on arrival. They would shovel out the bodies, throw them into crematoria - and then have dinner, catch up on the news, perhaps listen to the radio for a bit before turning in and sleeping like a baby.
They were people just like you, and me, and everyone we know.
I recently read an online exchange on the topic of potential government abuse of surveillance technologies. One commenter said, "Every advancement in modern technology is not a step towards the next version of Nazis, no matter how much you in your fantasies want to believe its so." When countered with examples of genocide in Bosnia, Georgia, Rwanda, and Ukraine, he replied, "Are we in any of those places? No."
Germany was not some non-fictional Mordor housing a population of murderous evil, waiting to spring itself on the world. It was a well-developed, modern society with brilliant technical minds and a strong middle class. It was a representative democracy with free elections and a Parliament comprised of a blend of right- and left- wing parties. The National Socialist party organized in 1925 but did not develop into a viable political force until 1933 - and even then, didn't hold a majority in Parliament, despite Adolf Hitler's appointment as Chancellor.
Yet, only seven years later, this same society had designed, built, and turned a blind eye to a network of camps whose sole purpose was to commit genocide on an unthinkable scale in the most technologically efficient way possible. Try to imagine that timeline here in America. Imagine that it is now January, 2022 - and we are rounding up people in the streets, forcing them into remote camps, and incinerating them. As inconceivable as that seems, it has happened. And we must admit that it can happen again - here as much as anywhere - and take precautions accordingly.
Deluding ourselves into thinking that our society is somehow immune to such depravity is a virtual guarantee that any slide into it will go unopposed. That darkness is part and parcel of our humanity, and where human societies dwell, so does the potential for this kind of horror. We seem to be addicted to it as a species and we must always consider ourselves "in recovery" rather than cured, and accept that falling off the wagon is an ever-present possibility.
Here is one more photo to remind you of the result when we allow that to happen. The photo is famously know as "Last Jew in Vinnitsa," but feel free to substitute any marginalized group, in any American city. Look at his face as well. See if you recognize the humanity in his expression. Imagine that he is your neighbor... your friend... your child... you. Feel free to weep.
"Normal people," not monsters, organize genocide. And we are - all of us - very, very normal. To forget either of those points is to court disaster.