I watched a disturbing video recently from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The video showed life inside Auschwitz – not the lives of the Jews waiting to die – but the lives led by the Nazis who were murdering them
A personal album that belonged to SS-Obersturmführer Karl Höcker, the adjutant to the commandant of Auschwitz, was found in an apartment in Frankfurt in 1946. The U.S. Army Intelligence officer who found it offered it to the Holocaust Museum in 2006.
It is a disturbingly normal presentation of people living their lives, laughing, singing and having fun while just a few meters away these same people were slaughtering human beings by the thousands every single day.
The commentators on the video, archivists and researchers from the USHMM, posed a question that should trouble each of us deeply. In essence the question was, these Nazi officers look like normal, decent people enjoying their lives, yet they were doing one of the most monstrous deeds recorded in human history. What capacity do men have for evil? More disturbingly, what capacity do I have to do evil?
This is a question we should all take a good look at right now. What happened to otherwise normal German citizens after the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, and could something similar happen to us?
Wait, you must be thinking, nothing like that could ever happen in America. Maybe you are right, but I am sure that one hundred years ago German citizens would have said the same thing. Yet one of the great horrors of human history would begin unfolding in their nation within twenty years.
When Hitler rose to power, Germany was in chaos from the cumulative effects of their defeat in the Great War (World War I) and the stock-market crash that devastated economies around the world. Hitler stepped to the lectern and espoused a doctrine of hate for one particular group of people, blaming the Jews for all the troubles in the country. The citizens of Germany, not all of them, but enough, bought the hate and blamed their troubles on their Jewish neighbors, fellow citizens they had grown up with and, up until that point, shared life with peacefully.
The villainization of one segment of the population eventually led to the mass extermination of that group of people by otherwise normal men and women, yet somehow these seemingly normal people arrived at the idea that mass murder was acceptable. We may never know how that group of people at that time in history justified committing such a heinous act, but we can be assured of one thing: it was born of hate.
Which brings us back to America today. Have you paid attention to what is going on in our country? All we are hearing is hate. Our president is spewing it. Members of Congress are spewing it. So are television networks and newspapers. In fact, even some of our churches are doing it.
That last statement, that is the one that frightens me the most. One of the things that Hitler managed to do was co-opt many of the churches. They began preaching the Nazi doctrine, quite literally hanging the Nazi banner above their altars. I find that throughout history whenever politics and religion have mingled, the politics corrupts the religion rather than the religion saving the politics.
I hope you are beginning to see a parallel. It does not take much to go from being a prosperous, peaceful society that gets along fairly well with one another to a society that commits monstrous atrocities. It all begins with hate. All it took in Germany to grow monsters was hate fueled by the desperation stemming from an economic depression.
Holocaust Museum Archivist Rebecca Erbelding, speaking in the video said, “It makes you think about how people could come to this – that they don’t look like monsters. They look like me. They look like my next-door neighbor. Is he capable of that? Am I?”
You may think this is an alarmist position. I hope it is, but don’t you think that millions of German civilians wished someone had taken an alarmist position in their country before it was too late? We might not have anyone with the rhetorical gifts that Hitler possessed; then again, we might. We do, without doubt, have plenty of people speaking hate. And don’t for a minute think that we don’t have people capable of carrying out the atrocities that were committed at Auschwitz and the other concentration camps. We do.
Before you make your next social media post, take a minute and ask yourself which side you are on – the side of hate or the side of reconciliation. Your answer determines our future.
Gary Cosby Jr. is photo editor of The Tuscaloosa News. Readers can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.