For years, I have resisted visiting this museum, in part because I had read many books detailing the history of the Nazi takeover of Germany and its aftermath and, in part, because I knew how jarring it would be. When my wife announced Sunday morning that she had acquired time-entry tickets for that afternoon, I relented.
The museum is indeed a jarring experience. The faces of the visitors, many quite young and many very old, tell the tale. Seeing the photographs and films while hearing the voices of the men and women who perpetrated the most monstrous genocide in world history is not for the light-of-heart. The cruelty of it cannot be described; it has to be seen. Even then, it sometimes does not register because it is so alien to how normal human beings see other human beings.
There are many lessons to be taken away from the experience of the Nazis in Germany. I won’t pretend to be competent to state them all. Others have done so in words more memorable than anything I can offer. But I can, I think, draw one observation that, for me, was the dominant idea and the dominant sensation that impressed itself on me as I passed through the origins, the implementation and the end results of the Nazi worldview. This sensation does not diminish the horror and the outrage of the Holocaust in any way, but aside from profound revulsion at what was done in the name of racial purity, there is a practical lesson that has immediate relevance to the United States and indeed the entire world.
I am speaking of complicity. Understated somewhat in the museum displays is the historical reality that much of the world, and in particular and notably the United States, turned its back on the Jewish refugees who were trying to escape the Holocaust spreading across Europe in the 1930s. And there is the historical reality of appeasement, the belief that by giving Hitler some of what he wanted, he would stop the ruthless expansion toward world domination that he so clearly stated was his ultimate desire. Intelligent people concluded that another war with Germany was to be avoided no matter what, that Hitler could be sated with a few more pieces of territory, a few more subjugated populations. The world largely stood by and watched Germany roll over much of Europe. Citizens of some of the victim countries actually welcomed the Nazi invasion. By the time the United States actively intervened, it was almost too late. Millions died, millions, while governments around the world failed to act.
Now let us turn to the present. I have written about this before. See http://bit.ly/2qoDaYE. Visiting the museum brings the message into sharp focus. Many of the same tactics used by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party are routinely employed by the President Trump, his acolytes in the White House and his appointees in the major Executive Department agencies. Trump’s attempts to delegitimize the independent media, calling them the “enemies of the people” are right out of Hitler’s playbook. That may seem harsh or over-wrought but the history is there to be seen. Holocaust-deniers are just like climate science-deniers in their capacity to block the truth in favor of more satisfying mythologies.
I won’t belabor this. I don’t know that Trump plans to replace the Constitution, but then again, we have seen him refer to it as “archaic” and “really bad for the country.” He has railed at the courts for decisions he opposed and generally appears to see the Constitution as an unjustified obstacle to his political agenda. He has many apologists who are quick to respond that “he really didn’t mean that” or “he is just frustrated; pay attention to his actions, not his words.”
But his words are his actions. Many people said the same things about Adolf Hitler’s words. Then they saw his actions and remained silent or joined the Nazi bandwagon.
The real point is that people of good will who value their freedom must not be complicit in Trump’s undermining of American institutions such as the free press. Silence is complicity as much as active cooperation. Both silence and active cooperation made Hitler’s rise to power possible. They have the same effect in our time. It is the moral responsibility of every person who believes in the ideals of the American way of life as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the invitation inscribed on the Statue of Liberty to actively resist the Trump administration’s cynical effort to undermine those ideals.
You can do this by subscribing to the information sources at MoveOn.org, ACLU.org, Indivisible.US, PeoplePower.org, Dailykos.com, TakeCareBlog.com or any of the other major authenticated sources of real information about what the Trump administration is doing to undermine the quality of the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the freedoms you enjoy as an American. Sign the petitions, participate in the marches, stand up and fight back! If you know someone who voted for Trump, reach out to them and politely, without judgment or acrimony, try to reason with them using the facts and truths that are readily available. And then VOTE in 2018. There is no other way. Do not be complicit by your silence and your inaction.
As you leave the Holocaust Museum, you pass a wall inscribed with these words of Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor who openly opposed Hitler and spent seven years in Nazi concentration camps:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Nothing more to say.
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Paul – I don’t know if you ever had a class with Telford Taylor, but I remember him and the class very well. Well – not so much the class but the discussions after class, at which he told us much about his experience as chief prosecutor at Nuremberg. That leads me to add one more important observation about the Holocaust – namely Taylor’s thoughts about the defendants. He said he expected that he would be prosecuting the worst monsters imaginable, but found that these were just ordinary people who got swept up in the movement and did not have the moral fortitude to resist. Like you, I cannot resist comparing the foot soldiers in the Holocaust with the people who voted for Trump.
I did not have a class with Taylor but your discussions with him were, for me in other situations, one of the extraordinary benefits of our alma mater. Sadly, his and your observation rings so true. It will be interesting to see how much fall-off there is in Trump support now that his budget is out and the extent of his lies, incompetence and treachery are measured in direct personal impact on his supporters. I believe, as do many others, that in 2018 the Democrats had best forget about most of those people as far as potential voters goes, and concentrate on bringing out the people who traditionally supported Democrats but did not vote in 2016. Ironically, they cost us the election as much as any other group. We can get them back if we start now.