My goal was to figure out how people can let 12 million of their neighbors be murdered. I've read first-person books about the Holocaust... Diary of Anne Frank, Night, Man's Search for Meaning. They are striking and emotional accounts. But I felt like I was missing part of the story, that to really understand how this happened I'd have to get above it, drop the emotion and be analytical about it. Less disturbing, more thinking. It didn't really work out like I'd planned.
When you talk about the Holocaust people automatically go to Adolf Hitler. In fact I've been in plenty of discussions about "great & influential leaders" and the name of Hitler comes up, there's always someone saying "Hey maybe he was evil but he got so many people to do what he wanted them to!" We get this picture in our heads of this lone maniacal psychopath, combined with amazing leadership and speaking skills, brainwashing part of the population while another part sits in ignorant bliss, only to be shocked later when the death camps are revealed.
So the modern world is safe because that guy is dead, right? Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Darfur... just other flukes, right? Who knows how these things happen!
Well, this book gave me a feeling that we can know, and it's an awful feeling, and it's changed me and messed with me and colored everything I've heard while reading it, I totally missed my goal of being analytical.
The history literally starts at 0 AD with religious debate. Then mid-evil laws... form Christian trade guilds and armies, forbid Jews from participating, they can do the jobs we won't do like money lending. Then self-fulfilling prophecies... Jews aren't artists or warriors! They must be, somehow, worth less than us.
Throw in some heroes: Martin Luther was incredibly anti-Semitic. Add identity: da Vinci, Galileo, and the enlightenment scientists who are showing us that there are bigger things than us? They are not us. We are an agricultural society, set apart in our ways.
Add a complicated world of foreign trade and fluctuating prices that are hard to understand. Find someone to blame for your problems.
Add social Darwinism. How can humanity evolve to be something greater if we don't identify what holds us back? Doesn't paler skin, lighter hair, a smaller nose, a taller skull, mean you should be further along the timeline?
Keep blaming a people for your problems. Keep holding to your identity, and start denying that those people are like you. Cities are more tolerant of diversity because they have to be, because the walls fall down when you live by different people, so Jews move to the cities... but Germans are this agricultural, traditional, holding true-to-ourselves people! Jews are simply not Germans.
"It does not matter that if a Jew is born in Germany: a horse that is born in the cowshed is still no cow" - Hermann Ahlwardt, Journalist and Antisemitic People's Party founder, 1895
Let it all build up. Antisemitism sells well in politics. Antisemitic leaders get elected, and moderates shift a little further over to keep their spots...
Then WWI breaks out. Germany loses. Why? Why did our leaders sign those treaties? And why did we lose? What was holding us back?
Our race is evolved... if we want to rise we just need to get rid of the parts that aren't. we'll win the next war because we'll be ourselves.
Elect leaders who speak openly about the final solution to our "problems". Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals...
Then it starts slowly, with executing criminals, sterilization programs, then euthanasia, and it gets worse, and everyone keeps making it worse.
In Italy, Mussolini called for Jews to be sent to camps because of his alliance with Hitler. But "logistical issues" kept happening and 4/5 of Italian Jews survived the war. People don't just sit around while their neighbors are killed. It takes generations for that to happen.
It takes this gradual seeping.
And that's what's so disturbing, because I see it everywhere around me. Every time a politician shifts his position a little closer to an extreme to get elected. The email forwards about sterilizing welfare recipients. The talk about how children of immigrants don't deserve citizenship, it doesn't matter what they have to offer society, they are not us, they hold us back. You realize that people don't change, and this is the stuff, if it gets worse, if the leaders get more powerful, if a few key people hit a few lucky positions, over 50 or 100 years... it could happen again. Would I be able to speak up? When? Where's the line? At killing? If killing IS WRONG, why do we still have a death penalty, and war?
It wasn't Hitler's amazing oratorical skills, he was a simple man and a failure at most other things and he was good at putting things in terms people could understand, but mostly because he just didn't have a whole lot of complicated things to say. He deserves no credit for greatness, unless it's for being a great racist, because that's the only thing he never compromised on.
20 million people were murdered, we said "never again", and it keeps happening again, because we want to make the story so simple and about one man vs. the world. But it was the world that caused this... our world. We still live in the same place.