71 years ago today, Nazi Germany surrendered. Seven days earlier, her leader, Adolf Hitler along with much of his inner circle of cabinet members and friends committed suicide in a bunker in Berlin. Hitler and his new bride Eva Braun both took cyanide pills. He tested them on his dog and her litter of pups just before to make sure it would work. He then shot himself in the head to spare himself any suffering. The war was over.
The scale of death accomplished during the second world war is unparalleled in the history of mankind. In all, over 60 million people were killed directly or indirectly. Included in that was about 8% of the German speaking world. Russia lost 14% of their entire population. That means one out of every seven Russians on earth was killed. The continent that represented the pinnacle of human civilization destroyed itself in the name of nationalism. It’s a tragedy of unspeakable magnitude. Somehow it’s not the worst part though. The worst part, is beyond the nightmares of our conscience.
Nazi Germany perfected the art of state sanctioned murder. Combining prehistoric barbarism with modern technology and good old fashion Bavarian efficiency, the German death machine stands out as man’s worst moment. And it’s not close.
It started in the early 30’s. Camps began to spring up. First they were simply concentration camps-places where enemies of the state were “concentrated”. Laws were passed to make it easier to pass laws to make it easier to imprison people. Most were political enemies but they also included homosexuals, gypsies or other social “deviants”. In all Nazi Germany would build 40,000 camps-concentration camps-death camps. By the end of the decade, the German euthanasia plan began. The state began to kill infants and toddlers with special needs. Soon they advanced to special needs children and teenagers under 17. And then they went on to adults. By the end of 1939, they had killed 200,000 or so handicapped German citizens. It was getting hard to do.
The Nazi’s worked hard at it though. They innovated and perfected their craft. As they began to execute tens of thousands of Russian soldiers and civilians on the eastern front, German soldiers began to complain of “battle fatigue.” It wasn’t easy shooting women and children. So they innovated. They began to use mobile gas vans to do the job. And the death engine gained speed.
By 1942, the death camps sprung up at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Jews from all over Europe arrived by train. At first they were greeted on the platform when they arrived with soothing music played by an orchestra of interned Jews. There were flowers and decorations to put them at ease. Later, when over 700,000 arrived from Hungary, they didn’t have time for the pleasantries and ceremony. But the outcome was the same.
The belongings the Jews of Europe brought were taken from them on the train platform, inventoried and sent back to Berlin. The Nazi doctors and guards separated the people on the platform. The elderly, the women and the children as well as the sick and the weak were separated from the men and the young women. The men and young women were taken to work camps-usually about 250 or so out of every couple thousand. Twins and people with heterocrhomia, a rare genetic classification that yields two different colored eyes, were taken for medical experimentation. The rest were taken somewhere else.
That group was walked to a facility about 100 meters away, clearly visible from the train. They were given towels and told to disrobe in order to be showered. Like cattle, they were pushed into the facility. Guards told them to put their hands up over their head because more people could fit into the shower that way. Once the entire train load was in, the doors were shut and a guard dropped cylinders of gas through an opening in the roof. Within 10-15 minutes, they were all dead. Soon, guards in gas masks removed the bodies and took them to mass graves or crematoriums. The goal was to have the facility ready in time for the arrival of the next train. This was repeated several times a day.
At it’s height in 1943, the Nazi death machine murdered 6,000 people a day in death camps. Most were Europe’s Jews. All told, six million European Jews were murdered. Two thirds of the entire Jewish population of Europe was gone. 98% of Jews in Germany were gone-most murdered. Though Nazi Germany lost the war, the Third Reich succeeded in its goal of eliminating the Jewish population in the Rhineland. The “Final Solution” was mostly realized. Whole communities and cultures were wiped from the face of the planet. It was a genocide not duplicated in its scale and speed in the long history of a species with a propensity to do horrible things to itself.
It probably won’t happen again. Not because we don’t have it in us. Simply because it’s extraordinarily difficult to do-from a logistical perspective.
All of this is probably not news to you. You’ve probably not learned anything materially different from what you already knew. Perhaps the detail and scale of the activities were new to you. But not the general idea of the Holocaust.
Consider this though. Only about 10% of Germany’s 60 million or so people were card carrying members of the Nazi party. Which means that about 90% were not. Less than 1% of the German army were members of the Schutzstaffel Death’s Head Units, the units responsible for operations at the death camps. Over the last 70 years we’ve spent a lot time trying to understand how the horrors of the Holocaust happened. How man, on such a horrifyingly existential scale could do that to itself. We’ve looked at the psychology behind group thought and authoritarian tendencies. We’ve looked at the psychology of fascism and racism. Even the most comprehensive studies do little more than piece together parts of the “how” behind it. No one ever really gets to the why. And we never will. Because there is no sufficient reason for that outcome.
We know two things-factual irrefutable things about the Holocaust though. The first is this. It actually doesn’t take the majority of a people, or even a plurality, to move a society to a point where they are capable of mass genocide. The second is this. The first fact is only true if the others remain silent. And the first step of that silence is accepting, without challenge, the dangerous notion that other human beings are something less than that.
You can’t march six million of your brothers and sisters into the gas chambers. But you can do that to something that is less than that. You can’t deny safe harbor from war and tyranny to your brothers and sisters. But you can do that to something less than that. You can’t deny the right to start a family or use the bathroom or live and work in a country to your brothers and sisters. But you can do that to something that is less than that. It’s a basic human condition. It’s hard to treat what we care about, that poorly. And it’s hard to not care about things that are like or a part of us. When you do, it’s likely because someone told you, with their words or their actions, that they don’t matter-that they’re not like you-that they’re not human.
The issues we struggle with in the world today aren’t the Holocaust. But then again, neither was the Holocaust, until it was. The German struggle was one of economics and the employment and war debt and a loss of standing in the world community. But the forces of blame, anger and fear are useful tools when it comes to political power. And so the die for 1930’s Germany was cast.
Ours isn’t yet. And it won’t be- but only if the compassionate majority refuses to yield the floor. As long as we live, we should remember, one early April when the horror ended. If for no other reason to take stock of how close we are to the next one. We’re not close. But a society is always moving. And destination is simply a function of direction and time. Right now, the direction is a questionable one. For now, time is on our side. But it usually is. Until it isn’t. Waiting until then to speak up is usually too late.