Learning from the Holocaust

On January 27 of each year, we remember the Holocaust. We vow to never forget the 6 million Jews, plus hundreds of thousands of Romani, disabled, and homosexual people who were slaughtered by the Nazis. For the most part, being anti-Nazi is not controversial. The question is, have we learned the right lessons?

When political leaders (generally of the opposing party) propose a policy that we feel strongly about, many of us jump straight to comparing them to Hitler. On the Internet, this is so common that in 1990, Mike Godwin coined the adage that asserts that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.” (This is commonly referred to as Godwin’s Law.)

On the one hand, this is only natural — we have a deep-seated horror of those events. As members of what we think of as a civilized culture, we rightly think of Hitler and the Third Reich with horror, vowing that “it could never happen here.” It is unthinkable to us that millions of people remained silent and did nothing to stop it. That many people just “did their jobs,” and were quietly complicit. That many bought into the propaganda hook, line, and sinker.

But Godwin’s Law also makes it difficult to have an honest discussion about the fears we have about policies that strike us as being on that slippery slope to such horrors. If you mention Hitler or Mussolini you’re automatically The Boy Who Cried Wolf. We all know that fable — but how many of us know the flip side: Cassandra? In Greek mythology, she was given the gift of true prophecy; but was also given a curse that no one would believe her.

The problem is that Hitler didn’t start by slaughtering millions. He started by exploiting resentment at Germany’s treatment after WWI, as well as an anti-Semitism that had been smoldering since the days of Luther. Having a clear enemy to demonize, fear, and blame can be a powerful weapon to unify a people. When people are angry and afraid, they are susceptible to manipulation through propaganda.

As a nation, we are at a crossroads. Despite our prosperity, simmering anger and fear seem to be rampant. Our politics are more polarized than ever, and we have lost trust in many of our institutions. By and large, our mainstream media is more interested in clickbait headlines and controversy than nuance and understanding.

I pray that we will be wise enough to take heed of the past.