Hope, History, and the Holocaust

In January 2005, the 60th-anniversary observance of the
liberation of Auschwitz begged a question that periodically lurks
in the corner: How much do we really learn from evil?

It is widely assumed in this country that humanity stands to
gain from Holocaust studies, the exposure of international war
crimes, and showing teenagers scary films about the dangers of
driving. There is, however, far more faith than evidence concerning
the methodology that typically fuels these exercises — that it is
the end results, not the seemingly innocent beginnings, that matter
most.

This is not to say that history’s horrors should not be a part
of the human curriculum. But Americans in particular often fixate
on the gory details with a zeal that borders on moral pornography
and, in the process, fail to discuss what could have been done to
prevent these tragedies in the first place. It’s as though we were
constantly being given directions by naming all the streets we
shouldn’t use without ever being told the ones we should take.

I learned about Auschwitz in 1956, on the 11th anniversary of
its liberation, at the tail end of a social sciences class, which
was taught by the intense, red-haired liberal Samuel Beer. The
climax of the course led us from Nietzsche to Hitler to an evening
of Nazi propaganda films and footage of concentration camps
liberated just a decade earlier. The concentration camps were
gruesome, but the movies Nazis had made to celebrate themselves
were in some ways even more horrific, depicting millions of Germans
voluntarily surrendering their souls as millions of others
involuntarily lost their lives.

What we saw had been placed in history’s context; we had been
taught not just brutal endings but also far more instructive
beginnings, and we got to see not just evil’s horror but also its
accompanying banality.

By the time I graduated I had read William Shirer’s book The
Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
and found myself absorbed not
so much in what the Nazis had become but in how they had begun —
how normal and ordinary so much of it had been, with that
frighteningly familiar mix of opportunism, lust, incompetence, and
failure of courage.

Years later, I read Milton Mayer’s book They Thought They
Were Free
, based on interviews with ordinary Nazis before and
after the war. ‘Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame
Germany,’ Mayer concluded. ‘It was what most Germans wanted — or,
under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They
wanted it; they got it; and they liked it. I came back home a
little afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and
get, and like, under pressure of combined reality and illusions. I
felt — and feel — that it was not German Man that I had met, but
Man. He happened to be in Germany under certain conditions. He
might be here, under certain conditions. He might, under certain
conditions, be [me].’

Here is the part of the Holocaust that is most frequently
denied. Not that millions were slaughtered but that those who did
the deed might under certain conditions be either you or me. And we
would do it, as Adolf Eichmann had suggested, simply by finding the
words that allow us to deny responsibility, what he called ‘office
talk.’

It is this unrecognized, undiscussed denial, especially at
moments of solemn observance, that most frightens me. And our
recovery does not lie in still more talk, ceremonies, and
professions of horror. It lies instead in the study, honor, and
practice of the good and the decent.

If you watch good people closely, you see that their good comes
as naturally as evil came to Eichmann. It does not have to be
propped up with memories of great wrongs; it is just the everyday
unconscious behavior of those graced with honor: the banality of
decency.

Perhaps we need a museum of the good, a curriculum founded in
the skills and rhythms of decency. We need peace experts instead of
military experts talking about Iraq on FOX TV. We need mediators
instead of just lawyers on Court TV. We need movies, and heroes,
and moving stories that win Academy Awards, and models for our
children that lead them to the contentment of cooperation and
fairness rather than to brutal examples drawn from the play-by-play
of violence and wrong that appears with every other click of the
zapper.

The frightening thing about Auschwitz is not that some would
deny it but how real it still seems. The frightening thing about
Auschwitz is that our leaders go to honor it while still denying
Guant?namo and Abu Ghraib and Palestine. We will know that we have
finally learned the Holocaust’s lessons when we no longer hear new
echoes of it.

Sam Smith is the editor of Progressive Review, a
Washington, D.C.-based online journal
(www.prorev.com) in which this
essay originally appeared. Reprinted from the environmentally
driven, socially conscious
DESIGNER/builder (Sept./Oct.
2005). Subscriptions: $28/yr. (6 issues) from 2405 Maclovia Lane,
Santa Fe, NM 87505;
www.designerbuildermagazine.com

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