The Nazi slaughter of 6 million Jews during World War II is, one hopes, a widely and sorrowfully acknowledged fact. Not as well known, but just as true, is the killing of another 5 million “undesirables” – homosexuals, Gypsies (Roma and Sinti), physically and mentally handicapped, elderly, sick, political dissenters and others.
To accomplish the “elimination” of 11 million persons the Nazis established concentration camps throughout Germany and her conquered territories. Not all of them were designed as extermination camps, but all in varying degrees were involved in the killing.
Upon the war’s conclusion the hideous nature of these camps was fully exposed through photographs, film, the testimonies of the liberating Allied soldiers and the stories told by the survivors. At the time, General Dwight D. Eisenhower forced German citizens to visit these camps, to view the carnage and to confront the remnants of the horrors committed within these camps.
None of the visitors denied the wicked inhumanity of what they saw, but in the following years most Germans offered a three-part response or rationalization for these atrocities, according to Robert P. Ericksen in Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany.
The most frequent response was to blame these crimes on a tiny group of criminals at the top – Adolph Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels. A second response was to diffuse responsibility among various groups, societal and political pressures or historical coincidences – the combination of which effectively absolved any particular citizen of responsibility. A frequent defense was “We did not know!” Finally, there was the response of refusing to talk about it, of burying unpleasant, awkward memories and just walking away.
“Abraham Joshua Heschel was right: ‘Some are guilty; all are responsible.’”
We might reframe these three strategies as these: delegate up (to the Big People), deflect away (from Close People) and deny. With little imagination, one can see these strategies still at work today in response to our own moral challenges.
Consider the wickedness of brown-skinned children in cages on our southern border or of a black-skinned man murdered while jogging in Georgia or another sprawled on a Minnesota street, a policeman’s knee on his throat. Add the sacrilegious vulgarity of a Bible-waving presidential photo op in front of a church in Washington’s Lafayette Square, his path for the short walk from the White House cleared after peaceful protestors had been violently forced from the area. No, these aren’t Nazi concentration camps, but they are the sites of the life-and-death moral edge of American integrity today.
I can blame these situations on the indifference to racism and racial injustice of those in Washington or among my state or county or city’s authorities. I can delegate up (to the Big People): “If we just had some leadership, we wouldn’t have this mess!”
Or I can say these problems have been with us always, that they are being magnified and politicized or distorted by the press and chip-on-the-shoulder ninnies with cellphone cameras, or I can protest that there’s probably more to the story. I can deflect away (from Close People): “Nobody I know is doing this!”
Or I can discreetly cluck a quiet disapproval to myself of these acts, click to another channel when they pop up on the screen and stay mum when some do-gooder tastelessly brings them up on the back nine. I can deny the injustice by a shrug of the shoulder and a quick retreat. “Just forget about it!”
Ericksen reports that although 40 years passed before many Germans owned their by-then-well-documented complicity in the Nazi horrors, journalists had to create the tongue-twisting, eight-syllable word, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, to describe the difficult task of coming to terms with or getting control of an indicting past. The Bible has a shorter word: repentance.
It is cheap and easy to condemn the moral evasion of a past generation and people. To cast stones. The challenge, however, is to see ourselves in them – and to do today the just deeds that will bring no regrets tomorrow. Abraham Joshua Heschel was right: “Some are guilty; all are responsible.”